My 2017 A to Z themes revealed

Continuing my tradition of themes related to my writing, this year I’m featuring places and things from my WIP, The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and its sequels (each following a different group of characters), Sweet Miracles and Rebuilding the RemnantsBranches in turn begins with three of the characters from The Natural Splash of a Living Being escaping a death march, while Splash continues without them.

Branches is set in locales including Abony, Budapest, Florence, Paris, Béziers, Montpellier, and NantesSweet Miracles follows the characters who immigrate to Newark in November 1948 (the name taken from the mousery and rabbitry one of the couples starts), and Remnants follows the characters who immigrate to Israel after the British are finally gone.

You’ll learn about topics like:

Dohány Utca Synagogue, the Great Synagogue of Budapest and one of the largest in the world, which Eichmann used as his headquarters during the Nazi occupation.

Jewish Newark, which is now sadly just a fading memory. In the mid-twentieth century, Newark had the sixth-largest Jewish community in the U.S., with countless synagogues, schools, bakeries, cemeteries, and other communal institutions.

Machal, the all-volunteer fighting force from abroad which helped Israel to win its War of Independence.

La Samaritaine, a historic department store in Paris.

Hashomer Hatzair, a Socialist–Zionist youth group which supported a binational state. (Contrary to what many people on the modern-day Left believe, it’s very possible to be both a Socialist and Zionist without any conflicts!)

Vailsburg, a Newark neighborhood which now has a much different character than it did at mid-century. It includes a former movie palace which today serves as a church.

Košice, Slovakia, the hometown of my character Artur Sklar and Slovakia’s next-largest city. It was also the first European settlement to get a coat of arms.

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Florence’s oldest hospital, founded by the father of Dante’s love Beatrice.

Basilica di Santa Croce, an impressive complex that’s so more than just a church. It contains Dante’s empty tomb, waiting for Ravenna to return his bones already.

Neology, a uniquely Hungarian denomination that’s akin to Liberal Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Tempio Maggiore Israelitico di Firenze, the breathtaking Great Synagogue of Florence, which was saved from Nazi destruction in 1944 by brave members of the Italian Resistance. They managed to diffuse almost all of the explosives left by the retreating occupiers.

University of Montpellier, one of the oldest universities in the world, and home to the world’s oldest med school still in operation.

Pasarét, a Bauhaus neighborhood on the Buda side of Budapest.

Gellért Hill, a beautiful, storied hill on the Buda side, with lovely outlooks of the entire city.

Lower Galilee, a beautiful, peaceful region I hope to someday live in, far from the maddening rush of the big cities, and with wonderful interfaith relations. You’ll learn the story behind the most bizarre grave I’ve ever seen!

Several letters have two or three topics, but I kept everything within my usual average of 400–800 words. All non-public domain photographs are properly credited. Since I’ve been to the Lower Galilee, many of those photographs are my own work.

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My names blog will feature (mostly) names from Greek mythology. Since the Greek alphabet doesn’t have certain letters, I found mythological names from other cultures for those days. In the interest of fairness, I always do both a female and male name on each day.

WeWriWa—Wolfram’s stocking

Happy Christmas, and Happy Chanukah!

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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 number of pages after last week’s, when Wolfram invited his friends to join him for some Christmas baking. Now, Christmas morning, they’ve come across the hall so he’ll have some company on his holiday.

Glühwein is heated, spiced wine; gedeckter apfelkuchen is a cross between apple pie and apple cake; kranzkuchen is braided, wreath-shaped bread; lebkuchen is gingerbread; eierpunsch is eggnog; and vanillekipferl are small crescent cookies made of ground hazelnuts or almonds and heavily dusted with vanilla sugar.

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The breakfast which presently appeared on the table consisted of Stollen, glühwein, hard-boiled eggs, rolls with strawberry and raspberry jam, quark, kranzkuchen stuffed with chocolate marzipan and glazed with apricot jam, gedeckter apfelkuchen with cranberries in place of the usual raisins, lebkuchen, eierpunsch, vanillekipferl, chocolate muffins, chocolate croissants, hot chocolate, a platter of mixed cheeses, and pain au chocolat.  Marie eagerly piled her plate with everything.

