Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It's all over for another year

Well, as ever, cometh the hour, cometh the man.  Santa Claus managed to detect that the Falaise family had decamped to Mrs Falaise’s parents and was able to dump a suitably wonderful sackful of gifts down the chimney.  Mini-Falaise was appropriately over-excited and wound up going to bed at 5.30 on Christmas Eve, although, having sensibly decided that she didn’t fancy a fat old man with a beard coming into her bedroom at night, she elected to sleep with Mummy, relegating me to a spare bedroom.  Mini-Falaise’s grandparents babysat willingly, permitting Mrs Falaise and me to head off to the pub for a couple of beers and a couple of glasses of champagne and, despite a few viruses and colds, a good time was had by all.

As for me, Santa came up trumps.  On the book side, it turned out to be a non-fiction Christmas, with the following volumes turning up in Falaise’s holy (as in containing holes, rather than sacred and venerable) old stocking:

The Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal – this is a socking great coffee table of a book, containing many of the signature recipes from the Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, recipient of three Michelin stars and voted best restaurant in the world on a couple of occasions.  I particularly appreciated this as I could never have justified buying it for myself as it is pretty much impossible to replicate any of these recipes in a home kitchen.  Cheers, Santa.

The American Civil War by John Keegan – Keegan is one of the UK’s leading military historians and is always worth a read.  Although a keen amateur historian, I have very little knowledge of the American Civil War and am keen to correct this state of affairs.

My Journey by Tony Blair – he started as a breath of fresh air in British politics and ended up as one of the most reviled men in the country.  I am fascinated by the whole New Labour phenomenon and still unsure whether Blair was a great but misunderstood PM or one of the great political con artists.

Decision Points by George W. Bush – I’ve never bought into the “George Bush is an idiot” school of thought and actually believe that he was a great presenter who fooled much of the American electorate into thinking he was just a good ‘ole Texas boy.  I also think that history may take a kinder view of him than recent public opinion.  But I may well be wrong on that.

Blood, Iron and Gold by Christian Wolmar – let’s get one thing straight:  I am not a trainspotter.  I have no interest in ticking off train serial numbers.  I don’t even have an anorak.  But I do love train travel. And I am interested in how the growth of the railway around the world impacted economies and cultures.  So this history of the development of railways around the world should hit the spot.

Europe’s Tragedy by Peter Wilson – the Thirty Years’ War was one of the longest and most controversial wars of all time.  By its end in 1648, a quarter of all Germans had been killed and a recognisably modern Europe had been created.  Wilson’s book is, apparently, the first major history of the war in a generation and as it was such a significant event, I feel I should learn a bit more about it.

So, a pretty good haul but I think I am going to drip feed them into my reading schedule to avoid history and politics overload.

I’m doing a bit of navel gazing thinking about where I want to go with my reading and blogging in 2011 and my next post will ramble on about set out my plans and thoughts.

Finally, I hope your Christmas was as excellent as mine.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, The Night Before Christmas, was first published in 1823 and has gone on to become one of the best-loved Christmas poems.  Clarke Moore allegedly wrote the poem whilst riding home on a sleigh from Greenwich Village, having bought a turkey on Christmas Eve.  I’m a little suspicious of this story as it seems a little too serendipitous.  Nevertheless, I’m happy to buy into it today because it’s Christmas and I’m feeling all gooey and sentimental inside.

I’d bet a fairly large sum of money (and I am not a gambling man) that you know at least the opening lines of The Night Before Christmas.  But I would also bet that you don’t know that its author was the President of Columbia University, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, fluent in five languages and a real estate developer in Manhattan.  Yet, all he is remembered for is a Christmas rhyme!

Anyway, that is by the by.  Today is Christmas Eve and the last of my twelve posts of Christmas.  I’ve chosen the Night Before Christmas both for its aptness and because I do like it.  I have read it to mini-Falaise every Christmas Eve since she was born and will do so tonight and, hopefully, for many more Christmas Eves to come.  She will, for the first time, be hanging her own stocking up on the end of her bed and we will be setting out a mince pie and a glass of whisky for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph.  She will then perch on my lap, freshly scrubbed from the bath and we will have the poem.

Frankly, there’s no mileage in thinking about the literary merit of The Night Before Christmas.  It has transcended all of that.  It is simply the quintessential Christmas Eve treat.  It may well be doggerel but I defy anyone to sneer at it.

I’ve now come to the end of my twelve Christmas books.  Looking back on it, it was probably a little foolish to try and read twelve books whilst trying to deal with the end of year rush at the office, Christmas preparations and general family life, even if I did start the reading a little early.  Some of the posts were a little rushed and would probably deserve the comment that was often written on my school reports; “Could have done better.”  I will now take a few days off for Christmas and then have a small backlog of posts to write before I can crack into my 2011 reading.

I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read any of my posts since I started this at the end of August and, especially, those of you who were kind enough to leave a comment – I am very grateful for all of them.  Finally, I hope you and your loved ones have a happy and peaceful holiday and that 2011 brings you health and happiness.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

2,581: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

“Marley was dead: to begin with”.  That may well be true but his ghost, along with Scrooge, Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim live on in the pages of A Christmas Carol.  I suspect it is the best known of all Christmas stories (other than the original Christmas story obviously) and the book has never been out of print since its publication in 1843.

