Thursday, December 12, 2019


The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, ambertinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.
One of the better openings of a novel I have ever read. It beckons you straight-up, easing you into its dark milieu with an indelible foreshadowing scene using plain yet startling words that tickle portentous corners of the imagination.
Marvelous writing, that opening scene. My jaw hung open as I copied it from Kindle page to Word document to use in this review. Surprised I hadn’t remembered it from my first reading of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, as a boy, and it didn’t dawn on me until just now that it’s the finest writing in the entire novel.
All I did remember from back then was a vision of the protagonist--a boy a few years older than I—running terrified from the battlefield through a woods amid a stampede of retreating soldiers. I remembered the shame he felt, that he hadn’t lived up to his fantasies of heroism, and that he eventually was able to justify fleeing the fight when one of the others shuffling to the rear—they weren’t running, all were wounded—clubbed him on the head with his rifle. The injury drew blood, thus he obtained his “red badge of courage.”
Ominous talk lately about “civil war” in our current political word skirmishes prompted me to take another look at Red Badge. Surprised to see it’s only eighty pages, I was worn out from the flu and decided it would be a quick, non-taxing read. Mistake. Slogging along as if it were War and Peace, I was surprised again when I finished it and checked again for the page count: Eighty. Seemed more like three-hundred and eighty. 
And the problem was the writing. It seems once Crane put the finishing touches on that glorious first paragraph, he pulled out all the stops. Arching over the entire narrative is the strained, convoluted 19th century literary style. I’ve navigated it in other works, but found it strangely out of place in a novel that takes place solely on battlefields and their environs. On top of that is the barely literate vernacular of the characters—all soldiers, and mostly uneducated enlisted men. I’ve always found extended phonetic representations of dialect tedious. A little bit, for flavor, and then, more. Here’s a sample of the kind of dialogue strewn across the story as so many stumbling blocks I started feeling like one of Crane’s infantrymen trudging along wondering where in hell we were going.
Oh, there may be a few of ’em run, but there’s them kind in every regiment, ’specially when they first goes under fire,” said the other in a tolerant way. “Of course it might happen that the hull kit-and-boodle might start and run, if some big fighting came first-off, and then again they might stay and fight like fun. But you can’t bet on nothing. Of course they ain’t never been under fire yet, and it ain’t likely they’ll lick the hull rebel army all-to-oncet the first time; but I think they’ll fight better than some, if worse than others. That’s the way I figger.
Okay, I move my lips when I read to myself. Sometimes. Found them, my lips, jabbering silently trying to pronounce whatever the hell was being said up there and in all of the rest of the dialogue. Bit my lower lip accidentally more than oncet. And here’s Crane’s narration, self-consciously literary, out of context for an uneducated youth:Swift pictures of himself, apart, yet in himself, came to him—a blue desperate figure leading lurid charges with one knee forward and a broken blade high—a blue, determined figure standing before a crimson and steel assault, getting calmly killed on a high place before the eyes of all. He thought of the magnificent pathos of his dead body. These thoughts uplifted him. He felt the quiver of war desire.”
Most of the narrative takes place in the protagonist’s head. He’s referred to only as “the youth,” although his name is mentioned casually here and there in conversations with other soldiers. His two closest acquaintances are likewise named similarly, but we know them as “the tall soldier” and “the loud soldier.” Not having the names foremost in my mind irritated me at first, but eventually I came to find it helpful. More than a few named characters in novels often confuse me as to who is who. So that’s one for Crane.
What got on my nerves more than anything else was the confusion in The Youth’s head, and as I got back into the book I remembered this is precisely what bothered me when I read it as youth myself. Though premise is valid, there is only so much agonizing over oneself a reader needs to catch the drift that here’s a young recruit, wet behind the ears, fearing he won’t live up to his fantasies of heroism and the expectations of his comrades. Too much repetition, as if Hamlet simply could not stop repeating “to be or not to be” come hell or the Confederate Army.
Historians credit Crane for his “naturalism” and detail in describing battle conditions and psychologies, especially as he’d had no experience himself on a battlefield when he wrote Red Badge. He was a journalist, eventually covering the Greco-Turkish and Spanish-American wars.
Still, his literary imagination and writing prowess at times converge to create scenes of near visceral realism, especially in the wider view. “...upon this stillness,” he tells us, “there suddenly broke a tremendous clangor of sounds. A crimson roar came from the distance. The youth stopped. He was transfixed by this terrific medley of all noises. It was as if worlds were being rended. There was the ripping sound of musketry and the breaking crash of the artillery...the battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.”

