Merri Ukraincik

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!

 

 

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!

Slipping Into A Comfortable Chair This Shabbos

chairafghan

In Ashkenazi tradition, we name our children after those we’ve lost, keeping the memory of the deceased alive each time we call out to the living. The assemblage of items in our home, many bequeathed to us when family and friends passed into the World to Come, does the same.

Well-worn tables, tchotchkes, kitchen utensils, costume jewelry. Some things are quirky and rare, others useful. Yet all are precious, if only because a hint of the soul of each previous owner lingers in the fiber of these belongings.


My sons will tell you we have too much they’ll never want. And yet, though I am quick to declutter my own things, I cannot part with these bequests. Doing so would feel too much like dropping the string tied to a bouquet of balloons, letting it soar until it becomes invisible, lost somewhere behind the clouds.

I believe it’s part of my tafkid, my purpose here on earth, to preserve the mesorah of items once dear to those who were dear to us. Would my loved ones disappear entirely from my memory if I did not? As long as I’m blessed to remember, the answer is no. But by filling our house with their things, I keep their names on the tip of my tongue, and the essence of who they were a physical presence in this world.

It is not morbid or overcrowded here, I assure you. Rather, our home pulses with life.

When I wrap myself in my Grandma Sadye’s afghan and wear my mother-in-law Lea’s earrings, I sense their love. When I stir with Bubbe’s spoon, I feel her hands in my own. This bounty has little financial value. But the sentimental value could fill a vault at the bank.

Recently, our neighbors’ daughters were generous in giving us some furniture and an old chocolate-egg mold as they emptied their parents’ home of its contents. Their father passed away last year, and their mother has since been in assisted living. We embraced these items with the same warmth we shared with their original owners. And it feels good to know that in some way, they still live here on the block with us, their names on our lips when we point to their things.

There are so many ways to disappear, so many forces that have the power to say poof and erase evidence of our existence from this world. And yet, there are many ways to keep it from happening, to root ourselves here in love, kindness, and the business of preserving memory. I say, let’s do all we can to make a lasting impression during the limited time we have.

I can’t help but think about Shabbos as I look around our home, my soul filling up with moving recollections. Shabbos itself is a moment devoted to remembering what matters most in this world, to guarding the holiness of the day, and to keeping G-d a vital, pulsing presence in our hearts and lives. It’s the reason the Hebrew writer Ahad Ha’am famously said, “More than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept the Jews.”

This Shabbos, may we slip comfortably into the chair of someone whose memory we cherish, and into the embrace of someone we are deeply grateful to still have here with us. And may we be blessed to keep the Sabbath day, and for it to keep us – vital, beloved, and present – until we reach 120.

Gut Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!

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.

 

Saying Goodbye to Lord & Taylor

LTselfie

I went to the city last week for a few meetings. To those of us who live in its orbit, the city means New York City, with its unique urban quirkiness, culture, and pulse. It has so much to offer, but one of my favorite things about it has long been its potential for shopping serendipity, especially in tourist-jammed midtown this time of year.

Nearly all of that’s gone now –  the costume jewelry, hand-knit puppets, used books, and all kinds of items for sale on tables set at random intervals along the sidewalk. They have been replaced by “I Love New York” merchandise, $10 knock-off watches, and pashminas, identical displays without much character on every corner. It’s a shame, too, because shopping on the sidewalks of New York was once an adventure, the source of some wonderful finds.

On the other hand, Lord & Taylor’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue was where I went when serendipity would not do. I was devastated when I first heard the news that the store, which opened in 1914, would close its doors after the holidays. It feels like a seismic shift, the loss of a landmark on my personal Manhattan landscape.

I, like so many others, made a pilgrimage to its holiday windows nearly every year since childhood. Later, it would become my go-to place when I began to shop for myself. The Saks I could afford, it’s where I bought my first professional wardrobe and nearly all of what my mother and grandmother called foundation garments.

In December 1991, I purchased an outfit at Lord & Taylor that would launch 1,000 ships in my life. I wore it to an interview at the Joint Distribution Committee, a position that brought me to Zagreb in 1992, where my career changed direction and I met my husband. When we married, I bought outfits for our sheva brachos there. When I was pregnant with our boys, the store’s ladies room was my public bathroom of choice. Later, after we’d already left the Upper West Side for the suburbs, I’d return to search its racks for a dress for their bar mitzvahs.

It’s no surprise, then, that after my meetings last week, I felt compelled to bid Lord & Taylor farewell on my walk back to Penn Station. I wanted to say thank you, and to pick up a souvenir to remember it by. I happened upon the perfect thing as soon as I entered the store.

See these geese? Smitten, I wanted to take one home.

geese

Although I was on a tight budget, I knew the evening gowns were selling for $16.99 and figured a goose wouldn’t run me too much. I got giddy envisioning the ideal location for it in our living room, where it would allow me to wax poetic about the Lord & Taylor of yore. Plus, I wanted the fun of walking down Fifth Avenue with a large goose under my arm, though I was somewhat concerned about getting it on the train.

I asked a saleswoman at one of the makeup counters for help. She had no idea whether the geese were for sale or not, but she smiled at me like nothing was odd about my request and went off to inquire. She returned with the disappointing news that the geese were destined for other Lord & Taylor stores in the suburbs.

I told her in earnest, “These are New York City geese. I can’t imagine they’ll be happy there,” forgetting for a moment that I now live in the suburbs, too. Still, believe me, that goose would be loved and cared for in our home, not ignored in some dark storage closet in the bowels of a mall.

Anyway, she was lovely about the whole thing, reassuring me that I’m not alone in my feelings of nostalgia for the store, though she admitted I was the only person who’d asked her about the geese. She suggested I head to the 10th floor, where fixtures and staging items were for sale, figuring I might find the right souvenir up there.

This eerie display of mannequins greeted me as I stepped off the elevator.

mannequins

Everything Must Go!  Ha! Everything but the geese, apparently.

I roamed around a bit, curious what I might find. There were large frames, light fixtures and ornaments, oversized flowers and miniature chairs, as well as an array of miscellaneous items that once beautified the store’s display tables and windows. In the end, I found this wounded bird – not quite a goose, but a little something with feathers and character.

bluebird

With my new .50-acquisition in the tiniest plastic Lord & Taylor bag, I boarded the train bound for home. Yet I haven’t stopped thinking about the goose that got away, and also about the fact that this is the end of an era. Until the store closes after the holidays, I’m going to dream that one of those geese takes flight and finds its way to me. We belong together in the embrace of our shared retail memories.

If not, I guess it will be off to the mall next December to pay them all a visit.