Barbellion Prize Shortlist: Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer
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:
- Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
- I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
“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.
The Three Best Books I’ve Read So Far This Year
I’m very stingy with my 5-star ratings, so when I give one out you can be assured that a book is truly special. These three are all backlist reads – look out for my Classic of the Month post next week for a fourth that merits 5 stars – that are well worth seeking out. Out of the 50 books I’ve read so far this year, these are far and away the best.
This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne (1995)
I plucked this Wigtown purchase at random from my shelves and it ended up being just what I needed to lift me out of January’s funk. Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder, “rare, life-changing moments of seeing or hearing things with heightened perception,” is what makes us human. Call it an epiphany (as Joyce did), call it a moment of vision (as Woolf did), call it a feeling of communion with the universe; whatever you call it, you know what he is talking about. It’s that fleeting sense that you are right where you should be, that you have tapped into some universal secret of how to be in the world.
Mayne believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to wonder by encouraging us to pay close attention. His frame of reference is wide, with lots of quotations and poetry extracts; he has a special love for Turner, Monet and Van Gogh and for Rilke, Blake and Hopkins. Mayne was an Anglican priest and Dean of Westminster, so he comes at things from a Christian perspective, but most of his advice is generically spiritual and not limited to a particular religion. There are about 50 pages towards the end that are specifically about Jesus; one could skip those if desired.
The book is a series of letters written to his grandchildren from a chalet in the Swiss Alps one May to June. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, the effect is of a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages. I don’t often feel awake to life’s wonder – I get lost in its tedium and unfairness instead – but this book gave me something to aspire to.
A few of the many wonderful quotes:
“The mystery is that the created world exists. It is: I am. The mystery is life itself, together with the fact that however much we seek to explore and to penetrate them, the impenetrable shadows remain.”
“Once wonder goes; once mystery is dismissed; once the holy and the numinous count for nothing; then human life becomes cheap and it is possible with a single bullet to shatter that most miraculous thing, a human skull, with scarcely a second thought. Wonder and compassion go hand-in-hand.”
“this recognition of my true worth is something entirely different from selfishness, that turned-in-upon-myselfness of the egocentric. … It is a kind of blasphemy to view ourselves with so little compassion when God views us with so much.”
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross (2007)
When she was training to become a doctor in Rhode Island, Montross and her anatomy lab classmates were assigned an older female cadaver they named Eve. Eve taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a published poet, as evident in her lyrical exploration of the attraction and strangeness of working with the remnants of someone who was once alive. She sees the contrasts, the danger, the theatre, the wonder of it all:
“Stacked beside me on my sage green couch: this spinal column that wraps into a coil without muscle to hold it upright, hands and feet tied together with floss, this skull hinged and empty. A man’s teeth.”
“When I look at the tissues and organs responsible for keeping me alive, I am not reassured. The wall of the atrium is the thickness of an old T-shirt, and yet a tear in it means instant death. The aorta is something I have never thought about before, but if mine were punctured, I would exsanguinate, a deceptively beautiful word”
All through her training, Montross has to remind herself to preserve her empathy despite a junior doctor’s fatigue and the brutality of the work (“The force necessary in the dissections feels barbarous”), especially as the personal intrudes on her career through her grandparents’ decline and her plans to start a family with her wife – which I gather is more of a theme in her next book, Falling into the Fire, about her work as a psychiatrist. I get through a whole lot of medical reads, as any of my regular readers will know, but this one is an absolute stand-out for its lyrical language, clarity of vision, honesty and compassion.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
Had I finished this late last year instead of in the second week of January, it would have been vying with Lauren Groff’s Florida for the #1 spot on my Best Fiction of 2018 list.
The title – presumably inspired by both Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, California (“There is no there there”) and the Radiohead song – is no soft pat of reassurance. It’s falsely lulling; if anything, it’s a warning that there is no consolation to be found here. Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least, with alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence as recurring sources of trauma. They have ongoing struggles with grief, mental illness and the far-reaching effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, alternating between the first and third person (plus one second person chapter). As we see them preparing for the powwow, whether to dance and drum, meet estranged relatives, or get up to no good, we start to work out the links between everyone. I especially liked how Orange unobtrusively weaves in examples of modern technology like 3D printing and drones.
The writing in the action sequences is noticeably weaker, and I wasn’t fully convinced by the sentimentality-within-tragedy of the ending, but I was awfully impressed with this novel overall. I’d recommend it to readers of David Chariandy’s Brother and especially Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It was my vote for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize (for the best first book, of any genre, published in 2018), and I was pleased that it went on to win.
