The Eighth Life: For Brilka by Nino Haratischwili

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And, in tracing the path of this ghost, she hoped to find redemption, and the definitive answer to the yawning emptiness inside her.

This is the book I have been needing to steep myself in all year. It’s about the revolution of the Janish family, which really begins with a secret, irresistible, seductive hot chocolate recipe that tastes like a blessing but bleeds into their lives like a curse. Surely a cup of warmth that fills the belly with such promise can fix an entire empire and yet how could they possibly know what destructive forces a red century has in store for them all? That they will become knots in a horror story of sorts, isn’t history full of those? Who is ever truly spared the cruelty of wars, within a country or a family? The beautiful Anastasia “Stasia”, ‘who came into the world already dancing’ is oblivious to the power the secret recipe her father (a famous chocolatier) gives her. “He guarded it like a secret of war.” He makes her promise to never allow the recipe to leave the family nor use it lightly, it is meant only for rare, special occasions. Does she heed his warning? From the moment it touches her tongue “it was like a spiritual ecstasy”, her fanciful dreams of life as a ballerina in Paris dissolve, but that is the least of the miseries and sorrows to come. In marrying a friend of her father’s, lieutenant of the White Guard Simon Jashi, she is bound not for Paris but for the cold climate of Russia- a country troubled with unrest. Meant to join her husband who left ahead of her, things run amok and fate teaches her a lesson.

There is no time for innocence nor clumsy dreams. It is only a relative that keeps her alive and later, when everything sours and the October Revolution thunders on, tragedy strikes. Fleeing destruction and death she finds her husband and gets pregnant with their first child ( Brilka’s great grandfather), returns back to Georgia “to the bosom of her family”, only to see the Chocolaterie fall into the state’s hands. Joined together again, she and Simon live in the countryside as a family where her life no longer feels like her own. Her sister Christine comes of age, blossoms and makes a very successful marriage. Stasia’s family grows as she gives birth to a daughter, and refusing to visit her husband in Moscow, instead moves into her father’s halved house. Later, she and her children live with her beautiful sister Christine and her husband Ramas. Christine catches the eye of her husband’s superior, the Little Big Man, awakens his animal urges, and sets in motion a horrific chain of events that will near destroy their entire family.

Then there are the children, Kitty and Kostya and how their lives play out. They both find themselves tied up in Andro’s own future, the son of Stasia’s dangerous friend, Sopio. How did I keep up with every character without notes? That’s how enthralled I was with the family and I began to feel like I was living through it all alongside them. This is a novel rich with history but nothing is more domineering than the fate of these characters. The dust never settles, the devil always seems to be at someone’s heels. But just which devil? There is no monster nor darkness more terrifying than human beings. Betrayal, starvation, treason, infidelity, war, dictators, torture, pogroms… and “Men always want to be in charge of you. What kind of life is that? I may as well have been born a dog; even as a dog I would have more freedom.”  It’s not only women who ‘Little big men’ are in charge of, but countries full of doomed people. It’s as if another character may as well have been death, because it’s a constant presence.

If you’re unfamiliar with Russian, German, Georgian history then you will be better informed after reading this novel. I can’t imagine a reader unfamiliar with it being able to understand the choices made nor the traps the characters all fall into. It makes for a more involved investment not all readers are interested in making. I, however, ate these pages. The horror of the times isn’t lost on me, my family has a history rife with Russian occupation and bullets, after-all Russia invaded Hungary. Poverty, hunger, cruelty, war, death, civil unrest- it feels like my own family history. Choosing which side your loyalty lies in a divided country is like choosing your own poison. People talk big who don’t understand living in fear and this novel certainly sheds light on the terror of the powerless.

There is a line about Kitty branded in my head, ‘she was a survival artist’, and the truth is every woman in the Jashi family has to be with their rotten circumstances or curse… “tomato, tamahto”.

