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.

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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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Book Friends

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

 

the decay;

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.

 

 

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A Triple Treat

I’ve been on a novel reading jag and have a trio of my recent faves to share with you.  In Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Nora Seed hovers between life and death. Her life has less been lived, than regreted, every step of the way. “Every move had been a mistake, every decision a disaster, every day a retreat from who she’d imagined she’d be.” Nora pens her suicide note, chases the pills down with some wine and ends up not in the morgue but between life and death in the Midnight Library.

Nora is shown infinite shelves holding an infinite number of books, each one offering a different life for her to experience. “While the Midnight Library stands,” the librarian explains, “you will be preserved from death. Now you have to decide how you want to live.” 

Book after book, Nora lives the life of a rock star, a glaciologist, an Olympic swimmer, a cat sitter, thrice married, an aid worker in Botswana, and many more. Each life answers Nora’s question of who might she have been, but none can tell her which life is the best one.

Here are a couple of passages I marked. This is for my librarian friends: “Librarians have knowledge. They guide you to the right books. The right worlds. They find the best places.  Like soul-enhanced search engines.” And then there is this one, “The art of swimming — [Nora] supposed like any art — was about purity. The more focussed you were on th activity, the less focussed you were on everything else. You kind of stopped being you and becamse the thing you were doing.” The same can be said for The Midnight Library.  You cease being the reader and become one with the author’s world. What an intriguiging world Haig offers us to live for a while.

Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace is sweet, satisfying and not a bit treacly or pat. Told through the voices of seven-year-old Clara, her elderly neighbor Mrs. Orchard, and the young stranger who moves into Mrs. Orchard’s house while the old woman is in the hospital, A Town Called Solace weaves together mystery, heartbreak and the shattering actions sorrow can compel us to take.

I’d never read anything by Louise Penny, but the recommendation was so effusive, I immediately put a library hold on The Madness of Crowds. I love mysteries and crime novels and Penny’s latest delivers 100%. But Madness is so much richer than a mere whodunit. Penny began writing the novel just as the pandemic began; the stresses and dilemmas Covid laid bare in our hospital systems figure prominently.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has been charged with providing security for a lecture given by a visiting statistics professor. The seemingly simple assignment devolves into a near riot as the professor makes her case for euthanasia of those who are a drain on the medical system — the elderly, the disabled and the terminally ill. The debate ignited by the professor’s findings set the townspeople of Three Pines against one another. When a murder is committed, ghosts, secrets, and uneasy truths begin falling from the sky like the Christmas snows blanketing the town. 

While Penny deftly weaves the strands of the mystery toward the kind of ending you would expect from an award-winning, New York Times best-selling crime novelist, it’s her characters and their inner lives that have left me wanting to read other books in the series. The relationshp between Gamache and his son-in-law (and second-in-command) shifts between family tenderness and the stresses of their profession. A bevy of beautiful grandchldren, a gay couple who run the bistro and Ruth, a woman who treats the local bookstore as a lending library and never leaves the house without her F-word quacking duck clutched in her arms, make for the kind of ensemble that is pure delight.  And if that’s not enough, Louise Penny’s final pages of acknowledgments end on a note that lets me know the author would be a really fun person to hang out with. 

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Suzanne and Gertrude by Jeb Loy Nichols

What do you get when you pair a solitary, fixed-in-her-ways, unapologetically uncommunicative woman with a stray donkey? You get  Suzanne and Gertrude, a slender and charming novel by Jeb Loy Nichols. It’s the kind of book that you start over the minute you finish it.

Suzanne, Nichol’s eponymous human protagonist, lives alone on her hilltop farm quite comfortably, thank you very much. She runs the town’s fabric shop, a job that relies, “on those qualities at which she least excelled…She had no small talk…she was not interested in other peoepls’ distractions…she was simply not what the world expected her to be.”  Then one frigid February morning, a donkey that wasn’t there the night before suddenly is.  Suzanne names her Gertrude.

Suzanne’s and Gertrude’s companionship advances slowly, guardedly — a nuzzle from Gertrude here, a gentle pull from Suzanne there. There are no epic changes in either woman nor donkey. And yet there are.  Or perhaps the biggest change is in the reader. Early in the book, Suzanne acknowledges that she is out of synch with the world.  As I turned the novel’s last page I realized the truth was actally the opposite: the world is out of synch with Suzanne.

I began Suzanne and Gertrude thinking that Gertrude was a four-legged beast of burden to Suzanne’s two — relatively silent except a bray here and there;  living the same day over and over; beings of limited needs. I realized that in Gertrude, Suzanne found what too many humans never do; a companion completely in synch with her. A companion who accepts her exactly as she is.

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Italy by the Books

For this issue’s Bookshelf, I have interviewed my husband, trip planner extraordinaire. With his analytic mind and voyager’s spirit, he created for us a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

How did you choose the guide books?

‘Before even researching guide books, I researched tour companies. I wanted a company that offered a small group tree-week tour that would take us to the seven cities we wanted to visit, arrange transportation, hotels, and a half-day tour in each to orient us during our stay.  I wanted a tour that would give us plenty of freedom to craft our own experience as well, eating when and where we wanted, being in charge of our own time schedule, and having the freedom to wander and explore at will. Firebird Tours met everything on my list and more.

Once the tour group was squared away I headed to the library for the guidebooks that would help me create a memorable trip to Italy. My plan was to read them, purchase the best one, and then take notes from the others to include in my purchased book.

Which books did you read?
I checked out Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s D. K. Eyewitness and Rick Steves. Each book had a somewhat different focus. Fodors and Formmer’s were fine, very straightforwad.  The Eyewitness book was very culturally oriented with several pages in color showing the art in various museums.  Surprisingly, Lonely Planet was not much different from the Frommers and Fodor’s.

Sorrento’s last remaining lemon grove in the city proper.

In the end, I ordered Rick Steves’ book. I like his wry humor and his down to earth approach to travel. Once it arrived, I got down to work, reading each book’s description of the cities we would visit and then adding their information in the appropriate pages of the Rick Steves. I appreciate Steves’ personal view, sharing what was worthwhile and including walking tours of each city we planned to visit. He even included a section on pickpockets, where they tended to ply their trade and how to avoid them. I researched the information city by city. For instance, Rick Steves was the only one to mention touring the last remaining lemon grove in the city of Sorrento. His restaurant reviews were also much more practical instead of focussing only on the high end places. His book was also twice as large as the other four because there was that much info.

With so much info, how did you organize it for travel?
I bought a colorful plastic file folder with ten sections. Each section held the pages for different city. Another section held our plane and train reservations. I kept our reservations for museums and other sites in another.

Did you use any other resources?
Trip Advisor’s Forum section was invaluable. If I needed more information than one book or another offered, I could head right to Trip Advisor for up-to-date info. For instance, from reading the books I knew Rome’s Borghese Gallery was a don’t miss. But without Trip Advisor I wouldn’t have known to order our tickets months ahead. Because of Covid, the number of visitors per two-hour session was quite limited. A guide book can’t tell you that. Same with the Uffizi in Florence and going to the roof of the Milan Cathedral. Knowing this, I was able to ask my contact at Firebird to order them.

What’s the next trip?
Nothing yet. I’m still organizing the photos from this one!

Well that’s about it for the Bookshelf. Go to Questions to share in our belated anniversary adventure in Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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