31 December 2011

Books Finished Since December 1

As always in December, I have a good deal of reading of magazines I don't ordinarily purchase during the remainder of the year, looking for Christmas spirit, and this year was a bumper crop. "Our State" (North Carolina oriented), "Cottage Christmas," and some other decorating magazines came up on the radar, but the old standbys were a joy: the British edition of "Country Living," "Early American Homes" annual Christmas issue and also the December issue, "Victorian Homes," and "Victoria" were just some of the pleasant reads. However, I made time for some books as well!

book icon  At Christmas the Heart Goes Home, Marjorie Holmes
You can’t read Christmas compilations which provide short reflections and memories without running into excerpts from this book by Marjorie Holmes, who was in her time a bestselling inspirational author. This book itself is a compilation album of the best from Holmes’ columns from women’s magazines, and it’s a sit-by-the-Christmas-tree with a cat and cocoa type book, with short pieces about Holmes’ home life at Christmas alternating with her thoughts on faith. If you enjoy magazines such as “Guideposts” and their “Ideals” yearly publications and the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul” books, this is certain to please. Also a good gift book for those inspirational readers.

book icon  The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers
I always like to hear the other side of the story, so I thought this book would be a good addition to my Christmas library. I had already read the book The Trouble With Christmas and thought this book might be along those lines. Most of the book was pleasant or interesting. Most of the atheists writing enjoy the secular aspects of the holiday, don’t mind it being called “Christimas,” and just don’t want to be prosletized to concerning religious – or lack of thereof – beliefs. Since I dislike being prosletized, I was quite in agreement with them. Some of the humorous essays weren’t, but that’s always the risk in an anthology, and indeed “one man’s meat…” is a truism. The one essay I really didn’t like wasn’t really about belief or opposing viewpoints, but was a whiny “my birthday’s on Christmas and I only ever got one set of presents and it’s not fair” screed. Oh, please. Christmas and birthdays aren’t about gifts. Grow up, please.

book icon  I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Alan Bradley
It’s finally happened: due to Colonel de Luce’s lack of funds and the necessary repairs needed on the family estate “Buckshaw” has led him to rent the home out to a movie crew, one of which is famous actress Phyllis Wyvern. Even precocious Flavia, youngest daughter forever tormented by her sisters and a devotee of chemistry (especially poisons), is charmed by Miss Wyvern (although Flavia is soon to spot that Miss Wyvern has her disagreeable side) and is surprised when the actress actually seems to like her. But when the acting company puts on a benefit show at Buckshaw, a body and a snowstorm toss the de Luces, the townsfolk, and the movie company into close quarters and closer suspicions.

This fourth in the Flavia de Luce series has a Christie-ish plot complication, and of course our precocious heroine becomes involved in the murder investigation. But, proving that brilliant deductions or not, Flavia is still a little girl, she is also plotting to catch Father Christmas coming down the chimney, and her two projects eventually intersect, leading to an exciting conclusion. A rather dark Christmas romp, but with some additional revelations about Harriet, Flavia’s late mother, and her relationship with her sisters.

book icon  Santa, Jeremy Seal
James and I listened to an intriguing abridgement of this book on BBC Radio 4X last Christmas, intriguing enough for me to hunt down a copy. Seal investigates the reality and the myth of St. Nicholas, from his shadowed origins to the miraculous “blood” which comes fro his tomb and the theft of his body and its transport to Bari in Italy in medieval times. Seal travels to each of the places in the St. Nicholas legend, leading to some picturesque visits to Turkey and small towns around the Mediterranean, and then to Amsterdam and Belgium. It’s an interesting narrative except for Seal’s insistence on writing Nicholas’ story as if the deceased saint was somehow directing his fame from beyond the grave. Seal sets this against the search of his own children for “the real Santa Claus,” for which the family finally takes a trip to Finland. Unusual and offbeat, but worth looking up if you have an interest in the “ancestry” of Santa.

book icon  Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World At War, December 1941, Stanley Weintraub
Weintraub appears to be making a latter-day career about writing about Christmas in the United States during various historical eras (both World Wars, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War). His newest effort concerns the Christmas of 1941, as the United States was still reeling from the events of December 7, and Washington, DC, was in hubbub about a visit from Winston Churchill (during which Churchill addressed Congress and gave his famous “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter” speech). In the meantime, General Douglas MacArthur is doing little to defend his patch of the Pacific Ocean—some interesting neglect brought to light!—and Adolph Hitler is collecting warm winter clothing for the troops he refuses to pull out of Russia. The result is a bit plodding, but there are some intriguing tidbits about Churchill and MacArthur.

book icon  Have Yourself a Very Vintage Christmas, Susan Waggoner
Waggoner's nostalgic books ( Christmas Memories: Gifts, Activities, Fads, and Fancies, 1920s-1960s, It's a Wonderful Christmas: The Best of the Holidays 1940-1965, etc.) have been delightful exercises in nostalgia about the sights, sounds, tastes, and the toys of Christmas from 1920 through the 1960s. In this volume she guides the reader not only through the different styles of decorating between the 1920s and the 1960s, but she also presents little craft projects for each decade that will help your decorating ring true--cards, ornaments, room decorations, gift crafts--With full-color illustrations and directions throughout. The person who will appreciate this most will be the one who enjoys vintage crafts, but fans of vintage Christmas will probably enjoy it as well.

