10 May 2015


05 April 2015


25 March 2015

Rudolph Day, March 2015: Vermont Holiday

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
A Vermont Christmas, Richard Brown and Jay Parini
This is a nifty coffee-table book of mostly photographs—with a difference. Most of the books of this sort are a confection of beautiful decorations, breathtaking scenery, and warm celebrations. There are many photos of scenery in this volume, but most of the photos are of the more "homely" (as the British say) sort: a cow next to an old barn, a minister ready to go before his congregation, a child before an old stove, a man shoveling snow from his roof, sheep in the snow. Some local recipes using maple syrup are included, but most of the text is nostalgic, including a wonderful essay by a woman who lived on a Vermont farm in the 1920s and an excerpt from The Lone Winter from 1923. A book for a cold afternoon, to partake by the fire and/or with a cup of cocoa.

25 February 2015

Rudolph Day, February 2015: Lost Christmas Gems

A Dream for Christmas, 1950s African American family moves to Los Angeles to take over a failing church; written by Earl Hamner Jr

A Christmas Carol 1971 animated version which won an Oscar

The Carpenters: A Christmas Portrait musical special

Hollywood Palace (1968) with Bing and Kathryn Crosby

Bob Hope Christmas Special (1965; his first in color)

06 January 2015

Over by Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Walnut Tree, Charles Todd
This is a "holiday novel" by a very loose thread only, when a beautiful thing happens on Christmas Eve, so it was appropriate for the end of the Christmas season. In this one-off novel from Todd as not part of the Bess Crawford or Ian Rutledge series, Lady Elspeth Douglas is in France with her good friend Madeleine when the Great War breaks out. Elspeth has been brought up in great wealth, but when she sees hordes of thirsty soldiers in Paris and tries to help them, she is called to serve as she has never been called before. Having an "understanding" with her best friend's brother, she is disconcerted when she is attracted to the Army officer who makes it possible for her to get out of England. Defying her guardian, she trains as a nurse and goes back to the front, where she discovers a purpose for her life, but a dilemma for her heart.

This is a short, sweet wartime romance about a wealthy girl who finds her true self and her inner strength in serving on the battlefield. She experiences mud and misery and terror, grief and love, kindness and loyalty, with her nerve and her dignity intact. While the end may seem a bit pat for modern audiences, the events narrated did happen in real life. I enjoyed all the characters and the brief look at the nursing sisters' experience at the front and with the wounded, and the stubborn resolve of the men determined that their cause was the right one. And the holiday event brings to mind a beautiful image that will stay with me.

05 January 2015

So Many Nights Before Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW 
The Annotated Night Before Christmas, Martin Gardner
Clement C. Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" forms the basis of this book that features not just an annotated version of the poem—otherwise the book would be about six pages—but as many of the parodies and similarly-metered poems that have been written in the succeeding years. (Incidentally, the first thing Gardner says in his introduction is "I hope no one imagines that I regard the selections in this book as good poetry," which makes him sound incredibly snobby right off the bat. But, truly, there is much doggerel in this book.) It also opens with a brief biography of Moore and his estate, which gave the New York City neighborhood "Chelsea" its name, Christmas in Moore's time, and the history of St. Nicholas, before descending into homage and parody, the earliest which was written only a scarce dozen years after the original. (Most of the earliest "sequels" are 19th century polemics against gluttony and greed.) There are alcoholic versions, one portraying an exhausted salesgirl, fairy tale incursions, even a collection of "MAD" magazine versions and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, plus various ethnic versions (Cajun, hillbilly, etc.) in excruciating dialect.

Near the end there's a "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" chapter, since the original Rudolph story (not the Rankin-Bass classic) was written in the same meter, as well as its lost sequel, Rudolph's Second Christmas.

For Moore fans everywhere. To be read slowly, however, over several nights, or else the poems read one after the other become frankly annoying.

03 January 2015

In Time for Christmas Pudding

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Mrs. Jeffries and the Merry Gentlemen, Emily Brightwell
This is a long-running mystery series (this is book 20-something) about the household staff of Inspector Witherspoon, a Scotland Yard detective with an impressive record of solved crimes. What his superiors don't know, of course, is that his housekeeper, the titular Mrs. Jeffries, and the rest of the household staff have formed an investigative team of their own. They go where Witherspoon isn't trusted, among other servants, or to the shopkeepers, and gather clues which they bring back to the clever Mrs. Jeffries, who sits down with her employer each evening and manages to subtly feed him the clues until he comes to the inevitable solution.

