Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc

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Disability is not a monolith- every disabled person’s experience in the world is different, and the way that we all navigate the world is likewise varied and complex. 

This is one of the most beautiful books I have read in years. Fairy-tales are a part of our lives, serving as a model for modern day stories, often as lessons in morality, a warning, a guiding tale that even smacks of those early after school specials my generation was so fond of. Then there are the romances, a foundation on which so many little girls have built their castles, with a Prince waiting to save them. Beautiful girls, at least. What exactly is the measure of beauty? In nearly all of the well known tales, it certainly isn’t any character who has a disability, unless of course it is conquered, all that spell breaking, true love’s kiss, shucking off the ‘deformity’ or ‘madness’ or ‘disfigurement’. Disfigurement is only enchanting if it is has a use for the ‘able bodied’ narrative, and it’s often not something the ‘able-bodied’ think about. Amanda Leduc dissects many of the familiar fairy tales, and lesser known ones, to shed light on how the disabled are used, abused, or downright invisible in such stories. It’s eye opening, and disheartening. Growing up with Cerebral Palsy, Amanda certainly didn’t see any stories about little girls with her hospital stays, operations, struggles. Princesses only twirled with balletic perfection, they sure weren’t in wheel chairs, and if any characters had a disease or deformity, they were either evil, cursed, or imbeciles who are lucky to be mentioned at all. The goal is often landing the Prince or taking one’s rightful place on the throne, but it is always about golden beauty because anything less won’t procure a happy ending. How could anyone have a happy ending if they have a chronic illness, a disease, a disability, and don’t get me started on mental health? Happy endings while deformed? The horror of it!

While this book explores the theme of disability in fairy tales,  it is Leduc sharing how she has felt, and feels now, about her place in the world as defined by others, and herself. A child can have the most loving parents, but that child still must go out into the world, and face condescending attitudes, pity, cruelty even in our current time of awareness, (it is still half-assed awareness, though). Often, the person who has a disability or illness is meant to feel like it’s a special boon to be offered the same treatment the able-bodied receive. Maybe there are teaching moments, but does anyone you know want to be a poster child every waking moment of their life, or feel like a curiosity? For their body to be a horror story for another, one they just could’t survive if they had to reside in it? A big moment that hit me like a gut punch in the book is the idea that only in overcoming, ignoring everything from mental illness to very real pain and obstacles makes someone worthy because damn, it’s only a good life if the curse of sickness or imperfection is lifted! How is that for reality? Why should the world accommodate you, don’t you want to be just like the rest of us? Why are you so different? It is true, people equate disease, illness, disability, disfigurement as weak. Try harder! Rally around yourself! Go out in the sunshine! Sure…

My son grew up under the umbrella of autism, he didn’t look like he had struggles (what does that mean) and a label didn’t help as much as it should have, in fact often once educators knew how to define him, well he was no longer an individual, just an autistic. Some people meant well, others not so much. There were kind children, well meaning adults but attitudes tended to shift in the negative, with mocking,  laughter, and  exclusion, a forced feeling of isolation. Amanda’s story about her school journal made me heartsick, a violation as brutal as the wing scene in Maleficent. These things stick, we carry them with us. There are still hard times, he graduated college but still has obstacles, in real life unlike in fairy tales, there isn’t some spell that collecting the right ingredients will break, nor a quest that will allow some god or fairy to shine their benevolence upon him anymore than on the people who face each day of their life with their disability, illness. They aren’t asking for a gold star, special treatment, is it special treatment to be afforded dignity, accessibility, to be heard when speaking, understanding beyond a parking space or a toilet stall (that, let’s face it, more often than not is occupied by able-bodied folks)?

Disfigured is one of the most provocative books on disability I have read and I admit ignorance, there were connections I never thought about in the same light as Amanda. We are moving forward though at a snail’s crawl. I remember a commercial recently for a store selling Halloween costumes for children in wheel chairs, and I thought that is fantastic and yet ‘long overdue’. I fell the same about commercials serving as campaigns for acceptance showing skin with scars, freckles, vitiligo and how my daughter would have benefited from that when she was a little girl and at school was harassed by one constant question, ‘what is wrong with your skin.’  Inclusion is still a fight, resources are incredibly lacking in the school system alone, training isn’t always available, some schools push you to keep your kid separated not because it’s easier for the student but easier on everyone else, you think the adult world of disability is better? Amanda Leduc is right, who has fought more for everything they have? Why can’t they be represented in stories that children can look up to, beyond being a curse that love can fix, only of value when the disability or disfigurement is no more? Maybe with more voices being heard, the world can change, rather than push conformity.