Ernest Hemingway said of Crane’s novel in the 1942 collection Men at War: The Best War Stories of All Time, which he edited, Red Badge "is one of the finest books of our literature, and I include it entire because it is all as much of a piece as a great poem is."
A 1951 movie of Red Badge starred genuine war hero Audie Murphy as “Henry Fleming,” aka The Youth, and famed war cartoonist Bill Mauldin. It was directed by John Huston. The book was adapted for TV in 1974. 
Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Friday, December 6, 2019


One of my childhood heroes was Nathan Hale, the Connecticut schoolteacher/spy who gave us those thrilling last words before British troops hung him from a tree, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Whenever I’d think of that moment I’d feel a frisson of wonderment. Could I, at such a dire time, the premature ending of my life, exhibit the patriotic courage and poise and presence of mind to bring forth such ringing eloquence instead of begging, weeping, and pooping my pants? I’m still wondering, and I dearly hope the opportunity to learn the answer never arises. But Washington’s Spies, based on letters, diaries, and official records, did clear up one thing about Hale’s final spoken words.

They weren’t what my gradeschool teachers taught me he said.

Hale likely had uttered the words, but earlier, at Yale, where he and classmates read them in Joseph Addison’s play, Cato. Years later, author Alexander Rose tells us, the memorable words were given as Hale’s last by former classmate William Hull, and others. “Hull could not have known what Hale said in his final moments, though he did remember that Hale had been struck by Cato when at Yale, and that he and Hull and [Benjamin] Tallmadge had talked excitedly of its brilliance. Perhaps he had specifically cited the ‘I regret’ line as representative of his patriotic views, and Hull, loyal as ever, allowed his friend the posthumous privilege of uttering it.”

British Capt. Frederick MacKenzie, who attended the hanging, wrote this in his diary: “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good officer, to obey any orders given him by his commander in chief; and desired the spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”

I prefer that scenario. It may not resound through the ages, but it rings far truer than the theatrical Cato quote while yet reflecting Hale’s brave comportment at the end. A stoicism remarkable in itself for an amateur spy barely seasoned as an infantry officer standing on the ladder against the rope-slung tree limb by the freshly dug grave he knew was for him. It was almost as if he sensed the irony of his death becoming a martyrdom that would spark his country’s first military intelligence network.

Code-named it the “Culper Ring,” for no known reason other than that it played on Culpeper County, Virginia, where Washington had worked as a land surveyor during his teens. He chose “Samuel Culper” as the cover name for one of the ring’s first members, Abraham Woodhull, a Long Island farmer whose vegetables and livestock gave him easy access to produce-starved New York, selling to British troops and Loyalists. He and several other friends who’d grown up in the tiny Suffolk County, Long Island, community of Setauket formed the nucleus of the embryo spy ring.

Washington was breaking new ground using civilians to work undercover gathering intelligence. Previously armies relied on soldiers to scout out military tactical positions. Hale, an Army captain had volunteered for a plainclothes mission to reconnoiter the enemy. He was cautioned against it by a friend who told him he was too good-looking, and that this and his military bearing would give him away should anyone become suspicious. This proved prophetic, as the blackguard Robert Rogers, working for the British, easily spotted Hale, watched him taking notes at military sites, and finally befriended him as a “fellow rebel.” Rogers won the inexperienced Hale’s unwitting confession over beers in a local tavern.

The problem back then with using civilians was stigma. Only military scouting was acceptable, as civilians, working for money, were not deemed trustworthy. But Washington wanted information from civilians embedded in enemy territory. To help him set up such a system he hired Nathaniel Sackett, a middle-aged member of New York’s Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies—the enforcement arm of the political revolutionaries. “If Sackett succeeded in recruiting agents,” author Rose tells us, “he would certainly require a deputy empowered to detail army riders to run their messages to headquarters, as well as able to soothe the snippier colonels annoyed that a civilian was interfering in matters they regarded as their own prerogative. To that end, Washington quietly appointed a freshly made captain, Benjamin Tallmadge of the Second Continental Light Dragoons, as Sackett’s military contact.”

