The Secret Life of Stories by Michael Bérubé

Berube_secretlifestoriesBérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. New York: NYUP, 2016. Print.

Summary: Regardless of whether a book features a disabled person, says Bérubé, all literature on the whole is haunted with intellectual disability in some way. At times, disability sparks or corrupts motives, generating a more compelling plot. But for the cleverest of writers, intellectual disability illuminates and elevates the entire text by disabling the narrative in a way that makes more “abled” readers work hard to decode the the story while simultaneously gaining a better understanding of what it is like to have a disability.

Critique: The title drew me in. Suckered, more like. Stories have a secret life? Just like bees??? And that secrecy has something to do with disability? Count me in as curious!

Reading Bérubé’s touching introduction about his youngest son’s intellectual disability set me up to think the text that followed was going to be intellectual creative nonfiction à la E. O. Wilson. But unfortunately, the book reads like a PhD dissertation. Didactic scholarly tone. Long sentences that tie their own grammatical and syntactical Celtic knots. Plenty of phrases like, “within the wider discursive structure of relations among different levels of text….” More fun than the obfuscated tone is Bérubé’s way of spurring cat-fights among his colleagues–calling them out for shoddy research or inept theories. I was sure, at any moment, he was going to scwatch their widdle wesearching eyes out!!!

That said, Bérubé still introduced me to a topic I very much much wanted to meet. (And I do thank him for an intelligent introduction, at that. I am now better informed than I was.) He provided many analytical ins where before I’d met locked doors. His example texts welcomed me into the conversation, even if his erudite style did not.

I would say this is a very good book for students learning how to do a close, critical reading of a text. And as a sort of geek-bonus, Bérubé’s endnotes are chatty and witty. In one example, Bérubé notes, “I am borrowing this argument from Janet Lyon, who will eventually want it back.”

For a very touching initiation into the topic of disability its tangible link to literature, I suggest Lauren Davis’ “Reading Through Trauma: How Story Helped Us Navigate Through Challenging Days.”


How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

magoon_howwentdownMagoon, Kekla. How It Went Down. New York: Henry Holt, 2014. Print.

Genre: YA (Rashomon)

Summary: The tragic shooting of a young black man rips apart an inner city neighborhood. The white man responsible for the killing walks free. Sound familiar? Sadly, this tragic scenario expends gallons of newspaper ink and hours of news coverage across the country as it plays out again and again in real life. Magoon captures the pain and confusion behind the headlines. No wonder this book received honors from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards!

Critique: Magoon is a careful, thoughtful storyteller, unwrapping each layer of the event. The “facts” replay and evolve as readers view the tragedy through the eyes of a different witness or participant. Over the course of subsequent re-tellings, a Rashomon effect causes every version to slightly or significantly contradict all other versions. Details abound, and yet, all they do is muddy the already rippled waters.

Truth turns slippery and smokey the more readers and characters try to understand why Tariq Johnson was shot. The shooter insists his actions were defensive, even heroic, removing yet another violent gang member from the streets. But other witnesses swear that Tariq had zero involvement with gangs. That he was holding a candy bar, not a gun. Motives and emotions obliterate memories and gradually erode the narrative until all that’s left is intense grief and fear.

Most frightening of all is how the human mind often has no inkling its memories and perceptions have been warped over time. Truth wears countless, tricky masks.

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

0-545-26125-2Reedy, Trent. Words in the Dust. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2011. Print.

Genre: middle grade (cultural)

Summary: Zulaikha might be a young, illiterate Afghani girl, but she already knows how her entire future will be. She will forever live at home, working like a slave for her father’s second wife — a woman who hates her and always yells at her. Meanwhile, her beautiful sister Zeynab will be married, have a kind and wealthy husband, and lots of beautiful sons. Zulaikha does not expect much from her future mostly because she has a “donkeyface.” Her upper lip is cleft and all her teeth poke straight out. She eats funny. She drinks funny. And when the boys in the village are not teasing her, she tries her best to be invisible so that no one looks at her with pity or disgust. Everything changes the day Zulaikha has to rescue her naughty younger brother from a stunt he was dared to do. Suddenly, a group of American soldiers want take her to Kandahar for a free surgery to fix her mouth and an old friend of her mother’s wants to teach her to read and write. She discovers that her mother was a brilliant scholar brutally murdered by the Taliban. Immediately, Zulaikha’s world flips upside down and nothing turns out the way she imagined.

Critique: Reedy is a true storyteller. He weaves foreign words alongside the context needed to riddle out their meanings (plus there’s a good glossary at the back of the book). And he gives readers a whole new world to experience, as well as a character that will forever live within their soul. Zulaikha endures terrible bullying and demonstrates considerable bravery in the first two chapters. Her heart is enormous and her story is too compelling to put down. Oh how badly you’ll want to reach through the pages and rescue her from the worst moments life delivers!

The desire to constantly rescue her is actually tied to what will feel like the book’s only weakness. Zulaikha is restrained, quiet, deferential, and excruciatingly submissive. In scene after scene, she silently endures the aggressions and transgressions of others. She feels passionately, but rarely acts, speaks out, or rebels. Much of the plot seems to move along without any direction from her.

There is nothing she can do when her sister is rushed into a bad marriage. There is nothing she can say when the soldiers arrange for a helicopter to pick her up and fly her away for surgery. There is nothing she can do when the helicopter fails to arrive and her father cannot miss anymore work.

From a Western/American perspective, plot lines tend to result from the actions and decisions of the protagonist. In Zulaikha’s world, however, girls and women cannot decide anything for themselves. True to the cultural constructs of gender, Reedy does not make Zulaikha a zesty, sassy, American girl. Even though adhering to cultural authenticity can make this a tough story for American audiences to stick with, it is not a weakness.

Rather than transform her into something more palatable for a Western audience, Reedy allows Zulaikha’s courage and immense heart prevail in their own quiet ways.