The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum (J)

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus     

L. Frank Baum (Juvenile Fiction)

Did you ever wonder why Santa delivers presents on Christmas Eve or why he climbs down a chimney?  Why reindeer were chosen to pull his sleigh or how the first Christmas tree came about?  All of these questions and more are answered about the jolly old man who delivers joy and happiness to every child around the globe on one very special night each year.  From his introduction as a helpless infant who was discovered by the Wood-Nymph Necile in the Forest of Burzee to the night he escaped the Spirit of Death by being given the Mantle of Immortality, the life of Santa Claus is finally shared and what you thought you knew about the man in red may never be the same again.

Two years after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, L. Frank Baum delighted audiences again with another tale of mythical creatures and magical worlds.  The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is not just a history of one of the world’s most notable and recognized figures, but it is a heartwarming story of selflessness, devotion, family, and love.  More importantly, Baum gives us a book extolling and celebrating the virtues of inclusion.  As an abandoned baby, Claus was lovingly adopted and wholly accepted within the secret and protected world of immortals.  As an adult, he once questioned whether or not wealthy children were also deserving of gifts since they already possessed so much.  The Queen of the Fairies replied, “Whether it be rich or poor, a child’s longings for pretty playthings are natural.  I think, friend Claus, it is your duty to make all little ones glad, whether they chance to live in palaces or in cottages.”

Children and adults alike can benefit from the messages Baum delivers in this classic children’s story.  The idea of extending grace, mercy, and joy to everyone we encounter is something we should aspire to every day of the year and not just one.

“’In all this world, there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child,’ says good old Santa Claus; and if he had his way the children would all be beautiful, for all would be happy.”

Merry Christmas from The Dusty Jacket.

Rating: 5/5

 

 

 

Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote (J)

A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory     

Truman Capote (Juvenile Fiction)

There was something special about that late November morning: the air lacked the songs of birds; the courthouse bell sounded cold and clear; and the once-empty hearth boasted a blazing fire.  All of these meant only one thing—it was fruitcake weather!

A Christmas Memory is Truman Capote’s earliest memories of his life in a small rural Alabama town.  Up until the age of ten, he lived there with a family of distant and elderly cousins.  One cousin, in particular, he was especially fond of and considered her to be his best friend.  She called him “Buddy”, after her former best friend who died in the 1880’s, and he referred to her as simply “my friend”.  Capote’s book is filled with his personal heartwarming memories of Christmas—beginning with the inaugural baking of the fruitcakes (which includes a charming visit to one Mr. Haha Jones) and followed by searching for the perfect tree, hanging wreaths on all the front windows, and making gifts for the family.  Capote’s vivid descriptions and eloquent prose allow us to smell the fruitcakes baking in the oven and luxuriate in the warmth emanating from the home’s stone fireplace.

On Christmas Eve night, “my friend” confesses to Buddy her desperate desire to give him a bicycle for Christmas, but her inability to do so for lack of money.  “It’s bad enough in life to do without something you want,” she laments, “but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have.”  During this time of year, we seem to be inundated with an endless barrage of commercials, movies, and television shows that all seek to remind us about the true meaning of Christmas through animated animals, complicated romantic triangles, or splashy musicals.  I’m grateful for Mr. Capote for sharing his personal Christmas memory and for showing us in a loving, compassionate, and quiet way that we should be thankful not for the gifts that lie under our tree, but rather for those who gather around it.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

All during the month of December, we’re reviewing books that celebrate the season.  Enjoy!

Mr Dickens and His Carol

Mr. Dickens and His Carol    

Samantha Silva (Adult Fiction)

Throughout history, authors have credited some of their most famous works to muses: Dante had Beatrice Portinari; F. Scott Fitzgerald had his wife, Zelda Sayre; and Charles Dickens has a poor seamstress by the name of Eleanor Lovejoy.

Dickens leads an abundantly blessed and expensive lifestyle, and between his growing household, numerous philanthropic endeavors, and covering the debts of relatives, the coffers are quickly running low.  Despite past successes, Dickens’ newest book is selling poorly and the fast-approaching Christmas holiday is proving to be not so merry or bright.  Threatening to withhold future pay, his publisher insists Dickens write a “Christmas book” in just a matter of weeks.  Overwhelmed, under pressure, and fresh out of ideas, it’s enough to make even the great Boz Dickens say, “Bah, humbug.”

Weaving bits of facts with threads of fancy, Samantha Silva gives readers a wonderful behind-the-scenes look into one of the world’s most beloved Christmas tales.  The origins of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim are all so plausible, that you forget this is a work of fiction and instead allow yourself to be dropped into this charming story like a cinnamon stick into a bowl of wassail punch.  As you read, you can begin to imagine and appreciate the mounting pressures and expectations placed upon a man so highly heralded yet so hopelessly human.  As Scrooge was cursed with malevolence, Dickens was equally cursed with benevolence and when life proved to be too much, he sought serenity, solitude, and anonymity.  Silva tells us that Dickens dabbled in magic and, at one point in her story, he noted that behind every illusion, fiction, and lie, was our great desire to believe.  This leads us to reconsider the idea that perhaps even a character as detestable as Ebenezer Scrooge wanted desperately to believe in something or someone but simply lacked the energy or the will to do so.  Like his creator, perhaps Ebenezer Scrooge was a man eventually beaten down by the burdens of life.

