10/20/2012

10+ Fictional Characters With Autism


I love that autistic characters are starting to show up in popular culture.  When my son was first diagnosed with high functioning autism, almost 20 years ago, we had to explain the disability to family and friends.  Now just about everyone is familiar with the condition, either through news reports, awareness campaigns (World Autism Awareness Day, that "puzzle piece" ribbon), TV/film (Rain Man), and/or literature (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Al Capone Does My Shirts).

My intent here is to point out that while the diagnosis "high functioning autism" may be relatively new, these quirky individuals have been appearing as archetypes in our cultural imagination for decades, and continue to so. 

Here's my list of fictional characters who aren't specifically identified as autistic, but whose pattern of behaviour and talents beg the armchair diagnosis.  My son, for one, loves the idea that he and his hero Sherlock Holmes may have something in common!
  1. Sherlock Holmes (various short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).  It's all there: the brilliance, the hyper-rationality, the obsessive interests (54 separate types of tobacco ash - really?), the eccentric eating/sleeping patterns, the awkward social skills, etc.  Arthur Conan Doyle has been quoted as stating that he based the character of Sherlock Holmes on Dr. John Bell, one of his university professors.  Whose betting Dr. Bell was probably somewhere on the spectrum  himself?  Some would even argue that Doyle has given us not just one autistic character but a set of them: Sherlock's misanthropic brother Mycroft demonstrates many of the same characteristics as his brother, to which he adds an abhorrance for social conversation, which is very aspie-ish.
  2. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie), House (television show).  Almost unfair to include this as a separate entry, since the character of House is clearly modelled after Sherlock Holmes.  He even has his own Watson, not-so-cleverly renamed "Wilson."  The House character is much more anti-social than Holmes, but everything else - the  brilliance, the hyper-rationality, the obsessive interests, the eccentric eating/sleeping patterns - tallies.
  3. Dr. Temperence Brennan, Bones (television show).  Yes, she's been given a troubled childhood and other psychologically damaging events to explain her eccentricities.  But none of that explains her hyper-rationality, her inability to detect the subcontext of language, her social isolation, or her obsessive interest in such an odd field.  Just to seal the deal, the writers have given her a Watson too, this time in the form of a female, her best friend Angela Montenegro. 
  4. Dr. Spencer Reid, Criminal Minds (television show).  There's little ambiguity here - this "super genious" with poor social skills fulfills most aspie stereotypes.  He doesn't have one Watson so much as a team of them, all politely correcting him when he interprets something too literally or accidentally says something insensitive.  If only the real world were as tolerant.
  5. Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Big Bang Theory (television show).  Like Dr. House, another character clearly written to conform to the "obnoxious aspie" stereotype - hyper-intelligent, self-obsessed, thoughtless and socially obtuse.  What I like about the Sheldon character, though, is that he's played for laughs.  As the mother of an aspie son, I can assure you autism often is quite funny - as when I overheard my son respond to a female classmate who called him on the phone: "What do you mean, you don't have any question to ask? Then why are you calling me?" Tell me that that couldn't have been lifted straight out of the script of an episode of this show!
  6. Willy Wonka, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (fiction).  A character that captures the darker side of autism, Wonka's obsession with chocolate, his eccentric behaviour, and his self-imposed isolation come off as vaguely creepy.  Add to that his poor social skills, his love of systems/patterns, and his moral inflexibility (aspies do have a tendency to the world in black and white), and he's definitely a candidate. 
  7. Captain Nemo (fiction).  Another obsessive personality not known for his moral inflexibility, possessing a misanthropy so pronounced that he actually builds his own submarine in order to escape from civilization.
  8. Ignatius Reilly, Confederacy of Dunces (fiction). Proving that not all aspie characters are super-geniuses is Ignatius Reilly, a failed hot dog vendor who lives with his mother.  Pompous, misanthropic, hyperlexic, a slave to sensory sensativities, utterly devoid of social skills, and obsessed by a sixth century martyr named Boethius, his interactions with the "real world" are - in the vein of Don Quixote - comically/tragically inept.
  9. Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (fiction). Like Dr. Temperence Brennan in Bones, the author provides Salander with a horrific childhood which certainly suffices to explain many of her ... shall we say, eccentricities.  But her photographic memory, her deep social introversion, her moral inflexibility, and her brilliant hacking skills suggest that she falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. 
  10. Nero Wolfe (various novels by Rex Stout).  This massively fat detective is brilliant, self-absorbed, eccentric, obsessive (his collection of orchids is said to number over 10,000), wedded to routine, doesn't like to be touched, and never leaves his home if he can help it.  His Watson, by the way,  is an investigator by the name of Archie Goodman.   
  11. Batman (comic books).  Though the character has undergone many iterations and re-imaginings over the years, aspects of his character that haven't changed are his brilliance, his awkward social skills, his social isolation, and his inflexible moral code, all of which are autistic-like.  He has a Watson too ... have you figured out who it is?  Nope - not Robin; it's Alfred Pennyman, his butler.   
  12. Dr. Egon Spengler, Ghostbusters (movie). With degrees in parapsychology, physics, and nuclear engineering, his geekiness is unchallenged.  But what earns him a spot on this list is his pendantic speaking style, his extreme literalness, and his complete obtuseness with respect to social interactions.
  13. Dr. Spock, Star Trek (television show).  Okay, okay - I get that he's a Vulcan, a race that has denounced emotion.  Whicu may explain his social awkwardness, his lack of semantic/pragmatic language, and his adherence to logic, but doesn't explain his engineering brilliance, his photographic memory, or why he talks like a computer. 

