I’ve never had a Christmas Day without my immediate family or in-laws before, but when West Berkshire leapt into the Tier 4 (highest) COVID-19 risk category on Saturday it was clear that even our modest plans to spend 48 hours at my parents-in-law’s home by the coast would be dashed. How we’d looked forward to seeing other people and going somewhere else! Nothing dramatic; just a change of scene and an excuse to pack an overnight bag and a giant tote full of books. The bright side, if there is one, is that we can choose exactly how to spend the holidays, and my husband – a fantastic cook – will have total control over the feast.
To keep our spirits up, we’ve done more Christmas decorating than usual. Our lounge is dominated by the biggest tree we’ve had yet, there’s holly all over, and we strung colored fairy lights across one wall. After Saturday’s bad news, we brought forward our annual viewing of Elf. And of course, I have a stack of seasonally appropriate books at the ready.
Here’s the first two I managed to read for review:
Christmas Stories by George Mackay Brown
Many of these 30 short stories originally appeared in publications like the Scotsman, Tablet and Glasgow Herald between the 1940s and 1990s, with some also reprinted in previous Mackay Brown story volumes. This posthumous collection of seasonal tales by Orkney’s best-known writer runs the gamut from historical fiction to timeless fable, and travels from the Holy Land to Scotland’s islands. Often, Orkney is contrasted with Edinburgh, as in one of my favorites, “A Christmas Exile,” in which a boy is sent off to Granny’s house in Orkney one winter while his mother is in hospital and longs to make it home in time for Christmas.
Although the main characters are usually crofters, fishermen and lairds, they take on other roles in Nativity and Christmas Carol-like setups. For instance, a skipper, a miller, and a shepherd play the part of the Three Kings, while a greedy general merchant who won’t close his shop for Christmas Day is like Ebenezer Scrooge. Biblical and Dickensian figures merge in “An Epiphany Tale,” in which a deaf-blind-mute boy is visited by three strangers who give him back each of his senses, in turn, for one magical day. Characters get visions of the past or glimpses of how the other half live (“The Poor Man in His Castle”). Children are disabused of the idea of Santa Claus, but the unexplained still fuels a sense of wonder, as in Jeanette Winterson’s holiday stories. Even the poor have small gifts and pleasures to look forward to.
As editor William S. Peterson notes in his introduction, Calvinism had erased much of the joy from Christmas in Scotland, but in Mackay Brown’s lifetime he saw Yule traditions returning and was keen to emphasize that Christmas was not just about one day of celebration but was a whole season running from Advent through to Epiphany. The story “I Saw Three Ships…” remembers an oppressed past, though: set at the end of the Civil War, after King Charles I was beheaded, it is set at a time when the government declared “‘There will be no more Christmas. Christmas is abolished and forbid in the islands here, as it has been put down everywhere in this commonwealth. We will have no more of such ancient mummery.’ … Men reckoned that that was the longest coldest dreichest winter ever known in Orkney.” Those words might feel gloomily appropriate, but let’s celebrate all the more in defiance.
With thanks to Galileo Publishers for the free copy for review.
Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell
Words for snow exist in most of the world’s languages – even those spoken in countries where it rarely, if ever, snows. For instance, Thai has “hima” at the ready even though there were only once claims of a snow flurry in Thailand, in 1955. Campbell meanders through history, legend, and science in these one- to five-page essays. I was most taken by the pieces on German “kunstschnee” (the fake snow used on movie sets), Icelandic “hundslappadrifa” (snowflakes big as a dog’s paw, a phrase used as a track title on one of Jónsi’s albums – an excuse for discussing the amazing Sigur Rós), and Estonian “jäätee” (the terrifying ice road that runs between the mainland and the island of Hiiumaa – only when the ice is 22 cm thick, and with cars traveling 2 minutes apart and maintaining a speed of 25–40 km/hour).
The white and blue tendrils of the naked hardback’s cover creep over onto the endpapers, each essay is headed by a Wilson Bentley photograph of a snowflake, and the type is in a subtle dark blue ink rather than black. Too many of the essays are thin or dull, such that the contents don’t live up to the gorgeous physical object they fill. Still, I imagine you have a snow-loving relative who would appreciate a copy as a seasonal coffee table book.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
And a bonus:
“The Burglar’s Christmas” by Willa Cather (1896)
This Renard Press pamphlet supporting the Three Peas charity (in aid of Europe’s refugees) was sent to me as a Christmas card alternative by Annabel/Shiny New Books. A young man wanders the slushy streets of Chicago one Christmas Eve. On this, his 24th birthday, he laments how low he has sunk that he has to rob the rich in order to get money to eat. But in this take on the Prodigal Son story, there is a second chance at forgiveness and a good life. I was reminded of the high society atmosphere of Edith Wharton’s work and the moral fables of O. Henry. The lovely little story has a William Morris design on the cover. I’ll keep it with my small collection of Christmas books and bring it out to reread in future years.