It is a phenomenon and has been adapted into films, TV shows, opera, theatrical productions, musicals and even a mime show on the BBC, featuring Marcel Marceau.  This Christmas, it will even form the basis of the Doctor Who Christmas special.  Everyone who is anyone in popular culture seems to have had a go at it, from Patrick Stewart to Albert Finney, Kermit the Frog to Barbie and from Fred Flintstone to Bugs Bunny.  As well as more or less faithful versions, it has also been subject to parody and pastiche in productions like Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, Scrooged, A Klingon Christmas Carol and I Am Scrooge: A Zombie Story for Christmas.

But A Christmas Carol is not just a source of employment for actors and inspiration for writers.  It popularised the use of the greeting “Merry Christmas” and gave the English language the word “Scrooge” and the phrase “Bah Humbug!”.  More significantly, as historians such as Ronald Hutton have argued, it has also been a fundamental factor in the secularisation of Christmas and a catalyst for the way in which we celebrate it today.

Prior to the middle of the 19th Century, the way in which Christmas in England and the Anglo-Saxon world had been celebrated was largely a communal celebration based around the church.  This had been the case since the Cromwellian period in the 17th Century but observance of the festival had dwindled by Dickens’ time.  The middle of the 19th Century saw a revival of interest in Christmas celebrations, driven partly by the introduction of Christmas rituals such as the tree and the Christmas card but also by the immediate critical success of A Christmas Carol.

Influenced by memories of his childhood and his distaste for the recently promulgated Poor Laws, Dickens created a tale which emphasised the family side of Christmas, the desirability of generosity to the poor and the happiness to be found in celebration.  The classic conservative concept of “noblesse oblige” or the need for the fortunate to look after those who are less well-off pervades the story, with the implied threat that those who fail to heed the lessons of the three Spirits of Christmas will meet a cold and horrible fate.  It is very much a secular work, with elements of the supernatural present but remarkably little mention of religion.  It is one of those books that has changed the way we actually live.

For Dickens haters or those who are intimidated by his longer works, this is an ideal introduction.  It is not considered one of his greatest works from a literary perspective but it is highly readable, especially given the familiarity of its plot. Oddly enough, this is the first time I have actually read it.  As a child and a young man, I was not really gripped by the story and I’m pretty sure I have never even watched a film or TV version all the way through (which shows how pervasive it is as I knew the plot in detail).  I now regret not having read it sooner as I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I suspect it would be a great way to introduce younger readers into Dickens or even Victorian literature in general.

With one more sleep until Christmas Eve, I have one more post to do.  Tomorrow’s post will be on a most appropriate book for that very special day.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2,582: Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien

Wot, no hobbits?   Outrageous!  Shouldn’t be allowed!  To be honest, hobbits probably wouldn’t fit in too well at the North Pole.  Fortunately for Tolkien and for us, there are a number of other animals and creatures that can and do exist happily at Father Christmas’ house.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s children, like many other kids, wrote a letter to Father Christmas every year.  Unlike most children, they received a letter back.  Unlike virtually every other child, the author of those replies was one the best-selling fiction writers of all time.  

The Father Christmas Letters is a collection of the letters that Tolkien wrote to his children every Christmas from 1920 to 1943 in the guise of Santa Claus.  There would also be a hand-drawn colour picture with the letter, depicting life and events at Cliff House, Father Christmas’s house at the North Pole.  The book itself is beautifully presented and, as well as a full text version of the letters, also contains many colour plates of the original letters and drawings.  As well as a literary treat, it is also a joy to look at.

In the early letters, Father Christmas’ main companion is the North Polar Bear (or NPB) who is clumsy and who provides most of the comic content of the letters, even taking over some of the writing duties at times.  As time passes, they are joined by a cast of characters including NPB’s mischievous cousins, Paksu and Valkotuuka, who come for a visit and never leave.  There are elves, cave bears and wicked goblins who even attack Father Christmas’s home.  In 1936, he engages a secretary, Ilbereth, who becomes a third writer of the letters.

There is no consistent plot to the letters but they contain plenty of funny stories about life at the North Pole.  We get to find out how the NPB climbed the North Pole and snapped it, how the goblins (who live in the caves beneath Cliff House) start a war with the Elves and what happened when the NPB was allowed to decorate the Christmas tree.

Although the Father Christmas Letters do not form part of the Middle Earth canon, there are plenty of early hints for Tolkien aficionados of elements that would later appear.  Ilbereth is an early incarnation of Elbereth, the Elven queen, the elf-goblin war presages the Middle Earth elf-goblin wars and the letters clearly show the fully-developed elven script that is seen in the Lord of the Rings.

The letters also give us an insight into Tolkien’s mind and life.  There are numerous creative reasons why the Tolkien children would not be receiving the more expensive gifts they had asked for, highlighting the paucity of his remuneration as an academic.  There are also darker undertones to some of the letters, hinting at Tolkien’s frequent illnesses and more general worry at outside events as the dark clouds of the 1930s gather across Europe.  There are also references to Tolkien’s professional and personal interest in languages and orthography: “He can write several alphabets now – Arctic, Latin (that is ordinary European like you use), Greek, Russian, Runes and, of course, Elvish.”  There is also a reference to the Hobbit and how Father Christmas is sending lots of copies of it to children.

The letters end in 1943 with a poignant letter to Priscilla, his youngest.  Tolkien’s eldest two sons were both serving in the Army during the Second World War and Priscilla was getting older.  Father Christmas wrote:
“I suppose you will be hanging up your stocking just one more time: I hope so for I still have a few little things for you.  After this I shall have to say “goodbye”, more or less.................My messengers tell me that people call it “grim” this year.  I think they mean miserable: and so it is, I fear, in very many places where I was specially fond of going.”

The letter was accompanied by a simple picture of a cold, dark sky.

I think this is a book that can be enjoyed both by children and by adults, especially those who are Tolkien fans.  There is also an excellent CD recording of it.

