Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas Spirit Reading, or, “We Need a Little Christmas…”

26 Nov

As I start to write this, the Jerry Herman song “We Need a Little Christmas” from the musical Mame popped into my head.  For this year’s Christmas Spirit Readathon and 2016 Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, both kindly hosted by Michelle (our favorite True Book Addict), I have song lyrics on my mind, probably because the title of my first Christmas-themed novel is a clever reworking of “Deck the Halls” and its famous chorus. Fa-La-Llama-La by Stephanie Dagg is a clever romantic comedy about a young woman named Noelle, who takes a last-minute pet-sitting job in France, a few days before Christmas, and the pets are twelve llamas!

fa-la-llama-la-cover

The romantic mix-up part comes in when she arrives at her job in a major snowstorm and must share an empty, unheated house with the new (rugged, good-looking) owner of same house, who arrives unexpectedly. His name is Nick and he’s Australian, and she wonders what he is doing buying a house in rural France. She has consternation over the lack of electricity and furniture; he has consternation over being swindled during the house transaction by the previous owner (who made off with all the furniture and left the llamas). He is also fuming that both the llamas and their pet-sitter are apparently staying for the duration of the holiday.  Their shared frustration slowly turns to amusement and shared problem solving, and then….well, you know  what comes next–this is a rom-com!  At least I think so, because I haven’t finished it yet. I will post my full review (with more about the llamas!) in December for Stephanie Dagg’s virtual tour with France Book Tours.

I am also reading A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who also write beautifully researched, wittily delivered pieces at their blogs, The Well-Read Sherlockian (Guinn) and Better Holmes and Gardens (Mahoney).

a-curious-collection-of-dates-cover

They have found something notable to write about for each day of the year, whether it be the publication of a story from the Conan Doyle canon, the premiere of a memorable adaptation for stage or screen, the birthday of a beloved actor who has portrayed Sherlock Holmes, or some event in the real world or the fictional world that bears on the life and times of the world’s most famous consulting detective. December 27 is devoted to “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which a valuable gem turns up unexpectedly in a Christmas goose on the table of one of Mr. Holmes’ many London friends. Finding out how it got there is a holiday mystery indeed. I watched the Granada adaptation of this story every year at Christmas on my VHS player until I no longer watched VHS tapes anymore! I will have more to say about this fantastic book later on, but let me suggest that it is a perfect gift for anyone who relishes the ‘infinite variety’ of Sherlock Holmes.

For young readers and adults too, The Nativity, with gorgeous illustrations by artist Ruth Sanderson is a treat for reading, or re-reading, the Christmas story, drawing from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  I’m planning to leave this book open during the Christmas season and savor Sanderson’s paintings slowly day by day.

the-nativity-ruth-sanderson

Although the Readathon is nearly over, ending on Sunday night, the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge runs through January 6, so I will probably add some more holiday-themed books and watch even more Hallmark Channel holiday movies by then. What I love about these events hosted by Michelle–who loves Christmas and fosters the spirit so well–is the chance to (a) learn more about varied holiday customs around the world (check out her blog on her beautiful Christmas Spirit website!) and (b) discover more Christmas fiction from other readers. If you have favorite Christmas novels or authors to recommend, please suggest them in the comments!

Finally, let’s hear Angela Lansbury in the 1966 original Broadway cast of Mame, singing that song I mentioned:

2015 Christmas Spirit Readathon and Reading Challenge

22 Nov

xmas spirit read-a-thon 2015

xmas spirit reading challenge 2015

Aren’t these beautiful banners? They were created by Michelle Miller for these events which she graciously hosts for us at her lovely blogs, Seasons of Reading and The Christmas Spirit.

My focus for this year’s Christmas Spirit Read-a-Thon and Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge will be Christmas traditions.  First, I am reading from three books which describe Christmas traditions in Scandinavia. For the Read-a-thon my first goal will be to read Sigrid Undset’s book, Happy Times in Norway, the first third of which is devoted to her memories of a Norwegian Christmas before the Second World War. Undset, best known for her masterpiece trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, wrote this memoir of the prewar years while living in New York, having fled the Nazi invasion and occupation of Norway.

