Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Happy Holidays, Whatever It Is You Celebrate!

Next week, I’ll be talking more about the 31-minute challenge, which I am delighted to report, really seems to resonate.

In the meantime, though, tomorrow is the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that celebrates faith, miracles and freedom. Time to rescue that menorah and  buy a humongous bag of potatoes for the latkes.

As for the Christmas tree, I already have it up, in case you were wondering.  Happy holidays!

Yes, we’re one of those families. I am Jewish. My husband comes from the Christian tradition. Our kids attend neither Hebrew School nor CCD. They just get lots of presents this time of the year. 🙂

I am sure some people have a problem with that choice. Orthodox Judaism, for one, encourages Jews to “stick to their own kind,” and worries about the rising rates of intermarriage. Meanwhile, just next door and across the street, in our highly decorated and Christmas-y neighborhood, some lawn signs proclaim, “Keep Christ In Christmas,” while one of our bushes sits there decked with little dreidels that light up at night.

I respect the sentiment. I really do. I think those who want to keep things pure are brave and noble in their quest to preserve the original meaning of their holidays. They fight to save the traditions of their faiths going back many centuries, even while families like mine create brand new traditions.

Pure colors help keep the world’s palette in perspective. But where would we be without the pinks, the turquoises and the purples of this world?

Whatever you celebrate, happy holidays to you and yours. Even from the distance, be it miles or theological differences, in the end, we all celebrate together. When we watch our Christmas lights or menorah candles break the cold winter dark into a million pieces, we acknowledge the existence of magic in our imperfect world.

Wishing you the best this holiday season!




December 7, 2012 Posted by | Personal Mirror, Politics and Religion | , | 9 Comments

A Drifiting Friendship And A Giveaway

Nothing is constant in the Universe,  except change, great philosophers say. (Change — and love, I would add — sorry Heraclitus!)

Have you ever experienced these changes when it comes to friendships? What was the longest friendship you have ever had — and have you managed to keep it going strong through the years?

What if a friendship between two nations affected your own personal relationship?

Read my guest post for my friend Joyce Moyer Hostetter http://joycemoyerhostetter.blogspot.com/2011/05/on-two-different-sides-of-growing.html , leave a comment and spread the word, for a chance to win another signed copy of Joyce’s beautiful first book, “Best Friends Forever” (Friendship Press, 1995).  Original, sweet, touching, funny and heartbreaking, this little treasure of a book is perfect for middle-graders (age 9 to 12, especially girls). It would make for a great gift for kids, teachers or parents.

Thanks in advance for spreading the word!!

May 22, 2011 Posted by | Book Impressions, Personal Mirror, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 10 Comments

Nuclear Memories

Ever since the nuclear crisis in Japan first unfolded, neighbors and friends have been asking me: “Does this bring back memories?”

A Wiki picture

the Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the explosions

I was an unsuspecting eight-year-old Soviet citizen living in the Ukraine when on April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor ruptured in a series of explosions in the small city of Chernobyl some 155 miles away from my home, leading to the worst nuclear disaster in human history. Even days later — after the nearby town of Pripyat was evacuated and the Western media started raising alarm, many of us ordinary Soviets were unaware. A mere week later we were, in fact, encouraged to attend a May 1st International Day of Labor parade under a light, spring rain, laced with radioactive fallout.

For the record, I didn’t go. My mama, who lived in Moscow at the time and knew some big people through her connections with the prestigious theater arts university she was attending, called my grandmother and me and told us to stay home that day.

Later, of course, the news leaked out, as sure as the radiation that spread throughout the Soviet Union, Western and Eastern Europe, and even the rest of the world. The Republics of Belarus and Ukraine, where I was born and lived at the time, were most affected. Still, news or not, I remember caring very little. The teachers gave us mild warnings: wear head coverings and keep your windows closed. Most kids dismissed the advice —  I was among them. I don’t remember much other than just living my eight-year-old life. Trading calendars with my girlfriends. Playing war out in the yard with the boys.

The following year my mama whisked me away to Moscow Region. Through bribes and connections, she settled me in a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, nestled in the pine woods beyond Moscow. Though I never suffered from TB, my health could have certainly used some of that fresh air and medical care.

In the months and years that followed, things started happening to me — strange things. I started getting sick. One problem followed by another kept landing me in children’s hospitals for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Migraines intensified. They stayed with me, pretty much the rest of my life (though I am doing MUCH better now with long walks that seem to really help, and acupuncture). The best doctors in Moscow, and later on the other side of the Atlantic, tried to make sense of my headaches and hormonal irregularities. Not one of them could give an answer. Of course, we’ll never know for sure how much of it was due to the nuclear fallout. We can only guess.

