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Short Takes

‘The Third Son,’ ‘Country Girl’ and ‘The Autistic Brain’

The Third Son

By Julie Wu

Algonquin, 312 pp., $24.95

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An unloved child in a large, competitive family, Saburo dawdles on his way home to avoid his older brother and father; when he arrives late, his mother beats him. He knows he will survive, but “the nerve endings will never be completely restored.” Julie Wu’s first novel traces Saburo’s life through war and political upheavals (the family lives in Taiwan, first under Japanese rule and then, after World War II, under the Chinese), and an unwavering sense that life could be better, if he could only escape his circumstances.

Unlucky but resilient, Saburo must fight enemies both impersonal and terribly familiar — primarily his petty, vindictive oldest brother, Kazuo. As young adults, the brothers fight over a woman, Yoshiko, whose kindness to Saburo when both were children has been a touchstone through years of privation (including malnutrition caused by his mother withholding protein from Saburo to give it to Kazuo). These twin dramas — an unusually awful sibling rivalry, a stunningly pure and inspiring love story — center a book that spans decades and continents. This is a deceptively simple, deeply compelling debut.

Country Girl:

A Memoir

By Edna O’Brien

Little, Brown, 336 pp., illustrated, $27

Growing up in the Irish countryside, Edna O’Brien loved her home (“the loveliest, leafiest place in the whole world”) and her mother, but even as a very young girl she sensed the rigid constraints her religion and society would soon impose on her. Her novels sparked outrage — she writes that after their publication she was “considered something of a Jezebel” — for their fearless treatment of sex and violence. Brave and gorgeously written, “Country Girl” is the memoir O’Brien says “I swore I would never write.” Her broken vow is a gift to readers.

O’Brien was born in 1930 and raised in an Ireland in thrall to old verities, a place where “[t]he flames of Hell seemed as real as the turf burning in the fire.” She writes vividly of the passion and repression she experienced in her convent school, followed by the bracing freedom of Dublin’s social life, where she fretted about her “expiring virtue and limited wardrobe.” A terrible early marriage left her with two young sons and an ex-husband bitter over her growing literary fame. Life in 1960s London was a gossipy swirl of parties, drugs (including LSD, dropped with O’Brien’s analyst, R. D. Laing), and celebrity (Sean Connery was on hand for comfort after the resulting bad acid trip). O’Brien’s name-dropping never feels boastful but rather matter-of-fact and admiring — how lucky I am, she seems to imply, to be dancing with Robert Mitchum or talking with Marlon Brando, dining at Buckingham Palace or the White House. Clear-eyed about both her homeland and the wider world — “with all its sins and guile and blandishments” — O’Brien’s account of her life is completely irresistible.

The Autistic Brain:

Thinking Across the Spectrum

By Temple Grandin and Richard Panek

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $28

It’s undeniable that more people are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders than ever before — though whether that increase is due to expanded diagnostic criteria or other causes remains unclear. In her new book, Temple Grandin argues that this isn’t necessarily the most interesting question, anyway. Brain science may be on the verge of learning more about how autism works; in the meantime, she says, we all need to work better to help individuals with autism discover and fulfill their own potential. Grandin isn’t alone in calling for educational and occupational opportunities for people with autism, but she wields great authority and authenticity thanks to her own identity as a woman with autism.

A professor of animal science, Grandin has written about her visual manner of processing information and her struggles with sensory dysfunction. Here she weaves her personal story (told with her trademark charming bluntness) into accounts of research on different ways of thinking, from verbal to pictorial to pattern-focused. Unlike some proponents of what they call “neurodiversity,” Grandin doesn’t downplay the difficulties faced by people with autism, even those considered high-functioning. Still, she says, rather than focus on autism’s deficits, why not “recognize, realistically and on a case-by-case basis, what an individual’s strengths are”?

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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