Are you reading any Christmas or wintry books?
What are your plans for the holidays?
I was a veritable social butterfly this past week: I went out two evenings in a row! (Believe me, that’s rare.) On Tuesday I met up with bloggers Annabel, Eric and Kim at the Faber Spring Party held at Crypt on the Green in London, and on Wednesday my husband and I attended a performance at the University of Reading of Michael Mears’s one-man play on the plight of Britain’s conscientious objectors during World War I, This Evil Thing.
Faber Spring Party
I’ve never been to an event quite like this. Publisher Faber & Faber, which will be celebrating its 90th birthday in 2019, previewed its major releases through to September. Most of the attendees seemed to be booksellers and publishing insiders. Drinks were on a buffet table at the back; books were on a buffet table along the side. Glass of champagne in hand, it was time to plunder the free books on offer. I ended up taking one of everything, with the exception of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy: I couldn’t make it through Outline and am not keen enough on her writing to get an advanced copy of Kudos, but figured I might give her another try with the middle book, Transit.
For the evening’s presentation, each featured author had a few minutes to introduce their new book and/or give a short reading.
Rachel Cusk opened the evening with a reading from Kudos. If you’re familiar with her recent work, you won’t be surprised at this synopsis: a man on a plane recounts having his dog put to sleep. (Out on May 3rd.)
William Atkins’s book on deserts, The Immeasurable World, is based on three years of travel and is, he is not ashamed to say, in the old-fashioned travel writing tradition. (Out on June 7th.)
Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems is a hybrid work of poem-essays. #2 is more philosophical, she said; #3 is about her father’s death and her son’s birth. She read sonnet 3.21. (Out now.)
Clémentine Beauvais’s In Paris with You is a YA romance in free verse, loosely based on Eugene Onegin. I don’t know the source text but started this on the train ride home and it’s enjoyable thus far. I’m in awe at how translator Sam Taylor has taken the French of her Songe à la douceur and turned it into English poetry. (Out on June 7th.)
Chris Power’s Mothers is a book of linked short stories, three of which are about a character named Eva. He read a portion of a story about her having an encounter with an unpleasant man in Innsbruck. (Out on March 1st.)
Elise Valmorbida’s The Madonna of the Mountains, set in 1923–50, is a saga that resembles “an Italian Mother Courage,” she says. She read a scene in which a character comes across a madwoman. (Out on April 5th.)
Zaffar Kunial read the poem “Spark Hill” from his forthcoming collection Us. It’s about a childhood fight in the area of Birmingham where he grew up. He had a folder open in front of him but, impressively, recited the long poem completely from memory. (Out on July 5th.)
American novelist Benjamin Markovits was a professional basketball player in Germany for six months. Like the tennis-playing protagonist of his upcoming book, A Weekend in New York, he got tired of being measured. After 15 years, his hero is eager to escape a life of being constantly ranked. This is the first in a quartet of novels that inevitably invites comparison with John Updike’s “Rabbit” books. (Out on June 7th.)
I confess I didn’t previously know the name Viv Albertine; she was the guitarist for the female punk band The Slits, and To Throw Away Unopened is her second memoir. Albertine realized that it was her mother who had made her an angry rebel; the title is the label on a bag she found in her mother’s room after her death. (Out on April 5th.)
Sophie Collins incorporates hybrid forms in her poetry – what she calls “lyric essays.” The theme of her book Who Is Mary Sue? is perceptions of women’s writing (with “Mary Sue” as a metonym for the stereotypical good girl). She read from “Engine.” (Out now.)
Katharine Kilalea’s debut novel Ok, Mr Field is about an injured concert pianist who becomes obsessed with a house he buys in South Africa. (Out on June 7th.)
Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates are the authors of two Homework for Grown-Ups books. Their new book, What Would Boudicca Do?, is about lessons we can draw from the women of history. For instance, the sampler booklet has pieces called “Dorothy Parker and Handling Jerks” and “Frida Kahlo and Finding Your Style.” There’s a heck of a lot of books like this out this year, though, and I’m not so sure this one will stand out. (Out on September 6th.)
