NORMAL? YOU MEAN LIKE FITTING IN?

Though she’s grown up in an extended bohemian family, Cassia’s able to cope with being different from many of her classmates – up to the point her father vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe. The other kids have fathers – that’s normal, or so she thinks. And then, in a flash, she and her home aren’t normal.

To see just how atypical they are, check out my new novel, What’s Left.

~*~

I just couldn’t pour this down the drain. It needed to simmer much more:

Her father was also a dreamer – or at least an idealist – a dimension that often inhibited him from asking hard questions or anticipating a full range of obstacles in a course of action. And he had an innate aversion to conflict.

What Thea Nita has confirmed is that Baba carried a sense of not quite belonging in the consumer culture of America. He had rightly concluded the ultimate flatness of his birthplace had nothing to do with its landscape and everything to do with a wider loss of stimulation, imagination, and inventive discovery – all further inhibited by social conformity rather than any acceptance of eccentricity. He recognized the potential for more, much more – something he encountered first in science and the fine arts and later in direct spiritual experience.

~*~

And then there’s her mother’s side, where they live – where he, too, has chosen to place his life.

Reflecting on the emotional cost of an upbringing like that in my own life has me realizing just how debilitating it has been. Like him, I found ways to escape and still somehow “fit in.”

Let’s get back to the basics. Would you say you’re “normal”? What would you like to change about yourself or your situation?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)
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ONE KIND DEED INSPIRES ANOTHER

When she begins her investigation in my new novel, What’s Left, she may think her generation’s quite different from her father’s.

But her family does run a family restaurant, and that gives her a different insight:

We can always count on someone looking for a handout at the back door. We’re happy to oblige them. And they’re happy, too – the word spreads.

~*~

Restaurants are often staffed by an underworld of their own, or so I’m told. And some of the characters aren’t that far removed from the folks looking for a handout.

I’m surprised to see how many people in my own community remain invisible, especially when your eyes look instead to “normal” society.

Have you ever gone to a “soup kitchen” or charity food pantry? Have you ever worked in one? What was your experience?

~*~

If Cassia’s great-grandparents had only bought this house instead! And it’s almost pink … (Manchester, New Hampshire.)

INTRODUCING THE ELEMENT OF ORTHODOXY

For most Americans, Christianity is contrasted between Protestant and Catholic. In the past, or so it seemed, you were born into one or the other, and in my neighborhood, it took a long time to mix. Even now I find many people are surprised to discover how much variety exists on the other side of the line. (Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, etc., or Italian, Irish, Polish, German, Hispanic, French, French-Canadian, etc.)

It takes some doing to realize just how different Eastern Orthodoxy is from the strands of Western Christianity we’ve known. And then you get into the variations there, starting with Greeks and Russians.

In my new novel, What’s Left, the family lives at a distance from the nearest Greek Orthodox church, so its connection to the faith is stretched thin at the beginning. Still, it’s part of their identity.

While I do relate some of the customs they rediscover, I don’t do much with the dietary limitations for Advent and Lent – essentially, vegan with no oil or alcohol. How’s a professional cook supposed to do his job if he can’t sample the food? (Any of you facing this conundrum are invited to tell us how you address it.)

So what about other traditions of dietary limitations? Kosher, for instance?

~*~

Do you observe any dietary restrictions? What’s your experience? Have you ever fasted? How long?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)

WHO HAS THE WARMTH FOR THIS ROLE?

If we were casting a movie version of my new novel, What’s Left, who would you have play her uncle Graham? Who has the warmth and the gentle classiness for this role?

~*~

People performing a traditional line dance at the Greek festival in Belmont, California. (Photo by Dvortygirl via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this.

THERE’S PASSION AND SCANDAL IN THE MIX

When it comes to sex, love, and relationships, my new novel, What’s Left, offers a full range of examples over its four-plus generations of her family.

Her mother’s line in the New World begins with a round of scandal. Her great-grandfather and his brother break tradition by marrying sisters against the wishes of their parents and their village, and then flee Greece altogether for Indiana. Her other great-grandfather marries a non-Greek, a Cuban he loves intensely amid another scandal, and relocates to Chicago.

