Merri Ukraincik

My 2020 Year In Books

Hi there,

Here I am again, though I know it has been a long while, and now suddenly, just like that, it’s the end of December. I hope you and your families are well, and that you have been managing under the circumstances that have defined your experience of the pandemic.

Many of you have reached out, wondering if I still planned to send out my annual book list. I am glad to say that in this, at least, I have succeeded. I may have lost track of time and let go of many things over the past year. But I stayed on the ball when it came to reading. And as always, I’m glad to share.

Books were the silver lining of 2020. We haven’t had guests since the beginning of March, so I’ve filled the Shabbos day with stories. I haven’t read this luxuriously since adolescence. In fact, I’ve read and read and read, books providing a wonderful escape when the anxiety of it all felt like too much.

I enjoyed so many of them. My favorites? Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and Max Gross’ The Lost Shtetl, though E.B. White’s Here is New York runs a close second. Two other novels, R. L. Maizes’ Other People’s Pets and Frederik Backman’s Anxious People, were both perfectly suited to the times.

As we close out the year, I’ve just started Asha Lemmie’s Fifty Words for Rain, which shares real estate on my nightstand with Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, my book club’s current selection, which I last read in high school.

So enjoy the list and talk to me about you. What books did you read this year? What did you love, and what didn’t you care for? And tell me more about how reading has gotten you through the pandemic.

Wishing you all a healthy and happy 2021 –  in reading and in all things.

Love,

Merri

P.S. I have big plans for the blog, once I get my act together. In the meantime, if you’d like, follow me on Facebook, where I’ve been writing regularly. https://www.facebook.com/merri.ukraincik/.

My 2020 Year In Books

I should start with the books I read at the end of 2019 that I forgot to include on that list – Tara Westover’s Educated and Lori Gottlieb’s You Should Talk to Someone. Unlike nearly every other human who read it, I struggled with the former. I enjoyed the latter, my laughter often waking my husband up while I was reading in bed, though by now he’s used to that.

1.The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. I enjoyed this often humorous story about a kind widow’s struggle to open a bookshop in an English seaside town that does not want one.

2.Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. The book seemed to read more like a collection of eerie memories than a story. Ondaatje’s a brilliant writer, though, and I learned from his sentences.

3.The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Not my usual genre, this psychological thriller landed in my lap while we were away for Shabbos (in the days when we could still do that) after I finished the book I’d brought with me.

4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. Much ado about this book, but it didn’t resonate with me. Plus, the font was difficult to decipher.

5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Moving novel about identity and community as two African-American families are brought together by the birth of a child.   

And then came lockdown…

6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Haunting historical novel based on the true story of the Mirabel sisters, who became symbols of the resistance against Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. So good.

7. The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht. Novel about two Jewish boys in London who become friends on the eve of World War Two. I wanted a different ending.

8. Guts by Raina Telgemier. Spot-on graphic novel for middle schoolers, or readers of any age, about an 11-year-old who learns to cope with anxiety.

9. The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry. This novel grabbed me as it plumbed the depths of guilt as a raw human experience. How did I not know of Barry before?  

10. Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann Hood. Collection of personal essays and recipes about life lived and the power of a good meal to save, heal, and uplift, among other things.

11. Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić. Short, caustic novel about a passionate encounter between a retired Yugoslav army captain and a Holocaust survivor. Powerful, as her fiction is.

12. The Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin. Novel about Turkish diplomats who rescue Turkish Jews trapped in France after the Nazi invasion. I wish it had been more nuanced and dimensional.

13. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Beautiful, heartbreaking story of love, murder, and coming-of-age.

14. The Comet-Seekers by Helen Sedgwick. Quirky, but engaging novel about love, loss, a tapestry, comets, and ghosts.

15. All Whom I Have Loved by Aharon Appelfeld. The haunting story of an Eastern European Jewish family on the eve of the Holocaust, as told by a 9-year-old boy.

16. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec. An unsentimental culinary adventure that ends in love.

17. The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve. Lovingly written, multigenerational historical novel in which the city of Jerusalem is also a character.

18. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan. Whimsical novel about a gentleman who finds the owners of misplaced objects. Sweet story. As a keeper of lost things, Hogan had me at the title.

19. Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks. I wanted so much to like this collection, but did not.

20. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. One of the classics I reread this year. Struggled with it in high school when it was assigned. Saw the genius in it this time around.

21. Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislaw Fuks. A raw, tragicomic novel about the war. Mr. Mundstock’s tries to find an escape from “the Jewish history of suffering” as transports carry Jews out of the city. Excellent.

22. Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich. I loved the tastes, aromas, and emotions of Ehrlich’s religious awakening in her mother-in-law’s kitchen.

23. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Not a beach read or a pleasant diversion. But I’m grateful for the way Gawande engages us in this must-have conversation. 

24. In the Woods by Tana French. Well-written crime story that enthralled me until the end. What I needed to read that weekend.

25. Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. I was pained for Shapiro while reading this memoir about secrets and self-discovery. I’m still not sure how I feel about the book, but I know 23&Me is off the table for me personally.

26. House on Endless Waters by Emunah Elon. A mournful, touching historical novel about a family, a painting, and the Jews of Amsterdam.

27. Two She-Bears by Meir Shalev. A multilayered story of love (between people, between people and the land of Israel, and between people and the earth beneath their feet). Also, there’s a murder.

28. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Hard to read this novel about a mother and son who escape as undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the United States without hearing the noise of the controversy surrounding it. I’m glad to have read it.

29. The Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev. A tale of two love stories that take place half a century apart. Also about war and the meaning of home. Reread for my book club. It has stuck to my heart.

30. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. The startling, serendipitous story of a young woman and the interesting characters she encounters as she transforms herself in post-Depression New York. A great view of the city. A Gentleman in Moscow is still my favorite of his books.

31. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Another classic I’m pleased to have reread.

32. Lies My Father Told Me by Benjamin Allen.  Paperback based on the film. Not sure how I came to own this. Meh.

33. A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. A young woman’s heartrending search for her fiancé after World War One. Be sure to read the book before watching the film.

34. The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary. A must-read novel about a police officer in postwar Germany, a former Nazi, who is possessed by the ghost of a Jewish comedian he executed during the Holocaust.

35. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. A paradise lost story about a brother and sister and a glorious mansion in a Philadelphia suburb. Wonderful.

36. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I’d forgotten how much I loved this.

37. The Two-Family House by Linda Cohen Loigman. Multigenerational story about a misguided choice that unravels a friendship. The misguided choice makes for good conversation.

38. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. Funny how differently I perceived this coming-of-age novel when I first read it as I myself was coming of age, versus now, when I reread it as a parent.

39. The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. Story of a young woman’s escape from an abusive marriage in rural India. Quick read, but I didn’t find myself invested in the characters.

40. The Rebbetzin: The Story of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer. An opportunity to learn more about her life and mission. Though her face does not appear on the cover of the book, which bothered me, her elegant image appears throughout.

41. Homesick by Eshkol Nevo. Multilayered narrative about love and history and the different meanings of home.

42. Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel. Sorrowful, moving novella about the unlikely friendship between an East Asian refugee in France and a local man he meets on a park bench. Ends with an extraordinary twist.

43. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart. His descriptions of the pianos may make you long to buy one, but the story itself didn’t hold me.

44. Writers and Lovers by Lily King. I missed this novel, about a young writer searching for meaning while trying to move past loss, long after I’d finished reading it. Plus, geese feature prominently in the story.

45. The Ruined House by Ruby Amdar. Someone is going to call me a Philistine for saying this, but I feel he could’ve made the book more relatable while retaining its brilliance.

46. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another reread, this one leaving me to wonder how we ever came to think of this as a story for children.

47. The Oppermans: A Novel by Lion Feuchtwanger. Published in 1934, this brilliant novel depicts the life of a German Jewish family as Hitler rises to power. Everyone should read this.

48. Goliath by Tom Gauld. The biblical story as graphic novel. Food for thought.

49. Elevation by Stephen King. A story that strives to be an antidote to societal divisiveness, but the premise that launches it unsettled me.

50. The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason. A medical student falls in love with a field hospital nurse during World War I, with interesting, detailed descriptions of medical practices and early treatment of PTSD.

51. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. An older woman reflects on the pleasures and regrets of her promiscuous youth in New York during the 1940s.  Engaging and charming, but probably not for everyone.

52. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Weisel. Tales, legends, and reflections, much of it nostalgia for a lost world.

53. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Another reread, but enough time had passed, and this book is so worthwhile.

54. Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. Fictional account of Truman Capote’s headline-making friendship with socialite Baby Paley. I did not like the story, but that was Capote’s fault, not the author’s.

55. Other People’s Pets by R. L. Maizes. A delightful, clever novel about a girl who relates better to animals than she does to people.

56. Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I was going through the college volumes on our shelves and decided to reread this. Couldn’t get through the oddness of it this time.

57. We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter. I had a hard time with this one. The characters were all too perfectly portrayed and the plot read more like an adventure story than a historical novel about the Holocaust.

57. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić. I’ve wanted to read this witty, personal, modern classic on communism and feminism for decades and finally did. 

58. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Another reread, this time with my book club. Still relevant and important.

59. Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills. There are interesting details here, biographical bits about the Lees I would never have known. But there was also too much repetition, and the story often loses its thread. Still worthwhile.

60. Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. I needed a thriller to distract me from the news.

61. Here is New York by E. B. White. A stunning love letter to the city.

62. Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent. I first read this when I was too young to understand it. Achingly painful yet hilarious story of a woman both pursuing and pushing back against the traditional life she’s been programmed for.

63. Out of the Shadow by Rochelle Garfield. Gift from the author. Story of an acclaimed psychologist who runs an innovative anorexia clinic.

64. The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman. It probably it wasn’t such a good idea to read a book about a woman who takes away people’s children during a pandemic.  

65. The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel.  A talented young forger helps Jewish children flee the Nazis. Harmel writes an engaging story.

66. The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani. A journalist travels to India to cope with loss and, in the process, uncovers a family secret. Some parts move slowly, but the multigenerational story ultimately comes together in a meaningful way.

67. The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross.  I fell head first into the fictional world of an Eastern European shtetl that manages to evade modern history and immediately felt the story had been written as a gift just for me.

68. Group by Christie Tate. I’m no prude, but at times it seemed like Tate was oversharing. Still, she’s an engaging writer and I’m glad her life turned out as it did.

69. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Heartbreaking, breathtaking novel about marriage, family, and the loss of boy whose name becomes the title of one of the most celebrated plays of all time.

70. Anxious People by Frederik Backman. Eight anxious strangers get caught up in a crime that never takes place. I enjoyed the story, characters, and emotions. And what a title!

My Year In Books 2019

(Image: My favorite postcard from the Strand Bookstore)

I aim to read 50 books a year. It’s a goal that doesn’t always happen. I’m disappointed to say it didn’t in 2019, though I managed to read more than I did in 2018 (here’s that list).  Still, all of this reflection makes me realize how envious I am of my younger self, the one who had the luxury of lazy afternoons that left me time to devour entire stories in one bite. 

My biggest pitfall this past year was struggling for too long with books I didn’t connect with  – either because they were the wrong titles for me or it was the wrong time in my life for them or some other reason – instead of giving up on them earlier. I’ve decided to include them here anyway, even the ones I didn’t finish, in part because I use this list to remember what I’ve read. Also, there are several children’s/middle school chapter books on the list, most from my childhood bookshelf, that I reread for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes, they are exactly the thing an adult needs to read.

I did not have one absolute 2019 favorite, but rather a handful of books I either loved (though sometimes love isn’t the right word) or felt were deeply moving, including a few I reread after a pause of decades. There were two great short stories I also want to mention here – Amor Towles’ new The Line and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, published in 1948 in The New Yorker, though its lessons are more relevant than ever.

Looking ahead to the new decade, I plan to read Erika Dreifus’ poetry collection Birthright, W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Daša Drndić’s Doppelganger, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, for starters. So many other books await me in piles here  – finds from the library book sale and the bookstore run I made with a gift card. There will be others, too, whatever a friend will inevitably lend or gift me, titles I’ll learn about through book reviews, and whatever my book club decides we should read together.

After all, a growing pile of books is always good thing, however it comes together. I’d like to think that’s the secret to living forever. Keep acquiring them and then stick around until we’ve read them all.

But for now, here’s a look back on my Year in Books 2019. As always,  please share your recommendations in the comments, or email me at merriukraincikblog@gmail.com.

#1 Gourmet Rhapsody – Marion Barbery

I feel terrible admitting that I could not finish this book since I loved Barberry’s Elegance of a Hedgehog, but I stopped around page 50.

#2 Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday

This book comes together in the coda. It’s clever, but it asked so much of me and was so pretentious I didn’t enjoy it.