Tomorrow, the greatest Christmas book of them all – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

2,583: Can Reindeer Fly? by Roger Highfield

Most of our presents are now bought and wrapped (by Mrs Falaise, naturally.  My wrapping skills are poor to non-existent).  I’m trying to avoid the temptation to buy just one more gift for mini-Falaise and we are keeping our fingers crossed that the snow and ice won’t stop us getting down to mini-Falaise’s grandparents on Christmas Eve (or it will be a supermarket ready meal for Christmas lunch!).  In short, we are almost ready.  Santa Claus can start warming up for his big night.

But there are a lot of children out there expecting a visit on Friday.  Frankly, he is going to have his work cut out.  I mean, just how fast will he and the reindeer have to shift in order to get round everywhere in time?*  And, come to think of it, can reindeer actually fly?  And, now I’ve got started, how on earth does Santa cope with all those mince pies and glasses of sherry? (although he will be getting a glass of single malt when he turns up at mini-Falaise’s grandparents.  Or, at least, he’d better be getting whisky.  Or questions will be asked.)

All these questions and more are discussed and answered in Can Reindeer Fly? by Roger Highfield.  This is an odd but fascinating book which looks at a whole range of Christmas traditions and stories and examines the truth and the science behind them.  It covers the maths, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and history of Christmas, even dealing with Santa’s genetics.

There are some absolute gems in here, such as the tale of how Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and notable atheist, claims to have successfully disproved the existence of Santa to a six year old using the fact that Santa doesn’t create sonic booms, despite moving faster than the speed of sound.  Yup, that’s right.  A six year old child.  What a lovely man.  There is also a great little discussion of how Santa solves the problem of finding out what children want and where they live.  I would try and summarise it here but it gave me a headache.

I have a weakness for popular science books that dress up serious science or maths in a fun guise.  One of the best of these is The Strange Case of Mrs Hudson’s Cat by Colin Bruce, which explains the basic concepts of physics via the medium of Sherlock Holmes stories.  Genius for a non-scientist like me.  I've also seen that Mr Highfield has written a book called The Science of Harry Potter, explaining how his magic could really exist (albeit using science!).  I think I may have to check this one out next year.

When you add in some wonderfully pointless trivia as well as the interesting science, Can Reindeer Fly? is a quirky, fun, seasonal treat, with a bit of education thrown in.  Finally, there’s the added bonus that, having read this, you will have all the answers at hand if a precocious and annoying child starts asking awkward questions.  I loved it but I can see that it is only really worth reading at this time of year.

I have three more Christmas posts to come and we are moving into Christmas classic territory.  Tomorrow, the Father Christmas Letters by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, the first author to get a second post on this blog.

* Santa and the reindeer fly at approximately Mach 6395, 6,395 times the speed of sound.  This assumes, however, that he doesn’t stop at each house but lobs presents down the chimney.  Although very fast, this speed is theoretically possible as it is slower than the speed of light.

Monday, December 20, 2010

2,584: Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

It is Christmas Eve.  Simeon Lee, an aged merchant-adventurer who has made a fortune in South America, has invited his family to spend Christmas with him.  Amongst his guests are his loyal children, Alfred and George, a mysterious long-lost granddaughter, Pilar, Stephen Farr, the son of Simeon’s former business partner and Harry, the black sheep of the family.  The atmosphere is tense, mistrust is rife.

It is late at night.  A crashing of furniture.  A loud and terrible scream.  Everyone gathers at Simeon’s door.  It is locked.  When the men break it down, a horrifying scene greets them.  Simeon is dead, lying in a pool of blood.  Who could have killed him? How could the murderer have killed him behind a locked door?  Superintendant Sugden is baffled.  Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate.  And so Hercule Poirot’s Christmas begins.

This is a classic Christie.  There is a closed group of suspects, almost all of whom have a motive for murder.  There are imposters, mistreated family members and the murderer, who is the last person we suspect, is unmasked by Poirot in a splendid reveal scene.   Criticisms?  Well, there is a little bit more coincidence than one would generally want, even by Christie’s standards and, arguably, she breaks one of the key conventions of locked room mysteries.  Poirot, also, is not as compelling a character as he is when playing off Hastings or Chief Inspector Japp.  But, so what.  This is Agatha Christie.  This is Poirot.  If you like them, you will like this and if you don’t, you won’t.  Simple.

It’s also fair to say that it is not particularly Christmassy and could have been set at any time of the year.  There is a much more atmospheric Poirot short – the Mystery of the Christmas Pudding, which could only have been set during the holidays and which positively oozes Christmas.

Now I do like Poirot.  I’ve liked him since I was about ten years old.  Poirot always reminds me of family summer holidays in Dorset and Cornwall when my father would buy me copies of Poirot short stories and I would sit on the beach or by the pool, devouring both them and ice creams.  He also reminds me of Christmas, when there would often be a volume or two as part of my present haul.  I still love him now, thirty years on, and a Poirot short story is a guaranteed relexant.

I know this isn’t literary brilliance.  I know that, even as detective stories, they are lacking in real quality by comparison with many more modern and complex mysteries.  But I love them and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.  And, I will be settling down on Christmas night to watch David Suchet’s new version of Murder on the Orient Express, my favourite Poirot novel.  Can’t wait.

