Tag Archives: Holidays

Five Book Friday!

And for those of you celebrating today, Happy Mother’s Day!

In our family, Mother’s Day was celebrated with my Grandfather, who managed to be both a mother and father while my Mom was growing up.  As a result, I learned early on that “Mothers” could embody any number of identities–in fact, I’ve had any number of mothers in my life, both literary and physical.  From Marmee in Little Women, who told her daughters to be angry (as long as they used that anger to good purposes) and to be happy to Carson Drew, from the early Nancy Drew mysteries, who let his daughter think for herself…to my own Moominmamma, who gives the best hugs, and always has her purse on her arm.  I hope each and every one of you, literary and real, have a lovely weekend.

And now, on to the books!

House of Names: Colm Tóibín is one of the finest story-tellers working today, and in this work, that re-imagines the story of Clytemnestra, he puts all his talents to use.  Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to her infamous, bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child.  Clytemnestra’s tale has become something of a feminist touch-stone recently, and here, Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it.  The Washington Post echoes this in their review, which praises the book, saying “Despite the passage of centuries, this is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender…Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range, not just in tone but in action. He creates the arresting, hushed scenes for which he’s so well known just as effectively as he whips up murders that compete, pint for spilled pint, with those immortal Greek playwrights.”

Cave Dwellers: Richard Grant’s new espionage novel is billed as “an eleventh hour attempt to overthrow Adolf Hitler”, but there is so much more going on here, and much more emphasis places on these unique characters’ identities, secrets, and connections, that even those who aren’t big into spy thrillers will find plenty to enjoy.  In late 1937, the young lieutenant Oskar Langweil is recruited to this cause while attending a party at the lavish home of a baroness. A high-ranking officer in Germany’s counterintelligence agency brings Oskar into the fold because of their mutual involvement in a patriotic youth league, and soon dispatches him to Washington, D.C., on a perilous mission. Despite his best efforts, Oskar is compromised, and must immediately find a way to sneak back into Germany unnoticed. A childhood friend introduces him to Lena, a Socialist and fellow expat, and they hatch a plan to have Oskar pose as her husband as they cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship filled with Nazis and fellow travelers. But bad luck follows them at every turn, and they find themselves messily entangled with the son of a U.S. Senator, a White Russian princess, a disgraced journalist, an aging brigadier, and a gay SS officer as the novel races toward an explosive conclusion.  Kirkus Reviews gave this book a starred review, praising it as “An understated, entertaining [and] exceptional period thriller focused on homegrown opposition to Hitler. . . . Grant builds tension slowly, then ratchets it up with fine pacing.  The main characters are well-drawn, but the minor ones are also memorable, from a White Russian princess in an ancien régime Berlin salon to a cabaret mentalist.”

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell:  The subtitle of this book will probably give you the best insight into what’s between the covers:Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.  But if that isn’t enough, let me describe some of this book to you: It’s a humorous, well-informed take on the world today, tackling a wide range of issues, from race relations and the state of law enforcement today to comedians and superheroes; from politics and failure to Bell’s interracial marriage; from  his up-bringing by very strong-willed, race-conscious, yet ideologically opposite parents to his own adventures in fatherhood; from his early days struggling to find his comedic voice to why he never seemed to fit in with the Black comedy scene . . . or the white comedy scene; and how it took his wife and an East Bay lesbian to teach him that racism and sexism often walk hand in hand.  Those who have enjoyed Bell in his wonderful show United Shades of America will love these essays, and those who have yet to discover his unique voice will find much to enjoy here…or, as Publisher’s Weekly put it: “Those unfamiliar with Bell’s work or expecting a lighthearted read from a popular comedian will be surprised by the book’s breadth and depth…This informative read will be illuminating and worthwhile for aspiring comedians and general readers.”

The Song and the Silence: In 1966, Yvette Johnson’s grandfather, Booker Wright, who owned his own business, and also worked evenings serving white diners at a local restaurant, appeared on the NBC documentary Mississippi: A Self-Portrait, and explained what life was truly like for Black people in the segregated world of Greenwood.  His act of truth and courage became a beacon for the civil rights movement; but Yvette herself was born a year after Wright passed away, and grew up in a wealthy San Diego neighborhood.  As such, she never had to confront race the way Southern Blacks did in the 1960s. Compelled to learn more about her roots, she travels to Greenwood, Mississippi, a beautiful Delta town steeped in secrets and a scarred past, to interview family members and townsfolk about the real Booker Wright. As she uncovers her grandfather’s compelling story and gets closer to the truth behind his murder, she also confronts her own conflicted feelings surrounding race, family, and forgiveness.  An astonishing work about history, identity, and the potentially hopeful future we can forge, Johnson’s memoir is a fascinating and heartfelt piece that won a starred review from Booklist, which stated, “In addition to beautiful, evocative descriptions, a great strength of Johnson’s writing lies in her unique ability to absorb and relay several dimensions of conversations about painful and emotional topics.”