This is a book everyone should read. Positive affirmations have their place, say if you have a cold, but this grin and bear it nonsense aimed towards people coping with obstacles so many of us cannot fathom just minimizes many lives, reduces real flesh and blood people. There is no shame in disability, different isn’t a tragedy and certainly our stories should include all of humanity. Happy endings, if we’re honest, don’t end in broken curses. Life is ups and downs, ill health, good health, loss and gains. There is no shame in needing medication, mobility aids, therapy… the shame is that it has been circulated as a tragedy, a horror story, a lesson in badness, evilness or that beauty is only one thing, ‘able-bodied’. My review does not do justice to the insights Amanda Leduc shares, absolutely read this book!

Publication Date: February 4, 2020

Coming soon

Coach House Books

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The Fortune Teller’s Promise by Kelly Heard

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Not there, she thought. You don’t have to go back there. Not even in your mind. Not ever.

Dell’s childhood in the forest of Blyth, Virigina with it’s magnificent natural beauty and calm is the opposite of life inside her house. Born to a flower child mother Anita, whose beauty is the center of her life more than her son and daughter, and her father Gideon, a ‘dark-eyed’ construction worker suddenly laid off after an injury that relies on pain pills to get through his painful days, leads to nothing but chaos and storms between them. Mother longs to maintain the beauty queen status of her early days, and nothing can keep her anchored to her family. Longing to be free, she moves to a rented bungalow. It is here, when Dell should be spending quality time with her mother because ‘she needs a bra’ and it’s a mother’s place to teach a young woman everything she needs to know, that the fault line appears. Anita would rather her time be filled entertaining men who are dizzy over her beauty than playing mommy. It is these types of men who have an edge that can cut. Anita’s reaction to her daughter’s confession is met with anger and blame rather than comfort, and outrage. It is also when Dell learns that people like her have to shut up and take it, because those in higher standing have the power to hurt those you love. Especially when your family is covered in dirt, unwilling or unable to climb out.

Growing up under the cloud of the shame of her parents, the town doesn’t let Dell forget her place. But it is love that ruins everything, her one chance to be a single mother, better than her own ever was, is impossible when he mother urges her to give the baby a better life, put it up for adoption. The church can find someone better suited, and what is someone like Dell to do without the support of the child’s father or even her own family? She could never afford to support her baby, girls like her don’t have options. There is no way she can remain in this flea-bitten town, nursing the ache in her heart where her baby girl has nestled in. There’s nothing for her to do but abandon the past. She sets up shop as a psychic as she leaves the town, and her family, behind. Though she doesn’t consider herself a ‘proper psychic’, she is skilled in knowing what troubles others, uses the tools of the trade to get a clearer picture. If only she could intuit her own needs, heal her own wounds, clean up the disaster that has become her reality.  She will never return to Blythe, nothing can make her… except learning when her mother tracks her down that her child has gone missing! The problem is, within moments of that revelation, silence overtakes her mother and life seems to have no end of testing Dell’s merit. She must return to the scene of her most heartbreaking acts, and discover that the past is never done with us. Is it possible, dare she hope to make things right?

This was novel didn’t have as much ‘psychic’ steam as I thought it would from the title. The promise is much more about motherhood. Love swims through the novel, as does the murky grime of disappointment and narrow minded ways of some small towns. The haves vs the have nots. It was a decent read, but it’s not what I expected. I was thinking there would be at least a little more focus on how she ‘knows’ how to fix other people’s hurts. The psychic bit is pretty mild but if you are looking for a story about motherhood, difficult dysfunctional families and a little romance, this is it.

Publication Date: October 30, 2019

Bookouture

Orders of Protection by Jenn Hollmeyer

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How easy it is to spend a lifetime protecting ourselves from the wrong things.

In Jenn Hollmeyer’s story collection, people discover their need for protection- everything from the threat of poverty, abuse,  to ‘a thousand needle stings’ and maybe even from themselves. Lives sinking to its lows, partners abandoning promises, bright futures fizzling out, happiness pulling away, and sometimes the best parade is the march away from what’s bad for you and your child. Why cling to disaster when you can just let go? Characters intuit what is happening, but the question for them, as for us all is, what will you do about it? Keep your eyes closed tight, or act and face the consequences, the change.

Protection from old family stories, a slight revision (it wasn’t really a lie) that landed as a fog in one daughter’s life. How can the truth be so blindingly bright, alter the story those who remain behind have told themselves? How easy it is to let what we think we know poison our joy, trying our hardest to follow in the footsteps of other’s sorrows, like a code in our DNA. How easy a lie to hide shame can barrel through your loved one’s future.