I was riveted from the start and urge readers to dig into this novel full of riches. You can’t shake more story out of it. I was exhausted with all the emotional hijacking and I loved every moment of it. I won’t gush in a long winded review, because you need that precious time to invest in this novel. The characters fall into such a deep abyss that it’s a wonder there is a descendant (Brikla, for whom this is all told) that made it through her family’s traumas at all. It’s hard to feel sorry for myself looking back on history.  I don’t say this often, but Nino Haratischwili is a hell of a writer. How do her characters occupy her head space, with all their desires, regrets, rage? Yes, read this book! Remember you have been warned, it is not a light read.

Available Now

Scribe

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel by Maisy Card

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You remembered having laughed at the thought that getting down on your knees could redeem you.

It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. Maisy Card’s dialogue is written with authentic accents , which seems necessary to flavor this story as it pulls the readers through the dirt of history. As she exposes the deceptions of a Jamaican family through generations, we travel through time from Jamaica to Brooklyn. The characters can be downright devilish or desperate. It is a brutal tale, that begins with Abel Paisley faking his own death and assuming another man’s identity. The ghosts in this family aren’t all dead, and those who have been long in the ground refuse to remain silent. Secrets have a way of climbing out of the grave. Abel’s abandonment of his wife Vera steals all smiles from his children’s lives, puts an end to their mother’s tenderness. The daughter he raised under his assumed identity Stanford Solomon, fared no better and is nothing but an embarrassment. Her own child will wonder “if there is someone out there who could wear your life better.”  Her grandfather knows that answer best.

Vera is nothing but an angry ghost now, born to the knowledge of  her husband’s deception only after her own death. But what can a ghost do but watch and remember her life, now vanished from her hands? She can only simmer and focus on revenge. We the reader can go back through the years to see where the betrayals first began. When Abel shucked his life, Vera became a young widow ‘drowning under the weight of keeping a house and tending two small children’, and hired Bernard. A teenager himself, not yet a man, she finds uses for Bernard that keeps him obedient. What cost is there in so much loyalty, all the years he made this family he worked for his life?  The rest of the family see him as nothing but a servant, Vera’s yard boy, a modern day slave. Slaves just like the ones once kept in Harold Town. Bernard has his own secret history, jealous of a dead husband, taking his place in his own way but always an outsider, never granted full entrance into the house nor within the family. Grieving harder for Vera than her own blood. The searing pain of loss forces him into his own brand of madness, and the choice Abel made still keeps spinning everyone’s lives.

Further back still we reach looking for atonement, hoping our DNA tells the tales of our ancestors but not quite ready for horror stories. But it is in the heirlooms, such as the battered leather book that one’s great -great -great -great Grandfather, Harold Fowler’s, sins are recorded. Here, Debbie reads about the running of his Jamaican sugar plantation in the 1800’s. She isn’t prepared to digest the horrors of slavery, nor the nightmares that are visited upon her that feel more like possessions. History cannot be denied.

As Vera’s children sort through their childhood differently, one clinging to the good memories, another to the rotten ones, they must face what their mother was. Superstition runs rampant among the people, but what is reality, what is folklore? Adultery, unwanted children, drug addiction, blood thirsty little girls, secret histories, lies, slavery, rape… every single character is a trembling branch on the family tree. The truth is elusive, as solid as ghosts.

This debut is disturbingly engaging and one hell of a complicated tale. If we picked the bones of our own family history clean, would we too feel poisoned? Is this why it is often said to let sleeping dogs lie? It’s a shamefully dirty history, but makes for captivating fiction!

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

Simon & Schuster

 

 

Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker

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Mary’s mother is well practiced at laughing off moments like these, behaving as if nothing is strange. To do anything else would be the same as admitting that she lacks any real control over the situation- that she cannot understand what is happening in her house, much less how to stop it.

Hidden Valley Road is the story of a family, created by Don and Mimi Galvin (ten boys and two girls) picked apart by the ravages of schizophrenia, a disease that takes the foundation of the family and ‘permanently tilted it in the direction of the sick family member’.  What happens when it appears in several family members? When, like the fear of it’s contagion, the parents aim a laser focus on each child afraid they may be next? How does this attention harm every sibling? How can the parents possibly dodge the terror of, ‘who will be next’ ? Is it any surprise that fear of odd behavior in their own children will follow the siblings later in life?

