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?
Read: 28 [Disappointments (rated or ): 12]
Currently reading: 1
Abandoned partway through: 5
Lost interest in reading: 1
Haven’t managed to find yet: 9
Languishing on my Kindle; I still have vague intentions to read: 1
To my dismay, it appears I’m not very good at predicting which books I’ll love; I would have gladly given 43% of the ones I read a miss, and couldn’t finish another 11%. Too often, the blurb is tempting or I loved the author’s previous book(s), yet the book doesn’t live up to my expectations. And I still have 376 books published in 2019 on my TBR, which is well over a year’s reading. For the list to keep growing at that annual rate is simply unsustainable.
Thus, I’m gradually working out a 2020 strategy that involves many fewer review copies. For strings-free access to new releases I’m keen to read, I’ll go via my local library. I can still choose to review new and pre-release fiction for BookBrowse, and nonfiction for Kirkus and the TLS. If I’m desperate to read an intriguing-sounding new book and can’t find it elsewhere, there’s always NetGalley or Edelweiss, too. I predict my FOMO will rage, but I’m trying to do myself a favor by waiting most of the year to find out which are truly the most worthwhile books rather than prematurely grabbing at everything that might be interesting.
I regret not having time to finish two 2019 novels I’m currently reading that are so promising they likely would have made at least my runners-up list had I finished them in time. I’m only a couple of chapters into The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (on the Costa Awards debut shortlist), a Gothic pastiche about a Jamaican maidservant on trial for killing her master and mistress (doubly intended) in Georgian London, but enjoying it very much. I’m halfway through The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, a quiet character study of co-pastors and their wives and how they came to faith (or not); it is lovely and simply cannot be rushed.
The additional 2019 releases I most wished I’d found time for before the end of this year are:
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Dominicana by Angie Cruz
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: I’ve heard that this is an amazing memoir of a same-sex abusive relationship, written in an experimental style. It was personally recommended to me by Yara Rodrigues Fowler at the Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony, and also made Carolyn Oliver’s list of nonfiction recommendations.
Luckily, I have another chance at these four since they’re all coming out in the UK in January; I have one as a print proof (Cruz) and the others as NetGalley downloads. I also plan to skim Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, a very important new release, before it’s due back at the library.
The biggest release of 2019 is another that will have to wait until 2020: I know I made a lot of noise about boycotting The Testaments, but I’ve gradually come round to the idea of reading it, and was offered a free hardback to read as a part of an online book club starting on the 13th, so I’m currently rereading Handmaid’s to be ready to start the sequel in the new year.
Here’s the books I’m packing for the roughly 48 hours we’ll spend at my in-laws’ over Christmas. (Excessive, I know, but I’m a dabbler, and like to keep my options open!) A mixture of current reads, including a fair bit of suspense and cozy holiday stuff, with two lengthy autobiographies, an enormous Victorian pastiche, and an atmospheric nature/travel book waiting in the wings. I find that the holidays can be a good time to start some big ol’ books I’ve meant to read for ages.
I’ll be back on the 26th to start the countdown of my favorite books of the year, starting with fiction.
With part of my birthday book token I treated myself to the new paperback edition of Jeanette Winterson’s Christmas Days, which I’ll read off and on over the holidays this year and next, probably. I recently finished Rachel Joyce’s wintry short story collection and started Madeleine L’Engle’s third Crosswicks Journal, An Irrational Season. The first two chapters are set at Advent and Christmas and the rest later in the liturgical year; I’ve set the book aside to come back to in January. L’Engle is a great author to read if you’d like some liberal, non-threatening theology at this time of year. I particularly recommend her Christmas-themed book that I read last year. (Mini-reviews of the Joyce and L’Engle are below.)
I also have a signed copy of Ian Sansom’s December Stories I that I won in a giveaway on Cathy’s blog, so I’ll be dipping into plenty of seasonally appropriate short stories this year. Earlier this year I picked up copies of the G.K. Chesterton collection (signed by the anthology editor) and the Robert Louis Stevenson volume (which contains prayers plus a sermon written during his time in Samoa) free at church from the theological library of a woman who’d died and donated her books to the church family.
A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce
Two stand-outs were “The Boxing Day Ball,” a prequel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, describing how Harold and Maureen met, and “A Faraway Smell of Lemon,” in which a woman mourning the end of her relationship wanders into a cleaning supplies store and learns the simple lesson that everybody hurts. (“Life is hard sometimes” – fair enough, but can we say it without a cliché?) “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is about the boy formerly known as Tim, now the mega pop star X. All he wants is a quiet few days back home, but he can’t seem to escape his reputation. Characters and little elements from previous stories reappear in later ones. My favorite was probably the title story, about a father trying to make the holidays perfect for his sons after his breakdown and divorce.
