Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Cinnimin, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—Unwrapping presents together

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

This week’s snippet comes a few pages after last week’s, as the Smalls (originally the Brandts) and their sponsors/hosts the Filliards sat down for a dinner jointly celebrating the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve, which fell on the same night in 1938. Now they’re going to unwrap some of their presents together.

Artwork by Yelena Flerova

After the table had been cleared, everyone went into the living room to unwrap presents. The Filliards had wrapped the Smalls’ gifts in innocuous, secular paper, without any Christmas symbols, not even snowflakes. Both the paper and ribbons were solid green, red, and blue. The gift tags likewise were devoid of any hint of Christmas, and could’ve easily been affixed to gifts for any occasion.

Cinni watched expectantly as the Smalls opened her gifts. She’d gotten a small, no-frills compact mirror for Mrs. Small; a tin of shoe polish for Mr. Small; a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle for Gary; a book of Heinrich Heine poetry in German for Barry; and pearl hairpins in the shape of hearts for Sparky. Barry’s earlier Chanukah present had been a dark blue and white plaid beret, so he’d have a more stylish, modern way to cover his head. Though Cinni had itched to put a more personal inscription in the book, she didn’t want Barry to suspect her true feelings. Instead she’d settled for “Dec. 24, 1938, to Barry from Cinnimin. Happy Chanukah.”

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Food, Historical fiction, holidays, Writing

WeWriWa—A joint holiday celebration

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Chanukah- and Christmas-themed snippets come from Chapter 20, “Dueling December Holidays,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

There have been a lot of religious conflicts during December 1938, as young immigrant Sparky (real name Katherine) and her family are inundated with symbolism of a holiday they don’t celebrate, and a variety of responses to their refusal to adopt Christmas as a secular holiday “everyone” celebrates. However, Sparky’s family has agreed to come together with their hosts the Filliards for a joint celebration of the eighth night of Chanukah and Christmas Eve.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit 10 lines.

Painting by Yelena Flerova

The Smalls had brought schnitzel, Kartoffelpuffer, chicken soup, brisket, candied carrots, bolussen, applesauce, and, best of all, plenty of Berliner Pfannkuchen, while on the Filliards’ side of the table sat roasted goose with stuffing; dried fruit compote; mushroom soup; gołąbki; pierogi stuffed with chopped mushrooms and mashed potatoes; kotlety; stuffed mushrooms; mazurek stuffed with dried almonds, chocolate, and apricot jam; chocolate sernik; zefiry; and several heaping platters of cookies. There’d be more than enough for everyone.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Mrs. Filliard said as she cut into a gołąbek. “You’ve been generous to share your food, and oughta taste some of ours in return.”

“Perhaps next year, we can cook by your recipes in our kitchen,” Mrs. Small said.

“It’s ‘with,’ not ‘by,’” Gary gently corrected her. “You’re making the mistake of directly translating a German expression into English. Sometimes being too literal results in improper English.”

“My mother and I made that mistake too, when we were learning English,” Mr. Filliard said. “That expression translates from Russian the same way it does from German, and it took a long time for me to realize I wasn’t being grammatically correct.”

Kartoffelpuffer are German latkes; bolussen are Dutch sweet rolls; Berliner Pfannkuchen are jelly doughnuts. Among the traditional Polish and Russian Christmas foods, gołąbki are cabbage leaves wrapped around a savory filling (usually including meat); kotlety are small, pan-fried meatballs; mazurek is a sweet, flat cake; sernik is cheesecake made with quark; and zefiry are similar to meringues.

Posted in Books

2017 in Review (Books read)

Some of the books I read in 2017 were:

I highly recommend this book by a fellow Pittsburgher. It tells the amazing story of how, of all the 27 known hominin species who’ve walked Planet Earth, Homo sapiens sapiens emerged as the only one left standing. (Hominin is the more scientifically up-to-date term, and refers to both anatomically modern humans and our ancestors. Hominids are modern and extinct great apes, and include non-human primates such as orangutans, chimps, and gorillas.)

So many seemingly little things, like neoteny (having a childlike appearance into adulthood), a shortened gestational period, and the development of a sense of right and wrong, led to major evolutionary advantages contributing to our survival and emergence as the world’s most dominant species.

The book also examines the other hominins who’ve walked the Earth, some of whom have only recently been discovered. A number of these hominins inhabited the Earth at the same time, contrary to the formerly-held beliefs casting human evolution as a simple, direct line of descent.