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley & Improvement by Joan Silber
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)
Two London couples: Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary. They’ve known each other for decades, and their affiliations have changed in major, even ironic ways. It was Lydia who was initially infatuated with Alex when he taught both her and Christine, and Christine and Zachary who dated for a time. But this is how things ultimately fell out, each marriage resulting in one daughter. Christine with Alex; Lydia with Zachary.
Except now Zachary is dead. The phone call comes in the novel’s very first sentence. How Lydia and her friends – not to mention her daughter, Grace, who’s studying art in Glasgow – will cope with the loss, and rearrange what was once such a comfortable quadrilateral, is the ostensible subject of the rest of the book. There’s a funeral to plan and a future for Lydia to construct. But the problem, for me, is that every other chapter hosts a seemingly endless flashback to the couples’ backstory. Apart from an odd, titillating moment when the four nearly let down their guard together, these sections don’t reveal an awful lot.
This is my sixth book by Tessa Hadley. Her eye is always sharp on how families work, how relationships fall apart, and how memories form and linger as we age. She’s also a master of third-person omniscience, moving effortlessly between characters’ perspectives. The writing here is exquisite; there’s no question about that. I especially love the descriptive passages, full of so much sensual detail that you can imagine yourself right into a scene:
A breeze fanned the newspaper on the table, the smells of a city summer were wafted through the open window: tar and car exhaust, the bitter-green of the flowering privet hedge. Police horses went past in the broad street, their hooves clip-clopping conversationally alongside the voices of the women who rode them; the stables were nearby.
Her perception was a skin stretched taut, prickling with response to each change in the light outside as it ran through the drama of its sunset performance at the end of the street, in a mass of gilded pink cloud. When eventually the copper beech was only a silhouette cut out against the blue of the last light, Christine pulled down the blinds, put on all the lamps, turned her awareness inwards.
Despite the fine prose, I found the past strand of this novel tedious. If you’re new to Hadley, I’d recommend starting with Clever Girl and/or Bad Dreams and Other Stories.
Late in the Day was published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on February 14th, and in the USA by Harper on January 15th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Improvement by Joan Silber (2017)
I’ve been thinking a lot about linked short story collections, having written a brief article about them for BookBrowse to accompany my review of Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You (those who contributed ideas on Twitter, thank you!). I find them easier to read than the average short story volume because there are fewer characters and settings to keep track of, and you get the fun of tracing unexpected connections between characters. Improvement didn’t quite work for me in that way, mostly because you can tell that it started as one short story, “About My Aunt”: now the untitled first chapter, it is, as you might guess, a solid stand-alone narrative about Reyna and her aunt Kiki. It was originally published in Tin House and collected in The Best American Short Stories 2015.
I was most interested in Kiki, a terrific character with a completely unsuitable name. Her marriage to a Turk failed – but hey, at least she got a great rug out of it, as well as the fun but temporary challenge of third-world life. (“For a hardheaded person, she had let herself be flung about by the winds of love, and she wasn’t sorry either.”) Back in New York City she directs a house-cleaning agency and babysits for Reyna’s four-year-old son, Oliver. Tattooed Reyna’s African-American boyfriend, Boyd, is in prison for three months for selling pot; when he gets out he comes up with the bright idea of smuggling cigarettes between Virginia and New York to profit from the tax difference. He asks Reyna to make one of the pick-ups, but she chickens out at the last minute. Boyd’s friend Claude drives instead, and is killed instantly in a crash.
Part II reaches into the lives of some of the minor characters on the fringes: Claude; Teddy, the truck driver who was the other party in the car accident; Osman, Kiki’s ex-husband; a trio of Germans who passed through their Turkish town in the summer of 1977 with smuggled antiquities in their possession; and so on. For me, these narratives were too diffuse and didn’t hang together as a novel. I had hoped to enjoy this more since it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and Silber is one of those writer’s writers you always hear about but never get to read. I found her voice similar to Anne Tyler’s or perhaps Julia Glass’s, but I’m not sure I’d try another book by her.
Improvement was published by Allen & Unwin on February 7th. It came out in the USA from Counterpoint Press in 2017. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Bottom line for both:
Subtle, sophisticated but underwhelming.
