28 September 2004

Skipping Grisham

I stopped at the library last night. (Good God, here I go again.) I was looking for Elizabeth Peters’ Guardian of the Horizon and ended up with four books. The other three were Christmas books. One of them was one I’d wanted to read for a while: John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.

Brief boring notes of exposition:

I’ve never read John Grisham. Even though I watched Perry Mason religiously as a kid, a book involving law has all the appeal of curdled milk. I have no interest in reading about it.

If you hadn’t gathered from my “Holiday Harbour” blog and my Christmas web page, I love Christmas. I like the decorations, the music, the entire idea. Despite all that, I don’t relish the overspending and maniac fanaticism that cames at the Christmas season. Fun and exciting is one thing, desperation and bankruptcy is another.

Which is why the idea of Grisham’s book sounded so appealling.

[Warning! Major spoilers ahoy!]

Luther and Nora Krank (I should have guessed what the ending would be when I saw that surname) have just seen off their 23-year-old daughter Blair, leaving for two years in Peru with the Peace Corps, her first Christmas away from home. It’s Thanksgiving weekend and a grumpy Luther notices the already burgeoning Christmas madness--and decides he’s sick of it. He retreats to his calculator and realizes he spent $6,100 on Christmas the previous year and neither he nor his wife were satisfied. It was hectic, no fun, they got and gave useless presents, etc.

Time for another personal interjection: I collect Christmas books. Not Christmas books with crafts or recipes, but books about Christmas itself. Several of them, like Unplug the Christmas Machine, are about simplifying Christmas, since I dislike the furor that goes on during the holiday season. So although Luther isn’t the world’s most likeable character, I was completely in sympathy with him and what he decides to do next: he convinces his wife, also weary of Yuletide shenanigans, to go on a cruise for the holidays, leaving Christmas Day.

It’s not like it’s a new idea; many folks do it. But the Kranks go one step further than some might: they’re not going to decorate, or throw their usual party, or buy a tree, etc. They will forgo all the trimmings of the holiday except their charitable contributions, which they plan to make at other times of the year. Great. Not what I would do, but I understood perfectly.

Unhappily, most of the Kranks’ friends don’t. Oh, a few of them are envious of the pair not having social obligations or unwanted relatives coming over, but most of them are downright indignant. Their bafflingly selfish attitude is “how dare you not have Christmas with all the trimmings?”

The worst are the Kranks’ "neighbors." The couple live on a street that always takes place in a neighborhood decorating contest. This includes every house having a big plastic Frosty the Snowman on the roof. When the neighbors find out the Kranks won’t be decorating, they are nearly apoplectic with rage. Even the neighborhood police, firefighters, and Boy Scouts collecting for charity treat the Kranks like they’re...well, some sort of cranks, even though Luther assures them he will give to their spring and summer charities. The printer who usually does Nora Krank’s Christmas cards and party invitations is downright indignant when the Kranks won’t even tell him why they’re not ordering cards and invitations (as if it were any of his business).

The neighbors, however, go over the top. They harass the Kranks with whispers and gossip, and serenade them with loud Christmas carols under their windows every night. Even the newspapers get into the act, publishing a picture of the Kranks’ undecorated house as if it’s some type of hideous unknown crime.

Well, Linda, you say, that’s the point of the book, isn’t it? Non-Christians, athiests, and others who don’t celebrate Christmas are bombarded with this stuff from before Halloween onward. This is just that syndrome taken to absurdity.

And had the book left it at that, it might have been fine.

But remember, our name is “Krank” here, and we must see the error of our ways. So while I was hoping desperately that Luther and Nora would eventually get away from this boorish herd of obnoxious revelers, it doesn’t happen. In fact, since the entire book has a television sitcom air about it, the predictable thing happens on December 23: daughter Blair calls. She’s not only coming home for Christmas, but she’s engaged for God’s sake to a Peruvian doctor named Enrique who’s always wanted to see a real American Christmas with the tree, the feast, the decorations on the roof.

Were these real adults with backbone Luther and Nora would have told Blair the truth. But no, in true TV sitcom fashion Nora, who was a little reserved about the “skipping Christmas” gig at the beginning but then warmed to it, does a “complete 180” to her husband, decides they will not go on the cruise and sends Luther into a frantic search for food, party guests and decorations before Blair and Enrique arrive on Christmas Eve. A requisite amount of slapstick occurs, including Luther’s foray on the roof to mount the plastic Frosty, to which the obnoxious neighbors look on with glee.

And then they find out why Luther and Nora are doing all this, immediately become sweet and kind again, and help the Kranks get Christmas together.

At the end, Luther gives the cruise tickets to a neighbor and his terminally ill wife.

