Write Fabulous Gay Mysteries? Why The Hell Not!?

I never set out to write mysteries, gay or otherwise. When I launched my career as an author, it was with short stories which were ultimately collected in a book that won a Lambda Literary Award.

But one of them, “Remind Me to Smile,” featured a couple of academics faced with a bizarre situation: Stefan has gotten an ex-lover of his a job in the English department that is his and Nick’s home. Nick is outraged, and then depressed when Stefan invites the ex to dinner.

The good ended happily and the bad unhappily, to quote Oscar Wilde. That was what this particular fiction meant, anyway.

My first editor at St. Martin’s Press, the legendary Michael Denneny, was very taken by the story, only he said the dinner guest should have been poisoned. And then a few years later, when I was wondering where I should take my career after a collection of short stories, a novel, and a study of Edith Wharton, Denneny said, “Nick and Stefan could be fabulous amateur detectives.”

That’s when the Nick Hoffman series was born. He and Stefan teach at the same school, are happily partnered, but the unexpected keeps intruding into their lives thanks to the murderous academics they work with. I’ve been writing it over the years because I loved the characters, and because the academic setting is so ripe for satire.

I was already a fan of mysteries before I started. I grew up in a household filled with Agatha Christie books, and once my book publishing career took off, I was invited to review for the Detroit Free Press. I read lots of crime fiction and that made me determined to avoid one thing: sleuths who don’t get changed by what happens to them. In far too many mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist discovers a body and then goes off for breakfast at a diner as if nothing’s happened.

Years ago, when I first met Walter Mosley, we talked about ways to keep a series from becoming routine. He said his strategy was to take the series through historical changes, and see how they affected Easy Rawlins.

In the Nick Hoffman series, Nick ages and is definitely changed by the deaths he encounters. His relationship with Stefan develops, too. Depicting a loving gay couple over time, and under stress, has been one of the joys of this series.  The world has changed a lot, too, since the series began in the 90s, so it’s been fun to chart those social changes in mysteries, which are good vehicles for social commentary.

Mystery writing has made me a better teacher, too, and I’ve been fortunate to teach mystery fiction in classes, workshops, and online.  The series has more impact than I would have guessed, putting me on the map in ways I never expected.  The New York Times Book Review took notice, especially relishing the academic milieu.  That’s how a writing career goes: the unexpected is always your companion.

Lev Raphael’s latest mystery is State University of Murder, a story of homophobia, sexual assault, gun violence and much more.  He teaches writing workshops and mentors writers online at writewithoutborders.com.

Literary Agents Have Messed With My Mind

Huffington Post once reported that a British literary agent got sentenced to prison for cheating gullible, fame-seeking clients out of their money. His clients thought movie deals were in the works with big Hollywood names — and who doesn’t want to be famous as well as rich?

I’ve never been cheated by an agent, but remember in Moonstruck how Vincent Gardenia warns Cher not to go through with a second marriage? He tells her, “Your mother and I were married fifty-two years and nobody died. You were married, what, two years, and somebody’s dead. Don’t get married again, Loretta. It don’t work out for you.”

Well, that’s been my story with literary agents. All of them.  They didn’t work out for me.

One agent was funny and charming and we had great chats, but my career only moved a bit forward over several years because an editor I admired approached me to switch publishers.  So I brought her the deal.

Another agent made me feel like I was caught up in a bad romance, never responding to my queries or telling me who was seeing my book. It turned out that she was busy sleeping with her most famous client.  A third agent screwed up a book deal in major ways and a fourth offered me great advice for revising a book, but despite my doubts took it to New York in the middle of a stock market meltdown when panicky editors weren’t buying anything.  Even though I had asked her to wait.

A fifth agent kept sending a mystery of mine to editors who didn’t like the genre, and then she left the business. After we signed, another agent relocated to Japan and I wasn’t convinced a long distance relationship would work out despite her saying she’s come to the U.S. once a year. Then there was the agent who turned weird on me and another client who was a friend, spreading rumors about the other writer for reasons that are mysterious at best.  That agent was fired by her agency.

I started my career at a time when the conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t even have a career without an agent. And without an agent, you weren’t really a serious writer. But experience has proven something different and the publishing world has completely changed since then. Most of my books have been un-agented and they’ve done as well as or better than the ones agents represented.  One of them has even sold about 300,000 copies and been translated into fifteen languages from Spanish to Thai.