Familiar name? One of Nathan Hale’s best friends at Yale. Rose includes some affectionate letters between the two during and after their college days, and concludes “If anything malign ever happened to one, the other would be merciless toward his assailants.” In addition, Tallmadge was a native son of Setauket, where the fledgling spies would be recruited. One code name leaped out at me as if deliberately bringing irony into our present day Washington imbroglio: Tallmadge was known in the Culper Ring as “John Bolton.”
Benjamin "John Bolton" Tallmadge

Rose’s exhaustive study of previously unexamined documents from this period won praise from colleagues for his scholarship.

After working on Washington,” writes —Joseph J. Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington, “I knew there was a story to tell about his reliance on spies during the Revolutionary War. But I believed the story could never be told because the evidence did not exist. Well, I was wrong, and Alexander Rose tells this important story with style and wit.”

Richard Brookhiser, author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, writes that Rose, “making brilliant use of documentary us intrigue, crossed signals, derring-do, and a priceless slice of eighteenth-century life.

As an enthusiast of the period, albeit with none of their scholarly dedication, who am I to disagree. I enjoyed this history unveiling immensely, with only one complaint. For the sake of my twenty-first century ear Rose might have gone easier on the direct quotes from correspondence and documents in that era. They spoke, or at least wrote, in what seems now a convoluted style that’s almost another language. Here, for example is part of a letter from Tallmadge to Hale in their college days: “Friendly Sir, In my delightsome retirement from the fruitless bustle of the noisy, with my usual delight, &, perhaps, with more than common attention, I perused your epistle—replete as it was with sentiments worthy to be contemplated...” I’ve read it several times now, and yet am not certain I have the drift.

I came to the book by way of a four-season TV series, Turn: Washington’s Spies, which I borrowed on dvd from the public library. Checking just now I see it is available online from several sources, including Netflix. The dramatization strays a bit from historical accuracy, but at least the dialogue is current. I’d happily watch it again. In fact I recommend watching it first, as I did, and then reading the book. Remembering scenes from the series helped me visualize their counterparts when reading the historical version.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


My fears after reading Arkady Renko’s previous adventure have proven unfounded. I’d predicted that Tatiana, #8 in the Russian crime series featuring the intrepid “investigator of special cases,” would mark Renko’s valediction. Soon after I wrote those words I learned his creator, Martin Cruz Smith, was working on yet another episode, giving me a sliver of hope my forecast had been wrong. Had I Renko’s fortitude, stamina, and seemingly unlimited regenerative powers, I might have held my breath. But I knew he carried a bullet in his brain that could kill him instantly without warning, and considering the beatings, stabbings, being locked in a freezer and the exposure to lethal radiation he’d survived since we first met him in Gorky Park, the law of probability had to have his number in sight. At some point I would have no choice but bid him goodbye.

Well, it’s not this time. Not in #9, The Siberian Dilemma. That’s not to say he doesn’t have another close call. This time it’s being mauled by a bear on a Siberian tundra.

“‘Play dead or be dead,’ he recalls his father telling him as a youngster. ‘Lie flat on your stomach to protect your vital organs. Lace your hands over the back of your neck to cover the arteries there.’ It was a long time since Arkady had felt any reason to be thankful to his father. He rolled onto his stomach and covered his neck as instructed. The bear turned Arkady over. It mauled him and shook him like a rag doll. Play dead or be dead. Pain dug deep within him as if he was being torn from the inside out. Yellow teeth took his parka and flesh down to the bone of his arm, and he felt his right hand go numb and limp. The bear redoubled his attack, picking Arkady up, swinging him left and right, and dropping him. He tore the skin off part of Arkady’s forehead. Arkady heard the huffing and snuffling and smelled the rot of his breath. The bear wouldn’t quit. Arkady played dead. There was nothing else he could do. Eventually the beast would give up and leave him alone...”

