Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet

Years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on autistic savants in the world.  Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie, Rainman, was a contribution to the program, but another major focus was on a twenty-something Daniel Tammet.  He was filmed setting the European record for reciting over 22,000 digits of pi, the irrational number which has an infinite amount of decimal digits.  When I picked up ‘Born on a Blue Day,’ I didn’t have this person in mind, but it was a nice surprise to find his autobiography in the pages.

Tammet was the first born in a large family with many siblings, but the new parents could tell from an early age he was unlike most children.  He cried constantly and found it difficult to make friends in school.  His interests were fascinating but bordered on obsessions.  He collected hundreds of ladybirds over a period of weeks (lady bugs to the US readers) and proudly brought them to school one day.  He had thoroughly read about the insects and was excited to share the small pets to classmates and his teacher.  The teacher realized the bugs may live a better life in the wild, so he created a note to send Tammet out of the classroom while a classmate freed the insects outside.  Tammet was crushed and didn’t speak to the teacher for weeks.

Daniel also had a fascination with numbers from an early age.  He uses a rare case of synesthesia to develop visual images of numbers.  The number nine, for example, resembles tall figures, and the number six is represented by a dark hole.  Putting these figures together, he can quickly find arithmetic answers, and even large prime numbers (his favorite).  When he set the record for reciting the digits of pi, he created a landscape of the digits which helped him memorize the thousands of numbers in the correct order.

Tammet’s synesthesia not only gives him numerical gifts, it also allows him to learn foreign languages more easily than most.  One challenge given to him was to learn a language in less than a week, and speak fluently enough in it to be interviewed on a local news program in the native language.  The language chosen by producers was to be Icelandic.  It is a difficult language spoken by only around 300,000 people.  It was a great challenge, but Daniel was successful and gave a great interview on the local news program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though his gifts are now apparent, it wasn’t always that way.  As a child, Daniel had few friends. As is common with children with autism, he lacked emotional connections to peers, and found it difficult to maintain conversations. Daniel Tammet said of his experiences, “The very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood, and to make new friends.”

Currently, Daniel Tammet runs a successful website in the UK that provides language tutorials to consumers.  From a teacher’s prospective, Tammet is  an ideal model for many students with autism.  He has focused on his abilities to create a successful living and has overcome some challenges to become successful in the world.

 

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Hashimoto – Jack Douglas

A couple of years ago, I saw a simple paperback book listed on eBay, which was selling for over $200.  I was intrigued as I had got into a little buying and selling, so I’ve always kept my eyes out for this book: The Japanese-Jewish Sex and Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves by Jack Douglas.  I’ve never seen the book, but I have found a few other books by the author and I have finally got around to reading one- The Adventures of Huckleberry Hashimoto.

The name of the book is based on a nickname a family friend gave the Douglas’ son, Bobby.  Jack and his Japanese wife, Reiko, (20 years his junior) take their infant son on a summer tour of the Orient in the early 1960s.  The family takes the train from NYC to LA, then a ship from the California coast to Tahiti, fly to Honolulu, then fly to Japan to meet Reiko’s family.  If you can imagine what a comedy writer would write in the 1960s, that just about covers the bases.  He [lovingly] complains about wife, kid, locals, etc.  At one point he even calls a friend’s 16 year old daughter ‘sexy’.  I hadn’t heard of Douglas before these books, but apparently he was a popular comedy writer in those days.  He mentions a lot of ‘famous’ people he knew, but I hardly had heard of any of them.  I think I’ve heard of Jack Paar, but I can’t be 100% on that.

Apart from the apparent change in taboo topics from that era, there were many funny parts of the book.  He tells of the way strangers address each other when approaching on a cruise ship: “Well- We meet again,” (followed by a small chuckle), “You’re not walking a straight line,” and “Well- drunk again!” Douglas tells of a short anecdote of cold coffee in Tahiti.  None of the coffee pots have lids, so it cools faster.  The shipment of coffee pots was separate from the lids, and unfortunately, the lids ended up in Samoa where they were sold, then sold again to tourists as the top of Robert Louis Stevenson’s last coffee pot.

