Review: SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson

SHOUT book coverIf you know anything about this book, you know it’s important. Anderson has already written one important novel about sexual assault—Speak—but this is her far more personal memoir, written both to explain how she came to write Speak and simply tell her story. In SHOUT, she writes in verse, which made me wonder how I could possibly read it. Although I know this is weird, any time I see poetry, I get all anxious and can’t pay any attention to what I’m reading. So I had concerns. But then I found out there was an audiobook version—read by Anderson herself—so I checked that out and started listening. It didn’t sound like poetry; instead, it sounded just like someone telling a story, which made it completely accessible to me.

The first part of the book is really about her growing up. She didn’t have an easy childhood, but it wasn’t all about the rape she experienced just before starting ninth grade. She also had struggles with her parents, who had struggles themselves. She spent her senior year on an exchange program in Denmark, so much of the section is about that. She finishes off with her years just after finishing college. The second part is where the story really comes alive. Here, Anderson talks more about misogyny and sexual assault and the impact they have on everyone. She also addresses ideas for what we can do about it. She talks about the many speeches she’s given at schools around the country and how she isn’t always received with appreciation by faculty and administrators. Because, after all, “those of kinds of things don’t happen here.” Nevermind that “here” is by definition part of everywhere, which is exactly where it happens.

I highly recommend this book for everyone. It could be life-changing.

Review: TED Talks

TED Talks book coverThis is going to be an unusual review for this blog. Obviously I usually review YA fiction. But today, since I didn’t finish another book this week, I’m reviewing an adult fiction book that I think might still be of relevance to my readers. A lot of people have to get up on a stage—at work, in school, in church, wherever. This book could make you more comfortable doing so, and help you make a bigger impact.

To make my boss happy (plus for some personal improvement), I joined Toastmasters at work. For those who don’t know, Toastmasters is an organization that is supposed to help you become a better public speaker and leader. You basically choose a pathway and make several assigned speeches on the way to reaching a leadership and speaking improvement goal. I gave my first speech in late February (on becoming a writer 🙂 ) and then before I could give my second speech, COVID-19 happened. So I thought I’d keep up with the learning and picked up the book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson (“Head of TED”). If you don’t know about TED, you should: it’s an organization that runs conferences where people of all stripes give short talks. Check out ted.com to see some cool talks on almost everything imaginable.

Anyway, on to the book. Although Anderson frequently refers to TED-specific talks, he tries to generalize to other speaking venues, as well. He talks about the importance of a speech’s content being the best part of your speech, rather than obsessing about speech physical logistics, like where to stand and what to wear. It does address those things, because they do matter, but it has a major theme throughout: be yourself and be as comfortable as you can while up on stage. Much of the book (about 40%) is about making the talk itself solid and spectacular. Content matters. He talks about building ideas up and having a through line, avoiding common traps, connecting to people, narrating, explaining, persuading, and making revelations.

The next 45% talks about logistics, including whether or not to write a script and even possibly memorize it, or to try to wing it (hint: probably you shouldn’t wing it). He also addresses visuals, practicing, thinking about the impression you’re trying to make, mentally preparing, setting up, and having a real presence. The theme of being yourself and being comfortable is important in this section, too. Basically, you shouldn’t try to do something that will make you extra uncomfortable, since you’re (probably) already stretching out of your comfort zone to give a speech in the first place. Finally, he wraps up with some generalized thoughts on talks, and the importance he believes they have to our global, interconnected society.

So, I’d recommend this book over a lot of the other speech books out there because of the balance between content and logistics and the emphasis on comfort (many other books focus on logistics). If you think it might be helpful to get some tips on talking in front of people check this one out.

Review: Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung

A Quiet Girl in a Noisy World book coverI’ve just discovered a new gem in this author/artist. There were moments I was reading this when I thought Tung must have been channeling my thoughts word-for-word. Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story is a memoir chronicling Tung’s life from late grad school at the University of Birmingham in England through her first real job. She reflects some on her childhood and basically shows how she came to realize that being shy and very introverted is okay, not something to be ashamed of. Her art style is subdued in black, white, and gray watercolors and I really liked it.

One of the many areas where I especially felt like she and I were on the same wavelength was with books, which she loves (as do I). She goes nowhere without one, even if she knows she won’t be able to read it, because it gives her a sense of comfort and the feeling of a friend by her side. She says:

When I see a book I’ve read and liked on someone else’s bookshelf…

I secretly know we are going to be good friends.