The kindness of a stranger may be your holy grail, but they too can run out of goodwill. Where do we find the grace to be better than those who went before us? Where do we find an anchor to keep us present when we’re on the edge of not caring? It’s not the hungry coyotes alone we have to fear, sometimes it’s where or if our next breath of air will come. Sometimes it’s whether or not the ones we love will leave again. Some of us want nothing more than to be haunted by those who have vanished. Some of us are always just leaving the scene because alone may be the only way, for a time, that you can make it through another day.

Not all soft places are easy to fall into. Often it’s the broken people who make the most sense, while we are waiting ourselves to be ‘fully cooked’ as a person. It’s the things we don’t see coming, isn’t it? Not the things we shield ourselves from that get us. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: November 15, 2019

University of North Texas

 

 

 

 

 

The Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe

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I had a pedestal once. I put a pig on it. You can google it. Go ahead, do it- I’ll wait.

In The Way I Heard It, Mike Rowe shares stories about famous people interspersed with tales of his own fascinating journey, from his youth cutting trees with is Dad, his days at QVC selling all sorts of odd products (I recommend his Katsak clip on YouTube), the famous Dirty Jobs (which many of us sorely miss) to his current podcast, The Way I heard it, you will be riveted.  Did I read with Mike’s trademark sonorous voice in my head? You betcha! In fact, I should be writing this is my own voice and yet here I am using his! I could spend all day pondering what it is that draws people to Rowe, his charm, charisma, self-deprecating humor and wisdom, like putting a pig on a pedestal  (he admits he is best when he gets out of the way and shines a spotlight on others) instead I will say this book is fantastic. Though it is perfect for those with ‘short attention spans’ or people too with busy their careers or families to sink into a long novel it is also the right fit for readers like me, who eat books every single day. The tales are short but rich in the telling, I was surprised by the many things I didn’t know about certain celebrities, particularly ones I admire- how did I not read about it on the internet where we are inundated by strange trivia? Rowe humanizes folks in the telling, and I find admirable qualities which can be surprising and a few that were downright heartbreaking.

There are winners and losers, because life is also luck as much as success requires cleverness and a fierce heart. How did we get here, how does one person’s idea change the world we live in? Why do some people push themselves hard and honor their promises much like a debt? Why do some give up? One’s fame can hang on a pretty face, but behind it there can be brilliance that no one can dim, though we see the world try. Fame for others can remain out of reach, until they take a plunge. Not all of the subjects are still alive, and often they had a far richer life, a more generous nature than the cameras or history revealed. Not to say some didn’t make mistakes or downright asses of themselves in the process, Mike included!

I spent time after finishing this uplifting book thinking about the strange turns of fate, the vital connections we often don’t even realize until later that are being made, and how we can set sail on a plan but find ourselves blown off course and yet right where we’re meant to be. As Mike Rowe himself has proven in his own full life, what looks like disaster on your worse day can lead to something far greater. That’s the way I heard it, anyway.

Beautifully written, kept me smiling and I am recommending it to every person I know.

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

Gallery Books

Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich

 

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And yet, there is an extra weight within the room, like a movement finishing itself.

This novel shifts so much from story and perspective that it may lose a few readers in the process but for those of us that like these little roller coaster reads, hang on! Two Dollar Radio serves up another gem of a novel in Yelena Moskovich’s latest madness. The novel starts with a dead body, but hang on…. This is a coming of age at the end of the Soviet era,  Jana tells us for 19 years she was ‘a simple Czech girl’ living under severe rule of tapped telephones, letters steamed open, people disappearing- soviet domination holding the people down. She was a ‘clean-handed little girl’, a very bored one, so bored that even dust stirring in the sunlight would be interesting until the new girl enters the scene. A little raven-girl named Zorka, the “Mala Narcis” a little Narcissus who can’t get enough of herself. This Zorka suddenly lights up Jana’s life with her feral behavior, what could be more thrilling? Where Zorka is wild and angry Jana is ‘solid, smart’. With communism cracking, people are free to entertain big plans, and Zorka has a future somewhere beyond, beyond making her depressed mother uncomfortable with her ‘weird behavior’, a place where her father’s fade from sickness doesn’t hover. Jana finds strength in Zorka, until she disappears.