In this story, one of the members of an investment club called "the Merry Gentlemen" is murdered, and Witherspoon (and of course his unknown compatriots in service) must find out whodunnit quickly, or his Christmas holidays will be ruined.

The readers of 20-plus books in this series can't be wrong, so I feel a bit guilty about being so diffident about it. It's not a bad book, I just have so many series I like better that I wouldn't involve myself in this one. The characters are appealing and the stories remind one of the plotlines and protagonists in the Pennyfoot Hotel mysteries. If you're looking for a Victorian cozy, this is a good one to try (well, starting at the beginning, anyway).

02 January 2015

The Greatest Gift...Freedom

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, Patricia McKissack and Frederick McKissack
This is a picture book for children about slavery just before the Civil War, portraying the two different celebrations on a Southern plantation: the opulent world of the planter and his family and the poor living conditions of their slaves. While Christmas means the slaves are given extra privileges and more food and a chance to also celebrate the holiday, the comparison between the revelries of the planter's families and the simple celebrations of the slaves make the point of the story all the more powerful.

This is a simple way of introducing children to the injustices that existed during the time of slavery, with beautiful illustrations that bring the dreams of freedom of the enslaved men and women alive.

01 January 2015

Christmas in New Amsterdam

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Santa and Pete: A Novel of Christmas Present and Past, Christopher Moore and Pamela Johnson
First, this is not the Christopher Moore of snark. The gentleman who wrote this little book is relating some of his own family history in writing the story. While ostensibly it is the story of how St. Nicholas and his assistant Peter (known as "Black Peter" in the Netherlands) met, began to travel, and migrated to the new world in time to avert war between the Dutch and the Native people, it is the framing narrative that is the meat of the tale. Young Terence's grandfather, who drives a New York City bus the length of Manhattan, is lonely after the death of his wife, and Terence's parents wish him to learn something of his heritage and his grandfather rather than being self-absorbed, so every Saturday a rather resentful Terence is placed on his grandfather's bus to follow him on his route. Gradually Terence becomes entranced with Grandpa Mann's historical tales and the regulars who take his bus.

There are some liberties taken with the Nicholas/Peter story, since originally the pair delivered gifts on December 5, both in the Netherlands and in New Amsterdam; however it would take away from the narrative to have to divert to explain the date change. While the description says it's the tale of Santa and Pete, it's really the story between Terence and his grandfather and their friends on the bus that carry this sweet story.

31 December 2014

Christmas Annuals, Part 2

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock
"Do you think Dad might do it this year? Might buy me a tree?"
Ten-year-old Addie Mills has a comfortable life in small-town Nebraska in the late 1940s. Her mother having died when she was a baby, Addie has been brought up by her serious, taciturn father and her offbeat but caring grandmother. She's a good scholar, artistic, and articulate, but somehow no matter what she does, it never quite pleases her father, who has refused for her entire life to have a tree at Christmas. Once again, Addie pleads her case, but is rebuffed—but a contest at school brings the situation to a head.

If I've seen the television special, you may ask, why read the book? Well, because it says so much more—about Addie and Carla Mae's friendship (and Carla Mae's family), about Addie's conflicted feelings about Billy Wild, and, most of all, about Grandma; we learn much more about Grandma's eccentricities than were intimated by the special (the breakfast scene where she drops the pancake, for instance), so you can understand more fully why Addie's classmates think Mrs. Mills is a little peculiar. Addie's narrative rings true to the opening and closing voiceovers heard in the specials and lends a special note to the tale.

And frankly, because this is such a good tale it deserves to be told again. :-)

The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
"Penny Tucker stood on her knees among the cushions of the window seat and pushed her nose against the cold glass. With each fresh gust of wind, hard little white balls shot out of the dark and hit the windows. Across the street every house twinkled with ropes of Christmas lights...[t]onight the PTA was holding a special meeting to celebrate the beginning of Christmas vacation. All of the Tuckers...were to take part. That is, all but...seven-year-old Penny. She had been kept in with a virus infection Nobody had asked her to be on the program."

