Book Review: Autism in Heels

autism in heelsAutism in Heels: The Untold Story of a Female Life on the Spectrum
by Jennifer Cook O’Toole
Nonfiction/Memoir
247 pages
Published December 2018

I try to be very mindful when reviewing books on autism, or other #ownvoices books that I’m not part of the demographic. They’re very important books for people who are not of that demographic to read – that’s how we learn about each other – but we get into iffy territory when reviewing them. It can be problematic to say “I didn’t like this book” when you’re not the target audience. That’s why for Black Enough, I linked to some #ownvoices reviewers when I didn’t care for the book. For Autism in Heels I don’t have that problem, because this is a really good book! I’m sure autistic people will still get more out of it that I did, and female autistics even more. But there were paragraphs that definitely reminded me of my husband, and we had several good conversations inspired by this book. (“What makes a good friend?” being one of the more interesting ones.)

Jenny tells an engrossing story of her life; interwoven with facts and anecdotes about female autistics in general were specific examples from her life, and both problems she’d faced because she was autistic, and problems everyone faces that were particularly problematic for her as an autistic. Much like my husband, she comes at stories sideways, giving several details and tangents before getting to the point that ties them all together. That’s much easier to deal with in print; I often have to stop my husband, specifically ask him where he’s going with his story, and then let him get back to all the surrounding details. Knowing that he DOES THAT lets us deal with it in a manner that is less frustrating for both of us. (I get frustrated because I can’t hold all the loose ends in my head without knowing how they connect, so once he gets to his point, I often have to make him repeat some of the earlier parts, and he gets frustrated because I can’t follow his train of thought.) In text form, I can skim forward when I need to and come back to the earlier tangents. I suspect she also had an excellent editor, because that only gets confusing a few times. (Or she did it herself in revisions. Either way, it’s far less confusing than a lot of conversations I’ve had with my husband!)

She does talk about some pretty intense domestic abuse from her college boyfriend near the end of the book, and then segues into eating disorders, so be aware of that. Those are both things that autistic women are particularly vulnerable to, and they definitely deserve a place in the book, but they can be difficult to read about, and my heart broke for college-Jennifer.

This is a great memoir of an amazing woman. I might need to look up her other books, even if they are targeted towards teens.

From the cover of Autism in Heels:

THE FACE OF AUTISM IS CHANGING. AND MORE OFTEN THAN WE REALIZE, THAT FACE IS WEARING LIPSTICK.

Autism in Heels, an intimate memoir, reveals the woman inside one of autism’s most prominent figures, Jennifer Cook O’Toole. At the age of thirty-five, Jennifer was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and for the first time in her life, things made sense. Now, Jennifer exposes the constant struggle between carefully crafted persona and authentic existence, editing the autism script with wit, candor, passion, and power. Her journey is one of reverse self-discovery not only as an Aspie but – more importantly – as a thoroughly modern woman.

Beyond being a memoir, Autism in Heels is a love letter to all women. It’s a conversation starter. A game changer. And a firsthand account of what it is to walk in Jennifer’s shoes (especially those iconic red stilettos). 

Whether it’s bad perms or body image, sexuality or self-esteem, Jennifer’s is as much a human journey as one on the spectrum. Because autism “looks a bit different in pink,” most girls and women who fit the profile are not identified, facing years of avoidable anxiety, eating disorders, volatile relationships, self-harm, and stunted independence. Jennifer has been there, too. Autism in Heels takes that message to the mainstream.

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Book Review: Look Me In The Eye

look me in the eye aspergersLook Me In The Eye: My Life with Asperger’s
by John Elder Robison
Memoir
288 pages
Published 2007

I try to make a habit of picking up books written by people on the autism spectrum – it’s part of my effort to read inclusively, but it also has a personal component, since my husband is on the spectrum. (You can see my list of books on this subject here.) Look Me In The Eye is a book about growing up in the 70s, when an autism diagnosis usually meant a kid entirely incapable of most communication – they didn’t really understand the spectrum yet. John Elder Robison was not that child, so he didn’t discover his diagnosis until his 40s. Autistic adults discovering the reason for their quirks is a very common story, though these days it’s more often women who fall through the cracks than men.