To the future we go and find Parisian Aimée married to an older actress Dominique, lovebirds from the start but lately something is weighing her wife down. Something is souring. It seems to be a separate story-line but naturally will find itself weaved into Jana’s. Jana working is as an interpreter in Paris, she too finally had her own destiny to fulfill. Someone else knows all about her friend, the Mala Narcis, it’s time Zorka is back in her life, but did she ever really leave her?

The story of Zorka’s mother and her mental illness is told in Part two where we finally discover just where Zorka was sent, to America to live with her uncle Gejza and his wife Tammie. Too hot for her mother to handle after the grief of losing her husband and her grip, it’s a culture shock for Zorka. But even America can’t reign her in, she finds a band of misfits like herself, explores her sexuality, strikes out on her own.

Did I mention the chatroom? Who the hell are these two? How do they fit? HotgirlAmy and a very miserable wife Domminxxika? Chapters throw you around, which usually makes me dizzy and irritates the hell out of me, but for some reason it doesn’t in this novel and it builds until finally at the end there is a picture where the characters fit. How does Moskovich keep up with her own creations? This novel made me feel jittery trying to keep up.

Past, present, dream or no dream, full circle, broken cirlcle, a dead wife, a dying mother, a sick father, broken friendship, abandonment, communism, love… there is so much happening. This writer is all over the place, but I remained riveted. My happiest reading was spent on Zorka’s childhood and the electric thrum of her. What antics, what sorrows! No wonder Jana clung to the memory of the Mala Narcis.

Read it if you can keep up, it’s meaty even though I admit I am not fully sure I have it all figured out. It will exhaust some readers, but I can’t wait to read her next novel. I have a thing for strange fiction. It is beyond genre, a weird read for winter.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Two Dollar Radio

Rituals to Observe Stories about Holidays from the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction by Edited by Ethan Laughman

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How was her daughter going to feel, this pale little stalk in a dark field? – Alyce Miller

Admittedly, I skip the holiday reads because they always come off as cheerful to the point of sickness. This are not those kind of stories, in this moving collection are gatherings where the character’s sanity is barely clinging, or they are witness to the collapse of others. In Color Struck by Alyce Miller, Thanksgiving for Caldonia revolves around the shock of her child’s birth. How could she question this gift from God, her husband Fred wants to know? Caldonia feels bitter and not even her family celebrating at her table can cheer her instead, all their ruckus, their chaos, is only making matters worse. Her baby just isn’t right and nothing anyone says is helping.

Morta Infinta written by David Crouse – It’s Halloween, which should be the perfect night for horror and dressing up, instead young Kristen is left with her father, who is experiencing a fear of his own, losing his wife as his marriage is declining. If she can just keep her father together, stop him from ‘simmering in his grief’, but it’s a mean feat and she’s just a kid herself, and sometimes our love isn’t enough to lift others, and sometimes she just wants to be free of adult problems. This was beautifully written and tugged on my heart, love can be such a weight for children when the grownups depend on them, forget themselves.

In The Invisibles by Hugh Sheehy disappearing and visibility, being on the outside is what guides Cynthia and her friends. It’s a club of three, until a mysterious van appears outside the skating arena. It all began with Cynthia’s mother, and the summer she ‘collected her sayings and built a personality with them.’ What we don’t know remains with us, shaping who we become, the mysteries, the memories, the horrors too.

In Faulty Predictions by Karin Lin- Greenberg elderly roommates are on a mission on Halloween night to save a young college woman from one of Hazel’s ‘visions’. But it’s ghosts of the past, not visions that are much more disturbing , an ache that feels too late to change. So maybe she is a medium or a psychic or some such nonsense… but she is blind about her own life, that Hazel.

Useful Gifts by Carole L. Glickford finds little Ruthie wanting nothing of the useful gifts her deaf mother prefers to purchase. These practical presents serving more as humiliation, no one wants what they need! Certainly not her peers, who will only laugh at paltry offerings! Ruthie is no exception either, her hungry little heart is weary of looking at the Opal girls’ and their beautiful things, their plethora of toys while she herself knows only longing. Envy, poverty, misunderstanding and love, genuine mother/daughter love is the heart of this Christmas tale.

Every story engages the reader, makes us pause and take note of our rituals, or the strange things that overtake us during holidays, or symbols that torment us- sometimes things as odd and ridiculous as a wooden mallard duck that makes us dangerous in our sleep, as Elliot discovers in Thousand- Dollar Decoy by Becky Mandelbaum. Things that can both serve to disorient and anchor us haunt the character’s tales. Sometimes it’s a wife trying her hardest to keep her husband alive by having a ready supply of objects, food and conversation, others want nothing more than to let him go. The stories are all complicated, just like every human being. They are drowning in desperation and sorrow, or haunted by loss or the threat of it, or ashamed of their disappointment in their children or parent, or struggling with motherhood or love. Often, each character is just trying their hardest to navigate their life, even if they feel like they are missing from it. You will recognize yourself, or others within’.  It’s a wonderful collection by various authors. Yes, read it!

