Capsule reviews of four new nonfiction books
The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
By Steve Silberman
Avery, 542 pp., $29.95
Autism, a condition unnamed until the middle of the previous century, has come to occupy a particular place in American society; it’s seen variously as an epidemic that is harming a generation of children, a signifier of toxic modernity, a key to understanding tech culture, a new horizon in a world shifting its definition of normal. No matter how we understand autism, author Steve Silberman argues in this breathtaking new book, we’ve likely misunderstood its history. Rather than seeing autism as a relatively new condition, one that’s on the rise due to some unknown environmental factors, Silberman tracks its prehistory, including the pioneering work of pediatrician Hans Asperger, whose study of autism in 1930s Vienna included “an astonishingly broad cross section of people, from the most gifted to the most disabled.” The autism Asperger described included “innate gifts” as well as challenges, and he saw it as a lifelong condition, not an illness caused by poor parenting.
American child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, some of whose colleagues had worked with Asperger in Austria, first published news of his “discovery” in 1942, describing a group of patients he diagnosed with an exceeding rare syndrome, one he blamed on “toxic parenting,” especially the so-called “refrigerator mother.” This understanding of the condition, Silberman writes, “[sent] autism research off in the wrong direction for decades.” Weaving together cultural context and a rich cast of characters, Silberman casts the history of autism as a medical page-turner. By the end, as he describes how people with autism have sought to empower themselves, the book is as emotionally resonant as any this year.
The Last Love Song:
A Biography of Joan Didion
By Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin’s, 752 pp., $35
Few writers have managed to be both as autobiographical and as enigmatic as Joan Didion. Her early essays and novels established her as an acute observer of the American scene, uniquely attuned to the fault lines of impending chaos in the era of Vietnam, Watergate, the Summer of Love, and Charles Manson. Yet even as she placed herself in her work, as in her recent nonfiction chronicles of loss — “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively — her writing hides as much as it reveals.
In this intriguing but uneven new biography, Daugherty, whose previous books have taken on the writers Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller, digs into Didion’s own work to find the woman who once described herself as belonging “on the edge of a story.” Denied access to his subject and her closest friends, Daugherty compensates with a flood of details, not all of them interesting, and what seems to be an attempt to imitate Didion’s own inimitable prose style. He writes in his preface, “I trust that her literary methods will apply to her just as she pressed them on others,” but the result of this experiment, for one reader at least, was a desire to read more Didion, and less of this biography.
The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman
By Greg Grandin
Holt, 288 pp., $28
Greg Grandin begins his new book, somewhat morbidly, by imagining the inevitable obituaries that will be published after Henry Kissinger’s demise. There will be “a long witness-for-the-prosecution list,” Grandin writes, ready to chronicle the former secretary of state’s crimes in Cambodia, Chile, and Argentina. Others will weigh in to praise Kissinger’s “wry sense of humor and . . . fondness for intrigue, good food, and high-cheeked women.” Still, no matter when he dies or how he is remembered, even after his passing, Grandin writes, “Kissingerism will endure.”
Grandin, whose previous books include a winner of the Bancroft Prize and a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, is an elegant, forceful writer; politics aside, his literary style is a perfect match for his subject, whose personality Grandin pegs as a“mix of gloom and glee.” Not a conventional biography, this compact volume attempts to map Kissinger’s political philosophy from his Harvard thesis through the Vietnam era to 9/11 and beyond. The book is dense (readers may find themselves wishing they remembered more of the Kant and Spengler they read in college) but admirably lucid, even lively — although its conclusions are tragic. Kissinger emerges as one of history’s villains, the man who scripted “a template for how to justify tomorrow’s action while ignoring yesterday’s catastrophe.”
Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance
By Linda K. Wertheimer
Beacon, 224 pp., $25.95
From a high school in Texas to a middle school in Wellesley, incidents involving schoolchildren being exposed to religion (in both cases, Islam) have led to anger, alarm, and questions over the role of religion in the classroom. Public schools were prohibited from sponsoring religious practice decades ago, but in some communities — especially those that are nearly entirely Christian — the study of other religions has sparked a backlash (one parent complained that learning about Islam amounted to “a kind of brainwashing” ).
In this wide-ranging, thoughtful book, former Boston Globe education editor Linda K. Wertheimer looks at the current state of confusion over what works and what doesn’t when schools try to teach kids about religion. Along the way, she talks with the parents, teachers, and children involved in recent controversies — it’s heartening to hear how many of the kids who have been exposed to the history and ideas of religions other than their own seem to appreciate what they’ve learned. Despite their parents’ fears, these young people didn’t feel brainwashed or converted; rather, they were grateful to learn about the world outside of their own small orbit. Ultimately, Wertheimer writes, when approached with transparency, tact, and respect, “[r]eligion and public education do not have to be at odds.”