Joyce chooses to write about ordinary and forgotten people, but sometimes her vision of chavvy types doesn’t quite ring true, and when she isn’t being melancholy she’s twee. “Christmas Day at the Airport” was so contrived it made me groan. While I don’t think any of her books are truly great, they’re pleasant, relatable and easy to read.
“There is much to do, much to prepare, much to mend, but it cannot be done in a day and sometimes it is better to do one small thing.” (from “A Faraway Smell of Lemon”)
“The truth was, there were no instructions when you got married. There was no manual in the birthing suite that explained how to bring up a happy child. No one said, you do this, and then you do this, and after that this will happen. You made it up as you went along.” (from “The Marriage Manual”)
Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation by Madeleine L’Engle
“The story of Jesus’ birth has been oversentimentalized until it no longer has the ring of truth, and once we’d sentimentalized it we could commercialize it and so forget what Christmas is really about.” L’Engle believes in the power of storytelling, and in this short volume of memoir she retells the life story of Jesus and recalls her own experiences with suffering and joy: losing her father young (his lungs damaged by poison gas in WWI) and the death of her husband of 40 years versus the sustaining nature of family love and late-life friendships. Chapters 4 and 5 are particular highlights.
L’Engle was not at all your average American Christian: raised in the Episcopal tradition, she didn’t even encounter Evangelicalism until her mid-forties, and she doesn’t understand the focus on creationism and sexual morality. She also writes about free will and the adoration of Mary and how A Wrinkle in Time (rejected by many a publisher) was her fable of light in the midst of darkness. The title comes from The New Zealand Prayer Book, which also gives helpful alternate names for the persons of the Trinity: Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. This isn’t a particularly Christmas-y book, but it still lends itself to being read a chapter at a time during Advent.
Some other favorite lines:
“Christ, in being born as Jesus, broke into time for us, so that time will never be the same again.”
“Family can be a movable feast. It can be a group of friends sitting around the dining table for an evening. It can be one or two people coming to stay with me for a few nights or a few weeks. It should be the church, and I am grateful that my church is a small church.”
Are you reading any particularly wintry or Christmasy books this year?
Somehow the end of the year is less than four weeks away, so it’s time to start getting realistic about what I can read before 2018 begins. I wish I was the sort of person who was always reading books 4+ months before the release date and setting trends, but I’ve only read three 2018 releases so far, and it’s doubtful I’ll get to more than another handful before the end of the year. Any that I do read and can recommend I will round up briefly in a couple weeks or so.
I’m at least feeling pleased with myself for resuming and/or finishing all but two of the 14 books I had on hold as of last month; one I finally DNFed (The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen) and another I’m happy to put off until the new year (Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America by Jay Atkinson – since he’s recreating the journey taken for On the Road, I should look over a copy of that first). Ideally, the plan is to finish all the books I’m currently reading to clear the decks for a new year.
Some other vague reading plans for the month:
I might do a Classic of the Month (I’m currently reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin) … but a Doorstopper isn’t looking likely unless I pick up Hillary Clinton’s Living History. However, there are a few books of doorstopper length pictured in the piles below.
Christmas-themed books. The title-less book with the ribbon is Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak, a Goodreads giveaway win. I think I’ll start that plus the Amory today since I’m going to a carol service this evening. On Kindle: A Very Russian Christmas, a story anthology I read about half of last year and might finish this year.
Winter-themed books. On Kindle: currently reading When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow by Dan Rhodes; Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard is to be read. (The subtitle of Spufford’s book is “Ice and the English Imagination”.)
As the holidays approach, I start to daydream about what books I might indulge in during the time off. (I’m giving myself 11 whole days off of editing, though I may still have a few paid reviews to squeeze in.) The kinds of books I would like to prioritize are:
Absorbing reads. Books that promise to be thrilling (says the person who doesn’t generally read crime thrillers); books I can get lost in (often long ones). On Kindle: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.
Cozy reads. Animal books, especially cat books, generally fall into this category, as do funny books and children’s books. My mother and I love Braun’s cat mysteries; I read them all starting when I was about 11. I’ve never reread any, so I’d like to see how they stand up years later. Goodreads has been trying to recommend me Duncton Wood for ages, which is funny as I’ve had my eye on it anyway. My husband read the series when he was a kid and we still own some well-worn copies. Given how much I loved Watership Down and Brian Jacques’ novels as a child, I’m hoping it’s a pretty safe bet.