In Japan, Douglas told of how he learned to gain patience as the Japanese side of the family had many customs to adhere to.  One involved the changing of shoes.  Shoes worn outside are not allowed to be worn indoors, so slippers are worn when walking through hallways (bare or stocking feet only in bedrooms), the bathrooms have separate bathroom slippers, then the commode has built in ceramic slippers one has to stand in to do their duty.  Another story involved Reiko buying a hair barrette.  The announced her intentions to her parents, who discussed it with her for 15 minutes.  It was decided. They would buy the hair barrette (four cents).  Then another 15 minute discussion was presented to find where they would go to buy the barrette, and another 15 minutes to decide which store to buy it from.  At the street outside, they had another 15 minute discussion to decide if they would walk the two blocks or take a taxi (walking was decided because it didn’t make much sense to spend more on a taxi than a barrette).  When they reached the market, another 15 minute discussion took place to decide to go a few more blocks to the cheaper market, which upon arriving they found that a four cent hair barrette was no cheaper, and they did not have the gold colored one Reiko wanted.  The shop owner provided drinks and they had another lengthy discussion and it was decided Reiko would get the silver barrette and if she was not happy in a couple of weeks she could return it with a full refund.  They took the taxi home.

This was a book I had looked forward to, though there were some funny parts, I can’t say it was my favorite.  I have another book by him, ready to read, but not necessarily at the top of my list at this time.  It was a short book, a quick read, and I think I will read more of his work one day, but it might be a while before I ‘find the time’ for it.

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Ah, the great story-teller, Bill Bryson.  I have heard about many of his books but in my 32nd year on this planet, I have finally picked one up and turned the pages.

Moving  back to the states in the 1990s, Bryson settled in New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the great Appalachian Trail.  He heard stories of crazy hikers walking the trail in entirety, from Georgia to Maine, nearly 2200 miles, and decided to go on the big walk himself.  As he researched and bought camping equipment, he also sent out several letters inviting friends to accompany him on the trail.  Stephen Katz was an old friend who showed interest, they had, in fact, traveled Europe together several years before.  Bryson was a little leery because they had grown sick and tired of each others company after a few weeks together in Europe, but welcomed the friend to join if he thought he was up for it.  Katz showed up quite overweight and not looking like the image he portrayed to Bryson.  Katz was a former drug addict and alcoholic, who was currently walking everywhere anyway, because his license was revoked due to legal issues. Katz also had a medical condition in which he had to eat sugar frequently due to a bad batch of drugs in his not so distant past.  Not exactly the ideal partner for a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness.  Though his partner might have some difficulties, Bryson’s biggest fear became the realization that the wilderness held a multitude of deadly animals rarely seen from the public standpoint of cities and highways, more specifically, bears.  Bryson relayed several stories of bear attacks in the history of the trail, eventually coming to the conclusion that there was no sure way to avoid them, and no clear reason why they attack or why they may simply walk away from the fearful hikers. Other than bears, there were also venomous spiders, deadly snakes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though Bryson never confirmed a single sighting of any of these on his summer on the trail.

Bryson and Katz began in Georgia in March of 1996, hiking Northward.  It was hell starting the trail. Katz became frustrated and threw several packs of food and necessities to lighten his load, not even considering the situation he was in.  They had weighty packs and several days of snow and below freezing weather those first few weeks.  One evening, they opened their tents to find snow waist-deep.  They slowly hiked through and by the end of the day the sun had melted most of it.  The most joyful parts of the book were when they happened to be close enough to a town to restock supplies, stay in a hotel, and have a restaurant dinner- always a welcomed treat in comparison with the daily ration of noodles they came to tolerate. After several weeks, they reached Virginia where they took a break from the trail.  Katz went back to Iowa to work construction for a few weeks while Bryson returned home.  During those weeks, Bryson took day hikes to stay in shape and hiked several mountains near New Hampshire.  One hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains quickly found him on the edge of hypothermia.  He had started on a sunny July morning and the sudden mountainous weather had changed for a freezing fog half way to a lodge he was headed to.  Being that it was sunny most days, he had only packed a sweater for warmth and neglected to pack waterproofs.  The cold and moisture was penetrating.  For over an hour he bared the elements and made it to the lodge just in time to warm up and drink some hot coffee while the the weather turned back to the sunny day that it had started with.