It’s always amusing to me spotting the similarities between autistic memoirs and my husband – one of them came very early in the book, when Robison is talking about a book shown to him by his father.

We looked at books together, especially the Boy Scout Woodsman manual. I can still remember the pictures that showed how to make a trap, and the correct way to step over a fallen log.
I dreamed about trapping wolves and bears, but garter snakes and frogs were as close as I got. And I’ve never forgotten the woodsman’s log-crossing techniques that I learned at five.

My husband, similarly, has mentioned a book of survival skills he read as a child, and was particularly fascinated by the traps. (He also still remembers those pages clearly.)

The blurb on the cover says Robison is a natural-born storyteller, which his brother also mentions in the Foreword to the book – and they’re right. This book just flows. Robison has a wonderful writing style. He’s funny but still shows the hardship of growing up with an alcoholic father and a mentally unstable mother. (He called them “Slave” and “Stupid” until he moved out at sixteen.) He maybe be critical of other peoples’ actions in his past, but he also admits to leaving his brother head-down in five-foot deep holes and pulling other “pranks” that probably weren’t as funny to the people around him. (The mannequin he wrapped up and hung from a powerline above a burning pentagram deep in the woods before calling the local police to report it was rather amazing, though. Teenagers, man.)

This was a great look at growing up before a diagnosis existed; struggling to make up for the ways an autistic mind works differently when the world won’t meet you halfway. My favorite kind of books about autism so far have been the memoirs. This is, I think, my fourth. The Journal of Best Practices was written by another man, and Pretending to be Normal and Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate by women.

Excellent book.

From the cover of Look Me In The Eye:

Ever since he was small, John Robison had longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits – an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios, and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother in them) – had earned him the label “social deviant.” No guidance came from his mother, who conversed with light fixtures, or his father, who spent evenings pickling himself in sherry. It was no wonder he gravitated to machines, which could, at least, be counted on.

After fleeing his parents and dropping out of high school, his savant-like ability to visualize electronic circuits landed him a gig with KISS, for whom he created their legendary fire-breathing guitars. Later, he drifted into a “real” job, as an engineer for a major toy company. But the higher Robison rose in the company, the more he had to pretend to be “normal” and do what he simply couldn’t: communicate. It wasn’t worth the paycheck.

It was not until he was forty that an insightful therapist told him he had the form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way Robison saw himself – and the world.

Look Me In The Eye is the moving, darkly funny story of growing up with Asperger’s at a time when the diagnosis simply didn’t exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as “defective,” who could not avail himself of KISS’s endless supply of groupies, and who still has a peculiar aversion to using people’s given names (he calls his wife “Unit Two”). He also provides a fascinating reverse angle on the younger brother he left at the mercy of their nutty parents – the boy who would later change his name to Augusten Burroughs and write the bestselling memoir Running With Scissors.

Ultimately, this is the story of Robison’s journey from his world into ours, and his new life as a husband, father, and successful small business owner – repairing his beloved high-end automobiles. It’s a strange, sly, indelible account – sometimes alien, yet always deeply human.

Friday 56 – Look Me In The Eye

look me in the eye aspergersThe Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice. The rules are simple – turn to page 56 in your current read (or 56% in your e-reader) and post a few non-spoilery sentences.

Today’s quote is from Look Me In The Eye, a memoir of growing up with Asperger’s before the diagnosis existed. (Varmint is his little brother.)

My parents often left me to watch the Varmint while they were out. But this time I was going, too. So I spoke to him before we left.

“Varmint, we’re all going out to talk about you with a shrink. I can’t stay with you because they want to ask me what to do. Come down here. We’ll chain you to the heating oil tank so you’ll be safe til we get back.”

“John Elder! Don’t you scare Chris like that. We have a babysitter for him.”