Tomorrow, a brief foray into non-fiction – Can Reindeers Fly? by Roger Highfield.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

2,585: The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth

Many of our Christmas traditions, like Christmas trees and Christmas cards date back to Victorian times.  Amongst them is the tradition of the Christmas ghost story.  These were often told at house parties or by families, sitting by the glowing embers of their Yule log.  Although Yule logs (or at least real Yule logs) have largely vanished, the telling of ghost stories at Christmas has stayed with us down the years.   Authors like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy have contributed to the genre and for many years, the BBC has broadcast a ghost story at Christmas, either on TV or radio.

If I’m honest, Frederick Forsyth is probably one of the authors I’d least expect to have written a Christmas ghost story.  More usually associated with political thrillers, his earlier books were a staple of my teenage reading.  In general, his style tends towards the factually detailed and the heavily plot-driven.  He doesn’t go much for psychological complexity or character development.  Furthermore, he has some fairly prehistoric, right-wing political views.

Nevertheless, the Shepherd is a valiant stab at the Christmas ghost story and is likely to appeal to boys of all ages.  An RAF pilot, stationed in North Germany during the 1950s, is due to fly home on Christmas Eve for his annual leave.  Flying over a frozen Northern Europe towards Norfolk, he suffers catastrophic electrical failure.  Having gone through all possible manoeuvres to avoid crashing into the North Sea, he is resigned to death when, from out of the fog comes a World War II bomber, whose pilot acts as a shepherd, guiding him home.  On landing, however, it proves difficult to find a rational explanation for his rescue.

Forsyth was himself an RAF pilot in the 1950s and the book oozes technical detail and conveys a real sense of atmosphere.  I really felt as if I was in the cockpit with the pilot and shared his sense of isolation and mounting panic as nothing he tries seems to work.   He also manages to create the feeling of the fragility of the cockpit compared to the dark and hostile night sky.

It’s not great literature, let’s be honest, but it is a nice little tale of the supernatural and a perfect stocking filler.  I think it would also be a good book for a teenage boy who is a reluctant reader.

Tomorrow we head into the last week before the holidays.  In actual fact, I have already finished for the year but have a busy week ahead of me.  I also have a great run of books for this second half of my twelve days of Christmas.  Tomorrow, it will be Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, a Christie classic, Tuesday will see a touch of non-fiction with Can Reindeer Fly?, Wednesday will bring a little Tolkien gem, the Father Christmas Letters, on Thursday we build up to Christmas Eve with the Big Daddy of Christmas books, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  And for Christmas Eve?  Well that’s a surprise.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

2,586: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

‘Tis the night before Hogswatch and all through Ankh-Morporkh children are getting ready for the visit of the Hogfather by leaving out a pork pie for the man himself and turnips for his flying pigs.  They have written their letters and a few lucky (or unlucky) ones have even seen him at Crumley’s department store.  Presents are expected to be delivered.  But this will be no ordinary Hogswatch Night.

Hogfather is the twentieth Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett and features many of the key characters from the cycle – Death, Albert, Archchancellor Ridcully, Constable Nobby Nobbs and several others.  The plot is as follows: the Auditors have decided that the Hogfather does not fit into their concept of the Discworld and have commissioned the Guild of Assassins to eliminate him.  Death has spotted his disappearance and is filling in for the night, with a decidedly disgruntled Albert as chief pixie and some unexpected consequencces.  Meanwhile, he has lured his grand-daughter, Susan Sto-Helit, into investigating the Hogfather’s absence and, as a side issue, the sudden appearances of, amongst others, the Oh God of Hangovers, the Verucca Fairy and the Eater of Socks.  I don’t want to drop any spoilers but, suffice it to say, there is a happy ending for almost all and the children will get their presents after all.

All of Pratchett’s hallmark traits are present and correct here.  There are extensive footnotes which carry the story forward, puns and allusions galore and extremely sharp insights and commentary on our world, all hidden in his wonderful fantasy world.  As with many of his best works, Hogfather is a parody of a subject in our world, in this case, obviously, the story of Santa Claus.

The reason I love the Discworld books is that they are, on the surface, comic fantasy stories but, in reality, are witty, often satirical commentaries on life and human behaviour.  Pratchett himself has criticised the view that the science fiction and fantasy genres are somehow less worthwhile than other fictional genres and, in my view, his own work would support that criticism.  They are simply joyful, with hilarious comedy disguising the serious and, sometimes even profound points he makes.  And if all that seems a bit over the top, the Discworld books are also damn good reads.

One final point I’d make about Pratchett for the uninitiated is that the Discworld series shows very clearly how Pratchett’s writing style and ideas have developed over time.  In short, the more recent books in the series are, for me at any rate, more sophisticated and sharp than the earlier books which can tend towards the merely comic.  Obviously, I would highly recommend most of his books (although I found Small Gods and Moving Pictures to be a little ho-hum).

Terry Pratchett is currently suffering the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease and it is probable that there will be few more Discworld novels and it is remarkable to consider that he has managed to produce several books since the diagnosis of this terrible disease was made.  It is sad to think that there will, in all probability, be few more of them to come.

I’m afraid that with Christmas looming ever closer and the list of pre-Christmas jobs not getting any shorter, this is a much more abbreviated post than originally intended.  Nevertheless, I will be back  tomorrow with a Christmas ghost story, the Shepherd by Frederick Forsythe.

Friday, December 17, 2010

2,587: Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas by John Baxter

One of the most comforting things about Christmas is the familiarity of it all.  Many of us have grown up with a set of customs and rituals that are repeated Christmas after Christmas.  Whether it is the way in which our presents are delivered, the snacks that are left out for Santa Claus and Rudolph or the family trek to Midnight Mass, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them.  And Christmas lunch is one of the most ritualised meals of them all.  The British roast turkey and trimmings followed by Christmas pudding, the Australian Christmas barbecue or the Central European goose, they are all hallowed by tradition and one messes with them at one’s peril.

