Three memoirs remain on the shortlist; three windows onto living with disability or caring for a relative with an incapacitating mental illness.
First up is a visual artist’s account of growing up with spina bifida, entering Disabled culture, and forming a collaborative style all her own.
Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer (2020)
“My first monster story was Frankenstein,” Lehrer writes. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation or the Golem of medieval Jewish legend, she felt like a physical monstrosity in search of an animating purpose. Born with spina bifida, she spent much of her first two years in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and would endure dozens of surgeries in years to come to repair her spine and urinary tract and attempt to make her legs the same length. In 1958, when she was born, 90% of children with her condition died before age two. Lehrer’s mother, Carole, who grew up in a family pharmacy business and had worked as a medical researcher, was her daughter’s dogged health advocate. Carole fought for Riva even though she was caught up in her own chronic pain after a botched back surgery that left her addicted to painkillers.
Lehrer went to a special school for the disabled in Ohio. It was racially integrated (rare at that time) and offered children physical therapy and normal experiences like Girl Scouts and day camp. But it was clear the teachers didn’t expect these children to achieve anything or have a family life; home ec classes just taught how to wash up from a wheelchair and make meals for one. One horrible day, a substitute teacher locked a classroom door and hectored the children, saying their parents must have drunk and fornicated and they were the wages of sin.
Between the routine or emergency surgeries and family heartaches, Lehrer grew up to attend art school at the University of Cincinnati and Art Institute of Chicago. Professors (most of them male) found her work grotesque and self-indulgent, and she struggled with how to depict her body. There were boyfriends and girlfriends, even a wife (though in the late 1980s, before same-sex marriage was legally recognized). In 1996 she joined the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and it was a revelation. She learned that Disabled (like Deaf) is a cultural identity as much as a physical reality, adopted vocabulary like crip (a reclaimed term, like queer) and ableism, and began painting fellow artists with dwarfism, prostheses, or wheelchairs.
Becoming a member of the Medical Humanities faculty as well as a visiting artist at two Chicago universities, the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern, gave Lehrer access to Gross Anatomy Labs, where she found in the historical collections – just as she had at the Mütter Museum of medical curiosities in Philadelphia – a fetus in a jar with her very condition. Knowing that she might be the first Disabled person her budding doctors met, she was determined to give them an “inclusive vision” of “the reality of human divergence.” She would have the medical students draw one of the jarred specimens, not as an oddity but as an individual, and give a 15-minute presentation about someone who lives with that disability.
Golem Girl is a touching family memoir delivered in short, essay-like chapters, most of them named after books or films. It is also a primer in Disability theory and – what truly lifts it above the pack – a miniature art gallery, with reproductions of paintings from various of Lehrer’s series as well as self-portraits, family portraits, and photographs. “I fiercely wanted to see a gallery filled with portraits of luminous crips,” she writes; “I suspected I was going to have to make them myself.” And that is just what she has done. The “Circle Stories” featured the Chicago Disabled Artists Collective and “Mirror Shards” included animal daimons, while “The Risk Pictures” of some of her personal heroes were daringly collaborative: she would give the subject an hour alone in her studio with their portrait in progress and allow them to amend it as they wished. Much of her work has bright colors and involves anatomical realism and symbols personal to herself and/or the subject – with Frida Kahlo an acknowledged influence.
I’ve now (just about) read the whole Barbellion Prize shortlist. For how it illuminates a life of being different – through queerness in addition to disability, engages with the academic fields of anatomy and Disability studies, and showcases the achievements of Disabled artists, this would be my clear winner of the inaugural award, with Sanatorium my backup choice. It is also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography.
Readalikes I have also reviewed:
“The hospital demands surrender. You accept the piercing, the cutting, the swallowing of noxious chemicals. You roll over and stand up even when it’s as impossible as flying around the ceiling. Whoever has authority can remove your clothes and display your stitched-up monster body to crowds of young white-coated men. You’re an assemblage of parts that lack gender and those elusive things called feelings.”
“‘Normal’ beauty is unmarked, smooth, shiny, upright; but my gaze began to slip past normal beauty as if it was coated in baby oil. I wanted crip beauty—variant, iconoclastic, unpredictable. Bodies that were lived in with intentionality and self-knowledge. Crip bodies were fresh.”
With thanks to Virago for the free copy for review.
See my introductory post for more about the Barbellion Prize, which is in its first year and will be awarded on Friday “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.”
I will review the final two on the shortlist, The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills and Kika & Me by Amit Patel, tomorrow.
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (20+), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list some of my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. The following are in chronological order.