When I told a novelist friend in New York about my bizarre agent history she assured me that my saga was pretty typical: “It’s just that most of us don’t want to talk about it because we’re too ashamed.”

Lev Raphael’s 26th book is about college professors behaving badly, very badly: State University of Murder.

Diversity Takes a Hit at MSU’s English Department

In 2011 I returned from a successful book tour in Germany where some of my audiences had been college students and I found myself missing the classroom intensely. Three days later, I received an email from the chairman of Michigan State University’s English Department asking if I’d consider teaching there.

Of course I said yes. When we met for coffee, I told him about the serendipity. He said that he’d reached out to me because I had published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together and I had unique experience in publishing that the academic writers didn’t.

I remembered the department’s home in Morrill Hall fondly–it was where I did my PhD–a 19th century building that was down-at-heels but spacious and full of character.

(Lansing City Pulse photo)

I was only back there again for a semester before we moved to offices in another building on campus. These offices were cramped and utterly soulless. The conference room was brightened for me, however, by large framed posters of writers featured in the Library of America series. There are hundreds of books put out by this nonprofit organization whose aim is “to celebrate the words that have shaped America” and their publications cover several centuries of American writers of all kinds: poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights, historians.

The framed posters in that conference room happened to be of a diverse group of writers who had all inspired me in my career as an author and teacher: James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Twain.

(Los Angeles Times photo)

Baldwin, for example, changed my life when I discovered Another Country in high school because that bestselling novel spoke openly about sexuality and race in the 1960s the way that none of my assigned readings did, and in prose that was sometimes breathtaking. I’ve since read it novel many times, always finding new wisdom.

“I think you’ve got to be truthful about the life you have. Otherwise, there’s no possibility of achieving the life you want.”
― James Baldwin, Another Country

The conference room itself was grim and shabby around the edges. But the posters reminded me of the joy of seeing the world through completely different eyes, the fascination of watching students discover new viewpoints and revel in or wrestle with them, and how powerful authors motivated me as an author myself to keep working at my craft.

Returning to the classroom was exhilarating, and I felt as inspired by those writers as by my college mentor whose own teaching was witty, compassionate, and incisive.

I’m not at MSU anymore (I teach online at writewithoutborders.com), but I was still surprised and disappointed when several friends in the department recently told me that the Library of America posters were coming down. None of them could offer a compelling explanation. Or explain why when the removal was first announced at a faculty meeting, some professors were enthusiastic and practically cheered, as I was told.

That’s a very disturbing response at a time when universities around the country are focused on diversity and inclusion. More than half the writers in the group are Black, gay, lesbian or both. Why would anyone be happy to see them disappear? And why would the department want to symbolically cut itself off from a rich, diverse American literary heritage? What kind of message does that send to students and the university as a whole? What kind of statement does it make about the department’s priorities? And really, what on earth does anyone have against James Baldwin, one of America’s greatest post-World War II writers?

The department’s web site states that should the Internet ever collapse in some kind of apocalypse, books would still survive and “continue to galvanize readers.” I guess their authors won’t matter, though.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  This piece originally appeared in the Lansing City Pulse.

Writer’s View: Celebrity Irish Author Tells Her Male Peers To “**** Off”

That’s what The Daily Mail quotes superstar Irish novelist Marian Keyes as having recently said:

“I only read women. I know that men write books. But their lives are so limited. It’s such a small and narrow experience….Their literature just really can’t match anything written by a woman. I just think ‘**** off’.”

If you haven’t heard of her, she’s written thirteen novels, sold tens of millions of books, and seen her work translated into several dozen languages.

Her dismissal of male authors was seconded by journalist Suzanne Moore, who complained that woman authors aren’t taken seriously.  She also warned readers of The Guardian, where she made these comments, not to send her names of great male writers since she knew who they were because she’d had “an education.”

Those remarks made me think of my own education.

I was an English major in college.  Along with the usual male suspects we read Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, the Brontes, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In graduate school along with Conrad, James, Kingsley Amis, Graham Greene, Alan Sillitoe, Anthony Powell, and Phillip Roth, we read Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Gertrude Stein, Doris Lessing, Susan Hill, Margaret Drabble, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark.

