The Ambitious Joy Of Summer Reading

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If you’re curious, I can describe in vivid detail the experience of dissecting a frog in middle school science. It was a small trauma that quashed my ambition to become a doctor. And yet, I have no memory whatsoever of being assigned summer reading throughout my years in school.

I recently saw an article that tracked summer reading programs back to the 1890s, so it’s likely my peers and I, who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, were given an obligatory list of titles to page-turn between our dismissal in June and our return to school after Labor Day. From the start, these initiatives were intended to encourage children to read during the off months and develop a lifelong love of books. They still are, though they now have the added goal of reining in what is known as the summer academic slide.

Math homework was another story, but I never needed incentives or coaxing to read. I’ve been a voracious devourer of books for as long as I can recall. There were, of course, assigned books for English class during the school year. Those were a bonus. Likewise, any books we may have been asked to read in the summer would have blended into the stack I had already chosen to read on my own.

Summer reading simply meant that I had more freedom and time to do it. It was what I looked forward to most once school came to an end, that and heading out on my bike after I got home from camp. Summers were the chance to while away the hours in the library, discovering all sorts of new and interesting things, some more appropriate than others, and to sit in the park beneath the shade of the forsythia tree and read until I had to go home.

Alas, grown-up July-August seasons are different. Though idea of summer reading inspires thoughts of relaxing with a good book while at the beach or away on vacation, it is not the same as the reading cycle I enjoyed for two luxurious months during the summers of childhood. In fact, it is no different from the wonderful pocket of reading hours I manage to carve into the week year-round, hoping to be uplifted, enlightened, enriched, or entertained.

As such, I find myself gripped by nostalgia when I spot the “Summer Reading” signs on tables at the library and bookstores this season. The recommended titles are often a mix of light, fast-paced stories one can toss with insouciance into a beach bag or carry-on tote for the plane. Even if we’re not heading anywhere, the books still promise to carry us to far-off places, worlds, and lives. And they transport me back to the summers of my childhood, to the local library and to the corner of my room in which I’d curl up with a book until it was time to turn off the light.

My reading has been heavy of late. Since Pesach, I’ve been making my way through a stack of Holocaust-related fiction and memoir. I’ve picked up other books, too – classics I’ve longed to read, or re-read, as well as some modern titles whose reviews intrigued me. Come autumn, I may well switch gears. I am where I am reading-wise, for now.

No matter how far my age distances me from the summers of my childhood, books continue to anchor me, carving out their own moments in time. In their way, they both  predict my future and find their place in my memory. They also define the present, continuing to shape the person I am.

So here we are, on the cusp of the months defined as the season of summer reading, thanks to school administrators and booksellers across the country. My list is long and ambitious, and I suspect yours is, too. But therein lies the joy. Let’s celebrate it together.

P.S. At the moment, I’m reading Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, about a former slave who becomes a slave owner, for my book club. After that, I’m planning to pick up Elizabeth Erhlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen, a memoir that explores the mysterious connection between food and love. But who knows which book my heart will choose next?

 

What are you reading now? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

 

 

For the Love of a Shoe

There was a time during my early adolescence when buffalo shoes were all the rage. I adored them. But I’d had foot issues from infancy and my parents refused to let me get a pair of wedges, certainly not after years of paying for costly orthopedic footwear. They believed buffaloes would undo the corrective work Katz’s hideous rubber sole shoes had wrought, though it’s likely the doctor had also told them as much.

I can still recall my desperate longing to own a pair anyway. I was convinced they were the secret to the insouciance all the other girls my age possessed, an aura I felt I lacked in spades. My envy was powerful, and I can reach for the memory of it as if it were a leaden, physical object I once held in my hands.

And yet, there was no moving my parents, no matter how much I begged and fought. Buffaloes remained elusive that entire spring.

