The Twelve Little Cakes

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Equal parts testimony to the struggles of a bygone era and a love letter to a bright-eyed childhood that no outside force could dim, this is Dominika Dery's acclaimed memoir of Communist-era Czechoslovakia.

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Equal parts testimony to the struggles of a bygone era and a love letter to a bright-eyed childhood that no outside force could dim, this is Dominika Dery's acclaimed memoir of Communist-era Czechoslovakia.

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Editorial Reviews

Juliet Wittman
… this ramble through a childhood that remained full of pleasure and affection despite the efforts of the communist regime is well worth taking.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Born in 1975 in Prague, the daughter of former dissidents of the failed Prague Spring in (then) Czechoslovakia, Dery has penned a memoir collecting tales from her early childhood. She lived in a village outside Prague riddled with Communist informers ever-ready to implicate her father, a sometime taxi driver, and her mother, who ghost-wrote books for the Czech Politburo, in anti-Socialist acts. Dery's maternal grandmother was a powerful member of the Communist elite, her grandfather a famed surgeon; both were very wealthy by Czech standards. After the reform movement was quashed by the Soviets, Dery's mother was banished from the family. Written in an old-fashioned style mimicking the fairy tales Dery loved as a child, this account presents every event-the house flooding while under construction, Dery's rejection by her grandparents when she invites them to her Czech ballet debut, the unpleasant death of the family's St. Bernard-in a vacuum. Dery never veers from the perspective of a very young child, thus providing no context by which to judge the story of growing up in the last years of the Communist state. Still, it's a sometimes charming period piece. Agent, Theresa Park. (Oct. 4) Forecast: With a blurb from Nicholas Sparks, the book may appeal to women readers. Foreign rights have been sold in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Dominika Dery was born in the mid-'70s in Prague to a young couple who were considered dissidents by the ruling Communists. Her mother was the daughter of high-ranking party members who disowned her when she married a poor dissident, yet her parents managed to make a happy, if impoverished, childhood home for their two daughters. Dery tells her story through childish eyes, but her observations about the Czech society in the '70s and '80s are very mature. Her descriptions of her parents, her sister, the neighbors and her childhood friends are both sweet and tart. She tells the story of her aspirations, her predicaments, and her parents' financial difficulties and distress; she loves her parents, but acknowledges how their failings added to their troubles. She is especially funny when describing her father's continuous plans for improving their house, his penchant for inventions and for taking risks. Her attempts to create a relationship with her wealthy Communist grandparents are poignant and illustrate how political differences split families apart. Dery reveals herself to have been a little girl with high hopes and plans for herself as a dancer who, in spite of many mishaps and misadventures, succeeded, because of sheer will and ingenuity in surviving a political system that stacked everything against her. KLIATT Codes: JSA--Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Penguin, Riverhead, 370p., Ages 12 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Born to dissidents in 1975, Dominika Dery grows up on the outskirts of Prague in a small village full of prejudices, politics, and petty informing. Largely shunned because of her parents' association with the failed Prague Spring uprising of 1968, Dery seeks solace in her tight-knit family, the friendship of three kind old ladies she dubs her "fairy godmothers," and her love of ballet. Moving from the Brezhnev era of widespread disillusionment and corruption to the relative hope of the Gorbachev years, Dery charts the daily rhythms of life under communism negotiating the black market and weathering the rampant suspicion that atomized most societies behind the Iron Curtain. But this is no cynical memoir it is a touching but clear-eyed testament to a family's will to survive, and even thrive, through the final turbulent years of a terrible regime. Ignore the slightly plodding start and over-the-top Nicholas Sparks quote, and be charmed by Dominika's simple, child's love of life and her stubborn insistence on seeing the good. Highly recommended for larger libraries. [See "Fall Editors' Picks," p. 40-44.] Tania Barnes, Library Journal Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Poet/playwright Dery makes her English-language debut with a disarmingly sweet and savvy memoir of growing up in Czechoslovakia during the late 1970s and early '80s. She was born in 1975, during the years after the Prague Spring, when life was unpleasant for dissenters like her father. The Dery family (Dominika had one sister) lived in a small town outside Prague. Her mother wrote books for the Economic Ministry, for which others took credit; her father, an economist, took jobs where he could find them, working as a taxi driver for many of the seven years covered here. "Together they had a rare combination: incorruptibility and willingness to fight," writes their daughter. "While life may have been a lot harder than it needed to be, it was the life they had chosen, and they had few regrets." Dery inherited her father's optimism, conveyed in the lovely, childlike pitch and enthusiasm of her prose, and the writing is blessedly free of political moralizing. The family may have been shunned by the community, surrounded by informers, and teetering on the edge of insolvency, but, hey, they owned a St. Bernard that was a film star-beloved by the nation, but unfortunately underpaid. They lived by their wits, making all manner of under-the-table deals that enabled them, for example, to get sole ownership of their house away from the mother's parents (party hardliners who had disowned them) and to send Dery through the ranks of ballet school (a bastion for the party elite). The author's sly humor is evident throughout: she comments on her older sister's developing figure, making witty use of the word in Czech that means both "goat" and "breast"; and she skewers a local busybody who "spoke too fast,running his words into each other. It often sounded like he was speaking Hungarian." Life is hard, and then you laugh-if, like this author, you are wily enough, self-possessed enough, and love the ones you're with as they love you back. Agents: Shannon O'Keefe, Julie Barer/Sandford J. Greenburger Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573222839
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/23/2004
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Dominika Dery