But more importantly than all of that, on my own I’ve read dozens of women writers including Agatha Christie, Ann Tyler, Elizabeth Taylor, Rebecca West,  Anais Nin, Elizabeth Gaskell, Daphne du Maurier Olivia Manning, Ruth Rendell, Francine Prose, Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Braddon, Val McDermid, Stella Gibbons, Alison Lurie, Anzia Yezierska, Penelope Fitzgerald, Laurie R. King, C.S. Harris, Lori Rader-Day, Janet Fitch, Mona Simpson.

Those are the names of women authors that come most quickly to  mind.  I could add many more if I took the time to scan my library shelves.  Should I have to?  Gender has never mattered to me.  I’ve always looked for fine writing and compelling stories.  I often went on to read more by each author, sometimes hunting down everything in print if a first book hypnotized me.

Education isn’t a passive thing.  It’s not just waiting for books to be assigned to you, it’s seeking out books that you think might change the way you see the world or at the very least, open the doors to a new one.

Marian Keyes  admits that she reads an occasional book by a man, but she seems strangely limited herself to dismiss an entire gender’s writing so readily.  Since she’s famous already, I’m sure what she’s said will gain her even more fans, because inflammatory remarks like hers are crowd pleasers and bound to go viral.

There may well be caps, t-shirts, and all sorts of swag. She might even get her own talk show.  With no male guests if they’re authors, of course.  Because what could they possibly have to say when their lives are so impoverished of experience?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Author Profile: Jennifer Weiner’s Complaining Again….

So best-selling author Jennifer Weiner watched the Super Bowl halftime extravaganza, and the perfect looks and body of Jennifer Lopez made her feel inferior.

Talking about her Facebook friends, she wrote in the New York Times: “Some members of my social-media community were in awe. Others — myself included — were feeling personally judged.”

This is her very tired shtick as an author.  Not so long ago she was complaining in the New York Times about how the “snobs” in the literary world looked down on her novels. And she lamented her status as a writer of popular fiction.

Weiner’s professors were Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison and she said she couldn’t ever have imagined them liking her published work. Did she ask them? And even if they thought her work was trash, so what?

Most authors are never mentioned by the Times, but she’s a contributing opinion author there. She was even the subject of a glowing profile in The New Yorker about—you guessed it—not being respected.  How many writers in America get that kind of exposure?

Don’t be fooled by all her happy-face publicity photos. It seems that whenever you read an opinion piece by Weiner or see her quoted, she’s got this humongous chip on her shoulder.

The last time I checked, her first novel was in its 57th printing. The New Yorker reported back then that “Weiner’s books have spent two hundred and forty-nine weeks on the Times best-seller list.” Over fourteen thousand readers on Goodreads had reviewed her latest novel. Weiner’s also made millions from her books, and more than one of them was turned into a movie.

How many writers in America enjoy that level of success?

Whatever people say about her books and however much she gripes about being dissed, Jennifer Weiner is in the publishing world’s 1%. She wealthy and famous, but she’s not satisfied. I guess she wants to be as honored as Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. Well, dream on.  Who wouldn’t?

Weiner’s consistent carping reminds me  of the author whose first novel sold half a million copies in hardcover and was ecstatically praised—but he bitched to a writer friend of mine that he didn’t get a Pulitzer nomination.

For some people, some authors, nothing is ever good enough.  If Weiner got the  Pulitzer, you can imagine her asking why it took so long.  And so of course Jennifer Lopez makes her feel like crap.  If she looked Like J-Lo, she’d feel inferior to Beyoncé, and the beat goes on….

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Writer’s View: Washington Post Reviewer Puts Readers In Boxes

Michael Dirda at The Washington Post has your life in books all figured out.  He recently explained that whether you read fiction or re-read fiction is completely dependent on your age.

When you’re young, you love re-reading books or having the same books read to you. Later on you read series and then engage in competitive reading. In college required reading that takes up your time, and once you graduate and box up those books, you only read best sellers.

Finally, as a senior, you have no interest in new books, so you re-read old favorites.  Why?  Get ready for some cheesy prose:

Seen it all. Been there, done that. It’s then that people nearly always do return to the books they loved when young, hoping for a breath of springtime as the autumn winds blow.