#3 A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

I last read this in college, but this line resonated especially now “… give her a room of her own and five hundred a year…” and the freedom to write.

#4 Labyrinth of the Spirits  – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I loved Shadow of the Wind and was really looking forward to reading this. But I didn’t get through it.

#5 The Upstairs Room – Johanna Reiss

Reiss’ account of her experience hiding with a non-Jewish family in Holland during the Holocaust. (For middle school +)

#6 Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee

A novel about 19th century Paris and opera that was sometimes wonderful, sometimes too dense and complicated.

#7 Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Though I usually love every word Gaiman writes, it just wasn’t the right time for me to read this. I’m going to try it again in 2020.

#8 Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk – Kathleen Rooney

I loved this novel about a successful female advertising writer and poet in 1930s New York, and how the city changes in the background as she ages.

#9 Yellow Star– Jennifer Roy

The story, told in verse, of one of the 12 children to survive the Lodz Ghetto.

#10 If You Want to Write – Brenda Ueland

A fascinating exploration about art and the independence of spirit.

#11 Trieste – Daša Drndić

This historical novel is raw, experimental, mythical, and one of the very best books I’ve ever read about the Holocaust.

#12 The 100 Most Jewish Foods – Alana Newhouse

A collection of food essays with delightful illustrations and recipes.

#13 Survival in Auschwitz – Primo Levi

A re-read for me, but it was as powerful the second time around. Please read this book if you haven’t already, or if it’s been too long since you last did.

#14 Victoria – Daisy Goodwin

Historical novel about the young queen.  An afternoon diversion.

#15 Seedfolks – Paul Fleischman

A sweet, short book for young readers about the lessons of a community garden.

#16 The Caine Mutiny – Herman Wouk

One of the first post-WW II novels to describe the horrors of the Holocaust to American readers.

#17 The Known World – Edward P. Jones

Historical novel about freed slaves who became slave owners. Some of the jumping back and forth in time was confusing, but an interesting read.

#18 The Book of Dirt – Bram Presser

This wonderful novel is a love story and a survivors’ story and a grandson’s quest to connect the myths and missing pieces of his grandparents’ lives.

#19 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine  – Gail Honeyman

I adored everything about this book, Eleanor especially.

#20 Morningstar: Growing Up With Books – Ann Hood

A lovely collection of essays about the books that moved the author as a child/young adult. This resonated deeply with me.

#21 Tzili The Story of a Life – Aharon Appelfeld

A stirring, haunting fable about a young girl who survives the Holocaust.

#22 The Breadwinner – Deborah Ellis

For young readers, about a young girl who helps care for her family in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

#23 The Lover – A.B. Yehoshua

Deeply moving story about the complicated layers of Israeli society at the time of the Yom Kippur War. Alas, the last time I read it I was able to do so in Hebrew.

#24 The Good Daughters – Joyce Maynard

Really enjoyed this novel about a mistake that entwines two families. The presentations of farm life are lyrical.

#25 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

A mystery narrated by a teenage boy on the autism spectrum.

#26 Lilli de Jong – Janet Benton

Story about a woman who gives birth at a Philadelphia institution for unwed mothers in the 1880s.

#27 The Weight of Ink – Rachel Kadish

A beautiful, sweeping historical novel about two women and the sacrifices and choices they are compelled to make.

#28 Becoming – Michele Obama

Really liked this memoir, the first half more than the second.

#29 Love That Dog – Sharon Creech

A lovely story about a young boy who finds his voice, thanks to the help of a teacher and a dog (for ages 8-12, but really anyone).

#30 The Pushcart War  – Jean Merrill

Classic satiric novel (ages 10+) with a David v. Goliath theme. I reread my own copy from childhood when I found it on the shelf. Relevant as ever.

#31 The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams

Found this classic play on the shelf, too, and decided to reread. Heartbreaking and powerful.

#32 Holiday Tales of Sholom Aleichem: Stories of Chanukah, Passover, and Other Jewish Holidays – Selected and translated by Aliza Shevrin

What fun!  Best to read as the holidays come up in the calendar, though I read it straight through.

#33 Liar & Spy – Rebecca Stead

Fun spy novel set in New York. For middle schoolers.

#34 Never Let Me Go – Kashuo Ishiguro

A dystopian novel set in a boarding school in England. Brilliant writing, but creepy.