Book Review: Red Clocks

red clocks dystopiaRed Clocks
by Leni Zumas
Feminist Dystopia
350 pages
Published January 2018

Red Clocks first caught my attention because it’s set in a small fishing town in Oregon, my home state. After that, learning that it’s a dystopia where abortion and in vitro fertilization have both been banned outright meant I HAD to read it. Of course, I got it from the library some weeks ago and had so many other books to read that I didn’t get to it until the day it was due back to the library! Luckily, I read fast!

I think the cover description oversells the book a little. I wouldn’t call Gin’s trial “frenzied” nor the drama exactly “riveting” but it did keep my attention throughout the book. I really enjoyed the relationships between the characters, and the point that none of them really know what is going on in each other’s personal lives. One moment I particularly liked is slightly spoilery, but I loved how Ro was able to put her personal feelings aside to help Mattie, her student. That was really, really hard for her, but she recognized how much damage it would do to Mattie to not help her.

I think I found Gin the most interesting – given all the reading I’ve been doing lately about autism, her entire personality screams autism to me, but she was never labeled as autistic. So I’m marking her as a possibly autistic character. (I’d love if any of my autistic readers could weigh in on that, if you’ve read the book!) Between preferring to live in the woods with animals and NOT around people, specifically, and the way she reacts to the textures and smells in the jail when she’s arrested (shoving the bleach-scented blankets as far away in the cell as possible, and refusing to eat the food), and how she stumbles over her answers in the courtroom when she’s interrogated – it seems likely.

My only actual complaint about this book had nothing to do with the writing or plot! But it refers to the ghost pepper as “the hottest pepper known to man” which the Carolina Reaper growing in my backyard would have an issue with!

Other than that very minor quibble, I thought this dystopia was pretty good. I’m always interested in Reproductive Rights-related dystopias. This isn’t as good as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s MILES better than Future Home of the Living God. It’s good at showing the lengths women will go to, to ensure their own reproductive freedom. Outlawing abortion doesn’t eliminate abortion. It just makes it less safe.

From the cover of Red Clocks:

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom. 

Ro, a single high school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own while also writing a biography of Eivor, a little-known nineteenth-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted forest-dwelling herbalist, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt. 

Red Clocks is at once a riveting drama whose mysteries unfold with magnetic energy, and a shattering novel of ideas. In the vein of Margaret Atwood and Eileen Myles, Leni Zumas fearlessly explores the contours of female experience, evoking The Handmaid’s Tale for a new millennium. This is a story of resilience, transformation, and hope in tumultuous – even frightening – times. 

Book Review: The Kiss Quotient

kiss quotientThe Kiss Quotient
by Helen Hoang
Contemporary Romance
317 pages
Published June 2018

This was one of three books I got through Book of the Month this month – the other two were The Book of Essie and When Katie Met Cassidy. I’m reviewing this today instead of another Pride Month read because today is Autistic Pride Day! The Kiss Quotient both stars and is written by a woman on the autistic spectrum, so I thought today would be a fitting day to tell you about it!

So The Kiss Quotient is basically a gender-swapped Pretty Woman, as Hoang mentions in the Author’s Note. Our heroine, Stella Lane, books an escort to teach her about sex. Stella is thirty years old, has only had sex a couple of times, never enjoyed it, and is worried about not being good at it and therefore not being able to get or keep a boyfriend. She’s an incredibly successful econometrician, or someone who uses data and statistics to model and predict economic trends, in her case predicting what people will want to buy from clients. (She’s the kind of person responsible for those “Amazon started marketing baby products to me before I even knew I was pregnant!” incidents.) So she has more money than she knows what to do with, and offers Michael, an escort, $50,000 a month to teach her about sex and relationships.

Because this is a romance, we know what’s going to happen here. They fall in love with each other, but are sure that for the other one it’s just a business arrangement.

I was NOT expecting this book to be as explicit as it is! I think because it is a Book of the Month, I wasn’t expecting the standard trope of romance book with hot sex scenes. But that’s what I got! I can’t say I’m unhappy with that – god knows I like my guilty pleasure romance smut – but it was definitely unexpected. I’m not sure why it surprised me. The book’s premise is all about Stella wanting to learn about sex; if that wasn’t conducted on screen we’d lose a third of the book!

