Christmas Reading: Dylan Thomas + Truman Capote

This past weekend I was craving some cozy, Christmas, comfort fiction so I turned to two stories I had on my shelves. Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a charming remembrance, an adult’s memories of his childhood holidays filled with food, ‘Useless’ and ‘Useful’ presents, and the music that roars on Christmas night. Dylan’s language is colorful and vivid and there is a very jubilant energy bursting from the story. It is really a joy to read.

A Christmas Memory is a bittersweet story that I try to read every year during the holidays. It is told from the viewpoint of a child, Buddy, and recounts his memories of his Christmases in Alabama during the 1930’s. Buddy and his cousin, whom he calls ‘my friend’ throughout the story, embrace the traditions of the season by scraping together all of the money they can find to buy ingredients to make fruit cakes. They make them for friends, family and even President Roosevelt. They also find joy in harvesting their own tree and making presents for each other. This autobiographical tale takes the reader back to a simpler time and introduces us to the unforgettable character of Buddy’s cousin, who was based on Capote’s real relative, Miss Sook. This is a gem that I highly recommend.

If you’re looking for some quick and gladdening reading during this hectic time of the year, try one or both of these terrific stories!

Pryday #16

Movies are not my thing. Really, not my thing so I think I’ve seen the standard Christmas movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and A Christmas Story maybe once or twice in my lifetime. I am not a huge fan of the mush or the overly sentimental either unless it is done just right and I am, like Simon over at Savidge Reads, a bit of a scrooge, especially when it comes to movies and spending pots of money on ridiculous gifts. However, there are two Christmas films that have entered my heart and become a much-looked-forward to treat at this time of the year. One is a classic, black and white, old Hollywood production. The other is a contemporary multi-storyline blockbuster. Both are fantastic!

The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Magical, heartwarming, charming, old-fashioned and beautiful. Cary Grant and Loretta Young are irresistible as the angel Dudley and the neglected bishop’s wife, Julia. David Niven is perfection as the distracted bishop. This is a lovely favorite that I watch every year on Christmas Eve.

Love Actually (2003). Funny, touching, romantic. Many stars appear in this interconnected set of stories. Liam Neeson! Emma Thompson! Hugh Grant! Keira Knightley! Alan Rickman! Colin Firth! So many marvelous actors, yet Bill Nighy steals the show as the aging rock star Billy Mack. I think it is a perfect companion to The Bishop’s Wife – something nice and something naughty.

How about you? Do you have a favorite Christmas film?

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

First off I want to take a moment to *gush* about Mary Stewart. She is amazing. I’ve been reading a lot about her the past few months here and here and here. I felt immediately sure that I would like her novels, but I didn’t know how smitten I would be. Her writing is dreamy and evocative and her main characters are sensible and likeable. And there is the supernatural! I don’t know if all of her novels contain otherworldly elements, but this one and the one I am reading now, Touch Not the Cat, definitely do and I like it.

Thornyhold reminded me in some ways of Practical Magic, Garden Spells and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. There were elements of all these books drifting through Thornyhold, but Stewart has such a charming, unique style that I didn’t feel like I was entering “been there/done that” territory. Plus, Stewart came first!

Geillis (Jilly) Ramsey has had a tough life. Her parents are not affectionate, won’t let her have pets (which she dearly longs for) and ship her off to school at the first chance they get. Her mother is a cold, stern woman who doesn’t provide any light or sparkling moments for Geillis to cherish. The most memorable interactions of her childhood are with her mother’s cousin, Geillis Saxon. Cousin Geillis has mysteriously appeared in her life a few times throughout her childhood and has left a tender and magical impression on Jilly’s heart. During college Jilly’s mother passes away and she returns home to care for her aging father until he dies as well. With no where to go and feeling anxious for her future she receives notification that Cousin Geillis, whom she hasn’t seen in years, has also passed and has left Jilly her home in the country, a home called Thornyhold.

Could this be Thornyhold?