In the beginning, Mimi and Don envisioned a life full of ‘limitless hope and confidence’. Don was ambitious, and war bound after joining the Marine Corp Reserves, before heading out near Okinawa where he was to be stationed during the war in 1945, he married Mimi. While he was away, Mimi gave birth to their firstborn son. Soon followed more children, born while her husband  came and went for his career, at times he was home from Georgetown (finishing his degree) and Rhode Island to the Navy’s General Line School. Focused always on his career, which came first, Mimi was left either trailing after him with the children or awaiting his return alone with their offspring. She with dreams of a lawyer husband and a life where she could raise their brood alongside their family in New York, bided time until the war was over. Don was using the military as a means to his end, a career in law or better yet, political science. The end of his service came but he reneged on their plan and instead joined the Air Force, which lead them surprisingly to Colorado Springs.

Despite Mimi’s disappointment and after many shed tears, she began to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Together, she and Don discovered a passion for falconry, one which they shared with their boys, coming of age in the 1950’s. (I found this fascinating). Mimi rushed headfirst into raising her children all on her own without the help of nannies, family anyone. She would raise her boys to be cultured through art, music, nature and as more children came (if Don had his way Mimi would be pregnant forever) she worked even harder at being the best mother anyone could be; their clan would be the ‘model’ American family. Her passion for motherhood knew no bounds! It fed her ego, there was a special pride in ‘being known as a mother would could easily accomplish such a thing’, raising such a brood with unwavering determination and love. Why such a large family, well if it made Don happy, it was her joy to provide more offspring. Personally, as a mother with two children I found her enthusiasm and energy incredible, I get tired just thinking about it.

The dynamic in the couples marriage changed, Don’s career in intelligence yet another thing to keep Mimi at a distance, while she remained the rock for the children through the years, the one left to supervise, a ‘happy warrior’. But her dream of perfect children, everyone in line, the ‘model American family’ was about to shatter. Battling the common childhood illnesses like chicken pox, everyone knowing their chores, cooking, cleaning, for a large family is a mean feat but battling a little understood mental illness in a time where there wasn’t much compassion to be found in anyone straying from the social norms was a terrible mark against you. When the cracks first appeared in the eldest, most adored son (the namesake Don Jr.) who often watched his siblings, bullying them, setting them up against each other, it was largely ignored. The busy family didn’t have time for squabbles, the father’s favorite was believed. Even when he would smash dishes, and act out with violence, Don and Mimi behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening, confusing and horrifying the other children. Something was wrong, no one knew it more than Donald himself. He would take the mental disturbances with him away to college, where it would soon show itself.

With the two older boys eventually out of the house, and Don Sr’s professional prospects, order had to be maintained, there could be no admittance of anything being off kilter. Such a thing is a stain that could ruin Don’s career and the Galvin’s social standing. Maybe the boys wreaked havoc, ending in bruises when they were home visiting, but ‘boys will be boys’ and need to become men and stand on their own. Then Don Jr fell apart, again and again, and it was no longer easy to deny something was wrong, not when it could no longer be hidden from the public too. He would never climb out of his illness, despite medicine, science, doctors best efforts. Worse, the abuse their daughters suffered in silences, denial. The embarrassment of their brother’s illness a thing they felt ashamed about and resentful of.

I can’t do justice in a review, it’s hard to summarize what the entire Galvin family went through, the hope, the fear, the denial and sexual abuse. I think about those decades, where mothers were often blamed for any sign of mental decline, where shame was all that mental illness bought you. When turning to doctors often did more harm than good, even now medication that is meant to help navigate mental illnesses do the body, all it’s organs so much harm, but there aren’t many alternatives beyond avoiding medication altogether and that leaves you exactly in the same abyss you started from. It victimizes the person coping with the illness, but you can’t ignore the voices of the family members that are forced to cope with the illness too. Children that are neglected because the illness consumes so much energy within the family, the physicality of it. Science isn’t moving fast enough, despite leaps like studying the Galvins and why schizophrenia claimed some of the children and not others. It feels too late for the Galvins in many ways. As much as we make judgments about Mimi and Don’s attempt to pretend everything is normal, how can we not empathize, imagining being in their place. Parenting is difficult enough, much of what we deny is fear motivated, comes form a place of love, and sure sometimes our own egos.