Happy Times in Norway cover

For the Reading Challenge, I also  plan to cover the Christmas traditions in two books: Of Swedish Ways by Lilly Lorenzen and Of Finnish Ways by Aini Rajanen. Together, these three books will be part of the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, and I’ll write about them at my Northern Lights Reading Project.  These will also be some reading for my Nonfiction November!

One of my own Christmas traditions is to break out (and dust off) the cookbooks! Last year I tried a wonderful Scandinavian Christmas cookbook.  This year I have decided to browse through my two Gooseberry patch Christmas books, which have delightful reminiscences of family Christmas traditions submitted by readers and compiled by the authors over the years.  The recipes are very homey and festive; I usually get some new ideas for dressing up turkey leftovers (such as easy Turkey Tetrazzini) from these books.  They also have ideas for simple decorations and fun activities to do with kids during the holiday season.

Gooseberry Patch Christmas books.jpg

Another of my Christmas traditions is to read something by Dickens, and this year I will read his last Christmas ghost story, The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

1024px-Hauntedman_front_1848

Haunted Man frontispiece 1848 by Bradbury & Evans – Heritage Auction Galleries. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

He wrote it in 1848, interrupting his work on Dombey and Son.  Since I have just begun reading Dombey myself, I thought it was perfectly fitting that I too interrupt his novel to enjoy this Christmas novella! It can be found online at several places.

Finally, my last reading tradition is to gather some daily advent reflections. This year I am looking forward to one by Mother Mary Francis called Come, Lord Jesus: Meditations on the Art of Waiting.

Advent readings

I wish everyone happy reading, Happy Thanksgiving, and many unexpected joys in the holiday season ahead.

Angel figurine

 

 

 

 

Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge: Wrapping it all up with a bow!

7 Jan

christmas spirit reading challenge 2014Christmas season was even more fun and festive this year because of the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, hosted by Michelle at her gorgeous blog, The Christmas Spirit, which makes life cheerier year-round, any time we need a little Christmas, as the Jerry Herman song says. I enjoyed her posts and guest posts on the theme of “Sharing the Joy: Christmas Around the World,” including Hungarian and Bohemian (by guest Caddy Rowland) customs of food, celebrating, and decorating.

For my participation in the Challenge, I read four books (and reviewed two):

  1. Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett (a well-written twist on A Christmas Carol, recommended to me by Michelle, who also reviewed it here).
  2. Moominland Midwinter, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson (a whimsical wisdom tale for both children and adults, counting towards my Northern Lights Reading Project).
  3. Scandinavian Christmas by Trine Hahnemann (a cookbook, also for Northern Lights).
  4. Shepherds Abiding by Jan Karon (recommended to me by Sharon of Faith Hope and Cherrytea; it’s now my favorite of the Karon books I’ve read).

I didn’t do my usual re-read of Old Christmas, by Washington Irving, but I did pull the book off the shelf and savored once again the illustrations by Randolph Caldecott. I had hoped to finish Lakeshore Christmas by Susan Wiggs, but I’ve only just started it–something for next year’s Challenge!

As part of the Challenge, I watched (or should I say “binge-watched”) Christmas movies served up marathon-style on the Hallmark Channel during the month of December. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Fallen Angel (2003), starring Gary Sinise and Joely Richardson. Quietly beautiful story of two people who met as children and were destined to find each other again. This one got many viewings at my house.
  2. Christmas Cottage (2008), starring Marcia Gay Harden, Peter O’Toole, and Jared Padalecki. Early life and formative experiences of artist Thomas Kinkade.
  3. Christmas at Cartwright’s (2014), starring Alicia Witt, Gabriel Hogan, and Wallace Shawn. Alicia Witt is charmingly klutzy as a woman who becomes a department store Santa, and stumbles upon true love.
  4. The Christmas Ornament (2013), starring Kellie Martin and Cameron Mathison. Martin is wonderful as a widow who pushes away both Christmas and a new friendship with Mathison because of her loyalty to memory.
  5. The Nine Lives of Christmas (2014), starring Brandon Routh and Stephanie Bennett. Remember Superman Returns from 2006? Its star, Brandon Routh, plays a commitment-shy bachelor, but, hey, he’s on the Hallmark Channel during Christmas, so he’s sure to find lasting love!

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with the “Mistletoe” level of books read and the “Fa La La La La” (!) level of films watched.  I’ll be back for more next year!

The Ghost at Scrooge’s Door: “Jacob T. Marley” by R. William Bennett–A Review

18 Dec

Jacob T Marley cover

Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett. Shadow Mountain, 2011.

