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!

Getting Used to a New Kind of Silence

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. But the pandemic lockdown has rendered my sense of passing time wonky at best. It is hard for me to believe it’s already Labor Day weekend, and that Rosh Hashana is nearly here. I could’ve sworn it was still March and that I’d just sent out a blog post about Pesach.

Over the past several months, I have been thinking a lot about changes I want to make, though I haven’t made most of them. I haven’t felt any pressure to do so, which is good. Still, there are rooms I daydream about reconfiguring, closets I hope to declutter, and projects I want to undertake, among them a face lift for my website and a new format for my conversations with you.

For now, though, my focus is elsewhere, for I awoke to a loud, sudden quiet in our house this morning.

It’s not the quiet I recognize, the one that would echo after our boys, then small, had left for school. Nor is it the tired, afternoon silence they shattered when they’d come back home, arriving like pots and pans falling out of a cabinet onto the kitchen floor. Hungry. Loud. Edgy. Bumping into corners. Clomping down the stairs.

Delighted to see them, I still longed for the hush that would settle over the house again only at bedtime, when the stars would come out and we would read their favorite stories, then read them once or twice more. I would ask the angels to watch over them during the night, and I’d sing to them, to my boys, knowing I was still the center of their world.

This silence, the one I hear now as I begin to prepare for our first Shabbos as empty nesters, is unrecognizable. It’s like a new sweater I’m trying to break in, stretching the wool and folding up the cuffs on the sleeves so it fits just right, like an arm around my shoulders.

I have a flash of memory of my young sons shrieking with delight at the sea, gathering rocks and crabshells and jumping through waves, darting in and out of the water until they have exhausted themselves, falling fast asleep before our minivan reaches the highway. My heart has frozen that moment in time, just as I can still hear the sound of their youthful breathing in my head as I walk through their rooms now to straighten up, murmuring my prayers and eyeing their vacated beds with a pang in my chest, knowing this emptiness around me is the way things are meant to be.

We love them, care for them, trust in the strength of our relationship with them, praying that it will always hold, and then we let them go. It’s the natural order of things, and like breath itself, it is a gift of gifts to know they have grown, that they are men in the world, and that I am no longer the center of their corner if it.

And yet, this is a silence that will take some getting used to.

I look forward to sharing the ways I hope to fill it in the months to come.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

❤ Merri

Trying To Do Nothing At All

Hi everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve written and it feels good to be back with you in this space. I hope you are all safe and healthy and managing well.

This week was exhausting. Lots of doing with little progress, as if I’d been running in place.

I cooked like a short-order chef, cleaned until the house smelled of Clorox, ran the bajillionth load of laundry since we locked down, and choreographed a series of staggered grocery deliveries to arrive between now and Shavuos. One night, I colored my hair, but missed a splotch of grey. The next morning, I gave myself a mediocre pedicure. I tried to write, but instead spent two days trapping an elusive fly the size of a fighter jet that buzzed non-stop around my office. I told him he could have my chair before I gave up and left the room. I sunk a basil plant into the ground, knowing I haven’t the energy to fight off the bunnies. And after reading too many articles about the pandemic, I resolved never to leave the house again.

But more than anything this week, I was sad. I schlepped that hopeless funk around – daydreaming in mid-vacuum, worrying about the present, worrying about what comes next. I felt conquered. I cried. I wished for certainty, or at least a window of clarity, both of which seem to have slipped through my hands, if they were never mine to hold in the first place. I sat outside in the late afternoons to get some sun, to bring in a bit of light, but it didn’t help as much as I’d have liked. And I prayed, asking G-d for a lot. Maybe even a chutzpadik amount.

As the week draws to an end, I’m starting to think I’ve gotten it all wrong. Maybe sad isn’t the right word for what I’ve been feeling. Perhaps it’s more apt to call it the frustration born of trying to move forward, only to discover that all the roads are being repaved, that the map of the world has been redrawn, that we really know very little for sure. Yet my gut tells me that it’s likely also acceptance of my own very human limitations at the hardest of times.

Thank G-d, thank G-d, Shabbos is here, come to save me from myself. To remind me that I don’t always have to be strong, that I can lean into my faith to keep me standing, that I don’t have to carry the weight on my own. That it’s okay if I can’t always hold the pieces together. That sometimes, doing nothing at all is what gets you where you need to go.

Wishing you all a beautiful Yom Yerushalayim and a restful, peaceful Shabbos.

Love,

Merri

A Horseradish Reversal

Every year, I take the head from the horseradish root we use at the seder and plant it deep in the ground. But inevitably, just as the new greens emerge the following spring, one of the garden-eating wild things in our yard will devour the entire plant, root and all, leaving us with nothing.

By now, our recent sedarim feel as ancient as our slavery in Egypt and we no longer require fresh horseradish. Like so much else that’s gotten lost in our COVID-induced isolation, I’d forgotten about the root I planted right after last Pesach until this morning, when I noticed these bursts of green in the garden.