A sequel has already been announced, and it’s about the other autistic character in the book, the hero’s best friend’s little brother, Khai, who we only see in one scene. Who I’d also like to know more about is the best friend, Quan! So I’m holding out hope for a third book.

One last thing that I found important – in the Author’s Note, Hoang mentions her daughter was diagnosed with AS, and in reading about Autism, she realized she is also on the spectrum. This is something I’ve seen in three different books now. It’s so common for women, especially, to go undiagnosed. They might be better at modelling allistic (non-autistic) behavior, or their special interests might be more “acceptable” to allistics, or sometimes they just get looked at as introverts when they’re young instead of getting the help they might need. This is starting to change, as researchers and doctors are realizing Autism presents differently in women. But it seems autistic adult women are often discovering they’re autistic through a diagnosis of their children. I found that interesting.

I did really enjoy this book. I think it’s a great debut novel, and a great romance. I really like the recent trend of more diversity in lead characters in romance novels. Bring on the people of color! More disabled main characters! There’s got to be a romance somewhere with a deaf heroine, right? More alternative sexualities and relationship structures! Everyone, everywhere, wants to be loved, and I want to read about it. The thing is, I’m sure these books exist, but they don’t get the kind of publicity they need for people to know about them. We have to actually go looking for them. I feel like I’ve been better about that recently, but it’s definitely a place where the publication industry could improve.

You can find my full list of Autism books, most of them by Autistic authors, here.

From the cover of The Kiss Quotient:

Stella Lane comes up with algorithms to predict customer purchases – a job that has given her more money than she knows what to do with, and way less experience in the dating department than the average thirty-year-old.

It doesn’t help that Stella has Asperger’s or that French kissing reminds her of a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish. Her conclusion: she needs lots of practice – with a professional – which is why she hires escort Michael Phan. With the looks of a K-drama star and the martial arts moves to match, the Vietnamese-Swedish stunner can’t afford to turn down Stella’s offer. And when she comes up with a lesson plan, he proves willing to help her check off all the boxes – from foreplay to more-than-missionary position.

Before long, Stella not only learns to appreciate his kisses, but to crave all of the other things he’s making her feel. Their no-nonsense partnership starts making a strange kind of sense. And the pattern that emerges will convince Stella that love is the best kind of logic…

Book Review: Pretending To Be Normal

pretending to be normal aspergerPretending To Be Normal (Expanded Edition)
by Liane Holliday Willey
Memoir
190 pages
Published 2014

First off, once again this is an older book that uses the term Asperger’s throughout. The book was originally published in 1999, but a few more chapters were added and it was republished in 2014.

Honestly I found it a little hard to get through. Unlike Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate, it was pretty much entirely memoir, and didn’t really speak to the reader as if trying to have a conversation at all. It just told Willey’s story. Which is fine, it just wasn’t what I was expecting after reading Nerdy. The appendices are the only place that have tips and tricks for dealing with the neurotypical world as an autistic person, but there wasn’t really anything new or unique there.

I also just don’t think I like her writing style as much as I did the writing style in Nerdy, but that’s such a personal thing. It’s hard to make a recommendation based on that. Autistic people vary so widely in where their strengths and weaknesses are that it’s difficult to say which books will be useful to which people, in general.

So – it’s worth reading for yet another viewpoint on being autistic, and there are several parts on parenting as an autistic woman, so autistic parents might get more use out of the book than I did, as a childless spouse of an autistic man. But I personally did not like it nearly as much as Nerdy or The Journal of Best Practices.

From the cover of Pretending To Be Normal:

Compelling and witty, Liane Holliday Willey’s account of growing to adulthood as an undiagnosed ‘Aspie’ has been read by thousands of people on and off the autism spectrum since it was first published in 1999. Bringing her story up to date, including her diagnosis as an adult, and reflecting on the changes in attitude over 15 years, this expanded edition will continue to entertain (and inform) all those who would like to know a little more about how it feels to spend your life `pretending to be normal’.