So what happens when one gets married?  Do we create new rituals, blend two different sets or try and find compromises?  And is it even more difficult when one marries into a different culture?

James Baxter, an Australian writer, journalist and film maker confronted this very issue when he moved from Los Angeles to Paris to live with his Parisian girlfriend, whom he later married.  Not only did he have to cope with adapting to French life but he also did the unthinkable by taking over responsibility for cooking Christmas dinner for his new extended French family.

An Immoveable Feast is Baxter’s third volume of autobiography, following on from A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict and We’ll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Lights.  It tells the story of his family life in France, based around preparations for his Christmas dinner and how he is trying to impress his family by introducing new dishes to the meal without moving too far away from the kind of repast that French culinary tradition would demand at Christmas.  Let’s just say that he serves up Cajun spit roast suckling pig.

An Immoveable Feast is an easy and inoffensive read.  There’s the requisite amount of gastro-porny description of French food and the sourcing of his dinner and sufficient Parisian atmosphere to create the sense of the different that the “foreigner living abroad” genre of books would require.  Ultimately, however, it is a little bit “meh”, a little bit insubstantial and a little bit pointless.  I suspect part of my reaction may be because I hadn’t realised that it was a volume of autobiography as well as a book about food.  I’m not a big fan of memoirs by “ordinary” people.  If I am reading biography or autobiography, I tend to need it to be about someone of real significance in their field.  I am not criticising Baxter here, I appreciate that he is a successful writer and probably a very nice chap, it’s just that I’m not that interested in his story.

I am, however, very interested in food (Mrs Falaise would say, too interested) and food writing.  And therein lies the nub.  There was not enough about the food or about French Christmas eating habits and rather too much about how his family and how he learned to cook as a young man in Australia to impress the girls.  It doesn’t make it a bad book, just not quite what I thought I was getting.

I don’t know if I would have had a different reaction to it if I had read his other autobiographical pieces first or if I had come to the book with different expectations but I didn’t really connect with it.  It would pass a couple of harmless hours but, in all honesty, there are many other books that would do the job better and leave more of an impression, at least in my opinion.

As for tomorrow’s post, well you’d better watch out, you’d better beware, ‘cos Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather is coming to town.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

2,588: A Highland Christmas by MC Beaton

What do MC Beaton, Marion Chesney, Jennie Tremaine, Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Marion Gibbons and Charlotte Ward all have in common?  It’s a bit of a trick question actually because the answer is that they are one and the same person.  Marion Chesney is a prolific author who has published books under each of the above names.  I’ve managed to count over 100 books by her in her various guises but I strongly suspect there are more.

Her two best known series of works are probably the Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth crime novels, both written under the pseudonym of MC Beaton.  There are over twenty volumes in each of these series and Hamish Macbeth was adapted into a long-running TV series in the UK.

A Highland Christmas features PC Hamish Macbeth, a policeman in the small Highland town of Lochdubh. Christmas in Lochdubh is not a particularly jolly event due to the influence of the Calvinists in its midst. Considering much of the Christmas ritual to be pagan and ungodly, they have prevented Lochdubh from having a Christmas tree or any decorations, even though the sourpusses of nearby Cnothan will be having them.

Into this rather dull Christmastime comes all-round good guy Hamish Macbeth.  In the course of the 166 pages of A Highland Christmas, Hamish manages to solve the mystery of the theft of Cnothan’s Christmas tree and lights, recover Smokey the cat, thwart his nemesis, DCI Blair, organise a Christmas party in an old people’s home and arrange for Christmas to come to Lochdubh after all. Not bad for a couple of days work.

You will, I am sure, have noticed that there has been no mention of murder, rape, armed robbery or any other serious crime in that short synopsis of A Highland Christmas.  This is about as cozy as a cozy mystery can get.  “Cozies” are, basically, reinventions of the classic Golden Age whodunits which largely eschew violence, sex and other unpleasantnesses and A Highland Christmas takes this to extremes by almost foregoing crime altogether.  Frankly, it is so cozy, it should come with a free cardigan, pair of slippers and cup of cocoa.

As you will have gathered, A Highland Christmas is not a demanding read.  The plot is not complicated, the writing is straightforward and there are no deep ideas or themes to contemplate.  There is some sly humour, having a little dig at the po-faced Calvinists of Scotland and at some of the parochial elements of rural life and there is a real sense of Highland atmosphere to the story.

Ultimately, A Highland Christmas is a bit like a literary chocolate bar.  It is quickly consumed, sweet and comforting and easily forgotten.  I am sure that, merely by reading this post, you will know exactly whether it is something you would fancy reading.  I wouldn’t have read it  but for its Christmas theme, I probably wouldn’t read more MC Beaton but, you know what, I actually quite enjoyed it.  It was happy and that’s part of what Christmas is about.

Next up, we revive the Auld Alliance by travelling from Scotland to France for Immoveable Feast, A Paris Christmas by John Baxter.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2,589: A Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

Jostein Gaarder is best known for his novel, Sophie’s World but he is also the author of a number of other books, including the Solitaire Mystery, Through a Glass Darkly and the subject of today’s post, A Christmas Mystery.

A Christmas Mystery tells the story of two Norwegian children, Joachim and Elisabet.  Joachim’s story begins on November 30 when he goes to his local bookstore with his father to purchase an Advent calendar.  Uninspired by the shop’s offerings, he spots an old and faded calendar which has been left there by John, an enigmatic man who sells flowers in the market.  Joachim insists on buying the old Advent calendar and takes it home.  The next day he opens the first door.  A piece of paper falls out.  There is writing on the paper.  He begins to read and discovers that the writing is the first part of a story about………….

