LitPicks™ Special Edition: 10 Best Christmas Reads

Tuesday, 22 November 2011 08:36

christmasThe best Christmas stories ever, these are certainly my favorites. Count on them earning a place in your heart—and hopefully on your shelves so you can turn to them Christmas after Christmas. While most are sold as books for children, each invokes the magic of the season, no matter what age. They're for young and old alike.




10 Best Christmas Reads

bible1. The Bible, Luke 1: 26-2:40King James, 1611
This choice should go without saying, of course: the very first Christmas story with all the majesty of the King James Bible, the most poetic of all Bibles. Handel surely thought so. Read Luke on Christmas Eve and listen to The Messiah.


2. The Best Christmas Pageant EverBarbara Robinson, 1972
The worst kids in the whole world take over the church Christmas pageant—to everyone's horror. But they end up—to everyone's amazement—revealing deeper truths about the very first Christmas. This story is so beloved that publishers have issued a picture book, two teacher guides and a play script. There's even a 1983 TV movie version. But read the book...of course! Delightful, laugh-out-loud shenanigans for kids and adults. (Paperback, 128 pp.)


3. A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens, 1843; illustrated by P.J. Lynch, 2006
Almost everyone knows the tale of the original Scrooge and his awakening to the true spirit of Christmas. But this version of Dickens' classic is stunning—a real standout. P.J. Lynch's soft palate enhances the text with hauntingly beautiful illustrations. Do spring for the hardcover edition—it's a treasure, a book to keep forever. (Hardcover, 160pp., 9.3 x 7.8 x 1 inches.)


4. A Christmas MemoryTruman Capote, 1956
Capote's endearing account of his growing up years in rural Alabama and one Christmas spent with a favorite 60-ish spinster cousin. The two share adventures as they prepare an honest-to-goodness "handmade" Christmas in the midst of the Depression's scarcity. Use the ISBN number below to find the 1996 hardcover, Modern Library edition, which contains two other fine holiday stories. It's a wonderful, wonderful book. (ISBN: 9780679602378)


5. Letters from Father ChristmasJ.R.R. Tolkien, 1976 (1st publication)
From 1920 through 1943, Tolkien "mailed" his children handwritten letters from Father Christmas recounting Santa's adventures and misadventures in the North Pole. This 2004 version, in addition to the full printed text, features Tolkien's own illustrations, as well as reprints of the letters and envelopes in his playful, wispy script. The envelopes are affixed with a hand-drawn Polar stamp. Exquisite to behold and magical to read. (Paperback, 111 pp., 9,7 x 7.5 x 0.3 inches.)


6. The Night Before ChristmasClement J. Moore, 1823
How could we even get through the holiday without Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen? Here are my two favorite versions, each enhanced by a top children's illustrator:
  • Charles Santore, 2011—rich, sumptuous, and traditional—with a stunning 4-page center fold-out that will catch your breath. A gorgeous edition.
  • Bruce Whatley, 1994—vibrant and quirky, with illustrations that jump off the page. The father-narrator is this version's central character as he rediscovers a part of his childhood. Yet it's the reindeer with their wide-eyed abandon steal who the show (Cover and Amazn link, right).

(All hardcover; average size: 44 pp., 12 x 10.5 x 0.5 inches.)



7. The Polar ExpressChris Van Allsburg, 1985
For its sheer imagination and the luxurious quality of its illustrations, Polar Express became a Christmas classic the instant it hit the bookstores. Yes, there's a movie, but get the book instead—about a young boy who takes a magical ride to the North Pole. Gorgeous, simply gorgeous. Although meant as a young children's picture book, adults will find it hard to put down. (Hardcover, 32 pp., 9.2 x 11.5 x 0.5 inches.)


8. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy EveningRobert Frost, 1956; illustrated by Susan Jeffers, 1978
Though Frost didn't write "Stopping by Woods" as a holiday poem, this lavishly illustrated version of his beloved classic evokes the warmth of the season while managing to maintain (for the most part) the original's eery, haunting quality. Purists may object to its semi-sweet tone, but it's a beautiful introduction to Frost—a slender book to be read over and over, suitable for adults and children. (Hardcover, 32 pp.; 8.6 x 7.3 x 0.4 inches.)


