This year, I’m seeking comfort and joy in Christmas books. I don’t always find it—sometimes the seasonal stories I pull off my shelf are so lame, it’s like reaching into my Christmas stocking and pulling out a brick of fruitcake (regifted from last year) dusted with black from a lump of coal—but in these days of presidents-elect tweeting us into a nuclear winter and the grief of finding 3,000 dead snow geese in a pit one mile north of my house, I have to jingle my bells in whatever way I can.
Sticking to tradition, I’ve loaded my end-of-year reading with a selection of Yuletide literature, forsaking the last of 2016 novels I’d hoped to squeeze into my Best of 2016 list for pages filled with snowflakes and figgy pudding. This year, my Big Christmas Read includes the following:
Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P. D. James
Afterward by Edith Wharton
The Diary of Mr. Poynter by M. R. James
The Signalman by Charles Dickens
One Who Saw by A. M. Burrage
The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen
Snowflake by Paul Gallico
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
Miracle in the Wilderness by Paul Gallico
—even the recipes, like when she writes in the one for Mrs. Winterson’s Mince Pies, “Mrs. W had a gas oven of terrifying heat. It behaved like a castrated blast furnace roaring for its balls.”
I expect you are thinking that this is typical Agatha Christie, and you are right; that’s exactly how it struck me at the time. But one forgets, homicide rate excepted, how similar my mother’s England was to Dame Agatha’s Mayhem Parva. And it seems entirely appropriate that the body should have been discovered in the library, that most fatal room in popular British fiction.—right down to the book’s very last line when police Sergeant Adam Dalgliesh’s aunt asks him,
“Is the case concluded? What did you think of it?”Each of the cases James lays out in this collection are perplexing and wholly satisfying with plenty of I-didn’t-see-that-coming moments. And, yes, Christmas decorates each of the tales, save for one (“A Commonplace Murder”), and yes, mistletoe is a key clue to solving one of the murders. I think I’ve read through every one of Christie’s mysteries set during Christmas and needed a fix this year, so this last book of James’ is a welcome gift of classic crime to unwrap this year.
“What did I think of it?” Adam paused for a moment and considered, “My dear Aunt Jane, I don't think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie.”
beautifully repackaged by Penguin Books. This year, sadly, the Penguins didn’t gift-wrap anything for us...but when I was browsing in Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, earlier this month, I came across the equally-gorgeous series issued by Biblioasis last year, Ghost Stories for Christmas “designed and decorated by Seth.” I have long been a fan of Seth—in particular, his illustrations for this Lemony Snicket series—so I immediately grabbed all the pocket-sized Biblioasis books and took them to the front counter. While we usually associate ghost stories with Boy Scout campfires and Halloween, the fact is that Christmas ghost stories are a long-standing tradition (the best-known being Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, of course). While Christmas is not always explicit in these tales, there is something about the shortened days and cold nights that lend themselves to spooky stories about phantoms who can’t let go of this world. As Winterson writes in her introduction to Christmas Days:
Telling stories round the fire is as old as language. And, as fires are lit at night and/or in wintertime, the winter festivals were natural story-telling opportunities.Or, as the note at the beginning of the Bibilioasis books tells us, these classic stories add “a supernatural shiver to the seasonal chill.” In The Crown Derby Plate, Marjorie Bowen writes:
But the ghost story as a phenomenon is a 19th century phenomenon. One theory is that the spectres and apparitions claimed in so many sightings were a result of low-level carbon-monoxide poisoning from gas lamps (it does cause fuzzy, drowsy hallucinations). Add in the thick fogs and plenty of gin, and it starts to make sense.
Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, “particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.”Here’s the capsule summary for each of the Biblioasis stories:
Could you get these stories elsewhere in other anthologies—or even read for free in the online public domain and save yourself the $7 for each book? Of course, but then you’d be missing out on Seth’s illustrations (several per book) and that would be a shame. His stark black-and-white drawings emphasize the spookiness of the tales in the series. Besides, each of these volumes is the perfect size to stuff in your favorite book lover’s stocking.
|Photo by Walter Hinick|
To mourn the loss of the birds, in my own small literary way, I turned to Paul Gallico’s 1941 classic, The Snow Goose.
Above the sea and the wind noises he heard a clear, high note. He turned his eyes upward to the evening sky in time to see first an infinite speck, then a black-and-white pinioned dream that circled the lighthouse once, and finally a reality that dropped to earth in the pen and came waddling forward importantly to be fed, as though she had never been away. It was the snow goose.Though it’s not about Christmas per se, The Snow Goose does carry the message of hope and the belief in something magical—in this case, a single waterfowl who brings a hermit and a child together and who ultimately helps save the lives of soldiers during World War Two. Philip Rhayader, a hunchback with a crippled hand (“thin and bent at the wrist, like the claw of a bird”), lives on a marsh on the Essex coast, “one of the last of the wild places of England.” This is a fortunate place to dwell, for Rhayader is “a friend to all things wild.” A twelve-year-old girl named Frith—“slender, dirty, nervous and timid as a bird, but beneath the grime as eerily beautiful as a marsh faery”—brings the recluse a bird, a snow goose, which has been blown off course during migration and shot by a hunter. Beyond the marsh, the world “boiled and seethed and rumbled with the eruption that was soon to break forth” (i.e. war, and specifically the Battle of Dunkirk). This sets the stage for the novella’s sad—but magical!—ending. The Snow Goose unfolds like a fairy tale; unfortunately, for most of the characters, like the thousands of real geese that died in my town, there’s not a happily ever after.
Paul Gallico’s books have been on my shelf for a long time, but have gathered the Dust of the Unread. When I was growing up, he was a popular author, thanks to his career as a sportswriter and the smash success of The Poseidon Adventure. Today, he’s all but forgotten. I’ve only read one full-length Gallico novel, The Boy Who Invented the Bubble Gun, and that was when I was eleven years old. As a pre-teen, I loved that book to death; from what I can recall, it was about a kid who invents a gun that shoots bubble (pretty self-explanatory from the title) and then takes a cross-country bus ride where he meets several eccentric characters whose lives he’ll change with his innocence and pluck. At least, that’s how I remember it from forty years ago. I have a copy on my bookshelf, but I haven’t dared open it for fear it would melt in a treacly puddle of goo under my older and wiser eyes. But this Christmas, I couldn’t resist pulling out three of Gallico’s shortest books to help me celebrate the season.
Hey, I know Mr. Gallico had the best of intentions and if I’d read it back in 1953 my heart’s cockles might have been warmed. But in 2016, I'm just cynical enough to want to toss this Snowflake across the room. My advice: read Jeanette Winterson’s infinitely-better ”The SnowMama” instead. That one is positively cockle-warming.
Yeah, you can pretty much guess how it all ends. And, truthfully, it’s okay for what it is: a simple story that can be devoured faster than a mug of eggnog, but which leaves a slightly sweeter taste in the mouth. It could have been worse. Jasper and Dorcas could have named their son Christmasflake.