10/19/2012

Book Look - The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak





It’s going to be challenging to write this review because I'm not sure through which “lens” I should approach the task. As a life-long reader with a penchant for challenging fiction, should I review Book Thief as a work of adult literature; or, in my role as a middle school English teacher, should I address its merits as a tool for teaching literature to teens? As it happens, this book wholly succeeds on both levels.

The key is that Book Thief possesses much more depth than usually found in literature marketed to teens. The characters are complex and deeply realized. The text is stuffed with imagery, personification, extended metaphors/allegories (Max’s stories), irony (the use of Mein Kampf in aiding Max's escape), and symbolism (those books!!). Finally, the author’s voice is vivid, lyric, and utterly compelling. Speaking of which …

Much has been made of the author’s choice of Death as the narrator. I gather from an interview with the author that this was largely fortuitous; certainly it was fortunate! Any story about Nazi Germany can’t end well, but by personifying Death, making him (it?) almost compassionate, the deaths become a little less horrific. A group of Jewish prisoners leaping to their death from a precipice is ghastly – but somehow the idea that Death is there, deliberately catching their souls before they land, makes it more bearable. Zusak’s use of foreshadowing is similarly cunning: by planting clues in section/chapter titles and in Death’s off-hand remarks about shocks/horrors to come, the author provides readers a chance to emotionally prepare for them, so that they are (almost) endurable. I contrast this with works like Schindlers List, which are so unrelentingly horrific that they are almost impossible to read. In contrast, Zusak has found a way to present horrific events without compelling us to run away from them.

Another benefit is that this device allows the author to utilize a narrative voice entirely unbound by preconceived notions. Because, face it, is there any period of history about which Americans possess more preconceived notions than Nazi Germany? But by utilizing a narrator whose perspective is entirely bereft of emotion (not to mention clich̩), the author allows us to experience even the most familiar elements of his tale Рfrom ideas as innocuous as weather to themes as vast as morality Рin ways that fresh, stripped of subliminal baggage, and provocative.

Thanks to all of the above, Book Thief accomplishes what few books about Nazi Germany accomplish, spinning a tale that challenges stereotypes; that presents rather than judges; that depicts humiliation without stripping its characters of dignity; and that forces us to abandon our pre-packaged "mental newsreels" of Nazi Germany in order to replace the images with real faces, real lives, real emotions, real epiphanies, and real understanding.

10/17/2012

A Thousand Words: Halloween Tree

From "The Halloween Tree" by Ray Bradbury, illustrations by Joe Mugnaini. My favorite creepy Ray Bradbury tale!

10/13/2012

40+ Unique Scrapbook Embellishments


One of the aspects of scrapbooking that I enjoy most is identifying out-of-the ordinary materials to use as embellishments.  I love walking through toy stores, office supply stores, dollar stores, garden stores, even hardware stores, looking for unusual items to include in my layouts. 