Dominika Dery was born in Prague in 1975. As a girl, she danced and performed in the national ballet and national theater companies of Czechoslovakia. She is the author of four collections of Czech poetry and a play. The Twelve Little Cakes is her first book in English.


Dominika Dery was born in Prague in 1975. As a young girl she danced and performed in the National Ballet and National Theater companies. She is the author of four collections of Czech poetry and a play. The Twelve Little Cakes is her first book in English.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Dery:

"My first job was given to me by my father. I was three years old and had to knock dry mortar off old bricks. My father and mother kept me busy throughout my childhood and I was very happy to be a part of their hard-working team. I would mix concrete, carry milk pails from a farm across the hill and help my mother push my father's car whenever it broke down, which is what later inspired me to write a book."

"My favorite way to unwind is to walk in nature. Walk and sing and then sit down and have a glass of fine wine with someone I really like. I like making people happy by cooking extravagant meals for them and baking homeland (Czech) recipes. I dislike snakes, both in nature and in business."

"I am interested in history, art and theatre. My hobby is singing and driving my neighbors nuts with it."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Dominika Furmanova
    2. Hometown:
      Sydney, NSW, Australia and Cernosice, Prague, Czech Republic
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 7, 1975
    2. Place of Birth:
      Prague, Czech Republic
    1. Education:
      State Conservatory of Prague, Czech Republic, and Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq, Paris, France

Reading Group Guide

1. The Twelve Little Cakes begins the year before Dominika is born, when she appears to her mother, Jana, in dreams. Later, when Jana is trying to conceive, a wise factory worker tells her to leave matters in the hands of "the little god," a powerful character in Czech fairy tales. Is the credence given to dreams, superstition, and folklore particular to Dominika's family or simply typical of Czech traditions? Discuss the references to superstitions and fairy tales throughout the book.

2. In chapter 4, Jana tells Dominika the story of the Czech hero Jan Hus, a figure invoked in times of struggle. What traits turned Jan Hus into such a potent symbol for the Czech people? Do his courage and sacrifice find resonance in anyone in Dominika's story?

3. Dominika's first experience with loss occurs when her neighbors, whom she refers to as her three grandmothers, "go away." Yet only with the death of Barry, the family's St. Bernard, does Dominika begin to grasp the lasting implications of death and how lives are changed by it. Compare your own early memories of loss with Dominika's. Describe how these early losses influenced your outlook and hers. Compare Dominika's loss of her three "grandmothers" with the absence of her maternal grandparents.

4. Jana's parents, members of the Communist Party elite, disown their daughter when she marries Jarda, a member of the working class. Discuss other examples of hypocrisy found among Communist officials in The Twelve Little Cakes. Do you think Dominika was right to force a confrontation between her mother and her grandparents? Might there have been a reconciliation under other circumstances, with less impulsiveness and more careful consideration, or were Jana and her parents too far apart ideologically? Is forgiveness truly a possibility when one is living under a tyrannical regime?

5. While auditioning for the preparatory school of the National Theatre Ballet Company, Dominika reflects, "Even though we were only six or seven years old, everyone in the group knew that the school accepted only one student in ten, and each of us desperately wanted to be chosen." Discuss the political culture that gave rise to this desperation and the pressure for young children to compete and achieve. Is Dominka's motivation that of her peers? What accounts for her particular brand of determination?

6. A poster bearing the slogan "Religion Is the Opiate of the Masses!" hangs in Dominika's classroom, and the headmistress, Comrade Humlova, preaches that religion is superstition. Despite this, and despite the fact that her parents are not religious, Dominika attends church and even manages to be baptized and receive communion. Why is Dominika drawn to Catholicism and its rituals? Discuss why a socialist regime would view religion as dangerous, and cite examples from recent history of religious practice that has survived despite oppression.