After every crumb had been devoured, they went back to the living room.  Of the sixteen gifts under the tree, the biggest by far was from Marie.  A few of Wolfram’s new co-workers, and Marie’s friends, had gotten some little trinkets, and his new boss had given him an envelope of money.

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Wolfram first went through the contents of the stocking Marie had put together—chocolates, jellybeans, gumdrops, nonpareils, caramels, a dark green yo-yo, a silver bookmark with embossed swirls and the letter W, a small bottle of Fougère Royale men’s perfume, a pocket-sized copy of The Little Prince, a kaleidoscope, a Chinese puzzle box, a miniature telescope, Nénette and Rintintin good luck dolls, an angel figurine, and an orange.  Marie had individually wrapped everything except for the orange at the bottom, and put the candy in colored gauze drawstring bags.

“You’re such a sweet girl, Mitzi,” Wolfram said as he set the now-empty stocking on the side table. “You didn’t need to get me another present besides all these little things.  If people like me were able to have children, I’d want a daughter just like you.”

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Nénette and Rintintin are little yarn dolls originating in 1913. They began as children’s toys, but during WWI, they became very popular good luck charms for soldiers. Parisian civilians also wore them as protection against air raids. Many were made in white, blue, and red, like the French flag.

A twofer of antique horror

If you celebrate Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, may you have a lovely holiday!

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The Haunted Curiosity Shop, released in the U.K. in 1901, is now 115 years old. This great-granddaddy of horror was directed by Walter R. Booth, a pioneer of British cinema. Just like his French counterpart Georges Méliès, he too was a magician before turning to filmmaking. He worked with Robert W. Paul and Charles Urban, also pioneers of British cinema.

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Booth mostly did trick films (i.e., featuring special effects), and pioneered the usage of hand-drawing techniques which enabled animation. Indeed, he directed Britain’s very first animated film, The Hand of the Artist (1906).

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At just shy of two minutes, the film is very simple. An old man who runs a curiosity shop is beguiled by all manner of spooky tricks and apparitions, including a floating skull; a magically and gradually materializing girl who transmogrifies into an old woman and back again; a mummy; a skeleton; and a giant head growing ever larger.

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The Merry Frolics of Satan, released in France as Les Quatre Cents Farces du Diable (The 400 Tricks of the Devil), came out in 1906, and is now 110 years old. The film was directed by none other than the legendary Georges Méliès, who also stars as Mephistopheles.

The film, described by Méliès as a grande pièce fantastique in 35 scenes, is a contemporary, comedic adaptation of the Faust legend. It draws upon a stage play, Les Quatre Cents Coups du Diable, which débuted 23 December 1905 by the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

That 1905 play was in turn based upon Les Pilules du Diable, which premièred 16 February 1839 by the Théâtre National de Cirque-Olympique in Paris. Both of these plays were féeries, a uniquely French theatrical genre with fantasy plots, lavish scenery, incredible visuals, and mechanical stage effects.

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William Crackford, an English inventor and engineer, is in his workshop when he gets visited by a messenger who breaks the news that Alcofrisbas, a famous alchemist, wants to sell him a very powerful talisman. Intrigued, Crackford and his servant John travel to Alcofrisbas’s lab, where a lot of magical tricks transpire.

Crackford and John say they’re planning a high-speed trip around the world, and Alcofrisbas guarantees his help. Seven assistants march out, and help him with making a lot of magical pills. When a pill is thrown onto the ground, any wish will be granted.

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Crackford is so excited by these pills, he doesn’t read the fine print on the contract he signs, and thus has no idea he’s sold his soul to the Devil. After Crackford and John depart, Alcofrisbas transforms back into his true identity: Mephistopheles. The assistants are the Seven Deadly Sins.

When Crackford comes home, he doesn’t waste a moment in commencing his preparations for the journey, and shows off the pills to his wife and daughters. He produces a trunk out of which two servants climb. This trunk becomes a Matryoshka doll, with more and more trunks and servants, until finally the trunks turn into a miniature train.

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The train, loaded with Crackford’s family and luggage, begins its journey, and is met with ridicule instead of fanfare. A little accident on a bridge threatens to derail the entire journey, but Crackford won’t be deterred, and continues on with John.