Following are some of my favorite unique scrapbook embellishments.  About all they have in common is that they're flat and they're *not* acid-free, so be sure to mount them on acid-free papers or take other precautions as necessary to protect your photos and ephemera.
  1. Wood cutouts & trim.  Most craft stores have a section devoted to wood cutouts.  Our local Michael's features cutouts in at least 30 shapes, which change seasonally, plus a year-round supply of squares, circles, stars, and other basic shapes.  I love coloring them with inks/chalks and they look great stamped.  If you can't find the shape you want, buy balsa and create your own.  By the way, some wood trims are also flat and can be used for scrapbooking.
  2. Cork.  I've just now started to see cork sheets show up in the scrapbooking sections of local stores.  Before, I usually found them hiding out in office supply stores.  These sheets make wonderful backgrounds, but are also effective embellishments when cut into shapes.
  3. Felt.  I tend to think of felt as a nursery-school supply, but these days it comes in pre-cut, page-sized sheets in a variety of colors and embossed/imprinted textures.
  4. Yarn.  I've discovered that for the price of one of those small packages of coordinating fibers, you can buy a whole ball of yarn.  I like the yarns that change colors every few feet (providing a choice of shades), and am especially partial to the furry/sparkly varieties.
  5. Sequins.  Speaking of sparkly, save yourself the expense of faux gemstones and take advantage of sequins.  They come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes. 
  6. Dried flowers/plants/grasses.  I've become a huge fan of embellishing my pages with bits of dried foliage.  Sometimes I use items from my yard; more often, I use flattened clippings of baby's breath or other dried foliage sold for floral arrangements.  By the way, some stores even offer dried moss, which I've used in several layouts to add a bit of rustic green.
  7. Playing cards.  I have a deck of cards that I periodically rob for scrapbooking projects.  Sometimes I use them as "literal" embellishments - for a layout on our trip to Vegas, for example; other times, I use them more "figuratively," as when I used the queen of hearts for a display about my neice modeling her prom dress
  8. Game cards/pieces.  Don't throw those old board games away without looting the accessories!  Monopoly money/deeds, scrabble tiles, and cards can all be repurposed as embellishments.  (I've used a bunch of Community Chest cards from an old Monopoly game in a variety of layouts, including the "Get out of jail free" card for a spread about the time my adorable, beloved son emptied the contents of his beanbag chair all over his room.)
  9. Children's activity books.  Another item worth looting before you throw them away, childrens' activity books often have stickers, pictures and accessories (colorforms, velcro people, etc.) that can be reused.
  10. Fringe.  Possibly my affection for fringe stems from my youth in the 60s - whatever the root cause, it does perk up a scrapbook page!
  11. Plastic carpet latch-hook framing.  This comes in a variety of sizes and resembles a checkerboard pattern with spaces in between the intersecting strands of plastic.  I've used it to simulate lattice, as a cool background for an "all boy" layout, and as a frame upon which I attached pictures and other embellishments. 
  12. Chalkboards/chalkboard paint.  Chalkboard paper has begun popping up in local craft stores, which is cool.  But if you scrounge around the dollhouse accessories section of your craft store, you will likely find small, framed chalkboards that look great with a variety of different scrapbooking styles.  Just use regular chalk to add journaling, graffiti, titles, etc.
  13. Dollhouse accessories.  Speaking of dollhouse accessories, don't neglect to peruse this section of your local craft store for unique embellishments.  I've used a variety of off-beat items in my layouts, from dollhouse-sized kitchen utensils to dollhouse rugs, books/newspapers, school supplies, and "artwork"
  14. Jewelry. Now that jewelry-making has become mainstream, a variety of stores have stocked up on beautiful metal embellishments meant to be used for pins, earrings, broaches, and necklaces, but that work equally well as scrapbook embellishments.  I've even used jewelry chain in some of my layouts.  (The trick is to hit the "clearance" aisle and think out-of-the-box.)
  15. Stamps.  I'm not sure people actually engage in stamp-collecting any more, but I've been robbing my childhood collection for years now to add pizazz to my scrapbook pages.  My stamp collection includes lots of birds, animals, profiles, monumnets, nature scenes - designs that suit a vareity fo layouts.
  16. Confetti. Look for novelty confetti in the party section of any store.  These days it comes in shapes suitable for a variety of seasons and occassions (musical notes, birthday cakes, graduation caps, etc.).  I like to lay the confetti out on a piece of wax paper, spray the sides facing up with adhesive, then lay my paper over top, pressing down firmly so that the confetti adheres - thus ensuring that the confetti retains that natural scattered appearance (rather than looking arranged).
  17. Novelty buttons.  Using buttons in layouts isn't new news, but what I don't see a lot of is people using novelty buttons.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out the sewing section of your local craft store - you'll find buttons in the shape of flowers, bugs, baseballs ... pretty much anything you can imagine!  The kinds with holes are naturally flat, but the ones that attach via plastic loops can be used if you don't mind taking the time to remove the loops with a pair of small wirecutters.
  18. Iron-on patches.  While you're in the sewing section, check out the supply of iron-on patches.  These are a relatively inexpensive way to add great color and texture to your layout.
  19. Mosaic tiles.  Most craft stores stock small tiles meant for mosaic-work.  Some of these are large and fat, but others are small and slender - perfect for adding color and texture to your layout. 
  20. Washers.  I love raiding my husband's workshop for scrapbooking supplies!  Washers are my go-to accessory - I like to line them up along the side of a page or along the top/bottom of photos.