One summer evening, I went with them to the erstwhile Bradlees department store. I hid some of my babysitting money in the top of my bra before we left the house, a trick I learned at an early age from my grandmother, who used to do this with her bus fare. While my parents shopped, I ran to the shoe department to purchase a pair of knockoff buffaloes in my size (Bradlees did not carry the original Buffalo brand). I didn’t even have time to try them on.

At the agreed hour, I met my parents at the exit. I tried to keep calm and casual. After all, I was hoping to pull off the greatest stealth operation of my youth.

“What’s in the bag?” they asked me. Anxious and fearful I was going to lose my only chance at those shoes, I clung to that bag for dear life, the plastic handles cutting deep into the palms of my hands.

But there was no point. The battle of the buffaloes was lost. My father walked with me to customer service, where I returned them. In a final plea, I promised never to wear them if he let me make the purchase. I just wanted to own them, like every other girl I seemed to know. Alas, I crawled into the car with tears in my eyes, placing my sadness, disappointment, and rage on the seat next to me.

I was too young to know that by fall, buffaloes would be out of style, that all I needed to do was be patient and this yearning, too, would pass.

Flash forward to this afternoon, when these caught my eye at Marshall’s. Not the exact pair I remember, but close enough. And there were others, similar styles, some with higher wedges, others lower. The new buffalo wave of 2019.

With childish delight, I tried them on, admiring how they looked. But they weren’t comfortable. I felt unstable, certain I wouldn’t be able to walk far in them. Yet I considered buying them anyway. I mean, who’s going to stop me now?

Instead, I let them transport me back in time, where I forgot that I’m middle-aged, that I have bunions, that I long ago relegated heels to the back of my closet.  And yet, it was with the insouciance of youth that I placed the buffaloes back in the box and returned them to the shelf. I took my seat at the wheel of the car and drove home with a new pair of Crocs instead, my heart happy, and my feet, too.

 

How To Walk Humbly From Purim to Pesach

It was the morning after Purim.

After making myself a cup of coffee, I took my regular seat at the dining room table, hoping to write. At the very least, I wanted to preserve the kernel of an essay that had popped into my head the night before.

I cleared a space for my laptop by pushing back the remains of the Mishloach Manot packages that covered the table. But as much as I tried, I could not write. Not a word.

I was too distracted by the assortment of colorful containers and clever themes, the bright ribbons and festive gift bags, the towering boxes filled with candied nuts and dried fruit, the baked goods, wine, and chocolate. The display was a visual picnic. The risk to my healthy eating regimen notwithstanding, I could not look away.

Of all the ritual obligations of Purim day, the exchange of food gifts is my favorite. I love having a reason to make something fun for our friends. On the receiving end, I treasure the variety, as well as the thought folks put into the planning and distribution.

Still, as with so much else in Judaism, it’s the spirit of the mitzvah that matters most, not the beauty of the package or the creativity of the contents. Generosity and friendship go into the giving along with the treats. It’s equally important to remember that this bounty, dare I say excess, isn’t to be taken for granted.

It strikes me each year how the two holidays that start with a P (or a peh in Hebrew) not only fall just one month apart on the Jewish calendar. They also share an essential mitzvah:  the giving of tzedakah to those in need. On Purim and Pesach, we only fulfill our own holiday obligations once we’ve made sure others can as well.

While traveling between the two Ps, ridding our home of chametz, I try to hold this close to my heart. The cost of making Pesach goes up year after year (Does anyone else remember when the butcher gave out shank bones for free?).  Many families, sometimes folks we least suspect are in need, aren’t sure how they’ll put the basics of the seder plate on the table. Because we may have no idea who among us is struggling, we’d do well to be sensitive as we shop, refraining from participation in the public chorus of kvetching about the rising cost of brisket.

As for our formal Maos Chittim donations, we can make them early to organizations like a local Tomchei Shabbos, the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network, or a shul matzah fund. They are all especially busy as they scramble to meet the needs of Jewish families in the approach to the holiday. Buy two of something while out food shopping for Pesach and donate the second to a kosher food pantry, checking with them first to see what they need most. Or get creative in taking the edge off Pesach prep for someone who needs help in ways that aren’t financial.

