Think Your Family Is Unusual?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

LOOK ME IN THE EYE My Life With Asperger's By John Elder Robison | Three Rivers. 302 pp. $14.95

The quirky family made famous by Augusten Burroughs in Running With Scissors makes an encore appearance in Look Me in the Eye, a memoir by Burroughs's older brother, John Elder Robison. But here those familiar characters -- the alcoholic father, the depressed mother and her wacky psychiatrist -- are bit players in a drama that revolves around Robison's struggle with Asperger's syndrome.

Socially awkward and fond of playing practical jokes (frequently involving fire), Robison was an outcast who flunked out of high school and was dismissed as a failure. Still, he managed to turn his interest in flames and knack for mechanics into a career, first developing exploding guitars for KISS and later designing electronic toys for Milton Bradley.

Robison, who was 40 before his Asperger's was diagnosed, is more earnest than his brother, and his purpose seems less literary than philanthropic. "I hope readers -- especially those who are struggling to grow up or live with Asperger's -- will see that the twists and turns and unconventional choices I made led to a pretty good life," he writes. To appeal to a younger audience (or their parents, anyway), Robison has cleaned up the language that appeared in the hardcover edition. There are still a few "passages that may be rough for a kid to read," he explains, "but real life is like that."

MY FAMILY & OTHER SAINTS By Kirin Narayan | Univ. of Chicago. 236 pp. $15

In the 1960s and early '70s Kirin Narayan's childhood home in the Bombay suburb of Juhu Beach was a haven for soul-searchers as they traveled from Kathmandu to Goa. Its address, Narayan recalls, was "passed all along the hash trail," luring, among others, "American draft dodgers, German stained-glass makers, [and] French women who had traveled over land."

Narayan's mother, a freethinking interior decorator born in the United States, welcomed these houseguests with open arms; her Indian father was somewhat less hospitable, referring to them as urugs, a play on the term guru. Her brother Rahoul fell under their influence and left home at 15 for an ashram. His decision weighed heavily on Narayan, the youngest of five children, who was both enthralled and troubled by the strangers passing through her world. As a bookish 10-year-old, she read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals and threatened to write a memoir in the same comic spirit. Now a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Narayan finally has followed through on that promise, and though her book is no match for Durrell's, it is nonetheless a charming account of a highly unusual upbringing.

From Our Previous Reviews

· The "elegant, spare and beautifully written" novel The End of the Alphabet (Broadway, $11.95), by C.S. Richardson, chronicles the last days of a terminally ill man as he travels the world with his wife, wrote Reeve Lindbergh.

· Talking Hands (Simon & Schuster, $15), a "fascinating" look at sign language by Margalit Fox, focuses on a remote Israeli village with a high incidence of deafness, noted Eliza McGraw.

· An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England (Algonquin, $13.95), by Brock Clarke, is "a straight-faced, postmodern comedy," Ron Charles wrote, that "scorches all things literary, from those moldy author museums to the excruciating question-and-answer sessions that follow public readings."

· Chris Mooney's Storm World (Harcourt, $15) "skillfully anatomizes the scientific and political debate over hurricanes and global warming," according to John McQuaid.

· John Ferling called Seizing Destiny (Vintage, $17.95), Richard Kluger's critical study of America's westward expansion, "a well-crafted and readable narrative of this often sordid, sometimes forgotten side of the American past."

Nora Krug is a regular contributor to Book World.

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