It would be reasonable at this point to wonder how it is that a Moscow police investigator finds himself on a Siberian tundra being mauled within inches of his life by a very hungry brown bear. The answer, of course, is another of the complicated plots enmeshing the aging Renko, who remains at odds with his boss and who can never seem to resist tugging the capes of very powerful gangsters despite the virtual immunity they’ve attained from their friendship with Russia’s head gangster. In The Siberian Dilemma this would be Vladimir Putin, with the title “president,” and private properties including “ocean-cruising yachts...four estates with swimming pools, horse stables, tennis courts, and cascading waterfalls...and one with a separate house for ducks.

“In this manner, corruption was quantified and understood.” And sounds rather familiar to some of us, as well.

Renko’s mission to Irkutsk, known as the Paris of Siberia, is twofold. One is official and the other private. Zurin, the Moscow prosecutor who shares a mutual dislike with Renko, has ordered him to interrogate a prisoner who’s being held in a prison there charged with trying to kill Zurin himself. Renko’s private reason is to find his lover, Tatiana Petrovna, the fearless investigative reporter who slipped off to Irkutsk to interview one of the gangster oligarchs who has announced his intention to seek Putin’s job in the next national election.

“Anyone who challenges the Kremlin runs the risk of being murdered,” Tatiana’s boss, Sergei Obolensky, publisher of the news magazine Russia Now, tells Renko. If Tatiana’s with the oligarch then she, too, is a target, Renko know. He’s worried because she did not returned to Moscow when expected, and Renko has no way to communicate with her.

The ensemble cast includes Victor Orlof, Renko’s alcoholic detective/sidekick, who’s in the drunk tank when Renko leaves for Siberia. “They were partners in a peculiar business and he had come to count on Victor for what he felt was half his intelligence and most of his wit. Suddenly he had no one to take Victor’s place.” But a new sidekick kicks in by coincidence on the flight to Irkutsk. Rinchin Bolot, a friendly Irkutskian who introduces himself as a “factotum,” or man of many talents for hire. Renko hires him, making me a little nervous because for all we know Bolot is really working for someone else—Zurin the prosecutor or one of the two oligarchs who own most of Siberia. One of them is the man seeking to unseat Putin.

Also back in Moscow is Zhenya Zurin, the orphan chess-wiz Renko had befriended as a child and then mentored him as he might an adopted son. A threat of Zhenya’s “disappearing” is used to pressure Renko once he’s in Irkutsk and is given an extra-curricular “assignment.”

As to his own safety, Renko uses a line we’ve heard from him before, this time when Victor’s sister tells him how impressed she is that he stood his ground when an angry bear charged at him in the zoo she directs. Someone had released the bear and its mate, and Renko disabled it with a gun that fired narcotic cartridges. It was, she says, “As if you didn’t care.”

His response, which relates to the bullet lodged in his brain, “That’s my secret weapon.”

Recovering from his mauling in Siberia, the prospect of death occupies his mind with more perspective. “Arkady had never wondered or worried too much about his legacy, such as it was.” we are told. “He had never felt the need to leave his mark on the world, either through achievement or progeny.

There were those who’d be sorry to see him gone and those who’d be delighted. Given the identity of those in both camps, the latter was, in its own way, as much a compliment as the former.”

The book’s title appears as a riddle regarding a person’s choices when either of two options will almost surely be fatal. In explaining it, Renko uses the analogy of a man who falls through the ice on a lake. “If he pulls himself out of the water onto the ice, he’ll freeze to death in seconds, a minute at most. If he stays in the water, he’ll die of hypothermia in five…

The lesson is it’s better to take action than be passive...better to fight than to surrender, even if you know you’re going to die.”

As usual in the Renko series I found the setting to be ferociously realistic. This authenticity, I learned at the end of The Siberian Dilemma, did not come from reading travel guides. In his acknowledgments the author tells us how he prepared for this Renko adventure.

He thanks Luisa Smith, “my invaluable travel companion with a magic camera...Don Sanders for his help in making the Siberian trip happen...Arkady Persov from Irkutsk generously entertained us while showing us his city and the natural wonders of Lake Baikal...Lyuba Vinogradova has been my brilliant translator and research assistant for more than twenty years. She traveled from Mozambique to Siberia to be part of the team. Finally, there is Andrew Nurnberg, my loyal friend and agent for almost forty years. He has traveled with me on research trips to Siberia, Moscow, Tver, Berlin, and Havana and always kept his sense of humor. These friends buoy me up and keep me on my feet.

