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Archive for the ‘Christmas stories’ Category

ChristmasMouse1“The kettle began to sing, promising comfort.”

Sometimes only cosy* will do. On occasion I feel like action and excitement from my literature, and I am willing to put up with violence and despair to get it, but sometimes life requires a more moderate gait. When you need a gentle tome, then Miss Read will deliver.

I am new to Miss Read, despite her first book being published in 1955. I was creating a “Curl Up With a Cozy Tale” display at the library and felt drawn to The Christmas Mouse. Being slightly obsessive, I have branched out into her other titles in myriad formats; as ebooks and as audiobooks on CD. Her basic postulation seems to be that nothing in life is so bad that the sadness can’t be lessened by time, a cup of tea and the warmth of family and friends, with special emphasis on the cups of tea.

For my commute, I grabbed the first CD that was checked in and plunged into the middle of her Thrush Green series. I discovered that there are a lot of characters, like when my Great Aunty Judith tells me long and involved stories about the internal workings and external marriage problems of distant cousins, and I am expected to keep them all straight. After negotiating a tricky intersection I’d hear something such as, “Betty, Maggie and Dotty all sat down at Betty’s scrubbed kitchen table for a nice cup of tea. Outside the birds hopped among the spring flowers and chirped cheerfully. ‘Tell me all about it,’ said Betty.” I would suddenly realize that I had no idea of the identities of Betty, Maggie and Dotty, but for the enjoyment of the story it doesn’t matter because it is like meeting real people; I am introduced to them as they are now, and then slowly learn about their pasts and how they interconnect to other people we know in common.

The Christmas Mouse tells the story of Mrs. Berry who lives with her widowed daughter and two small grandchildren. Despite the tragedy of the daughter’s young widowhood, the book gently and with quiet wit paints a portrait of a close and stable family. On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Berry must face her fears–of mice and other stray creatures. The line drawings by J.S. Goodall add to the warmth. The little boy in the frontispiece exudes contentment, sitting in an overlarge armchair, wrapped up in a voluminous coat and slippers, and eating a warm bowl of bread and milk.

Try The Christmas Mouse if you are in the mood for cosy. Try it if you are tired of the commercial fuss in the lead up to Christmas, as The Christmas Mouse’s characters don’t have much material stuff, but still make Christmas a warm, loving family affair. And just in case you think this sort of book isn’t intellectually stimulating, I learned a new word, which doesn’t happen frequently in my fiction endeavors: wayzgoose, which is a printers’ outing. Literary quotes at the beginning of each chapter, from Robert Burns to William Wordsworth add to the appeal. 

* And this is definitely cosy and not cozy because this is a Very British Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Christmas Mouse.

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SilverThe book from my childhood that I would most like to see reprinted is The Golden Name Day, published in 1955 by Jennie Lindquist. Lindquist was a librarian and an editor of Horn Book, and she wrote this charming, quintessential little girl’s book by drawing on stories from her Swedish immigrant parents. Nine-year-old Nancy, whose mother is in hospital, spends a summer in the country with the Bensons, Swedish immigrants to New England. Each of the girls she befriends–Sigrid, Elsa, and Helga–celebrate not only a birthday but a “name day” as laid out in a calendar of names and dates in the Swedish Almanac. But as much as the little girls enjoy these special celebrations, there’s no “Nancy” in the almanac. Threaded through their season of picnics, animals, flower crowns, and May baskets is the story of how Nancy’s friends provide her with a name day of her own.

Sadly, our library doesn’t own The Golden Name Day, but we do own its sequel, which is even more fitting for this time of year, as it takes Nancy and her friends through the autumn, Advent, and the “Long Swedish Christmas.” In The Little Silver House, an abandoned, boarded-up house captures the girls’ imaginations, especially when the portrait of an old-fashioned ten-year-old girl is discovered in its attic. With this mystery in the background, it’s the celebrations of occasions great and small that give the book its charm. Gift-giving is the theme of the season, and the girls’ “random acts of kindness” include planting bulbs along the roadside for “traveler’s joy” and giving up some of their most treasured possessions for a special care package. Lonely newcomer Ben and others are brought into the circle of the Bensons’ warm hospitality and good food. Oh, how I wanted to be Swedish! My generic American family seemed so dull by comparison—no special traditions and not a chance that my mother was going to let me put lighted candles in a wreath on my head for St. Lucia’s day. The holidays continue with hand-wrapped karameller given to visitors, the Long Christmas Dance, Dipping Day, and “Second Christmas,” which made me wonder whether the Swedes are related at all to the hobbits.

