How To Be The Absolutely Most Perfect Holiday Guest There Ever Was!

Over at Wirecutter, there’s advice about what you should and shouldn’t do when you’re a holiday dinner guest. Don’t bring flowers, do bring ice, and if you arrive with a dish, make sure it’s hot because the oven will be busy.

So you may be wondering, What’s wrong with flowers?  Well, apparently you’d be bothering your hosts who would have to interrupt their frantic activity to go to all the trouble of finding you a vase and filling it with water.  But if that’s the only problem, and you have your heart set on a bouquet, why not bring your own vase and a bottle of distilled water?  Easy-peasy.

As for bringing food when you’re invited to dinner, I have to disagree.  If you haven’t been expressly invited to do so, it seems pretty rude.  It implies that you have a back-up plan in case your hosts are bad cooks.

And ice?  Really?  Are you dining out in some desert land where people have minimal refrigeration?  Maybe the Wirecutter author was troubled by climate change melting the icebergs in Greenland, got a little confused, thinks that the world is facing an ice shortage.  The holiday season does that to people.

But back to those pesky flowers.  If you really do believe the Wirecutter author is right, skip flowers and do something much grander: bring a Christmas tree, something artificial that’s already decorated.  You’ll be praised for your thoughtfulness.  Just forget the tinsel since it’s apparently destroying the planet.

Of course, you might be headed to a Jewish household, in which case you should bring extra Hanukkah candles because sometimes they break or get scarfed by a dog. If your hosts have enough, no matter: it shows that you care.  And while you’re at it, some potato pancakes wouldn’t hurt, since everyone argues about whose bubbeh makes the best ones.

Don’t debate, just stop by Whole Foods for their version and stay above the fray.  And yes, bring your own olive oil and counter portable countertop stove so you don’t have to bug you hosts.  Get there early so you’ll be ready for the other guests.  Now I know I advised against bringing food, but latkehs are more than food, they’re an institution.

Oh, and finally Wirecutter suggests that if you bring something like a bottle of whiskey, hide it so you don’t have to share it with the other guests.  Whatever happened to wine that joined other bottles on the table?  Did Scrooge write that column?

And do people really need to be reminded to at the very least send an email thanking their hosts?  Were the readers of Wirecutter raised by wolves?  Maybe the subtext of this article is a dinner party that went horribly wrong, a version of the B-52’s song “Party Out of Bounds.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Review: Forward Magazine Claims “A Christmas Carol” Is Anti-Semitic

A clickbait article in Forward online recently tried to argue the case that Dickens’s classic novel is filled with Jew hatred.  That argument was full of of holes.

While the money lender may be an anti-Semitic stereotype and Scrooge does lend money, that’s just one of his many business dealings. The sign “Scrooge and Marley” hangs over a “warehouse door,” so money lending doesn’t seem to be his main profession. A warehouse suggests a wholesale business of some kind, though Dickens never specifies what that is. It’s not likely that the warehouse was packed with boxes of gold sovereigns and pound notes.

The second line of the novel tells readers that Scrooge would be trusted in any endeavor he turned to on the London Stock Exchange. Later in the book, it’s stock brokers on the Exchange whom he hears gossiping about his death. So we can assume Dickens was suggesting that Scrooge was somehow involved in stocks and bonds.

But wait–is Scrooge actually Jewish? The Forward article suggested that Dickens’s choice of Scrooge’s first name Ebenezer is clearly anti-Semitic. That’s laughable.  Biblical names were widely given to Anglo-Saxon boys and girls in the 19th century.  And some of them of them were uncommon ones like his: Hezekiah, Obadiah, Tabitha, Jemima.

While Ebenezer may mean something in Hebrew (“stone of help”), so what? Many much more widely-used English names like John and Mary are derived from Hebrew. If Scrooge had somehow managed to have a wife named Elizabeth, would that be anti-Semitic, too?  After all, it comes from Elisheva (“God is abundance”).

The author of the article goes on to note that Scrooge’s late partner has “a fully Jewish moniker” in Jacob Marley. Jacob is obviously the name of a Biblical patriarch, but then the author makes the blockbuster revelation that Marley is Hebrew for “it is bitter to me.”

That’s the point at which I thought I might need a glass of heavily-spiked eggnog. And I don’t even like eggnog.

I’ve read a number of Dickens biographies and haven’t encountered reports of Dickens knowing anything besides some French in addition to his native English, so how did he become a scholar in Hebrew?

Even if a trove of letters was discovered that proved Dickens was a secret student of the language, why would he bother camouflaging his anti-Semitism? It was open enough in books like Oliver Twist, Sketches by Boz, and David Copperfield.

But wait!  Maybe there are more stunning secrets buried in Dickens’s novels! Perhaps Chuzzlewit is an anagram for something in Aramaic?  Maybe we should be reading Bleak House backwards! And what if we’re about to see the publication of The Dickens Code by some enterprising author?!  Is Tom Hanks already studying a script where he plays a Dickensologist?

Back on Planet Earth, it turns out that name Marley has a long history with no Jewish connections at all:

This long-established surname is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is locational from any of the various places thus called, including Marley in Devonshire, Durham, Kent and the West Riding of Yorkshire, or Marley Farm in Brede (Sussex). The Yorkshire place, recorded as “Mardelai” in the Domesday Book of 1086, derives its first element from the Olde English pre-7th Century “mearth” meaning (pine) marten, plus “leah”, a wood or clearing.

It took me only a few minutes to track down that information.  No tortured etymology necessary.

The Forward article makes the final killing point–quoting another writer–that Scrooge hates Christmas and has a pointed nose.  There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.  To cap it all off, the author ends his article with “Bah, humbug,”  which must have taken a great deal of thought.