Make good on the Pesach cleaning in the meantime. Donate unused chametz to a local food pantry or soup kitchen that services a non-Jewish population. Or follow the example of the Greenbergs. They make a huge Kiddush Hashem by collecting Purim leftovers from members of our community, then repackaging them as gifts to a veterans’ home, a shelter for women and children, and an after-school program.

One thing we can all do, no matter what’s on our plates as we travel from Purim to Pesach, is to make extra room in our hearts while we’re clearing out our freezers and cabinets and at our tables when we sit down to the holiday meals.

Kindness begets kindness.

Let’s fill the coming weeks with as much of it as we can and may our seder tables teem with blessing.

 

 

On Being Silly

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The word silly has been with me for as long as I can remember.

I’m sure I acquired it as a child when an adult took issue with my foolish behavior or set me straight on something I naively said. Silly stuck like glue, tinged as it was with embarrassment.

No one defined the word for me. No one had to. Ridiculous. Without common sense. I intuited from the tone in those adult voices that silly wasn’t a good thing to be.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself acting in a manner some might consider silly. For starters, I’ve been dressing up my Lord & Taylor goose. The photo above features Taylor in the red beret/scarf combo I crocheted for her. I’ve prepared a Purim costume for her as well, though I’m keeping that a surprise for now.

My friend Techiya inspired me to pose with statues and public art, whenever the opportunity permits. Here I am during a visit to the beautiful grounds of Duke Farms in New Jersey.

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These are just two examples. I assure you that my silliness continues to pick up steam at a steady rate.

Recently, I decided to look up the exact meaning of the word, curious if I had it right all this time. Merriam-Webster defines the adjective silly as foolish, weak in intellect, indicative of a lack of common sense or sound judgment. The adverb means in an absurd or ridiculous manner.

Well, I don’t believe I’m being any of those things. Quirky, yes. Spontaneous, sure. And certainly fun, at least I think so. Maybe even (a bit) eccentric. But I’m convinced there’s nothing foolish going on. I see it as a breath of fresh air, the lightening-up of an adult life that requires so much seriousness of me and demands my constant attention to responsibility, time management, bill-paying, housekeeping, rule-abiding, meal-prepping, and maturity.

With that in mind, my husband and I posed for this photo, inspired by Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the counterpoint to the formal shot we took the same night.

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We are the guests of honor at our shul’s upcoming dinner and the committee needed a  portrait to feature with our bio in the journal. We briefly considered using this one, but silly didn’t seem to be the look the committee was going for.  It’s still our favorite image from the photo shoot, however.

For now, back to adulting I go. But I hope to continue embracing the good that lies at the heart of silly, to keep taking these short breaks that let me feel I’ve unshouldered some of my real-life obligations, albeit fleetingly. After all, I’ve been sitting at the grown-up table long enough to know that serious will be waiting for me when I get back.

The Sound of Silence (in My Head)

I needed a break. A little getaway. Nothing exciting. Just some quiet and a change of scenery. The chance to work on my book, read, sleep late (at least past 6 a.m.), crochet, drink beautiful lattes, and stare at the ceiling if the mood struck me. I didn’t want to travel far, just far enough that I wouldn’t bump into anyone I know. And I wanted to go alone.

I told my husband, “I need to clear the noise in my head and write,” laughing as the words exited my mouth, filing the idea under Science Fiction/Fantasy.

When he asked me, “Why not?” I listed the myriad reasons – our complicated schedules, seemingly endless obligations, and all the stressors that were cluttering my head in the first place.

Days later, I discovered a folder marked “Margaritaville, PA” on my laptop, papers with my hotel reservation (thank goodness for points!) and a few suggested local attractions inside. For the record, there is no such place as Margaritaville, PA. I first read the location without my glasses on and the name stuck.

