Reader's Exchange

December 2011 - Posts

The advantages of being two-faced

The second day after Christmas--time for two annual post-Yule pursuits: eating cookies and confronting my holiday hypocrisy.  I have no qualms about scooping up epic post-season markdowns mere hours after The Day, yet I choose to be deeply offended by the sight of a discarded tree consigned to the curb after the same brief interval.   Janus

So much for graceful transitions.  Faced with returning to work and gearing up for a new year after a long festive weekend, we'd do well to consider Janus' approach.  According to Oxford Dictionaries Online, Janus (namesake for the month ahead) figured in Roman mythology as the guardian of doorways and gates and is typically shown with two faces, one looking forward and one backward. 

And I've just encountered two authors who neatly represent Janus' visual field: William Dean Howells and James Hornfischer

Amid last week's Christmas lore and holiday staff picks, I rediscovered Howell's story, "Christmas Every Day".  The library has a print copy, but you can read it online.  Not only will Howells' droll tale likely echo your own views (about ending celebrations while they are still celebrative),  it samples an American literary legend whose significance would be difficult to exaggerate. 

Though Howell's language can sound a bit dated, he was ahead of his time in terms of style, editorial influence, and fostering rising talents.  His short story "Editha", also accessible in print and online, is one of my favorites and vividly conveys the timeless consequences of romanticizing war.

Janus would appreciate this pairing:  Howells' forward-looking fiction of past eras and James Hornfischer's contemporary nonfiction looking backward to history.  Naval historian and literary agent Hornfischer has published The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour;  Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors; and Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal.

Not only has Mr. Hornfischer appeared on the The History Channel and C-SPAN's Book TV and other venues, he'll be live and in person at the January 16, 2012 discussion meeting for the Round Rock New Neighbors book group (check out their blog).

You don't have to be a new resident to attend this lively group, which convenes on the third Monday of each month at 1:00 P.M. at the La Frontera Barnes & Noble.  You aren't required to possess a prior attendance record to enjoy Mr. Hornfischer's appearance.  Group members have been invited to read any or all of Hornfischer's titles--all available at Barnes & Noble-- in order to gain maximum benefit from this exciting author event, but come anyway if you haven't finished (or even started) your reading yet. 

Those cookies won't last through 2011, but 2012 evidently has treats in store.

We believe Yule love these

Our family's new holiday ritual:  If the Christmas lights are on when you pull into the driveway, proceed to the row of aging candle lights outlining the flower bed.  Twist the bulb on the fifth candle from the end.  It will come back on, which means that its neighbor will stop flickering, thus encouraging its neighbor to blink.  Should you be the one who switches on the lights, wait about an hour; then go outside and proceed...

Fortunately, I've found a new set of identical lights for next year.  I didn't even consider another variety.   The current outdoor scheme suits the house perfectly and coordinates with our neighbors' outdoor decor.  In such situations, surely it's permissible to employ the "if it ain't broke..." approach?  

Yet, it's only fair to acknowledge how favorably other Christmas traditions have evolved over time.  Had our ancestors continually resisted innovation, we might still anticipate visits from a bishop (possibly accompanied by a turban-wearing sidekick) instead of a benevolent, red-suited grandfatherly type of Santa.  "Mincemeat" would still denote exactly that instead of a spicy (and potentially spiked) fruit and nut mixture.  Being granted Christmas day off work would be deemed a very special favor.  And so forth.

From our library resources on holidays, I've been boning up on Christmas history with these two:  Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be by Jock Elliott and Christmas: A Candid History by Bruce David Forbes.  I just now returned them so that you, too, can learn about surprising origins of holiday traditions, the banning of Christmas celebrations, and why we owe a debt to Washington Irving, Thomas Nast, Queen Victoria, and FDR. 

For a faster but equally rewarding read, check out the list below: all-time Christmas favorite books, selected by staffers at Round Rock Public Library.  These will delight children and adults alike.  A shiny new copy could also be the ideal gift for a host or hostess or just about anyone on your shopping list.

I'm grateful to the discerning co-workers who recommended these wonderful stories:  Andrea, Candy, Chip, Chris, Janette, Linda C., Elaine T., Mary, Pat M., Pat B., Regina, Shara, Tricia, Virginia.  Reindeer cookies for Santa

The Classics

  • The Night Before Christmas (A Visit from St. Nicholas) by Clement Clark Moore
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
  • The Dick and Jane books learn-to-read books
  • The Bible:  especially Matthew, Luke, Isaiah
  • A  Christmas Carol  by Charles Dickens

Newer treasures

  • Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera
  • Peter Claus and the Naughty List  by Lawrence David & Delphine Durand
  • Too Many Tamales  by Gary Soto
  • The Polar Express  by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Olive, the Other Reindeer  by J.otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  • Jan Brett books, e.g., The Wild Christmas Reindeer
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever  by Barbara Robinson
  • Must Be Santa (based on the song) by Tim Moore

Especially appropriate for older children and adults for read-aloud:  Great Joy by Kate DiCamillo

Featuring a woodcutter theme:  The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and Elijah's Angel : A Story for Chanukah and Christmas by Michael J. Rosen

Serving up an extra bit of whimsy and humor:  The Night before Christmas, in Texas, That Is by Leon A. Harris and The Lump of Coal  by Lemony Snicket

Mary had a little stereotype
At our house, It's a Wonderful Life is only the third most popular Christmas movie, after the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol and Love Actually.  It's a very solid #3, though, and we happily anticipate the 2011 viewing.  My husband and daughter never miss an opportunity to laugh and point in my direction during a certain incident.

