Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade

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“Though they arrived at Mecklenburgh Square at different stages in life, moving there provided each of them a fresh start at a critical moment: the way they each chose to set up home in the square was a bold declaration of who they were, and of the life they wanted to lead.”

Square Haunting focuses on the influence living at Mecklenburgh Square in London’s Bloomsbury had on the poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. Each lived here at different times, choosing not the expected path for women, marriage and children, but feeding their ambitions, a break for freedom from the social norms of their time. Here they could ‘follow their own pursuits’, and meet with like minds. They had to work to earn the lives they wanted, of course some had the wealth of family but money was a necessity one always had to fret over. Geography matters, it is always conducive to one’s education to be at the heart of things, politics, revolutions, and around people and places that ‘stimulate the intellect.’ 

We remember these women as established writers but it is the making of them that is often forgotten. Their fears and of course the fight to be more that their mothers before them were ‘allowed’. To reach for the things their fathers and brothers were given simply for being born male, all those opportunities women were shamed for wanting.  In the midst of wars, modern culture on the rise, bohemian life, Bloomsbury was often thought of as a ‘vulgar place’. Here was a changing society, moving fast, too fast for some. But for women, it truly ‘offered a room of one’s own.” Our great authors wanted a different life, Mecklenburgh Square is where they would be shaped, a common thread in their world. Or it is where they were meant to find refuge, and engage with others to escape their own mind.

H.D.’s time spent in Mecklenburgh Square tinted her whole life, writing of how men hindered her (a female) as an artist. Disinterested in being Pounds protégé writing autobiographical work, exposing real people with her pen, layered truths and fiction. Born an outsider, understanding all too well how unrealized dreams could hinder a woman, as with her own mother, she would never confine herself so. Playing with her gender, shirking rules, rebellious and vulnerable, London was just the place Hilda would belong. Enthralled with suffragettes, finding a perfect circle of friends, London itself was a place in her writing that her characters, heroines too could find confidence in ‘work and herself’. H.D’s hungry mind could feed on manuscripts at the British museum, marriage with Aldington was a joining of like minds, but the Bloomsbury sets pleasures were interrupted by war, patriotism. No one could remain untouched. Devastation would come soon enough, personally as well. A place is both freedom and later, “four walls about to crush her”, when her marriage began to crumble with infidelity, and deep loss.  Mecklenburgh was formative, even when she was wrapped in misery, for it is here she found herself.

One common theme is women deciding to be neither male nor female. For “it is fatal to be man or woman pure and simple”, particularly for a writer. For these famous women it reduced them to be one or the other, to be defined, to carry the weight of expectations, of one’s sex, better to be both- to have an ‘androgynous mind’ is the only way to a limitless existence.

Dorothy L. Sayers seemed to torture her long suffering parents with her big dreams, ‘yearning to achieve success through her writing’, she didn’t want to be a teacher. Not surprising from a woman who was one of the first females educated at Oxford. She felt “her brain growing rusty” when she settled upon teaching, so she followed her heart and a man to France and with the sour end of that venture, knew it was London that shined with possibilities. She felt at home immediately at Mecklenburgh Square, where for H.D. it was collapse of her marriage, it was independence for the single Dorothy. Living life differently in London left her with a brave feeling. working on translations for extra money so she could continue to write her poetry and chilling stories. Here she wrote her first novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and everything in her surroundings supplied her with plenty of material for the future of her work. This was the only place that could guarantee her artistic success. In time, love would test her too, and her feelings about her work and social norms. Sayers, just like H.D., would discover the cost of freedom for a woman is much harsher than for any man. Work is where a woman like Sayers healed, and she pored herself into it.

