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!

 

 

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!

The Ambitious Joy Of Summer Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Sound of Silence (in My Head)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Year in Books 2018

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Well, it’s a wrap on 2018 in books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merri

Here’s what I read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a good year!