Near the end of the book, Dickens is in his darkest hour and Eleanor attempts to remind him about the importance of his books and what Christmas is truly all about: “And the colder it was, the nearer we were to each other, and to the truth of Christmas.  The truth of your books…That despite what is cold and dark in the world, perhaps it is a loving place after all.”  It’s easy to see why Silva’s book is more fiction than fact, for with words like these, a muse like Eleanor Lovejoy would indeed be difficult to find…even by the great Charles Dickens.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket (J)

The Latke Who Couldnt Stop Screaming

The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story     

Lemony Snicket (Juvenile Fiction)

“This story ends in someone’s mouth, but it begins in a tiny village more or less covered in snow.”

This is no ordinary Christmas story.  This is a story of a latke—that delicious, traditional part of the Hanukah celebration.  This particular latke talks—food and animals often talk in stories such as this—and this talking latke is trying very hard to explain exactly what it is and what it represents.  It’s not having much luck.  Well, YOU try explaining Hanukah to a string of lights, a candy cane, and a pine tree…ALL of which keep comparing your traditions to Christmas.  Hanukah is NOT Christmas.  It’s a totally different thing.  Will they EVER get it right?

In true Lemony Snicket spirit, this story is a wickedly funny and dastardly delightful tale about likenesses, differences, traditions, and the need to find a common thread that connects us all.  This book is a wonderful way to introduce young readers to the history of Hanukah and the symbolism behind the eight-day celebration.  Pre-readers can become a fun and interactive part of the story by providing the AAAHHHHHHHH!!! parts that the latke screams out of frustration.  Snicket describes this as “A Christmas Story”, but Hanukah is a totally different thing.  Just ask the latke.

Lemony Snicket has entertained readers with a number of unpleasant books, but this one offers a sweet and valuable lesson.  When the latke explains how Christmas and Hanukah are completely different things, this time to a pine tree, the tree replies, “But different things can often blend together.”  It would serve us all well to carry this message with us, not just at Christmas or Hanukah, but during all the days of the year.  Different things can indeed blend together—like applesauce or sour cream blends with, for instance, latkes!  AAAHHHHHHHH!!!

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 12/11/2018

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It’s Throwback Thursday and we’re reviewing one of literature’s classics!  During the month of December, we’re reviewing books that celebrate the season.  Enjoy!

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol    

Charles Dickens (Adult Fiction)

How does one go about describing Ebenezer Scrooge?  Perhaps our story’s narrator says it best: “Oh!  But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!  a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”  Yes.  That will do nicely.  But no matter how vile Scrooge is, he has an equal by the name of Jacob Marley, his business partner that’s been dead seven years to the day.  This very night, Marley will pay a spectral visit to Scrooge in hopes of salvaging his former colleague’s soul and thus sparing him from an afterlife laden with rusty chains and regret.

A Christmas Carol is Dickens’ beloved and cherished Christmas song to the world.  First published in 1843, this classic story is divided into staves (or staffs) rather than chapters where every character is a note, every ghostly visit is a movement, and every revelation is a crescendo that builds to the climax when Scrooge realizes the dire consequences of his avarice and malevolence.

There are more than two dozen film adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but nothing quite compares to reading and absorbing Dickens’ original words, which contain a few subtleties that are otherwise lost when presented visually.  One example is that prior to Marley’s visit, the characters of Bob Cratchit and Fred are nameless and simply given titles such “clerk in the tank” or “Scrooge’s nephew”.  This omission would lead the reader to conclude that these characters are inconsequential; however, it is only later in the book when we realize what an important part these individuals will eventually play in Ebenezer Scrooge’s road to redemption.

I love the many moral and spiritual lessons we can glean from A Christmas Carol: “In order to fully realize life, one must love and be loved in return”; “Learning begins with listening”; “It’s important to learn from the mistakes of others”; or, if you’re a businessowner, “Treat your employees nicely”.  My personal favorite is taken from Marley’s visit with Scrooge where the former says, “I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.”  In an uncertain world where, despite careful planning or our best intentions, life doesn’t always go the way we wish, and it is therefore important to remember that if there is a chance—no matter how slight or remote—then there is still hope.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.scholastic.com

 

 

The True Gift: A Christmas Story by Patricia MacLachlan (J)

The True Gift

The True Gift: A Christmas Story    

Patricia MacLachlan (Juvenile Fiction)

Lily and Liam are off to Grandpa and Gran’s farm for Christmas.  They always go in December and then wait for Mama and Papa to join them on Christmas Day.  Lily likes the sameness that this time of year brings:  the walks into town, the trip to the lilac library, and helping Gran make cookies.  But when her brother spots a white cow standing alone in a snowy meadow, Lily’s predictable holiday is suddenly threatened.  “Do we know if she’s lonely?” Liam asks his sister.  “She’s a cow,” replies Lily.  “Cows don’t care.”  But Liam cares and because of this, Lily knows that White Cow is bound to ruin everything…especially Christmas.

From the author who delighted us with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan gives readers another book filled with compassion, love, and family.  She introduces us to Lily, a young girl who finds herself angered by her brother’s selfless desire to help a creature that finds itself quite alone on Christmas.  Fortunately, Liam’s determined desire to bring comfort to this lonely creature is enough to eventually whittle down Lily’s stubborn defenses until at last, she surprises herself by whispering to White Cow one night, “Don’t worry.  We’ll take care of you.”  Those few words set in motion a turning of Lily’s heart, as well as the fate of another soul in need of rescuing.

The True Gift shows us that any small act of kindness isn’t truly small at all.  By giving us a simple story of a young girl, a small boy, and a lonely white cow, MacLachlan reminds us that Christmas is about giving from the heart and that the act of bestowing even the slightest bit of charity to another being is perhaps one of the truest gifts of all.

Rating: 4/5

Posted: 12/4/2018

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com