She talks about how emotionally attached she gets to the characters in the books she reads, and how it feels like a relationship has ended when she finishes them. She watches emotional movies so she can have an excuse to cry without judgment.

I also could really relate to the way she seeks meaning in everything and feels the need to constantly be productive in some way. She says:

I always doubt that I’m living up to my full potential.

I should learn a new language every year. Or a new skill. Maybe I can take some classes.

I feel like I should constantly be doing something to improve myself, learning new things, and growing as a person.

When will I know it’s okay to stop?

Perhaps never…

When she is starting to realize she finds her job meaningless, she asks:

I did everything right at work today.

Why do I still feel so empty?

I also expect to find meaning in the things I do, and when work isn’t fulfilling, it’s so draining.

I loved how she conveyed what it’s like to meet new people.

Meeting new people

I’m so uncomfortable that this is pretty much how it is for me, too. Her general discomfort in social situations causes her a lot of stress until she finally accepts herself. She says:

I’m socially awkward and weird.

I’ve always felt like there is something wrong with me. I’ve been like this my whole life.

Sometimes her description of social interactions are so relatable. Here's the aftermath of one:

Aftermath of an awkward conversation

Some of it is kind of funny:

A conversation with a neighbor

and

Dissertation vs. socializing

Another one that made me laugh was her having to make a phone call for work in front of people:

Using the phone in front of people

I hate calling people I don’t know well, and with people watching... Well. But in all three of these cases, it might make you laugh, but it’s kind of a sad funny.

She doesn’t feel great about herself because of the pressure society puts on introverts to be extraverted. And especially as it relates to shyness—shyness is sort of forgiven in children, but once you’re an adult you’re supposed to have outgrown it and “come out of your shell.” Although she tries to be friendly, how she really feels is:

A mixture of frustration, insanity, and dying on the inside.

She famously overthinks everything, something I can totally relate to. She’s even got a sort of flowchart that shows the thought process she goes through when deciding to go to a social event or not:

Socializing flowchart

I loved how she talks about ”energy level” and how it reflects her ability to deal with social situations and her general emotional state. It’s true for me too that when I’m low on that type of energy, everything is hard to deal with:

Low energy and intensityThe good news is that by the end of the book, she has discovered and accepted her introversion, and no longer beats herself up over it.

Overall, this is an excellent portrayal of the shy introvert’s experience (though not all introverts are shy). It’s very sweet and a little funny at times, but always honest and real to Tung’s experiences. Many people will find this highly relatable, and I think it could even be helpful for some people who can’t relate to it (i.e., extraverts) to learn about the way the other half lives. I’m looking forward to reading her other book, Book Love (how can I not like that, right?).

Review: Aspergirls by Rudy Simone

I don’t often review nonfiction. But I thought it was worth it for this book, which could be relevant and helpful to a lot of teen girls (and adult women, for that matter) like me. I’ve never been diagnosed with Asperger’s*, but reading this makes it pretty clear that I’d qualify. In the past when I’ve looked at the symptoms lists, it didn’t ring true—but that’s because (like most everything in the medical community) they focus on how the condition presents in boys and men (you know, the default human). 

Simone’s book is comprised primarily of personal anecdotes from her and other girls/women with Asperger’s and her commentary on the significance of those. She also gives out quite a bit of advice. Near the end, the book started feeling a little pseudo-sciency to me, particularly when she gets into some of the stomach issues and how to deal with them, because she doesn’t do a thorough scientific analysis of it. This isn’t really meant as a criticism of the book as a whole; I just found that I didn’t put as much trust in that part (I am just very cynical when it comes to anyone recommending a certain diet). 

Aspergirls book cover

Since this is nonfiction, I’m going to go through the chapters and comment on each a little instead of giving a more general picture. Each chapter contains Simone’s anecdotes and commentary followed by Advice to Aspergirls and then Advice to Parents. For the purposes of clarity, I’ll use AS for Asperger’s syndrome and NT for neuro-typical, as Simone does. 

1. Imagination, Self-Taught Reading and Savant Skills, and Unusual Interests: Simone talks about how people with AS love information probably because it anchors our thoughts. A lot of AS girls teach themselves specific skills, even reading, and may have unusual abilities in certain areas (though this isn’t that common and it isn’t uncommon for AS girls to have learning disabilities, too). One thing that was particularly interesting to me is that autistic kids have been found to have higher fluid intelligence but not necessarily higher crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is the ability to see relationships between things that aren’t obviously related. I do this all the time, sometimes confusing people with my connections. Crystallized intelligence is more traditional intelligence—the ability to learn stuff and use it. One really interesting point was that while many AS girls develop obsessive interests just like AS boys do, they tend to be in the domain of more acceptable things (books, art, music, animals, etc.)—all of which are “normal” for many girls. She says we “want to fill our minds with knowledge the way others want to fill their bellies with food” (p. 23). As someone working on her fifth degree with plans for a sixth, I can certainly relate to that. 

