"Aunt Dimity's Christmas"

Aunt Dimity's Christmas by Nancy Atherton

This is apparently part of a series of "Aunt Dimity" books that I'd never heard of till now. I bought it online mainly because the title sounded sweet and Anne-of-green-gable-ish, the perfect formula for a Christmas story. It wasn't quite what I expected.

It started ordinarily enough, but took a surprising turn when the main character, Lori Shepherd, sat down in the study of her house with a blue book open on her lap and read as the deceased Dimity's handwriting began to appear on the page. Yes, indeed. Dimity is dead. She communicates with Lori by writing her thoughts on the blank pages of this one particular book. Not your typical Christmas story.

The plot built around this oddity is quite good. I liked the characters and thought them plausible and well written, and the story had no problem holding my attention. It was quite interesting but I think it could have been done successfully without the input of dear departed Dimity. I didn't find that she added much to the story.

Had I started this series at the beginning I'm sure I wouldn't have found this book so peculiar and if you are interested that's where I'd suggest you start because jumping in mid-stream with this one is just too strange.

A Merry Christmas To You!

The best words I have ever heard to describe what Christmas means to me come from two well known Christmas Carols, songs we know so well that it's easy to lose their meaning. The first is It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and I'm writing out the lyrics here in hopes that even one person may stumble upon this page and in a quiet moment be encouraged.

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men, from Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

The other carol that means so much to me is O Little Town Of Bethlehem. There is one verse that answers all the questions I have ever had about Christmas. When I was a young girl and learning the harsh realities of life I used to ask what possible difference a baby born so many hundreds of years ago could make in my life today or in the lives of ordinary people all over the world. In these words I find the answer, that though Christmas began long ages ago, it did not end then:

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,
So God imparts to human hearts the wonders of His heaven.
No ear may hear Him coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.

And so, with meek souls everywhere I celebrate today, and with God's help everyday, the wondrous gift of love and light, Jesus.

God bless us everyone!

"Christmas On Mill Street"

Christmas On Mill Street by Joseph Walker

I loved this little book! There are similarities to the last one I read, "Wishin' And Hopin' ", and to the movie "A Christmas Story", but I guess that's inevitable if you read enough Christmas books and watch enough Christmas movies, which I do. 

This one is about young Sam Andrews whose family has recently moved to Utah from Arizona. He's trying hard to fit in at school, where the other boys are all talking about sledding down the hill to beat all hills.....Mill Street. It's a sharp drop with two very tricky turns, and before Sam really knows what he's doing, he hears himself agreeing to try it, though he has never been on a sled or even seen snow.

Sam has one hope that keeps him believing he can do it - the hope of getting a shiny new "Flexible Flyer" sled for Christmas. With a sled like that he knows he can do it. And besides, he has a secret weapon in Clara Morgan, a woman who gives the kids shivers, but who knows the secret of mastering Mill Street hill.

I've got two short Christmas books left that I hope to finish before the end of the year. I have a feeling that by next year I won't be able to remember any of these books from the others. I'm already getting the characters mixed up. There's an up side to that though - they'll all seem like "new" books again next year (one of the few perks of aging!).

If you get a chance to read this, do. It delivers everything that great cover promises.

" Wishin' and Hopin' "

Wishin' And Hopin' by Wally Lamb

The year is 1964 and Felix Funicello is a ten year old fifth grader living in small town Connecticut. He attends Catholic school where there are lots of rules and kids to break them. His parents operate a lunch counter at the local bus station which brings some interesting characters into his life, and at home he has two older sisters who tolerate him, but just barely.

Felix is like other boys; he has his ups and downs and makes good choices and the other kind. He knows and uses a few bad words, he's learning about things like french kissing and he laughs at dirty jokes even when he doesn't know what they mean.  He's smaller than the other boys his age but on the other hand he has something they don't have: his third cousin is famous actress Annette Funicello, whose posters line the wall at the lunch counter.

The story begins at some point in the fall and leads up to the Christmas Concert at Felix's school. If that sounds a little like "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" by Barbara Robinson that's because it has a similar story line. In both you get some background on the families and become familiar with the characters, all leading up to the night of the big Christmas concert. This one is a little longer I think so you get to know the characters better and it's funnier too - to me that is, humour is a subjective thing - though both are quite entertaining with some hilarious moments.

