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13 Great Books That Show There’s Power in (Dis)ability

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The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang is a series of essays by this brilliant queer writer and disability activist about her experience with schizoaffective disorder that is compounded by her bipolar disorder, PTSD, and Lyme disease. She writes of periods where she believed she was dead, and others when she hallucinated ghouls and tortured girls, or was certain her loved ones had been replaced by robots. In her essays, she explores the space schizophrenia occupies in literature and the pop cultural imagination. The married fashionista who attended both Yale and Stanford is an award-winning author and someone who has been involuntarily committed to a mental institution, situating herself in the liminal space between the typical portraits we paint of those who are highly accomplished and those judged so insane as to lose their very humanity in the eyes of society. (Graywolf Press) — Jacob Anderson-Minshall 

Honey & Vinegar: Recipe for an Outlaw — the memoir by the rebel poet, working-class, queer, and crip storyteller Sossity Chiricuzio — takes us from her early childhood to queer activist life in the 1990s to disability and provocation, traversing everything from rundown mobile homes and desert poverty in Arizona and the blur of headlights on the highway in California (hostage to an angry lover), to her years magnetically attracted to the women around her in the Southeast. Now a well-known performance poet in Portland, Ore., Chiricuzio breezily details moments in time, from her tentative threesomes, to dropping acid and watching George Carlin, to finding female friends who become lovers in a continual process of pulling apart and coming back together again, all while spray painting “queer-looking, queer-acting seeks same” on sidewalks and howling at the moon (literally and metaphorically). The non-linear essays tell the story of urban life busting at the seams with experience, marking new territory for polyamorous, queer, femme radicals. (Beaten Track Publishing) — Diane Anderson-Minshall

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks by Lawrence Weschler is a unique look at the famed gay neurologist and author. Sacks is perhaps best known now as the writer of several brilliant books based on his work in psychiatry (including Awakenings, which was later made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and the late Robin Williams). Weschler had started working on Sacks’s memoir-biography before the doctor’s celebrity had blossomed. The two met in a variety of locales and soon developed a deeper friendship. But just as Weschler was ready to write his story, Sacks asked him to put the project on hold. Only shortly before his death did he give his consent to finish the book and it was only in facing his own mortality that was able to work through his own mental health issues and the shame that he felt about being gay (and it was in this time he was finally able to have a healthy, serious relationship). In the end, Weschler’s resulting book is an honest look at a brilliant man with all his contradictions and neuroses, but also his compassion and service to those living with disabilities. From his days as a young child escaping to the Midlands countryside during the London blitz to his work at Beth Abraham Hospital’s chronic-care facility in the Bronx, And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? captures the famed author and neurologist in all his glorious (and sometimes infuriating) ranting and ultimately, his fascinating brilliance. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — Donald Padgett

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Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old: A Makeover for Self and Society is Kimberly Dark’s treatise on the experiences of a fat, queer, gender-conforming, white-passing “pretty” girl who is still most of those things — but also aging and disabled too. Anyone who grew up with a perfectly-coiffed mother during the days when girls gazed at ads for John Roberts Powers and Barbizon modeling schools with longing or repulsion will recognize Dark’s early childhood and how much the beauty standards that taught us to conform — and how it impacted those who were, or are, unable to do so (particularly women of color and those who are fat, disabled, non-gender normative, and more). Her essays argue that childhood memory embeds itself in the cells of the stigmatized body, so much so that even those with “appearance privilege” find commercial ideals of beauty are often nearly indecipherable from our own thoughts. A slim but mighty memoir from this queer, fat activist who is also a writer, professor, and performer. (AK Press) — DAM 

Tonguebreaker by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a collection of the Lambda-Literary Award-winning author’s words and poems about her working class, queer, brown, femme “survivorhood.” Piepnzna-Samarasinha writes of her life in the tough neighborhoods that served as the cauldron of her childhood. Tonguebreaker touches upon subjects like hate crimes, the deaths by suicide of her queer kin, the phoenix-like rebirth of fascism, and coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Piepnzna-Samarasinha embraces disability and continues many themes of disability justice that she highlighted in her previous book, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice  (see below). Her most recent work speaks in a common and recognizable voice to the disabled community, who are merely seeking justice and acceptance. (Arsenal Pulp Press) — DP 

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a collection of essays from the award-winning writer, performance artist, and longtime disability justice activist. They delve into what disability justice means and what a world that was truly accommodating to sick and disabled people would look like. In particular, Piepzna-Samarasinha focuses on creating spaces for LGBTQ folks and people of color who deal with illnesses or disabilities. Indeed, the very tenants of disability justice rose from queer and trans people of color who felt the broader disability rights movement did not adequately address their intersecting needs. Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer femme of color and much of her work is femme-centric but remains equally accessible for those who aren’t. Part memoir, part documentation of the disability justice movement, part survival guide, Care Work transforms the concept of “care” into a kind of inclusionary justice that could transform the world. With an eye to environmental justice and sustainability, it is particularly relevant in the face of climate change. (Arsenal Pulp Press) — JAM 