7. After falling ill, Dominika is diagnosed with dysentery, but when the Furmans seek medical help, they are told that dysentery does not exist under the socialist health care system. Still, there is an entire ward full of children similarly afflicted in the Infection Pavilion of the Prague hospital where Dominika is treated. Discuss the Orwellian use of "official language" and socialist euphemisms to conceal actual conditions throughout the book.

8. When Jana has an emotional breakdown, her husband exhorts her to be an optimist. She responds, "An optimist? You know what an optimist is? An optimist is a pessimist without information." Do you agree with this view? Was there a place for optimism in the Czechoslovakia of the late 1970s and early 1980s? Were there signs of hope on the horizon? Discuss the differing views of the family's prospects, as seen through Jana's eyes and her husband's.

9. Discuss the differences between the Polish children Dominika meets on vacation and the children in her Prague neighborhood and school. Discuss the differences between the Furman's neighbors and the Polish couple who take them in when the Furman's car breaks down. What accounts for the differences between the two communist countries?

10. The Twelve Little Cakes ends with Dominika and her parents driving home from their mishap-filled vacation in Poland (actually, they must push their broken-down car over the border). Dominika observes, "This was the country of little cakes and sausages," which is similar to the statement she makes at the beginning of the book: "When I think of my childhood, I think of little cakes and sausages, because they were symbolic of the way we lived under communism." Why does the author choose little cakes and sausages as a symbol of life in a communist society?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2006

    Communism in the Voice of a Child

    I found this book enchanting and read it in roughly three days. Although the pace is slow for the first couple of chapters, it quickens and never lags after that. I was intrigued by the (dissident) Dery family's ability to live a life that is admirable in the face of constant opposition and betrayal. Many of the events would have left most of us in despair, yet the Derys continually bounce back and even excell in their achievements. I consider myself astute politically, yet found this day-to-day picture of Communism eye-opening. Most amazing to me was to relate the major political events in Czechoslovakia to what I was doing at that moment here in the U.S. An important read in a light format.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2006

    I got this book as a gift to me

    I was also born in Czechoslovakia,in 1970.This outstanding book bring back so many memories! I love your book. I was 18 years old vhen we came to USA your book is very truthfull. Thank you so much for sharring your life with us. The best of luck to you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2005


    I found it hard to put this wonderful book down and practically finished it in one sitting. Dominika Dery is an exceptional writer and I highly recommend this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2005

    Every Page Is a Delicious Bite

    It has been a long time since I have read such a sweet, lyrical--yet feet-on-the-floor--memoir. Ms. Dery makes the words, and the memories they evoke, dance across the page. In the process, she exposes Communism for the farce that it was (and is). 'Cakes' is a mouth-watering treat. Bravo!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2004


    I bought this book because I've been to Prague and thought that her story might be insightful and an interesting read. Her book exceeded my expectations ten-fold. Her words flowed across the pages with wonderful tales from her childhood. The lessons of love and togetherness within her immediate family are a treasure. She's a young writer. So hopefully in another few years she'll consider sharing more stories where this book left off.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    An interesting period piece

    Because Jana and Jorda were an intricate part of the Prague Spring of 1968, they lost everything when the hardliners brought in the Russians to crush the reformists. As they struggle to earn a living both agree no more children. However, in 1974, Jana dreams of a new daughter and one year later Dominika is born.............................. For the next eighteen years, Dominika grew up in a relatively happy home although poverty was the norm in the Prague suburb of Cernosice. There Jana was the prime bread winner writing books for the State Economic Institute that her bosses claimed as theirs while earning a small pittance. Though an educated intellect, Jorda did odd physical jobs when he could get employment. In fact the most employed member of the household was TV star, Barry the St. Bernard. Because Dominika has an upbeat open personality and indirectly her parents encourage this, she and her family were in trouble in a village with moles and traitors willing to turn in a loved one to the state without remorse............................. This engaging memoir provides a deep look into Czechoslovakia just after the Russian tanks occupied the country. Readers will see the impact on those who followed Dubcek (one of the tragic figures of the previous century) as they tried to remove the corruption out of Communism and grant freedoms to the people before folding to the Soviet military might. THE TWELVE LITTLE CAKES is an interesting period piece that showcases the Cold War at one of its coldest moments................................... Harriet Klausner

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    Posted September 18, 2011

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    Posted November 12, 2009

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    Posted October 20, 2010

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