In the course of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge comes to see how the world is filled with poverty, some of it close to home.  And there’s that vision of Ignorance and Want which is absolutely harrowing.

Scrooge also realizes how his emotional life has been stunted, and shame makes him more compassionate. That’s not anti-Semitic or pro-Christian, and it has nothing to do with religion or identity: It’s just plain human.

An American pioneer in writing fiction about children of Holocaust survivors, Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery. His latest novel is State University of Murder.

Review: The Strange History of Lotharingia

I’ve been a Simon Winder fan ever since he published his hilarious cultural exposé James Bond: The Man Who Saved Britain.  I read it while traveling and laughed so hard and so often that I startled people around me in airports and on planes.  I just couldn’t help myself.

I was more circumspect when Winder launched a trilogy about the tangled history of German-speaking peoples and their friends and foes with Germania.  I made sure that I read that book and its follow-up Danubia at home.  I laughed even more, but this time only my dogs were startled.

Those books are a unique combination of memoir, travelogue, history, and cultural commentary filtered through an exceedingly wry sense of often self-deprecating humor.  They are very British.  Where does his new book and the last volume in the trilogy take us? A land that most people have never heard of: Lotharingia.

Okay, it may sound like a country in a Marx Brothers movie, but it’s real.  Well, it was real.  It’s the part of Charlemagne’s Empire that lay between France and Germany and today is roughly where you find The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France and Switzerland.  The region has seen umpteen battles as one ruler or country after another sought to control it or even small parts of it.  Winder jokes about the blizzard of battles, some of them started over nothing, and crazy rulers like the French king who thought he was made of glass.

It’s all true, all wildly fascinating, and Winder’s colorful images are wonderful.  Here’s how he describes  Burgundy, one of the many lands to rise–for a time–out of Lotharingia’s chaos: “In many ways the Burgundian state as it developed was like a vast strangler-fig around the borders of France, from the English Channel to the Alps, both crushing France and living off of it, using the haziness of Lotharingia to intersperse itself in spaces in between.”

Winder has spent years exploring the remotest corners of this area, is steeped in its tangled history, and makes erudite and thought-provoking observations on every single page.  He invokes the region’s many rivers more than once, and at times you may feel yourself on a languorous river cruise while you read, enjoying the fantastic views.

It’s a great voyage because you don’t have to put up with annoyances like people around you taking endless selfies and calling home to check on their Amazon deliveries.  Along the way you discover mind-blowing art, fabulous treasure, bizarre monuments, and tranquil oases that might make you want to start packing your bags.

Winder is a perfect tour guide.  He’s witty, affable, erudite, and engaging.  He has a brilliant eye for the weird, picturesque or goofy detail, whether noting a king or emperor’s unusual name or pointing out that sacred relics in medieval Europe were as common as penny candy.

Encyclopedic and consistently entertaining, this is a perfect gift for fans of well-written travelogues, history, and memoir.  Winder’s personal and family wanderings are as much fun as following his exploration of the most luxuriant royal family trees that ever sprang from Lotharingia’s extravagantly fertile soil.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Jerusalem Report, Bibliobuffet, Lambda Book Report, and Michigan Radio.

 

Review: “The Siberian Dilemma” is a Must-read Thriller

Once American intelligence agencies verified that Russian interfered in the 2016 election, it behooved all thinking Americans to inform themselves about our long term enemy, an enemy many of us thought was no longer a potent threat.

You couldn’t start anywhere better than with the crime novels of Martin Cruz Smith. They present a wide-ranging, richly-textured portrait of the ailing, corrupt Soviet Union collapsing and slowly turning into an even more corrupt money-mad kleptocracy. The touchstone for all this upheaval is the cynical, battered hero Arkady Renko.

Renko should have risen much higher than he has as a police inspector, because his father was a famous general in The Great Patriotic War (WW II).  But he disobeys orders, won’t cut corners, and won’t accept cover-ups. In other words: he’s honest. It hasn’t done him any good in the old order and it’s even less helpful in the new one where everything is for sale.  In fact, it almost gets him killed more than once.

His latest dangerous case sends him to Siberia in search of his testy journalist girlfriend Tatiana who’s risking her life researching a story about oligarchs and oil–and much more than she’s let him know about.  Siberia is “where strange things happened and stranger things were just around the corner…It was a zone on the edge where planes of existence overlapped.  Nothing was inexplicable.”

But everything is potentially lethal.  When Arkady lands in the grim Siberian city of Chita, the chatty cab driver laughingly warns him, “Don’t go by first impressions.  It gets worse.  A few days ago an oil tanker on a train headed to Moscow exploded two kilometers from the station.  It went up in flames for no good reason.  They say you could have seen the blast from the moon.”

Renko asks if that happens often there and the driver says, “It’s Chita.  Anything can happen.”

And anything does, as Arkady is the subject of more violence in this book than ever before, or perhaps more accurately, violence unlike anything he could have imagined.

I’ve read all of the previous novels twice and look forward to reading them again. They’re beautifully written, but not in such a way as to interfere with the narrative. Every word serves the story, like these quietly ominous lines from  Three Stations:  “Yegor’s name was like a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade.”

Line by line he’s also one of the funniest novelists we have, and Renko’s sly insolence when dealing with his nasty boss Zurin is one of the highlights of the series.  Their barbed relationships doesn’t prepare you, though, for a shocking request Zurin makes near the end of the book that could not only change Renko’s life but change the course of Russian history.  And while the characters may be fictional, their prototypes are not.

“Brilliant” may be an over-used word for  reviewers, and so is “stunning”–but both of them fit.  There’s more to say than that, however.  Martin Cruz Smith has been writing an epic history of contemporary Russia that should have earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature by now.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and other publications, online journals, and radio stations.  He is the author of 26 books in many journals and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.