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.

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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.


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Full Spectrum by Adam Rogers

Yesterday my review of Adam Rogers’ fabulous book, Full Spectrum: How the Science of Color Made Us Modern, was one sentence from completion. I had shared the span of history, biology, geology, commerce, physics, light, and more that he wove together in his exploration of color.  I had written about the other books about color on my shelf: Catherine McKinley’s  Indigo in which she traces this marvelous color from the dye pots of ancient Africa to the runways of 21st century Fashion Week and Simon Garfield’s delightful Mauve, the accidental invention of which by 18-year-old chemist William Perkins in 1856 gave way to mass-production of color by marrying chemistry and chroma. 

I’d written about Rogers’ clarity in explaining complex theories and even more complex science and how he managed to edge in humor as well.  He called the brain “think-meat” and offered up sentences such as, “The oscillation between seeing and learning is a steady hum in the background of human history.” There was also this sentence which I offer you the next time you are at a coktail party (remember those?) and want to impress: “A material’s refractive index is the ratio of speed of light in a vaccuum to speed of light as it moves through that material.”  I wrote how Full Spectrum arrived full of mystery. A deliver from Amazon with no note from the sender.

You know where this is going, don’t you? One sentence from completion my review fell victin to that sickening sleight of hand we all know too well. My review disappeared. Into the ether, over the rainbow, off the canvas for evermore.  So instead, I give you what Rogers says of Full Spectrum: “This book will roughtly folloiw the back-and-forth of color beetween — to be reductionistbout it — physics and mind.”  It is not a fast read, but it is a fascinating one.


PS Turns out my son saw a review of the book and thought I’d enjoy it. He was spot on.

PSS Also turns out that back in June I had tucked away in my “To Read” file a WSJ review of Full Spectrum. I love it that my son and I remain on the same wavelength.

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There is Magic in the World…

…and the Heavens listen.  This is a “stop the presses!” moment.

Our daughter-in-law texted late last night that today at five would be a good time to read to Olivia and do music*.  When Martin told me, I realized I’d need to get to the library for some new books to read. This morning  I received a delivery from Amazon.  At the bottom was a book I don’t even remember ordering.

I reached for What Do You Know? by sisters Aracelis Girmay and Ariana Fields (I mean with names like that they have to be magic women!), opened it, began to read, and tumbled into that special place of mine where gratitude spirals from my very depths like the best fireworks you’ve ever seen.  Gratitude for these talented women, gratitude for my capacity to feel so deeply, gratitude for the years (two) and conversations (1000) that brought this book into being.

From the blurb: “What might a bear, a farmer, a historian, some goats or courage respond when love askes, ‘What do you know?’ ” Turn the page and be surrounded in wonder and astonishment. Reach the farmers’ pages and delight in the illustrations. Read the answer of courage and know that when you read this book to your children and grandchildren you will be teaching them life’s most difficult lesson in an unforgettable way.

That’s all I’ll say.  Except for this: Order this book today. Visit Enchanted Lion Books.  They are an amazing publisher of the art and philosopy we call children’s books.


* Martin finds incredible music videos to enjoy with Olivia.  Their repetoire spans opera, Broadway, ballet and symphonies. One of their favorites is Shostakovich’s opera The Nose which contains a scene of dancing noses.


I have classified this post in three drawers: Grandlife, Bookshelf, Kids @ Heart because the book is so wonderful I don’t want anyone to miss it!

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Advanced Style by Ari Seth Cohen

The women photographed and featured in Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style are eye candy and inspiration for the rest of us. Cohen has made a career of photographing and celebrating fabulously put together women d’un certain age.

There is Rose, a centenarian who isn’t dressed until she is cinched with an iconic belt and clasped with string of outrageous beads. Tziporah Saloman’s canary yellow beanie, Bakelite bracelets and canvas espadrilles are the perfect foils to her perwinkle and maize tunic. “And sometimes it’s a fine line from costume to chic so I am for the latter and work on it until I achieve it.”

The women who caught the author/photgrapher’s eye, steal my heart on every page.  Their delight in their own sense of style and creativity shimmers in each image and sends the message that style never goes out of style and that age is never a barrier to being beautiful.

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What I’m Reading

Eenie, meenie, miney, mo; to which book next shall I go?

I never understood when people would tell me they were in the midst of three books. I do now. I’d had a library hold on Martha Beck’s book on  for a while , so when it was my turn I began reading it even though T.J.Thorne’s Behind the Magic Curtain arrived the day I attended the author’s book talk on Zoom.  Full Spectrum’s arrival was a mystery. A plausible one, but a mystery just the same. I have a shelf in my office devoted to books about color. There is Indigo, In Search of the Color That Seduced the World. There is Mauve. There is Colors, What They Mean and How to Make Them and the magical The Secret Lives of Color a scintillating book whose design is as wondrous as its text.  I didn’t order Full Spectrum although I could have.  I didn’t order it. There was no gift note. I even wondered if it was meant for someone else. I double checked;  nope, the package was addressed to me. Whoever sent it, knows me well.

I dipped into Full Spectrum yesterday. Of all my color books, this one promises to be the most science-y.  (Mauve runs a close second.). Author Adam Rogers opens with tectonic plate action from the Devoninan period then segues into a story about rockhound priest William Gregor’s (1761 – 1817) discovery of titanium. Four pages later I’m learning the words ommatidium and rhabdom, parts of what Rogers refers to as “the butterfly’s very weird eyes. They have that multifaceted compound bug thing…” Mine or not, I am going to enjoy this book very much.

Martha Beck’s The Way of Integrity, Finding the Path to Your True Self sounds like big promises for trendy, vague, and ubiquitous personal fulfillment goals. But Beck delivers. Using Dante’s Inferno as a literary Mapquest of sorts, Beck invites readers on a four-part journey toward the gift of personal integrity. Each stage(The Dark Wood of Error, Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise)  presents thought exercises, journalling topics and gentle mirroring of univeral human pitfalls and foibles. One exercise alone helped release me from a lifelong and utterly false subconscious assumption. I’m still mulling this one over, probing my inner terrain for its absence, marveling at the sense of freedom that has taken me quite by surprise.

T. K. Thorne’s Behind the Magic Curtain is the book closest to my heart. Subtitled Secrets, Spies and Unsung White Allies of Birmingham’s Civils Rights Days, it recounts those who sued the Klan and won; wrested rule of the city from its racist leaders; and worked tirelessly, and often under threats of violence, toward justice and racial equality. Thorne includes many stories of my grandfather’s part in the actions of the time.  As I read, I am coming across names I remember hearing him mention at the dinner table and in phone conversations afterward. Reading her book I find myself  feeling my grandfather’s presence so keenly. It is a blessing.

So, that’s what’s on my nightstand these days.  What’s on yours?


PS My wonderful son sent me Full Spectrum. Makes this mystery gift even sweeter.

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