Merri Ukraincik

My Year in Books 2021

Hi there,

I hope everyone is well and managing the ongoing pandemic in good health.

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written here. My last post was my 2020 book list. I had plans then to start a newsletter instead, the technology of which continues to elude me. The next thing I knew it was this past Sunday and sorry about that. Thank you for understanding.  

I do write regularly on Facebook. If you’d like, we can stay in touch there until I get the newsletter off the ground. https://www.facebook.com/merri.ukraincik/

In the meantime, the book list is the book list, so here we are.

My 2021 reading was up and down. There were months when I had my head in a book non-stop; others when I hardly had the headspace to read at all. Mostly, I read what struck me in the moment (Dickinson, Godwin) or what a friend handed to me as she cleaned out her basement (Styron, Kaling), or what I picked up from a random box of books marked “Free” (Tyler, Cole) while out walking.

My favorite piece of writing wasn’t a book at all. It was this gem of a prayer, scrawled by http://Isaac Bashevis Singer on the back of a rent slip.

All in all, despite the chaos happening out there in the world, reading was as it always is – a balm and a joy.  

Looking forward to hearing what you read this past year, and what you recommend.

Oh, also, we finally bought a new couch – a small miracle, given the supply chain situation – so I’m looking forward to doing a lot of reading on it in the future. A friend gave me book-themed pillows for my birthday. A girl couldn’t ask for anything more.

With love and books,

Merri

My 2021 Year of Books

First, the forgotten titles from 2020, or least the ones I finally remembered:

Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites by Dawn Drzal – Food as metaphor in this wonderful memoir in essays.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk – A novel of longing (for many things) in a small Turkish town, set against the rising threat of Islamic extremism.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I love Patchett, but it wasn’t easy to read a book about folks stuck in one kind of lockdown while we were stuck in another.

And here’s 2021:

1.   A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – A classic I last read in my adolescence, better appreciated this time around.

2.   Fifty Names for Rain by Asha Lemmie. Beautifully written, engaging story with a lovely title, though I wished for a different ending.

3.   The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. Well-done mystery that unfolds in an upscale New York City neighborhood. Great afternoon distraction.

4.   The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Quick-going novel about a female spy network that operated in France during World War II. Read this a few years ago; reread now for book club.

5.  The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet – Moving story of twin girls and racial identity in the segregated American South. Glad to have read it, but struggled with the second part of the book.

6.  The Patron Saint of Liars by Anne Patchett – Patchett’s first novel, about a woman who abandons her husband. Themes of reinvention and self-preservation. I’d probably find Patchett’s grocery list enchanting.

7.  House of Glass by Hadley Freeman – Freeman pieces together her family’s Jewish past. Memoir as mystery.

8.  The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner – The answer when people ask why we need another book about the Holocaust. Stunning writing.

9.  The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce – A love story set in a music shop.

10. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter – Comedic novel about the financial crisis, as told by a business reporter turned poet. Wasn’t my thing.

11. A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell – Spectral story narrated by a man murdered during the Holocaust who cannot get to Heaven. Mixed feelings about this one.

12. The Magician’s Assistant by Anne Patchett – A novel of love, magic (the characters’ and Patchett’s), healing, and redemption.

13.  A Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frenkel – Rediscovered memoir, originally published in 1945, of Frenkel’s escape from the Nazis. The story of the book’s reappearance at a flea market makes for a wonderful preface.

14. The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams – A quirky novel about how words come into being and how language becomes a kind of currency.

15. Hunger by Roxane Gay – Gay’s memoir is hard, but necessary, and her voice is astounding.

16. Who Is Michele Obama? by Megan Stine – Biography for children, interspersed with stories about previous first ladies. This was a fun book gift, given to me with #40.

17. The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman – Endearing novel told in stories that flit back and forth in time and reflect the spectrum of human emotion. Wonderful titular character, poignant (and funny!) ending.

18. A Wealth of Pigeons: A Cartoon Collection by Harry Bliss & Steve Martin – A few cute cartoons. The rest were meh. Or maybe I’ve lost my sense of humor to the pandemic.

19. Modern Girls by Jennifer S. Brown – I enjoyed the relationship between the Yiddish-speaking immigrant mother and her American daughter.

20. Darkness Visible by William Styron – Memoir about the author’s depression and recovery.

21. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh – Hilarious, quirky graphic memoir that also tackles tough topics, including mental health.  Plus, there’s a goose.

22. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger – Heartbreaking coming-of-age story.

23. News of the World by Paulette Jiles – Quick read about a Civil War veteran who gives live newspaper readings. Struck me as written for the film version.

24. The Last Jews of Berlin by Leonard Gross – Powerful accounts, written by a journalist, of U-boats, Jews who hid in Germany during the war.

25. The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg – Berg’s writing is beautiful. But she diminishes the impact of abuse on familial relationships.

26. Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland – I liked so much about this Jewy story, set in Atlantic City during World War Two, except one story line that struck me as untrue to the characters.  

27. A Gift for a Ghost by Borja Gonzalez – Odd graphic novel, especially the faceless characters who connect across time.

28. Poems by Emily Dickens – Just what I needed in that moment to help usher out a Shabbos.

29. The Takeaway Men by Meryl Ain – Novel by my fellow Jewish Week alum Meryl Ain about memory and Jewish identity in mid-20th century Queens.

30. Memoirs by Kinglsey Amis – I could not read past the preface, though I tried. The silver lining was the sweet bookmark from a shop in Madrid that fell out of my used copy.

31. Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou – Memoir of Angelou’s complicated, but ultimately redemptive and loving relationship with her mother.

32. All My Sons by Arthur Miller – Play. A short read and good conversation starter about the way a secret can destroy a family. Painful in its way.

33. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery – Beautifully written, fascinating, but a long-read essay would have been enough for me. My fault, not the book’s.

34. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling – A gift from a friend. Not my usual read, but a fun afternoon distraction.

35. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich – Homage to the author’s grandfather, who fought against Native dispossession from North Dakota. But the story was all over the place and hard to follow.

36. The Jewish Husband by Lia Levi – Set in Fascist Rome in the 1930s, the tragic story of a young Jewish man who marries into a Catholic family that supports Mussolini.

37. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively – I abandoned this a few stories in.

38. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner – This resonated, the language of loss and the emotions, and the fact that I, for reasons different from the author, have cried in H Mart.

39. A Palestine Affair by Jonathan Wilson – A chance find at a library book sale. Read this romantic thriller set in Mandate Palestine in one sitting.

40. How the World Looks to a Bee by Don Glass – A companion of short, topical science pieces that I enjoyed one or two at a time.

42. Wartime Lies by Louis Begley – A raw Holocaust novel. Begley’s afterword is powerful.

43. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – A beautifully written novel of love and war that spans from World War I to the present.

44. SlaughterhouseFive by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s classic anti-war science fiction novel. I reread it for the first time in decades after visiting Vonnegut’s library.

45. The Good Husband by Gail Godwin – Compelling story of marriage, intellect, love, and loss.

46. How to Make a Life by Florence Reiss Kraut – Historical novel about several generations of a Jewish family and the challenges of immigration.

47. The Children’s Bible: A Novel by Lydia Millet – Societal collapse, climate disaster, dystopia. Not for me.

48. The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz – Part spiritual memoir, part historical/religious exploration. Lovely to read.

49. Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Enchanting tale. Enjoyed it, though I usually find fantasy unsettling.

50. Blankets – Craig Thompson – Coming-of-age, autobiographical graphic novel.

51. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – Heartbreaking, but gorgeous. Trevor is an astounding writer.

52. The Layers Project: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience,and Growth by Jewish Women by Shira Lankin Sheps – Narratives of challenge and triumph, as told by 30 women living in Israel. Important read, stunning photographs.

53. The Door by Magda Szabo – A haunting novel, translated from Hungarian, about the relationship between a writer and her housekeeper. This book! Be prepared.

54. The Patriots by Sana Krasikov – So much to say about this book, a mother-son tale, a story of secrets, a sweeping historical novel. One of my favorites this year.

55. At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracey Chevalier – A peculiar story about a broken family and a lot of apples.

56. When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains by Arianna Newman – Newman uncovers her father’s war story. Reads like a thriller.

57. Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank – I was late to the game of reading this very popular book from 1999, about the comic-tragic dating dance.

58. Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom – A novel about a white indentured servant from Ireland and a plantation master’s illegitimate slave daughter in the American South.

59. The Traveler by Daniel Simkin and Darren Simkin – A small fable of a book about the lessons of living.

60. Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman – Memoir, beautifully written, about growing up in a Jewish family in Egypt.

61. World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil – A collection of lovely essays that feature nature as memoir. Completed in an afternoon over several cups of tea. 

62. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – The odyssey of four boys who really get nowhere, but the storytelling and the living are the point. Towles is brilliant. Still, I was troubled by the ending.

63. Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume – I loved this book as a girl and decided to reread. Let’s just say, sometimes, you can’t go home again, even in a book.

64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter – A wonderful story of love and social satire, set in a seaside Italian village and Hollywood.

65. House on the River: A Summer Journey by Nessa Rapoport – Lovely, evocative memoir about the power of memory to shape the author’s life. 

66. The Boston Girl by Anita Diament – Novel about a spirited daughter of Jewish immigrant parents in early 20th century Boston.

67. Under My Hat by Sally Berkovics – The author sensitively explores the challenges of balancing Orthodoxy and secularism.

68. Swann by Carol Shields – A literary odyssey about an uneducated farmer’s wife who is murdered shortly after handing her poems over to a small press.

69. On the Heart of the Seas by S.Y. Agnon – A spiritual legend about a group of Chasidim who travel to the Holy Land in the early 19thcentury. A divine read.

70. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz – This thriller asks who owns our stories. It creeped me out. Also, the trajectory was predictable, though maybe that was the point.

71. The Tide between Us by Olive Collins – The novel hinges on the little-known history of the 2,000 Irish children deported to Jamaica as slaves in the 1800s. Roughshod editing and the second part left me wanting.

72. After Rain by William Trevor – A touching collection of short stories. Trevor writes as if he can see into the human heart.

73. Open City by Teju Cole – A novel about a Nigerian-German psychiatrist in New York, and the stories we write about ourselves. The descriptions of the city are stunning.

74. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I could not get through a novel about the world destroyed by a flu pandemic. Wrong timing.

75. Wow, No Thank You – Samantha Irby – She’s clever and funny. Yet, though I’m not prudish, I wasn’t in the mood for something so crass.

76. Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler – The story of a loving, imperfect family with a wonderful, middle-aged mother at its helm.

77. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque – Brilliant classic novel of World War I, and the tragedy of war.

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!

 

 

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

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.

 

 

 

 

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.