In this convincingly written pastiche of Charles Dickens’ classic novella A Christmas Carol, author R. William Bennett includes a Preface addressing his readers, whom he assumes are well acquainted with Dickens’ account of Scrooge’s visitations by three spirits on Christmas Eve, his repentance, and his chance to make amends and change his life. And why not? It is one of the most famous stories in the world, repeated, read, and watched on film by millions every year.  But Bennett wants to know more. He wants us to join him in inquiring further into the backstory of A Christmas Carol, in life and beyond. For him, it all boils down to one fundamental concern: “What of old Jacob?

Who was this man? Why was he so evil? Why did he in fact get to visit Scrooge and usher in the experience that changed first Ebenezer and then so many of our lives? Why did Scrooge get a final chance to change and not Jacob Marley?

Or did he?

Bennett’s novel offers answers to all these questions, and in the process considers the nature of redemption and forgiveness.  Can Scrooge be saved, and yet Marley suffer and rattle his heavy chains eternally, as Dickens implies? Perhaps everything is not as it seems.  An intriguing premise for a spinoff novel, but the success all depends on the quality of storytelling and control of language–Bennett rates highly on both counts.

The story is mapped out very well. First, it asks how did Marley become the man that he did. Unlike Scrooge, young Jacob Thelonius Marley is shown enjoying a happy childhood in a loving family.  This makes Marley, the wizened old miser, the merciless business partner of Scrooge, even more inexplicable. The author turns to the reader again, confiding that “we search for a particular event, the germination of a seed that, watered by some kind of cupidity, would take root in the pure-hearted young Jacob and find its flower in deceitful old Marley.”  He finds it in a particular incident in school when Marley’s pride and ambition are awakened by praise of his superiority in math and figures, without any tempering moral instruction.  That is the seed. The flowering comes when young Marley disowns the good example of an illustrious forebear, Thelonius Marley, whose sole distinction was an act of generosity and self-sacrifice. Jacob allows cynicism and calculation to replace his former admiration and he drops his own middle name honoring this kind man, finally expunging even the initial T., along with the memory of goodness it represented.  Is this really an explanation for Marley turning bad? Not exactly, because there is always a choice (that’s why this is a modern morality tale).  The rest of the novel plays out with close examination of Marley’s–and Scrooge’s–choices and their consequences.  The “Christmas magic” enters in when some of those choices lead to second chances.

Marley’s actions intersected with Scrooge’s life before they met because Marley was landlord to Scrooge’s sister Fan.  They met on the street during her funeral procession. But neither man would know of this connection until much later. As they saw it, a chance meeting had introduced each to his perfect associate in profit-seeking. Each man strengthened the worst qualities in the other, and their fortunes grew as their moral character withered: “For twenty-five years, the two men grew more mean, more selfish, and more aligned in their purpose.”

Were Scrooge and Marley friends? Marley did not think so, as he lay on his deathbed, and mutely received the cold, “perfunctory” visits from Scrooge each day. He could feel Scrooge’s impatience for him to depart so that Scrooge could get back to his own business. And yet–death is a crossroads, and no one can entirely predict how he might feel approaching the boundary that separates death from life.  Did Marley’s life pass before him in the long hours between Scrooge’s visits? Indeed. Marley saw the spirits of his wronged clients of a lifetime; he realized he had chosen to show them no mercy–it wasn’t inevitable. Perhaps even now he could muster the strength to say a few words to Scrooge. I won’t reveal those last words, but they have momentous consequences for the spirit of Jacob Marley.

Now the novel has arrived at the point where Dickens takes up the story.  As you might expect, Bennett will retell the crucial events from Marley’s perspective this time. Is the visit of Marley’s wailing, chain-rattling Ghost exactly what it seems to be? Perhaps there could be more to the story.  This time, Marley’s ghost will remain throughout, as an unseen witness to all that Scrooge sees when the three Ghosts of Christmas come to show him the hard truths of his past, present, and future and thereby awaken his remorse.  Marley can’t help but consider his own role in many of these events.  But will it be enough?  This book imagines some surprising twists that will affect the eternal fates of both Marley and Scrooge.