You know the scene: it's been established that, because George Bailey was not born, his destined wife Mary obviously would have been denied any other other chance at marriage (despite the fact that she is charming, intelligent, and beautiful).  Therefore, after the makeup crew has done its best to render Donna Reed ugly and pathetic, we are presented with the most dread-inspiring fate imaginable (even worse than being single) for any woman.  Mary has become a--gasp of horror--librarian !  Noooooooo!Mary Bailey as a librarian

Not surprisingly, we female librarians prefer the cinematic role models of Katharine Hepburn (Desk Set) or Parker Posey (Party Girl).  Marian the Librarian in The Music Man has an enviable wardrobe, a fabulous voice, and a whole lotta spunk, but she doesn't appear to enjoy her work, does she?

Of course, since then we've profited from a variety of dynamic representations, including blogs like LibrarianinBlack and Days and Nights of the Lipstick Librarian.

Fictional characters now avoid the stern and the hapless, as well.  Jess Lourey's character Mira James is a part-time librarian and part-time reporter; Richelle Mead and Michele Bardsley have created vampire librarian characters.   Speaking for myself, I believe we'd rather be associated with a paranormal type than a pitiful one.

It's a Wonderful Life has aged remarkably well given that some other foundational tropes have, like the concept of library careers for unmarriagables, gone out of style.  You could view Mr. Potter, the misanthropic financier, as a case in point.  Meryl Streep's turn as the evil magazine editor in the movie based on Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada demonstrates that nowadays fashion and women can challenge banking and men for power-grabbing any time.

As for the seediness of boarding houses as portrayed in Clarence's what-if scenario, it's been supplanted by the entertaining bed & breakfast scene in series like those written by Mary Daheim
 And what about the notion that the college degree so envied by George Bailey guarantees a significant post-graduation job offer and future success in life?  Books like Boomerang Kids:  A Revealing Look at Why So Many of Our Children Are Failing on Their Own, and How Parents Can Help, along with a plethora of fiction featuring educated slackers, can dispel that expectation once and for all.

Of course, it's only fair to mention that two themes--angelic intervention and the romantic power of the high school reunion party--have definitely retained their fascination for readers and moviegoers over the decades. 

And Mary's librarian chapeau?  It would be the height of fashion right now.

...And a squirrel in a live oak tree

I have elected not to heed the holiday gift suggestions from major advertisers (i.e., buy everyone on your shopping list a car, big-screen TV, or smartphone.) 

But here's a prime reading tip for you or for a guest who arrives at your house having already finished all his/her bestsellers while languishing in airports.  Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves is a wonderful find.  Penney's forthcoming The Invisible Ones is due out in January.  When reviewers find an author's second novel "mesmerizing" but still harken fondly back to the first novel, you know you have to get your hands on the earlier one--now.

The Tenderness of Wolves--Costa Award winner for 2006--represents wide appeal: a crime to solve, a historical, adventurous setting (1867 in Canada's Northern Territory); and the sort of accomplished prose and characterization that prompts you to pester your true love with "let me just read you a couple of lines."

And speaking of your true love, please consider my local interpretation of a classic holiday song.  For each traditional gift, I spotted a modern equivalent in our library catalog.  The Twelve Days of Christmas don't begin until December 25, but don't wait to come by or log on to enjoy your library:   

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to meChristmas tree made of books
Twelve drummers drumming
CD: Global Drum Project

Eleven pipers piping
Nonfiction book:  Highlander: The History of the Legendary Highland Soldier (or, Ultimate Guide to Plumbing: Complete Projects for the Home)

Ten lords a-leaping
DVD:  BBC Series The Tudors

Nine ladies dancing
Nonfiction book:  American Rose...The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

Eight maids a-milking
Fiction book:  Moo: A Novel by Jane Smiley

Seven swans a-swimming
Fiction book or CD audio:  The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Six geese a-laying
Children's book: Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children

Five golden rings
Nonfiction:  The Green Bride Guide: How to Create an Earth-Friendly Wedding on any Budget

Four calling birds
Children's book:  Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus

Three French hens
Nonfiction:  Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes

Two turtle doves
Fiction book:  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

And a partridge in a pear tree
Library database:  Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia