‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

IMG_5629After three years, the stars have aligned so that Christmas Eve and the poem of the week fall on the same day, and so a bit early (or roughly on time for European readers—hello there, European readers!):

A Visit from St. Nicholas

by Clement Clarke Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

 

Merry Christmas, Dear Readers! Wishing you peace, joy, and happy reading this week and in the new year.

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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.

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!

Cordially,

Carolyn

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

Coming Up in December:

I will eviscerate Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie, so you can be fully equipped with rage for the second movie.

Reviews of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Life after Life, Orkney, and Snow Hunters

Poetry by John Donne and John Milton

Announcement of my super-rad 2014 read-along

My list of suggested prezzies for the book lovers in your life

A year-in-review type of deal, possibly with best-of lists

Yuletide cheer.

Recommended Reading: Fraud, by David Rakoff

Longtime readers may recall a post about this book (and Steven Seagal, and All About Eve) way back in the mists of time. I returned the book to my friend, who had left it here accidentally, and put it on my someday list. Of course, when I came around to that part of the list, our local library didn’t have a copy, so I had to wait for the book to arrive from the moneyed halls of Weston.

Fraud

Happily, the other thirteen essays live up to the wry promise of “In New England Everyone Calls You Dave” and “Including One Called Hell.” The essays are from Rakoff’s point of view, but oriented outward, whereas, for example, David Sedaris’s essays (at least to me) are engaged with the world but oriented inward. I’m not knocking them; they’ve made me guffaw on the porch so hard that the neighbors probably thought my personal clock was set to five p.m. I think Rakoff’s brand of humor is quieter, his voice more melancholy, though his opinions are fierce (he truly hates Life is Beautiful, and thanks to him, I can’t imagine ever watching it.)

Whether he’s giving outdoor tracking school a try, hunting for the Loch Ness Monster, searching for elves in Iceland, or remembering  what it was like to live in Tokyo, Rakoff gives master classes in understated elegance and economy of language. He’s clear. Take, for instance, these lines, some of my favorites, from “The Best Medicine”: “Not being funny doesn’t make you a bad person. Not having a sense of humor does.”

I think my favorite essay in the collection, aside from the one about Seagal-fest and the opening salvo (climbing Mount Monadnock on Christmas Day), is “Christmas Freud,” in which Rakoff describes what it was like to play Freud in a department store Christmas window display. Now, I find the whole idea of the Christmas tableau vivant very odd indeed (I’ve never seen one in person — have you?), but Rakoff elevates it to the sublime. Read this book, and I think you, like me, will wish for Christmas Freuden too.

Recommended Reading: Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

Letter-writing

As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good epistolary novel, and here’s one, slender and new, that I hope you’ll love too.

It’s no secret that Carlene Bauer takes as her models for her correspondents Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell; in fact, several reviewers have complained that those (real) voices have not been satisfactorily mimicked, or that Ms. Bauer ought to have worked with material of her own devising.

I confess that I am unmoved by both these objections. It may be heretical to say it, as someone who attended BU and sat in the Lowell room from time to time, but confessional is not my favored poetic brand, and I have been derelict in my scholarly duty to thoroughly read O’Connor (though what I have read is sublime). And why shouldn’t writers dip into the past or borrow historical figures, in whole or in part, as they tell their own stories? [That said, I think the voices of the wholly imagined characters — Claire and Ted — come through very strongly.]

So. I loved this book for its earnest but unwearisome approach to matters of faith, writing, love, and family, which, as you might suppose, are all connected. But humor, so often lost in conversations about weighty subjects (an understatement, I know), is wry and sly and happening all the time in this novel. Here’s my favorite zinger: “The Beats are really nothing more than a troop of malevolent Boy Scouts trying to earn badges for cultural arson” (14).

[Sidebar: I will be stealing one of Frances’s lines for my Christmas/Hannukah cards this year: “Love and joy come to you, and to your wassail too” (9). I know it’s too early to be thinking about Christmas, and yet: look at me go!]

I loved the way Frances and Bernard proceed almost immediately into matters of import, which I’ve found can happen when one starts a correspondence with someone not well known and not likely to be seen again, even if that’s something one would like. As I read the novel, I thought about my own treasured friendships, and resolved to write more letters.

[I’m rather terrible at keeping up with correspondence, though; do you have any tips for becoming a reliable letter-writer?]