My Year in Books 2018

books

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!

 

 

In Praise of the Dictionary

 

dictionary

When I teach writing to young students, one of the first things I tell them is that I keep a dictionary by my side when I read. I do this for one simple and obvious reason:  so I can look up the meaning of words I don’t know.

The surprise in their eyes is priceless. At first, they can’t believe it’s true. There are those among them who are convinced that adults are familiar with every word in the English language. I guess some folks are, but I assure them the average human – even a well-read one – is not.

I explain that this habit of mine goes beyond the necessity of understanding what I’m reading. I happen to enjoy learning a new word or reacquainting myself with an old one I haven’t used in a while. Keeps the mind supple. It also gives me the happy glow you get after a good meal.  I want my students to get excited about it, too, so they’ll see the looking up of words as a means to broadening their horizons. That’s why I tell them how much I love dictionaries, which are all over our house – on bookshelves and the table next to my bed, even near the cookbooks in the kitchen. They are my constant companions because reading is something I do in all sorts of places.

I’m aware that some of the dictionaries in my stash are outdated, like the  Webster’s I bought in college and the American Heritage edition I acquired for my last full-time job. That’s why I got myself a new one last year. It’s heavy and lovely and a number of the definitions have tiny pictures accompanying them. I keep it on the coffee table in the living room. But I haven’t recycled any of the old ones. I can’t seem to let them go. I like to suggest to my students that they treat themselves to a nice one, too.

Yes, I say to them, “I know the standard English dictionary is available online.” I also know that as vast as it is, it takes up no room that way, which would free up our coffee table for other things, like coffee cups. When I must, I avail myself of the resource, like when I’m reading in a doctor’s waiting room. It would be impractical to carry a dictionary with me wherever I go.

But the cyber edition is just a means to an end, while a paper dictionary has endless potential for serendipity. Only within its pages can you stumble upon the word chantey (a sailor’s song, sung while working) out of the corner of your eye while looking for the meaning of chapman (chiefly British usage, a peddler). It’s delightful when this happens. I could get lost in the Cs alone.

Mostly, I love that dictionaries allow us to hold the diversity of our language in our hands, laying the vast quantity of words out before us, like a Viennese table with a million plus treats to choose from.  I share this thought with my students, hoping they’ll catch my enthusiasm. I promise them that growing the number of words in their vocabulary gives them enormous power to frame their world (Which way do I turn to save the universe?), not only the practical ability to share their specific feelings about their new baby nephew (I am besotted with you.) and homework (I’d like to defenestrate my textbook, but won’t.).

Besides, there’s always a new word to learn – slang or technical jargon,  words borne of world events and cultural watershed moments. I tell them it’s good to keep abreast of change. We humans are forever creating language, helping it to evolve and grow. It’s kind of a superpower, really. I suggest that they read more about that in Andrew Clements’ chapter book Frindle. I read it with my boys when they were young and am grateful I did. It’s still one of my favorite stories from their childhood.

When they’ve finished Frindle, I encourage them to open a dictionary – not in their servers, but in their hands – at home, in the library, or at school.  Smell the ink on the page. Then, I tell, them, behold the low-lying fruit and grasp at all the delicious words they can.

Attitude and Gratitude

books

I’ve been AWOL for a month and I’m sorry about that. I haven’t been able to sit at my computer. It finally dawned on me the other day, however, that I could get writing done on my phone instead, which is why I’m here with you now.

I had surgery in late June,  which proved more complicated than either I or my doctor expected. Then came the bumps that have defined these initial weeks of recovery. There was a trip to the ER, and also, not all of my functions have been functioning as they should.

I’ve been stuck at home, mostly in bed. For someone who is always busy doing or making something, this at first felt like a period of sloth. I seemed to sleep for inordinate stretches of time, spending the rest of it contemplating my lack of productivity. I’d even begun to miss housework.