Jane Ellen Harrison is this books enigma, a woman who came to Mecklenburgh Square at the advanced age of 75, “having renounced her comfortable life as a Cambridge don”. She destroyed evidence of the life she led before and as Francesca Wade notes, for Harrison it was a rebirth, not a beginning as it was for H.D. and Sayers before her. It would also be her final home, as she died there. A bit of a myth maker about her own life, what mattered most wasn’t intimate revelations and exposure about herself but that it’s possible to shake off and discard anything that doesn’t provide what is needed, for one’s work or happiness. Many lives, regardless of age, are always possible. Once called one of the cleverest women in England, she too chose of life of intellectual stimulation and  struggled with the in between time of success and uncertainty about her future. She was passed over often, as women often are, for posts that she certainly deserved even if she didn’t like such a fact to be known, never one for being pitied. From Archaeological digs and her study on man-made hierarchies and ” the gradual erosion of women’s importance in Greek society” she drove home with factual evidence the vital roles women played in history, challenging the institutions run by men. What a greater inspiration to other young ladies, and female writers coming of age, then the findings of Jane Ellen Harrison and learned ladies like her? Of course, she was accused of debauching young minds. A woman’s education could go further, and should, then motherhood alone. A staunch believer in being a ‘free woman’, but much like the others also was adamant about not categorizing brains into male/female. Eventually into her life came Hope Mirrlees, a relationship that gave her so much of what she needed.

Eileen Power is another whose history has been partially erased ‘for reasons unknown’ by her own sisters after her death. A serious scholar, but as a woman seen by her male peers as ‘an anomaly’ for women surely aren’t this clever. Subordination seems to be a role women like Power and Harrison fought against and yet understood all too well. Her years in Mecklenburgh Square showed other women there was much open to them, a feminist, a pacifistic, who ‘owned her independence.’  She wanted her work to prosper and her surroundings, home should allow for it. She wasn’t one to let her personal life interfere with her important professional work, but it was vital for her to find like minded female friends with whom she could be herself. Her biggest cause, she said, was the cause of women. That women keep their individuality after marriage, ‘that love is not the only thing in the world’. 

For all the important women in this book, their thoughts echo many of the same things. That they are a person, that love isn’t the only thing in life, that an education, intellectual stimulation, a profession, passion is vital for every human being. Mecklenburgh Square was a hive of activity that fed them with the very things they needed to grow and to freely be themselves. Despite their intelligence, each saw the same “unchallenged assumptions” again and again. Maybe this is why they were found walking straight into what had always been predominately male territory. In London, they were able to cultivate friendships, connections to make the life they wanted a reality, despite the expectations of their time.

Virginia Woolf is the last, her time in Mecklenburgh Square was tense, with ‘political crisis’. There wasn’t fresh hope to be had, for Woolf a cloud of grief followed she and her husband Leonard after a wretched year. They were to manage their time going through a war. Back and forth, solitude and city- for her ‘peace of mind’ during a deep depression. When in Mecklenburgh Square they could entertain and debate with fellow writers. The lively discussions lifted the mood but her storms always returned. Not unlike the women before her, her love life was complicated and non-conventional in it’s own right. Partaking in an affair of her own with Vita Sackville-West, their marriage had it’s problems. Leonard was the one that tried to nourish her so she could write, despite her fragile mind. Like the others, she too was invested in defying conventions, in exploring how such things effect people, their life choices, their happiness, work and love life. It seemed she too was influenced by the environment of Mecklenburgh Square, tacking questions of womanhood, personhood. Yet with the destruction and looming threat, she couldn’t be truly at ease there. She still hadn’t truly found a room of one’s own.

This book is about women shaping their own worlds, trying to be self-sufficient in incredibly  difficult, often chaotic, war-torn times,  breaking with social norms. Wanting nothing more than to be a person, not confined by gender or any other roles society seems fit for them. They struggle with work and relationships, with family and destiny, and some with the state of their own mind. Sometimes the women are contrary, but always curious, intelligent and inspiring. It is an engaging read, sometimes heavy and sad, but it couldn’t be any other way when you strike out to change the world, or discover your place in it.

This is how one place shaped the lives of these famous women. Yes, read it, my review is flimsy by comparison to Wade’s work.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Crown Publishing

Tim Duggan Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History by Jaipreet Virdi

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It is easy to be swept away by promises of miraculous cures for incurable diseases.

The universe has a strange sense of humor, as I am writing this I am getting over a virus and I’ve temporarily lost hearing in my right ear going on 3 weeks now. For me, it’s fluid behind the eardrum, but for this reason I finished this novel thinking about how important losing your hearing is for those born with it. I’ve had several family members lose their hearing due to cancer, old age, as well as damage from working around loud machinery. Most of us are ignorant when it comes to disabilities that don’t directly affect us, in fact before reading this I hadn’t really understood that people need to learn to hear when they get a cochlear implant. It’s hard to understand that a person, with the aid of hearing implants, doesn’t hear the same as those of us with properly functioning ears do. Before my own father started using a hearing aid I didn’t know how it distorted some sounds, magnified others and how awful it is for him to hear when more than one person is talking. As with anything else about humanity, there are different ways of being deaf and ‘cures’ and ‘aids’ don’t work for everyone, nor are they necessarily desired.