A very enjoyable read - just don't share it with your kids as there is a bit of language and a couple of jokes you probably won't want them to learn. Do read it for yourself though. You'll fall in love with Felix and more important at this hectic time of year, it will make you smile.


Corked by Kathryn Borel

Philippe and Kathryn Borel are a father and daughter on a wine tasting tour of France, a trip proposed by Kathryn when she realized that she barely knew her dad. He had raised her trying to teach her everything he knew about wine, a subject in which she took no interest until she came to see that if she wanted to really know her father she should try to understand what he had spent his life doing.

I started the book with the expectation that it would be a quaint story in the same vein as Peter Mayles' Provence books. I was spectacularly wrong; it is anything but quaint. For one thing there's a lot of swearing and for another France and wine serve more as the backdrop to the working out of the father/daughter relationship.

Having said that, there is a great deal to learn about wine from this book. The descriptions of different wine regions, growing conditions, varieties of grapes and different methods of making and bottling wine are well explained and make for interesting reading. Surely it is everyone's dream to take a trip like that - two weeks driving through the French countryside tasting great wine at old family owned vineyards. It sounds close to perfect to me.

But that isn't the real story here. The real story is how Kathryn and her father connect, butt heads and finally get to a place of honest emotion and acceptance of one another. And that's emotion with a capital E. It gets raw and leaves you feeling like you've been through the wringer, but it's worth it. Knowing it's true and about real people gives you hope that just maybe the rest of us can work out our less-than-functional relationships too.

It took a few chapters to get into because at first it seemed too centered on Kathryn's feelings. In fact both she and her father were so self-centered that I almost gave up on it. The angst and self-analyzing got monotonous and Philippe was just plain obnoxious most of the time. But about half way through Kathryn got to me and I started to care. From that point on I couldn't put it down. She's an interesting writer, very articulate. She uses metaphors - a lot of them - that no one else would ever think of. Her writing is fresh and original and easy to read. 

I think this book is worth reading. The gut wrenching honesty and lack of ego needed to put this story out there in public are admirable. She has things she can teach us. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of "language" so if that's a deal breaker for you, you may want to give this one a pass. If you can get past that, it's worth it.

In spite of the more or less happy ending, I found the last few lines of the story sad. Kathryn and her father joke that something they have in common is how much God hates them both. I know it's meant to be funny, but they've fought their way through such hard situations and come out stronger and closer to each other, and I feel so bad for them that they don't see their worth in God's eyes, how much He cares about them. To end it like that - this story that tells so well how the love between father and child survives the hard times and becomes a healing force in both lives - leaves me wanting more for both father and daughter.

"A Christmas Carol"

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I am embarrassed to confess it, but I had never read this book until now. I've seen countless versions of the movie, some good and some awful, but I put off reading it because I made the mistake of judging the book by it's movie. Every version I've seen has been stuffy and preachy, and more than a bit over-the-top and maybe that's to be expected; it wouldn't be Hollywood if it wasn't overdone. And let's face it, Christmas movies are seldom subtle. In spite of that I watch one or more versions of it every year, but could never bring myself to risk reading the book and not liking it.

As it turns out, my fears were groundless. I loved the book. It wasn't stuffy or preachy or overdone. It was beautiful. The same lessons are there but it feels more sincere, more grounded. Another thing - and this was a surprise - the book was less old- fashioned than the movies. It felt like a more current story, much easier to put yourself in the middle of. The characters are more believable, the story flows better and the final chapter, where Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man, is more convincing than any I've seen in movies.

The writing is typical, wonderful Dickens. After an eleven line description of Scrooge's... well, scrooginess, he says: "No wind that blew was bitterer than he...". You can feel the chill. Another line I like is "...every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!". Harsh, but so funny. Even if you disagree with the sentiment you have to admire such imaginative hostility.

I loved this so much I want to read it again already. I expect I will every Christmas, because truly, how could anyone not want to be reminded of this at the close of each year:

"I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due it's sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-travelers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

If you've never read it - and I realize I may be the only one so foolish - then go out right now and get yourself a copy. Merry Christmas to you!

"Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast"

Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast by Bill Richardson

Finally, a Canadian book that isn't all darkness and angst and swearing. Ok there are a couple of swear words but overall this is a wonderful book. 

