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

fringle2

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!

 

 

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.