The conversation about embracing Deaf culture is a personal one, particularly to those born deaf. To many people, it’s not a matter of ‘curing’ something they never lost in the first place. Other people’s expectations of what makes a person whole doesn’t take into account their needs, their decisions. Reading about parents searching for cures it’s heartbreaking for both the child and the parents. For those who want to restore their hearing every new invention and scientific breakthrough can just be one more disappointment to bear, some more dangerous to one’s health or outright deadly. While Jaipreet Virdi shares a history for the deafness cure, too she interjects her own personal trials and tribulations in defining her own place in the Deaf community. Jaipreet was not born deaf and therefore her hearing loss doesn’t “ fit with the discourse of deafness and Deaf culture, because most Deaf people were born deaf and thus, never had any hearing to lose.” Her goal is to “enrich our understanding of an unrepresented aspect of deaf history: that of the medical and technological avenues for “curing” hearing loss.” These cures involve everything from airplane dives, chunky devices, and all sorts of  “Electrical Wonders.” Even advertisements that shame women for their unfashionable hearing apparatuses is simply just another way to demean a person and make a ton of money off a medical condition.

There are, of course, those in the medical community who made discoveries that were great strides in medical science but for every genuine, qualified doctor there were quacks and frauds. Factor in the exuberant cost for treatments, cures, and hearing devices and people have no other option than to purchase what they can afford, generally for products that did more harm than good if they worked at all. Loving parents that were well meaning hunted for cures largely because in the past the fear their child couldn’t manage in a world that doesn’t support disabilities caused alarm about their child’s future. Society tends to attack anything that is ‘different than’. Their fear that their child couldn’t survive without the ability to communicate as the majority demands placed them on quests to try anything to cure their Deaf child. But what of the child forced through treatments that are often more painful than not? As an aside, this happens with all sorts of illnesses, defects, disabilities that are physical or mental. The truth is, most parents want to make their child’s future one where their child will be safe, functional long after they are no longer around to care for them, it often comes from a place of love. Yet there are two sides of this coin.

What of the child like Jaipreet Virdi who has had to learn how to live between two worlds, that of hearing and the deaf, feeling she isn’t planted firmly in either? People often forget how important hearing is to language, for it is through hearing others speak as well as our own voice that we can pronounce and enunciate.  A not so simple skill most of us take for granted. Hearing, in the end, matters and is just something most of us don’t think about. As we age, hearing as much as sight is a sense that tends to go. All of us are prone to illness and injury, that can easily end in the loss of hearing. It’s easier to not think about our senses, until we or someone we love loses them.

How can we not empathize with the need those born Deaf have to embrace their own community, feeling whole as they are? Sometimes we fail to understand that all over the world people have their own way of existing, it may be different from our own, but it’s not less. How much of oneself is anyone expected to give up to fit in, particularly when you lose more of yourself? We all must measure our own happiness, and create a place for ourselves, why should it be any different for someone with a disability? With that said, it wouldn’t hurt to educate ourselves about the difficulties others confront, to at least try to understand each other better and respect personal choices.

This book is full of hearing history, which is shocking and sad as well as fascinating. It’s part memoir and medical history/science. Maybe I was more interested in this book having witnessed the frustration of those who have lost their hearing. Seeing firsthand how someone is dismissed when they can’t communicate what they need to. I don’t always think other people are cruel (though such people do exist) I think they just don’t know any better, which again comes down to “unrepresented aspects” of hearing loss and many other disabilities. In a world as populated as ours, there really isn’t an excuse not to educate ourselves. There is a line that stayed with me, “We marvel at how people pass as normal by hiding the signs of disability.” Why should they have to hide?

If you’ve ever been curious about the world of the hearing impaired or Deaf (which is the same world you share) this is an informative read.

Publication Date: May 1, 2020

University of Chicago Press

Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers

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Generosity was both an insurance police and a deeply held value.