2. Why Smart Girls Sometimes Hate School: In a word, bullying. It is true that AS girls don’t have the social skills of NT girls. But even outside of that, most AS girls actually don’t love school despite having a love of knowledge. It’s too structured and doesn’t let us focus on the areas that interest us. Simon says that “Aspergirls do not thrive under scrutiny if it has the slightest bit of hostility in it” (p. 31). I can relate to this very well. I wither when people judge me, which I hate but I’ve never been able to get past this tendency. 

3. Sensory Overload: Simone points out that it’s not really true that AS people feel less, as was previously though, but that instead we feel things much more intensely. This is where sensory overload comes in. As people are often deeply disturbed by things other people don’t even notice. I know that the more people I’m around, the more uncomfortable I get—especially as the noise level increases. I hate sudden loud noises like balloons popping. Though I think I’m lucky because I don’t have too many sensory issues. A lot of AS people can be bothered by many sounds, sights, and even tactile sensations. 

4. Stimming, and What We Do When We’re Happy: I only heard of swimming fairly recently. It’s short for self-stimulatory behavior. This covers things like rocking, clapping, twirling, and hand flapping, all things AS people can do when they’re overwhelmed (and sometimes when they’re happy, too). I’m a chronic pen twirler. Not sure if it’s stimming or if it’s just a thing I do to help me think (I swear I think better with a pen in my hand). 

5. On Blame and Internalizing Guilt: We all know that boys and men rarely question themselves or blame themselves or internalize much of anything (other than “emotions other than anger are bad,” of course). This is one significant way AS girls are different from boys, because we do blame ourselves for our ”weird” behavior that we can’t control and subsequently start feeling guilty about it. But even more importantly, this blame often comes from external sources, when people think AS girls are behaving that way on purpose. 

6. Gender Roles and Identity: This was one of the most interesting chapters to me because Simone says that most AS girls don’t get gender roles and often shirk them. This is partially because we like to wear comfortable clothes (sometimes due to the skin sensitivity some of us have). But this also extends to identity in general, with a lot of AS girls being rather chameleon-like. Some simply don’t have much of a sense of self. I can certainly relate to this as I despise the expectations people have based on gender. It has always driven me crazy that while it’s fine to recognize there are differences between men and women, generalizations don’t apply in every single case.

7. Puberty and Mutism: This chapter touched on puberty, but was mostly about mutism. Mutism is the situation where an AS girl is simply unable to speak and often even think. I’ve been there before. It’s bizarre and frustrating. 

8. Attraction, Dating, Sex, and Relationships: I skimmed this chapter, but one thing I did get out of it was that while a lot of AS girls aren’t remotely interested in romance, others are. Those who are are prone to becoming obsessed with the object of interest and coming across as stalker-y. Another point is that because we don’t experience romance in the same way, many of us marry early or because it’s “time” rather than because there’s a real connection with the partner. Breakups are often worse for AS girls because of the break to a routine. 

9. Friendships and Socializing: It’s true that AS people tend to lack social skills, so common socializing is very difficult. But it also means that it’s hard to maintain friendships in general. 

10. Higher Learning: College is kind of a mixed bag. Some AS women do really well because of the routines, focus required, and opportunities for learning, but most others struggle with sensory overload and managing all the aspects of college life. Simone talks about the importance of trying to get assistance from the school (such as through the Office of Disability Services) if necessary, but also that many of the support services are very lacking and the people are often uninformed. 

11. Employment and Career: Simone says that a lot of AS women struggle in this area because of lack of education or qualifications. Additionally, getting jobs in the first place can be difficult due to the social skills problems. She emphasizes the importance of AS women trying to establish themselves in good jobs, especially since many stay single and can’t rely on someone else to support them.

12. Marriage and Cohabitation: I also skimmed this chapter because it isn’t relevant to me.

13. Having Children: Ditto.

14. Ritual and Routine, Logical and Literal Thinking, Bluntness, Empathy, and Being Misunderstood: Routine and even rituals are a way for AS girls to control the world around them as much as possible. Simone also talks about how literal thinking can sometimes make problems for us. I know for me that when I read, I’m very literal. Symbolism usually goes flying over my head and I cannot enjoy poetry. Bluntness is another area that can be a challenge. Simone points out that AS girls often feel misunderstood because whatever we said bluntly or understood literally was not intended to have the impact it did on the other person. 