November Reading Plans: Novellas, Margaret Atwood and More
This is my third year joining Laura Frey and others in reading novellas in November. Laura has put together a history of the challenge here; it has had various incarnations but has no particular host or rules. Join us if you like! (#NovNov) The definition of a novella seems to be loose – it’s based more on word count than page count – so it’s up to you what you’d like to classify as one. I generally limit myself to books of 150 pages or fewer, though in some cases I’d probably go as high as 180-some. I’ve trawled my shelves and library pile and have four stacks to select from: fiction, classics, novella-length nonfiction, and slightly longer novels (160–190 pages) that I’ll keep around as backups but likely won’t get to.
Between what I have in these stacks, holds I’m waiting on at the library (West by Carys Davies, The Glorious Life of the Oak by John Lewis-Stempel and Holloway by Robert Macfarlane), and some additional choices on my e-readers (Lady into Fox by David Garnett, Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and Childhood: Two Novellas by Gerard Reve), I easily have enough for a book a day. In a future year maybe I’d be able to clear my schedule such that I could indeed read one novella per day, but I have so many review books on the go that I won’t aim for that. Besides, I’m not the kind of reader who’d sit down and read a 160-page book in one sitting; I’d be more likely to read 20 pages each in eight different books.
This is the pile I’ll be starting later today. (The Evans looks long but is 164 pages of text with various full- and half-page black-and-white illustrations dotted through.)
I got a headstart on Novellas in November with this Canongate volume published today.
Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere by Jeanette Winterson
Last year it was Mary Beard’s Women and Power; in 2018 this is the Christmas gift to slip into every feminist book-lover’s stocking. Adapted from Winterson’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture and supplemented by the text of Emmeline Pankhurst’s 1913 speech “Freedom or Death,” this is a slim, attractive volume that feels timely if insubstantial. Winterson gives a potted history of suffragism and argues that female brains are not wired differently; it’s just social programming that tells us so. Gender imbalances in university admissions and the job market continued into the 1970s, so it’s no surprise, she says, that women are still catching up 40 years later – and she supports measures that could be labeled as positive discrimination.
From the #MeToo movement she makes what seems like an odd swerve into discussing AI because computer science/Silicon Valley is very male-dominated and she wants to be sure women have a respected role in the future. My reaction to this was the same as to Beard’s book and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists: you can’t (and I don’t) dispute what the author has to say; for the most part the points are compelling and well made. Yet I don’t necessarily feel that I learned anything, or saw something familiar in a new way.
“When prejudice and bad science are no longer in the way, women always prove themselves as capable as men.”
“that’s how it is with patriarchy – we don’t notice the all-male panels, the movies where women are just the love interest, the number of male presenters on TV and radio […] and we do need parity, because women are one half of the population.”
Other November reading plans…
Margaret Atwood Reading Month
One of my longer novellas is a library copy of Surfacing (1972), which will be my first of two reads for the Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Marcie and Naomi. I also own a copy of The Edible Woman (1969) and look forward to trying both of these early works.
Young Writer of the Year Award
Being involved with the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award was one of my highlights of 2017. I’m excited for this year’s shadow panelists, several of whom are longtime blogging friends, and look forward to following along with the shortlist reads even though I can’t attend this year’s events. With any luck I will already have read at least one or two of the nominees (fingers crossed for Daisy Johnson and Fiona Mozley) so that there’s only a couple more to discover.
John Leonard Prize committee
In May I joined the National Book Critics Circle. One of the awards they give annually is the John Leonard Prize for the best first book in any genre. The pool of nominees is based on member recommendations, and a volunteer panel of members (as many as are interested!) then reads the 5–7 finalists and votes for a winner by January 8th. I signed up to be on the panel, so I’m committed to reading all the finalists in e-book format within about six weeks. Again, I hope to find that I’ve already read at least a few of the nominees. Regardless, it will be a fun project to keep me busy over our two weeks in America for the holidays.
Any reading plans for November? Will you be joining in with novellas or Margaret Atwood’s books?
August Thoughts (via Song Lyrics and Book Quotes)
Can’t believe I let the summer slip away again
Like watermelon juice dripping down my chin
It might be light enough for one last swim
If we hurry on down to the shore
A fool would ask for more
A fool would ask for more
~from “August” by Mark Erelli
Summer is winding down here in southern England. The chilly nights and mornings and the huge ripe blackberries tell us autumn will be here soon. Did I make enough of the summer? Or did I so ardently escape the heat, here and in America, that I didn’t let myself enjoy it?