Kentucky born Cassie Chambers grew up in Owsley County, all too aware of the hard-work and struggle her grandparents and their children dealt with. Cassie parents were both still working their way through college, living in Berea but close enough to her Mother Wilma’s family when they had her. With the impossible cost of childcare, they relied on those in Owsley to care for her, and it is here that Cassie ran around ‘getting into trouble’ and playing with her many cousins. It was a second home where she was privy to stories about all her aunts and uncles. It is also where she wondered why it was so important for her granny to see her mother Wilma get a college education, when for many it was never an option.

Working on a tobacco farm (Wilma’s family didn’t own it) was backbreaking labor, more incredible was her Aunt Ruth who was the best tobacco worker in the county, better than even some of the strongest men. Rising early in the mornings to help when she stayed with her kin, she saw firsthand that it was never an easy life. Her granny was just as hardworking, even at her advanced age and despite the poverty and years of struggle, she always had her pride and an easy smile for others.  It was through spending time with her clan that Cassie’s curious nature was fed, where she learned hands on science, engineering and art. With her parents as an example, education was a goal knew she must strive for. So how did this young girl whose family tree is deeply rooted in Appalachia find the wherewithal to attend Yale and Harvard, becoming a lawyer?

Obstacles in the mountains of Kentucky can feel insurmountable when each day is a struggle just to feed one’s family. When there isn’t work to be had, when you live below government-designated poverty, when the counties haven’t developed like the rest of the country and the rest of the world has forgotten you. Where all politician’s promises fall by the wayside once they are in office, if they even notice you at all. Here, one must wrestle with leaving the support and strong bonds of family to find work, and anyone who has ever attempted such a thing without money (even with a college degree) understands it can be quite a feat. Staying can feel easier, but it is not without hardship. An education, as seen through Cassie’s rise and the opposite end, as we see with her cousin Melissa’s choices, is jarring. As Cassie reiterates, they are the same in so many ways, born from the same stock, branches on the same tree yet Melissa had drug addicted parents. Drug addiction haunts the hills, there isn’t much hope in a place that offers nothing for it’s young by way of entertainment, where health care is shaky at best, where the coal mines were never as big as in other counties and tobacco farming collapsed. This is a land where fields are left empty and yet they are a proud, strong people. Where women throughout generations help in birthing children, because there isn’t anywhere else to go and if there is how can they afford the proper, necessary care?

Outsiders see only poverty and like Cassie says, feel pity and disgust, never getting past the surface to understand why natives feel such a connection to the land, generations in their family. Through the fear she and other women in her circle feel navigating the world outside rural Appalachia, it is evident how much courage it takes to strive for more. To judge the people as ignorant is a travesty, for they have learned how to exist in the past through feeding themselves and each other growing their own food (I have a garden, it’s not easy at all and has more failure than success), have worked with the harsh elements to survive, helping birth children, and her own granny could take apart anything and put it back together for the better. Stupid? Not one bit. Lazy, pitiable? No way! By returning to lift those in need, with her education in hand, it is inspiring. Women, in this memoir, lifted each other even while they themselves had nothing. Ruth, the older sister, was selfless providing in every way she could for Cassie’s mother Wilma so that she could find a better life. This support, in turn, made Cassie’s future possible too. It warms the heart see such generosity come from people who have so little. That the rest of the world looks down upon people, like Cassie’s Papaw whose work was backbreaking and long, far harder than anything most of them have ever done, is shameful. These are folks, especially the women, who somehow manage to feed their children while working their weary hands to the bone and still feel a sense of duty to their community while keeping faith in their god by living what they preach.

This is a tribute to the women whose grit was passed down to Cassie. Rather than bemoaning their circumstances, they get things done and often in creative ways. Like Cassie said, there is no such thing as “I can’t do it.” It wasn’t easy for Cassie to work hard, to step outside the comfort of her family and assimilate into an elite place (Ivy League schools) but with the strength of her family’s blood running through her veins, she wasn’t going to give in to self-defeat, it isn’t their way.

Hill Women is a heart-felt, engaging telling of one girls rise from poverty that was only possible through the love and support of the strong, wise women before her.

Publication Date: January 7, 2020

Ballantine Books

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

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As a writer and mother myself, I am struck by how contemporary Jackson’s dilemmas feel: her devotion to her children coexists uneasily with her fear of losing herself in domesticity.

