04 January 2017

All is Calm, All is Bright, All is Song

Christmas Ideals, Worthy Publishing Group
What can you say about "Ideals" annual Christmas issue? It's a mixture of attractive Christmas and winter photographs, nostalgic paintings and line art, simple rhymed poetry, quotations, and essays, and is unabashedly corny and comforting. Cynics and avant garde types will probably avoid. We corny folks will read and enjoy.

These annual issues have been published since 1944. The newer issues rely more on photography than on original art than the initial issues—but privately I thought the art in the old issues was pretty bad. This year's photographs weren't as spectacular as in previous issues, but most were cozy and warming enough. One thing I do miss from "yesteryear" is the essays; the authors did a better job in the past being heartwarming without being simplistic. Or perhaps that's the way the readers want it today.

Christmas Bells, Jennifer Chiaverini
I haven't crossed paths with Chiaverini before, as I am not a devotee of what is called "chick lit." I know she has done some well-received historical novels and a series of books based on quilting. However, since I am a devotee of Boston and Cambridge I was attracted by this novel's Cambridge setting and the two alternating storylines.

In Cambridge's St. Margaret's Church, choir director and music teacher Sophia has arranged a special performance around Longfellow's "Christmas Bells," set to music as "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." She is troubled after having learned she is about to lose her job teaching music due to budget cuts, and totally unaware that the church's talented pianist is in love with her. Two children in the choir and their mother are also troubled after not being able to speak to their soldier father/husband in Afghanistan. Father Ryan is hiding familial problems and a sad older woman who comes to watch rehearsals is similarly troubled. Only bright Sister Winifred is happy this holiday season.

The troubles of the modern-day characters are alternated with chapters about the Longfellow family and how Henry Longfellow broke from a long period of depression and not writing after the terrible death of his wife and the departure of his son to fight in the Civil War to write "Christmas Bells," one of his most well-remembered poems.

I found this book easy reading, but the modern day characters pretty much cookie cutter: the pretty choir director and the handsome pianist, the loving mom and troubled scholarly daughter and mischievous son, the devoted priest, the one not-sleazy politician and his partner wife, the stalwart soldier husband who loves music and an envious brother. They're all easy to love, but uncomplicated and you have no doubt that things are going to come out okay for all of them and that while there is sorrow in their lives, it is tempered with joy, just as a grieving Longfellow found happiness from his children and from translating Dante. Chiaverini is at her best as she recaptures the joy of a 19th century Christmas as well as the fears and trials of the Longfellow family during the American Civil War. Beware, however, that it is very slow moving. Definitely something to sit and relax with.

(BTW, I would have loved to have seen the mother's confrontation with the suspicious teacher who accused her daughter of cheating. Of all the plot threads in this book, this one was the closest to my heart. I wanted to bawl out that teacher so badly!)

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