15. Diagnosis, Misdiagnosis and Medication: A lot of AS women have never been diagnosed because the medical community is slightly clueless about AS in women, as opposed to men. Many AS women have been diagnosed with various mental illnesses and often prescribed medications based on that, when it completely misses the mark. Many women don’t find out they have it until their child is diagnosed. 

16. Depression Meltdowns, PTSD, and More about Meds: Apparently “meltdowns” are a common occurrence in people with AS. This chapter talks about depression ones. These are extreme depressions that take over an AS person’s life temporarily and can be caused by a variety of things. Simone does address the fact that AS people are prone to depression that can be treated by meds. 

17. Temper Meltdowns: This chapter is basically about the temper tantrums that AS people sometimes have. They can be triggered by almost any sensory overload and can manifest in many different ways. AS women are more prone to crying than men, but the meltdowns can be violent or just excessively phrased or acted out. However they occur, they are usually embarrassing after the fact and women especially are considered crazy, whereas men are more often forgiven. I can relate to this one, too, as (especially when I was younger), I would be triggered by something and be instantaneously overcome with this intense rage. I never was violent toward other people, but I destroyed plenty of my own things and also would say horrible things to people. All very humiliating. 

18. Burning Bridges: When you say horrible things to people, they don’t want to be around you. As mentioned earlier, a lot of AS women have trouble keeping relationships up and this can be extended to not just keeping them up but ruining them. But Simone also talks about how AS women “start over” repeatedly. Cut off all ties with the old life and start afresh. I can also relate to this one—over and over while I was in college I would decide it was time for a change and I would move, change jobs, and either go back to college or drop out of it. 

19. Stomach Issues and Autism: Apparently some people think that autism in general is caused by stomach problems during early formative months. There are also several diets that are supposed to help with autism. I’m a skeptic. 

20. Getting Older on the Spectrum: Simone talks about how most AS women stay single so money can be a challenge. So can loneliness and health problems. But otherwise, most stop caring as much about what people think of their unusual behaviors. But also, in some ways, older women are allowed to be more eccentric. 

21. On Whether Asperger Syndrome is a Disability or a Gift and Advice from Aspergirls to Aspergirls: I didn’t read this one because Simone started off by saying she preferred the term “differently-abled” over “disabled,” which I can’t stand. This seems to me like a term that non-disabled people have come up with to try to make disabled people feel better about themselves. I find this insulting. I mean, you should own it. 

22. Give Your Aspergirl some BALLS: Belief, Acceptance, Love, Like, and Support: I didn’t read this one either. 

23. Thoughts and Advice from Parents of Aspergirls: Or this one. 

There are also a couple of appendices which listed the symptoms of female AS and then the main differences between male and female AS. These are good. 

* Yes, I know it’s not technically a diagnosis anymore, but I think it is a different enough thing from more challenging cases of autism spectrum disorder, so it’s a valuable distinction. And people have a sense for what you’re talking about, even if they don’t get it exactly right. 

Review: The V-Word edited by Amber J. Keyser

The V-Word book coverThe V-Word is a collection of writing about real first-time sexual experiences. It’s not even specifically YA, though it will definitely be of interest to a lot teenagers. Everyone wants to know what it’s like, after all, even if they’re not intending to find out from personal experience any time soon.

The essays run the gamut from good experience to bad, but most capture the awkwardness of the first time. All the experience are women’s, with the writers looking back to high school, college, or even later. Most of the articles address sex with boys/men, but there are several about lesbian experiences. Some of the girls wanted to shed their virginity. Others were more resistant. Some experienced abuse. One waited until she was married. I won’t go into the details of any of them because it’s best to read them as-is.

After the experience essays are some extras: a short essay about how girls should take charge of their sex lives by: knowing their bodies, knowing what turns them on, knowing what they’re up against (in terms of society’s expectations, ever-present porn, and lack of reasonable sex ed), safe sex, knowing how to talk about it, and knowing when they’re ready. Then there’s an interview with a teen media specialist that talks about how most media targeting teens doesn’t address the female sexual experience at all, usually fading to black; labels like slut and prude frame much of the conversation; and several other interesting things. Finally there is a list of resources for both girls and their parents.

I’d recommend this to all teen girls at least, say, fifteen. Or anyone who’s really curious.