I hope everyone is well and managing the ongoing pandemic in good health.
I know it’s been a while since I’ve written here. My last post was my 2020 book list. I had plans then to start a newsletter instead, the technology of which continues to elude me. The next thing I knew it was this past Sunday and sorry about that. Thank you for understanding.
I do write regularly on Facebook. If you’d like, we can stay in touch there until I get the newsletter off the ground. https://www.facebook.com/merri.ukraincik/
In the meantime, the book list is the book list, so here we are.
My 2021 reading was up and down. There were months when I had my head in a book non-stop; others when I hardly had the headspace to read at all. Mostly, I read what struck me in the moment (Dickinson, Godwin) or what a friend handed to me as she cleaned out her basement (Styron, Kaling), or what I picked up from a random box of books marked “Free” (Tyler, Cole) while out walking.
My favorite piece of writing wasn’t a book at all. It was this gem of a prayer, scrawled by http://Isaac Bashevis Singer on the back of a rent slip.
All in all, despite the chaos happening out there in the world, reading was as it always is – a balm and a joy.
Looking forward to hearing what you read this past year, and what you recommend.
Oh, also, we finally bought a new couch – a small miracle, given the supply chain situation – so I’m looking forward to doing a lot of reading on it in the future. A friend gave me book-themed pillows for my birthday. A girl couldn’t ask for anything more.
With love and books,
My 2021 Year of Books
First, the forgotten titles from 2020, or least the ones I finally remembered:
Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites by Dawn Drzal – Food as metaphor in this wonderful memoir in essays.
Snow by Orhan Pamuk – A novel of longing (for many things) in a small Turkish town, set against the rising threat of Islamic extremism.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I love Patchett, but it wasn’t easy to read a book about folks stuck in one kind of lockdown while we were stuck in another.
And here’s 2021:
1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – A classic I last read in my adolescence, better appreciated this time around.
2. Fifty Names for Rain by Asha Lemmie. Beautifully written, engaging story with a lovely title, though I wished for a different ending.
3. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. Well-done mystery that unfolds in an upscale New York City neighborhood. Great afternoon distraction.
4. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Quick-going novel about a female spy network that operated in France during World War II. Read this a few years ago; reread now for book club.
5. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet – Moving story of twin girls and racial identity in the segregated American South. Glad to have read it, but struggled with the second part of the book.
6. The Patron Saint of Liars by Anne Patchett – Patchett’s first novel, about a woman who abandons her husband. Themes of reinvention and self-preservation. I’d probably find Patchett’s grocery list enchanting.
7. House of Glass by Hadley Freeman – Freeman pieces together her family’s Jewish past. Memoir as mystery.
8. The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner – The answer when people ask why we need another book about the Holocaust. Stunning writing.
9. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce – A love story set in a music shop.
10. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter – Comedic novel about the financial crisis, as told by a business reporter turned poet. Wasn’t my thing.
11. A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell – Spectral story narrated by a man murdered during the Holocaust who cannot get to Heaven. Mixed feelings about this one.
12. The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett – A novel of love, magic (the characters’ and Patchett’s), healing, and redemption.
13. A Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frenkel – Rediscovered memoir, originally published in 1945, of Frenkel’s escape from the Nazis. The story of the book’s reappearance at a flea market makes for a wonderful preface.
14. The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams – A quirky novel about how words come into being and how language becomes a kind of currency.
15. Hunger by Roxane Gay – Gay’s memoir is hard, but necessary, and her voice is astounding.
16. Who Is Michele Obama? by Megan Stine – Biography for children, interspersed with stories about previous first ladies. This was a fun book gift, given to me with #40.
17. The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman – Endearing novel told in stories that flit back and forth in time and reflect the spectrum of human emotion. Wonderful titular character, poignant (and funny!) ending.
18. A Wealth of Pigeons: A Cartoon Collection by Harry Bliss & Steve Martin – A few cute cartoons. The rest were meh. Or maybe I’ve lost my sense of humor to the pandemic.
19. Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown – I enjoyed the relationship between the Yiddish-speaking immigrant mother and her American daughter.
20. Darkness Visible by William Styron – Memoir about the author’s depression and recovery.
21. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh – Hilarious, quirky graphic memoir that also tackles tough topics, including mental health. Plus, there’s a goose.
22. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger – Heartbreaking coming-of-age story.
23. News of the World by Paulette Jiles – Quick read about a Civil War veteran who gives live newspaper readings. Struck me as written for the film version.
24. The Last Jews of Berlin by Leonard Gross – Powerful accounts, written by a journalist, of U-boats, Jews who hid in Germany during the war.
25. The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg – Berg’s writing is beautiful. But she diminishes the impact of abuse on familial relationships.
26. Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland – I liked so much about this Jewy story, set in Atlantic City during World War Two, except one story line that struck me as untrue to the characters.
27. A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez – Odd graphic novel, especially the faceless characters who connect across time.
28. Poems by Emily Dickens – Just what I needed in that moment to help usher out a Shabbos.
29. The Takeaway Men by Meryl Ain – Novel by my fellow Jewish Week alum Meryl Ain about memory and Jewish identity in mid-20th century Queens.
30. Memoirs by Kinglsey Amis – I could not read past the preface, though I tried. The silver lining was the sweet bookmark from a shop in Madrid that fell out of my used copy.
31. Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou – Memoir of Angelou’s complicated, but ultimately redemptive and loving relationship with her mother.
32. All My Sons by Arthur Miller – Play. A short read and good conversation starter about the way a secret can destroy a family. Painful in its way.
33. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery – Beautifully written, fascinating, but a long-read essay would have been enough for me. My fault, not the book’s.
34. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling – A gift from a friend. Not my usual read, but a fun afternoon distraction.
35. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich – Homage to the author’s grandfather, who fought against Native dispossession from North Dakota. But the story was all over the place and hard to follow.
36. The Jewish Husband by Lia Levi – Set in Fascist Rome in the 1930s, the tragic story of a young Jewish man who marries into a Catholic family that supports Mussolini.
37. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively – I abandoned this a few stories in.
38. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner – This resonated, the language of loss and the emotions, and the fact that I, for reasons different from the author, have cried in H Mart.
39. A Palestine Affair by Jonathan Wilson – A chance find at a library book sale. Read this romantic thriller set in Mandate Palestine in one sitting.
40. How the World Looks to a Bee by Don Glass – A companion of short, topical science pieces that I enjoyed one or two at a time.
42. Wartime Lies by Louis Begley – A raw Holocaust novel. Begley’s afterword is powerful.
43. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – A beautifully written novel of love and war that spans from World War I to the present.
44. Slaughterhouse–Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s classic anti-war science fiction novel. I reread it for the first time in decades after visiting Vonnegut’s library.
45. The Good Husband by Gail Godwin – Compelling story of marriage, intellect, love, and loss.
46. How to Make a Life by Florence Reiss Kraut – Historical novel about several generations of a Jewish family and the challenges of immigration.
47. The Children’s Bible: A Novel by Lydia Millet – Societal collapse, climate disaster, dystopia. Not for me.
48. The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz – Part spiritual memoir, part historical/religious exploration. Lovely to read.
49. Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Enchanting tale. Enjoyed it, though I usually find fantasy unsettling.
50. Blankets – Craig Thompson – Coming-of-age, autobiographical graphic novel.
51. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – Heartbreaking, but gorgeous. Trevor is an astounding writer.
52. The Layers Project: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience,and Growth by Jewish Women by Shira Lankin Sheps – Narratives of challenge and triumph, as told by 30 women living in Israel. Important read, stunning photographs.
53. The Door by Magda Szabo – A haunting novel, translated from Hungarian, about the relationship between a writer and her housekeeper. This book! Be prepared.
54. The Patriots by Sana Krasikov – So much to say about this book, a mother-son tale, a story of secrets, a sweeping historical novel. One of my favorites this year.
55. At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracey Chevalier – A peculiar story about a broken family and a lot of apples.
56. When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains by Arianna Newman – Newman uncovers her father’s war story. Reads like a thriller.
57. Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank – I was late to the game of reading this very popular book from 1999, about the comic-tragic dating dance.
58. Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom – A novel about a white indentured servant from Ireland and a plantation master’s illegitimate slave daughter in the American South.
59. The Traveler by Daniel Simkin and Darren Simkin – A small fable of a book about the lessons of living.
60. Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman – Memoir, beautifully written, about growing up in a Jewish family in Egypt.
61. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil – A collection of lovely essays that feature nature as memoir. Completed in an afternoon over several cups of tea.
62. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – The odyssey of four boys who really get nowhere, but the storytelling and the living are the point. Towles is brilliant. Still, I was troubled by the ending.
63. Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume – I loved this book as a girl and decided to reread. Let’s just say, sometimes, you can’t go home again, even in a book.
64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter – A wonderful story of love and social satire, set in a seaside Italian village and Hollywood.
65. House on the River: A Summer Journey by Nessa Rapoport – Lovely, evocative memoir about the power of memory to shape the author’s life.
66. The Boston Girl by Anita Diament – Novel about a spirited daughter of Jewish immigrant parents in early 20th century Boston.
67. Under My Hat by Sally Berkovics – The author sensitively explores the challenges of balancing Orthodoxy and secularism.
68. Swann by Carol Shields – A literary odyssey about an uneducated farmer’s wife who is murdered shortly after handing her poems over to a small press.
69. On the Heart of the Seas by S.Y. Agnon – A spiritual legend about a group of Chasidim who travel to the Holy Land in the early 19thcentury. A divine read.
70. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz – This thriller asks who owns our stories. It creeped me out. Also, the trajectory was predictable, though maybe that was the point.
71. The Tide between Us by Olive Collins – The novel hinges on the little-known history of the 2,000 Irish children deported to Jamaica as slaves in the 1800s. Roughshod editing and the second part left me wanting.
72. After Rain by William Trevor – A touching collection of short stories. Trevor writes as if he can see into the human heart.
73. Open City by Teju Cole – A novel about a Nigerian-German psychiatrist in New York, and the stories we write about ourselves. The descriptions of the city are stunning.
74. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I could not get through a novel about the world destroyed by a flu pandemic. Wrong timing.
75. Wow, No Thank You – Samantha Irby – She’s clever and funny. Yet, though I’m not prudish, I wasn’t in the mood for something so crass.
76. Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler – The story of a loving, imperfect family with a wonderful, middle-aged mother at its helm.
77. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – Brilliant classic novel of World War I, and the tragedy of war.