Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, December 6, 2021

Monday, December 6, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Easy Beauty

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

Easy Beauty

by Chloé Cooper Jones

The unexpected gift of motherhood and a yearning to live authentically in the present form the undercurrents running beneath Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones, a genre-defying travelogue and memoir by a gifted writer claiming spaces and embracing identities previously denied to her as a woman with a rare, painful and physically limiting congenital disability. Jones deploys wickedly clever humor to deconstruct some of her most difficult moments, a strategy that alerts readers early on to her endless capacity for grace and intellectual courage.

Easy Beauty is gorgeously crafted as a collage of experiences from childhood to the present day, scenes from a life in which the discomfort of others toward her disability limited Jones's interaction with the world, until the birth of her son, Wolfgang, forced her to critically examine her own defenses and reorient herself toward people rather than away from them. The author had spent her life waiting for people to reach their place of comfort with her physical appearance so that they would forget about it and only then would she be truly seen. She did not share her experiences, especially the cruelty of strangers, with anyone, keeping at a distance even her husband, Andrew, and her closest friends, lest they be negatively impacted by her physical and emotional pain.

"People usually notice my height first. I'm short," Jones says. "Then they notice the way I walk, then that my legs from the knees down and my feet are underdeveloped and disproportionate to the rest of my body. My spine is curved, which makes my back arch forward." Jones has hip dysplasia and she walks by rolling her hips, a painful movement that results in a noticeable side-to-side gait and draws unwanted and often hostile stares wherever she goes. Set apart from a very young age as someone who is not considered a whole person, Jones learned to disconnect by retreating to her mental "neutral room," a place where she could distance herself from the hurt of rejection. As Wolfgang grew, Jones noticed that he was learning to interact with the world by observing her. She used anger, self-righteousness and mental removal to insulate herself from people and hid behind distrust and disdain for all that she was excluded from. But the darkness that she welcomed and hid within was no place for her uncommonly sensitive child, who watched her closely and drank up her moods.

Jones is an award-winning journalist who moved to New York from rural Kansas to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy. She was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing and is the recipient of the 2020 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant. With a philosopher's determined belief in the transformative power of beauty in art, music and nature, Jones decided to leave the safe borders of her Brooklyn home to explore and gain proximity to such beauty. She ventured to countries and cities where she would be confronted daily with reactions to her physical presence, a body visually marked by difference, on her quest to discover a new way of being that could guide and inspire Wolfgang as the able-bodied son of a disabled mother.

The chapters in Easy Beauty melt and flow into one another, linked by meditative musings on philosophical theories of beauty that are scattered throughout Jones's memoir, from the easy beauty of Grecian sculptural symmetry to the difficult beauty that requires time, patience and concentration to uncover. Jones's belief in the power of beauty as an agent of personal change was reinforced while experiencing the communal joy of singing along to opera with rapturous audiences in Rome and by the spiritual deliverance of being in proximity to Beyoncé's "blunt, triumphant beauty" at a concert in Milan. Channeling the ideas of Iris Murdoch (who provides the book's epitaph), Jones allows the beauty of movement she witnesses while watching Roger Federer play tennis in Palm Springs to take her out of herself, replacing self-centered thoughts with "the electric pleasure of seeing someone be so good at something."

Jones's own beauty is discernible only in the right light. "I waited for the new people I met to simply unsee my body, to forget to stare, which happened over time. Enough exposure to me dulled my effect." In order to be accepted as a whole person deserving of the whole range of human desires, she felt she had to make up for her body by being extraordinary in all other aspects of her life. Jones's mother, protective and practical, encouraged her to use her disability as a tool, which led to Jones taking advantage of other people's reductive assumptions about her to get what she wanted.

Humor, brutal honesty and wonder at her "deep, unwieldy love" for Wolfgang inspire a potent narrative as Jones unravels the experiences leading to her gradual inner transformation and growth as a mother and a role model. Easy Beauty finds Jones confronting her own complicity in allowing others to exclude her. "It is hard to leave the darkness and step out into bright and baring light," she declares, granting readers the privilege of observing a brilliant mind set itself blissfully free. --Shahina Piyarali

Avid Reader Press, $28, hardcover, 288p., 9781982151997, April 5, 2022

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster: Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

Chloé Cooper Jones: Experiencing Beauty

(photo: Andrew Grossardt)

Chloé Cooper Jones's work has appeared in publications including GQ and New York magazine. In 2020, she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in Feature Writing. Jones also received the 2020 Whiting Creative Nonfiction Grant and the 2021 Howard Foundation Grant from Brown University, both of which supported the writing of her forthcoming memoir Easy Beauty (Avid Reader Press, April 5, 2022).