9. The Stupidest AngelChristopher Moore, 2004
If you've tired of all the sentimentality and need a bracing dash of irreverence, here's the most irreverent Christmas book around—an angel in search of a miracle and a young boy who's sure he's witnessed someone offing Santa. You've got to love Moore to appreciate his wacky humor, off-color language, and off-beat characters. Christmas mayhem—silly at times, even sophomoric, often hilarious, and always fun. This one is not for kids. (Paperback, 320 pp.)


10. Twelve Days of ChristmasIllustrated by Jan Brett, 1997
This illustrated version of the 18th-century English Christmas carol should be in your hands—now! Jan Brett's illustrations are so whimsical, colorful and rich in detail you'll find yourself transported to another world—a world of pure, sumptuous delight. There's also a miniature 6 x 5-inch version, but go for the standard. Why skimp on something so lovely? (Hardcover, 32 pp., 10 x 8 x 0.2 inches.)




I've left out
a lot of good ones, many of them novels (John Grisham's Skipping Christmas, Jason Wright's Christmas Jars). I've also omitted Jean Shepherd's Christmas Story, which is actually a novelization of separate stories, not all holiday oriented, that were collated for the film. I've not read the "book," but I love the movie.

For me, though, the real magic of Christmas is found in stories that appeal to children, as well as adults...ones to be read again and again. That, I think, explains most of my choices.

We'd love to hear about your favorites. Let us know on our Facebook page which Christmas stories you love.

 

Literary Spats—and what book clubs read

Sunday, 30 October 2011 17:00

winner-isA literary spat that broke out some 30 years ago tickled my funny bone after reading about it in today's New York Times Book Review section. But the article also got me to thinking about what we in book clubs read.

Thirty years ago, authors and publishers split ranks over the National Book Awards—differing on what kind of books should win.

On one side stood the panel of authors and critics who selected the winners. They championed books of high literary merit, based on prose and philosophical insight. Unfortunately, those books don't tend to be big sellers.

On the other side stood publishers who accused the panel of being elite insiders. Why not select big sellers, books that actually make money...just in case anyone forgot that publishing's a business?

I'm not taking sides here, but it got me to thinking about the books we select in our book clubs. I've taken issue on a number of occasions with those who think book clubs read drivel or those who refer to us as a gaggle of geese

While I don't think most of us tackle a steady diet of difficult "literary" works, and while occasionally we do chose lighter fare, book clubs primarily look for works that engage the reader—compelling characters, solid plotting, and some darn good writing. We also like works that take on issues that divide humanity and do harm to body and soul.

We also want books to be accessible. Finally, they should lead to lively discussions—because conversations about literature can open eyes and change minds. Actually, when you think about it, all those requirements make a pretty tall order for any author.

 

Books that WOW you

Friday, 14 October 2011 08:24

wow2It's easy (for me, at least) to talk about books and writers that disappoint, so maybe it's time to talk about the ones that knock your socks off, the writers that astonish you with their prose. Not just good writing, or even really good writing, but extraordinary writing.

The books I've listed below aren't necessarily my favorites, though some are; they're not always heavy on plot, and a number are interrelated short stories—not my particular structure of choice.

Mainly, they're impressive for the sheer beauty of their prose and vision—the kind of writing that elicits a shiver and a..."how did they do that?" Some are fairly new releases, others have been around for a couple of years. Here's my list...so far.

Kevin Brockmeier The Illumination
Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad  *
Louise Erdrich A Plague of Doves
Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex
Jonathan Franzen Freedom  *
Nicole Krauss Great House
David Mitchell A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  *  and  Cloud Atlas
Elizabeth Strout Olive Kitteridge *
Zadie Smith On Beauty *
(* Click on title for Reading Guide; click on * for our Book Review.)

Of course, there are plenty of wonderful writers...really, really good ones. Some of my favorites are Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood (she probably should be on the superlative list), Anita Brookner, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Elinor Lipman, China Mieville, Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, and Colm Toibin.

Let us know if you've got some superlatives...or some all-time favorites.

 

Books That Disappoint—what to do?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 14:02

bad-dog3Some books make you wonder why the author bothered...and then make you wonder why YOU'RE bothering. Do you continue with a disappointing book...or put it down?