This Year's Dozen Favorite Books

(And four runners-up, since these things are always hard.)

In no particular order:

book icon  A City So Grand, Stephen Puleo (Nonfiction; a history of Boston from 1850-1900)

book icon  The Technologists, Matthew Pearl (Fiction; mystery thriller set in post-Civil War Boston)

book icon  Service and Style, Jan Whitaker (Nonfiction; a history of United States department stores)

book icon  Into That Silent Sea, Francis French and Colin Burgess (Nonfiction, history of the early U.S. and Russian space programs)

book icon  The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure (Nonfiction; a woman's search for self through the "Little House" books)

book icon  Our Glorious Century, Reader’s Digest Books (Nonfiction; coffee-table, lavishly illustrated book about the 20th century)

book icon  The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin (Nonfiction; one woman's search for the definition and origin of happiness)

book icon  The Shanghai Moon, S. J. Rozan (Fiction; mystery about a missing valuable necklace which disappeared during World War II)

book icon  The Vertigo Years, Philipp Blom (Nonfiction; Europe between 1900-1914)

book icon  The Ninth Daughter, Barbara Hamilton (Fiction; historical mystery involving Abigail Adams)

book icon  The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (Nonfiction; first in Morris' three-book biography)

book icon  Walking English, David Crystal (Nonfiction; Crystal's odyssey across Great Britain in search of the English language)

Honorable mentions:

book icon  A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus Russell (Nonfiction; history from a different perspective)

book icon  Robert A. Heinlein, volume 1, William H. Patterson Jr (Nonfiction; first part of Heinlein bio)

book icon  Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, Michelle Nevius and James Nevius (Nonfiction; a street-by-street travelogue/history of NYC)

book icon  A Bitter Truth, Charles Todd (Fiction; #3 in the Bess Crawford series set during WWI)

01 December 2011

Seven Books to Read Every Christmas

Please note most of these are out of print. If you're interested, hit bookfinder.com, Amazon Marketplace, or e-Bay. And, why yes, some of them are children's books. Some of the best books ever are children's books, and you don't need to be a child to read them.

book icon  A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
You've probably seen this as a movie or a television special. The story was done as a silent film as far back as the turn of the century. The first animated television Christmas special was about Dickens' Carol, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol to be specific. And perhaps a Dickens novel is not what you want to tackle; after all, isn't he voluble?

Fear not, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in seven weeks, as a message to more fortunate Londoners to help the poor. For its brevity, it's full of memorable descriptions and even more memorable characters—who even marginally familiar with English literature doesn't know who Ebenezer Scrooge is? Dickens' descriptions of London at Christmas both good—the lovely Christmas market, the love exuded by the Cratchits—and the bad—the realities of poverty in 19th century England—make vivid pictures that remain in your mind long after you finish reading. An even better reason to read the tale: even the longest film adaptation of the story doesn't contain all the aspects of the novel. Did you know on his travels with the Spirit of Christmas Present Scrooge visited a lighthouse? a coal mining village?

book icon  The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel
The Tuckers series of children's books was published in the 1960s by Whitman: father, mother, five rambunctious children, a big shaggy dog and a cat. Most of the novels are typical children's adventures (befriending the new neighbors, spending a summer at the beach or with relatives, participating in sports). But this Christmas story is a little gem.

Seven-year-old Penny is often sick and wonders about her place among her healthier, boisterous siblings (sixth-grader Tina, aspiring cook; twins Terry and Merry; and younger brother Tom). After being ill before Christmas and unable to participate with her siblings in a school Christmas program, she wishes the family might spend the holidays at their cottage at the lake. To her delight her doctor declares her well enough, and the family arrives prepared for nonstop fun for the holiday. Instead, the children are propelled into an adventure involving a marauding cougar and the danger it brings to a stranded woman. The kids play in the snow, find a Christmas tree, bake pies, and do other fun activities that don't involve staring at a screen or manipulating a game controller. But the heart and soul of this book is Penny's search for her own special talent, something that will serve her while she "sits still and takes pills," and it gives the novel a sweet, timeless quality with an ending that will leave tears in your eyes.