  21. Postcards.  When on vacation, I always buy up a bunch of postcards with the idea of using them as scrapbook embellishments later.  "Kitchy" postcards and those that include maps of your destination work particularly well.  These days I often find them in shapes, which can be fun.
  22. Store-bought cards.  Holiday cards are a great source for high-quality graphics, and these days they often come pre-embellished with raised elements, fur, glitter, or other elements.  Simply trim the picture and add it to your layout!  I recycle birthday and Christmas cards in this fashion, though sometimes - if I'm looking for a hard-to-find turkey picture for Thanksgiving or just the right bunny picture for Easter - I'll actually go to Hallmark in hopes of finding exactly what I want.
  23. Decals/bumperstickers.  Those gel decals that are sold for holidays work well as scrapbook embellishments, as do decals intended for your car's bumper.  The ubiquitious "OBX" decal sold in every gift store in the Outer Banks proved the perfect embellishment for my layout on our family trip to the beach resort, and I've used our excess "honor roll" high school bumper stickers for high school layouts.
  24. Seed packets.  I love seed packet artwork!  It isn't just for layouts about gardening - I've used seed packets as elements on pages devoted to parks, spring, and my nieces.
  25. Flower/garden markers.  Garden stores sell a variety of stakes meant to be labelled and stuck into the ground so you don't forget what you've planted in each row.  I've found them in shiny steel, black, and wood - all of which have come in handy for scrapbooking.  They're particularly good for labeling.
  26. Popsicle sticks.  I've used them as frames, as title bars above pictures, and as caption bars below them.  Just treat the sticks first with some kind of sealant if you plan to write on them, as inks will run on untreated wood.
  27. Novelty paper clips.  The big chain office supply stores carry a variety of novelty paper clips, which rarely seem to sell so they always end up in the "clearance" aisle, where I scoop them up for a song.  I've got paper clips in the shapes of red/white/blue stars, pastel flowers, orange pumpkins, and green Christmas trees ... not to mention clips in a variety of metals and basic shapes (squares, ovals, spirals).  Such a simple way to add interest to a layout.
  28. Leather.  I originally bought leather cording for a boy scout project, then realized how great it would look on scrapbook pages about scouting.  It looks especially great laced through eyelets. 
  29. Tissue paper.  They sell tissue paper in such a variety of gorgeous colors and patterns these days, it's a shame to waste it all on wrapping gifts.  I've used tissue paper to add color to an Easter spread, to suggest flowers in a spread devoted to spring, and to create a cool "stained glass" effect for a Christmas layout
  30. Foam.  Most craft stores sell flat sheets of craft foam in a variety of colors and patterns, which is cool, but what usually draws my eye are the foam cut-out shapes sold for craft projects.  My local craft store rotates these in and out by season, offering Christmas/snowflake shapes in winter, flower/Easter shapes in spring, luau/fish shapes in summer, and pumpkin/fall leaf shapes in fall.  Sometimes I use them as-is; other times, I glam them up by adding inks, glitter, and/or outlining.
  31. Maps.  I love using maps in layouts!  Not necessarily standard roadmaps, but the sorts of maps you find in atlases or on paper restaurant placemats.  Nothing instantly communicates "travel" like a picture frame made of geography.
  32. Gift tags.  Don't know why I've got this down towards the bottom of the list, because gift tags are one of my go-to embellishments. During the Christmas season, practically every stores stocks them and often the designs are eyecatching.  I like to use four of them at a time and group them in rows or squares on the page. 
  33. Burlap.  I love the rugged, natural look of burlap, which makes it a perfect embellishment for pages devoted to camping, scouting, or other manly themes. 
  34. Origami papers & shapes.  Origami paper comes in a variety of unusual patterns, so can be used unfolded to add color/texture to a page.  But why stop there?  Flattened fish, cranes and other origami animals make eye-catching embellishments - the challenge, of course, is figuring out how to create them!
  35. Googly eyes.  Nothing adds fun to a layout that googly eyes!  Sometimes I add them to papercut animals to add a bit of whimsy.  They also work well on black paper for Halloween layouts (group them in twos, as if creatures are staring out from the darkness).  My favorite effect was when I used a bunch of them to matte a Halloween photo ... impossible not to smile at the finished product!
  36. Feathers.  Nothing brightens a page like gaudily colored feathers!  I've used yellow "chick" feathers to brighten up an Easter spread, purple/pink "boa" feathers to add texture to a princess spread, and green feathers to jolly up a St. Patrick's Day homage.
  37. Refrigerator magnets. They are often quite cute/clever, and flat enough to add fun to a layout without adding bulk.
  38. Lace.  Real lace (in the form of trim or doilies) adds delicacy to vintage layouts, and lacy hearts are a perfect pick for Valentines Day spreads.
  39. Sand.  Fill vellum envelopes with sand from your family beach trip, or create designs with glue and then pour sand overtop.  I love the texture and authenticity of adding sand borders to pictures of our summer vacations at the shore.
  40. Store frequent shopper/gift cards.  I don't know why they even give you the cards - they look you up by phone number once you're in the store!  Freeing up your frequent shopper cards to act as embellishments.  For instance, I used a Best Buy card to add interest to a page about our sons' video game addiction, and a used-up Starbucks gift card to embellish a page devoted to my husband's Starbucks obsession!
  41. Brown paper shopping bags.  I love cutting shapes out of the unprinted parts of the bag - the brown kraft paper lends a neat, rustic sort of texture to layout pages.
What unique embellishments have you employed in your scrapbook layouts? I'm always looking for new ideas!