I have been reading several biographies and memoirs while reading arcs and have been gravitating towards artistic, powerful women like Shirley Jackson- whether they felt powerful in their own lives or not. I am not sure how I missed reading this when it came out in 2016 but I was deeply engaged, losing sleep to get to the end as I couldn’t put this book down. A Rather Haunted Life, indeed. Haunted not by ghosts nor black magic and all things witchy but haunted in the way many women’s lives are, especially in times when making more than your spouse and writing stories that made people uncomfortable were suspect. Haunted by the demands of motherhood, a hunger to write with meaning, expectations of her own parents, by her own insecurities and infidelity, and the severe judging eyes of fans and detractors how could she maintain stability? Those were just some of the demons in her head. One commonality in many writer’s (artists) I have noticed through the years is voice, they turn to it because it’s not just a calling but a way of asserting themselves in the world. Shirley Jackson rumors float around even today, that she was superstitious or studied witchcraft, and surely she fueled it early on herself and why not? It’s an image that sells  (especially if you write creepy stories) but Franklin’s biography dispels Shirley as a myth and makes her a very real person. It encompasses her origins, her family history, her husband Stanley Hyman, her children and everything in between. You cannot really write about Shirley’s passions without including those she spent her life with and loved.  You cannot dismiss the very people that molded, guided her decisions, for better or worse.

Interesting that when Shirley wrote about her domestic life, motherhood it wasn’t what some wanted. Why must a woman be one or the other, a career woman or mommy? Why can’t she have the ability to terrify, to expose the monsters within, to express spirals into madness and yet also adore her children, the little savages, and write about motherhood, the ups and downs of domesticity? As if you can’t be a mother (and enjoy it) and also conjure creepy fiction. Maybe she didn’t concern herself with being a feminist, yet she was. Through her writing, she gave voice to the outsider, and exposed terrifying hypocrisy. It’s strange to root through another’s life posthumously, but Franklin’s writing about many of the struggles Shirley faced lends her stories that much more meaning. She wrote about the fears so many women had then, try so hard to conquer even today! Shirley exposed the cracks in the 1950’s ever smiling, not a hair out of place model of a female. It wasn’t a better time, one was just expected to maintain that happy illusion of everything is fine, nothing to see here. Her own mother certainly had a problem with that, being a fine lady herself. You don’t show the dirt, you sweep it under the rug!

Reading about her relationship with her mother (Geraldine Jackson) gutted me and lends credibility to why she wrote what she did, her characters turning their back on social mores, usually to extreme consequences. It’s no wonder she saw those fine citizens as smoldering with the desire to tar and feather anyone different, to burn them with modern day witch hunts, that she fueled the image of being a witch- there is power in it. It was said of Shirley’s mother, “…she tried valiantly to shape her daughter in her image”, something Geraldine would never succeed at. It weighed on Shirley though, those attempts. Shirley knew all too well how it felt to want to shuck off the past, the expectations of parents (society) and wanted to re-invent herself and the world is very lucky that she didn’t heed the words to  cultivate charm, and “seek out the good in others, rather than explore for evil.” For it is this digging into the psyche and exposing the poison in society that resonates even now with readers. She does away often with the mother, no wonder… Life is funny, children aren’t all little mirrors, and as was the case with Shirley she was the child that would test her mother’s vanity, ego. Shirley was haunted by her mother’s criticisms, unable to even voice how damaging her mother’s words could be, even when Jackson was shining, successful- still never the pretty, little daughter her beautiful mother wanted. We all know how no amount of creative genius in a woman seems to be enough in a world where pretty beats all!

Marrying Stanley Hyman, a highly respected literary critic and professor of literature was a marriage of minds but his feelings for monogamy downright became a torment to Shirley, how could it not? Shirley who spent so much of her life rejected by her mother, who wanted love and acceptance and deserved to feel it, eclipsed in many ways by her husband humiliating her as a woman, with his affairs. She knew early on, is likely the defense, that he did not hold much stock in monogamous relationships, didn’t believe in them. Of course they loved each other, there is no doubt by the accounts within this insightful book but her husband also appears to have put a lot on her shoulders, haranguing her into writing, even when she was unstable. He just didn’t see the toll everything in life was having on her, creating when the pen won’t budge maddening enough without all the haunting of the soul.

