Here I am again, though I know it has been a long while, and now suddenly, just like that, it’s the end of December. I hope you and your families are well, and that you have been managing under the circumstances that have defined your experience of the pandemic.
Many of you have reached out, wondering if I still planned to send out my annual book list. I am glad to say that in this, at least, I have succeeded. I may have lost track of time and let go of many things over the past year. But I stayed on the ball when it came to reading. And as always, I’m glad to share.
Books were the silver lining of 2020. We haven’t had guests since the beginning of March, so I’ve filled the Shabbos day with stories. I haven’t read this luxuriously since adolescence. In fact, I’ve read and read and read, books providing a wonderful escape when the anxiety of it all felt like too much.
I enjoyed so many of them. My favorites? Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and Max Gross’ The Lost Shtetl, though E.B. White’s Here is New York runs a close second. Two other novels, R. L. Maizes’ Other People’s Pets and Frederik Backman’s Anxious People, were both perfectly suited to the times.
As we close out the year, I’ve just started Asha Lemmie’s Fifty Words for Rain, which shares real estate on my nightstand with Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, my book club’s current selection, which I last read in high school.
So enjoy the list and talk to me about you. What books did you read this year? What did you love, and what didn’t you care for? And tell me more about how reading has gotten you through the pandemic.
Wishing you all a healthy and happy 2021 – in reading and in all things.
P.S. I have big plans for the blog, once I get my act together. In the meantime, if you’d like, follow me on Facebook, where I’ve been writing regularly. https://www.facebook.com/merri.ukraincik/.
My 2020 Year In Books
I should start with the books I read at the end of 2019 that I forgot to include on that list – Tara Westover’s Educated and Lori Gottlieb’s You Should Talk to Someone. Unlike nearly every other human who read it, I struggled with the former. I enjoyed the latter, my laughter often waking my husband up while I was reading in bed, though by now he’s used to that.
1.The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. I enjoyed this often humorous story about a kind widow’s struggle to open a bookshop in an English seaside town that does not want one.
2.Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. The book seemed to read more like a collection of eerie memories than a story. Ondaatje’s a brilliant writer, though, and I learned from his sentences.
3.The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Not my usual genre, this psychological thriller landed in my lap while we were away for Shabbos (in the days when we could still do that) after I finished the book I’d brought with me.
4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. Much ado about this book, but it didn’t resonate with me. Plus, the font was difficult to decipher.
5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Moving novel about identity and community as two African-American families are brought together by the birth of a child.
And then came lockdown…
6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Haunting historical novel based on the true story of the Mirabel sisters, who became symbols of the resistance against Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. So good.
7. The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht. Novel about two Jewish boys in London who become friends on the eve of World War Two. I wanted a different ending.
8. Guts by Raina Telgemier. Spot-on graphic novel for middle schoolers, or readers of any age, about an 11-year-old who learns to cope with anxiety.
9. The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry. This novel grabbed me as it plumbed the depths of guilt as a raw human experience. How did I not know of Barry before?
10. Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann Hood. Collection of personal essays and recipes about life lived and the power of a good meal to save, heal, and uplift, among other things.
11. Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić. Short, caustic novel about a passionate encounter between a retired Yugoslav army captain and a Holocaust survivor. Powerful, as her fiction is.
12. The Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin. Novel about Turkish diplomats who rescue Turkish Jews trapped in France after the Nazi invasion. I wish it had been more nuanced and dimensional.
13. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Beautiful, heartbreaking story of love, murder, and coming-of-age.
14. The Comet-Seekers by Helen Sedgwick. Quirky, but engaging novel about love, loss, a tapestry, comets, and ghosts.
15. All Whom I Have Loved by Aharon Appelfeld. The haunting story of an Eastern European Jewish family on the eve of the Holocaust, as told by a 9-year-old boy.
16. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec. An unsentimental culinary adventure that ends in love.
17. The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve. Lovingly written, multigenerational historical novel in which the city of Jerusalem is also a character.
18. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan. Whimsical novel about a gentleman who finds the owners of misplaced objects. Sweet story. As a keeper of lost things, Hogan had me at the title.
19. Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks. I wanted so much to like this collection, but did not.
20. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. One of the classics I reread this year. Struggled with it in high school when it was assigned. Saw the genius in it this time around.
21. Mr. Theodore Mundstock by Ladislaw Fuks. A raw, tragicomic novel about the war. Mr. Mundstock’s tries to find an escape from “the Jewish history of suffering” as transports carry Jews out of the city. Excellent.
22. Miriam’s Kitchen: A Memoir by Elizabeth Ehrlich. I loved the tastes, aromas, and emotions of Ehrlich’s religious awakening in her mother-in-law’s kitchen.
23. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Not a beach read or a pleasant diversion. But I’m grateful for the way Gawande engages us in this must-have conversation.
24. In the Woods by Tana French. Well-written crime story that enthralled me until the end. What I needed to read that weekend.
25. Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. I was pained for Shapiro while reading this memoir about secrets and self-discovery. I’m still not sure how I feel about the book, but I know 23&Me is off the table for me personally.
26. House on Endless Waters by Emunah Elon. A mournful, touching historical novel about a family, a painting, and the Jews of Amsterdam.
27. Two She-Bears by Meir Shalev. A multilayered story of love (between people, between people and the land of Israel, and between people and the earth beneath their feet). Also, there’s a murder.
28. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Hard to read this novel about a mother and son who escape as undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the United States without hearing the noise of the controversy surrounding it. I’m glad to have read it.