I’m always drawn to stories and studies about mental illness. I have a schizophrenic uncle, my own son is on the autism spectrum (he isn’t the only one in our extended family)… but for my uncle, I have seen how people fear mental illness, the hopelessness of my grandmother (when she was still alive) and yet immense love and support for her son who would not take his medication, and lives the life of a loner, often taken advantage of and there is nothing anyone can do. There is so much we do not know, and it’s hard for many to trust doctors when some of their treatments have done more harm than good. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless, your choices limited. Of course we aim to fix things, who wants to watch their family member suffer. It is reality still that with diseases people often find public support, compassion yet where there is mental illness most reactions are fear based and the public often judges those coping with it a ‘lost cause’. It’s the terrible result of little education. Doctors can only treat as well as the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, but behind the illness are very real human beings.

This book is heartbreaking, and I have great admiration for all the Galvin children  (those still alive are full grown adults now, of course). This is really their story. They own it, they live in the aftermath and each makes choices based on their own emotional compass. Their story broke my heart and it will stay with me. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

Shuggie Bain: A Novel by Douglas Stuart

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He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong. 

Drinking and Drugs as escape during a time when people are out of work and downtrodden happens in any country. In this moving novel, Shuggie Bain comes of age during the 1980’s in Glasgow, Scotland. “Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work”, which is bad enough but with a taxi driver father loose with infidelities and a mother sick of living a crammed existence at her parents, who gets angry ‘with littered promises of better things’ , the future doesn’t look good for their children (Catherine, Leek and Shuggie). Agnes Bain enjoys the taste of drink as much as she loves attention from men, envy from women. She wants a better life, even if it means beautifying herself while women in the same circumstances as her laugh at her, or feel insanely terrified she’ll steal their men. She had fun once, before life meant struggle, poverty. The past was full of carefree dancing but those times are over.

Born with bad teeth, she was so sure dentures would glam her smile like the movie stars in Hollywood. She is beautiful but doomed by her drinking, and her constant hunger for more.  Shug senior is nothing but a selfish animal, but something about him made her hunger for him so much she left her first marriage for him, despite him being a Protestant and she, a Catholic. A steady husband didn’t give her the thrill a woman of her beauty deserved! Ending up back at her parents is not the life she had in mind, there is nothing dazzling about a handsome husband rutting with the women he drives on the job. When he promises a fresh start, instead they land in the ‘plainest, unhappiest looking homes’. The neighbor women don’t like her nor her fancy airs. Worse, Shug senior has made other plans for himself, and off he goes, blaming it on her weakness for drink, her refusal to give it up for love of him. Her vices cost her children more than just their image within the community, there is no money to stretch, nothing to eat. She isn’t adverse to pawning even her son Leek’s work tools!

As Agnes unravels, her children feel the worst of it but none more than her youngest, Shuggie. Without proper care and supervision his belly often goes empty, his ‘otherness’ making him a target for the other kids torture before he even knows what he is. In fact, adults even understand his sexuality better than him, in one horrifying moment he loses innocence, looking for his mother. His brother and sister both have different plans to escape this hellish life. Shuggie remains steadfast in his devotion to his mother, despite her humiliations and the added abuse he gets from adults and children alike for her actions. All manner of degradation enters his life too, and poverty isn’t just an aside in this story. It is ever present and suffocating. The story begins with Shuggie in a tenement, doing all he can just to survive, to feed and house himself despite his youth. Still striving, despite life never having given him one solitary gift, blessing. Maybe this strength is one inheritance he got from his mother Agnes, who even at her lowest went on with her head held high, kept going despite all the blows she received. You should hate her, you really should, but instead you just feel immense pity.

