Book Review: The Highly Sensitive Person – Elaine Aron

You live by the sword, you die by the sword.

– Dr. Giant Steps

It’s been about a year since I wrote this post about sensitive people. I’ve largely retreated into myself since then for various reasons. One of these reasons was the navel-gazing on this blog. Why did I need to analyse everything so much? Why did I feel this constant need to understand and explain myself? Even after all the writing why did some things feel so hard? Why are some things which seem so easy for so many people feel so hard to me? A piece of the puzzle is, obviously, sensitivity. But identifying the sword does nothing to help you not die by it. Me being who I am, I started researching a bit. Here’s the first step of the journey.

Source: Goodreads

I came across a reference to Elaine Aron’s book in Quiet by Susan Cain. The fundamental premise of Dr. Aron’s work appears to be that some individuals (about 15-20% of the population) are just wired differently from others. This difference in wiring, she postulates, causes differences in the way we perceive the world and react to it. Of course, disclaimers apply*.

Given sensitivity is a highly subjective trait, we need a baseline to go by. The book was written by a researcher and it therefore starts with a self assessment (replicated here on the author’s website). This assessment sets the general tone of the book. In general a sensitive person is someone who: Reacts strongly to sensory input; tends to think deeply about things; notices subtle details others might not; has a lower threshold for arousal by most stimuli. While each person will agree with a few questions, the book largely deals with those who are more sensitive than average.

Why should you read this book? Well, if you’re a sensitive person, you’ve probably always felt vaguely out of place. I have certainly been told many times to “toughen up”, not “cry so easily”, stop “over-analyzing everything”, etc. This book helps explain how we function. If you don’t identify as sensitive, someone close to you likely does and the book might give you a fresh perspective.

The Highly Sensitive Person normalizes what society implies is abnormal. Some of us do process everything more deeply than others and the first couple of chapters provide evidence of this. They also contain details of how the trait impacts day-to-day life. They also provide a way to reframe one’s past and view one’s “failures” through a new lens. I personally skipped the exercises because I’m not comfortable digging that deep. At least not alone ūüôā I’m also skeptical about the benefits of digging too deep in some areas. (“Dig too deep and you’ll find water anywhere”. Another nugget of wisdom from Dr. Giant Steps)

Chapters 5 through 7 are about work and relationships. I found these chapters more culture-specific. I personally find a stay in the US particularly exhausting because I feel I’m expected to constantly be “on”. Similarly Indian expectations from love and marriage are quite different and many of the assumptions don’t really hold. That said, it’s academically quite interesting to read.

Chapters 8 and 9 deal with therapy and medication. They’re again interesting from an academic perspective to me. There’s good information on how some common drugs such as Prozac work. There’s also good information about psycho-therapy, how to choose a good therapist, what to expect and so forth. While I’m not sure therapy is for me, the chapters are detailed and the information is very useful.

The final chapter deals with “soul and spirit”. Again, I find the content culture-specific. Broadly speaking, Indians are more comfortable with the idea of holistic wellness and we implicitly accept the idea of something deeper within a person that needs to be cared for. I largely skimmed this chapter but I do accept the idea that pranayama and other holistic forms of wellness work much better for me than a course of antibiotics.

Overall, reading this book helped me understand a few things better. First, there is such a trait as sensitivity which cannot be altered too much. Second, I have a system that needs more downtime and maintenance. There’s nothing wrong with this. Acknowledging these ideas has allowed me to simplify my life and reduce the demands I place on myself. More importantly I’m working on being more quietly assertive of my needs rather than pushing myself too far and then experiencing physical, mental or emotional exhaustion (or some combination thereof). I’m trying to let go of the idea that I “should” be able to do some things just because others can and accept that not being able to do them is not a sign of weakness.

I simply cannot be the person I would like to be – a tough, outgoing, multi-tasking, decision maker who can shrug things off easily and just march ahead no matter what. I’m instead always going to be a softy. I’m going to fall for sob stories, feel a shade more guilty than I need to, make decisions slowly, and just generally take more space. I’m going to care too much, cry too much, think too much, and keep asking people to turn down the TV. Reading this book finally made me realize I’m just fine exactly as I am.