29. The Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev. A tale of two love stories that take place half a century apart. Also about war and the meaning of home. Reread for my book club. It has stuck to my heart.
30. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. The startling, serendipitous story of a young woman and the interesting characters she encounters as she transforms herself in post-Depression New York. A great view of the city. A Gentleman in Moscow is still my favorite of his books.
31. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Another classic I’m pleased to have reread.
32. Lies My Father Told Me by Benjamin Allen. Paperback based on the film. Not sure how I came to own this. Meh.
33. A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot. A young woman’s heartrending search for her fiancé after World War One. Be sure to read the book before watching the film.
34. The Dance of Genghis Cohn by Romain Gary. A must-read novel about a police officer in postwar Germany, a former Nazi, who is possessed by the ghost of a Jewish comedian he executed during the Holocaust.
35. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. A paradise lost story about a brother and sister and a glorious mansion in a Philadelphia suburb. Wonderful.
36. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I’d forgotten how much I loved this.
37. The Two-Family House by Linda Cohen Loigman. Multigenerational story about a misguided choice that unravels a friendship. The misguided choice makes for good conversation.
38. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. Funny how differently I perceived this coming-of-age novel when I first read it as I myself was coming of age, versus now, when I reread it as a parent.
39. The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi. Story of a young woman’s escape from an abusive marriage in rural India. Quick read, but I didn’t find myself invested in the characters.
40. The Rebbetzin: The Story of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer. An opportunity to learn more about her life and mission. Though her face does not appear on the cover of the book, which bothered me, her elegant image appears throughout.
41. Homesick by Eshkol Nevo. Multilayered narrative about love and history and the different meanings of home.
42. Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel. Sorrowful, moving novella about the unlikely friendship between an East Asian refugee in France and a local man he meets on a park bench. Ends with an extraordinary twist.
43. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart. His descriptions of the pianos may make you long to buy one, but the story itself didn’t hold me.
44. Writers and Lovers by Lily King. I missed this novel, about a young writer searching for meaning while trying to move past loss, long after I’d finished reading it. Plus, geese feature prominently in the story.
45. The Ruined House by Ruby Amdar. Someone is going to call me a Philistine for saying this, but I feel he could’ve made the book more relatable while retaining its brilliance.
46. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Another reread, this one leaving me to wonder how we ever came to think of this as a story for children.
47. The Oppermans: A Novel by Lion Feuchtwanger. Published in 1934, this brilliant novel depicts the life of a German Jewish family as Hitler rises to power. Everyone should read this.
48. Goliath by Tom Gauld. The biblical story as graphic novel. Food for thought.
49. Elevation by Stephen King. A story that strives to be an antidote to societal divisiveness, but the premise that launches it unsettled me.
50. The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason. A medical student falls in love with a field hospital nurse during World War I, with interesting, detailed descriptions of medical practices and early treatment of PTSD.
51. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. An older woman reflects on the pleasures and regrets of her promiscuous youth in New York during the 1940s. Engaging and charming, but probably not for everyone.
52. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Weisel. Tales, legends, and reflections, much of it nostalgia for a lost world.
53. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Another reread, but enough time had passed, and this book is so worthwhile.
54. Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. Fictional account of Truman Capote’s headline-making friendship with socialite Baby Paley. I did not like the story, but that was Capote’s fault, not the author’s.
55. Other People’s Pets by R. L. Maizes. A delightful, clever novel about a girl who relates better to animals than she does to people.
56. Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I was going through the college volumes on our shelves and decided to reread this. Couldn’t get through the oddness of it this time.
57. We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter. I had a hard time with this one. The characters were all too perfectly portrayed and the plot read more like an adventure story than a historical novel about the Holocaust.
57. How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić. I’ve wanted to read this witty, personal, modern classic on communism and feminism for decades and finally did.
58. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Another reread, this time with my book club. Still relevant and important.
59. Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills. There are interesting details here, biographical bits about the Lees I would never have known. But there was also too much repetition, and the story often loses its thread. Still worthwhile.
60. Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. I needed a thriller to distract me from the news.
61. Here is New York by E. B. White. A stunning love letter to the city.
62. Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent. I first read this when I was too young to understand it. Achingly painful yet hilarious story of a woman both pursuing and pushing back against the traditional life she’s been programmed for.
63. Out of the Shadow by Rochelle Garfield. Gift from the author. Story of an acclaimed psychologist who runs an innovative anorexia clinic.
64. The Orphan Collector by Ellen Marie Wiseman. It probably it wasn’t such a good idea to read a book about a woman who takes away people’s children during a pandemic.
65. The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel. A talented young forger helps Jewish children flee the Nazis. Harmel writes an engaging story.
66. The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani. A journalist travels to India to cope with loss and, in the process, uncovers a family secret. Some parts move slowly, but the multigenerational story ultimately comes together in a meaningful way.
67. The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross. I fell head first into the fictional world of an Eastern European shtetl that manages to evade modern history and immediately felt the story had been written as a gift just for me.
68. Group by Christie Tate. I’m no prude, but at times it seemed like Tate was oversharing. Still, she’s an engaging writer and I’m glad her life turned out as it did.
69. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Heartbreaking, breathtaking novel about marriage, family, and the loss of boy whose name becomes the title of one of the most celebrated plays of all time.
70. Anxious People by Frederik Backman. Eight anxious strangers get caught up in a crime that never takes place. I enjoyed the story, characters, and emotions. And what a title!