Children's series books have proliferated since the late 1800s; this was one that appealed to both boys and girls: the stories of five children, their parents and grandparents, plus one big wooly dog and a black cat. The kids are a rambunctious, but generally-well-behaved bunch, but the youngest girl is not always well and in this Christmas story, she begins to fret that she is becoming lost in her family of achievers. Her oldest sister can bake, her older brother is a builder and his twin sister is musical, and her younger brother is practical—but what can frail Penny do? She finds out when she wishes the family can spend Christmas at their lake cottage: it's a week of fun, friends, festivities, and even suspense, when she and a friend discover an abandoned baby in a trailer.

While written in simple words, Penny's plight is still touching and will appeal to anyone who feels left out by life. The warm events in the cottage and at a nearby farm will enfold you in its Christmas arms; you'll wish you were out, carefree, playing games in the snow and joining the kids in finding a Christmas tree. But it's Penny's search for a place for herself that really makes this book special and sets it above all the other books in the series.

"Wonderingly she thought, 'I've found something I didn't know I was hunting. I've found Christmas.'" In reading this, may you, as well.

30 December 2014

A Historic Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Christmas Heritage of Old Salem, Flora Ann L. Bynum
This is a thin volume about Christmas in the Moravian settlement in North Carolina that eventually merged with another town called Winston to become Winston-Salem. The Moravians, from a sect of Protestanism founded by Jan Hus, are known for their simple decorations which include candles and a multipointed star which has become known as a Moravian star and a ceremony called a lovefeast in which sugar buns are served. I picked it up because it was a dollar; there's not much to it, but the photographs are lovely.

Christmas in Williamsburg, Taylor Biggs Lewis Jr and Joanne B. Young
My last book about Christmas in Williamsburg was a children's book; this is more of a souvenir type volume which was published in the 1970s and updated for the Bicentennial. Despite the printing date, the photographs inside are full-color and very evocative of Williamsburg decorations in that era. I can't remember if it was actually at Williamsburg or in a book I bought at Williamsburg two years ago, but they mentioned they are getting away from the Della-Robbia type (fruit-decorated) wreaths and garlands of the 1970s simply because citrus fruits were too costly in those days to decorate outside with (the inside fruit would be eaten). They are getting back to classic greens and ribbons instead. This is another place I have on a bucket list that probably won't get to fruition: Colonial Williamsburg on Illumination Night.

Christmas Annuals, Part 1

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
"The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse...I don't suppose they woke up that morning and said to one another 'Let's go burn down Fred Shoemaker's toolhouse!'...but maybe they did. After all, it was a Saturday and not much going on."

Thus begins Robinson's now-classic story about six kids "from the wrong side of the tracks" who get involved in a church Christmas pageant after they're told there will be cookies and soda served. Their working-class mother is either laboring or sleeping, so they don't even know the Christmas story—and let's say their interpretation surprises everyone: they spend a lot of time trying to think up ways to off Herod the King to defend the infant Jesus. Eventually the tales about the pageant rehearsals get around and everyone is predicting this will be the worst pageant ever.

This is a humorous look at a group of undisciplined kids who have been left to their own devices so long that they appear to be budding criminals. The narrator (she's known as Beth in the television adaptation of this story, but she's unnamed here) takes a sharp, funny look at the Herdman kids and the other adults and children around her, especially snooty Alice Wendleken, and along the way some truths are revealed and even the horrible Herdmans have a lesson to teach about Christmas.

If you haven't read this book—why not? If you have, Christmas is the time to pull it out once again and enjoy.

* * * * *

Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
Frances Frost's tetrology of books about growing up on a Vermont farm in the late 1940s were once perennials in school libraries. Now they are highly sought on book sites (especially the rare fourth volume), and while it's mainly for the story of Toby Clark and his Shetland pony Windy Foot as the seasons roll around on the Clark farm, passages like this might also be the reason: "The village lawns about the white houses lay withered and rusty yellow; the leaves had long ago been raked to the roadsides and burned; and the only brightness was the dripping scarlet of the barberry bushes around the north side of the square." "Up on the south hill the snow lay heavily on the dark green boughs of spruce and hemlock, pine and fire. Silently Toby and Betsy snowshoed through blue shadows and brilliant patches of sunlight...[t]here at the farther edge of the clearing, on the verge of the dark woods, stood a young fox, curiously unafraid, his fur golden russet against the snow, watching them with burning eyes."