10/06/2012

Libraries in the Movies



Today's list combines two of my favorite things, books and movies.  Libraries don't often show up in movies, but when they do, they often make for great cinema.  Following are some of my favorite library moments from the movies:
  1. Beauty and the Beast.  I wouldn't have thought twice about marrying the Beast if it meant gaining access to that amazing library ...!
  2. Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Few people have seen this film adaptation of one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, which is a shame because the scene in the town library where Mr. Dark, the hauntingly evil Illustrated Man, vies for Jason Robard's soul is seriously chilling.
  3. Ghostbusters.  It was this movie - specifically, the genuinely hilarious scene in which the boys "bust" the ghost of a librarian - that introduced me to the wonder that is the New York City Public Library.
  4. Shawshank Redemption.  Appropriately, the prison library is where Andy flees to escape the inhumanity and injustice of his imprisonment.  (The symbolism isn't exactly subtle.)
  5. Music Man.  A whole, gorgeous dance number erupts in the town library when charming fraudster Harold Hill comes a'callin' to woo the town's librarian. 
  6. The Mummy/The Mummy Returns.  True, libraries play bit roles in both these features, but they make my top 10 anyway because they feature a female librarian kicking butt, which there just isn't enough of in film.
  7. Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Before Richard Gere seduced Julia Rogers with opera in Pretty Woman, George Peppard was seducing Audrey Hepburn with books in this Hollywood classic.
  8. Inkheart.  In this adaptation of a childrens' book, a girl learns that her father has the ability to liberate fictional characters from their books.  If only I could figure out a way to liberate Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice ...!
  9. National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  You knew a whole movie about a book was going to have to make this list, but that cool chase scene in the Library of Congress definitely seals the deal.
  10. The Name of the Rose.  The quintessential movie about libraries, as the whole plot revolves around the power of the written word to shape human discourse.  
Honorable Mentions:
  1. The Breakfast Club.  Though the whole movie takes place in a library, I'm exiling it from my top 10 because the library doesn't actually have anything to do with the plot.  I still remember thinking the first time I saw the movie: why are you guys just sitting there sulking when you're surrounded by BOOKS?
  2. Cue montage* of characters studying or researching in libraries, featuring: Sean Astin's deperate attempt to get admitted to Notre Dame in Rudy; a rapidly ailing Tom Hanks researching gay rights in Philadelphia; Russell Crow in A Beautiful Mind, desperately clinging to sanity among the stacks at the Princeton library; Harry Potter in the library at Hogwarts, frantically researching ways to breathe underwater in time for Triwizard Tournament; Matt Damon, armed with his a public library education, smacking down that jerk from Harvard in Good Will Hunting; and (of course) Kevin Bacon reading from The Book at that town meeting in Footloose.  (*Feel free to choose your own background music for the montage, but Gonna Fly Now from Rocky definitely accompanies my version.)