Richard Scott read two amazingly intimate poems from his upcoming collection, Soho. One, “cover-boys,” was about top-shelf gay porn; the other was about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum. If you appreciated Andrew McMillan’s Physical, you need to get hold of this the second it comes out. I went back and read “cover-boys” in the sampler booklet and it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it was aloud; Scott’s reading really brought it to life, in contrast to some other authors’ dull delivery. (Out on April 5th.)
Sue Prideaux’s forthcoming biography of Friedrich Nietzsche is entitled I Am Dynamite! She encountered her subject when she wrote her first biography, of Edvard Munch. Although Nietzsche has been embraced by far-right groups in America, he was in fact against racism, nationalism, and anti-semitism, so he has important messages for us today. I’ll be keen to get hold of this one. (Out on September 6th.)
Guitar in hand, Willy Vlautin closed the evening with a performance of the title track from the soundtrack album to his fifth novel, Don’t Skip Out on Me – he was the singer in Portland, Oregon alt-country band Richmond Fontaine, which has recently stopped touring. He said the novel asks, “can you make the scars of broken people bearable?” (Out now.)
Now that I’ve got this terrific stack of books, wherever do I start?! I’m currently reading the Beauvais; from there I’ll focus on ones that have already been released, starting with Vlautin and the two poetry collections. The titles that aren’t out until June can probably wait – though it’s tempting to be one of the privileged few who get to read them nearly four months early. One Faber book per week should see me getting through all these by the final release date.
This Evil Thing
Michael Mears plays about 50 different characters in this one-man production. He’s an actor and pacifist who has written a number of solo pieces over 20 years. In this commemorative year of the end of the First World War, he knew we would hear a lot about battles, soldiers, and their families back home. But conscientious objectors weren’t likely to be remembered: theirs is a “story that’s rarely told,” he realized. This Evil Thing sets out to correct that omission. The title phrase refers not to war in general but specifically to conscription.
The two main characters Mears keeps coming back to in the course of the play are Bert Brocklesby, a Yorkshire preacher, and philosopher Bertrand Russell. Brocklesby refused to fight and, when he and other COs were shipped off to France anyway, resisted doing any work that supported the war effort, even peeling the potatoes that would be fed to soldiers. He and his fellow COs were beaten, placed in solitary confinement, and threatened with execution. Meanwhile, Russell and others in the No-Conscription Fellowship fought for their rights back in London. There’s a wonderful scene in the play where Russell, clad in nothing but a towel after a skinny dip, pleads with Prime Minister Asquith.
As in solo shows I’ve seen before (e.g. A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart), Mears had to find subtle ways to distinguish between characters: he used a myriad different voices, including regional accents; he quickly donned a jacket, hat, or pair of glasses. Russell was identified by his ever-present pipe. The most challenging scene, Mears said in the Q&A at the end, was one with four characters in a French street café.
Mears reveals during the play that his grandfather fought in WWI and his father in WWII, but he has never had to put his own pacifist views to the test. What about Hitler? people always ask. Mears is honest and humble enough to admit that he doesn’t know what he would have done had he been called on to fight Hitler, or had he faced persecution as a CO in WWI. Ultimately, what Mears hopes audiences take from his play, which won acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is that “this is not an irrelevant piece of history.” Standing up for what you believe in, especially if it goes against the spirit of the times, is always valuable.
Fabrizio Dori’s Gauguin: The Other World is the third graphic novel I’ve reviewed from SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series, after Munch and Vincent. Like those previous volumes, it delivers salient snippets of biography alongside drawings that cleverly echo the subject’s artistic style. Here the focus is on the last 12 years of Paul Gauguin’s life (1848–1903), which were largely spent in the South Pacific.
The book opens with a macro, cosmic view – the myth of the origin of Tahiti and a prophecy of fully clothed, soulless men arriving in a great canoe – before zeroing in on Gauguin’s arrival in June 1891. Although he returned to Europe in 1893–5, Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands would be his final homes. This is all covered in a whirlwind Chapter 1 that ends by, Christmas Carol-like, introducing a Spirit (as pictured in his 1892 painting Manaó Tupapaù (Spirit of the Dead Watching)) who will lead Gauguin – in a morphine haze on his deathbed in 1903 – and readers on a tour through his past.
Gauguin grew up in Peru and Paris, and at age 17 joined the crew of a merchant marine vessel to South America and the West Indies. Back in Paris, he tried to make a living as a stockbroker and salesman while developing as a self-taught artist. He married Mette, a Danish woman, but left her and their children behind in Copenhagen when he departed for Tahiti. The paintings he sent back were unprofitable, and she soon came to curse his career choice.