…….another Norwegian child, Elisabet.  Her story begins at Christmas time almost 50 years before Joachim buys his Advent calendar.  Elisabet is out shopping for Christmas presents with her mother when she sees a stuffed lamb come to life and run out of the shop.  Elisabet runs after it, becomes separated from her mother and follows the lamb out of the town.

Each day, Joachim opens another door in the calendar and another piece of paper falls out, gradually revealing more about what happened to Elisabet.  As time goes by, Joachim becomes more and more involved in Elisabet’s story and he tries to track down John, the flower seller who, it becomes clear, has made the magical Advent calendar and written Elisabet’s story.  It also becomes apparent that Elisabet is not a  figment of John’s imagination but a real girl, who went missing nearly 50 years earlier.

Elisabet’s story takes us thousands of miles across Europe and the Middle East and 2,000 years back in history to a rendez-vous with a very special child on a very special night in Bethlehem in an inventive twist on the Christmas story and, ultimately to a conclusion that reminds us of the joy and meaning of Christmas.

Like many of his other works, including Sophie’s World, A Christmas Mystery is written from the viewpoint of a child, in this case Joachim.  It is also a piece of metafiction, telling to story of Joachim reading the story of Elisabet.  This, again, is a favourite technique of Gaarder.

Although the text is studded with small pieces of wisdom and insight and although the storyline is quite convoluted, A Christmas Mystery is not as sophisticated or as adult a work as Sophie’s World or the Solitaire Mystery (the only other Gaarder books I have read).  The resolution of Elisabet’s journey was a touch unfulfilling and unconvincing for me and, as a father, I have a bit of an issue with the feel-good aspect of the book’s denouement (although I am prepared to accept that this may be over-sensitivity on my part) which I can’t discuss here for fear of spoiling the story for anyone who hasn’t read it.

On the positive side, it is an enjoyable read.  It did give me a warm feeling inside and a real Christmas feeling of peace and contentment.  It is gentle and heartwarming and even has some interesting factual nuggets.  The story is told in 24 chapters, corresponding to the Advent calendar so you could actually read a chapter a day with your child or children as a little Christmas ritual – I think I may well do this with (or, possibly, to!) mini-Falaise in a couple of years.  The structure of the book drew me in and kept me wanting to find out what happened next.

A Christmas Mystery is a real Christmas book and is highly recommended for both adults and children.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds.  I, on the other hand, will be giving to you on my fourth blogging day of Christmas a truly cozy Christmas crime caper – A Highland Christmas by MC Beaton, featuring PC Hamish Macbeth and the glorious Highlands of Scotland.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2,590: Rumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer

Sir John Mortimer Q.C., the author of the Rumpole stories, died in January 2009.  He was 85, a good age, and I had never met him, yet I felt a real sadness at his passing.  Why?  Well, when he passed away, so too did Horace Rumpole, Old Bailey hack and long-suffering spouse of Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed.  There would be no more stories of his exploits, his struggles with the likes of Mr Justice “Mad Bull” Bullingham, Mr Justice “Gravestone” Graves or “Soapy” Sam Ballard Q.C. or his attempts to stay one step ahead of Hilda in her never-ending campaign to get him to reduce his intake of Chateau Thames Embankment, fry-ups at the Tastee-Bite café and small, black cigars.

One last morsel of Rumpole remains, however.  Rumpole at Christmas (or, A Rumpole Christmas in the USA) is a collection of Christmas-themed stories, previously published in magazines and collected into book form for the first time.  Amongst the gems are the tales of the fake Father Christmas, the body at the health farm and how he prevents a student from being framed as a murderous religious fanatic, all told with Mortimer’s usual elegance and wit.  Rumpole at Christmas should certainly be on the reading list of any lover of Rumpole but is not the best starting place for anyone new to him.

And start with him you should, if you don't already know him.  Rumpole is one of the great characters of modern English literature, a great eccentric, railing against crooked coppers, prejudiced judges and amoral governments.  He is someone with whom you can curl up in a comfy chair, with a glass of something pleasant, and while away a couple of enjoyable hours.

Rumpole is, if truth be told, an anachronism.  He is an exemplar of a legal London that has long since ceased to exist.  He is an old-fashioned advocate, living and working in a slightly old-fashioned way.  He still sups a pint of Guinness and takes a wedge of steak and kidney pudding as a working lunch.  He has no truck with computers.  He litters his speech with literary allusions and quotes from the Oxford Book of English Verse (Quiller-Couch edition, of course).

More seriously, he has an old-fashioned regard for the presumption of innocence and the importance of a fair trial for everyone.  In an era where the rights of defendants are steadily being eroded on vague grounds of national security or the War against Terror, Rumpole stands for the rights of individuals and for the importance of truth and liberty.  As he says to Hilda in Rumpole and the Christmas Break:

“The terrorist got a fair trial. And the whole truth came out in the end.  The day when a suspected terrorist doesn’t get a fair trial will be the day they’ve won the battle.”

Although the Rumpole stories are humorous, there is a gentle but firm note of morality underlying them.  Rumpole never prosecutes (on the one occasion he did, he still ended up defending).  Rumpole, to the eternal vexation of Hilda, can never resist poking the Establishment in the eye.  Deep down, Rumpole is an old romantic, whose principal aim is to keep his clients out of jail.