Books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. ’Nuff said. On Kindle: far too many.
And, as always, I’m in the position of wishing I’d gotten to many more of this year’s releases. In fact, there are at least 22 books from 2017 on my e-readers that I still intend to read:
- A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement by Philip Ackerman-Leist
- In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
- The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst
- The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard
- The Best American Series taster volume (skim only?)
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne*
- Guesswork: A Memoir in Essays by Martha Cooley
- The Night Brother by Rosie Garland
- Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
- The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson
- Eco-Dementia by Janet Kauffman [poetry]
- The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
- A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life by Lauren Marks
- Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer by Antoinette Truglio Martin
- Homing Instinct: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick
- One Station Away by Olaf Olafsson
- Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry
- Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia by Gerda Saunders
- See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
- What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro
- Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*
* = The two I most want to read, and thus will try hardest to get to before the end of the year. But the Boyne sure is long.
[The 2017 book I most wanted to read but never got hold of in any form was The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas.]
Are there any books from my stacks or lists that you want to put in a good word for?
How does December’s reading look for you?
Do you think I’ve packed enough books for going down to my in-laws’ place for a few days?
The right-hand stack is my currently reading pile. I’m prioritizing Hogfather for Christmas, plus The Dark Flood Rises and Love of Country as they’re 2016 releases. But then – just in case I run out, or get bored with anything – I’ve got six more print books in the left-hand stack (on the top is Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree). And if any of these fail me, the Kindle has roughly 300 books on it, including 16 of yesterday’s 2017 selections.
I’ll be back on Tuesday the 27th for five consecutive days’ worth of year-end goodies: my top fiction and nonfiction reads of 2016, some other superlatives, a few year-end stats, and some goals for 2017’s reading.
Wishing you all safe travels and happy holidays!
Ruth Padel is one of my favorite poets, so I jumped at the chance to read her new book-length holiday poem, Tidings: A Christmas Journey. Set across one Christmas Eve and Christmas day and narrated by Charoum, the Angel of Silence, the poem switches between Holly, a seven-year-old girl excited for Christmas, and Robin, a forty-four-year-old homeless man who follows a fox to a Crisis Centre. Here he gets a hot meal and some human kindness to make up for the usual bleakness of the holidays:
Christmas is the salt mine.
Salt in the wound, a nothing-time.
I was loved once. Who by? Can’t remember.
I especially liked the fragments that juxtapose this contemporary London story with centuries of history:
Up here the evening glides over golden moss
on the flat-top tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft
Pagan Christmas fizzes and teems with ghosts,
midwinter fires, mummers and waites, Yule
logs and mistletoe.
The poem also journeys to Jerusalem and Rome to survey a whole world of Christmas traditions, then and now.
It’s a lovely little volume, with the red, black and white theme offset by touches of gold. The illustrations are gorgeous, but the story line disappointed me: starting with the character names, it all felt rather clichéd. Padel has treated urban foxes much more successfully in her collection The Soho Leopard, and apart from a very few instances – like the above quotes – the verse struck me as largely undistinguished, even awkward (like the out-of-place clinical vocabulary in “Love, / and the lack of it, can change the limbic brain”). This means that, for me, this book fails to earn a place as a Christmas classic I’ll reread year after year.
Tidings was published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on November 3rd. My thanks to Cat Mitchell of Random House for the free review copy.
Other Christmassy Reading
This year I’m resuming my place in Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite’s selection of religious-slanted poems to read from the start of Advent through Epiphany. For those who want to explore the history and interpretation of Christmas, I can recommend The First Christmas by the late Marcus Borg, one of my favorite progressive theologians.
As I have for the past several years, I’ll dip into The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. My favorites are by Truman Capote, John Cheever, Jane Gardam and Jeanette Winterson (who has a brand-new, full-length Christmas story collection out this year). I’ll also sample some Russian classics via A Very Russian Christmas, which has short stories from Tolstoy, Chekhov and more.
In addition, I have Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas and The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas out from the library, which should make for some very cozy reading under the cat. I’ll browse the numerous Christmas-themed poems in U.A. Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems, another library book. And I may even deign to try Hogfather, one from my husband’s beloved Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett.
[See also this wonderful list of Christmas reading suggestions from Heaven Ali.]
Are you reading anything special this Christmas season?
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?