And let me add my gratitude, as well.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, November 7, 2019

EASY ERRORS – Steven F. Havill

Were I to consider becoming a police officer I doubt I could find better and more interesting training literature than Steven Havill's Posada County mystery series. I'm confident saying this after reading only one of the nearly two dozen in the series because Easy Errors just might be the only manual a would-be cop—or any cop--would need.
Its narrative architecture is pure meticulous procedural, from the precision of coded radio chatter to a ruptured bag of Cheetos found at the scene of a fatal road accident to the gathering and testing of evidence and preserving its chain of custody, and ultimately to the strategy of presenting witnesses to a grand jury.
The birth of this case is audio witnessed by Posada County (New Mexico) Undersheriff Bill Gastner, an upper-middle-aged widower who’s home alone and has just settled in to read page 107 in Peterson’s History of the Single-Shot Cartridge Rifle in the United States Military. The time is 9:17 p.m on a Wednesday in early June.
“What drew my attention to the clock this evening was the distant shriek of tires tearing rubber and the loud, dull whump that followed. Two lesser contacts and a final ground shaker followed. Whump, then bang, blang, BAM. Just like that, with a pulse or two between each concussion. The clock jerked to 9:18.”
Well, that sure as hell drew my attention, too, but not to the clock, and at least I could sit and follow the action from my recliner while poor old, overweight, out-of-shape Bill Gastner struggles out of the deep, cozy pocket of his “leather reading chair,” telephones dispatch and coordinates a response by the scant available deputies, then tootles off in car 310, his decrepit county-issued Crown Vic, to where he correctly presumes the wump, bang, blang and BAM had occurred. And there the plot quickly deepens into tragedy and thickens in implications. Three dead teens--one thrown from the SUV and crushed when it rolled onto him and the other two trapped in the wreckage but clearly lifeless as well. Gastner immediately recognizes the SUV as owned by the county’s assistant district attorney, and soon determines it was being driven by the ADA’s only son. The other two victims are siblings of the county’s new rookie deputy who’s been out riding with a patrol deputy and arrives at the scene determined to do his duty over his boss’s objections and despite the horrific personal loss he encounters.
At this point I’ve swallowed the hook and am in the creel, even as I begin to lose patience with the tedious use of ten-code radio signals and the excruciatingly painstaking collection and commenting on the minutia of debris, such as the “ruptured Cheetos bag,” any or all of which could prove significant in learning what might have caused the crash to happen. Having covered police departments and courts for decades, I understand how this staggering number of seemingly incidental fragments can make or break a criminal or liability case in a trial, and put juries, news reporters, and judges to sleep as lawyers wrangle for hours over the evidentiary relevance of a clothing fiber or single hair, and at times I found myself skimming over pages of these descriptions. But it was also part of what kept me scrolling through the novel on my laptop’s Kindle app. I knew I was in the hands of a professional, a cop who knew what was important and, through Gastner, was closely monitoring and advising his rookie in the fundamentals of solid police work.
I waited until finishing the novel before looking up author Steven Havill to see where he had gotten his police and court experience, as he also presents his courtroom scenes as realistically as any I have read by real lawyers and judges. Here is what I found in Havill’s brief Wiki bio:
Havill lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife Kathleen, a writer and artist. A dedicated high school teacher of biology and English by day.” 
Steven Havill