As the Clark family prepares for Christmas by making and mail-ordering gifts, stringing popcorn, cutting a live tree, baking cakes and pies, and searching the woods for greens, they await the visit of their new friends the Burnhams. Toby can't wait to take Tish Burnham sleigh riding behind the sleigh he's cut down for Windy Foot to pull. The family goes to town to shop at the general store, and later to sing carols around the village tree, and Toby and Tish ski and share ice cream to their hearts' content. This book takes you into the family so you feel warm by the Clark fireplace and smell the delicious foods Mary Clark cooks and sing Christmas songs along with the family. You're there to see the gifts wrapped in tissue paper and held closed with stickers, the smaller ones inserted in the branches of the tree as was customary at the time. It's warm and happy, like a big hug from a favorite friend. Like a friend you see once a year at Christmas, it's there to welcome you to into the holiday.

* * * * *

Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
Most of my favorite Christmas books are, except for A Christmas Carol, from childhood or the 1970s; the exception is this one, written in 2001 as part of the "Dear America" book series. It rings so true for me from the opening: "Mama and Papa believe in cold. That's why I tell Lady we have nothing to fear. You see, Mama and Papa have toughened us up on the sleeping porch. That's where we sleep with no heat and just screens, and not just in summer but all through the fall and beginning again in early spring. We're used to cold. But now we're going to be hardened off for the rest of the year in the rest of the house...[t]his is going to be an odd Christmas, no doubt about it. Instead of sugar plums and stockings stuffed with goodies and stacks of presents under the tree—a Time of Bounty—I am thinking of this as The Time of the Dwindling. Everything is diminishing: our money, the light of day, and even the hours that Papa works. But in my heart I know we Swifts are tough—hardened off like seedlings. I just know that somehow, someway, this shall be a Christmas. Not the same kind of Christmas as others in the past, but maybe one to remember all the same."

Still, even Minnie (our protagonist) would have lost faith if the family had not taken in a cousin from the Dust Bowl, a wispy child whose outer delicacy belies an inner strength that helps carry the family through hard times. Perhaps the characters seem so true to me because Lasky based them on her own family, so that they have an air of verisimilitude to them. A couple of times word choice gives me pause—for instance, Minnie's brilliant (we'd call him geeky) brother says something about cousin Willie Rae which her older sister calls "extremely insensitive" (back then I think she would have just said "rude"!)—and the standard "Dear America" epilog seems overly politically correct and even a little fantastic, but the book as a whole is endearing. I look forward to this one all year.

29 December 2014

Rescued by Rudolph

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Rudolph!, Mark Teppo
I was attracted by the cover. And the title. And finally by the mind-boggling description on the back cover.

A few days before Christmas, Santa's special elf in charge of operations catches his boss hacking into the Vatican's website; before he knows it, he's been lassoed into a desperate mission. Santa Claus is upset because he has found one final letter from a little girl whose father was killed in an accident at Thanksgiving, a little girl who has asked for Santa to bring her father back. And that wish is one Santa is determined to fulfill, even if he has to go to Purgatory for it.

Yes...literally.

Told by Santa's special elf Bernard Rosewood, this is a story of adventure and loss, violence and tenderness, and vivid fantasy, in which the very existence of Christmas is threatened by Higher Powers, and only one can affect the rescue: Rudolph himself, not the nasal cutie from television, but a reindeer who has literally survived a hellish accident.

I really, really enjoyed this. If Unholy Night was not your traditional Nativity story, this is definitely not your traditional Santa Claus story. I loved all the little touches: how Santa really does deliver all those gifts in one night, the extraordinary abilities of the reindeer team, behind the scenes at "the Residence" (otherwise known as the North Pole), Mrs. Santa Claus' sizable role, all mixed up with a mind-blowing trip to the ends of the earth, complete with mathematical calculations and lots of firepower.

Note: this isn't a children's story, but older teens will probably love it because the attitude is as snarky as they are. :-)