This is not my review of The Shape of the Eye. I simply found I had so much to say about this book that I had to break it up…when I received my copy of The Shape of the Eye, I cracked it open and just…fell in love.
There is some tight, stupendously brilliant prose going on over there in The Shape of the Eye. It is way up on my list of top books I have ever read, simply ever. It’s exquisitely crafted.
With expert marketing hands on it I wager it would make bestseller lists; it’s that good.
The Shape of the Eye – intersecting thoughts of race and disability. A must-read book that will not be re-printed by its current publishing house, a book that is down to the last few hundred copies. It’s still available on Amazon and you should get it while you can…
More on that in the actual review. This isn’t the review, remember?
That’s what I wrote and I have been re-reading The Shape of the Eye in preparation for a proper review as I will be hosting an author interview with George Estreich on this blog next week. I find myself very nervous about it though – I liked loved the book so much that I don’t want to mess up the review.
So I turned to my friends Lisa and Alison and asked, in the interest of having something posted that is more complete, if I could post their reviews? Lisa, you see, writes wonderful reviews – she basically tears books apart with her eyes then re-assembles bits in a meaningful way. And Alison has a way of writing that usually has me laughing out loud and nodding my head enthusiastically in agreement.
I really liked their reviews on The Shape of the Eye -and thought they would in essence, speak for me.
Here they are. And thank you, Lisa and Alison.
The Shape of the Eye, reviewed by Alison Piepmeier
Here’s my big sales pitch for The Shape of the Eye: this is a memoir that doesn’t enrage me.
I’m sort of compelled to read new memoirs by parents of kids with disabilities, particularly parents of kids with Down syndrome. It’s an unhealthy compulsion, because my intense frustration with most of these memoirs is so evident that Biffle has often asked me to stop reading them. The other day I was mad for some complete other reason, and Biffle said, “Are you reading a memoir?”
I get angry because the memoir writers often spend much of the memoir detailing their misery: here’s how terrible it is to have a child with Down syndrome. This story is at this point so old it’s clichéd, and it’s not functional in the ways I think these parents ultimately want it to be. They end the memoir at a place of love for their child, and they seem to want the reader to feel that love as well, but what the reader more likely feels is some version of, “I’m glad that’s not my kid. But bless their hearts.”
The Shape of the Eye doesn’t do this.
George Estreich certainly acknowledges profoundly mixed feelings when his daughter Laura was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. For instance, he writes, “I felt that Laura’s life was valuable, that she was a child, a sister and daughter and granddaughter above all, that she might learn and thrive. I also felt that our lives were over, that her birth was a tragedy, and that we were condemned to a half-life of hospitals, acronyms, therapists, and forms” (xiii). So here’s what he does: he acknowledges this emotional place of paradox, and then he launches into a thoughtful reflection (even analysis, although I get that this word doesn’t turn other people on the way it does me) about how he and his family create meaning and love in the midst of a culture that, by and large, doesn’t do particularly well with disabilities, particularly with cognitive ones.
And he discovers that life with Laura is like life with a child: delightful, challenging, hilarious, frustrating. This is not a book about Laura’s birth being a tragedy. It is, as is true for all memoirs, a book about George Estreich, about his growth, his family heritage, his struggles with depression and his expansion into the role of father/writer/activist.
And what I particularly appreciated is that it’s a book about how we understand Down syndrome, how we talk about it. Estreich (like me!) is critical of many of the familiar stories that are out there, and he notes, “Each time I shared the news, I faced the difficulties of narrative” (26) (interestingly, I was making this very point Wednesday in a lunch with another scholar who studies disability). He actually has lots of good points about the importance of narrative—about the problematic descriptions of kids with Down syndrome as “sweet”: he even calls out the “little angels” description that pisses me off so much.
He writes about his own process of beginning to write about Laura. He does some reading—medical and historical—about Down syndrome and discovers that the way it’s described is often nauseatingly bad: unforgivably inaccurate (one fairly recent medical book describes people with Down syndrome as “trainable”) and offensive. He discovers that “What Down syndrome ‘was’ mattered less than the way it was described” (151).
By the time I got to this part of the book, I knew I’d found an ally, somebody who should come hang out with us at the NDSC Convention (come on, George!), and someone I should talk to about my research into prenatal testing.
I’ve gone through this review resisting the urge to offer tons of quotes from the book, but let me end with this one:
If our technologies are to benefit people with Down syndrome, then their lives need to become more real to us. Science can illuminate one part of that reality, and technology can affect it. But only story can convey it (208).
I completely agree.
blog: Baxter Sez