I stared at that for a bit, thinking huh? A high school teacher? There must be more! And maybe there is, but to find it I shall check a little deeper into this mystery police expert’s background. If anything new turns up I’ll include it in my review of Havill’s next Posada County novel, which most likely will not be the series debut, Heartshot. It was blogging buddy Tracy K of Bitter Tea and Mystery, whose review of Heartshot sold me on the series. When I finished Easy Errors and went back to Tracy’s review I nearly leaped out of my recliner when I read how this first of the series opens:
...a car full of teens, running from a stop by Deputy Torrez, goes airborne into a rocky outcrop, killing all five kids and revealing a package of cocaine under the seat,” Tracy quotes from the book’s blurb. “Has someone brought big-time crime to the county? [Gastner] is now dealing with grieving parents–one of whom starts packing a gun...”
Okay, some of you might have allowed a little gasp reading this, seeing the similarity between the openings—teens killed in car crash. I gasped, too, with the added oomph of seeing that Deputy Torrez had been chasing the car that crashed. Torrez is the rookie in Easy Errors who discovers his brother and sister dead in that crash, and spends the rest of the novel learning the ropes from Gastner on the importance of strictly adhering to procedure in gathering evidence and following where it might lead. Thus the title Easy Errors, which points to the dangers of straying from procedure. I already knew how Torrez came to be a rookie in Easy Errors, when some twenty-three books prior he is already a patrol deputy. Here’s how Havill explains it in his foreword to Easy Errors:
The Posadas Mysteries have been around for more than twenty-five years, and at one point several years ago, after many titles in the series, a reader asked if I would write the story covering the day that Estelle Reyes-Guzman joined the Posadas County Sheriff’s Department. That’s how the prequel One Perfect Shot came to be. Chronologically, that prequel’s action happens two or three years before the adventures in Heartshot.… the book that started the series back in 1991. ‘How about [Torrez’s] history?’ was the next question. Well, why not? Prequels are fun to write, so how about a pre-prequel? Easy Errors is the result of that exercise.”
Tracy K didn’t mention finding the narrative bogged down by plodding procedure, as I did with Easy Errors, so maybe that was partly—or mainly--because of the plot’s instructional aspect. I haven’t said much of the characterizations, but they were so well depicted, so lifelike and natural, they bring a feeling of authenticity to the book. They’re a little dull, too, just like real people.
“‘I appreciate your initiative, Robert,’ Gastner tells the rookie, gently admonishing him for exhibiting something of a lone-wolf attitude. ‘Don’t get me wrong on that score. But as you’re aware, this is a quasi-military outfit…uniforms, chain of command, all those sorts of things. When you’re taking a department vehicle, dispatch needs to know where you’re going. Don’t just surprise us. If we need you, or the vehicle, we need to know how to contact you.’”
I’m pretty sure at this point Deputy Torrez, a man of few words, answered the undersheriff, “Ten-four, Sir.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, October 31, 2019


The subtitle of Parallel Play is Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s. I put it down here in the text so it wouldn’t spoil the energy of the main title with something seemingly less mysterious. The irony, tho, is the real mystery: Asperger’s.”

Asperger’s syndrome, as it is commonly known, wasn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1994, yet this neurological anomaly had been identified fifty years earlier by the Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, who wrote of the relatively mild form of autism, “For success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” Dr. Asperger’s vision for this benefit evidently did not extend to the more mundane human endeavors, such as business or evangelism, where we now find it mentioned in connection with two prominent individuals. Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish environmental activist, and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook. Thunberg proudly refers to her Asperger’s as “my gift.” While comics taking him to task for his politics have mocked Zuckerberg’s Aspergian-like mannerisms, the social media magnate has not addressed them publicly. If in fact he is “on the spectrum,” as insiders refer to the myriad degrees of autism, perhaps he does not know it. Such was the case for two other highly successful individuals, both who’d had no idea they met Dr. Asperger’s diagnostic symptoms until well into adulthood.

John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye, was forty when a friend gave him a copy of Asperger’s Syndrome, by Tony Attwood. “I picked it up. Warily. 'What the hell is this?'” He started reading, and recognized himself in the list of symptoms. These included problems with body language such as eye-to-eye contact, appropriate facial expressions, postures, and gestures, and a lack of emotional interaction with others. He’d already struggled through a tortured childhood and adolescence to find success through technology, which led him to become the special effects genius behind KISS, the rock band known for it’s stunning pyrotechnics on stage. He progressed from there to the corporate world where he helped design some of the first video games and talking toys.
Tim Page

Tim Page made it to age forty-five wondering why he was so different from others—brilliantly intelligent but incompetent socially. Three years earlier he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism as chief classical music critic of The Washington Post. Now, depressed after failing at a senior administrative job with the St. Louis Symphony, he sought professional help.

“One psychiatrist concluded that I was bipolar and put me on lithium, which did nothing but make me feel weirdly outsized, as though my body stretched up miles from the ground, like a Giacometti figure. Another doctor suggested a new anti-anxiety medication, which I duly added to the clutter of bottles by my bedside. And then, after a series of family consultations, a New York psychologist named Keith Westerfield surprised me first with a thoughtful explanation and then with a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.”