We didn’t end up making a summer pudding this year. It’s an old-fashioned, grown-up dessert made of almost nothing but white bread and fresh berries, but if you want to taste July in a bowl this is it. Sweetness from strawberries and raspberries; only just palatable sharpness from currants; smoothness from a generous pouring of cream. As my husband says each year, who knows how many more annual summer puddings we’ll get? Food traditions are as important a way of marking the passing of time and the seasons’ gifts as anything else.
I’ve had “August” by Mark Erelli, a New England folk singer/songwriter we discovered through The Darwin Song Project, in my head for weeks and weeks. It presents scenes from a languid summer evening that appeal to my nostalgia for my American childhood. More than that, though, its recurring line – “A fool would ask for more” – encourages me to be grateful for what I have and to appreciate these ordinary, fleeting moments.
“You’re one of those people who wants everything but what they have.” So Ruth, dying of breast cancer, skewers her best friend Ann, the narrator of Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg. That line stung a little, because I fear it’s true of me. When I’m in America I’m silently contemptuous of the lavish lifestyle and the can-do attitude; as soon as I’m back in England I stew in my cluttered house and my shabby little life. I envy friends with design magazine-worthy homes (but I don’t want the hassle of owning a house), sweet kids (but I don’t want to have children), stable careers (but I don’t want a regular job), and comfortable habits not needled by environmental and ethical dilemmas (but once you know you can’t go back).
My five-year freelancing anniversary passed quietly at the end of July. Being a freelancer has all the perks you’d expect – no boss or co-workers, at least not in the traditional sense; no commute; flexibility; variety – but also some downsides you might not realize. In my case, it means I virtually never leave my house, and I’m sedentary and sitting most of the time. I don’t get vacation time or sick pay, I have to muddle through my taxes in two countries, and I put hours and hours of work into assignments that pay insultingly little.
When asked recently for advice about freelance writing, I warned that it is extremely difficult to make money from writing about books – so if you want to do it, be sure you’re just doing it for the love of books, and secure another source of income. For me that’s proofreading science journal articles. It’s something I’m good at and find just challenging enough to keep me stimulated, but if I’m honest I don’t really care about this work. It’s just a paycheck.
To put it simply, I’m bored. Some of my writing gigs have spanned the full five years, and I’m still doing exactly the same things. I’ve had a couple small pay rises, but I’m not earning significantly more than I was in 2013, even though I was recently named an associate editor at one of the magazines (an honorary title, alas). I feel restless and like I’m just waiting for the smallest signal to tell me I can drop everything. It would be a relief to let it all go. Julia Cameron captures this feeling in The Artist’s Way: “Restive in our lives, we yearn for more, we wish, we chafe. … We want to do something but we think it needs to be the right something, by which we mean something important.”
So really what I should be doing is aiming higher. I’m now a member of the National Book Critics Circle and have access to a document listing the pay rates for big-name venues, places that pay hundreds of dollars for book reviews and $1+/word for literary articles. But it often takes me months to get up the courage to pitch to a new publication, if I ever do it at all.
In Help Me! (out on September 6th), freelance journalist Marianne Power took on a different self-help book each month for a year to see if she could change her life for the better. One particularly rough month was all about Rejection Therapy. “I should have been constantly sending ideas to different publications but I didn’t. … I didn’t want to get rejected because I would take that as a confirmation of all the insecurities I had in my head – that I was a rubbish writer, that I had been lucky to get even this far, that I would never work again.”
That passage certainly resonated for me. No matter how many hundreds of reviews I write, I still barely trust myself to write another successful one. Temporary triumphs fade fast. Getting a pitch accepted at Literary Hub had been one of the highlights of my year, but pretty much as soon as the article was published on the website I felt deflated. It was a flash in the pan; a few comments and retweets and then it was forgotten before you know it.
I didn’t think I was a flighty person who needed a lot of novelty in my life. But Beryl Markham – lion hunter, horse trainer, aviatrix – has been reminding me that even if you have a good life that many would admire, even if you’d be a fool to ask for more, sometimes you still need a change. Here’s a passage from the formidable adventurer’s West with the Night: “I wonder if I should have a change – a year in Europe this time – something new, something better, perhaps. A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. … it is no good anticipating regrets. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”
My 35th birthday is coming up this autumn. It feels like time for a rethink. What do I want every tomorrow to look like? It’s all too easy to stick with what feels like a sure thing instead of launching into something new.