How does a child hold his own, with a mother who is always embarrassing herself and a father who is absent, uncaring, off making other families? Not every child can cling to the sinking ship, oldest sister Catherine has her own secret life with one Donald Jnr ‘away from their disintegrating mother’. But Leek was the one who wants to disappear the most! Leek, too, has too much to bear with his real father, who also ‘disappeared’ in his own way, or was pushed away. Whose to say? Leek is too young too feel so tired, so old trying to learn at the YTS site with the hopes of making a living, when in truth it is his art that is the only thing that can make him drop his shoulders in relaxation. So tired of his drunk mother and her poor decisions. Feeling abandoned too by his sister Catherine, in her new life abroad, he has nothing, no one. He can’t stay back and care for his sloppy mother nor his little brother, he too is striving for a different life. Living with Agnes is like doing time.

It is Shuggie who is her constant companion, and as the years rush on, each time he has faith she will quit drinking she fails, the dream collapses and not even fresh love can save her. Don’t expect salvation nor happy endings, this is based in the real world, not fantasy. Struggle makes you stronger, but you don’t magically get liberated from poverty with wishes and prayers. Shuggie is a survivor, and nothing in his life is easy but he just might make a friend along the way.

A heart-wrenching read that makes your problems seem flimsy. It’s not a glimpse at poverty and addiction, it is an extended stay and beautifully written despite the miseries visited upon the characters.

Publication Date: February 21, 2020

Grove Atlantic

 

The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas

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Yet the face is deformed now, distorted and unlike itself, the result of the misfortunes that have come like avalanches- there behind him, where he has left his half-lived life. 

In prose and poetry this is the last book by Norwegian Author Tarjei Vesaas, said to be one of Norway’s greatest writer’s of the twentieth century. Memories flow, with nature ever present, indifferent to human longings, joys, love, and sufferings. Nature both capable of beauty and brutality,

As It Stands in the Memory, a father and son stand in the “sifting snow and sifting thoughts”; the silence of the snow disrupted only by the sternness of the father and his failure. A boy who doesn’t know his father, who keeps his thoughts, his forgotten dead dream to himself. A moment, when the son is shamed and will carry it on for the rest of his life, snow and a wounded horse as witness.

In the Marshes and on the Earth he feels eyes upon him, and these eyes belong to the cranes. The beauty of the birds so beautiful he wonders, is this a dream? He is the eyes now, the watcher, delighting in the dance of the cranes. He is in thrall of the flock.

Spring in Winter is about snowdrifts, heartbreak and the bewilderment in the holding of hands. How can one burn when they are so frozen by the elements, chilled by waiting for the heart’s desire? Sent as the bearer of bad news, only to see a beautiful girl in a different light?

Smashed mirrors, kicking out blindly for survival, the danger in the reflective surface of bodies of water, the “wet body is as heavy as stone”, so easy to drown. A thing (a person) can drown as easily as be saved. Rain falling upon the dead, “Five men. That’s not many. One for each finger on your hand.”  How did those five men end up where they are, forgotten, nothing. “No one will find them but the flies.”  Lyrical writing for so brutal an ending. A deadly ‘quiet’ in a grove. Nature absorbs what a young man feels, about a blushing girl.

It is a book moving through an old man’s life, I think. What better way to tell it then through lyrical delights? Sure, ‘the heart grows lonely’ and everything changes with time, ‘laws, highways, waterways’ and yet the memories plant themselves and remain waiting to be plucked.

I am also, after reading this fine book, very interested in reading The Birds by Vesaas, about a disabled man being cared for by his lonely older sister in an isolated land. I think nature as character is one of the hardest and yet most rewarding works one can conceive. It feels like a mystical experience, a dream (as with the cranes verses within) when one moves with nature, and it is perfectly captured here. A beautiful literary fiction book for anyone who loves lyrical prose. Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970)

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Archipelgo

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