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Knowing what a luxury it was to carve out this window of R & R, my first getaway like this in 25 years, I was excited to go, grateful, too, that my husband understood why I needed to be by myself in a place where I’d hear mostly silence. Soon enough, though, I wondered who I thought I was to take this time away.

Still, I proceeded with the plan, borrowing Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own from a friend. I hadn’t read it in years, but I recalled Woolf’s proposal that in order for a woman to devote herself to the craft of writing fiction, she must have a room with a lock on the door, meaning unfettered time and space to do so.  Though the book was published in 1929, many of its ideas still resonate (for proof, check out all the Post-Its on my friend’s copy), far beyond Woolf’s specifics about women and writing and fiction.

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Woolf would surely agree that the everyday encumbrances of the modern era devour our time and energy, leaving us with little opportunity for intensive focus on our creative pursuits and interests or our other ambitions, whatever they are. It’s okay, important even,  to take a break here and there from our obligations to rediscover who we are deep inside and get our spiritual juices flowing.

As I packed to leave for this self-styled retreat, I asked a friend to make sure I got in the car. I was afraid guilt would change my mind, that I’d give up on the idea of Margaritaville, PA. Going was a much belated leap of faith in myself, and I’ve returned sold on the importance of short escapes, even if all we can manage is an hour or two in which we do nothing but what nurtures our souls. We need to steal moments whenever we can, locking the metaphorical door behind us.

While I was away, I met a friend for coffee and did some shopping. I read and slept and crocheted. I even stared up at the ceiling now and again. And I wrote, scribbling far more than I would’ve at home in that same window of time. Mostly, I embraced whatever it was I felt like doing, allowing myself to be in the moment while gathering stories along the way.

In one thrift shop, I stumbled upon this sweet tableau. I am still trying to figure out what Chaim Potok has to do with St. Patrick’s Day, but there’s an essay in there somewhere. And one day I’ll write more about day two, when I returned from a quick run to Trader Joe’s to find the lobby filled with emergency personnel. A pipe had burst and the Fire Marshall had to close down the hotel, evacuating the guests and scattering us to assorted other hotels in the area.

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By the time I got home, a folder teeming with notes under my arm, it was close to Shabbos. I’d cooked and frozen everything in advance so I’d be able to hold onto that peaceful feeling heading into the weekend. But of course, within hours, all the noise was back in my head. Still, I have the memory of those few blessedly quiet days away to hold onto. They are precious, and I can’t wait to get away again.

My Year in Books 2018

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Well, it’s a wrap on 2018 in books.

I read, or at least started, 38 books this year – some memorable, some less so. Most of the books in my reading pile, the ones stacked up on my bedside table in anticipation, I never got to. Among the books on this list are several selections I read for my book club and others I chose based on recommendations from friends and reviews in the paper. But most of the titles on this list fell into my hands through serendipity.

There were books that caught my eye in the library, where I’d gone to check out something else. A few were afterthoughts, casually chosen at the library book sale on my way out the door. Some came through an ongoing book exchange with friends, while others were loans or gifts they generously dropped off while I was recovering from surgery.

As you can see, my list is a bit of a jumble without much of a connecting thread. But my 2018 reading, as reading has always done, gave me hours of comfort, joy, insight into the human experience, the chance to armchair travel back in time and around the globe, a window of escape from reality (and certainly the news), and the opportunity to expand my heart and mind. I’ll take it every single time.

2018 was also a wonderful year for reading accessories. A friend with an eagle eye for treasures found a beautiful silver bookmark for me at an estate sale.  Another gave me a Pride and Prejudice tote bag I take with me everywhere. The mug in the picture is an old favorite from a kindred spirit. We readers know a good thing when we see it.

My favorite books of the year were Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, George Saunders’ Lincoln on the Bardo, Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago were the most powerful. Jennifer Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened made me laugh and laugh, and I really needed that this year.