Her grandparents’ marriage includes sibling rivalry and another scandal, as well as a packet of letters from the war years that Cassia discovers wrapped in lace ribbon.

Her parents’ generation includes sparkles of free love before her father-to-be is introduced to the family in what might be considered both love at first sight and an arranged marriage, thanks to her aunt Nita’s role as a matchmaker. Then there’s the whirlwind when her uncle Barney falls hard for her aunt-to-be Pia. In contrast, her uncle Tito and aunt-to-be Yin present a much more restrained story off in San Francisco. As for her uncle Dimitri, we’re back to scandal, as far as many in town would be concerned.

Cassia’s father leaves a rich photographic history of these events, along with three years of daily love letters to his wife-to-be. Maybe there are things a daughter would rather not see? Or is temptation too much to resist?

Well, however much their story can resemble a fairy tale, not everything turns out happily ever after.

As for her own generation? Times and traditions have changed, right?

~*~

Cassia’s is a much livelier family than many I see around me. I imagine it could be pretty demanding, as well as rewarding in its own way.

Would you like to marry into this family? Why – or why not?

~*~

Cassia’s family restaurant has me looking more closely at the ones around me. (Rutland, Vermont.)

DON’T OVERLOOK THE BUNS AND ROLLS

My wife and I have listened to some restaurant pros relate their perspective on reviewing the ideas bantered about hopefuls – folks who have no idea how to clean an oven or pass health inspection regulations.

It’s enough to make me quiver.

Quite simply, the seasoned pros say you don’t begin with a set of menus. You have to think about pricing, for one thing. Fair enough.

My new novel, What’s Left, includes a family-owned restaurant that’s facing big shifts in public tastes and consciousness.

One of the basics they look at closely is bread. And buns and rolls. Especially as these relate to hamburgers. The right answer, of course, could improve everything. But, as they realize:

Where would we find them at an affordable price?

~*~

As I’ve already posted, I believe a great baguette alone would have assured France an honored place in the culinary hall of fame. But these aren’t especially cheap, and they demand bakers who are committed to long hours and hard work – something, so we hear, that’s shamefully harder and harder to find even in Paris.

A stop in Warren, Maine, where we found what might be the perfect Reuben, thickens the plot. It wasn’t just the delightful sauerkraut, which might have come from Morse’s a few towns over, but rather the way the bread was toasted without being overdone or soggy – such a fine line! And let’s not slight the Swiss, either.

Well, a sandwich is such a basic of American cuisine, from baloney to hamburgers to ham itself and on down the line to wieners.

As far as you’re concerned, what’s makes the world’s best sandwich? And just what kind would that be? Anybody want to argue for wraps or flatbreads?

~*~

A white frame church next to the family home becomes their playhouse in my new novel. It might look something like this one in Manchester, New Hampshire.

SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN A GREAT TEACHER

Bella brings a love of reading to the family. She comes to campus to become a teacher, but other events intervene and she instead becomes the anchor of the family and its restaurant, where she runs the front of the store while her husband, Stavros, manages the kitchen. It doesn’t take long before she seems to know everybody in town. She’s that kind of person.

But that doesn’t prevent her from usually having an open book close at hand. She always manages to find time to read.

I’d credit both her daughter Nita’s success as a newspaper columnist and daughter Manoula’s founding of an influential small publishing house to her inspiration. The family does buy a bookstore, for one thing, before sending it on its own anew.

~*~

Bella also has enough Greek heritage to pass along some of the tradition. Here’s a bit of interaction between Cassia and her aunt Nita I cut from the final version:

They always called me Koukla, by the way, the same thing I sometimes call you.

What’s it mean, exactly? I know it’s a term of endearment, but I’ve just never followed up.

Thea Nita laughs. Oh, something like beautiful doll or baby doll, but it’s always full of affection. Koukla!

~*~

For many of us, daily life includes a lot of juggling, one activity or interest in contrast to another. Are you a multi-tasker? Or do you look at the term with derision? Tell us two or more things that frequently compete for your time. Do you have any tips for pulling it off?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Rutland, Vermont)