Did you hear some melancholy violin music playing in the background?  I know I did.

There are no studies quoted in his musings, no statistics, just the writer making gross generalizations based on his idiosyncratic experience.

I’ll share my own experience as a reader and longtime reviewer for newspapers, radio stations, and online magazines.  See how it matches yours.

I’ve been re-reading books ever since elementary school.  It started with The Three Musketeers and I, Robot.  Then it moved on to various books by Henry James whom I discovered in junior high school and truly fell in love with in college along with Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, and George Eliot.  I’ve revisited all of them periodically over the years.  I didn’t wait to become an AARP member.

And I never competed with anyone. Reading was always private for me, an escape and a joy.  That’s unlike Dirda, for whom page count conferred “cachet.”  He writes that in “ninth grade, I doggedly worked my way through a two-volume history of English literature mainly to show off.”  Mine is bigger than yours surely had to be more interesting than that.

But I guess not.  Imagine having that kind of sterile competition to deal with along with all the other problems of mid-adolescence like acne, gossip, and embarrassing parents.  And what kind of brain-dead school did he go to that encouraged such a twisted view of reading?

While I had plenty of required reading in college as an English major,  I often went beyond those reading lists to read widely, especially books in translation by Russian and French authors: Turgenev, Gogol, Balzac, Zola. If that meant not finishing a required book in time for a class, my own choices usually won out.  But if we were assigned a novel by Henry Fielding, I wandered off and read several other books of his to get a better feel for his literary universe.

My detours were always fun. Assigned to read Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I felt obliged to read Fielding’s hilarious parody Shamela.  The first book is all about a good servant girl beset by a lascivious lord and the triumph of virtue; the second is all about that servant girl conning the same lord into marriage.  Why isn’t Downtown Abbey’s Julian Fellowes sinking his teeth into that nasty little masterpiece?

As for being a slave to the best seller list, I feel sorry for Dirda if that’s how he lived his post-college years.  I haunted bookstores back in the day and usually looked at what was new and hot, but sales and publicity didn’t matter to me.  What counted was whether the subject or the writing grabbed me. Preferably it would be both.  And there’ve been dozens, maybe hundreds of best sellers over the years that friends and reviewers have raved about that have left me cold.  Sometimes nauseous (or nauseated if you prefer).

Starting in the 1990s, I spent many years as a book reviewer in print, on-air and online.  I sometimes re-read a book I was crazy about, like Terrill Lankford’s LA thriller Shooters and Charlie Huston’s vampire PI book Already Dead.

But my full initiation into reading a series has only come in my 50s with books by Bernard Cornwell, Martin Cruz Smith, and C.S. Harris. Nonetheless, I’m still always on the lookout for writers who’ll engage me and take me on a fresh voyage. Writers like the amazing Lori Rader-Day, Janet Fitch, and Penelope Fitzgerald.  The genre can be fiction, but I’m a big fan of biography and history too, as long as the prose is fine and the narrative engaging.

Michael Dirda may have his theory about how readers read, but it’s really just a theory until he can back it up with facts.  Though theory could be too elevated a term.  It’s more like a notion, and a fairly dubious and ageist one, too.

Maybe he’ll explain the use of slow cookers for various age groups next.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.  You can read his latest interview about it here.

Review: For Halloween, Agatha Christie Says “Boo!”

I fell in love with Agatha Christie and crime fiction back in junior high and read every one of her books available at our local public library.  I was captivated by her mastery of plot even then, and now, when I re-read her, I feel an even deeper sense of awe.  She was a superb story-teller, subtle and devious and delightful.  No wonder she’s been so wildly popular for nearly a century–only the Bible and Shakespeare have surpassed her in sales.

Just in time for Halloween, William Morrow has a sweet treat for Christie fans: a collection of almost two dozen creepy and ghostly tales.  It opens with a bang.  The title story revolves around Simone, an enervated medium in Paris fearful of her last séance before marriage.  Why do these séances make her so weary?  Why is she afraid of her client, a woman grieving for a lost child?  The answers are suitably shocking and grotesque.

There’s a wealth of fun reading after that.  Christie offers a neat twist on inheritance stories in “Wireless.”  “The Mystery of the Blue Jar” deftly deals with a WWI veteran’s shell-shock–or does it? “The Blue Geranium” is one of several stories where dreams play an unusual and possibly supernatural part.