I've done both recently. I picked up Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule on the basis of its solid reviews. But Gordon's prose felt so clogged and overworked it was offputting. It turns out Gordon is a professor of writing, which maybe is why the book feels a bit like a writing-class exercise. I love dense, rich prose, but not.... Well, anyway, I put the book aside.

Then I picked up Sara Gruen's newest, Ape House, in which a family of apes—who communicate using American Sign Language—eventually become stars in their own reality tv show. Just think of the possibilities! But Gruen's prose is thin and screen-writerish. And her apes turn out to be a lot more interesting than her humanoids.

I finished Gruen's book, though—thinking there might be a payoff. Besides it wasn't painful to read. And there is a sort of pay-off at the end, predictable but sweet.

*Added later...For a truly great read about apes and people, try The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (sorry, no reading guide)...it's brilliant, funny, and  disturbing.

Questions for Book Clubs
What do you do with disappointing books...especially if one is your book club selection? Which ones have disappointed...and why?

 

Venus & Mars—do we write differently? (Part 2)

Friday, 15 July 2011 10:32

mars-venus-statue

Lately, I've been struck by something strange: my growing preference for male writers. I'm a little tired of Venus, which is hard for me to admit...what with being a girl.

But after reading a lot of female authors recently, I find myself bored with their focus on the intimate—the bird's eye view into relationships and family—waiting for the shoe to drop, the relationships to explode, tragedy to strike, and a general mess to be made of everything. I'm always worried how it all gets cleaned up.

I'm thinking of authors like Sue Miller, Jodi Picoult, Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, Jennifer Weiner, Marilynne Robinson. These are incredibly talented writers; they're wonderful. It's just that....

Men seem to write on a larger scale; even the personal is painted on a broader canvas, sometimes of near-epic proportions. I'm thinking of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ... Jeffrey Eugenidies Middlesex...David Wroblewski's Edgar Sawtelle......Phlip Roth's The Human Stain or American Pastoral.

After finishing one of those novels, I feel as if I've been part of something grand, something vast and far beyond my day-to-day perception of life. There's a thrill in that.

But now, in the very act of putting pen to paper (or finger to key), I'm starting think of all the exceptions: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is of an era, and Louise Erdrich's Plague of Doves is mythic. Both Richard Russo and Chris Bohjalian write with penetrating intimacy. So...well, there you go. I've proven nothing.

Still, the issue recalls an earlier post in which I asked the same question: Do men and women write differently? The question at the time was spurred by Liesl Schillinger, who wrote in a New York Times review of Domestic Disturbances:

While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective . . . the book’s descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception.

So...if Liesl can say something like that...maybe I'm not nuts.

 

Just ♥ Words—rural juror

Friday, 08 July 2011 10:03

rural-juror2In a 30 Rock episode, Jenna stars in a movie, but no one gets the title—"Rural Juror." Jenna keeps calling it "rurur jurur," a hilarious combination of words, which made me want to try a few of my own—Worry Weary ... Arrow 's Error ... Fear of Furor...

Okay, not as funny as Jenna's, but then Tiny Fey's not exactly writing this blog. Still, it got me to thinking about the act of speech, a complicated process that depends on how we shape our hard and soft palates, open our glottis, move our tongue, shape our lips—and the order in which we do it all.

 We perform these oral gymnastics with ease in our native languages, almost instinctively, because we've been doing so since childhood. And that's what makes tongue twisters so much fun: they confound our ability to perform our usual verbal gimmicks. Selling sea shells, Peter Piper's pickles, and the wood chuck chucking. Say them fast and you trip up—because you can't move your tongue to the proper position fast enough.

My favorite piece of linguistic trivia isn't quite a tongue twister, but it's close enough to have actually altered the way we say a common word or two.

Don't You Just ♥ Words?
—Thunder—

Old English for thunder was thunner—an awkward word due to its phoenetic demands. Say it quickly...and you'll know why the "d" slipped in. It has to do with a slight mistiming—as we move our tongue from the "n" to the "r," says linguist Charles Barber.

This transition calls for two simultaneous movements of the speech organs: (1) the nasal passages are closed by the raising of the soft palate, and (2) the tongue is moved away from the teeth to unblock the mouth-passage. [If there's a mistiming], if the...nasal passages are closed before the tongue moves, a "d" will be heard....

Thus the "d" found its way into the word because it was easier to say. Thunder was was first noticed in the 1300s, but it took another 300 before it was accepted as standard English.