Still, I’ve tried to stay positive, developing a full repertoire of medical humor (“No, you can’t take my blood pressure. I need it.”). I’ve dressed in real clothes every morning, resisting the temptation to stay in the nightgown I slept in. But there have also been days when I’ve struggled to keep my spirits up, to not get frustrated enough to cry and scream, to give myself a break.

Redemption came once the lingering fog of anesthesia began to clear from my brain. I recognized that I could still be productive in small doses, even while stuck in one place.

Before the surgery, I’d placed a stack of books on my bedside table. Most were titles I’d picked up at the library book sale, yet hadn’t found the time to read. Friends came to visit with meals and iced coffees and generously brought me magazines and books, too, growing that lovely yet ambitious pile at my side.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve said, “If only I could lie in bed and just read for days on end.” Well, I got it. Sort of (careful what you wish for). At first, I couldn’t focus on the words and the pile gathered a thin layer of dust. But patience is a virtue and my head cleared enough over time that I could finally read.  A few of the titles will stay with me – beautifully written stories, especially Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” and Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth.”

I’ve also managed to crochet plenty of granny squares with the contents of my wool stash, so many that one lucky newlywed couple is going to get an afghan. The squares are each mini-projects I’m able to complete while propped upright in bed, giving me tiny feelings of accomplishment. My real life never allows for such protracted periods of crocheting. I’m more likely to squeeze in a few rows where I can.

Then, of course, there’s the healing, my priority activity at the moment. Right now, my body has to run on slow, to take it easy if I want to get back to myself. It needs me to put my feet up and rest, and G-d clearly knows I wouldn’t do this of my own volition.

I hope I’ll be up and about soon, taking short walks around the block to get the juices flowing and sitting at my computer to write. I’ll resume my regular, hectic-paced life in time, though I suspect I’ll quickly discover I haven’t missed housework as much as I thought I did. For now, I’m just happy to have things to distract me.

It turns out this period of sloth has been nothing of the sort. It’s taught me invaluable lessons about having patience with myself, about attitude and gratitude. So I’ll take the kindness of friends, the books and the granny squares and all the silver linings where I can.

My Year In Books 2017

Another year, another book list.

The world seemed to change in 2017 and my book choices mirrored the sense I was trying to make of it all. The online news proved a time-consuming distraction, and my obsession with it accounts in great part for what is a shorter list than usual.

I read far less current literary fiction and fewer memoirs – my favorite genres – than I usually do. Instead, I took the time to revisit a few classics and to fill in some gaps in my literary c.v. They seemed to be the right things to have on my nightstand at the time. Their words and wisdom, messages and metaphors set the mood for my experience of 2017.

Last year, I adored Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow so much I read it twice. Nothing swept me away quite like the Count and his nostalgia. When I needed a break from the news this year, I read it a third time.

It wasn’t the kind of year in which I had an absolute favorite, but I’m inclined to say that was less about the books and more about me. And yet, it was a year of meaningful reading. For example, I finally read Aaron Appelfeld’s The Iron Tracks and Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker. Shame on me for not reading them earlier. They are raw and honest Holocaust stories that remind me why books like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas so fully miss their mark.

My pile for next year already towers high. At the moment, it’s filled with books by Jewish women writers and I cannot wait to read them all.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me what you’re reading (leave a note in the comments or drop me an email through my website). I love recommendations. And if I don’t get to them next year, G-d willing, there’s the year after.

And please check out my latest essay on Hevria,  How To Build An Entire World In Negative Space.

Wishing you all health and happiness and plenty of time to curl up with a good book in 2018!

Merri

My Year in Books 2017

#1 The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Man Booker Prize-winning novella about memory and regret in all their awkwardness, but I wished I could have summoned more feeling for the characters.

#2 Awakening by Kate Chopin.  It’s awe-inspiring that Chopin published this bold novel when she did. It’s an important read, though I struggled as a mother with some of the protagonist’s choices. Chopin’s excellent short story “The Story of an Hour” is the perfect companion piece.

#3 You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein. I had no idea who Klein was before I began reading this (mostly) light, enjoyable memoir.