  • I understand that no single theory can explain the entirety of a human life lived and experienced. Each theory only (crudely) explains one facet of our personalities
  • I understand that no one can prove conclusively how individuals are wired to think and behave and the research methodology will have limitations and is highly subjective
  • I understand that it’s harmful to label oneself and limit oneself any kind of label, positive or negative
  • I understand that the perception of personality traits is highly cultural and we cannot take all the research out of its cultural context
  • I understand one should not attempt to self-diagnose
  • Other general terms and conditions as applicable

Book Review: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe – Fannie Flagg

Disclaimer: If a¬†word’s¬†in quotes, I’ve used it because the review demanded it. I know the term is/may be offensive but there’s no getting around it when writing about a book set in the past.

I’ve recently¬†developed¬†a¬†fascination¬†for books and movies set in the American South. I think it started a while ago with the sense of accomplishment I felt when I got through Gone With the Wind. Or perhaps I’m getting nostalgic about¬†the time we lived¬†in Texas. I’m a sucker for being called “honey” and saying y’all. Or maybe it’s not as much about the South as about books set in the good ol’ times when men were real men and women were real women* and while there were clearly classified “coloured” people and “white” people everyone just got along. (Ku Klux Klan who?) So when I was looking for a break from my Terry Pratchett marathon, I decided to read this book:


Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a lovely, light, feel-good¬†book. The story begins¬†in the visitors’ lounge of¬†eighty-six year old Mrs Threadgoode’s nursing home. Ninny Threadgoode strikes up a conversation (or launches a monologue, depends on how you look at it) with¬†forty-eight year old Evelyn whose husband is visiting his mother.¬†Evelyn listens politely but is not very interested in the old woman’s rambling. With every passing visit, however, Evenlyn is intrigued by¬†Ninny’s stories¬†and the friendship between the two women¬†deepens.

Evelyn¬†feels¬†she’s “too old to be young and too young to be old”. She has always been a wife and mother and now with an empty nest she feels rootless. She tries to find comfort from friends et her high school reunion

But all the other women there were just as confused as she was, and held on to their husbands and their drinks to keep themselves from disappearing.

Evenlyn’s¬†restlessness¬†manifests in many ways including¬†binge eating. Ninny on the other hand, is at peace with her life (and loves her candy) and during the course of their friendship, some¬†of this peace spills over into Evelyn’s life.

Evelyn and Ninny’s¬†relationship¬†reminded me a bit of the friendship I shared with¬†Nick, my old landlord. At one point when Ninny tells Evelyn she’s got half her life ahead of her I remembered how Nick said to me, “Why, you’re a baby!” when I felt quite old and worldly wise at twenty six. Old people make the best friends and old times have the best stories.

Ninny Threadgoode sure has some great stories to tell. However, the promise of an occasional murder notwithstanding, the plot is not the primary focus of the book. It’s the characters who gently draw you in as does the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama. Whistle Stop is¬†like the little townships we have all over India with small populations, a single source of livelihood, and a single shop of each type. It’s a tightly knit community where everyone knows everyone else.

Ruth and Idgie, as owners of the town’s lone cafe, are central figures in this community as is Dot Weems who works at the local post office and publishes regular newsletters with bits of local gossip.¬†The town and its residents¬†come to life with the author’s delightful prose.You can picture the railway tracks,¬†the cafe, and the post office. You can easily visualize¬†the little beauty shop,¬†the grocery store,¬†the Threadgoode house, and the “other side of the tracks”.

Through the various characters the book also highlights racial issues and how racial relations change with the times. Ninny’s stories portray “coloured” people¬†as simple, child-like, and emotional – an attitude consistent with her time. ¬†Evelyn realizes at one point that she has never even¬†met a black man. However, there are also¬†people like Idgie (and Ruth) who are able to look beyond race and develop¬†meaningful relationships with people based on who they are. Through Idgie’s idealistic lens we view the issues of race, abuse, societal norms, and social injustice.

As the book progressed I felt there were just¬†too many characters and too many timelines. Somewhere around¬†the middle of the book we¬†have the current-day timeline, Ninny’s narration as well as the author’s narration of events past. It get’s a little confusing because let’s admit¬†it, who really reads the titles of chapters? It’s good to imagine that every character had a story but not every story needs to be told or be so neatly wrapped up. I for one would have been just as¬†happy not knowing who committed the murder.

I’m nit-picking now and I know it. Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle Stop Cafe is a refreshing and easy¬†read. It has very real characters and a decent plot. It gives you something to think about but is not preachy. It’s not fashionable to make small towns seem endearing but Whistle Stop, viewed through the eyes of Ninny Threadgood could be my new¬†happy place. If only the tomatoes weren’t fried in lard!