- The Orkney Islands were the setting for Close to Where the Heart Gives Out by Malcolm Alexander, which I read last year. They showed up, in one chapter or occasional mentions, in The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, plus I read a book of Christmas-themed short stories (some set on Orkney) by George Mackay Brown, the best-known Orkney author. Gavin Francis (author of Intensive Care) also does occasional work as a GP on Orkney.
- The movie Jaws is mentioned in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Landfill by Tim Dee.
- The Sámi people of the far north of Norway feature in Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
- Twins appear in Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey. In Vesper Flights Helen Macdonald mentions that she had a twin who died at birth, as does a character in Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce. A character in The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard is delivered of twins, but one is stillborn. From Wrestling the Angel by Michael King I learned that Janet Frame also had a twin who died in utero.
- Fennel seeds are baked into bread in The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley. Later, “fennel rolls” (but I don’t know if that’s the seed or the vegetable) are served in Monogamy by Sue Miller.
- A mistress can’t attend her lover’s funeral in Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan and Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey.
- A sudden storm drowns fishermen in a tale from Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown and The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.
- Silver Spring, Maryland (where I lived until age 9) is mentioned in one story from To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss and is also where Peggy Seeger grew up, as recounted in her memoir First Time Ever. Then it got briefly mentioned, as the site of the Institute of Behavioral Research, in Livewired by David Eagleman.
- Lamb is served with beans at a dinner party in Monogamy by Sue Miller and Larry’s Party by Carol Shields.
- Trips to Madagascar in Landfill by Tim Dee and Lightning Flowers by Katherine E. Standefer.
- Hospital volunteering in My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock and Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession.
- A Ronan is the subject of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World and the author of Leonard and Hungry Paul (Hession).
- The Magic Mountain (by Thomas Mann) is discussed in Scattered Limbs by Iain Bamforth, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.
- Frankenstein is mentioned in The Biographer’s Tale by A.S. Byatt, The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp, and Snow by Marcus Sedgwick.
- Rheumatic fever and missing school to avoid heart strain in Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks and Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller. Janet Frame also had rheumatic fever as a child, as I discovered in her biography.
- Reading two novels whose titles come from The Tempest quotes at the same time: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame and This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson.
- A character in Embers by Sándor Márai is nicknamed Nini, which was also Janet Frame’s nickname in childhood (per Wrestling the Angel by Michael King).
- A character loses their teeth and has them replaced by dentures in America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo and The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
Also, the latest cover trend I’ve noticed: layers of monochrome upturned faces. Several examples from this year and last. Abstract faces in general seem to be a thing.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
A week from today, on the 14th (my birthday, as well as Susan’s – be sure to wish her a happy one!), this year’s Booker Prize will be announced. The Prize’s longlist didn’t contain much that piqued my interest this time around; I read one book from it and didn’t get on with it well at all, and I also DNFed another three.
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
Winterson does her darndest to write like Ali Smith here (no speech marks, short chapters and sections, random pop culture references). Cross Smith’s Seasons quartet with the vague aims of the Hogarth Shakespeare project and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and you get this odd jumble of a novel that tries to combine the themes and composition of Frankenstein with the modern possibilities of transcending bodily limitations. Her contemporary narrator is Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor sponsored by the Wellcome Trust who supplies researcher Victor Stein with body parts for his experiments in Manchester. In Memphis for a tech expo, Ry meets Ron Lord, a tactless purveyor of sexbots.
Their interactions alternate with chapters narrated by Mary Shelley in the 1810s; I found this strand much more engaging and original, perhaps because I haven’t read that much about Shelley and her milieu, whereas it feels like I’ve read a lot about machine intelligence and transhumanism recently (To Be a Machine, Murmur, Machines Like Me). I think Winterson’s aim was to link the two time periods through notions of hybridness and resistance to death. It never really came together for me.
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – I read the first 76 pages. The other week two grizzled Welsh guys came to deliver my new fridge. Their barely comprehensible banter reminded me of that between Maurice and Charlie, two ageing Irish gangsters. The long first chapter is terrific. At first these fellas seem like harmless drunks, but gradually you come to realize just how dangerous they are. Maurice’s daughter Dilly is missing, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to find her. Threatening to decapitate someone’s dog is just the beginning – and you know they could do it. “I don’t know if you’re getting the sense of this yet, Ben. But you’re dealing with truly dreadful fucken men here,” Charlie warns at one point. I loved the voices; if this was just a short story it would have gotten a top rating, but I found I had no interest in the backstory of how these men got involved in heroin smuggling.
The Wall by John Lanchester – I lost interest in it and wasn’t drawn in by the first pages.
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – I read the first 35 pages. There’s a lot of repetition; random details seem deliberately placed as clues. I’m sure there’s a clever story in here somewhere, but apart from a few intriguing anachronisms (in 1988 a smartphone is just “A small, flat, rectangular object … lying in the road. … The object was speaking. There was definitely a voice inside it”) there is not much plot or character to latch onto. I suspect there will be many readers who, like me, can’t be bothered to follow Saul Adler from London’s Abbey Road, where he’s hit by a car in the first paragraph, to East Berlin.