This miraculous coincidence takes her to a paradisaical home that is surrounded by a neglected, but lush garden.  As Jilly settles into her new environment she encounters her young neighbor William and her cousin’s housekeeper Agnes Tripp who is not altogether trustworthy. She soon discerns that her cousin was known as a wise woman among her neighbors and she suspects that she may have the same gifts herself.

Slow, simmering suspense and a very sweet love story infuse Thornyhold with the perfect mixture of the serious and sublime. Jilly is a great character, a woman I can see myself befriending – she’s so real and believable. The setting is also colorfully alive and tangible – Stewart has a huge talent for description.

Reading this novel was like snuggling down into a soft, warm bed in your own familiar room – completely comfortable and satisfying. I think I have found an author who will stay with me.

Have you read Mary Stewart? Do you have a favorite Mary Stewart novel?

Pryday #15

One of the joys of this season for me is the music. I absolutely love to sing and Christmas songs are so wonderful to sing to. And because we’ve heard them a million times throughout our lives we know the words to them! Here are some of my favorite Christmas albums – what are yours?

My favorite Christmas music.

Old loves

Johnny Mathis ~ Merry Christmas. How wonderful is this man? His voice is so smooth and velvety and it is at its best singing these standard holiday tunes.

Mariah Carey ~ Merry Christmas. Yes, yes, I know Mariah is kind of a joke now, but this Christmas CD is fantastic. Who doesn’t like ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’?

Vince Guaraldi Trio ~ A Charlie Brown Christmas. This takes me right back to childhood when I used to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special on tv every year. It makes me feel very nostalgic.

CSSR State Philharmonic Orchestra ~ Christmas Goes Baroque. I love the nice, peaceful tone of this lovely CD. There are some surprising arrangements of familiar songs here that make them interesting again.

New favorites

The Lower Lights ~ Come Let Us Adore Him. This mainly Utah based group of musicians have produced a marvelous folksy take on traditional hymns and holiday favorites.

She & Him ~ A Very She & Him Christmas. Mellow, sixties-flavored tunes from actress Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.

Do you have any favorite Christmas albums? 

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

I heard about this book back in July when Tayari Jones was at a local bookstore for an appearance (that I didn’t attend, but now wish I had!). The premise intrigued me at the time, but there was a long waiting list for it and I decided to wait until a more opportune time to read this novel. Last week, it jumped out at me from our new books area and I remembered how much I wanted to read it and I am so glad I did.

Silver Sparrow is split in two halves – the first half is narrated by Dana Yarboro, a teen girl with a rebellious voice, a smart and pretty girl who wants to be a doctor. The second half is narrated by her sister, Chaurisse Witherspoon, an average student and mostly obedient daughter who is lonely and longs for a friend. Dana knows that Chaurisse is her sister, but Chaurisse doesn’t know that she and Dana share the same father – James Witherspoon, who’s committed bigamy by marrying both her mother and Dana’s mother.

Dana lives with complete knowledge of her father’s double life. She knows he has a “real” wife and daughter and she’s even seen them because they live within blocks of each other in the same area of Atlanta and her mother, Gwen, has a penchant for surveilling the rival family. Chaurisse, however, doesn’t know anything about her sister and grows up believing that her family is typically normal.

In their senior year of high school the girls suddenly become acquainted and it is only a matter of time before the truth is harshly revealed.

I will not waver in letting you know how wonderful this book is. It is definitely one of my favorites of the year. The characters practically sing their stories – Jones’s language is a kind of raw melody and her dialogue is soaring. I feel like I know both Dana and Chaurisse, as well as their mothers. Each woman’s feelings, desires and fears are distinctly conveyed. James’s character is not as fully explored because neither daughter really understands or connects with their father. But he’s not portrayed as a monster.

The two girls are so different yet I was able to relate to both of them. Their struggles are heartbreaking and I admire the way Jones makes both sides of the story equally significant. She doesn’t sway the reader in either direction or force us to choose sides.

I adored this novel. I experienced an intense emotional connection to the characters and to the story. It is my favorite kind of book – one that will leave a lasting impression.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Possession is a novel that strongly captured my imagination and my heart when I first read it as a teenager. I loved the dense, layered, symbol-filled narrative that neatly weaves together the tale of two Victorian poets and their forbidden love with a group of contemporary academics and their search for groundbreaking  evidence of that love.