My 2019 reading is underway with Lisa Halliday’s Assymetry. I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about. Next I’ll dive into five Holocaust-related titles, Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending and Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance. Then I’ll see where life takes things from there.

Please tell me what you’re reading in the comments.

Wishing you all health and happiness and plenty of time to curl up with a good book in 2019.

Merri

Here’s what I read:

#1 Spring and All – William Carlos Williams
I love Williams – his poetry and his sensibility.

#2 Nevermore – Laird Hunt
I found this historical novel – about a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the Civil War – quick-paced and enjoyable, its characters intriguing.

#3 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie                                                                                  I loved every beautifully written word of this novel about race in America.

#4 Forest Dark – Nicole Kraus
I was so eager to read this and did so with the intensity Kraus’ fiction requires. But the story didn’t stick to my heart the way her other books have.

#5 Lincoln on the Bardo – George Saunders
It took time to adjust to this unconventional novel about the battle for Willie Lincoln’s soul on the day of his death, but it was well worth it. And then a friend and I had the chance to hear Saunders at a book talk soon after. He’s a fantastic speaker if you ever have the opportunity.

#6 The Man Who Fell into a Puddle: Israeli Lives – Igal Sarna
The clever title got me to pull this book off the library shelf. But I couldn’t get into these real-life stories written by an Israeli journalist, as much as I wanted to.

#7 Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jennifer Lawson
A well-written, “mostly true” memoir, this book is laugh-out-loud funny, but also tender and thoughtful, and not for all audiences (colorful language).

#8 Pachinko – Min Jin Lee                                                                                                                    I enjoyed and learned a lot from this immensely popular, epic historical novel about a Korean family that emigrates to Japan, but didn’t get as emotionally swept up in it as I expected to.

#9 My Mother’s Son – David Hirshberg                                                                                        Set in post-World War II Boston, this novel about two Jewish brothers who uncover an array of family truths spans decades. And yet, there’s a rare moment of family conflict, which is something I’d like to talk to the author about one day.  I’m grateful to Fig Tree Books for sending me a copy.

#10 All Over the Place – Geraldine DeRuiter
Irreverent and at moments touching, this memoir recounts DeRuiter’s travels around the globe after losing her job. I laughed out loud often, though again, not for all audiences.

#11 We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adapted from her TED talk, this tiny book is heartfelt, not strident, and it’s worth the 15 minutes it will take you to read.

#12 The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping – Aharon Appelfeld
Appelfeld’s writing is always masterful and raw and leaves a hole in your heart, but so much so in this story about a young Holocaust survivor who begins his life anew on a kibbutz.

#13 The Graveyard Book – Neil Gailman
Wonderful and quirky, this is one of the best novels about parenting and letting your kids become who they are I’ve ever read. Listen to Gailman’s stunning Newberry Medal acceptance speech on parenting and loving books.

#14 Wonder – R.J. Palacio
This book was everything the hype promised. And yes, I cried at the end. Well, that’s not true. I cried on almost every page.

#15 When the World Was Young – Elizabeth Gaffney
It took me three tries to get into this coming-of-age story set in Brooklyn during World War II. The novel explores race, identity, and personal destiny, and features a string of engaging female characters. Local friends: One of the characters is a Jewish math professor at Rutgers in the 1940s.

#16 Bodies and Souls – Isabel Vincent
A true story about the tragic plight of impoverished European Jewish women forced into prostitution in the Americas beginning in the late 1800s. A hard read.

#17 The Choice – Dr. Edith Eva Eger
A memoir about Eger’s survival in Auschwitz and how she learned to heal herself by healing others as a therapist.

#18 Ms. Marvel/ No Normal -Wilson Alphona
A friend gave me Volume I in this series, a short book-length comic about a young American Muslim of Pakistani origin who discovers that her heroic powers lie in being true to herself.

#19 Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell
A heart-wrenching, poetic novel about a young woman who must learn to fend for herself under dire conditions in the Ozarks.

#20 A Guide to the Birds of East Africa– Nicholas Drayson
I bought this novel at the library book sale because of the lovely bird illustrations throughout, but I enjoyed the sweet love story about retiree bird watchers, too.

#21 Garlic and Sapphires -Ruth Reichl
Reichl’s memoir about her career as the New York Times restaurant critic. I was intrigued at first, but soon found myself skimming my way to the end.

#22 An Encyclopedia of a Meaningful Life – Amy Krouse Rosenthal
An alphabetical memoir that conveys the accumulated experiences of a lifetime. I loved this book. It’s poignant and funny. She was a wise and gifted writer.

#23 Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
I read this beautifully written, heartbreaking family sage in one sitting. Patchett has become a favorite.

#24 Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter – Stephanie Pearl McPhee
I prefer crocheting to knitting, but I related completely to McPhee’s obsession with wool and yarn crafting. Plus, she’s funny.

#25 This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage – Ann Patchett
I loved everything in this collection except the final essay. Also, this book will make you want to visit Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville.

#26 Homecoming – Yaa Gyasi
This novel weaves across generations and continents to explore fate and the legacy of slavery. Gyasi writes beautifully, though the book reads more like a collection of interconnected stories than a novel and I found myself losing track at times.

#27 Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser
I was so looking forward to reading this, but could not make my way through more than 85 pages of it. It is too laden with detail.

#28 As Close to Us as Breathing – Elizabeth Poliner                                                                       I enjoyed this novel, a multi-generational Jewish family saga and the ongoing reverberations of a tragedy it endures one summer.

#29 The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
Goodness, this was a hard book to read, a violent, painful, heartbreaking story about a woman who has to pick up the pieces after experiencing the most devastating kind of betrayal and loss.

#30 The Book of Psalms
Though I recite Psalms in Hebrew all the time, this was the first time I read it straight through in English. Meaningful exercise, though the poetic, musical quality to the language gets lost in translation.

#31 Write Your Way In – Rachel Toor
Excellent college admission essay advice, but also good writing advice.

#32 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
I can’t believe took me decades to finally read this sweeping Russian epic that suffered a complicated path to publication. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature one year later, but he did not make it to Oslo to accept. Read more about how Pasternak won and lost the Nobel.

#33 The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures – David E. Fishman                                                                                                                                    The unbelievable story of Vilna Ghetto residents who rescued valuable manuscripts and artifacts from the Nazis and later the Soviets.

#34 The Line – Olga Grushin
I found Grushin’s use of the queue as a metaphor for the challenges of Soviet life poignant, sometimes deflating. Though I found myself confused occasionally when the book switches from the narrator’s voice to someone else’s thoughts/memories in mid-chapter, I really liked this book.

#35 Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life – Pat Conroy
A collection of the late author’s speeches and blog posts. Some lovely messages, but I haven’t read much of his fiction and I felt left out as a result.

#36 The Last Convertible – Anton Myrer
A nostalgic, sentimental story about a circle of friends at Harvard on the eve of Pearl Harbor – their friendships, romances, war-time experiences, careers, and lives.

#37 The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams
Not sure what compelled me to reread this children’s story about a stuffed rabbit that becomes real, but I’m glad I did. It’s a great lesson for everyone who is getting older, which is all of us.

#38 The Alice Network – Kate Quinn
This was a good book to end the year with – a historical novel about a female spy and an American socialite who give a French war profiteer his comeuppance. The Alice Network was, in fact, a network of spies in France during World War I.

In addition to the books listed above, I read two short pieces that were meaningful and I want to mention them here.

The first is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – a remarkable piece of persuasive writing. His use of language and the way he infuses words with power deserves reading.

And lastly, E.L. Doctorow’s short story, “The Writer in the Family,”  which packs a full-scale novel’s worth of family conflict into a 11 pages. Wow.

It was a good year!