Monday, May 31, 2010

I Miss the Sun

On beautiful summer days like the ones we've been having lately, I get kinda depressed. That seems odd, right? Well, it's just because I miss the sun. I live a mostly indoor life now, and I don't always love it. It's been one year and 4 months since I had a mole that turned out to be melanoma excised from my right side, and since then, I've had to be very careful about sun exposure. And I know that EVERYONE should be very careful about sun exposure no matter what, but for people with previous melanomas, this is particularly important. Now if I go out, I have to make sure I can find a shady spot to hide under every half-hour or so. I have to spend a long time before going outside covering every inch of my body with SPF 50 sunscreen, and even then I notice my skin getting red more quickly than usual. My poor skin is just not used to seeing any rays, so it turns red in an instant. In reality, these are small sacrifices...and I know I am complaining when I shouldn't be. I am SO incredibly grateful that my melanoma was discovered and removed before it became a life-threatening cancer. But still, I just get jealous of all those people who can just slap on a bit of sunscreen and head to the pool or the lake at a moment's notice. Also, I hate the way I look in a bikini these days...but more on that particular complaint in a later post!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review - House Rules by Jodi Picoult

I have a good book for you! House Rules, by Jodi Picoult.

I have read almost all of Jodi Picoult’s novels. I like the multiple-narrator approach she uses, and the detail with which she writes. It’s obvious in her novels that she thoroughly researches her subject matter, so even though it is fiction, it doesn’t come off as mindless.

One caveat – once you’ve read a couple of her books, you will be able to predict the endings of most of her others. She likes to throw in a twist towards the end that makes you rethink your impressions about the rest of the book. But once you’re used to her formula, you will guess the twist pretty easily. For some people, that might ruin the entire book. For me it doesn’t. I still like seeing following the characters and seeing how the story plays out, and every once in a while, she still surprises me.

There were no surprises in House Rules – I knew what the “mystery twist” would be after reading the first couple of chapters. One thing did disappoint me, but I can’t say what it is without ruining the book for anyone who might read it. But I loved the subject matter of this book: Asperger’s Syndrome. I don’t know why, but autism and autism-spectrum disorders have always fascinated me. I don’t really know where it started…maybe with the movie Rain Man, which I love! All I know is that in high school, I wrote a research paper titled “The Unsolved Mystery of Autism.” It explored the potential causes of autism and explained some of the typical behaviors exhibited by autistic kids. That was in 1998, when even less was known about the autism spectrum disorders than is known at present. Asperger’s wasn’t even standardized as an autism-spectrum disorder until six years prior to my high school paper. If I see a book with an autistic character, I will buy it. If there’s a movie or TV show about kids with these disorders, I will watch it. I have no idea why it interests me so much, but it does.

If I had been smart, I would have gone to school to be a behavioral therapist or something similar so I could work with these kinds of kids. I have no doubt that it would be an incredibly frustrating, fascinating job. But that’s another story.

So, finally, a bit about the book. It’s about an 18-year old boy, Jacob, with high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. His fixation is crime scene forensic science, so you can probably see where this is going. He is accused of a murder when his social skills tutor is found dead. He knows far too much about the crime scene to be innocent, apparently. The book follows his arrest, imprisonment, subsequent house arrest, and trial, narrated by Jacob himself, his brother Theo, the police detective, Jacob’s mother, and Jacob’s attorney. This book will make you laugh and will make you mad. You see how the quirks of autism disorders can lead to a person with a wonderfully dry and witty sense of humor. You also see the incredible struggle of a family whose life must revolve around one person’s needs, to the detriment of all others. There’s a neglected brother who is torn between loving and hating his autistic sibling. There’s a single mother who was abandoned by her husband when their son was diagnosed and who suffers every day when she sees her son trying, and failing, to become a part of the world of neurotypical people. Also, you see how the legal system could be incredibly flawed and unforgiving to a defendant with an autism disorder. All in all, a very interesting, fast-paced read – I plowed through it in a couple of days!

One thing I found questionable in this book was Jacob’s insightfulness. At times, he seemed more like the traditional Asperger’s kid – lacking empathy, extremely literal, obsessive about his fixation topic – but at other times, the chapters from his point of view seemed to show too much self-awareness and emotion. But what do I know, maybe people with high-functioning Asperger’s really do walk that fine of a line between what is considered normal and what is considered “different.”

I went to the author’s website after finishing the book, as I usually do. She always posts more information about her topics and discusses the inspiration behind her books. In her discussion of House Rules, she addresses the debate about the cause of autism disorders, which is still unknown. Many people believe that vaccinations are the cause, and for good reason, in my opinion. In researching her book, Jodi Picoult came across mothers who showed her videos of their normal babies, making eye contact with the camera, playing with other children. Later home videos of these same children, taken days after an extensive round of shots, show them rocking or flapping their hands, avoiding eye contact, and withdrawing into their own world. If that is not scary stuff, I don’t know what is. On the other hand, most kids get their vaccinations and never show any symptoms. No conclusive scientific test has ever proven a link between vaccines and autism, according to Picoult’s research. Either way, autism-spectrum disorders are on the rise – the author cites this statistic: 1 in 100 children are now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum. While these kids are no less treasured or loved, their lives are inarguably more difficult. Their peers will inevitably make fun of their repetitive tics, obsessive tendencies, tantrums, and inability to carry on normal conversations. Mainstream society is full of things that are hard to handle for them – bright lights, loud noises, confusing social cues, and disrupted routines. And I can only imagine how their parents’ hearts must break as they try to forge a loving connection to children who cannot understand that kind of emotion. I won’t begin to speculate about the causes of autism because I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to do so. But I do know that when I get pregnant, I am going to find a pediatrician who will talk to me about these concerns. Jodi Picoult lists several tips about vaccinations on her website that I found very interesting. She obviously makes no claim that by following these tips, you can prevent your child from having autism, but they are definitely things for parents to think about. I know I will.