Like A Christmas Carol, Jacob T. Marley is a tale that examines the nature of redemption, forgiveness, and atonement, but Bennett’s book is more theological in its speculations and more overtly Christian in its symbolism than Dickens’ work. As pointed out recently by Michele Jacobsen of A Reader’s Respite (citing  Les Standiford, who wrote The Man Who Invented Christmas), the appearance of A Christmas Carol coincided with the beginnings of a shift toward a more secular society, one in which man had to depend on himself as much as on his Creator.  Scrooge’s path of redemption could be seen as consistent with that, although it clearly did not deny a supernatural world. As she puts it, “God was not being rejected, but man’s control over his destiny was gaining ground.” Scrooge’s choice one Christmas Eve has shaped our modern idea of Christmas.  Bennett’s book could be seen as an alternative interpretation of Scrooge’s choice and his salvation from that fearful afterlife so memorably presented to him by Jacob Marley’s ghost.

Related links:

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christmas spirit reading challenge 2014

The Christmas Spirit Read-a-thon 2014 — What did I read?

2 Dec
Hosted by Michelle Miller of The True Book Addict at her lovely Seasons of Reading blog--thanks, Michelle!

Hosted by Michelle Miller of The True Book Addict at her lovely Seasons of Reading blog–thanks, Michelle!

Time to wrap it up! What did I read all week? Some things I had planned and a few things that I didn’t.

  1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson. I finished this one, my second Moomin book, and I’m more and more sure that these fanciful tales by Finnish-Swedish artist Jansson are utterly charming and rather profound. In this one, Moomintroll (the sweet son in the family) has unaccountably woken up during his winter hibernation. How he makes his way through winter and finds friends who love snow and wintry pursuits is the premise of this book, but Jansson is too wise a writer to let her characters discover winter without also discovering more about themselves.
  2. The House by the Fjord by Rosalind Laker.  I finished this one too, and what a lovely read! It is a historical romance set in post-WWII Norway, and you can find my full review of this book at my other blog, Northern Lights Reading Project. I discovered this book while browsing my local library for one of Laker’s other books, The Venetian Mask, which I am reading for our Lit Collective theme of Venice. I have started The Venetian Mask too, and I’m liking it, but most of all, I am so glad I picked up Laker’s absorbing novel about a widowed war bride in Norway as well!
  3. Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett. I’m just getting started on this one.  I thought I would be focusing on it over the weekend, but I ended up staying in Norway a while longer. For the next leg of the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge (also hosted by Michelle Miller) I plan to hurry back to Victorian London to find out more about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s old business associate–his chain-rattling, ghostly conscience on one famous Christmas Eve. The book promises to reveal whether Jacob later found his own path to reforming his soul–I certainly hope so!  That would be a Christmas-spirited ending I could love.

The 5th Annual Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge

21 Nov

christmas spirit reading challenge 2014I’m full of cheer in anticipation of next week’s kickoff of the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, graciously hosted by Michelle (alias The True Book Addict) at her beautiful blog page The Christmas Spirit. It’s decorated with gorgeous holiday images and even some tunes to play! So, do pay it a visit.

I’m planning to read four books (Mistletoe level):

  1. Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett.
  2. Scandinavian Christmas by Trine Hahnemann.
  3. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (who also illustrates).
  4. Old Christmas by Washington Irving, illus. Randolph Caldecott.

The novel about poor old Jacob T. Marley will give me a good reason to write something new about Scrooge and The Christmas Carol here this year.  My reviews for Scandinavian Christmas (a cookbook) and Moominland Midwinter (from Finland: a children’s book that adults love too!) will be over at my other blog, Northern Lights Reading Project. Old Christmas is just pure fun to re-read each year, with its descriptions of Christmas puddings, country dancing, and even a little romance in bloom at Bracebridge Hall, as gently satirized by Washington Irving, with the help of Caldecott’s masterful caricatures.

I’m sure I’ll be watching quite a few Christmas movies all during the challenge, since I already have a good head start with the Hallmark channel’s Christmas movie theme since the beginning of November. My favorite so far, and one that I’d never seen before, is called Fallen Angel (2003) starring Gary Sinise and Joely Richardson.

christmas spirit read-a-thon 2014The Challenge begins with the Christmas Spirit Read-a-thon. Its guidelines are a little different, so be sure to visit the Read-a-thon announcement for details.  Her biggest guideline is to HAVE FUN with it! I will!

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