Finding a book like this on the library shelves is as close as we come to time travel. Nancy’s yellow rose wallpaper! The horses, Whoa-Emma and Karl the Twelfth! For a nanosecond, I was nine years old again. Illustrated with the feathery pencil drawings of Garth Williams, so familiar from his work on the Little House series, these warm-hearted books will appeal to the same girls who enjoyed the Christmases of Laura and Mary Ingalls, whether those girls are nine years old or, ahem, somewhat older.

God Jul.

Check the WRL catalog for The Little Silver House.

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This one is from Nancy :

 I’ll be the first to admit I love a feel good Christmas story any time of year. Richard Paul Evans’ book The Gift does not disappoint. Make no mistake, the characters of the book face everything from personal tragedy and physical pain, to public scorn and hatred. Thus begins the journal and the story of Nathan Hurst, a man who has grown to hate Christmas and yet finds healing from the most unexpected places. Enter fate…a holiday weekend, a snowstorm, a cancelled flight, and Collin and his mother and sister stuck in the same airport overnight. As the days pass from Thanksgiving to Christmas the story tells of the special healing powers of young Collin, the curse that comes with each healing, and the greed and overwhelming desperation of mankind when it comes to their own mortality. The innocence of one healing creates an onslaught of public outcry for help regardless of the consequences. Nathan becomes a guardian for his new friends and in the process he receives both physical and emotional healing.

I highly recommend this in audio book form as well. The narrator makes it possible to envision the innocents of the young miracle worker and the desperation of those seeking his touch. Also recommended is Evans’ Finding Noel which tells the story of Macy, adopted as a young child, and her search for her biological sister. A healing of sorts results as well for all those involved.

Check the WRL catalog for The Gift

Or look for it as an audiobook on compact disc

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I’ve happily plowed through the first fifteen titles in M.C. Beaton’s Hamish MacBeth series, and this Christmas special is the 16th. So far I’ve listened to all of them in audio format with the excellent Davina Porter narrating. A Highland Christmas does not appear to be available in audio format, however, so I took the opportunity to download it from WRL’s new OverDrive ebook collection.

After 15 episodes I have become quite fond of Police Constable Hamish MacBeth, the Scottish village of Lochdubh’s only representative of law and order. Although unambitious and often quite lazy, Hamish has the Highlander’s insatiable curiosity and loathes unanswered questions. Therefore he always becomes more involved in local crimes than his superior – the boorish and unimaginative Chief Inspector Blair of Strathbane – would like. What’s more, Hamish always solves the crime, stealing the ambitious Blair’s undeserved thunder and making him look bad. He is sharply attuned to underlying emotions and motives in people, a talent he often uses to get at the truth Miss Marple style.

The Northern Scotland locale is a character in itself, with its ever-changing landscape, howling winds, and fickle climate. Regular characters emerge, eccentric, exasperating, and lovable. It’s great fun to watch Hamish interact with them all.

In this installment in the series, Christmas is approaching and the village of Lochdubh, most of whose old-fashioned residents frown upon Christmas as a “heathen” holiday, is most decidedly not in a festive mood. This has P.C. MacBeth somewhat down in the mouth, and it doesn’t help that he is called out to the neighboring village of Cnothan to see about a crotchety old lady’s lost cat and the town’s missing Christmas tree.

The Hamish MacBeth series are cozy mysteries, but A Highland Christmas is the coziest of the bunch in that there is less murder and more “warm and fuzzy.” It’s a pleasant interlude for readers already invested in the series. For readers who have not read any of the books in the series, it’s a nice introduction to Hamish MacBeth’s world or a feel-good standalone Christmas story.

Check the WRL catalog for the book, or check out the ebook, which you can download to a computer, e-reader, or mobile device. A large print book is also available.

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It’s Christmastime in New York City, and both Dash and Lily are spending the holiday without their families. Being a bit of a Scrooge, Dash is on his own by choice, as he tricked each of his divorced parents into believing he is spending Christmas with the other parent. Lily, however, loves everything about Christmas. She was left at home with her older brother (who is at first too busy to be festive, and then too sick) while her parents and grandfather vacation in warmer climates.

Needing something to occupy her time, Lily leaves a red Moleskin notebook in the Salinger section of the Strand, a used bookstore. The notebook contains instructions for the finder to follow, if he is a teenage boy, with clues leading around the store and perhaps into Lily’s heart. Dash finds the notebook and, after following Lily’s clues, decides to continue the game. Rather than leaving his phone number for Lily to find, he leaves instructions to travel to a nearby pizzeria.

