Recommended Reading, Christmas Edition: Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien

photo (1)If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas book—and maybe inspiration to write the small people in your life some larger-than-life letters—look no further than Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas. 

I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time, but the number of editions and their varying states of completeness put me off buying it until this year, when I came across what I think is the best edition out there: the HarperCollins hardcover edition published in the UK in 2012 (my copy came from the Book Depository). The only thing that could make it better? Bigger pages.

In this collection, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien’s former secretary (and his daughter-in-law) Baillie Tolkien, you’ll find over twenty years’ worth of correspondence from Father Christmas (with interpolations by the North Polar Bear and later notes from the Elf secretary Ilbereth) to the Tolkien children. What’s especially wonderful is that the transcriptions of the letters are accompanied by facsimiles of the letters, envelopes, and drawings themselves, so you can revel in Father Christmas’s shaky writing, the Polar Bear’s hilarious marginal commentary (and goblin alphabet!), and the beauty of Tolkein’s drawings.

You’ll find tales of mischief and eleventh-hour turnarounds, reindeer on the loose, and lots of firecrackers in these pages, and something more, too—a record of the joys and interests of the Tolkien children, and their father’s sadness at the woes of the world around them. The Depression and the Second World War do not go unnoticed, but Father Christmas’s reassurance that hope and light will return again is touching and poignant, and a good reminder for our own times.

Highly recommended reading for parents, children, Tolkien fans, and anyone who’s looking for Christmas cheer.

The Ones that Got Away: A Christmas Wishlist

Joy and lightI’ve had a delightful year of reading, but even though I’ve read some of the best 2014 has to offer, there are still some sitting on bookstore shelves that I think would look great on mine: a few books I couldn’t finish before they had to be returned to the library, a few that just came out, and a few that were published years ago that I just learned about and am coveting.

Now, this is only a wish list in the loosest sense; it’s clear that I have more than enough books to last a lifetime, and truth be told, I haven’t finished reading last year’s Christmas books yet. Still, I fearlessly present the following list, in no particular order.


David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (time travel!)

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things (literary sci-fi, yes please)

Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows (recommended by Naomi)

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (there’s Shakespeare involved, so I’m there)

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters! Post-World War I!)

Christopher Moore, The Serpent of Venice (because Christopher Moore is a reliable laugh)

Short Fiction

Lorrie Moore, Bark (I’ve heard great things)

Paul Yoon, Once the Shore (because I loved Snow Hunters so much)


Eula Biss, On Immunity (because seriously, people: immunize your kids)

Pamela Paul, ed. By the Book (I really, really want this collection)

Danielle Allen, Our Declaration (Gordon S. Wood’s review in the NYRB convinced me that this is a must-read)


Claudia Rankine, Citizen (timely and excellent, from everything I’ve heard)

Eryn Green, Eruv (because I trust Carl Phillips’s judgment)

Ciarán Carson, For All We Know (because “The Fetch,” which I wrote about earlier this week, was amazing)

Two Poems for Knitting

photoIn late November and into December, I often find myself knitting at night, rushing to catch up with projects destined to become Christmas presents.

I am not a very skilled knitter; I can make rectangles (scarves, small blankets) and things that can be made out of rectangles (leg warmers, arm warmers, bags, vastly oversized laptop covers . . . ). I can’t cable, use double-pointed needles, read a pattern, or reliably tell you what a slip-stitch is. Though I was taught by a talented and generous knitter, I am fairly sure that I’m holding the yarn the wrong way.

Still, I love knitting. I like seeing yarn curved and curled into something new and useful (well, mostly useful), and the sense of satisfaction that comes from weaving in the yarn ends on a scarf or a baby blanket. I’m not good enough that I can take my eyes off the work, so I usually knit while listening to a movie or TV show I’ve seen ten times before and chatting with my husband. It’s all very companionable.

Anyway, today I went looking for poems that talk about knitting, and I found a few; here are my two favorites.

The first, Ciarán Carson’s “The Fetch,” is just wickedly cool (that’s a technical term, by the way); it’s about waking, dreaming, loss, the sea, and distance, and features a nice Dickens reference, too. It’s so good I’m putting his book For All We Know on my Christmas wish list.

The second poem links knitting and waves as well. “A simple co-creator, I trust in simple decorum,” says the speaker of Cory Wade’s “Knitting Litany.” An incredibly skilled knitter, the speaker conjures a list of flora and fauna that descend from her needles, and imagines the waves she builds and builds.

Now, who’s going to teach me how to crochet?

The Rosemary and Reading Glasses Holiday Gift Guide (Because it was inevitable, wasn’t it?)

Dear Readers,

Last year I recommended non-book gifts for readers, and while those recommendations hold, I thought I’d recommend real live books this year.

Now, 2014 hasn’t seen one everybody’s-buying-it-even-if-they’re-not-reading-it hit like The Goldfinch (I myself got if for Christmas, and absolutely want to read it, I swear), but there have been a few high-profile books that have made the rounds of the top-10 and best-of lists (looking at you, The Martian, All The Light We Cannot See, Everything I Never Told You, The Book of Unknown Americans). Three cheers for those books and their authors!