Oh, please. I’ve gone through 45 years of loving Christmas stories with sappy endings, but this one just made me want to throw the book against the wall. As annoying as Luther Krank is, the idea of him having to be grateful to all these insensitive, malcontented morons makes me positively ill. If I were the Kranks, I’d put that house on the market posthaste--they seem to have the cash to do so--and go live somewhere else. But I’m sure that wouldn’t suit Nora Krank, who just up and repudiates her husband after agreeing with him for most of the book. She probably now thinks all these people are wonderful. Me, I think they deserve to have their cars keyed and eggs tossed at their windows.

The only thing I did like about the sappy ending was Luther giving away the tickets. Yeah, it was a cliché, but it was the only really nice thing anyone does for anyone in this book. And as someone who has known people who were terminally ill with cancer, it’s just a Good Thing all around.

As for Skipping Christmas, you can skip it across a pond for all I care.

24 September 2004

Trim Up the Tree

Do old photos intrigue you, especially those of old Christmas trees and decorations? Are those old-fashioned cornucopias and candle holders on the branches an invitation to more investigation? Wouldn't you like to step into those old parlors and meet the little girls with corkscrew curls and little boys in Buster Brown outfits and look at their tabletop trees and floor-to-ceiling beauties, covered with kugel, Dresdens, bead ornaments and wax babies?

Impossible, of course. The next best thing is Robert Brenner's Christmas Past.

Having seen most collectors' books, I can attest that, unless you are looking for prices, they're pretty dull. Oh, if you have a volume that has old colored photos of something you're interested in, the attraction factor increases, but it's still a glorified price book.

Brenner's book isn't. Instead, it's a history of the Christmas tree and its decorations and lights (candles and electric). After a chapter on the origin of the tree tradition and some reminisces from people who remembered seeing their first trees, or decorating their first trees with popcorn and cranberries and tatted doilies, each chapter is a detailed (in small print, no less) examination of each type of ornament from the glass-blown kugels (a history of Thuringia, where the glassblowers plied their trade, is included) to cotton confections to wire and bead creations to wax babies made in the form or angels or Jesus, and even more. The chapters on lighting the Christmas tree are particularly fascinating--and finally, an explanation of why early electric strings were called "Mazda lights" (named after the Babylonian god of light)!

This detailed examination of all things ornamental and lucent is accompanied by pages and pages of color and black and white photos of the different objects, old-time rooms decorated for the holidays, and old advertisements going back to the 1800s for the various ornaments and lights. It is the definitive book about old Christmas trimmings.

15 September 2004

"There Are Bricks Flying By"

It was one of those rainy summers through July, then August raised sweltering temps, exhausting for people without air conditioning in three-story homes. In September it began to rain again, until the ground was saturated.

Mary worked through it all in a factory in Providence, RI, on Pine Street. She was 21 and had had to quit school to take care of her mother in 11th grade. When September 21 turned out to be sunny and pleasant, she was almost reluctant to go in that day.

Later that morning the wind picked up, however--it grew cloudy, then dark. Her workplace had big windows on one side of the room so that the lights were augmented by natural sunlight on nice days. Today she had to peer at her work.

Then, in the early afternoon, she looked outside and saw bricks flying, one by one, past the windows. It was raining steadily and then hard, lashing the glass.

She mentioned it to her supervisor, who only told her to get back to work. She was doing piece work at the time and every minute she dawdled meant a penny or two less in her paycheck. When she mentioned the bricks to other people, they only pooh-poohed her. Once she said she was going home early, but was told to sit down and do her work.

A scant half-hour before quitting time they announced, "It's pretty stormy out. Everyone can leave early."

Mary was lucky--she didn't have to take the bus home or walk as always; a girlfriend's brother had called: "I'm coming to pick you up." They had to walk six blocks in driving rain and were drenched by the time they got to the car.

When she got home her mother was frantic. Her father had chosen that day to go up to their vegetable garden allotment and was not back yet. The power was out and Mary's younger brother trudged to the hardware store in drenching rain to buy kerosene for the storm lanterns. At nine o'clock, finally, a voice from the darkness outside asked, "Hey! Where are all the lights?"

It was her father, who had had to take a different bus to get home in the storm and then got trapped downtown as a storm surge flooded Providence. Mary's niece Anna and her godmother had been in Providence, shopping for a dress for the former. They also made it home unharmed.

The place where Mary worked, Coro's, hadn't been touched because it was on high ground; the flying bricks weren't even from that building. Most weren't so lucky, especially if they had a home at the shore.