Hector and Virgil (who in my mind is the spitting image of the authour) are middle-aged twin brothers who have turned the house they grew up in into a bed and breakfast on Canada's west coast. The brothers are book lovers who see their home as a retreat for readers. Their guests are welcome to use the brothers' well-stocked library or to bring their own books with them. They cater to people like themselves, the "gentle and bookish and ever so slightly confused". That description alone had me hooked before I even started reading.

There is no plot, just a casual revealing of the brother's personalities and personal lives and the daily routines of the B&B. I have no objection to a good plot, but a book that is character driven has a much better chance of ending up on my "favorite reads" list and this is completely character driven. These endearing and oh-so-humanly flawed brothers move quietly into your world and make you wish they and their reader's retreat were real.

The chapters are written alternately by Hector and Virgil with letters from guests in between. Hector and Virgil write about their lives as innkeepers, their pasts and each other. The guest's letters tell their own stories and fill in details about the setting and the experience of being the brother's guests.

The lovely old house, the surroundings and the simple lifestyle the brothers offer their guests is nothing short of delicious. Reading the book is getting away for a quiet weekend, relaxing and comforting with enough humour to keep it fresh. Amazingly (because it happens often with books like this) it never becomes trite or even worse, cute. The brothers are quite realistic and that makes them all the more appealing.

The cover says "This quiet charmer is a bibliophiles delight" and that's exactly what it is. Other cover quotes say "a funny, cozy tale" and "a whimsically gentle fiction". I couldn't argue with those descriptions either, though the word "cozy" is dangerously close to "cute" and is recklessly overused in describing fiction. I love this book and I love it's witty, intelligent language. I was sorry to come to the last chapter but fortunately there is a sequel. It's called "Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast Pillow Book". A somewhat odd title, but hopefully it will be as good as this one was.

"Up In The Old Hotel"

Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

There's a lot of reading in this book and very good reading it is. Joseph Mitchell was a reporter in New York city during the 1930's and 40's so he knows how to tell a story; "Up In The Old Hotel" contains 37 of them. It takes a while to get through this book but it's pleasant reading and interesting stories so I don't think you'll mind the time.

The people in these stories are (for the most) real. They are the everyday people he got to know on the streets and in the diners and taverns of the city. There are many of them, so I'll just highlight some that stood out to me.

First, meet the Rev. Mr. James Jefferson Davis Hall, a street preacher who doesn't approve of soda fountains, dry-cleaners or modern women. "They've gone hog-proud and hog-wild. Wearing britches, wearing uniforms, straining their joints for generations to come with high-heeled shoes...their mouths smeared and smiddled and smoodled with paint, and their cheeks and their fingernails." The Reverend spends his days answering calls - he gives out his phone number and invites people in trouble to call him - and his nights walking Broadway, standing in the doorways of bars and preaching the consequences of drinking.

Then there's Jane Barnell, the bearded lady who began her career at the age of four, when she was given away to a traveling circus. She's had four husbands and in public wears a veil and a scarf around her neck to hide the beard.

Mazie P. Gordon is the "bossy yellow-haired blonde" who works the sidewalk ticket booth at a movie theater seven days a week from 9 am to 11 pm. She knows everybody and hears all the neighbourhood gossip. After work at night she walks the bowry handing out cakes of soap and change to people who need them.

And there's Phillipa, a 9 year old girl with an IQ of 185 who has been writing music since she was three years old, and John Smith, who writes big cheques and  gives them out to people who are nice to him, untroubled by the fact that he has no money at all.

One of my favourites is Arthur Samuel Colbourn, head of the Anti-Profanity League. Arthur, know as the "No-Swear Man" has handed out over six million cards asking "Please do not swear, nor use obscene or profane language. These cards are for distribution. Send for some - they are free. "His address is included on the card.

One story, called "A Mess Of Clams" is about the day he went out with a "buy-boat" off Long Island that came back carrying 145 bushels of clams destined for various markets and restaurants in the city. Another story is about the KKK, and another about the rodents that live in and around the city.

One story was very different. It was a sad account of a lonely man living in a furnished room. Short, and unique in that the authour wasn't involved in the story in any way, it had a completely different feel, like fiction. Mitchell does say in the introduction that though most of the book is true, some is fictional. I don't think it will matter to you when you're reading, because in the end it's all just good. 

I recommend this one to anyone who's looking for something interesting to read; it's not a page-turner so if that's what you like it may not be for you.

Favourite quote: 
                 "...it takes almost a lifetime to learn how to do a thing simply."