#4 The Bicycle Spy by Yona Zeldis McDonough. A story for young readers about a boy who helps a Jewish girl and her family during the Holocaust.

#5 It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. This reads like a playbook on the current political situation in America. It is hard, disturbing, and prophetic.

#6 Antigone by Sophocles. Greek tragedy about a woman who is willing to die for what’s right.

#7 Antigone by Jean Anouilh. A modern interpretation of Sophocles’ tragedy, set in Nazi-occupied France.

#8 Early One Morning by Virginia Baily. The story of a woman who makes an on-the-spot decision to save a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Rome.

#9 Animal Farm by George Orwell. Another timely classic.

#10 Fortunately the Milk by Neil Gaiman. Wonderful story for young readers about cereal and time travel.

#11 Food Rules by Michael Pollan. Short, interesting book of guidance for the eater.

#12 The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris. I was really disappointed in this book, which paints a one-dimensional picture of West London’s religious Jewish community.

#13 Hoot by Carl Hiassen. A nice clean chapter book about taking a stand for a cause, in this case, owls.

#14 Awake in the Dark by Shira Nayman. Psychological tales of Holocaust survivors and their children that read more like essays than fiction.

#15 The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith. Fictionalized account of George Eliot’s second marriage and honeymoon. A lovely companion to any of Eliot’s novels.

#16 The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s possible I’m the only person on the planet who couldn’t get into Eat, Pray, Love, but I enjoyed this novel about a 19th-century, self-educated woman who defies social conventions to live a meaningful intellectual life.

#17 The German Girl  by Armando Lucas Correa. Novel about a family on the ill-fated St. Louis. I struggled with the language the author uses to convey different voices, which made it hard for me to get caught up in the story, and I didn’t like the ending.

#18 Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. The marvelous George Eliot’s last novel, this lengthy story is about personal moral reckoning and the individual’s search for spiritual meaning. It also offers a highly sympathetic view of the Jewish pull toward Zion.

#19 The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Novel about women who take great risks in World War II France. I enjoyed the storytelling and characters, though I found the book too sentimental for such a serious topic.

#20 Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. Three women narrate their World War Two experiences – two in Ravensbruck and one in New York.

#21 Reread A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. See last year’s list for more on that. My Year In Books 2016.

#22 The Circle by David Eggers. A dystopian novel about a young woman’s new career at the world’s largest internet company. I gave up on page 49.

#23 The Pawnbroker by Edward Lewis Wallant. A must-read about a Holocaust survivor who becomes a pawnbroker in New York. Raw and powerful and genuine.

#24 The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood.  A story of two overlapping tales of infidelity. Some lovely parts, but the ending felt contrived.

#25 Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey. I got caught up in the surreal adventure of an American translator who comes to Brazil in search of her author, who has disappeared into an almond tree. Friends who read it with me gave it mixed reviews.

#26 After Abel by Michal Lemberger. I often wonder what the women of the Torah are thinking and feeling, so I treasured this story collection that imagines what happens to a number of them between the lines.

#27 Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner. Though I’ve never read her fiction, I really enjoyed this smart, funny, relatable memoir by the novelist.

#28 Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. I wanted to reread this in advance of the movie release.  I’d forgotten about Christie’s delicious characterizations and relished them all. I still haven’t seen the film.

#29 You Learn By Living by Eleanor Roosevelt. The wrong book for the wrong time, though I felt guilty I couldn’t get through it.

#30 War & Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. A Flemish artist fights in the trenches of World War I. A heartwrenching, beautiful portrait of one’s man’s life.

#31 The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld. A masterful story about a survivor who rides the trains through Austria in search of the man who killed his parents.

#32 Irmina by Barbara Yelin. Graphic novel that asks difficult questions about complicity in Nazi Germany.

#33 If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan. A gorgeous literary memoir about Kurshan’s immersion in the daily study of Talmud as she recovers from her divorce and builds a new, beautiful life.

#34 The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I adored this fable about the power of stories to help us process the dark side of human nature and to shelter us from it, too.

#35 Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. A fascinating and important memoir about white working-class America.