The locals called Gauguin “the man who makes men” for his skill in portraiture, but also “the woman man” because he wore his hair long. He moved from Papeete, Tahiti’s European-style colonial town, to a cabin in the woods to become more like a savage, and also explored the ghost-haunted island interior. Teura came to live with him as his muse and his lover.
The book is full of wonderful colors and spooky imagery. The palette shifts to suit the mood: dusky blue and purple for the nighttime visit of the Spirit, contrasting with lush greens, pinks and orange for other island scenes and simple ocher and black for the sequences where Gauguin is justifying his decisions. The black-robed, hollow-faced Spirit reminded me of similar figures imagined by Ingmar Bergman and Hayao Miyazaki – could these film directors have been inspired by Gauguin’s Polynesian emissary of death?
Overall this struck me as a very original and atmospheric way of delivering a life story. Although the font is a little bit difficult to read and I ultimately preferred the art to the narration, they still combine to build a portrait of a brazen genius who shunned conventional duties to pursue his art and cultivate the primitive tradition in new ways. Gauguin ends with a short sequence set in Paris in 1907, as Pablo Picasso, fired up by a Gauguin retrospective show, declares, “We must break with formal beauty. We must be savages.”
I appreciated this brief peek into the future, as well as the five-page appendix of critical and biographical information on Gauguin contributed by art critic Céline Delavaux. What I said about Vincent holds true here too: I’d recommend this to anyone with an interest in the lives of artists, whether you think you’re a fan of graphic novels or not. It will be particularly intriguing to see how Dori’s vision of Gauguin compares to that in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, which I plan to start soon.
With thanks to Paul Smith of SelfMadeHero – celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – for the review copy. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin.
Charles Dickens is almost singlehandedly responsible for creating our view of the traditional Christmas. It’s no surprise, then, that many people associate him with the holiday season. An armchair next to a fire somehow seems like the ideal place for curling up with one of his chunky tomes. I know some readers who try to pick up one of his books every winter, like Lucy over at Literary Relish. This year my husband is reading a facsimile edition of the original serialized version of Hard Times (re-issued by Stanford University’s Discovering Dickens project in 2005) in the run-up to Christmas, and also plans to get through The Cricket on the Hearth. One of my goals for 2016 is to return to Dombey and Son, which I got about 200 pages into a few years ago but never managed to finish.
We’ve also been lucky enough to catch a number of Dickens-themed theatre productions over the years: in London, Patrick Stewart’s one-man production of A Christmas Carol and Simon Callow’s one-man The Mystery of Charles Dickens, an open-air version of A Christmas Carol that took place around the streets of York, and, this year, Dickens Abridged at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts near Maidenhead. This was from Adam Long, the same brilliant mind that, as a founding member of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, helped create The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) as well as The Complete History of America (abridged) and The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged). I’ve seen four of their shows now, and all were utterly hilarious.
To our surprise, Dickens Abridged was basically a musical in a comedy folk style. We were reminded of Flight of the Conchords or Folk On. There were just four male actors on stage playing all the historical and fictional roles, including, of course, all the female ones. Some of Dickens’s novels didn’t even get a mention (though did I really expect Barnaby Rudge to turn up?!), others got the briefest of nods, and some came in for extensive treatment.There were long scenes from Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol, whereas some of the more obscure works merited just few-line limericks sung to a simple guitar accompaniment. The problem with these was that the actor was singing so quickly and without amplification that, if you didn’t already know the novel’s storyline, his extremely abridged version would leave you none the wiser.
Among the show’s highlights were the guillotine scene in A Tale of Two Cities, Tiny Tim’s amazing transforming crutch, and the refrain sung by Dickens: “I am a man of anxiety and sorrow” – sung in a 1980s power ballad style, if you can imagine that.
What I found most remarkable about this production was how it was not just the abridged works of Dickens but also the abridged life of Dickens. His time at the blacking factory and his marriage to Catherine Hogarth are two turning points that the play emphasized to good effect. Some readers only vaguely familiar with Dickens might not know about his troubled marriage and the divorce case that left Catherine in disgrace as Dickens took up with a mistress, young actress Nelly Ternan. So while Dickens Abridged was heavy on the laughs, it was also informative and thoughtful.
Dickens: not just for Christmas, but it’s a good time to dive into his works if you haven’t already.
Is Dickens part of your regular holiday reading? Who are some of your other favorite authors to read at this time of year?