Today, I am doing well. I have two relatively healthy and VERY beautiful children, for which I am grateful.

Today, I join the world in praying for Japan. I AM thankful that as bad as their crisis is, they are working hard to contain it, and are being much smarter, more efficient and more open about it all, compared to my former compatriots.*

*(Even as I say this, I cannot fail to mention the firefighters and the nuclear reactor workers that were on the ground on that fateful day — and in the terrible days that followed — risking their lives, some unsuspecting, but others knowing, in order to deal with a level 7 nuclear disaster — the kind that so far has never been repeated anywhere in the world — and I hope never will be. Those people died — or survived, some of the lucky ones — as heroes, doing the best they could while dealing with humanity’s worst nightmare. No one could criticize them. No one would want to.)

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Personal Mirror, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , , | 9 Comments

How to celebrate the New Year, Russian-style

Since Soviet Russia wasn’t allowed to officially celebrate Christmas, we had to have some other major holiday. And it had to be big. Huge. BETTER than Christmas. Thus was born the Soviet New Year, honestly THE BEST holiday EVER.

Think Halloween with its costumes and candy. Add to it Christmas with its dressed-up evergreens and loads of presents. Then sprinkle freely with the regular New Year traditions as you know it — the festive partying all night long, the  champagne, the countdown, the fireworks. And most importantly, don’t forget the Chinese New Year — a new animal patron watching over every successive year, determining your luck. Finally, toss in Russia’s own deep superstitions.     

And you get a holidaygreat for everyone — from families with young kids, to love-stuck teens, to 20-something singles. You get a holiday that outlasted the Soviet empire itself!   

You get the holiday of my childhood — one that I too have trouble growing out of. 🙂                     


I think the most addictive part of it isn’t even all the fun — it’s the superstition. The kind Russians have always been famous for — and which only intensified in the Soviet period when religion wasn’t sanctioned.

According to the New Year tradition which had taken such firm hold on me, what you do on New Year’s eve and on the first morning of the new year will determine how you spend the entire year. What you wear and eat, who you spend your time with, it all matters too. While American Christians are shopping around for better outdoor lights, and the Jews hunt for fancier electric Hanukkah menorahs to display in their windows, Russians buy up little animal figures at the stores, to surround themselves with the image of the lucky animal, and check the major newspapers for horoscopes and instructions on how to best celebrate on the New Year’s eve.

What are you doing this New Year’s?

And what are you hoping for?


The rabbit will supposedly (and HOPEFULLY) bring us all a peaceful year and generally a much happier year for the entire world, after the combative exhaustive Tiger of 2010. (Not that it was bad or anything. To me, at least, this passing year had been filled with great highlights. it’s just been a bit DIFFICULT. Which may have been a good thing, for it toughened me up EVEN MORE, and made me work harder than ever.)

According to the Chinese and Russian horoscopes, 2011 just might be the year when patience, hard work and good deeds pay off (but bragging, showing off, intolerance and aggression generally do not). It is best to greet this year in the colors of the rabbit — white, gray or light brown. God save you if you decide to have rabbit for dinner though, or wear a rabbit fur hat. (Rabbit won’t like it!)

Whatever you do this New Year’s eve then — make sure you don’t fight — or, I don’t know, do something lame like watch soap operas! Make sure you hug your loved ones when the clock strikes twelve, and if you must be separated from someone you love, at least think of them, or call them.

 Stay happy, and meet this year with joy! Then, at the end, let me know what great fortunes the Rabbit brought you!

December 30, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Politics and Religion, The U.S.S.R. | , , , , | 9 Comments

“No Country Is Safe From Totalitarianism:” An Interview With Author Gloria Whelan

The most amazing thing to me about Gloria Whelan is her incredible versatility and productivity. She has written dozens of books set in times and places as varied as Vietnam, Communist Russia, 19th century Michigan and ancient China. Through all that, her writing is never bogged down in research. Her stories are first of all that — stories. And she tells them well 🙂

You set many of your books in exotic locales — other worlds, other times. Is this your way of satisfying your own curiosity?

GW: No, a story appeals to me and I follow the story.  Sometimes it leads me into exotic locales, sometimes as in my next young adult book:  SEE WHAT I SEE, out in December I write about my own hometown of Detroit.

You have set a series of stories in St. Petersburg, Russia, too. When you researched and visited the country, what did you think?