book icon  Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost
This is one of a series of four books about a Vermont farm family, the Clarks, in the late 1940s that vividly brings life on a small family property alive. The Clarks raise much of their own food, as well as supply milk to the local dairy and sugar off in the spring, and their bountifully old-fashioned Christmas is like a greeting card come to life: the children snowshoe in the woods to find natural decorations for the house, eldest Toby rebuilds a sleigh to use behind Windy Foot, his dapple-grey pony, and also helps defend the stock when a bear prowls the neighborhood while waiting for mail-order gifts to arrive, the family goes into town for shopping at a delectable general store and caroling; there is snow, skiing, ample food from the farm, and even an unexpected, special gift for Toby's younger sister. In addition, there's excitement involving a marauding bear and a sports accident. The best part is the family warmth and love which encircles one like a blanket and you're sorry when the final page turns and you have to leave the Clarks on Christmas evening.

book icon  Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky
As the Depression deepens, Minnie Swift and her family are feeling the pinch more and more. They are closing down rooms in their home to save coal, eating an endless series of almost meatless meals seasoned with quantities of cheese, and noticing with reluctance that their father comes home from work earlier every day and locks himself in the attic with his typewriter.

And then a distant cousin comes to stay with them, Willy Faye, a girl raised in the Dust Bowl and now an orphan. Minnie discovers she's never seen a movie, never heard of Buck Rogers, never eaten a peach. So she figures that Willie Faye will have a lot to learn from her family. She doesn't realize what the family will learn from Willie Faye.

Kathryn Lasky based the characters in this book on her own grandparents and aunts and uncles, and one of the sisters' boyfriends on her father, and her affection for all of them shows. Minnie's family includes a precocious only brother who builds radio sets at the same time he makes childish jokes and a fashion-designer-in-the-making sister who can make stunning, novel outfits from scraps of fabric and old clothing. The story rings with hardship, or the family associates with those dealing with hardship (several chapters take place in a Hooverville), and yet they manage to rise above it.

If there's one problem with the story, it's the slightly fanciful epilog (all the "Dear America" books have one, which chronicles the later lives of the characters). I would have been pleased if the future turned out well, but having it turn out wildly successful for everyone was a bit much. Still, the main tale itself is magic.

book icon  The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock
Based on the 1970s Christmas special by the same name, this is the story of 10-year-old Addie Mills, a smart, spunky fifth grader in the small town of Clear River, Nebraska, who is being raised by her laconic, introverted father and loving grandmother. Addie has wanted a Christmas tree during the holiday season for years, but her father has always refused on the grounds that it's a waste of money because they have Christmas at a relative's home. It's only when Addie wins a tree in a school contest that the real truths come to the fore.

This is a lovely short novel about an intelligent girl and a father who could have been labeled "mean" or "cruel." Instead, we slowly find out some family secrets. The story also paints a simpler time when kids shopped at drugstores for a beloved teacher's gift, homemade decorations sufficed on a Christmas tree, and the big treat for an afternoon was baking gingerbread men.

(I don't usually push DVDs with my books, but the DVD of this story is well worth finding. Lisa Lucas is perfect as slightly bossy Addie, Mildred Natwick properly motherly as her grandma, but Jason Robards shines as the withdrawn father with a secret heartache.)

book icon  The Homecoming, Earl Hamner Jr.
This short novel formed the basis for a television movie of the same name, which became the pilot film for the long-running Depression-set series The Waltons, about a Virginia backwoods family poor in material goods but rich in love. If you've seen the film, you will still find in the book points of interest, as not only were most of the characters' names changed for the movie, but some of them were slightly softened for 1970s television: for instance, in the book the father character is a bit of a gambler and drinker (although not to his family's detriment!) and the "John-Boy" of the book smokes a cigarette while hunting for a Christmas tree on his own. While the movie is much more rough-hewn than the series was, the book is even more realistic, giving a truer portrait of the harshness of the times.

book icon  The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
This is a deserved Christmas classic about a family of six undisciplined (literally), half-wild children who are growing up with little supervision and who are the terrors of their elementary school. The Herdman children's divorced mother works double shifts at a factory to support them, and they receive little love and much fear from their classmates. Then the whole kit'n'caboodle of them get involved with the local church's Nativity play.

This is a very funny novel, not just from what happens when the kids join the Christmas pageant, but from some pointed commentary from the narrator, an unnamed child whose mother is in charge of producing the pageant. Her quirky descriptions of her friends (including one little girl she describes as "so squeaky-clean that she had dishpan hands by the time she was four years old"), events at home (I particularly love her father's attitude), and the pageant preparations are sharp and funny. This is a feel-good book with a message that is handled humorously and in a non-heavy-handed manner.