Katz returned in August and the pair went off to hike the end of the trail in Maine.  Though it is the last 200 miles, the trail in Maine is torturous.  Thick woods and large elevation changes make the trail a real challenge.  They planned on going through the 100 Mile Woods, then to the summit of Katahdin to finish the summer.  After hiking a few days, they made it several miles into the 100 Mile Woods when Bryson left Katz to go ahead on the trail and filter and refill the water bottles.  When Bryson went to find Katz he was nowhere to be found.  Bryson walked several miles up and down the trail looking for any sign of Katz. Fearing the worst, he even looked over the cliffs to check if his friend had taken a fall to his death.  No sign of Katz.  Bryson set up camp and decided to continue on the trail in the morning in the case that Katz might have missed the rendezvous and was ahead of him.  Sure enough he was waiting several miles ahead and they agreed that it was time to head home.

As a part-time traveler, this book was a nice read.  I’m not sure I would ever be up for conquering the trail, but it was an entertaining read.  I enjoyed the stories Bryson supplemented about the history of dangerous tales of the trail.  It would really make a gung-ho, aspiring hiker think twice about wandering off into the woods for a few weeks. The details of the scenery, the towns, and people Bryson encountered made the book a complete modern adventure, and I have to say I look forward to more from Bryson when the time comes.

Rating: *********9/10

Dress Your Family in Corderoy and Denim – David Sedaris

This was my first David Sedaris book, it was enjoyable, he has a knack for storytelling.  Each chapter was a new story and while I came in expecting loads of humor, each was a different spectrum of emotion.  I noticed a lot of disappointment- be it with himself, his parents, boyfriend, or siblings.  He seemed to try to find humor in some of the stories, but many of them were just put out there.  Some seemed believable, but others involved such nonsense as his sister rifling through trashcans at night and collecting teeth.  An interesting aspect of his stories involved his struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorders.  One story relayed the feeling of needing to touch a stranger’s head.  Many times in an airplane he gets the itching sensation to touch the passenger’s head in front of him.  Not once, multiple times.  He tries to play it off as an accident, but the compulsion returns again and again.  He said the normal number of touches is three, any more and the person catches on and gets upset/uncomfortable.  The writing reminds me a bit of Augusten Burroughs in humor, storytelling, and non-sense. While it may seem uninteresting, the stories were all little pieces of his life, where one could think ‘This happened to me,’ or ‘I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with that.’  Sedaris is a contibutor to NPR and I read the book, I imagined an ‘NPR voice’ projecting the story over my car radio.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard him on there, but it was a fun way to imagine the stories.

Rating: *******7/10

A Lucky Child – Thomas Buergenthal

I’m always intrigued by first-hand accounts of the Holocaust.  Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, is no exception.  This is a unique story, others of this kind are not known to me.  He was ten years old when he was finally liberated from Sachsenhausen in 1944.  He survived over two years in the harsh conditions of these labor (concentration) camps as a child.  Most children in those camps were collected upon arrival and killed in the gas chambers.  He considers it nothing but luck that he and his father were witty enough to get around the fate that fell upon so many others of Thomas’ age.  At the first camp, Thomas’ father was seen as a factory manager and stated that his son was useful.  Thomas mustered the courage to let the commander of the camp know that he could work!  In Birkenau, Thomas had several close calls as the infamous Dr. Mengele sought out children or special cases to perform ‘scientific experiments’. Thomas’ father taught him to line up for morning counts near the doors to the barracks and then sneak back in as soon as counts concluded, to avoid selection if possible.  Thomas also spent time in Auschwitz before moving to his final camp in Sachsenhausen.  During that final march, the cold took two of Thomas’ toes with frostbite.  He spent a few weeks in the infirmary, scared to death as that is the most likely place for SS guards to round up people to exterminate. As he was nearly healed, bombs dropped in nearby Berlin and the camp was liberated.