But let’s branch out, shall we?

Fiction for Poets

Katy Simpson Smith, The Story of Land and Sea

Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks*

Howard Norman, Next Life Might Be Kinder

Something’s Up, and You Won’t Be Able to Put the Book Down

Kate Racculia, Bellweather Rhapsody

Rebecca Makkai, The Hundred-Year House

Big Sky and Taciturn Men with Unusual Names

Malcolm Brooks, Painted Horses

Kim Zupan, The Ploughmen

Lin Enger, The High Divide

Fabulous Tales, Re-Told

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird

Alexi Zentner, The Lobster Kings

Historical Fiction: Colliding Worlds

Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda

Women at War

TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos

Laird Hunt, Neverhome

Worlds You Can’t See, Worlds You Don’t Want to See

Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water

Sharona Muir, Invisible Beasts

Chris Beckett, Dark Eden

Poetry for Everyone (Everyone, Read More Poetry)

Hailey Leithauser, Swoop*

Saeed Jones, Prelude to Bruise

Mark Wunderlich, The Earth Avails

Charlotte Boulay, Foxes on the Trampoline

Books in Translation

Kyung-sook Shin, I’ll Be Right There

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin

In Which Letters Play a Part

Simon Garfield, To the Letter

George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile

Books by Authors Famous for Different Books

John Williams, Augustus

Jane Austen, Persuasion**

J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Together with Sellic Spell (ed. Christopher Tolkien)

Brilliant and Uncomfortable Reading

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Richard Powers, Orfeo

Coming Up Next: Your Humble Blogger’s Reading Wishlist

*Yes, it came out last year, but I read it this year and it is awesome. So there.

** There is never a bad time to recommend Persuasion.


In Memoriam: Claudia Emerson

Poet Claudia Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her collection Late Wife, died last Thursday.

Her other collections include Pinion (a long poem in two voices), Pharaoh, Pharaoh, and The Opposite House, which is forthcoming in 2015.

Here’s her graceful poem “Pitching Horseshoes,” recommended by a friend who studied with Ms. Emerson some years ago.


Last week I posted a short note about Mark Strand; poet Mark Wunderlich (whose most recent collection, The Earth Avails, I reviewed here) has written a lovely tribute to Strand, which I highly recommend. You can find it here, on Bennington’s faculty blog. 

Recommended Reading: To the Letter and Letters of Note

Dear Readers,

I have mail on my mind. I’ve been—with the help and crayon skills of a small boy of my acquaintance—putting together the annual batch of Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/Festivus cards (if you’d like one, blog friends, do get in touch) and reflecting on the very great pleasure a handwritten note can elicit.

Earlier this week, I received an unexpected package in the mail—a note and two extraordinarily thoughtful gifts from a friend who visited this summer. This friend (who is a very private person, and who I’ll call L) happens to be one of the most wonderful writers I know; she thinks deeply and expresses herself clearly, and I’m fairly sure that if she had been born 200-odd years ago, she would have been a real-life Jane Austen heroine.

L writes gorgeous letters via email, but I am afraid that I have been a terrible correspondent, falling off the epistolary train, so to speak. Fortuitously, as this lovely gift arrived, I was reading a book that suggested to me a way to catch the train again: writing letters.

To the LetterSimon Garfield’s To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing* is one of the most charming books I’ve read in years. Part popular history, part love letter to letters themselves, it’s an entertaining, lively read that will have you reaching for pen and paper by page ten.

Mr. Garfield traces the history of the letter, letter-writing advice, and postal services in general, from the Romans to the twenty-first century, pausing over figures like Madame de Sévigné, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Erasmus, and Ted Hughes. Examples and illustrations are abundant, but perhaps the crowning gem of the book is the correspondence between Chris and Bessie, two English friends (and also postal workers) who fall in love by post during World War II. Mr. Garfield places a selection of these letters between his longer chapters, approximating the delay that’s part and parcel of letter writing. (I should note that for most of the book the correspondence is one-sided; Chris felt the need to burn Bessie’s letters when he moved billets.)

I highly recommend To the Letter, especially for anyone (ahem) who reads mostly fiction, but would like to read more nonfiction.

Letters of NoteAnd since ’tis the season, friends, I’d also recommend To the Letter as a gift, especially if you pair it with Letters of Note (which I received as a birthday present from my husband—thanks, dear!), a gorgeous, coffee-table kind of book you’ll actually read. Shaun Usher, who runs the website Letters of Note (a Rosemary & Reading Glasses favorite) collects letters old and new, famous and not, and includes photocopies (and transcriptions, if needed) of the missives. It’s glorious.

Anyway, I’ve decided to join the movement to keep letters alive (to a particular uncle: I’m late to the party, I know!)—perhaps you’re already on board? Let me know!



*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.