The game continues past Christmas and into New Year’s as Lily and Dash send each other to a variety of well-known New York locations. They use the notebook not only to leave each other clues, but to get to know one another. They write about how they are spending the holidays, what they want for Christmas (“No, really, don’t be a smart aleck. What do you really really really supercalifragiwant?”), and their best and worst Christmas memories. They do hit some roadblocks along the way, such as when Lily misses her opportunity to pass the book on to Dash and when they unexpectedly meet under less than ideal circumstances. But surely everything must come out alright in the end, right? After all, it is Christmas.

Check the WRL catalog for Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares.

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I’m completing a run as Professor Bhaer in a local theater production of My Jo, a musical based on Little Women. I just wouldn’t have felt like a good librarian or actor if I didn’t get familiar with the source material, so despite being a man in my early 40s, I decided the time had come to crack Louisa May Alcott’s classic. I don’t regret any of the time I spent with the March family.

The Marches, of course, stand in for Alcott’s own family, and her experiences growing up in Concord, Massachusetts in the years during and following the Civil War. While she was tasked with writing an inspirational tale for girls in the mode that Horatio Alger stories took for boys, the realistic underpinnings of her story and Louisa May’s independent (and somewhat moody) character make Little Women much more than just a morality tale.

The book that we now know as Little Women was originally published in two parts. Little Women came first, and its immense and immediate popularity led to the publication of Little Wives only six months later. In the first half, we are introduced to the four March sisters and follow them through various adventures created by their own foibles and quirks. I won’t recap the story in detail– most of you know it– but what makes these girls and their young male friend Laurie Lawrence delightful is that despite the moralistic tone, they are not instantly reformed by any of their experiences. They behave like real young people with real spirit. In the first half of the book, the absence of their father (based on Bronson, Louisa’s philosophical father, who was reform-minded but often thoughtless about his own family’s welfare), who has volunteered in the Civil War, creates many obstacles for his poor but vivacious and bright wife and daughters.

While I love the characters established in the first half, the real treasure for me is Little Wives, the second half of the story. You can tell that Alcott was feeling empowered by her recent success, dropping the morality tales for more complex dilemmas that resonate even more deeply with modern readers. It’s here that we encounter (spoilers coming, if that’s possible with this frequently retold tale) Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s courtship, Beth’s tragic decline and death, Laurie’s awkward but earnest connection with little sister Amy, and Jo’s unusual relationship with the older German professor Friedrich Bhaer. This is not conventional children’s material, so this is a book to be treasured by readers of any age, and Jo is such an original that she jumps off the page 140 years after the book’s publication. An iconoclast for any era, Jo will appeal to any reader with an independent streak. Alcott’s vividly detailed language and humor also hold up well.

This is not a book to read in isolation. I strongly recommend enjoying it in combination with a biography of Alcott, such as Harriet Reisen’s 2009 biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman behind Little Women. The story in Little Women is even more powerful when you know how it softens the tragedies of Alcott’s real life.

I also recommend several of the films, the 1933 edition for Katharine Hepburn’s great portrayal of Jo, the 1949 version for my favorite all-around cast, or the 1994 Winona Ryder vehicle for the best handling of the story’s more sophisticated and realistic aspects. Finally, you might continue to Alcott’s two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, which follow Jo and Fritz Bhaer’s school, sons, and students through various adventures. While I haven’t read them yet, most agree that these later works are lesser creations (probably because they are much more fictionalized and plot-driven), but still worthy of a read.

Check the WRL catalog for the book Little Women (if this isn’t available, there are many other editions)

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high-spiritsAlthough we generally associate ghost stories with Halloween and October, there is a long tradition in Great Britain of telling ghost stories around the Christmas season. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic example, with Scrooge being haunted by spirits who offer him one last chance to see the error of his ways. Robertson Davies served for 18 years as Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. During that time, he wrote and presented a ghost story each year at the Massey College Christmas Gaudy, or college party.

Many of Davies’ novels reflect his interest in the supernatural. Murther and Walking Spirits, is narrated by a dead man and the shade of composer E.T.A. Hoffmann has a central role in The Lyre of Orpheus. The stories here all reveal ghostly encounters that Davies supposedly had at Massey. In the spirit of traditional tales of Christmas hauntings, the stories move easily between humor and horror. Massey was a new college, and Davies, a traditionalist in many ways, its first Master. As such, many of the stories he relates were intended, as Davies said in his introduction, “to stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets.” Nothing becomes a college like a good ghost story or two that lends an air of antiquity and elegance to the place.

The stories here definitely fall on the more humorous side of the ghost story genre, and reflect Davies’ interest in books, Canadian history, royalty, the lives of the saints, and the occasional fine cigar. While perhaps not as frightening, or even serious, as many stories of the supernatural, High Spirits, evinces an English sensibility moderated by a brisk North America air. These are fun stories, and would benefit, as do many ghost stories, from being read out loud among friends.

Check the WRL catalog for High Spirits

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