Book Bag: ‘Dear Oliver: An Unexpected Friendship With Oliver Sacks’ by Susan B. Barry; ‘Benjy’s Messy Room’ by Barbara Diamond Goldin

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 04-12-2024 11:54 AM

Modified: 04-12-2024 11:54 AM


Dear Oliver: An Unexpected Friendship with Oliver Sacks
By Susan R. Barry
The Experiment, LLC

Susan Barry, a former Mount Holyoke College professor of neuroscience, behavior, and biology, was born with a significant case of strabismus — crossed eyes — which left her stereoblind, unable to point her eyes in the same direction.

As a consequence, she writes in her new book, “Dear Oliver: An Unexpected Friendship with Oliver Sacks,” she “looked with one eye and suppressed the information from the other,” giving her a view of a world that appeared “cluttered and compressed.”

But following some vision therapy as an adult, Barry learned, at age 48, how to coordinate her eyes and see in stereo depth — and the changes were so revelatory that she began keeping an extended vision diary.

Eventually, she composed a lengthy passage about her vision history, and she imagined it as a letter to Sacks, the renowned neurologist and science writer who died in 2015 at age 82.

As Barry relates in her book, she had met Sacks briefly in the mid 1990s at a reception for her husband, James Barry, at that time an astronaut who was about to make his first flight on the Space Shuttle.

Remembering that encounter several years later, Susan Barry, who admired the empathetic way Sacks wrote about his patients in his books, felt he might best understand how she’d been able to obtain full vision as an adult. It was an experience, she says, that challenged 50 years worth of medical studies, which argued that such dramatic visual changes could only occur during childhood.

With some trepidation, but also encouragement from her husband, Barry sent this extended letter — nine single-spaced pages — in late 2004 to Sacks, then living and teaching in New York City.

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To her surprise and joy, Sacks wrote back just days later, thanking Barry for her letter. Sacks’ letter was clearly personal — typed on his own letterhead, with a few typos and some handwritten corrections — and in it Sacks expressed blazing enthusiasm for Barry’s story, as it dovetailed with some of his own research and theories about vision and strabismus.

Just a day later, Sacks wrote again, asking Barry if he could visit her to speak in person. And he wanted to write about her experience himself; he called his essay, first published in The New Yorker in 2006, “Stereo Sue.”

All this led to a close friendship between the two, during which they exchanged over 150 letters, ranging over all manner of subjects, before Sacks’ death in 2015 at age 82; Barry eventually signed her letters “Stereo Sue.”

She’s documented that story in “Dear Oliver,” even including some pictures of Sacks’ typewritten letters with their various cross-outs and handwritten corrections, and some images of her own, which could include small drawings.

Those letters and Barry’s book also describe how the two confronted Sacks’ diagnosis of cancer in 2015 and how the disease turned terminal, adding a poignant end to their relationship. Barry would last visit Sacks in his New York apartment in July 2015 for his 82nd birthday, knowing it would be his last one.

As Publisher’s Weekly writes about Barry’s book, “It adds up to a deeply stirring ode to life-altering connections that arrive when they’re least expected.”

Benjy’s Messy Room
By Barbara Diamond Goldin
Illustrated by Rita Tan
Apple & Honey Press

Barbara Diamond Goldin knows something about children’s literature: She’s the former director of youth services at Easthampton’s Emily Williston Library as well as the former director of the Edwards Public Library in Southampton.

Goldin has put that experience to work in her own children’s books, including a wide number of Judaica titles, some Native American stories, and historical fiction as well.

Her newest book, “Benjy’s Messy Room,” examines how a young boy struggles to clean up his bedroom so that he’ll be able to take part in his family’s bread crumb hunt as part of Passover.

As Goldin notes in an afterword in the story, there’s a longstanding tradition of Jewish families removing the last of their bread products from their homes the night before the Passover seder, followed by the ritual of b’dikat chameitz, when families search their homes for hidden breadcrumbs, which is designed to get people into a holiday mood.

In this case, Benjy has a problem: Passover starts tomorrow, and his family intends to have a bread crumb hunt that evening. But Benjy cannot be part of it until he cleans up his toys and other possessions, which are strewn across his bedroom floor.

Benjy’s older sister, Naomi, warns him “Mom won’t hide any [breadcrumbs] in your room if it looks like this.”

Benjy remembers that his dad had let him hold a candle in the dark — another part of the tradition — when the family hunted for bread crumbs before last year’s Passover. So he’d better get started with his cleaning.

But then his little sister, Shira, comes in, a bit teary-eyed, and says no one will play with her. So to cheer her up, and to prepare for that night’s hunt, Benjy crumbles bits of paper into little balls and hides them around his room, then encourages Shira to try and find them.

The two have so much fun, with Benjy also teaching Shira the words to the prayer song for b’dikat chameitz, that he forgets all about tidyingning his room. Pretty soon it will be time for the real bread crumb hunt.

Now what? Can Benjy’s sisters help him clean his room in time?

“Benjy’s Messy Room” is richly illustrated by Rita Tan, a native of Indonesia who now lives in Washington state.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.