Illustration: Jenny Williams

Women We Read This Week

Jeanne Marie Laskas’s “The New Face of Richard Norris” in GQ

Richard Norris’s face transplant is life-threatening cosmetic surgery, and the fact that that would ever feel necessary tells us something deeply uncomfortable about the world we live in. Laskas approaches this delicately, through the layers of stories that have been built up around Norris: He is a inspiration. He is an example. He is a miracle.

But of course it’s more than that. She punctures that narrative. She prepares to tear it all down.

Doubt, when it comes to miracles, is like steam on a mirror. You have to wipe it off if you want to see anything. And what choice do you have? You’ve already moved forward. You’ve given a guy a new face. You’ve gotten a new face. Your kid has a new face. There is no turning back.

Laskas returns, like a chorus, to the story of Norris-as-miracle, but each time, she whittles away at it. What emerges is often tragic—but not in the way clichéd stories of disfigurement and cures are. The tragedy comes from without, from the idealizations that put us in this mess to begin with, and the people who embody those.

Richard’s own face was removed, and destroyed in the process of removal. What’s left is only the transplanted face, one that doesn’t move the way his original face would. “Is he smiling? His new face doesn’t move a lot. Does it move at all?” His new face is handsome by conventional standards, and it’s easy to understand the desire to have it, to revel in a semblance of normality. But my favorite moment resists that. Like the story as a whole, it looks past the sheen towards something that moves, something that feels flawed and true:

The more I look at the picture of Richard’s disfigured face, the more I wish I knew it. His eyes are bigger, rounder, provide a wider window. His eyebrows are all mixed up, one curved sharply, the other a gentle swoop, thick scars in between. His lower face is cartoonish, like a drawing of an old guy who took his dentures out. There is so much to find in this face, so many avenues of inquiry.


Joan Marcus’ “Sweet Words” in The Smart Set

I have been thrilled in the last two weeks to discover the recent work of my friend and colleague from MFA days, Joan Marcus. You might say I am as happy about this find as Marcus is about the discovery of Turkish Delight in the first of two essays I’m recommending. In “Sweet Words,” Marcus explores a lifelong romance she’s had with sugary confections, real and literary. She weaves in references to literature that support and enhance her own adoration of sweets. She’s a writer who finds words as delicious as the Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, her own facility with language as rare and precious as the single peppermint sticks at Christmastime for the girls of Wilder’s Little House Series.

From the opening sentence where we see the Turkish Delight at the Middle Eastern Market, Marcus gives us eight lovely paragraphs of background and sensuous build-up, the last of which can only be described as foreplay.

The candy came in three flavors–lemon, rose and mint–each piece the size of a small ice cube. The colors were pale and delicate under their veil of confectioner’s sugar. I picked a mint piece out of its fluted sleeve and palpated it. Thickened with cornstarch instead of gelatin, it was softer than a gummy bear but not without integrity. I bit it. The paste yielded willingly in my teeth. The mint was perfect–strong but not overpowering. I pressed the bite between tongue and palate, sucked it against my teeth. It went down easy.

Marcus goes on to describe, in equally mesmerizing detail, the ensuing binge and resulting nausea, a sugar “bender” she later tells us happened fifteen years ago, before learning she was pre-diabetic.

As appealing for its candor and confessions as it is for its rich literary references, “Sweet Words” transports.

…there’s something about tearing into a bar of imported chocolate or a bag of jewel-tone gummies that sparks my imagination, that feels like travel or discovery or hope.

And it makes us laugh.

…I know what it’s like to chain chew a whole pack of Mentos inside five minutes, thumbing each button up out of the paper sleeve before the previous one is quite down my throat.

I’ve been known to dig a pint of Ben and Jerry’s out of a shopping bag in the grocery store parking lot and eat several scoops in the car, using the lid as a spoon.

Joan Marcus’ “My Mess” in The Journal

It makes perfect sense to recommend these two essays by Joan Marcus as a duo. Both encompass generational influence, things passed down. Both deal with indulgence and situations admittedly self-induced, but also seemingly out of our control. What I most want to praise about “My Mess” is Marcus’ outrageously keen attention to her own thought process, her spare and skillful use of characters (her mother, husband, daughters, a cleaning woman), and the fairness with which she portrays each of them and every element of the narrative.

In all honesty, our apartment was never clean–not even before my mother fell ill. I want to say from the start that I don’t blame her for this.

Perhaps I have made that woman from the cleaning service seem petty for abandoning us. This would only be because I haven’t described the mess sufficiently.

Clearly I am the kind of person who would let a mess like this metastasize…”

And I have to mention this essay’s back and forth between internal and external spaces, from apartment to garden and back again. Clutter, both man-made and natural. The care with which Marcus’ mother tends the plants on her kitchen window, even after paralysis has begun; the similar persistence the narrator exhibits as she untangles the volunteer pumpkins from the snap peas or digs a twelve-inch taproot of thistle out of the rhubarb. The essay inhales and exhales between these two environments, where messes, synthetic and organic, thrive.

Both “Sweet Words” and “My Mess” are deeply enjoyable as stories, doing for the reader what candy in literature did for the young Marcus. These essays endear you to this narrator who so willingly and eloquently reveals the particulars of her own struggles. Your demons may be different ones, but every reader will recognize a version of herself in the inevitable surrender. — Melanie Bishop


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