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They stop by an inn, at which a disguised Mephistopheles is the proprietor. More magic tricks and sorcery commence, until finally Crackford and John run out and make their escape with a strange horse and buggy. Mephistopheles follows them in a car, and there’s another accident with a live volcano.

The carriage continues its journey through outer space, until a thunderstorm sends the travellers plummeting earthward, right into a dining room. Crackford is about to finally have some dinner when Mephistopheles arrives, demanding Crackford fulfill the contract’s terms.

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Sorry this soundtrack isn’t entirely appropriate (annoying background laughter and sound effects), but this was the only video I could find with any musical accompaniment. This also lacks the voice-over narration which was part of many Méliès films and took the place of intertitles.

Celebrating 120 years of horror cinema!

If you celebrate Rosh Hashanah, may you have a marvellous holiday!

Welcome to a month of celebration of vintage horror films with special anniversaries this year! Throughout October, I’ll be fêting Faust (1926), L’Inferno (1911), Homunculus (1916), The Phantom Carriage (1921) (my thousandth silent!), Der Müde Tod (1921), The Bat (1926), Midnight Faces (1926), Frankenstein (1931), and Dracula (1931). We’re starting off with the great-granddaddies of horror, three Georges Méliès films from 1896.

Georges Méliès, as some of you might know, was one of the pioneers of both French cinema in particular and film in general. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, he was a magician and illusionist, and put all those skills to wonderful use in creating special effects. His films span the years 1896–1912, and his best-known film is Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902).

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Une Nuit Terrible (A Terrible Night) is one of only six currently known surviving 1896 Méliès films (out of eighty he made that year). It was advertised as a scène comique, and Méliès typically plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute long, the plot isn’t very complex. A man is trying to fall asleep when a large bug (a pasteboard prop controlled by wires) crawls over his bed. Méliès does battle with the anthropod, and when it’s finally offed, he puts it in his chamber pot. While making sure it’s really gone, another bug appears!

It was filmed in Méliès’s garden by his home in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis (a commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris), with a cloth backdrop and natural sunlight.

In 2013, Méliès’s great-great-granddaughter Pauline published evidence that a film commonly entitled A Terrible Night and available on several DVDs is actually Un Bon Lit (A Midnight Episode) (1899). The original Terrible Night has the same plot and bed, but much simpler scenery and different camera angles.

 

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Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), released 24 December 1896, is considered the very first proper horror film. It’s a comic fantasy that opens with a bat transmogrifying into Mephistopheles (i.e., the Devil), who then conjures up a cauldron and an assistant. Together, they conjure up a woman in the cauldron.

They all disappear before two cavaliers arrive, but not for long. A series of spooky tricks are played, including the conjuring up of a skeleton and furniture magically moving around. When one of the cavaliers attacks the skeleton, it transmogrifies into a bat. The bat in turn transmogrifies into Mephistopheles, who conjures up four ghosts.

More tricks are played, until the last confrontation between Mephistopheles and one of the cavaliers.

This was also filmed in Méliès’s garden, with painted scenery. Though film actors were never credited in this era, we know Méliès’s future second wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, played the assistant. It’s also speculated that Mephistopheles was played by magician Jules-Eugène Legris.

At the time, its length of over three minutes was considered very ambitious.

The film was considered lost for many decades, until its miraculous 1988 rediscovery in the New Zealand Film Archive.

 

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Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare) was advertised as a scène fantastique, and also filmed in Méliès’s garden. Painted scenery was used. As in many of his films, he himself plays the protagonist.

At barely over a minute, the story is pretty simple. A sleeping man has several strange visions who transmogrify into one another. He awakes all twisted around, searches the bed, and is relieved it was just a nightmare.

 

I absolutely love 1890s cinema. It’s like looking back in time at a long-gone world, this precious time capsule of cinema in its infancy. Whether the films are actualities (i.e., snippets of everyday life) or fictional stories, it’s so amazing to see these preserved moving images that didn’t need CGI, graphic violence or sex, several hours, or even intertitles to tell fascinating, complete stories.

Jumeau dolls

(FYI for non-Francophones: Jumeaux is the plural of Jumeau.)

