Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Big Christmas Read

It happens every year, as predictable as bad drivers after the season's first snow, dust on ornaments brought up from the basement, and tears wrung by Rankin-Bass animated specials: I feel compelled to set aside time for a Christmas-themed book.

Beautiful, but blech
By this point in the calendar, my reading schedule is in a state of Panicked Scramble as I frantically try to finish books I've already started so they can be included in the tally for that year's reading logs (see 2012's "My Year in Reading" post, for example).  But in the midst of all that page-turning and Kindle button-pushing, I always make time for a special year-end Christmas-y book.  Usually, it's an Agatha Christie holiday mystery; last year, I explored Anne Perry's Christmas novels for the first time; and one year, I read a beautifully-illustrated, poorly-written religious-tract-in-the-guise-of-a-novel called The Romance of a Christmas Card by Kate Douglas Wiggin.

This year, I didn't choose one book.  I picked out four.  It's as ambitious and most likely as knuckle-headed a move as Clark Griswold's Christmas light display in Christmas Vacation.  We all know how that ended.

Last week, I started Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Lee Mendelson, The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler, and London Snow by Paul Theroux. Whether or not I blow a fuse and fry myself with this reading plan remains to be seen.  For now, I'm getting in the Christmas spirit, dammit--even if it kills me.

Three of the books have already gone down quickly.  With the word "Big" in one of the titles, you can probably guess which one I'm still fa-la-la'ing my way through.  I may or may not finish Mr. Penzler's 654-page doorstopper by the time I'm drinking New Year's champagne, but I'm giving it my best shot.


Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

At the beginning of the month, I was in the midst of culling my home library--a massive project which involved slimming my 8,000-plus volumes by at least two or three hundred titles, replacing some existing titles with Kindle versions or just plain getting rid of some books I know I'll never ever read (harder than it sounds--trust me, there were plenty of Sophie's Choice moments)--when I stumbled across a set of Barbara Pym novels which a friend had given me nearly a decade ago, making me swear I would read at least one of them because, he thought, they would be my cup of tea.  I assured him I would.

I have since broken that vow by never cracking open a single Pym (not through lack of interest but rather through my inability to shoehorn Excellent Women into an already-tight reading schedule).  I knew I'd keep all the Pyms, but I wanted to see if they were available on Kindle so I could free up some shelf space.

Well, yes, I found the electronic versions, but they weren't at the price level I'd set, so I opted to keep the paperbacks in the collection.  Before I left that Amazon page, however, my eye was caught (as the Amazon elves had hoped) by the "You Might Also Like...." book covers below.  There I found a neatly-illustrated cover design of a woman skating on a pond, a splay-legged boy following behind, snow falling, a rabbit dashing away, and--most important--the word "Christmas" in the title.  Click.

I'd heard of Angela Thirkell before, but only on the farthest periphery of my attention span.  A contemporary of Pym's, she was most famous for her 1933 comic novel High Rising, which is set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire.  Before Thirkell died in 1961, she wrote nearly thirty Barsetshire novels which, if Christmas at High Rising is any indication, were light and airy as butter scones.  It's full of sentences like this one about a woman suddenly learning her ex-lover was in the next room: "Amelia still could not hear William Hay's name without feeling that she was rather drunk in the middle of a display of fireworks."

Frankly, I was a little disappointed with Christmas at High Rising--not because the writing isn't any good (it's mostly excellent, and severely funny in patches), but because there was very little Christmas within its pages.  Oh, the eight stories in the collection are all fine and dandy, but only one of them is unmistakably set during the Yuletide season: "Christmas at Mulberry Lodge," which has a nasty little streak running through it (the nature of which I can't divulge without giving too much away).

Still, I'm glad I discovered Angela Thirkell (if nothing else, she stokes my fire to really actually truly sit down with Barbara Pym someday soon).  In fact, I enjoyed Thirkell's writing so much, I went in search of her other novel High Rising.  I found a copy on Abe Books and to my delight, I saw that it definitely takes place during Christmastime.  To my crushing disappointment, however, the book won't arrive until December 30.  Oh well, there's always next year's Big Christmas Read.