While in the infirmary, a man known as Odd Nansen visited often.  He shared candy and bits of food with Thomas, even bringing him some books to try to get him started with education as the war had taken that opportunity away.  Later, during the reconstruction, Thomas was reunited with his mother after a year in a Polish orphanage (his father died with unknown circumstances in the camps).  While he was with his mother, they told each other their many stories, reconnecting from all the time spent apart.  Thomas mentioned in fondness of the kind man who had helped him in the infirmary and soon they came upon a news article about Odd Nansen from Norway.  Thomas wrote Odd Nansen and reconnected with him, visited him in Norway, and was proud to learn that Odd Nansen had published his personal diaries from the camps, dedicated them to young Thomas.  Thomas had become somewhat of a celebrity!

Buergenthal spoke of many friends and family he lost during the war.  Many times in the book, he sadly stated that ‘I never saw or heard from him/her again.’

As he was reconnected with his mother, he wrote ‘I could be a child again.’  He spent years of his childhood thinking and surviving as an adult.  He had no chance to play or let others take care of him.  It was quite a relief to know that his mother was responsible for him again.  A tutor was hired to help Thomas catch up with his peers and the man realized that academically Thomas was far behind, but in maturity, the camps had made him think and act much more like an adult.  They had many adult conversations and discussions about the war, the strategies, the losses. At first, Thomas wished to have a mounted machine gun to shoot all the Germans he saw walking the streets, but after further reflection, he realized that would not accomplish anything.  Like many other survivors, he found that a dedication to the improvement of human rights was a paramount cause as he had seen first-hand how low humans could go without help from others.  As he wrote in the book “I began to think that it was important that individuals like Nansen and the rest of us who had been subjected to terrible suffering at the hands of the Germans treat them with humanity, not because we sought their gratitude or to show how generous in spirit we were, but simply because our experience should have taught us to empathize with human beings in need, regardless of who they were. At the same time, of course, I was convinced that those Germans who ordered or committed the crimes the Nazis were responsible for should be punished.”

Thomas Buergenthal left West Germany in 1951 to study law in the US.  He became focused in human rights law and served as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, worked at the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland, and eventually served a ten year tenure as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he is currently a professor of international law and human rights at the George Washington University Law School.

Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Well, this was an interesting read.  I wasn’t sure what to expect with this, just that I heard Burroughs was a funny writer.  I think his writing was good and well thought out.  He had a fun way of telling stories.  This memoir focused on his life from about ages 8-15.  Through his childhood, he struggled a lot with the adults he should have trusted.  His mother had mental illness and what he considered psychotic episodes.  His father left the family and stayed out of communication with the rest of the family.  From a young age, Augusten was enthralled with doctors, acting, and hair.  He had dreams of being a doctor, playing a doctor on a soap opera, or being a hair product tycoon.  As his mother went deeper into psychotic fits, it was arranged for Augusten to move in with her psychiatrist’s family.  The family basically lived as slobs, and other mental patients of the father (Dr. Finch) would move in and out of the home as well.  Augusten missed more and more school and became more of an accepted, slobby member of the Finch family.  Early on, he realized he was gay, and another man staying in the Finch home helped him develop an adult relationship to solidify his homosexual feelings.  As a straight man, it was a little uncomfortable reading graphic details of their relationship, let alone the idea that Augusten was 13 and Neil was 34.  Apart from those details, the book had several short stories of mishaps and adventures Augusten had with the Finch family. For example, the family believed that God used many mediums to communicate, including ‘Bible dips’ and one story even had the family believing that God was talking to the family through Dr. Finch’s feces.  He had his loyal daughter, Hope, scoop them out of the toilet with a spatula and display them on the picnic table in the yard.  Augusten said the Doctor was so proud of this he wrote detailed notes of what they meant along with sketches that were included in the monthly newsletter for his patients!  Gross!

Toward the end of the book Augusten wrote: “I took an inventory of my life: I was seventeen, I had no formal education, no job training, no money, no furniture, no friends. ‘It could be worse,’ I told myself. ‘I could be going to a prom.'”

I found this to be one of the funnier things he wrote, but there were a lot of funny parts in the book that kept me reading.  Ultimately, the book was like a train wreck, it was tough to read a lot of it, but it was hard to put it down.

Rating: ******6/10