I read it again a few years later and felt the same swoony admiration for its brilliant use of language and intensely smoldering description of the entanglement between poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. I thought it was crazy romantic.

This time around I didn’t feel the same enchantment, but that’s okay – clear-headedness allowed me to appreciate the utter genius of the novel’s construction and to realize what a feat of creativity Byatt achieved with this entertaining tale of passion and scholarly adventure.

Roland Michell is a young academic who’s specialty is Randolph Henry Ash, a Victorian poet of high esteem. While researching him in the London Library he discovers an unfinished letter Ash composed to a mysterious woman. His curiosity fuelled, he begins a cautious investigation which leads him to Maud Bailey, an expert on the work of a forgotten female poet, Christabel LaMotte. As the evidence accumulates they realize that Ash and LaMotte may have had a relationship and they are excited, yet wary of revealing this knowledge because they aren’t the only scholars who care. A particular scholar from New Mexico, Professor Cropper, is hot on the chase and willing to pay any price to be the first to own the intimate letters the poets exchanged.

As the connection between Ash and LaMotte is rapidly explored, Roland and Maude slowly form a bond with each other and their own love story takes shape.

There are so many themes and elements fizzing around in Possession that it is hard to pinpoint what this novel is really about. It is most certainly a fantastic story, thrilling and suspenseful, yet there are many, many layers to the story that truly intensify the pleasure of reading it. Byatt’s creation of the numerous letters, poems and journal entries that help to tell the story in addition to the narrative is astounding. The poems range from full length epics to Emily Dickinson-style verses and the letters bring the voices of Ash and LaMotte alive in a way that simply reading about them would not.

The main traits I admire in A.S. Byatt’s writing are her ability as a natural storyteller and her ability to make me feel smart. Her books are full of allusions that I only occasionally understand yet she isn’t snobby about it. Her knowledge is inclusive – I think she wants everyone to delight in it.

My re-read of Possession was very satisfying and I’m sure that in another 10 years or so I will be ready for the 4th reading of it – what will I think of it then?

Pryday #14

It’s Black Friday here in the States, but I have no interest in entering the fray. Shopping frustrates me under normal circumstances so I blissfully stay home while everyone else is out fighting for that amazing deal. I’d rather use the time to read as I am back at work tomorrow, although I might venture out later to use a Barnes and Noble coupon that is facing expiration.

I love the discounts that can be had on books this time of year. I usually end up purchasing several books for myself for Christmas because I can’t pass up the special offers of 20, 30 or 40 % off. And I urge my family to buy me books, as well, though many of them see it as a waste of their money.

What books are you hoping to get as gifts this year, either from others or from yourself?

Here are my choices:

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt was recently awarded the National Book Award for non-fiction. The fascinating tale of the discovery of Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things and how his philosophy influenced the major figures of the Renaissance has received mixed reviews, but I think it sounds riveting.

Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie has become a major hit in my library system. I love reading biographies of women rulers (last year at this time I read Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff) and I know next to nothing about Catherine and would like to know more.

A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalter is a wonderful tome that I have taken out of the library many times. I’ve finally realized that I need my own copy as I think I will refer to this book throughout my reading life.

How about you? What books are you hoping Santa brings your way?

It’s Time to Read the Classics

I’ve decided to jump on the Classics Challenge bandwagon, this one hosted by Katherine at November’s Autumn. This is a different type of challenge – the guidelines are here – but basically you post on the 4th of every month about the current classic you’re reading or that you’ve recently finished. My goal is to read classics that I’ve downloaded to my Kindle and that have been sitting, taking up precious storage space, since I transferred them. They were all free, but I still feel guilty for not having read them for so long. The following are some of the classics I’ve had on my Kindle for the longest. Has anyone read any of these? Love them? Hate them?

One. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Two. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Three. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster

Four. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

Five. Macaria by Augusta Jane Evans Wilson

Six. Ann Veronica by H.G. Wells

Seven. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West