There was happiness and this book is by no means all doom and gloom. She and Stanley had romance, he was very impressed by her fiction writing, so much so realizing very early in their courtship he couldn’t compete. She loved him enough to marry someone  her parents weren’t sold on, after-all he was Jewish and you didn’t marry outside your religion. Shirley loved the children they had together, without a doubt! He absolutely admired her talent, they were well matched as much as ill suited, she was more sensitive than her humor, wit would have one believe and he, a cold indifferent partner at times was an obstacle in their love. It was all about their own personal natures coming together, as it is in any relationship. There were ups and downs, they made a life, they had a family, they managed careers- things fell apart, things held together. She never did leave him, did she? Not until her death anyway. Shirley dealt with serious crippling anxiety, even agoraphobia and the medicine back then often exacerbated one’s mental struggles, even her weight loss (dieting) had unhealthy consequences to her mental well being.  It’s fascinating because she struggled with self-acceptance on one hand but was also confident enough in her talents to publish, indulging in her pleasures (food, friends, motherhood) and with her own writing confronted her mother in a roundabout way. She wasn’t a mythical, spell conjuring witch, she was a talented, intelligent, writer, a loving mother, and a loyal wife. She wasn’t one thing, she was many.  This is one of the best biographies I have ever read that deals with it’s subject with humanity, admiration and compassion.  I was surprised by the emotions A Rather Haunted Life evoked within me. I am very happy I finally read it!

This was a beautifully written biography.

Published in 2016

Liveright

 

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

Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology by Nancy C Atwood (Editor), Roger Atwood (Editor)

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They will tell you that the depth of that meanness often depends on what life has done to a person, on the impressions left by brushes with people different from you, on those rare times when the parallel universes came close enough to touch. -Rick Bragg from All Over but the Shouting 

Growing up in working class America takes the spotlight in this non-fiction collection of excerpts from memoirs written in the 1980’s to 2014. The many voices within encompass more differences than their ethnicity, each life experience despite location is it’s own microcosm. The readers themselves are brushing up against parallel universes here. Some grew up with parents who were immigrants, wanting desperately to gain an education, no matter how limited their options. “I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s going to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” This from Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments: A Memoir.  For so many immigrants their limited language skills in their new country has them working jobs far beneath their skill and education level, naturally children growing up in such homes have to help their family out, to stay afloat even working as young as nine as Luis J. Rodriguez did. Child labor wasn’t new to the Rodriguez family, his own mother a cotton picker. Maya Angelou herself wandered the streets, living in an empty car in a junkyard for days. There lies a pulsing heart full of determination, at such a tender age. Something about struggle lends wisdom, feeds talent, some gain strength from adversity they face but there wasn’t really a choice, not where living in poverty is concerned. You do what you have to do.

We talk about race and inequality, but reading about it from another’s perspective is a different experience entirely. This excerpt from Joe Queenan’s Closing Time: A Memoir, speaks volumes about how sheltered our world views often are when we are young and surrounded only by what we are taught and experience in our own environment. “Until our paths crossed, I had no idea that people with dark skins were even allowed to be Brides of Christ.” Poverty and abuse too, it is inspiring to read about the mountains others have traversed, that even when it seems fate is against them, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and fought their way to what they wanted, a better life. It’s not enough to be smart, conformity is often the beast one had to embrace, danger, racism, and discrimination. Class, coming from nothing you have to learn how to fit into those grand, distinguished places you find yourself in, places others navigate with ease, born to it. It’s not enough to ‘make it’, you have to survive and figure out where you fit and how. It’s rebelling when you need too, conceding when you have to. We like to think we’re above class in the Western World but it’s just as alive here as anywhere else. Maybe you don’t enter places where your social standing is tested, your education, your wealth or maybe such doors are closed to you, but they exist all the same.

Alcoholism and how children grow up in the midst of it, the fighting over money and lack thereof. The things mothers and fathers keep from each other, a game children are not yet well versed in and the disastrous consequences as shared in an excerpt from Mary Karr’s memoir (and a personal favorite of mine) The Liar’s Club. Mothers of divorce who get lonely and try on a man and his family, blended families not quite mixing. Salvation that is almost as bad as loneliness, trying to become a part of a new family like Tobias Wolff. Hanging with kids on the city streets, all rough and tumble. Friendships with boys whose homes become refuges where some mothers play piano and fathers have excellent libraries, an eye into different worlds. Homes where bigotry is just as natural as breathing, where mother’s get beatings and crying “Don’t hurt my teeth”, is her only defense as her son watches on afraid momma will be killed. (Rick Bragg,  All Over but the Shoutin’).

