Debra Darvickenhance your now in word and image
Bess Kalb Channels Her Grandmother
I was talking grandmothering with a new friend who already feels like an old friend. She said I had to read Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me. So I did. Now you have to read it too.
Ms. Kalb, past-writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, current weekly contributor to The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, and all kinds of great creds in between, saved every voice mail her grandmother Bobby ever sent her. The author possesses the aural equivalent of a photographic memory. Armed with this triad of talent and memory, Kalb brings to life her relationship with her grandmother so palpably that were I ever to have tea at the Plaza, I could make my way to their table faster than you could shout, “Taxi.” (I said shout, not get one.)
It took a few pages for me to enter what at first seemed a helter-skelter narrative. Who is telling the story and to whom? About whom? Who had the meningitis? Who left Belarus at twelve, alone? Who decided to attend med school after the kibbutz nurse stitched close a gash in her hand? Who was in the first class of women admitted to Brown? Who tells us, “We never said goodbye, always, ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’ Three times. Never enough.”? By the second page, I realized that the author’s narrative choice is her storytelling superpower. Instead of helter-skelter, Kalb has crafted a narrative of nesting stories one inside the other. Each one is distinct, yet none would could resonate as vividly as they do absent the context of the others.
That is why you have to read this book. Why you have to follow the author into this extraordinary relationship and into the world Bess and Bobby built for and with one another,
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
I picked up Alka Joshi’s novel at our Little Free Library down the street. Two pages in I was lost in the protagonist’s world of post-Independence India.
Seventeen-year-old Lakshmi escapes from an abusive marriage, traveling solo to Jaipur of the 1950’s. Drawing on her mother-in-law’s lessons in plant medicine and henna art, Lakshmi becomes a much-in-demand henna artist, confidante to her wealthy clients and Jaipur’s (anonymous) version of Margaret Sanger.
What stays with me are the novel’s utterly satisfying personal transformations: Lakshmi’s own as well as those of her former husband and her younger sister, a sister whom she never knew existed and whose appearance threatens her carefully constructed professional and personal life. Reading The Henna Artist during the pre-midterm election hooplah, shifted Lakshmi’s expertise with plant medicine from the world of fiction to the realities of women’s lives since, well, since forever.
I promised to keep this short so that’s about it except to say, look into Joshi’s The Henna Artist . Turns out it’s the first in a three-novel series. Happy reading!
The Turtle’s Guide to Introversion by Ton Mak
There’s an unintentional theme this week of animals who carry their homes on their backs. (See My Turtle Teacher on the Grandlife shelf!) Ton Mak’s A Turtle’s Guide to Introversion is a deep and delightful meditation inviting us to see the world through the eyes and soul of an introvert.
The world has a host of labels (dare I say judgements?) to describe our fellow humans for whom solitude is as necessary as air. For kicks, I looked up synonyms for “introverted” and “extroverted.” Thesaurus.com offered only nine synonyms for extroverted, none of which had a negative connotation. There were 20 synonyms for introverted, at least a quarter of which had a distinctly negative gloss.
Ton Mak’s sweet and charming illustrations (she calls her creatures “flabjacks”) are made all the more poignant by her incisive, insightful, and self-affirming text. Three favorites: “Conversations in the checkout line give me mild anxiety.” “I find enjoyment in creative, philosophical and spiritual endeavors.” “Confidence doesn’t always roar. Sometimes, it can be expressed in quieter and subtler forms.”
A Turtle’s Guide to Introversion is one of those treasures small in size and enormous in content, wisdom, and clarity. Gift it to your own beloved introvert. And perhaps to the teacher baffled by her sweet and quiet nautre. Team leaders, office managers and hiring staff — you’d do well to keep this one nearby. There is much to be learned from a turtle.
An Unlikely Pairing
I’m in the middle of each of these books and noticed one day that they both contain the word “completely.” Initially I might have written that other than that, they have nothing to do with one another. One (Eleanor Oliphant) is fiction; the other, Rabbi Alan Lew’s High Holiday classic, demands his readers to be fully present, fully attuned to the truth of their lives.
Eleanor first. In Eleanor Oliphant, author Gail Honeyman has created a character whose quirkiness borders on the bizarre. Eleanor recounts her emotional and physical damage in a manner so atonal and separated from self that I don’t know what is more chilling, the incidents themselves or the manner in which she recounts them. Eleanor is definitely not completely fine. Not by half; nor by a quarter. Her life is carefully circumscribed; her shoes are hideously sensible; her evening meals consist of pizza and vodka. Her dispassionate observations of the world around her hit the bull’s eye time and again. And then there are the weekly calls from Mummy that leave the reader horrified and aching with sorrow for Eleanor.
Enter Raymond, the maladroit IT guy from work. Oblivious to proper manners and appropriate footwear, Raymond has a huge heart; his concern and compassion for Eleanor runs deep. Bit by bit, Eleanor steps out into the world: first a new haircut, a new outfit, a Bobbi Brown make over, making acquaintance and lunch dates. I imagine that by the final page, Eleanor might just be completely fine for real. And if not, she will fine enough. Considering all that came before, it will be a triumph indeed.
* * *
The ten-day period between Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are days of serious spiritual introspection. At their very fullest, these days are filled with joy, apprehension, remembering, sorrow, making amends, forgiving and prayer. We reflect on our missteps of the year past, dearly hoping our atonement and intentions to do better will inspire the Divine to write us into the Book of Life for the coming year.