How did the process of writing Easy Beauty blossom and unfold?

I wanted to know if the experience of beauty--in art, nature, music, performance, etc.--could create a shift in me. I needed to change but did not know how. I thought it was possible that beauty and aesthetic experience could play a role in being an agent of that change.

The book covers an 18-month period when I was traveling a lot and each chapter of the book finds me in a different city looking at/thinking about a site or example of beauty. I wrote the rough material for a first draft almost entirely in hotels, airports, on boats and trains, but I shaped those notes into the book and did all the revisions in my small Brooklyn apartment during Covid. The result, I feel, is a tension between expansive movement and anxious claustrophobia in the sentences that I welcome but didn't intend.

Easy Beauty offers magnificent insight into the universal human condition through the lens of female disability, but it goes far beyond being categorized as a disability memoir. Who is the ideal audience for your memoir?

Thank you, that's very meaningful to me to know you read it that way. It is important to me that this book be about something relevant to other people. Some memoirs read to me like very long Facebook updates--interesting if you want to know the status of this one particular person, and sometimes I do. But I wanted to write a book less about me and more about the urge to retreat from discomfort in all its permutations and the question of whether or not the experience of beauty can help us get better at being present in our lives, in the world, and with each other. I filter these questions through the lens of my life and my body, but I think they are universal concerns. My ideal audience is one that finds these questions worth exploring.

The concept of a mental "neutral room" where one can escape the difficulties of the present moment is fascinating. Do you think everyone could benefit from a protective mental retreat? What are the dangers of spending too much time in one's neutral room?

Yes, and I think most people already have their own "neutral room." Where do you go to retreat from the world? This is a question my father asked me in his last letter he wrote to me. He retreated into alcohol and affairs. My mother retreats into endless chores. My mother loves chores. For me, I retreat into the life of the mind. It's likely many people become writers because a retreat into their own minds and ideas is the safest place for them. This can be beneficial. My "neutral room" is a place of comfort, peace and autonomy. Placing value in the life of the mind has yielded me many good things. But I'm fascinated by thresholds: Where does a protective retreating instinct cross over into an avoidance of reality or a dodging of difficult but necessary work? I think one of the key dangers of retreat for me is that I was complicit in the discriminatory ableism I was trying to hide from by not thinking about it and developing a language to address it when I saw it. I'm trying to be better at recognizing these thresholds.

What are the greatest gifts your parents bestowed on you as a child struggling with feelings of otherness?

My mother can bring perspective to anything. I think she sees self-pity as a lack of vision and imagination. She turns her attention outward to other people and sees herself as part of a greater whole. She is the least self-centered person I know. In this way, I think she really helped me think of myself as not "othered" but as one point of a vast, complex, but connected spectrum of human experience. My father introduced me to some important intellectual traditions in literature, art and philosophy and encouraged me to try and find my own way into these enduring conversations. If I couldn't find my place with people, I could find it in ideas.

Easy Beauty tackles serious topics with grace, brutal honesty and strategic comedic relief, a winning combination. What role does humor play in the day-to-day realities of your family life?

I think most any situation, if you are paying close attention, is funny. Some of the most devastating things I've experienced are also hysterical in their absurdity. Life has range and so writing about life should have range too, I think.

One of the primary ways my family communicates is through teasing, laughing, telling fragments of inside jokes or repurposing jokes from shows or movies we've watched. It all becomes evidence of how much time we've spent together. The secret language of intimacy is one of my favorite topics--by which I mean I'm fascinated by the ways a language forms/reforms/degrades/is coded between people who truly know each other and have spent a lot of time together.

Can you share examples of relationship changes you experienced when you decided to embrace, fully and unapologetically, the disability space you occupy?

All my relationships have become stronger because I am not hiding myself, nor am I trying to convince others that my mind should "make up" for my body.

What do you most hope for readers to take away from Easy Beauty?

I hope my readers feel I am talking with them, not at them. I hope they feel this book is for and about them, and not a voyeuristic journey into the life of some strange and foreign person. A few people have said to me something like, "I felt connected to x part of your book, but I don't want to compare my life to yours" and I'm like, by all means! Let's see the ways we are more alike than dissimilar. I'm not interested in conflating experience, but I am interested in the connective tissue between seemingly disparate lives. Making and participating in art is often the work of probing that connective tissue.

With personal and work-related travel adventures such a vibrant part of your story, where do you plan to visit next? Do you plan to attend any more Beyoncé concerts?

I would love to go to another Beyoncé concert, of course! Or if Harry Styles wants to send me some tickets to his show, that'd be cool. But wherever I go next, I'll take my son. --Shahina Piyarali

Powered by: Xtenit