Hercule Poirot uses his little gray cells to uncover a murder in “The Dream,” a story that veteran mystery readers might find a bit too easy to unravel.  But watching him amaze a room of suspects by his ratiocination is always a treat.  In “the Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” Miss Marple profits from decades of observing human nature under a microscope in her village.  She deftly explains that a ghost story she hears over dinner is actually a tale of murder.  And what a murder!  The planning is fiendishly clever.

That indomitable village sleuth also appears in “The Idol House of Astarte,” a classic story of the supernatural with a femme fatale at its center, and told by a clergyman.  It raises the age-old question of whether a place or home can be “imbued or saturated with good or evil influences which can make their power felt.”  Miss Marple handily dismisses the many bizarre possible solutions to a strange set of crimes at a house party, but doubts still linger.

In “The Fourth Man,” a nighttime conversation in a train compartment about a famous split personality case turns very dark when one of the four men in the compartment claims to have inside information about the people involved.  What he reveals shatters the complacency of the other three–a doctor, lawyer, and minister–who discover that their view of reality is more limited than they imagined.

Christie explores that idea in more than one story, as when a “doctor of the soul” says that he doesn’t believe that spirits can be earthbound and haunt a particular place, but he has more than once seen “a kind of blind groping towards justice–a subterranean moving of blind forces, always working obscurely towards that end. . .”

Justice is served throughout the collection, most deliciously in my very favorite story, which is also one of the shortest.  “The Wife of the Kenite” follows a German veteran of WW I to his unexpected destiny in South Africa.  It’s chilling fiction, gorgeously written and perfectly wrought.

The shadow of that war looms over many of the tales. Even though they explore the supernatural and dark themes like avarice, jealousy, and revenge, they’re often quite funny. Poirot’s complaints when he gets to Egypt in “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” are priceless.  And then there’s Christie’s satire of inarticulate English gentlemen “who dislike any form of emotion, and find it peculiarly hard to explain their mental processes in words.”

Flashes of lovely character assessment like that and quickly evocative description are just some of the many delights in a collection that offers entertainment, suspense, deep human interest–and mystery, of course. Mystery of more than one kind, that is, since the eerie last story suggests that the “supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including nine Nick Hoffman mysteries, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: De-cluttering Can Be Murder In Hallie Ephron’s New Mystery

Has the de-cluttering craze made you long for more order and space in your home?  Do you dream of perfectly folding everything within reach and having closets that radiate so much serenity they can double as meditation rooms?

Or are you perhaps living with a hoarder who can’t get rid of anything and keeps adding to their stash of stuff which expands through your house hour by hour, day by day? Do you feel troubled, squeezed, invaded?

Well, after you read Hallie Ephron’s funny, deep, dark new mystery you might decide to leave well enough alone and get on with your life no matter how cluttered it is or how much hoarding you have to endure.

Ephron fields a heroine, Emily Harlow, who’s started a business helping people cull their stuff, boosted by a clever Internet presence that’s earning her fans and drawing in customers. If you’re not hawking yourself online you’re not going anywhere right now and the author spoofs that reality with finesse.

But helping people with the mess they’ve made of their homes unfortunately makes getting involved in their messy lives all too possible.  And it can lead to trouble.  Big trouble.  That’s exactly what happens to Emily.  Two new clients present challenges she never dreamed of and end up bringing the police into her life.  In one gripping scene after another, Ephron cannily demonstrates how innocent people can be tricked and even railroaded by sneaky interrogators.  That’s something well on display in the Netflix series When They See Us about the Central Park Five.

The dark side and humor are effortlessly blended here. What perhaps makes Ephron’s satire of the Marie Kondo spirit most appealing is the fact that Emily is married to a hoarder and they argue about his habits versus hers all the time. Their interactions are sad and all too realistic, and Ephron’s portrait of a troubled marriage couldn’t be more astutely drawn.

Emily’s husband behaves in surprising ways, given that he’s a lawyer with a sharp mind: when it comes to auctions for unbelievable junk, he’s hypnotized.  He’s also way too full of advice, even though it’s good, especially when it comes to the law, which plays a surprising role in this well-plotted crime novel.