Our 26 cousins may be long gone, but at least two of them, the Neanderthals and Denisovans, live on in the DNA of those of us with European and/or Asian ancestry.

By hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), the authors (a married couple) had just had twins when their proposal for this book was accepted in 2007, and decided to take some time off to focus on their babies. Had they gone ahead and written this book by the September 2008 deadline, it would’ve immediately become obsolete. So many amazing new discoveries have come to light in the years since.

This book can feel a bit academic at times (esp. the sections on stone tool-making), but I really enjoyed it. There’s also a section on Neanderthal tourism, listing museums and archaeological sites linked to our awesome, unfairly maligned cousins.

The authors are committed to accurately portraying Neanderthals and trying to undo the damage from over a century of slander and misinformation. Like them, I can’t stand when someone with no knowledge of paleoanthropology uses the word Neanderthal as a synonym for stupid, brutish, unenlightened, behind the times, grotesque, etc.

The Neanderthals were good people, the closest cousins we ever had. Many Homo sapiens sapiens aren’t as kind, helpful, and loyal as Neanderthals were.

This book introduced me to the modern development of spelling Neanderthal without an H. It’s because the modern spelling of the German word thal (valley) is tal. I’ve long pronounced the name without an H (since that is the authentic pronunciation), but it’s a little harder to adapt to the new spelling as well.

This book examines the paleoanthropological and cognitive science evidence to show how Neanderthals may have thought about many things (family, love, hunting, security, etc.). They also speculate on what Neanderthals may have dreamt about, and how they used symbolism and language.

This book presents a cultural history of Chanukah in the U.S., going from the Colonial era to the modern day. Chanukah didn’t become a prominent public holiday, or associated with gift-giving, until about the mid-20th century, for reasons we can probably all figure out.

The book also examines the history of Judaism in America in general over the last few centuries, and how hard it was to maintain a religious lifestyle as a minority. Many Christians in the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries matter-of-factly pressured their Jewish friends and neighbors to convert.

As late as the 1940s, it was perfectly legal to have numerus clausus (anti-Semitic education quotas), employment restrictions, limitations on where one could reside, bans on staying by hotels, and many other barriers to the Jewish community’s full, equal participation in American life.

Women were one of the primary forces in shaping Chanukah into an American holiday, since that was one of the relative few religious rituals they could perform in that era. This wasn’t a time when most Jewish women could expect to have a full religious education or role in public life.

The embrace of Chanukah as a major holiday also perfectly illustrated its lessons of staying true to one’s identity and resisting conversion attempts. Chanukah falls at a time of year when we’re most keenly aware of our minority status.

I enjoyed this memoir, one of several books I’ve read about Easy Company since watching the Band of Brothers mini-series. I love how Sgt. Malarkey noticed the exact same thing about the Stephen Ambrose book as I and many other readers did, how he focused WAY too much on bit player David Kenyon Webster!

The WWII generation is dying out, and Sgt. Malarkey himself passed away this September. We’re so lucky so many of them have left behind memoirs and recorded testimonies.

This was a cute collection of Dr. Seuss’s early cartoons and stories, many from college newspapers and humor magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote and drew many of these under the name Dr. Theophrastus Seuss. A particularly strange story is about his purported sex ed lessons to his nephew, where he says a whole lot of nothing.

I really enjoyed this book about the women of Paris during WWII and the early postwar years. It covers women from all walks of life, who did all sorts of things during the war. There are sheroes as well as victims and women with complicated actions. Some of them never had normal lives again, even the survivors or the ones who were rehabilitated after suffering national degradation.

Real history is often much more complicated than declaring such and such a person or action 100% good or 100% evil. There are so many shades of grey.

Posted in Food, holidays, Judaism, Religion

Xaver Suppe and Xoriatiki Salata

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Xaver suppe, or Xavier soup, is an Italian dish traditionally served on 3 December, the Feast of Saint Xavier. My character Caterina is Italian, and very familiar with this food. Being kosher, she has to make some modifications, since the true recipe uses both chicken broth and lots of dairy products!