Thimble and bramble
are two other words affected by a similar phonetic mistiming, says Barber. They both acquired a middle letter "b."

End of lesson, end of blog post...except to reference Charles Barber's The English Language: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge UP, 2000, p45.

 

Book Club Blues—food fight

Friday, 01 July 2011 09:30

bcblues-6Is food a competitive sport in your book club? It's strange, but we finally got all of our LitFood recipes back up on the New & Improved website...when I got this email:

Our group meets at each others' homes, and whoever hosts serves dinner. It was fun at first. But now the meals are so elaborate that it's like a competition. I feel I'm being judged, and I dread when it's my turn to host.

Not good. But not uncommon either. In a NY Times article on book clubs a couple of years ago, this very complaint turned up. Food should be part of the fun—not the focus. Besides, lots of people who love to read..don't love to cook. So here's something you might try:

Talk about the issue openly...do other members feel the way you do?

If so, make the meal a joint venture, everyone contributing. Those who really love to cook could bring the main dish. My feeling is that hosting is already a lot of work—getting the house ready and laying out glasses, silverware, dishes...to say nothing of the post-meeting clean-up.

If others don't feel as you do, ask to be let off the hook. Suggest a compromise: you could host more often if others bring the food...or you could take care of wine or hors d'oeuvres for a couple of meetings. (Those things you can buy.)

If no compromise is forthcoming? You gotta go girl. Find yourself a new club, one with a more casual, easy-going hosting style.

 

Hey...you talkin' to me?

Saturday, 29 January 2011 10:41

me-bookEver get that “ah-ha!” feeling when reading? You come across a passage that practically shouts, “Hey, pal. Pay attention—this is YOU we're talkin' about.” It’s eerie, sometimes unnerving.

One of the narrators of Nicole Krauss’s Great House describes herself in a lengthy passage…and I felt an itch of recognition, a not very pleasant itch either…so I won’t quote it here.

But I love that books can do that…make us see ourselves…recall feelings and experiences…and put them into words! It’s uncanny.

Question for Book Clubs
Was there a particular character—or moment—in the book you’re reading now that gave you a sense of self-recognition? What about in other books? If you’ve come across those passages, can you recall how they made you feel?

 

Just ♥ Words—Janus

Wednesday, 12 January 2011 10:04

janusMy friend Gordon showed up again with more word fun—this time Janus words. Since it’s January, named after the Roman diety Janus—who faced both backward and forward, looking to the past and to the future—we’ll take Gordon at his words.

Janus words are self-antonyms, or contranyms. They're spelled the same. . . and pronounced the same, but they have opposite meanings.

 

Don't You Just ♥ Words?

Cleave — to stick together; to cut apart
Clip — to hold together; to cut off
Custom — the norm; unique
Dust — to remove dust; to lightly sprinkle
Fast — held firmly in place; moving quickly
Oversight — to watch carefully; not noticed
Quantum — tiny, in physics; very large, as in ”leap”
Sanction — to approve; a punitive action
Temper — to harden; to soften

This is just a smattering. There are lots more.

 

Take that—you g#*&~! book

Tuesday, 23 November 2010 00:00

throw-a-bookYears ago a friend came across a sex scene in Nelson DeMille’s Gold Coast—a couple playing a masquerade to juice up their sexlife. It was so offensive to her she tossed the book across the room—all of which she proudly announced to our book club. (The offending passage involves Lady Godiva...on a horse, of course...very funny. There's an even funnier pirate scene later on.)

What about you? Ever throw a book? I nearly did the other night. In my case, it had to do with the book’s heroine—dense, bratty (her own words turned on herself), and stubborn, in a very stupid way. It was all the more irritating because the book had started out with such promise.

What makes a book toss-worthy? What gets us so riled up that we want to throw it across the room? Is it anger … revulsion … disappointment … fear? And what sparks those emotions?

What's a toss-worthy reason?

graphic sex or violence?
offensive language?
gross injustice?
irritating characters?
predictable plot lines?
unrealistic coincidence?
just plain bad writing?

But here's the thing...isn't it wonderful how literature evokes such passion? Think about it—books come to us as nothing more than tiny black squiggles on a flat white page…which we use to create meaning…which in turn inspires powerful responses. Astonishing…when you think about it.

 

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