Published September 1, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

Jacintha by Lorraine Davies

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God knew he needed her. If only she could stand by like a nurse who feeds and bathes her patient, smiled sympathetically, never makes judgments, never expects anything in return.

When a landslide kills student border Jenny, English Literature Professor Richard and his wife Carol are devastated. Not only is their entire life buried in mud and rubble, all their belongings damaged by water, their ruins of a home off limits labeled a safety hazard but the weight of the loss of young Jenny haunts them, how will they tell Jenny’s parents? Carol knows a natural disaster isn’t their fault, but Richard grapples with shame, guilt and is marked by a deep depression. The injuries are nothing to the lasting effects of this tragic moment. Carol has lost the most precious anchor in her life, her husband Richard, who is as distant as the stars. Lucky to be alive, but not feeling blessed, it’s not just his injuries, he has become a veritable stranger. There isn’t any intimacy left, and he claims to just need more time.

Teaching a class on The Tempest is just what he needs to get out in the world again. Richard plans to have his students write a version with an environmental theme, an homage to Jenny because she wanted to do it someday herself. This should be the salve to his emotional wounds. His desire for Jenny didn’t dissipate with her tragic end, though he never acted on his intense passion for her. Accident or not, had he not wanted her so badly, had he not continued to allow her to board with them, had he been a better man she would have still been alive. Irrational or not, in some strange way he still feels he is at fault, desire as an omen?

Richard should be the one to see a therapist, but Carol’s urging only angers him. It is Carol who decides to talk to someone after she acts out of character and betrays her husband and their marriage. But Richard isn’t giving her any reason to believe he is getting better, and the truth is that trauma from near death can have an ill effect on any relationship. Surely this doesn’t mean they are doomed, does it? She’s dealt with other disappointments about her husband’s life, like the strain in the relationship between he and his daughter Imogen with his first wife Grace. One constant is his inability to be present in the moment with those who need him most. Now Carol knows how it feels to be the person on the other end of his emotional distance. Through their separation letters pass between them, those in a future moments too, discussing the book he is writing about everything that passes after Jenny’s death, which encompasses Jacintha and her place in his life.

Jacintha’s childhood with her feckless mother Catherine sees her living with an adoptive family after some ‘incident’, all her life she has had one goal and that is to find Richard, who for her is the cause of her own live’s ruin. “Jacintha had written only one word:  Richard. She places the paper int he metal bowl, set it on fire, and watched it burn.” It takes more than a spell to get what she is after. Love and revenge are chains, and it will claim them all. Charming her way into Richard’s life, her kiss “A taste of berries“, seems to reawaken him in a way Carol’s couldn’t. It’s not what he wants, he wanted it to be Carol who could bring him out of this lifeless state, but it is exactly what Jacintha needs. Her past lay in rubble much like Carol and Richard’s relationship, it is only a matter of time before she reveals the truth, but her plan of seduction hinges on remaining unaffected by Richard as a man. She will share her terror with him, let the insidiousness of her own horrific nightmare weave it’s way through his soul, another thing to gut him with. She is letting other transgressions color how she sees Richard, but tenderness is surprisingly entering her heart as well. When Richard discovers the truth behind Jacintha’s presence, it is far more complicated and horrifying than the shame of falling in love with a student.

The letters between Richard and Carol sometimes upset the story, disrupted it’s flow. They are at a point where they know what has happened, and we are still in the dark, and it can confuse readers. As we are told in the Preface by the character Richard, “it is a true story written in the form of a novel about my relationship with Jacintha”,  therefore we know in advance it’s a novel within a novel. In the present day Carol and Richard are writing about their feelings in the aftermath of the Jenny’s death, the collapse of their marriage, and Jacintha’s blame or lack thereof in what followed. We already know Jacintha is a harbinger of disaster. I almost think the novel would have worked better if they weren’t discussing the novel he is writing about the entire affair while it’s still happening for the reader. I know I sound confusing, but this is the state it put the reader in. It is disorienting…but the novel has engaging moments, it just may be hard for most readers to get there.

Love is never wrong, how you express it is another story. Richard learns this too late, and before he even has a chance to know just how wrong his desires are.

Publication Date: November 19, 2019

Dundurn