What Mary--my mom--had struggled home through was the great Hurricane of 1938. The Weather Bureau didn't believe a hurricane would hit New England and did not send out timely warnings. They were sure it would go out to sea. Instead it hit Long Island--to this day the fast-moving storm is referred to as "the Long Island Express"--and New England like a battering ram. It not only tore up the coastline, it roared inland, destroying pine in New Hampshire, a quarter of Vermont's maple trees, and countless little New England tree-shrouded greens. Downtown Providence was submerged under 17 feet of water that had roared up Narragansett Bay, flooded the basements of the department stores and killed shoppers, submerged cars and drowned their drivers, short circuited trolley cars so their horns blew endless ghostly symphonies under the water.

The hurricane of '38 tale was one of the stories I always begged from my mother as a little girl. It was like the tornado in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or some other fairy tale cataclysm to me, but this one came with photos--we had a "hurricane book" from Hurricane Carol up in the attic that compared the damage done in 1938 and again in 1954--and an "up close and personal" extra. I vaguely remember Hurricane Donna in 1960, lashing the house and tearing shingles from the roof, leaving us under the light of the kerosene "hurricane lamp" for three days.

R.A. Scotti's Sudden Sea, which I recently re-read after purchasing the book in paperback, transports you to 1938--to the salt-air homes on Napatree Point, RI, the hardscrabble farms on Conanicut (Jamestown), the coastal communities of Long Island, and even "Fenwick," the Connecticut home where Katharine Hepburn was spending the summer with her parents and brother. I re-read the book in a sultry setting that was as warm and oppressive as the approaching storm, and blinked and felt lost and disoriented when I finally finished and returned to my own world.

This is a fabulous book, with all the intensity and realism of Larson's Isaac's Storm and Junger's The Perfect Storm, a time machine back to "the last of the old New England summers," and is much recommended, along with Everett Allen's A Wind to Shake the World, which was written in the 1970s. Not only did Scotti used Wind as part of her research, but his narrative equally absorbing and evocative, and Allen knows of what he speaks: he was there. A neophyte newspaper reporter, Allen began his first journalism job in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on September 21, 1938.

(BTW, I have only read the excerpt on Amazon.com, but Willie Drye's Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, sounds super as well.)

(YOW! I'm glad I found my copy of the Everett Allen book last spring...it's now going for a minimum of $20. Someone at Alibris wants $619.00 for it!)

02 September 2004

Library Books du Jour


Unsinkable, purportedly the "entire story" of the Titanic disaster, starting with the conception of the ship and ending with Bob Ballard's discovery of her resting place and the subsequent graverobbers who visited her. I learned quite a few things, including that there was an American inquest into the accident. I found some of the reviews on Amazon.com, however, very amusing: several people accuse the author of quoting from Walter Lord's A Night to Remember nearly word for word. They might want to look at the recommendations on the book jacket: the first "attaboy" is from Walter Lord himself. I think if someone were copying his book "word for word" he'd have something different to say.

1876. This was a volume drawn from newspaper and magazine articles of the era and published in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. Despite all the nice accompanying photos and engravings, I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped when I first saw it.

In Progress:

Sunday Nights at Seven, Joan Benny's biography of her dad interspersed with Jack Benny's own unpublished autobiography, found after his death.

Endurance. Story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition, with photos taken during the journey.

1900 by Rebecca West, someone who lived the year.

Flanders' Follies

In 1996, I took the two classes CDC then offered on that newfangled frontier, the Internet. In "Internet II" class, we learned how to make a basic web page using Notepad, writing the HTML code by hand.

I was like an adult duck getting to swim for the first time. I went back to the office next day and found "The Beginner's Guide to HTML," which is still wandering around at NCSA's site. Having devoured that, I went to Paul McFedries' Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page, which is still around as well.

So I got myself addicted to HTML and web books as well and still have a fair collection of them. Two of my favorites are the Vincent Flanders' Web Pages That Suck books, based on his web site. These are "for God's sake, don't do this!" volumes with amusing text and highly illustrative--if not ysterically funny--screen caps of so-called "professional" web sites that are so mind-bogglingly bad that you can't believe someone paid to have them done. I especially enjoy Flanders' diatribes at "mystery meat navigation," which refers to those websites with obscure looking graphics or photos that are not labeled and you have to mouse-over them to see what they stand for. The poor man practically gets apopleptic about them.

My one complaint with computer books is they are so darned expensive. I understand that even with the popularity of computers today, they are still a niche market, so they are priced higher to recoup publishing costs. But they come at college textbook prices most of the time, an unreal cost that has you paying $40-$50, even $60+ for one book.

Luckily for my habit, I've gotten most of my HTML books at Sam's (back when they had the occasional title), on remainder counters, and lately off Amazon Marketplace. Flanders' Son of Web Pages That Suck was a heart-stopping $45, but I got it for a tenth that price on AM. And I'm enjoying it, too, perhaps even more than the original. There are some great links to web usage sites in this edition.