Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Big Christmas Read

This year, I’m seeking comfort and joy in Christmas books. I don’t always find itsometimes 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 coalbut 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

I’ll start with the most enjoyable book from the stack. Christmas Days is nothing short of an instant classic. Sure, I know it normally takes decades to slap the “classic” label on a work of art, but Winterson’s twelve stories are so perfectly pitched that I’m going to call this a required-reading masterpiece ahead of its time. See if you don’t agree with me thirty years from now. Admittedly, I’m only halfway through the book, but I’ve been around the block enough times to know when I smell greatness, and Christmas Days is as satisfying as the kitchen-filling scent of fresh-baked gingerbread cookies (which, by the way, my wife made for me yesterday). Winterson writes: “Stories round the fire at Christmas, or told with frosty breath on a wintry walk, have a magic and a mystery that is part of the season.” These tales, interspersed with recipes from the author’s file box, deserve to be read aloud on an annual basis. There’s warmth and sentimentality (“Christmas in New York,” in which the kindness of strangers is as sweet as Scrooge’s reformation), frightening ghost stories (“Dark Christmas”), Grimm-Brothers-style fables (“The Mistletoe Bride”), and magical realism (“Spirit of Christmas” and “The SnowMama,” which features the best snowpeople since Frosty led a parade of kids through town). And funny! Boy, are these stories glittered with witeven 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.”

P. D. James’ posthumous collection of four short stories is also a classic in its own way. It’s always great fun to read a mystery story which peels away its clothes and flesh, stripping down to the good old bones found during the so-called Golden Age of Mysteries. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories locks its rooms and cooks casseroles of red herrings as delicious as anything Agatha Christie ever wrote. Indeed, James makes explicit nods to the Queen of Crime, from this mention in the title story
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?”
     “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.”
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.

For the past couple of Christmases, I’ve looked forward to reading (and collecting) the special series of classic stories 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 Sethin particular, his illustrations for this Lemony Snicket seriesso 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.
     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.
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:
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:

Afterward by Edith Wharton: A rich young couple retires to England in search of a charmingly haunted estate. Their realtor ensures them the mansion of Pangbourne is indeed haunted—but those who have seen its ghost only recognize it long afterward. Delighted, they purchase the home, where they soon discover a secret stairway to the roof. There they see a mysterious visitor on the grounds below. Surprised, the husband races down to meet the man. Oddly, though, he can’t be found...

The Diary of Mr. Poynter by M. R. James: When James Denton discovered an ancient bit of fabric within an 18th century diary, he showed it to his aunt, who insisted the wavy, hair-like pattern would be perfect to accent his windows. The sensitive artisan tasked with the copying of the cloth, however, saw evil in its design. The curtains, now hung, do fill Denton with a creeping unease. Surely, he thinks, absently reaching down to pet his dog, the feeling must be imagined...

The Signalman by Charles Dickens: First published in 1866 for a special Christmas issue of All the Year Round, Charles Dickens’ The Signalman has since fallen into obscurity. An eerie story of isolation, dread and supernatural visitation, this book is a small treasure, meant to be read aloud on a cold, dark winter night.

One Who Saw by A. M. Burrage: Originally published at Christmas in 1931 and widely regarded as the author’s masterpiece, One Who Saw tells the story of a writer enchanted by the spectre of a weeping woman. His obsession builds until her ghostly hand falls from her face and he, in horror, becomes the “one who sees.”

The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen: Old Miss Pym returns to Hartleys, an eerie house on the marshes, to recover the missing plate in a precious set of china she bought years ago. The person who greets her at the door—a gross, flaccid figure in a shapeless gown—guides Miss Pym to the object of her desire. Yet soon after holding the plate, she becomes aware of a smell. A foul smell. A very troubling smell indeed.

Could you get these stories elsewhere in other anthologiesor 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
Just after Thanksgiving this year, a migrating flock of about 10,000 snow geese landed on the turquoise waters of a lake a few blocks away from my house in Butte, Montana. Normally, that would be a beautiful sight to seeall those white bodies floating and swirling in the air above my townan early Christmas gift, perhaps. Sadly, not in this instance. Within a week, nearly all of those geese were dead, their bodies slowly sinking below the surface of the Berkeley Pit, the former open-pit copper mine that has come to negatively define my town. Those pretty waters are deceptive. The abandoned pit, now a Superfund site, is laced with copper, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acidwater acidic enough to liquefy a motorboat’s steel propeller. It proved to be a deadly cocktail for the geese who dipped their heads to drink after a long flight. I’ll spare you the horrible details, but the birds died a painful death as the chemicals burned the esophagus and internal organs. It’s a sad story, particularly for the local mine workers who did their best to prevent the birds from landing by hazing them with sirens and gunshots, to little avail.

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 magicalin 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 sadbut 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.

In the case of Snowflake, I should have resisted the urge. In short, the book is awful. Awful. AWFUL. Unless.... Well, maybe you’re the kind of person who tolerates 64-page metaphors about metaphysics in the form of a snowflake who muses on page 6 about life (“Here I am. But where did I come from? And what was I before? Where have I been? Whither am I going? Who made me and all my brothers and sisters all about me? And why?”). Or perhaps you like children’s fables in which a snowflake has sex with a raindrop (page 33) and then names their offspring Snowdrop, Rainflake, Snowcrystal and Raindrop-Minor (this last watery child will undoubtedly be in therapy for years with a name like that). Or maybe you don’t gag uncontrollably at the thought of Biblical parables on steroids. If so, then this is the book for you!

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.

Gallico’s final book of this Christmas trinity is slightly better than Snowflake, but not quite as good as The Snow Goose. I remember reading Miracle in the Wilderness when it came out in 1975. The 53-year-old David may not have thought this was as groovy as the 12-year-old David, but at least Gallico stays away from weather pornography in this one. Instead, we get one of those pay-attention-because-I’m-about-to-lay-some-heavy-religion-on-you stories that feature animals talking on Christmas Eve and the hearts of savage mortals being changed due to this Miracle with a capital M. Subtitled ”A Story of Colonial America” and released in a Special Bicentennial Edition, Miracle in the Wilderness is set on Christmas Eve 1752 and tells the story of a young couple with a babe in swaddling clothes (no, their names are not Joseph and Mary) who are taken hostage by an ”Algonkin raiding party.” The group travels through breechcloth-deep snow in northern New York, pursued by another band of ”savages” in cahoots with the French. Most of the tension stems from whether or not the Algonkin leader Quanta-wa-neh will kill Jasper and Dorcas Adams and their infant son or whether the Natives will ”see the light” and, in the spirit of the Nativity, let them live. Then, in a clearing, the winter travelers come upon a family of deer kneeling in the snow and praying aloud.

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.