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.

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. :-)

28 December 2014

Annual Inspiration

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Ideals Christmas: 70th Anniversary Edition
Not much to say about the latest version of Ideals Publications annual collection of verse, inspirational essays, photographs, and seasonal artwork. You either like the collections or you don't. I happen to enjoy the modern ones. This year's issue came with a bonus: 32 additional pages from past issues, including one from 1945, the second year of publication, and an essay from Gladys Taber.

Note to Ideals: I still miss your Thanksgiving issue! Please bring it back!

27 December 2014

Homespun Christmas

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Christmas Through the Years, Gladys Hasty Carroll
I remember seeing this author's books in the library as a child; they were what today we would call "chick lit," or more likely "domestic dramas." However, they were a cut above the usual; apparently one of Ms. Carroll's books lost out on a Pulitzer Prize to The Good Earth. But I found this book in the Christmas rack of the Friends of the Library book sale, and the price was right...

...and I loved it. This isn't the kind of rubbish they write today about divorce and adultery and affairs; oh, the families in these short stories have problems, but they're homelike problems of growing up, losing a family member, growing older, trusting one's child's spouse to do the correct thing, etc. The first four pieces are charming examples of how farm- and middle-class folk celebrated the Christmas season before and during World War I. "Christmas 1922" is notable because it is taken from the author's own diary and talks about Christmas in her home, with much nostalgia about telephone party lines.

"Christmas 1946" is a reprint of one of her most famous stories, a Christmas novella called While the Angels Sing, about a widowed mother who is staying with her daughter and her family for Christmas and learning many things about her son-in-law and her grandchildren, still thinking about her son, who survived World War II, but never came home. I couldn't wait to turn the pages to see what had happened with the daughter and her best friend, the older brother who had a crush on the snobby daughter of a neighbor, the younger brother who was so independent, yet so caring of his little sister, or if the janitor would really turn on the heat in the church for the Christmas pageant!

"Christmas 1949" is yet another novella, Christmas With Johnny, the sweet story of a nine-year-old boy who feels left out at home, at church, at school. His parents give up his beloved farm, so that he has to move away from his only friend, a little girl (a fact he is teased about in school and by his father), and when it looks as if he may have found a secure place in Sunday School, he's teased about that as well, and bullied at school. It takes a crisis for his parents and his teachers to discover how alone he actually feels.

The other stories were lovely as well, but I liked the two novellas the best. If you enjoy stories about families at Christmas, with strong family values and Christmas cheer, you would do well to look up this book.

26 December 2014

Lovely to Look At...

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Christmas Book, Alvin Horton and Karin Shakery
I found this book at the Smyrna Library book sale at the fall Jonquil Festival. It's another collection of history, decorating tips, recipes, and lush color photographs of decorations, landscapes, foods, decorated trees, etc., also addressing entertaining and simple Christmas decorations. I guess I sound a little jaded about this one, and it isn't fair to the book: if you don't have a omnibus-type book like this, it's very pretty, well-written, and potentially useful to anyone looking for recipes or decorating tips, but by now, having bought several different publishers' versions of these books, I always notice how they stress simple recipes and natural decorations brought from your yard, and the houses they show are downright opulent, with gorgeous woodwork, big open rooms, massive fireplaces, all wonderful to look at, but not really realistic. And apparently they all have big yards with pine trees and bittersweet in them to use for the natural decorations. I mean, how many people can afford to live like this? Someday I'd love to see all this care and attention  and beautiful photography lavished on 1200-2200 square foot normal family homes, or even ordinary apartments, and show what a little bit of love and Christmas magic can do for them!

Welcome Back, GRT!

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Christmas Turkeys and Other Misadventures of the Season, Gerald R. Toner
It's been over ten years since I found Toner's first book of Christmas stories, Lipstick Like Lindsay's, misfiled in a used book store, and promptly went out to find his other two books, Holly Day's Cafe and Whittlesworth Comes to Christmas. I hadn't seen anything else by him for years, and then by accident discovered he had a fourth book of Christmas stories out.