Best of all, Hallie Ephron’s tantalizing mystery doesn’t begin with the clichéd corpse, it starts with socks.  Yes, socks.  Specifically, organizing them as a panacea.  That’s something Freud wasn’t thinking about when he wrote Civilization and its Discontents.  But maybe he should have.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.  He reviewed crime fiction for a decade at the Detroit Free Press and is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His latest mystery is the academic satire State University of Murder.

 

3 Things Nobody Tells You About The Writing Life

When I published my first short story in Redbook after winning a prize, I thought my career was set. I was my MFA program’s star; I’d made a lot of money (for a graduate student) from the prize and the magazine; I was getting fan mail and queries from agents. But even though I’d spent over two years in the program, nobody told me what my career could be like. When I got my degree I had no idea what the writing life was like and learned three key things the hard way.

1–You need to accept from the start that you have very little control. You can polish your work as much as you can, read widely and educate yourself as an author; attend seminars; find a terrific mentor; network like crazy; get a top agent and even land a book contract with a great publisher–but what happens to your book once it’s born may seem completely random at times. Other books just like it will swamp yours. Books that are far worse will get great reviews or better sales. Your book may simply be ignored by reviewers of all kinds for reasons you will never know. So you have to focus on what you can control: being the best writer you can be; enjoying what you do while you do it, plan it, revise it, and research it. And then, try to let go and move on to another project.

2-Writing is a business. It always was and always will be. Expect pressure from all sides on you to sell, sell, sell. When I started out, bookmarks and other petty swag were in. Then I was urged not just to attend conferences but to advertise in conference programs. Later came building my web site, book trailers, establishing a Facebook and Goodreads presence, blogging, tweeting, blog tours. There’s always something new which is the magic answer to making you successful. But the competition gets fiercer all the time and you can find that promotion is a rat hole. It’s important to establish parameters for yourself since you can’t do everything and be everywhere. Never let promotion become more important than writing itself, and just because something works for someone else is no guarantee it’ll work for you.

3–The writing life will be lonelier than you can imagine despite all the writers you might meet and hang out with, and they’re not always the easiest people to be around. Let’s face it, are you? Ask your significant other. As paradoxical as it might seem, don’t let writing take over your life. If you haven’t already, start building a life for yourself that has other compelling interests. Travel. Learn to play an instrument. Study a foreign language. Garden. Train for a triathalon. Get a dog. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as writing isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence, because otherwise those days (or weeks or months or even years) when things go south you’ll feel empty. And make sure you have plenty of friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not constantly talking shop. Normal people can be interesting, too.

Lev Raphael offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com after over 15 years of university teaching.  He’s authored 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

On Father’s Day I Remember My Father in the Kitchen

Father’s Day is about six months off from Hannukah, but it always makes me think of my father’s potato pancakes.

Made in a large, battered cast iron pan, these latkes were always perfect: crisp outside, juicy inside, delicious whether served with sour cream, sugar, apple sauce, or just plain.

I loved to watch my father cook, as patient as a scientist, as skilled as a musician playing a piece he’s performed more times than he can remember. Sometimes he even made what he called a potato babka: pouring the batter into a large loaf pan and baking it. The word itself still makes my mouth water decades later, though my own kitchen will never be filled with that aroma.

I’ve used all kinds of pans, potatoes and onions over the years, but have never been able to duplicate his latkes, not even with his advice. I’m not just being nostalgic and romanticizing the past. Back then, my mother said her latkes were never as good as his, and she had learned to cook in Belgium.

Did he consult a cookbook or was he remembering a recipe he had learned at home in eastern Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust? No, he just worked instinctively with the onions and potatoes, the flour, eggs, salt and pepper.

Years later, in a college course where we read Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, I learned a wonderful Italian word: sprezzatura. It was the art that concealed all art, the ability to do things flawlessly without betraying any effort. While my father was no Renaissance man — I don’t remember him ever cooking much of anything else — perhaps sprezzatura was a secret ingredient of those latkes.

And perhaps I tried too hard to match him, longed too deeply to recreate a moment in time that looked like magic and felt like a feast. These days, I don’t worry about equaling what he did, I just enjoy the memory of the love and dedication, the patience, and the sights and smells of my father loving his sons without words.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, most recently State University of Murder and Let’s Get Criminal, newly released as an ebook.