Recipe (source: Cooking With the Saints, by Ernst Schuegraf, Ignatius Press, 2001):

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped (for dough)
12 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons chervil, chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped (for soup)

Over low heat, work the flour, cream, butter, and Parmesan into a solid dough. Work in the salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs, yolks, and parsley. Put the mixture into a piping bag with a big nozzle and pipe pea-sized balls onto a buttered tray. Let stand for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime, heat some salted water until it boils, then drop in all the “dough peas.” Cook for 5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the warm chicken stock. Season soup to taste and add the chervil and 2 tablespoons parsley. Serves 10 to 12 people.

To make it kosher or vegetarian, simply use vegetable broth. For a vegan version, use non-dairy butter, your favorite vegan Parmesan, non-dairy milk in place of the cream, and your egg substitute of choice, equivalent to one egg and one egg yolk.

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Xoriatiki Salata is a dish many people are familiar with. It’s Greek salad, made with ingredients which can include:

Feta
Lettuce
Tomatoes
Cucumbers
Red and/or green peppers
Spinach
Olives
Lemon juice
Onions (which I always skip or pull out!)
Olive oil
Sea salt
Oregano
Red wine vinegar

Non-traditional ingredients some people enjoy adding:

Chickpeas (I love them!)
Baby corn
Bok choi
Avocado (I love adding it!)
Mushrooms (particularly Portobello!)
Dried cranberries
Walnuts
Pine nuts
Slivered almonds

There’s no one set recipe, since you can add as much or as little of each as you prefer. Maybe you love extra feta and tomatoes, but don’t care so much for olives and cucumbers. You might hate onions as I do, and so never include them by choice. And though it’s not traditional, you can add extras like avocado and chickpeas.

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While my characters are staying in a vacation apartment in Florence over Chanukah 1945, Caterina tosses an extra-large Xoriatiki Salata for the days they’ll have dairy meals. This is a dish many people serve during Chanukah, not just those of Greek descent, because of the feta. It’s traditional to eat dairy and foods fried in oil during Chanukah, because of their symbolic relationship to the holiday’s origins.

During the time of the Maccabean Revolt, Judith famously beheaded General Holofernes. She fed him very salty cheeses which made him thirsty, and then got him drunk. Once he was asleep, she cut off his head and displayed it to the Greeks. They fled in panic and disarray. Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi frequently painted this subject. In the most famous painting, she modelled Judith after herself and Holofernes after Agostino Tassi, a friend of her father who raped her and whom she was gutsy enough to bring to court.

Posted in 1940s, Couples, Historical fiction, holidays, Judaism, Religion, Writing

WeWriWa—Csilla’s surprise

Happy heavenly 98th birthday to my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn!

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few lines after last week’s, when Imre asked Csilla if she’d like to light a chanukiyah too. Csilla thinks he’s bought her one as a present, but her guess is only half-right.

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Chanukah 1945, DP camp in Fürstenfeldbruck, Germany (Source)

The chanukiyah she withdrew from the bag was none other than her family’s old chanukiyah, which her mother had bought from an upscale shop when she was away at university in Budapest in 1911.  It was made of fused glass of a rainbow of colors resembling a patchwork quilt, with sterling silver candle holders.  Some wax from Chanukah 1943 was still on it, an eternal reminder of what once had been.

Csilla couldn’t help but wonder if Hungarian Jewry would’ve made it to the end of the war still as intact as possible had Horthy not decided to break his alliance with Germany.  It would probably be a forever unanswered question, just as she sometimes wondered what might’ve happened had the Allies bombed the train tracks and the camps.

“Now I like you more than before.” Csilla put her free arm around him. “I’d prefer if you hadn’t risked your life and liberty to break into the house and dig up those valuables, but I’m so happy you were able to recover some of my things.  There’s less of a hole in my heart now.”

Csilla set the chanukiyah on the table and filled the holders with orange candles.

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One of many fused glass chanukiyot made by legendary Judaica artist Tamara Baskin

Imre and his sister Júlia weren’t smuggled out of Soviet-controlled Hungary with the others because Imre was determined to dig up Csilla’s valuables and take revenge on the gendarme who tortured her and moved into her house after her family were deported.

Imre found the valuables, along with a sled in a dark corner, but he also ran into a lot of trouble with the gendarme. Though Imre has always been a lover instead of a fighter, he couldn’t control himself for long, and began violently beating the gendarme in a white-hot rage. During the altercation, he accidentally punched a brick wall with his left hand (his dominant hand), and broke every bone in that hand and wrist.

Imre has been giving her back her recovered valuables one at a time, so Csilla will have many more surprises to look forward to. She doesn’t yet know he indeed found everything on the list she gave him.