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Books in Brief: ‘Crossing Niagara: The Death-Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin by Matt Tavares’

CHILDREN’S

Crossing Niagara: The Death-Defying Tightrope Adventures of the Great Blondin by Matt Tavares; Candlewick Press, $17.99.

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The author-artist of “Henry Aaron’s Dream” and “Becoming Babe Ruth” puts his considerable gifts for boisterous narrative and lively illustration to good use in this marvelous picture book about the improbable feats of Niagara Falls daredevil, the great Blondin. The early history of Jean Francois Gravelet is addressed in the one page (he gave his first performance as a tightrope walker at the age of 5). The rest is all Blondin’s exploits at Niagara Falls, including interesting details about the behind-the-scenes work in drumming up interest in his walk, getting permission from property owners and setting up the rope (General Porter, who owned Goat Island, would not allow the rope on his property; the landowner on the Canadian side allowed Blondin to use his property free of charge). Tavares does a marvelous job evoking the excitement of the event as spectactors arrived on “steamships from Toronto, overcrowded trains from Buffalo.” The gorgeous panoramas include a four-page foldout depicting Blondin performing various feats on his rope including walking with his feet in washtubs, doing a somersault, reading the newspaper. He performed on his tightrope more than a dozen times in the summers of 1859 and 1860, always trying some new trick to please his audience.

– Jean Westmoore

NONFICTION

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening by John Elder Robison, Spiegel & Grau, 296 pages ($28)

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From an early age, it was clear that John Elder Robison had been wired with extra fibers for appreciating music. He could easily hear the difference between one kind of Fender bass and another. He could recognize which of 100 speakers in a sound system was groaning in distress. (His talent for creating fire-breathing guitars earned him a gig with Kiss as a young man.)

But until eight years ago, Robison, who wrote the 2007 memoir “Look Me in the Eye,” a touchstone in the literature of Asperger’s syndrome, had never experienced the most obvious aspect of music that neurotypical people do: its simple emotional power.

That all changed, Robison explains in “Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening,” when he participated in a pioneering Asperger’s study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston in 2008. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, doctors hoped to activate neurological pathways in his brain that would deepen his emotional intelligence.

Driving home after his first session, Robison cranked up a song he’d heard countless times before. Before he knew it, tears were streaming down his face.

“Switched On” is an eye-opening book with a radical message, but because Robison is who he is (logical, direct), he addresses even the most provocative questions unprovocatively. The transformations he undergoes throughout the book are astonishing – as foreign and overwhelming as if he woke up one morning with the visual range of a bee or the auditory prowess of a bat.

Most of the effects fade over time, as the doctors had warned Robison they would. (The doctors, truth be told, had zero expectation of any lasting effects.) But to this day, Robison moves more comfortably among strangers. He has even learned to look people in the eye.

A “Flowers for Algernon” story, right? With an improved ending?

Yes. And no. This latest memoir by Robison – he’s also written “Raising Cubby” and “Be Different” – is far more bittersweet and existentially challenging than that.

As nonverbal cues became increasingly legible to him, Robison also realizes that a longtime friend has been subtly mocking him for years. Robison’s marriage to his second wife, who suffers from debilitating depression, starts to decay. “When Martha had her down days, I was no longer able to jump out of bed and go to work,” he writes. “As soon as I got up I’d feel panic over her sadness.”

Most profoundly, he discovers that neurotypical humans are not, as a rule, happy.

Robison has led such an unusual and varied life – from fixing guitars to working on games for Milton Bradley to writing books to running a car shop – that his brain may have been an optimal one for rewiring.

– Jennifer Senior, New York Times News Service