GW: It was not difficult to choose Russia.  I did visit St. Petersburg, but I’ve always been fascinated with Russia.  When I was a student at the University of Michigan I took two years of the Russian language.  I had two professors.  One Russian instructor taught us Red Army songs and the “International,” while the other Russian instructor told us how the Bolsheviks had murdered her husband and son. I believe there are many young readers with no knowledge of Russian history and its profound influences on our own country.

So, what was your visit like? And what fascinates you about Russia? 🙂

GW: I was there for three weeks in the 90’s while Yeltsin was president.  I love the expansiveness and the tortured personality of the Russian people who seem to feel life one hundred percent more than most of us.  I am fearful for Russia.  The country suffered so much during those years when it lost its freedom, it concerns me to see some of those freedoms, like the freedom of the press and the freedom to demonstrate, taken back as they have been these last years.

As far as your writing goes, what is your research process like? How do you know when you get enough of a feel of a country, or a time period? How close do you think a fictional portrayal can ever come to the actual historical truth?

GW:   I try not to write the kind of historical fiction where the history is the tail that wags the dog.  I hope that in the books I have written, books set in other times and other places, it’s the story that is the important thing.

The poet, Yeats, said, “The facts don’t give you the truth, a fact is not a truth until you live it.”  That, I think is the key to writing fictions set in other times and places.  The writer can’t write from the outside, looking back, the writer must live in that time, and that place, and to the extent that the writer is successful, the book will be successful.  I don’t mean facts are unimportant, for the facts are the underpinning of the story, but they are never the whole story.

Imagining ourselves into the lives of others is not unique to authors.  It’s something we all do every day.  Without our identification with other people, without being able to imagine how others feel, there would be no compassion.  That imagining ourselves into the lives of another is what makes life tolerable and makes us all human.

I have counted about forty books under your name since you broke in with “Silver” in 1988. You have published ten books since 2007, four of them just in the last year! Are you one of those writers who, upon typing “the end” for one of your books, opens up a new file and writes chapter 1 for the next book? 🙂 What is the secret to your great productivity?

GW: I like to write and I do it every day.  Many of my most recent books are picture books requiring less time; they are like poems, few words, but each word exactly the right word.  My young adult novels take at least a year.

I have really enjoyed your book “The Disappeared.” 


You have set two other Russian books in the time of a dictatorship as well. And your beautiful “Homeless Bird” (a 2000 National Book Award Winner) set in India deals with restrictions that society places on its citizens. Through your research and the writing of these books, what have you noticed about the effects of cruel totalitarian government on its people? Our American kids today are so removed from it all. Why do you think they need to know?

GW: No country is safe from totalitarianism, not even ours.  Totalitarian governments don’t just happen.  Liberties are given up one at a time.

September 3, 2010 Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews, Politics and Religion | 3 Comments

I am NOT a KGB Spy!

I have so many great things here in the wings, more awesome contemporary historical fiction titles to share with you, great interviews I have lined up for you, a torrent of thoughts on my writing adventures, my super-duper list of the greatest-ever contemporary historical fiction titles coming along nicely, in fact almost done . . . but I have to put all this on hold – and address an urgent situation of a global caliber! I guess I should have done it before – the Russian spy ring story is almost over — and yet it had never occurred to me until now that my readers might be a tad concerned.

After all, I am a suburban housewife with big dreams and a pair of kids living in New Jersey – a perfect cover, huh?


My own very awesome writing buddy asked me in an e-mail, “Why have you disappeared lately? They aren’t arresting or deporting you, I hope . . . I guess you’re trying to keep a low profile, heh-heh-heh?”



Darn, people. How dare you suspect me!

I mean, on this very blog. How many times have I said it: I LOVE AMERICA!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

Maybe this is it the problem, right there . . . the lady protesting too much, you all think???

Anyway, the scandal has blown over. It’s all done. Yesterday, the AP says, they caught the 12th person in connection with this unpleasant business, and quietly deported him, because they didn’t even have enough evidence to properly charge the young man with a crime. 


Besides . . . do you really think I have that “spy appeal?” Like, you know, Anna “Chapman,” that “007-worthy,” red-head, as the NY post puts it?


No matter. Even if you have your suspicions . . . please keep them to yourselves! Don’t send this link to the FBI – oh I implore you!


"Don't Gab!"

You wouldn’t want me deported, would you? You would miss me too much, right? RIGHT???

July 14, 2010 Posted by | Politics and Religion | , | 4 Comments