Overall rating: 4 stars. A recommended read.

* And we knew of no small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri

Book(s) Review(s): Night Watch – Terry Pratchett

Or, of Sam Vimes.

Or, of His Grace, His Excellency, His Blackboard-Monitorship, The Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Lord of the Ramkin Estates, King of the River.


The first Pratchett I ever read was Night Watch. I loved the book but certainly not as much as F.D. did. I put it down to a difference in taste and went back to¬†my then¬†twin obsessions¬†of Indian authors and non-fiction.¬†I read a few more of Pratchett’s books over years and absolutely loved “Small Gods” and “Pyramids” but I still didn’t feel the urge to binge read. I bought “Truth” and “Witches Abroad” on a whim during my vacation and after The Hero surprised me with a Kindle Voyage, I ended up completely addicted to the Watch novels.

Source: Wikipedia

We first meet Sam Vimes when he’s lying drunk in a gutter. We watch him pick himself up and fight a dragon. We root for him as he solves a series of mysterious¬†murders. We understand his reluctance to induct the undead into the Watch. We feel fuzzy as he finally overcomes his distaste and hires a Golem and then a Zombie. We watch him jump onto a ship and pursue unknown political villains and become a¬†Duke. His Blackboard Monitorship then assumes a blank face and embarks on a diplomatic mission (the blank face doesn’t last too long, though). In The Fifth Elephant, we finally understand him¬†a little bit and the constant fight between the Commander of the Watch and The Beast. It all comes together in Night Watch as he¬†prods some serious buttock. Oh, he also marries Lady Sybil along the way and they have a baby. How lovely!

As Sam Vimes matures, so do the novels. Each of the Watch books before Night Watch has its own flaws. In “Guards! Guards!” Ankh Morpork isn’t perfectly developed and Vetinari seems a bit cocky. The preaching about men being worse than dragons will spill over into “Men at Arms”. “Feet of Clay” could have been shorter¬†and the minor theme of atheism less preachy. Only Sir Terry Pratchett could ever get away with the mess that is “Jingo”. “The Fifth Elephant” is a bit too neat. Everything wraps up too conveniently and there’s just a tad too much of everything including female dwarfs. But Night Watch, well, let’s just say Night Watch makes up for Jingo.

In Night Watch we finally know why Sam Vimes was able to pick himself out of the gutter and fight the dragon in “Guards! Guards!”. There are the usual puns in this book, but they’re not forced. There are underlying themes and references but there is no preaching. There is some nonsense but it fits seamlessly. There are even some weird religious figures but there’s no underhand ribbing. There is a villain but he’s not a caricature. Carcer is to Vimes what Khan is to Kirk and The Joker is to The Dark Knight.

The book has a different tone from the other Watch novels but it is not dark. It merely makes a case for Sam Vimes and his twisted, cynical idealism. It’s impossible for the book to be dark because it was written by an optimist who said:

A dark book, a truly dark book, is one where there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Where things start off going bad and carry on getting badder before they get worse and then it’s all over. I am kind of puzzled by the suggestion that it is dark. Things end up, shall we say, at least no worse than they were when they started… and that seems far from dark to me. The fact that it deals with some rather grim things is, I think, a different matter.

That’s what I love about the Watch novels. Things end well. Things get better. They might be cynics the whole lot of them but they work together to keep Ankh Morpork running. Vetinari’s thoughtful planning is complemented by Vimes’ action. Vetinari could never rid the city of a dragon by himself. Vimes’ cynicism is toned down by Carrot’s niceness. Only Carrot can put a Golem back together or set him/it free. Carrot’s niceness doesn’t fool Angua. She sees how he has a single claw of nasty. We understand not everyone can be a Vetinari or Vimes. We need the Colon’s and Nobbs’ of the world. Most importantly, we see there is no such thing as “The People”. There’s just a motely crowd of individuals doing the best they can. Barring the occasional psychopath, they’re all just nice people cutting their own throat selling sausages in buns, really.

That’s the thing about satire. Without a happy ending, it would all be just another cynical rant. We need these books with their puns and their silliness. We need Vimes and Carrot and Angua and Leonard of Quirm. We need Gaspode the Talking Dog. Most of all, we need to believe that it can all work out.

ps: I still have “Thud!” and “Snuff” to go.