#35 Heads You Win – Jeffrey Archer

A friend gave this to me. A suspense novel that spins on the flip of a coin. Not my usual genre, but a fun distraction.

#36 The Other Wes Moore – Wes Moore

True story of two different men with the same name and entirely different fates.

#37 Someone Knows My Name – Lawrence Hill

Moving historical novel about a girl, taken from her African village and sold into slavery, who becomes a voice for the British abolitionist movement.

#38 The Other Side of Everything – Lauren Doyle Owens

Crime drama set in a suburban housing development. Didn’t grip me.

#39 Stardust – Neil Gaiman

What I wouldn’t give to spend 5 minutes inside Gaiman’s brilliantly creative head. A fairy tale with a beautiful love story at its heart.

#40 Save Me the Plums – Ruth Reichl

A memoir of her tenure at Gourmet. My favorite of her memoirs.

#41 Frindle – Andrew Clements

My favorite book about the power of words. Reread (for the umpteenth time) when I learned that Andrew Clements had passed away.

#42 Murder in Jerusalem – Batya Gur

A well-written murder mystery with insight into Israel history and culture. Gur’s last book.

#43 Braving the Wildnerness – Brené Brown

I related to several parts of Brown’s book about the courage to stand alone.

#44 The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi – Jacqueline Park

A novel of romance and intrigue. Book one of a trilogy about a well-educated Jewish woman during the Italian Renaissance.

#45 Daytripper – Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá

Beautiful, haunting graphic novel worthy of the acclaim.

#46 The Strange Case of Dr. Couney – Dawn Raffel

Wonderful, quirky true story about the birth of neonatology.

#47 How to Fight Anti-Semitism – by Bari Weiss

Important read, especially now.

#48 The Book of Aron – Jim Shephard

Story about a 13-year-old boy’s experience in an orphanage during the Holocaust.

Here’s to what we read in 2020!

 

 

Saying Goodbye to Andrew Clements

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Frindle came into our lives when one of our boys had it assigned at school. It was love at first read. We would go on to enjoy many books by Andrew Clements, but I kept coming back to this one.

The story is about a boy named Nick who comes up with the new word frindle for a pen. The book’s themes – the power of words and creativity, an individual’s ability to have impact – resonate with young readers. But they have so much to say to the rest of us, too.

Around the time of my son’s bar mitzvah, I decided to write to Mr. Clements, to tell him how much his books Frindle and Lunch Money, in particular meant to this child. What I didn’t expect was a response.

Two months later, however, Clements wrote back. He told my son how much he appreciated hearing from us, especially to learn his books had such meaningful impact. He included a beautiful line about the importance of having faith and a faith-based community in one’s life. He enclosed a small note to me as well, which I keep in a treasure box.

This paragraph at the end of Frindle is my favorite. It’s in a letter Nick’s former teacher sends him when he’s already a university student and frindle has officially entered the dictionary:

“So many things have gone out of date. But after all these years, words are still important. Words are still needed by everyone. Words are used to think with, to write with, to dream with, to hope and pray with.”

Sadly, Andrew Clements passed away last week. May his memory and his books be a blessing. I did not know him, nor did I ever meet him. But he wound his way into my heart through his stories, and I will mourn all the words that were surely still inside him when he passed, taking them with him into the next world before he had the chance to share them with the rest of us.

I plan to reread Frindle (again) this Shabbos, and to think hard about words. Because our words, the ones we exchange with one another and the ones we exchange with G-d, make all the difference in this world.  And may we be blessed to remember that they have the power to change it for good.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

Birthday Lessons and Blessings

Though these haven’t been the easiest 12 months, I know by now that G-d doesn’t hand us a catalog and say, “Go ahead. Pick the challenges you can handle.” He makes that decision for us, just as He chooses the less demanding weights we carry in our lives.

Yet it’s up to us whether we see the bumps in the road between the smooth stretches, or the smooth stretches between the bumps. Potholes come in all shapes and depths. Some we can maneuver around with ease and others we get stuck in, as if they were quicksand. Still, Hashem often enough sends the kindest, most giving humans to pull me out, or hold my hand and talk me through until divine assistance arrives – or comfort me when it does not.

No matter how old I get, I feel 39 in my head. Sometimes, I’m sure I’m still the little girl in this photograph. Curious. Eager. Wide-eyed. Hungry to experience everything the world has to offer.

I once thought I could do or be anything, though by now, some ships have sailed. I’m getting better at accepting what will never be and cherishing what’s come instead. Determined to embrace the jiggle of middle age, I’ve tossed everything control top from my wardrobe. We don’t really have control over much in this world anyway – only how we respond to the deck we’re dealt, and how we love, show respect to one another, and fight for what we know is right.

Some of my closest friends from childhood are still my dearest. Our shared history is priceless. But I’ve gathered wonderful new friends at every stage of my life, too. They are all treasures to me.  I’m grateful to them for letting me be my quirky self and for finding a place for me in their hearts.

There are people no longer in this world whom I miss with my every breath, every single day, even as time passes. More than anything, I wish there were phones in Heaven.

I love our house, with its old furniture and worn-out bits, our books and tchotchkes, and the kitchen, especially the kitchen, which, though small, lets me bake challah and feed people I care about and cook for folks I may never meet.

I love my family. I love my tribe. But I love being a part of a greater humanity in all its diversity.

Though I miss the steady paycheck of my former career, I am blessed to be writing every day, even if some days I can only do so in my head.

Since forever, I’ve enjoyed a tuna melt and a strong cup of coffee. My grandmother (and yours) was right; health really is everything. It’s good to have a hobby or two, to know how to create something with your hands that absorbs what worries you. Though I often can’t remember where I put the car keys, I haven’t forgotten the words to my high school playlist. This is important since nothing knows your emotions like the music of your youth.

There’s little that surpasses the pleasure of a book, a hug, a deep belly laugh, or a smooth glass of scotch. I’d add a full night’s sleep, but that remains elusive.

And then there’s the grace period of Shabbos, which gives me the chance to pause, reset, and fill myself up with hope for what awaits, G-d willing, in the days, months and years ahead. It’s a gift I hope to spend the rest of my lifetime appreciating, starting with candle-lighting tonight.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

Give A Little Kindness To Yourself

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I recently spent a few days in the middle of nowhere on a retreat for creative Jews. No cellular service. Spotty WiFi. A detox from social media. All of this in the company of generous, warm, loving, engaging people, and really good Stumptown coffee.

As it turned out, the middle of nowhere was the very best place for me to be, inspiring me to invest in myself, both as a writer and a human.

We were a diverse group of participants, the perfect blend in fact.  Our backgrounds varied, as did our levels of religious observance and personal stories. But there was plenty we shared, too – mostly our yearning to create however we choose to create, and to express our deepest selves in a way that feels beautiful and meaningful to us.

We coalesced around these longings, while also singing, praying, breaking bread, and sampling new outlets for our creativity. We talked deeply, both one-on-one and as a group, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the grass. And we explored our fears and dreams, connecting with one another on an authentic level that I believe will have lasting impact – in friendships, mutual cheerleading, and spiritual growth through artistic expression.

For me, the retreat came at just the right moment. I’m at a juncture in my writing, determined to throw myself more fully into my book. With that goal in mind, I recently created a permanent work area at home, a place where I can spread out my notes and keep my laptop open without having to clean off the dining room table when it’s time to serve dinner. This is a really big deal for me, a kindness to myself, and I’m hanging a lot of hope on the idea of space spelling progress.

I’m also planning a new look for my website. I want to do a better job of bringing the different aspects of my writing life together. I have a gazillion ideas, like talking more about books and experiences, linking my inspirational pre-Shabbos posts on social media to the site, and shrinking the size of my picture. I want the updated site to be a platform for us to interact more with one another as well.

With all of this in mind, I’m reaching out to ask for your thoughts and feedback. What are you looking for from the site? What’s working and what isn’t? Tell me if you share my posts with friends. Just want to say hello? That’s great, too.

Drop me a line at merriukraincikblog@gmail.com. On Friday, July 26, I’ll enter your name in a random drawing to win one of five small, but sweet prizes – the magnets featured in the photo above. My friend Rivki* and I designed them together and we think they sum it all up, like some sort of key to being a good human. Plus, we could all use the reminder to be kind and patient with ourselves.

Can’t wait to hear from you.

Merri

*Rivki will also be hosting a giveaway on her site soon, so surf on over to Life in the Married Lane and double your chances of getting this magnet to hang on your refrigerator.

The Ambitious Joy Of Summer Reading

glasses

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.