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Odes to Lithium by Shira Erlichman is the author, musician, and visual artist’s love letter to lithium, her medication for bipolar disorder. Through poems, drawings, and short bursts of narrative, the reader is introduced to Erlichman’s lifetime of experience with the illness, from the outrageous and misunderstood to diagnosis, self-acceptance, and the long, jagged path to healing. There are quasi-hallucinatory episodes, an unexpected encounter with the ghost of her grandmother, a bubble bath with Bjork, and a plumber’s confession that he is also bipolar. Despite the gravity of the content, Erlichman weaves a book that is equal parts stark and lyrical, bold and lighthearted. Diverse and thoughtful drawings mirror free form poetry before turning into a collection of standalone paragraphs at the turn of the page. This spontaneity of form perfectly encapsulates both the nature of the illness and the road to learning to live with it through medication. In the process of sharing her personal experience with lithium and biopolar disorder, she also reveals a sparkling and resilient view of one’s own identity and place in the world. (Alice James) — DP 

In Sickness and in Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance by Ben Mattlin is part autobiographical memoir and part sociological interviews covering long-term romantic relationships between those who are disabled and those who aren’t. After telling us he and his wife’s story, Mattlin goes on to interview a dozen other couples, including a lesbian couple, about their own relationships. Mattlin presents interabled couples as fully human, neither deserving of pity nor paternalistic praise. Conversely, the book is neither a bummer nor is it unyieldingly inspirational. It feels real. Sure, these couples remain deeply in love, but they’ve struggled (and still struggle) with sometimes significant hurdles. Indeed, Mattlin suggests, maybe abled-bodied couples could learn a thing or two from those in ability-discordant relationships. His sense of humor, ongoing contemplation, and interwoven material about disabilities and the disability rights movement add to the readability of the book. (Beacon Press) — JAM  

In Prognosis: A Memoir of My Brain, Sarah Vallance writes of the aftermath of a 1995 horse riding accident that left the young lesbian scholar with an IQ of 80, impulse control issues, and memory and sensory loss. Fighting depression but determined to recover from her traumatic brain injury, the Australian author not only eventually finishes her doctorate, she gets a fellowship at Harvard and has a career that carries her through Asia and back home again. Her inspirational story is a good reminder to fake it until you make it — and not let anyone else define your limitations. (Little A) — JAM 

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Uncomfortable Labels: My Life as a Gay Autistic Trans Woman by Laura Kate Dale, explores the intersections between gender dysphoria and autism. When the 20-something Brit transitioned in her late teens, she discovered that her autism impacted her experience and expression of her feminine gender. Touch-based oversensitivity made wearing makeup and binding clothing a struggle. Her sensory hyperstimulation made attending Pride and visiting gay bars nearly impossible. Fortunately, she found a “socializing goldmine” online and now advocates for quiet LGBTQ spaces where autistic members of the community can feel less ostracized. (Jessica Kingsley) — JAM 

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch looks at the particular struggles 20- to 30-year-old women who are sick or disabled face. Hirsch, who identifies as “more gay than straight,” shares her own experiences and interviews a diverse group of women from different ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, sexualities, economic and academic backgrounds, and belief systems. Most of her subjects aren’t visibly disabled; instead many are facing debilitating or even life-threatening illnesses (from myalgic encephalomyelitis and cancer to HIV) and many find their day-to-day world inhospitable and unaccommodating. Many weren’t properly diagnosed for years because their doctors didn’t believe them when they described their illnesses or pain. Racism and sexism play a role, but so does being young and not “looking sick.” The women have faced discrimination at work and have been told by bosses to leave their medical issues at home; others have been told that their illnesses make others think too much about their own mortality. They worry that no one will love them, and fret over whether to pursue motherhood. Hirsch also does serious research, pulling in results of numerous studies and talking to experts on relevant subjects. A must-read for women with invisible disabilities. (Beacon Press) — JAM 

All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson by Mark Griffin aims to be the definitive biography of the complicated man and actor. Born Roy Scherer Jr. in Winnetka, Ill., during the height of the Great Depression, the future leading man of Hollywood endured a difficult childhood. Abandoned by his biological father at age 5, Hudson was then beaten by his alcoholic stepfather for the next ten years. Though the actor’s domineering mother showered him with love and attention, she failed to protect him from the abuse. All That Heaven Allows follows the transformation of a young, shy truckdriver into the resident Adonis of Universal Studies. Griffin does not shy away from the sordid practices of several unscrupulous Hollywood types, including the price Hudson paid on the casting couch. His focus, though, is on the breadth of the actor’s life and career. The book chronologically examines his life and focuses on individual periods and projects. Whether it’s the opening examination of his childhood to the chapter on how the contradictory nature of his off-screen relationship with Jill St. James fueled their successful on-screen chemistry in MacMillan and Wife, Griffin does not disappoint in his comprehensive coverage of Hudson. There are also plenty of details on his untimely demise, as well as the humanizing impact his very public passing had on the perception and response to the spreading HIV crisis. (Harper Collins) — DP

We Carry Kevan: Six Friends. Three Countries. No Wheelchair. by Kevan Chandler is the story of a man who, with the help of his friends, didn’t let a disability limit him in his quest to experience life to its fullest. As Chandler himself  tells it, he grew to about “belt-buckle level” and stayed there. He was the second of his siblings with spinal muscular atrophy, a rare neuromuscular disease. Rather than accept a fate of supplements and a job in front of a computer screen, Chandler ditched the wheelchair in Atlanta and headed to Europe with his friends. And what amazing friends they are. There, they literally carried Chandler on their backs as they hiked through France, England, and Ireland. The climax of their adventure was a scramble to Ireland’s 1,400-year-old monastic fortress of Skellig Michael. Though he’s not queer, We Carry Kevan is an inspirational book for all readers — the story of one man’s determination to resist and overcome the limitations others have placed on him. Chandler utlimately proves that few obstacles in life are insurmountable. (Worthy Publishing) — DP 

 

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