Considering the preparation one likely does before touring the Grand Canyon, New Zealand, et al, how much more important is it to prepare before entering the spiritual terrain of the ten Days of Awe? Readers of Rabbi Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared find themselves on a spirtual journey like no other.
Lew (of blessed memory) starts us off seven weeks before on Tisha B’av, a day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. As the Temples’ walls came down, so too do we begin to dismantle our walls of mistakes, missteps and maltreatment. Chapter by chapter, Rabbi Lew teaches and prods his readers to take personal stock, to summon self-compassion for the work at hand and to gather the courage to face what we have been running from all year, if not for many years.
The older I get, the more I look forward to Yom Kippur. I’ve learned that many of the ancient sages looked at Yom Kippur not as a day of dread but as one of joy. We are given the chance to create a clean slate upon which to write in the coming year. By asking forgiveness from others, we release ourselves from the prison of self-recrimination and suffering. Reading Rabbi Alan Lew’s book gives me hope. I am not in this alone; others have trod this path before me; I can learn from them. I read slowly and make notes, copying certain insights in my journal.
Eleanor will indeed be some version of fine. This is fiction after all. As for being completely unprepared? If we take the full import of this time seriouly, I don’t think anything can prepare us completely. That’s life’s inescapable reality. Nevertheless, Rabbi Lew has left us with a magnificent roadmap to find our way. Again and again and again.
In Five Years by Rebecca Serle
The plot of In Five Years intrigued me. The night she becomes engaged to her long-time boyfriend, the narrator dreams a dream so real she can only undertand it as her future paying a very real, very visceral visit. She is with another man, in an apartment she doesn’t recognize, experiencing with him an emotional and physical connection deeper than anything she has ever experienced. I had to chuckle at the tells that this was undeniably her life — the cosmetics in her medicine cabinet, the clothes in her closet and the fabulous red dress she is wearing in the dream. A glance at the TV news sets the timeline exactly five years hence.
I went along and part way in began dragging my feet. The narrator was flat. Her life was trite. It was all too pat. Until it wasn’t and I couldn’t put it down. Serle had me until the very end and then I began to reread my favorite parts. It is a beautiful book, rich with the truths we don’t tell ourselves and the untruths we do. The narrator’s friendship with her BFF (since first grade) is a joy to experience vicariously. I sensed a glimmer of the ending and I was right. It still landed with delicious surprise. In Five Years answers the question What does loss do to us? in unforgettable fashion.
Books can be our greatest friends. And when friends write books? That is a special category of delight.
Two friends, Diana Dinverno and Jillian Stevens, have recently published poetry collections, respectively titled When Truth Comes Home to Roost and Blue Idyll. Through the lens of her rich maternal family history, novelist Jean Alicia Elster explores slavery’s legacies and the complexity of race relations as it played out in the lives of her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.
The truths that have come home to roost in Dinverno’s life are nested one within the other each breaking open new truths: the identity of her birth mother (in actuality her aunt); discovering her birth father was a Jew; learning of an extended family of survivors of the Holocaust who have embraced her deeply and joyously. These truths lead to others: ignited memories that become searing metaphors in the author’s poetry. Order the chapbook, a winner of the 2021 Celery City Chapbook Contest, here.
While Diana Dinverno’s chapbook of poems is a lyrical narrative the reader eagerly joins as silent observer, Jillian Stevens’ poetry calls for a different kind of engagement. Her poems arrive on the page evanascent, mysterious, sculpted into irreverent stanzas that stream from the poet’s consciousness into that of her readers. We are left at times puzzled yet entranced all the same. Stevens’ lexical mash-ups — Pringle-mouth, spattered memories, plum rubber — echo e.e. cummings’ language gymnastics.
Stevens writes in her intro: Blue Idyll arrived as scribbles upon steno pads in April of 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, an enigmatic force devastating the lives of individuals across the planet. While sitting with this global and personal grief, these words surfaced in the guise of a healing balm, anointed to assuage the spirit. These very words have been my comrades — my comfort, my solace. Coming off a break-up only to enter Covid’s lockdown, Jillian used her pen as a sword to slice her way through devastation toward a new life, as written into this poem from May 29, 2020:
roots grow beneath
roots grow beneath
I can feel the melting,
the calcium-rich soil, beginning
And now, from poetry to novels — Jean Alicia Elster’s How it Happens and one of her earliest memories: asking her maternal grandmother, “Grandma, are you white?”
In the prologue, Elster writes of that memory: “At that age [a toddler] I had no concept of race or ethnic heritage. I just knew she looked different from the other family members that I interacted with. I also did not know this: her color represented a vivid reminder of the history of racial relationships in the American South as it relates to the sexual interactions between blacks and whites and the resulting offspring that did often come from those unions.”
While the seed for How It Happens was planted in her grandmother’s kitchen when Elster was a toddler, it took twenty years for her to begin to answer her long-ago innocent and potent question. Research trips to Tennessee yielded genealogy documents, information on family history, cemetery records and more. Interweaving this trove with family stories, Elster portrays three generations of indomitable women who walked a fine and fearsome line between post-slavery “freedom” and the rules, mores and laws that kept them, their husbands and their families at the mercy of white employers, shopkeepers and educators.
Alicia and I have known one another for nearly 30 years. I know her better now and more deeply for having read How It Happens. The stories and lives of Addy Jackson, May Jackson Ford, and Jean Ford Fuqua, respectively Alicia’s great-grandmother, grandmother and mother are part of me now, as Alicia has been for so many years. Order How It Happens from Wayne University Press and while you’re at it, check out Elster’s prior titles in the trilogy: Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car.