A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Lee Mendelson (It! Books)

The lights came up in the screening room and the two television network executives looked at each other, then turned to the show's producer.

"Well, you gave it a good shot," said one.

"It seems a little flat...a little slow," said the other.

The producer was crushed.  So much hard work had gone into this half-hour animated special.

"Well," said the first TV executive, "we will, of course, air it next week, but I'm afraid we won't be ordering any more.  We're sorry; and believe me, we're big Peanuts fans.  But maybe it's better suited to the comic page."

History, of course, has proved those two network suits to be lunkheads.  A Charlie Brown Christmas had the #2 spot in the ratings when it was first shown on December 9, 1965 (just behind Bonanza) and in the forty-eight years since then it has been a holiday staple as certain and dependable as that can-shaped quivering tube of cranberry sauce on the Christmas dinner table.

For those of us who came of age soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the holiday season doesn't officially get underway until Charlie Brown's tree droops from the weight of its single red ornament.  Just a few bars of Vince Guaraldi's jazzy score can get us soggy with nostalgia faster than the sight of Andy Williams in a sweater.

In this book, the show's executive producer, Lee Mendelson, goes behind the scenes of the animated cels to give us a warm-hearted history of 30 television minutes which proved it is possible to be weird and low-key and still be wildly successful.  We take A Charlie Brown Christmas for granted these days, but when it first aired in the mid-60s, it was something very unique and different. Jazz during a cartoon?  Using child actors for kids' voices instead of adult actors?  Reciting an entire passage from the Bible on prime-time TV?  It was mold-breaking, bubble-bursting stuff back then.

Mendelson's book (which was first published in 2000) gives us the entire script, plus personal stories about Charles M. Schulz, animator and director Bill Melendez, jazz musician Vince Guaraldi, and a few of the kids behind the voices (they grew up to be schoolteachers and real estate agents).

The show is all about depression and the commercialization of the holiday--let us not forget the glum mood which settles over everything like a wet blanket--but it also has the joy of a dancing beagle, catching snowflakes on the tongue, and the rebirth of a skinny, neglected tree into a bright, twinkling Tannenbaum.  And that's what Christmas is all about.


The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler (Black Lizard/Vintage Crime)

Murder never takes a day off.  It certainly doesn't enjoy a holiday during the Christmas season, as the sixty stories and novellas in this volume can attest.  As Otto Penzler notes in his introduction:
While most of us are busy shopping for gifts for those we love, or decorating a home and putting up a Christmas tree and hanging mistletoe, and generally enjoying the extra warmth of hellos from friends and shopkeepers...unsympathetic souls will find solace in the fact that crime, violence, and even murder continue to flourish at what should be a time of peace, joy, and love.
I blame Mr. Penzler and his Big Book for jarring and jolting my well-laid holiday reading plans all out of whack.  I'd already started thinking about the Agatha Christie book I'd read to cap off the year and in my mind I was all set.  But then, while I was working as a Bookseller for a Day during Indies First at Fact and Fiction Books a few weeks ago, I spotted the cover of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.  "Kill me now," I said softly.

It was all over in an instant.  The book was paid for, bagged, and I was on my way to tearing up my holiday biblio-plans.

(One interesting note: the cover design is a detail from the February 1938 issue of The Country Home and in the original--which you can see here--the distressed damsel hurrying away from the car is not holding a revolver.)