Again, Toner doesn't write stories where magical figures like elves or angels come out to solve everyone's problems, or religious-themed fiction where faith holds sway. His stories are about everyday people facing everyday Christmas issues: two men who volunteer each year to distribute Christmas baskets, the couple who have restored their grand old Victorian house in a now-swank neighborhood with one eyesore holdout who throw a Christmas open house, the young man who takes a job in a home for the elderly just to make money for the holidays, a man who goes out looking for his homebound-for-Christmas daughter in a snowstorm, and more. Some will make you sniffle, some will make you laugh (I particularly enjoyed the ending of a story about two business rivals trying to outdo each other with Christmas charity), all are down-to-earth, folks you might live next door to or meet in church or in the supermarket. If you want a good Christmas read, you couldn't do any better than to check out any of Gerald Toner's books.

23 December 2014

The Ghost of Antioch

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
Unholy Night, Seth Grahame-Smith
This book opens with a bang with a Syrian thief being chased camel-back across the desert fresh from an exploit to steal treasure from a minor Roman ruler. His name is Balthazar, and he's wanted by the Romans (and everyone else) for his thievery. Finally captured and transported to Herod's palace, he meets two other criminals destined for death, Gaspar and Melchior. It will take all of Balthazar's cunning to free them—but what happens when, during their escape, they take refuge in a cave where a young carpenter, his wife, and their new baby are hiding from Herod's rampage against all boys under age two? Will they leave the child and his family to be slaughtered?

Obviously, this is a revisionist version of the Nativity story, as written by the author of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It's also an adventure story in which Balthazar, the clever thief known as "the Ghost of Antioch," is the central character; sadly, the other two "wise men" have a strong opening once they are introduced, then fade into the woodwork as the story progresses.

Your tolerance for this tale will depend on whether you can accept a different view of the Nativity story. Grahame-Smith writes a Joseph who is willing to fight for his family, a Mary who is not a sweet silent cipher nursing her babe in holy light, and a "wise man" who is neither perfect nor laudable, but there are certain factors in his past which you slowly discover lead him to make the correct choices. This is not a feel-good story, except in the last few pages which some may find a bit trite; it is, like the days Jesus lived in, full of violence, pride, and unfairness. Battles and torture are both described for what they are, and it is not a clean, pretty place as in a creche scene. However, it is an acceptable, if not outstanding or particularly memorable, retake on a familiar tale.

21 December 2014

Movies for Christmas

For the fourth Sunday of Advent, some different films:

Mercy Mission: The Rescue Of Flight 771

Scrooge  (Albert Finney)

An American Christmas Carol

Santa and Pete

The Winter Solstice

Five Questions and Answers About the Solstice

Everything You Need to Know About the Winter Solstice

Why We Need the Winter Solstice

Happy Yule!

"Old" St. Thomas Day

And, of course:

The Shortest Day
"And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
to keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.”

                                            -- Susan Cooper 

18 December 2014

Mint Juleps, Sauerkraut, and Frolics

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW
The Southern Christmas Book, Harnett T. Kane
To read this book you must do it with the eyes of an historian, as it was written in 1958. Gratefully, it is relatively free of the tongue-tangling dialect, references to stealing watermelons, and "happy days on the Ole Plantation" attitude of most pre-Civil Rights Southern books. Oh, it comes across very clearly that the author is white and there are black servants flitting around in the background somewhere having a happy time getting new clothes and new shoes; they pretty much disappear after the Civil War, too.

What is appreciable about this book is that they identify that there wasn't just "one" South, but different areas of the South which celebrated Christmas differently. In Baltimore the large German population ate sauerkraut with their Christmas turkey. The Colonial Virginia Christmas was full of drinking and dancing—and later that newfangled decoration, the Christmas tree. No Christmas was possible in the early White House, but later John Adams' granddaughter enjoyed the holiday there. Christmas customs in Louisiana and Missouri had French roots, while rugged settlers in the mountains held "frolics" where homespun-dressed folks danced to "a fiddle." Even the rough-and-ready Texans held parties, even if they had to make do with a little coffee and fresh-caught venison, and decorate a tumbleweed with yarn, while the Spanish residents had la posada, luminaria, and pinatas for their fun. Obscure celebrations that included "Old Buck," John Canoing, shooting in Christmas, and fireworks are also touched upon.

Valuable as a chronicle of history and an interesting read, even if half the population is considered in only a few paragraphs.