I’m very fond of Horace Rumpole.  I have been reading him for over 25 years now and he was around when I first decided that law might be the thing for me as a teenager.  Odd, given that he is a criminal defence barrister and I am a corporate solicitor now, but true nevertheless.  I own all of the Rumpole books and frequently pick one out for re-reading.  I believe they are a real treat and would whole-heartedly recommend them, especially in holiday season where we maybe want something gentle or even cozy to read.

It’s just a pity there will be no more adventures of Rumpole to look forward to.

Tomorrow, on my third day of Christmas, stop by for a little Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder,

Monday, December 13, 2010

2,591: The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris

The other day, as I was reading The Santaland Diaries on the Tube, I made one of the classic faux pas of Tube travel.  I only realised that I had been chuckling out loud, softly but definitely audibly, when I found myself the unexpected beneficiary of a little more room than normal on the Northern Line and noticed that I was being given a few surreptitious glances by other occupants of my carriage.  

The Santaland Diaries (or Holidays on Ice, if you are on the Western side of the Atlantic) is a collection of six Christmas-related pieces by American humorist David Sedaris.  I believe a new edition has recently been published in the United States that includes six more pieces concerning Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving.  I don’t know that this works or whether it would detract from the integrity of the Christmas pieces but, generally, I’m all for more Sedaris.

Sedaris mixes autobiographical essays with fictional pieces to great effect.  I suspect that the autobiographical ones have been a bit exaggerated to make them work – if not, then either his life must have been stranger than the norm or he is a truly gifted humorist.

The centrepiece of the collection is the title essay itself.  In this, Sedaris recounts his experiences working as one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s in the run-up to Christmas.  This is the essay that first brought him to national attention when he read it on NPR and it is wonderful stuff.  There is also a nice story about how he and his sister bring a prostitute home for Christmas, giving a whole new meaning to “Ho, ho, ho” (as Sedaris points out).  The keys to his anecdotal writings are his tendency to self-deprecation and his essential warmth.  In these pieces, he doesn’t make readers feel that they are party to the mocking of others.  Although they are hilarious, they are good-natured.

The fictional chapters are, although just as hilarious, a bit different in nature.  There is a Christmas letter from a suburban mother whose life, it quickly becomes clear, is rapidly degenerating.  There is a sermon preached by a cynical TV executive to a rural community, a wonderfully bitchy review of local high school Nativity plays and, finally, a delightfully deranged story about a pair of competitive families who take the spirit of Christmas giving to an unparalleled level.

Where his more factual pieces are, at root, gentle and warm, Sedaris lets his wicked side out to play in the fictional pieces.  Typically, they start out in an anodyne fashion and gradually lead the reader step by step down a path of increasing lunacy until they reach a gleefully insane and grotesque climax.  What really makes them brilliant, however, is that there is a serious idea underpinning each one that makes them almost believable right up to the end.

The Santaland Diaries was a perfect first day of my twelve reading days of Christmas, being extremely funny, good-natured enough but with a nice edge to it as a bridge into the season.  Having said that, this would be funny at any time of the year and I enjoyed it so much that I have added a couple of his other books to my list for 2011.

Tomorrow, for the second day of Christmas, I will be jumping back across the Atlantic to London, EC4 to be precise, where I will be reviewing Rumpole’s Christmas, a collection of Christmas stories featuring Rumpole of the Bailey, one of my favourite literary characters.  If you don’t already know him, please do stop by – he is worth it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Twelve Days of Christmas

I bought the Christmas edition of the Radio Times from the newsagent at the Tube station yesterday morning.  Now I appreciate that this is not exactly earth-shattering news but, as far as I’m concerned, it means Christmas has really begun.

You see, when I was a child, as soon as the Christmas Radio Times arrived, I would make sure I got hold of it before anyone else. I’d curl up on the sofa and read it religiously cover to cover, circling any programme I wanted to watch over the Christmas and New Year period.  It always used to arrive in our house a few days before school finished and heralded the arrival of the holidays.

There was another thing about it too.  In the middle, there was always an advertising supplement for summer holidays for the following year and, being a rather odd sort of boy, I would methodically go through it, sending off for all of the holiday brochures that looked as if they dealt with interesting and exotic places which, in the ‘70s, encompassed pretty much anywhere outside Devon, Cornwall and the Norfolk Broads.  The result of all this was that we would be inundated by holiday brochures arriving by post through the whole of January, increasingly irritating my long-suffering parents.  I still have no real idea why I did this but, as a small child, it was very much part of my Christmas routine.

I don’t clip coupons to send off for holiday brochures any more.  I don’t even highlight TV programmes I want to watch any more (honest).  I do, however, buy the Radio Times once a year, at Christmas and it still starts me feeling all Christmassy, even after more years than I care to remember.

This year, of course, we have also had snow, even in South West London, which has only compounded that feeling. To top it all off, mini-Falaise, at the tender age of two, has begun to get the idea of Christmas.  She is very, very excited about it all.  She gasped in wonder at the decorations for the tree.  She squeals at pictures of Santa Claus and reindeer.  She even engaged him in conversation at Selfridges and claims to have definitely been a good girl this year, in the face of a certain amount of evidence to the contrary.

All this wonderment is rubbing off on me and I have well and truly got the Christmas spirit early.  So, to make sure that my usual world weariness doesn’t sneak back in and sandbag the Christmas joy, I have started to read some Christmas themed books.  Now, I am not normally one for reading seasonally themed books at the appropriate time of year abut am making an exception this year.  And so, with a vague drumroll, I am announcing that the 2,606 Books and Counting Twelve Days of Christmas will start on Monday.  Twelve days, twelve Christmas themed books, twelve blog posts, ending on Christmas Eve. Please stop by and get into the mood with me, unless the mere thought of Christmas brings you out in hives.