Shocked that they’d not been eaten (perhaps the hose has served as a fortress), I brushed away some of the dirt to check on the roots. They have to stay a little longer in the dark underground to fill out, to be ready for picking. But still, there they were in all their hideous, knobby-topped glory, and I smiled a smile I haven’t mustered in weeks.

The leaves are another story. Unbothered by rabbits and deer, they stand, when fully grown, like a proud gathering of fans, rippled at the edges and ribbed in the center. A verdant crown atop such an ugly, biting vegetable is a lesson unto itself — about silver linings and finding good and not allowing bitterness to consume us. To have played the tiniest role in bringing something forth from the earth, a bit of new life, gives me the taste of something hopeful, and that’s no small thing right now.

Who knows what this week will bring, our dishes packed away and Pesach behind us? Perhaps the animals will leave the plants alone, finding something sweeter to nosh on, and I will be able to offer friends fresh horseradish root with which to prepare an array of quarantine condiments. But mostly it’s the hope I’m clinging to. I’ll lop off the tops and stick them back in the ground.

Wishing the whole wide world a peaceful day of rest, and a Shabbos filled with hope.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

Keeping Up With Hand Cream

I bought this at Trader Joe’s back in January. I was away for a few days and realized I’d forgotten to bring hand cream. And hand cream, I know from my grandmother, is something we should never be without.

Her beauty regimen was simple, selected from drugstore stock. She assured me you didn’t need fancy-fancy, but you had to be consistent in applying your chosen unguents to keep yourself youthful. As a little girl, I’d watch her with wild-eyed fascination as she went through these paces. She never left the house without putting on lipstick. Before bed, she’d scoop Pond’s from the jar to remove her makeup, and once a week, she had her wig set at the beauty parlor across the road. I hung on her every ritual. But the only wisdom that really stuck was the one about creaming your hands. She’d say that a woman could moisturize her face all she wants, but her hands would give her age away if she didn’t tend to them, too.

Washing so frequently now, I’m finding that hand cream just isn’t cutting it. Levi says my palms, once soft, feel like sandpaper. My knuckles are scrubbed red and raw. My hands are aging before my eyes, as much as all of this is taking its toll on my soul.

But last night, after I’d done the dishes and washed down the kitchen, I picked up this tube of hand cream and noticed the tagline for the first time. “The perfect precursor to your next meeting!” Indeed, whenever that might be, I wondered, allowing myself a full-bodied guffaw.

Lately, especially in moments when fear of this dark shadow that hangs over all of us becomes sharp as a knife in my gut, I miss my grandmother especially. I conjure up her scents for comfort. Sometimes it’s her violet talc and her perfume. At others, especially on the eve of Pesach, it’s frying onions and Sanka. I realize that even if she were alive, I would not be able to visit her or feel her kiss on my cheek. The thought of it pains me because I know so many of us are now separated from those we love. So I will persist, creaming my hands as a way to cling to what I can of what life was like before.

We have arrived to Shabbos Hagadol, the great Shabbos that comes before Pesach, which for us is the third Shabbos our shul is shuttered. May we somehow find grace in this ongoing silence apart from our community, and may G-d hear our prayers to bring this plague to an end.

Gut Shabbos!  Shabbat Shalom!

Sending love to all of you.

Merri

A Tuesday with Hot Lemonade

Hi there,

Tuesday is my husband’s day off. We usually do something interesting. We go on a hike or to a museum, then grab a cup of coffee at a nice cafe. Today, and the past few Tuesdays, and all the Tuesdays to come until, G-d willing, the Coronavirus takes its leave, we are home.

This morning, I made us lattes, while he prepared traditional Croatian hot limunada for the vitamin C. We listened to our respective Daf Yomi podcasts and will find something to watch on Netflix tonight, maybe The Plot against America. In between, I’m disinfecting and laundering and getting some work done, if only what my distracted mind will allow. He’s reading and talking to medical colleagues, rabbis, and patients, learning the language of this illness while figuring out how to convey unconditionally the vital role our communities and each of us as individuals play in stanching it. All the while, I’m trying to forget that he and so many other medical professionals will return to work in the morning.

Please, if you don’t absolutely need to go out, stay home. Wash your hands. Have your groceries delivered. Get fresh air in the privacy of your own backyards or on your separate porches. Be a support to one another, for the anxiety many of us are dealing with — from fear of the illness to the angst of being cooped up at home — is a force all its own.

Did I already say stay at home?

Pray the way you would usually talk to G-d. Just do it alone.

Learn online with your chevrusa.

Read that long book you’ve always wanted to read, but never found the time for.

Finally organize your kids’ baby pictures.

Spread kindness as much as you can from wherever you’re holed up.

Call a neighbor.

Remember a neck or a polkie look great on a seder plate; don’t take risks to track down a shank bone.

Love your loved ones, those far away and the ones you’re lucky to have in sight.

Make lattes and limunada.

Dream of better things to come.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay home.

With love,
Merri