There’s only one title from the Booker shortlist that I’m interested in reading: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I’ll be reviewing it later this month as part of a blog tour celebrating the Aké Book Festival, but as a copy hasn’t yet arrived from either the publisher or the library I won’t have gotten far into it before the Prize announcement.
As for the other five on the shortlist…
- I’m a conscientious objector to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I haven’t appreciated her previous dystopian sequels, and I’ve never really understood all the hype around The Handmaid’s Tale.
- I don’t plan on reading Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – unless some enterprising soul produces an abridged version of no more than 250 pages.*
- I didn’t rate The Fishermen highly enough to give Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities a try.
- I forced myself through Midnight’s Children some years back. What a pointless slog! Lukewarm reviews of his recent work mean I’m now doubly determined to avoid Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte.
- Although the setup appeals to me (a prostitute’s whole life spooling out in front of her in the moments before her death) and I enjoyed her previous novel well enough, I’ve not heard enough good things to pick up Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World.
*However, I was delighted to find a copy of her 1991 novel, Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (just 182 pages, with short chapters often no longer than a paragraph and pithy sentences) in a 3-for-£1 sale at our local charity warehouse. Isabel, a 31-year-old virgin whose ideas of love come straight from the romance novels of ‘Babs Cartwheel’, hopes to find Mr. Right while studying art history at the Catafalque Institute in London (a thinly veiled Courtauld, where Ellmann studied). She’s immediately taken with one of her professors, Lionel Syms, whom she dubs “The Splendid Young Man.” Isabel’s desperately unsexy description of him had me snorting into my tea:
He had a masculinity.
His broad shoulders and narrow hips gave him a distinctive physique.
He held seminars and wore red socks.
To hold seminars seemed to indicate a wish to develop a rapport with his students.
The red socks seemed to indicate testosterone.
I swooned in admiration of him.
Unfortunately, the Splendid Young Man is more interested in Isabel’s portly flatmate, Pol. There’s a screwball charm to this campus novel full of love triangles and preposterous minor characters. I laughed at many of Ellmann’s deadpan lines, and would recommend this to fans of David Lodge’s academic comedies. But if you wish to, you could read this as a cautionary tale about the dangers of romantic fantasies. Ellmann even offers two alternate endings, one melodramatic and one more prosaic but believable. I’ll seek out the rest of her back catalogue – so thanks to the Booker for putting her on my radar.
In the meantime, I did a bit better with the “Not the Booker Prize” (administered by the Guardian) shortlist, reading three out of their six:
Flames by Robbie Arnott
This strange and somewhat entrancing debut novel is set in Arnott’s native Tasmania. The women of the McAllister family are known to return to life – even after a cremation, as happened briefly with Charlotte and Levi’s mother. Levi is determined to stop this from happening again, and decides to have a coffin built to ensure his 23-year-old sister can’t ever come back from the flames once she’s dead. The letters that pass between him and the ill-tempered woodworker he hires to do the job were my favorite part of the book. In other strands, we see Charlotte traveling down to work at a wombat farm in Melaleuca, a female investigator lighting out after her, and Karl forming a close relationship with a seal. This reminded me somewhat of The Bus on Thursday by Shirley Barrett and Orkney by Amy Sackville. At times I had trouble following the POV and setting shifts involved in this work of magic realism, though Arnott’s writing is certainly striking.
A favorite passage:
“The Midlands droned on, denuded hill after denuded hill, until I rolled into sprawling suburbs around noon. Here’s a list of the places I’d choose to visit before the capital: hell, anywhere tropical, the Mariana Trench, a deeper pit of hell, my mother’s house.”
My thanks to Atlantic Books for the free paperback copy for review.
See Susan’s review for a more enthusiastic response.
The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James: A twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. (See my full review.)
Supper Club by Lara Williams: A great debut novel with strong themes of female friendship and food. The Supper Club Roberta and Stevie create is performance art, but it’s also about creating personal meaning when family and romance have failed you. (See my full review.)
The other three books on the shortlist are:
- Skin by Liam Brown: A dystopian novel in which people become allergic to human contact. I think I’ll pass on this one.
- Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin: A debut novel by a Norwegian author that proceeds backwards to examine the life of a woman struggling with endometriosis and raising a young daughter. I’m very keen to read this one.
- Spring by Ali Smith: I’ve basically given up on Ali Smith – and certainly on the Seasons quartet, after DNFing Winter.
(The Not the Booker Prize will be announced on the Guardian website this Friday the 11th.)