I’ve honestly never been much of a doll person. I never had nor wanted a Barbie, and always had more stuffed animals than dolls. I’m told I carried my few dolls under my arm like a football, instead of holding them close and cuddling them. I always gravitated towards gender-neutral toys, like marbles, or stereotypically “boy toys,” like miniature cars. None of the girly toys really appealed to me.

However, I always made an exception for collectible dolls, the kinds not meant for playing with. I love their clothes, hairstyles, faces, bodies, and accessories. The dolls I feature in my books tend to be homemade or generic toy store dolls, but I’ve created two Jumeaux recently. I think I found out about them when I got a Jumeau coffeetable book from a bargain table at Barnes and Noble.

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The Jumeau company was founded by Pierre-François Jumeau and Louis-Desire Belton in the early 1840s, in Montreuil-sous-Bois (an eastern suburb of Paris). They quickly gained a name for themselves, and their beautiful porcelain dolls became very popular. In 1844, they presented their dolls at the Paris Exposition. When the Paris Exposition returned in 1849, the company earned a bronze medal. In the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, they earned a First Place Medal.

More accolades and awards followed. At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, the company earned a Silver Medal, and at the 1873 Vienna Exposition, they earned a gold medal. In 1878, they earned a Gold Medal at the Exposition Universelle, and proudly advertised this fact on the shoes, boxes, bodies, and clothes of their dolls.

At the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 and the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1888, they won prizes as best dollmaker. In spite of all these awards, though, only a few pre-1870s Jumeaux can be definitively identified.

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Jumeaux had become luxury, status symbols, and enjoyed their golden age from the late 1870s to the late 1890s. By 1877, Emile-Louis Jumeau (son of founder Pierre-François) had added Bébés to the company’s products. Bébé Jumeaux were made in the image of real little girls, with realistic glass eyes and beautiful, fashionable clothes.

The Jumeau star began fading when German dolls rose in popularity. German dolls were cheaper than French dolls, but equally well-made and belovèd by their owners. In 1899, the Jumeau company became part of the conglomerate Le Société Française de Fabrication de Bébés et Jouets. This consortium went under in the late 1950s.

Though Jumeaux are no longer made, they continue to be cherished collectors’ items.

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One of my fictional Jumeaux is named Ambrózia, and belongs to little Ráhel Lívia Kovács. She was bought in a fancy Budapest toy store by Ráhel’s much-older sister Mirjam, a brilliant intellectual, academic, and hyperpolyglot. Ráhel receives her as a present in 1939, when she starts lighting candles upon her third birthday. Ráhel loves Ambrózia more than any of her other dolls, and takes her along to the Abony and Kecskemét ghettoes.

Ráhel is very worried when she remembers Ambrózia has a necklace that wasn’t turned over to the authorities or buried with the other valuables. She hid it under Ambrózia’s blouse since it’s Judaic jewelry. No one thinks a doll necklace could be worth much, but it’s a golden Magen David with diamonds and sapphires, inside a golden circle with more sapphires and diamonds, on a golden chain. Ráhel found the necklace at her maternal grandmother’s house after her death in 1942.

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Ambrózia is tucked under Ráhel’s left arm as she and her 4-year-old baby brother Dániel run to safety while a few teenage boys on the death train raise a huge uproar at one of their many long stops. The outburst draws attention away from the escapees on the other side of the train. I got the idea for their escape from the 2006 German film Der Letzte Zug.

Ráhel and Dániel (who’s become very ill with diphtheria) find shelter at a nearby cloister of Esperantist Carmelite nuns. Originally they were murdered with most of the rest of their family, but I no longer had the heart to kill them after I started getting to know them.

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In my fourth Russian historical, little Kaja Saara Lebedeva (radical Katrin’s firstborn grandchild) has a vintage Negro Jumeau from longtime family maid Mrs. Samson. Katrin’s family have always treated Mrs. Samson like an equal and friend, which often earns strange looks from people not used to the races mixing so closely. Likewise, Kaja doesn’t care her doll isn’t a mirror image of herself. To a child, a doll is a doll, whether white, brown, tan, or purple.

Jumeau first advertised mulatto and Black dolls in 1892.

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