This collection is varied and wonderful, even in the darkest corners there is light. It offers up meaningful moments in some of the most ‘hardscrabble lives’ as told through memoirs that will likely inspire readers to read the full books.

Available Now

University of Georgia Press

 

Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery

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Things impermanent, incomplete: these were the sorts of things Gorey loved best.

I was excited to learn months ago that there would be a book coming out about Edward Gorey, the man whose genius inspired the likes of Tim Burton and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), among others including Anna Sui. Ahead of his time, the ‘too strange and eccentric nature’ of his creations later found a wider audience, certainly with my generation and those born after. Gorey is the father of it all, a man who found beauty in ‘things withered’ as he took ‘pleasure in that which is old, faded and lonely.’ As to his sexuality, admittedly I am not interested in the speculation so much but can understand his hesitance during his time to claim homosexuality. During his youth, it certainly wasn’t a time embracing any peculiarities of arts nor any deviate from the so-called ‘norms.’ He was flamboyant in his dress, certainly it all seemed to be theater but reading about the way he kept his home, when he finally allowed someone deeper access into it, not everything was about ‘show’, with his home ever changing almost as if a stage for his entertainmen, a show for one. He seemed a man unto himself, someone who lived for his pleasures without the need to explain himself. I always find it interesting when we try to explore the sexuality of others, that it still makes people uncomfortable if someone doesn’t chose a label. Maybe it’s because I have family members who are attracted to people but aren’t (or weren’t for those now deceased) much interested in the complications of relationships, who chose to live their lives freely, to come and go as they pleased and put their time and attention into their passions, be it art, study work, travel. As well as others who once were married and when it ended invested in themselves, didn’t chose to have more relationships later in life. In fact, I see it all the time in neighbors, friends. Not everyone wants someone in their life, at their side all the time and would rather visit with friends and then go home to the quiet of their beloved solitude. Don’t confuse being sometimes alone with chosing to live as a recluse. Why is that so hard to accept? There are people who don’t really feel invested in their sexuality at all, who find their passions in other things beyond the body. Certainly the gay imagery in some of Gorey’s work fuels the whisperings that he was homosexual, as well as his own comments in interviews. There was also the earlier crush.  In fact, Maurice Sendak (himself gay) met Edward Gorey and understood him, the need to hide his sexuality, as well as the struggle as an artist to be taken seriously, to become successful.  Whatever his sexual preference was, Gorey was a wildly creative, fascinating, private man. Before he went to Harvard, his education was delayed by serving in the Army. It’s hard to associate the Edward we all know and love with the clean-cut military picture of one Private Gorey, circa 1943.

His childhood certainly doesn’t seem as ordinary as he led people to believe as you will read about in the chapter entitled “A Suspiciously Normal Childhood”.  As the author asks, is it normal to be ‘cutting your eyeteeth on Victorian Novels’, learning to read at three? What about a grandmother’s madness? Seems he had plenty of gothic drama to fuel his future work, within his own upbringing. As this is a review, I won’t go into more,  it’s in Mark Derry’s book, read it! It seems current times would have been perfect for Gorey’s talents, but maybe for someone enamored of his privacy fame would have been too itchy a coat for the man. Certainly I can imagine the shallow narcissism of our times would have been fodder for his work, even his later plays that seemed to become a bigger passion than releasing books for his fans. We can all learn so much from the pleasure Edward Gorey revelled in while creating something for the sake of doing it simply because you enjoy it and not worrying so much about the reception. In time, those naysayers will come around, which he learned years before with a certain magazine cover he landed after prior rejection. There was a lot I didn’t know about Gorey, and this book isn’t so much about revealing deep dark secrets as it’s a peek into the life of one heck of a peculiar artist, one whose macabre style was rich in texture, his shading with only a pen is incredible, his meticulousness evident with crosshatching. He had a signature style, creepy little stories that an untold number of artists have mimicked, but will we ever know the man fully? A man of biting wit, melodramatic about the smallest events and yet seemingly indifferent about the big stuff, lover of cats who he allowed free reign, even if it meant messing up work he spent hours on, contrary to his core, highly intelligent, a lover of the ballet, avid collector, a lover of things old, faded and lonely. Can we ever know even ourselves? For fans and people new to Edward Gorey, this is a wonderful read.

Available Tomorrow November 6, 2018

Little, Brown and Company