I'm only one-fifth of the way through the anthology, but I've enjoyed what I read so far, starting with Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot investigating a jewel theft in "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding."  The book is full of bodies in the snow, drunk (and murderous) Santas, poisoned mince pies and a general lack of goodwill toward men.  There's also a liberal dash of good humor, as supplied by writers like John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey), Damon Runyon, Donald E. Westlake, and Ellery Queen, whose Christmas festivities are interrupted by the arrival of a lawyer seeking help:
December the twenty-third is ordinarily not a good time to seek the Queens.  Inspector Richard Queen like his Christmas old-fashioned; his turkey stuffing, for instance, calls for twenty-two hours of over-all preparation and some of its ingredients are not readily found at the corner grocer's.  And Ellery is a frustrated gift-wrapper.  For a month before Christmas he turns his sleuthing genius to tracking down unusual wrapping papers, fine ribbons, and artistic stickers; and he spends the last two days creating beauty.
The Queens cannot, of course, resist a puzzle.  And so it is that they find themselves in the middle of a department store crowded with last-minute shoppers, trying to figure out how a priceless doll was stolen from a heavily-guarded glass case.  I had great fun trying to figure it out (I couldn't), as I'm sure I will sleuthing the remaining mysteries in the book--stories by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John D. MacDonald, Bradford Morrow, Ed McBain, Sara Paretsky, Mary Higgins Clark, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, and O. Henry (not "The Gift of the Magi").

The Big Book is a wonderful tribute to Christmas literature and, while some of the stories might be a little redundant in terms of crimes and settings, there's no mistaking the publisher's devotion to the season.  How into Christmas are they?  Take a look at the Black Lizard logo:


London Snow by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin)

Shortly after going through the "P" section of my library (and renewing my vows with Ms. Pym), I came to the Ts, and there, sandwiched between The Mosquito Coast and Millroy the Magician, I saw a slender red spine.  London Snow.  I opened to the first of the book's 50 pages and started to read:
On this winter afternoon the bright window of the sweet-shop crackled with colour--the red ribbons on a pyramid of chocolate boxes, trays of glazed fruit, marzipan wrapped in crisp green cellophane, and bins of humbugs that shone with an enamelling of sugar.  In the centre of the window was a Christmas tree with silver needles, and decorated with baubles of mint lumps and wine gums.  It had been raining since morning, but the day had turned cold and the raindrops had frozen on the shop window, coating it with crystal pebbles that crazed the light and made it merrier.
Oh my, my, what exquisite writing.  Once again, I shifted course and added another book to the Big Christmas Read (but hey, it's only 50 pages).  I swallowed the book as quick as I would a mouthful of wine gums (which, I've just learned, are basically Swedish fish candies).  When I went to my book log to add this title to the 2013 list, I was shocked to discover this was the first Paul Theroux book I'd ever read.  How could that be?  Somehow, he'd lived all these years on my shelves, untouched.  I'm glad events conspired to bring us together this Christmas.

Out of all the books on my list, London Snow epitomizes the true spirit of the season.  Its story is simple: a candy shop owner and her two adopted orphans are threatened with eviction by a nasty-wasty landlord (he first shows up at the shop with "the wet wool of his shaggy coat dripping" and a face that was "all red lumps and bristles").  The ill-tempered bear of a man storms out, the candy-store kin ponder their future, and all looks bleak.  But then things appear to take a turn for the brighter when the landlord disappears during a heavy blizzard which strikes London the next day.  The mother, Mrs. Mutterance with a heart as sweet as her wares, decides they must go out in search of Mr. Snyder, much to the dismay of her adopted children Wallace and Amy.
      "But we don't like him," protested Wallace.
      "We have to like him," said Mrs. Mutterance.
      "Why, Ma?"
      "Because it's Christmas.  If we don't find him, we'll lose Christmas."
How you read that sentiment will depend on whether you're a Tiny Tim or an unreformed Scrooge.  Either way, there's no denying this short book is long on heart.  Though the ending is rather predictable (what Christmas story isn't complete without spiritual reformation?), I savored every line Theroux set down.  Like this description of London just after the storm:
      It was snow.
      It clung thickly to the rooftops where it was nearly blue.  It was mounded like white eyebrows above the windows of the houses, and it had blown against the brick walls and stuck, making beards hang from the sills.  It was piled against the doors and made caps on the tops of lamp-posts.  Each spike on the churchyard fence was encased in a fluffy sheath, and so far the only marks in the white street--what a beautiful street it seemed!--were the milkman's footprints.
Sentences like those are gifts to all of us.  I couldn't have asked for anything better under my tree this year.

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