Next Monday’s post, my first post of Christmas, will be on the Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris.

Monday, December 6, 2010

2,592: The West Indies and the Spanish Main by Anthony Trollope

In November 1858, Trollope, in his day job as British civil servant, boarded the good ship Atrato and sailed from Southampton to Jamaica to begin a lengthy trip to the Caribbean.  The official reason for his journey was to carry out a land survey for Her Majesty’s Government but, along the way, he found time to pen one of his several works of travel writing, focussing not on his official business but on the impressions he has of the places he visits and the people he meets.

As opposed to his novels, the West Indies and the Spanish Main is not an easy book to find.  It has often been out of print and seems to be kept alive largely in facsimile editions by specialist publishers.  I have a feeling I know why this is.  For, you see, there is a very big elephant in the West Indies and Spanish Main room – race.

Let’s make no bones about this.  Trollope is a racist and he’s not afraid to show it.  Not for him the subtle sneer or the coded comment.  No, sir.  He believes that Afro-Caribbeans are, although impressive in their ability to undertake manual labour in the West Indian heat, lazy, slovenly and not very bright.  He laments the fact that they will not work more than is needed to satisfy their immediate needs and, although he claims to approve of the abolition by the United Kingdom of slavery throughout the Empire (in 1833), he can’t help commenting that pre-Emancipation times were the “good old days”.  He ruminates extensively on the decline in the economic fortunes of the West Indies since abolition and seems frustrated that fertile land is left unexploited.

I was going to say that Trollope’s views on race (which he himself describes as the “useful and true” part of the book) are not all black and white, but that would be crass even by my low standards.  Instead, let us say that his views are slightly more nuanced than the above paragraph might suggest.  You see Trollope, like legendary ‘70s pop band Blue Mink, believes in miscegenation.  He wants to see the West Indies being populated by what Blue Mink described as, “coffee coloured people by the score”.  Or, as Trollope put it, “Providence has sent white men and black men to those regions in order that from them may spring a race fitted by intellect for civilisation and by physical organisation for tropical labour.”  He thinks that this will then enable Britain to withdraw from the region and allow it to be self-governing. 

The uncompromising way in which he expresses himself on race is very uncomfortable to the ears of the 21st Century reader.  I think that this has been a major reason for the lack of popularity of the West Indies and the Spanish Main.  It is a shame because, leaving this aside, it is a work which would otherwise sit comfortably in the Trollopian canon.  I also believe that it is foolish for the reader to be indignant that a mid-Victorian Englishman would or should have had the same outlook as we do today.  Instead, we should look upon his views as useful historical evidence of societal beliefs and values in the Victorian period and not rage at the fact that he shared them.

Anyway, leaving this aside and having given you due warning, if you decide to go ahead and read the West Indies and the Spanish Main, you will find it a witty book, full of acute observations and clever character sketches of some remarkable individuals whom he meets on his travels, including servants, local dignitaries and British colonial officials.  There is a wonderfully acerbic passage on the vicissitudes of travelling by sea from England to Jamaica and from Jamaica onwards.  He is amusing on exotic food, Cuban cigars and Central American railroads.  On the downside, his penchant for talking directly to the reader is, as in his novels, on show here and it really irritates me.

In conclusion, this is a worthwhile read if you are interested in 19th Century attitudes to race, the state of the West Indies at that time, how middle class Britons were accustomed to travel or you are an avid Trollopian.  Otherwise, you could probably give this one a miss without regretting it.

This post is part of the Classics Circuit's Trollope tour.  The next tour will be in January and will focus on Ancient Greek classics.  I am debating which of Lysistrata or the Anabasis to choose.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

1,001 Books - the next five

Now that I've finished the Wasp Factory, I have come to the end of the first five books in the 1,001 Book Challenge that were chosen for me by the Random Number Generator.  I decided to choose the books in this way to avoid the all too likely scenario of me picking first all the books that appealed to me and then being faced with an endless stream of books that didn't.  Although it is a bit gimmicky, I thnk it works as a concept as none of the first five books it set me were ones that I would naturally have picked and I found that I enjoyed three, managed one and didn't even attempt the other!

So, I have gone back to the RNG for my next selection and {drumroll please}these will be:

1.  The Crime of Father Amado by Jose Maria Eca de Queiros - a nineteenth Century Portuguese classic about the power and venality of the Catholic Church in provincial Portugal.  I'm looking forward to this one, having read a few reviews of it.

2.  Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro - I'm contemplating using a Get Out Of Jail Free card on this one as it doesn't strike me as my kind of thing.

3.  Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow - looking forward to this story about the poet Humboldt and his friend Charlie Citrine by a Nobel prizewinner.
4.  Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon - I suspect this will be challenging but I have a weakness for books set during WWII and its aftermath so will hopefully find it rewarding

5.  The Life and Times of Michael K. by J.M. Coetzee - another Nobel prizewinner, I am not particularly grabbed by the subject matter (a black man struggling to live a peaceful life in apartheid South Africa) but will try to approach it with an open mind.

I have a backlog of books to blog about, have a Classics Circuit Anthony Trollope Tour post to do on Monday and will be having a Christmas mini-theme later this month and suspect I will also have a very busy Christmas (Mini-Falaise is already getting warmed up by roaming the house bellowing random chunks of Jungle Bells and exclaiming excitedly at any pictures of snow, Christmas trees or Santa that she spots).  I will probably, therefore, not get to any of these until the New Year.  Hopefully, they will be a great kickstart to a new year's reading in 2011.