He read a book of essays on Asperger’s then, and “felt as though I had stumbled upon my secret biography. Here it all was— the computer-like retention, the physical awkwardness, the difficulties with peers and lovers, the need for routine and repetition, the narrow, specialized interests...had they created a developmental disorder just for me? I was forty-five years old when I learned that I wasn’t alone”...something that had tortured him especially as a child, which he describes as “an excruciating awareness of my own strangeness.”

Attempts to relieve his anxieties then included glucose-tolerance tests, anti-seizure medications, electro-encephalograms, “and an occasional Mogadon tablet to shut me down at night.”

On the positive side his mind was phenomenal. He recalls memorizing entire books, including “vast sections” of an encyclopedia merely by skimming the pages. Despite feeling socially incompetent, he persisted, gradually learning to interpret social cues and respond appropriately in conversation with strangers.

There still is no cure for Asperger’s, nor are “Aspies,” as we (yeah, me, too) call ourselves, likely to wish a trade-off—our gift for “normalcy.”

Overstimulation of any sort remains a positive horror,” Page tells us, “and I am most content either alone, with people I have known a long time, or with the occasional new friend I make and love instantly, as though we were born together.”

He can’t bear to make eye contact when speaking of things that arouse deep emotions. “Moreover, although I’ve had a prescription for eyeglasses for the past twenty years, I’m most comfortable not wearing them...I rarely wear my glasses now, for they make me aware of too much. All of a sudden, it feels as though I’ve been cast into a world of strangers, all staring at me, so clear and so close that I’m flooded by the intimacy.”

Without warning, a need to escape can demand that we flee, and we do.

In order to fit in, Aspies must learn to act, and Page describes various celebrities, mostly entertainers, who served as role models for poses and mannerisms. Yet, he maintains, the acting itself is sincere. “The fact that my understanding of affection, comradeship, and human empathy has been hard-won rather than hardwired from the start does not make those feelings less genuine.” Nonetheless intimacy has continued to give him problems.

At twenty-nine he married his best friend, “a brilliant and intuitive woman, someone I admired and cared for and to whom I felt and feel enormous loyalty. But my capacity for intimacy was then very limited and the marriage lingered but couldn’t last. Our best moments were the births--gory, violent, and spectacularly beautiful—of our three sons, when I held on to one of her legs, mopped her brow, gave whatever comfort I could, and eventually cried for joy as a brand-new child was laid on her belly. How I pity my father—and his father and most Western fathers back to the beginning of the modern world—so long excluded from these astounding communions!”

Much later, after his Asperger’s diagnosis, he fell in love, which, he says, astonished him. The marriage lasted four years. He describes it as bliss:

“I had never imagined sustained contentment, and certainly not in the company of another person. Yet here it was: even making the bed together in the morning, an act that had hitherto struck me as Sisyphean, took on meaning, as the prelude to another gloriously ordinary day, to be followed by tea, the newspapers, a couple of hours of work, and then lunch in the neighborhood. While it lasted, everything was enhanced; the only thing I can compare it to is that moment when The Wizard of Oz turns from black and white into color.”

He says he resisted the relationship as long as he could, worried that “if I let her in, what could I ever do if she went away? But I found myself invaded, physically and emotionally, and, for the first time in my life, I was ready for it. Thereafter, I considered any day not spent with her a day diminished. I was no longer a scared kid being taken to bed but a full and eager partner, and I lived for several years in a constant state of amazed and grateful surprise…

“And then, suddenly and without warning, she had to leave and she was too regretful or too solitary or maybe simply too compassionate to tell me why. And I became a crazy man, so stunned and shocked that I felt mortally wounded. I’d finally found a mate— somebody I liked, loved, respected, admired, and lusted for all at once. Now I was alone again. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened, and whenever I believed it, even for a moment, the pain was unbearable.”

Then came the familiar stuff of heart-broke country songs...

Neither of his two marriages are listed on his Wiki bio page, which tells us he is currently Visiting Scholar in Residence at Oberlin College.

“Aspies are predetermined individualists,” he concludes in Parallel Play, “people both condemned and liberated to live in our own worlds--but, after a while, if we can summon up the courage, we stop apologizing for it.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]