Less Than a Treason: Readers of Dana Stabenow’s mysteries featuring native Aleut Private Investigator Kate Shugak will know by now that very little can stop Kate in her pursuit of the truth.  For those who don’t know her, Kate Shugak is a native Aleut working as a private investigator in Alaska. She’s 5’1″ tall, carrires a scar that runs from ear to ear across her throat, and owns a half-wolf, half-husky dog named Mutt. Resourceful, strong-willed, defiant, Kate is tougher than your average heroine—and she needs to be, to survive the worst the Alaskan wilds can throw at her.  In this, her 21st adventure, Kate is recovering from a gunshot wound, enjoying some hard-earned solitude when some unwelcome visitors pass by, begging for Kate’s aid after discovering a heap of human bones on their trail. The intrepid Kate packs up the scanty remains, which a variety of animals have picked clean, and heads for the nearest town. But this case is much more deadly than a simple cold case.  2,000 people go missing in Alaska’s inhospitable terrain a year–is Kate about to become one of them?  Booklist loved this one as well, saying “Starting a Kate Shugak book is like going somewhere everybody knows your name, given the warmth and familiarity of the Niniltna cast, even to readers new to the series. The twenty-first series installment…maintains Stabenow’s reputation for concise prose, pithy dialogue, full bodied characters, and intriguing plotting. Crime fiction doesn’t get much better than this.”

Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a top of the mornin’ to you, dear readers!

Saint Patrick, and some less-than-metaphorical snakes…

I’ve already seen plenty of green being worn around the Library today in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, which makes my heart happy.  We’ve all, I’m sure, heard different stories about traditions that are meant to be performed on St. Patrick’s Day…I grew up with a lot of Irish relatives who taught me to throw salt over my shoulder to keep the Wee People distracted, and not to leave milk out because it attracts ghosts, so some of the newer traditions have been lost on me.  So, in honor of the day, let’s take a look at the real St. Patrick, and what we are really commemorating today.

  1. St. Patrick’s acutal name was most likely Maewyn Succat.  Though we don’t know too much about him, we’re pretty sure he was from what is now Wales…or maybe Scotland, and was captured by Irish pirates/brigands around the age of 16 and brought to Ireland as a slave, escaping via ship around six years later.
  2. He returned to Ireland after becoming a priest, and began converting local pagan inhabitants to Christianity.  Many of the symbols associated with Ireland today, especially the shamrock, were symbols with Druidic power that Patrick co-opted as symbols of Christianity.  That whole thing about him ‘driving the snakes out of Ireland’?  It’s a veiled reference to Druids being driven out.
  3. The first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in New York on March 17, 1762, and referred to a soldiers’ parade (when they display their ability to march and stuff).  It’s gotten a bit…bigger since then.
  4. For the love of all that is good and noble on this earth, don’t pinch people.  Please.  It’s not nice.  And it didn’t start as a thing until the later part of the 19th century by Americans (some of whom were Irish immigrants).  The explanation for this was that wearing green makes you invisible to leprechauns, so if you are not wearing green, other people get to pinch you on behalf of the leprechauns.  Which is absurd.  Leprechauns can always see you.  And they are far too clever to resort to pinching you.  And you are not a leprechaun (unless you are, in which case, fair play).  So don’t pinch people.  Today or any other day.  Thank you.
  5. Go to the Library!  Ok, this isn’t strictly a St. Patrick’s Day tradition, but libraries were and are critically important institutions around the world, as well as on the Irish island.  The Linen Hall Library in Belfast became a repository of materials for all sides during The Troubles, with all sides tacitly agreeing that a library was a safe, non-sectarian place to collect their history.  While there is an ongoing debate about staffing and funding in Libraries across the UK and Ireland, right now, one single library card will let you into every library in the Republic of Ireland.  How cool is that?  So why not come by, and enjoy a few of the books that are merrily performing jigs on our shelves today?

Taduno’s Song: Nigerian author Odafe Atogun’s debut is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a modern infusion of Nigerian music, and an homage to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti.  When Taduno receives a stained brown envelope from his homeland, from which he has been exiled for years, he determines to return again.  But though he arrives full of hope, the musician discovers that his people no longer recognize him, or remember his voice, and that his girlfriend, Lela, has been abducted by government agents. Taduno wanders through his house in search of clues, but all traces of his old life have been erased. As he becomes aware that all that is left of himself is an emptiness, Taduno finds new purpose: to find his lost love.  But in the end, will he forsake his people and give up everything, including his voice, to save Lela?  By translating Orpheus’ Underworld into a modern totalitarian government, Atogun expands his fable into something much more modern, and infinitely more complex than a mere fable, but his beautifully accessible language keeps this story entrancing.  Publisher’s Weekly agrees, celebrating the “Uniting a retelling of the Orpheus myth, an indictment of totalitarian inhumanity, and a Kafkaesque meditation on identity within the spare language of fable, Atogun’s memorable debut novel testifies to the power of both oppression and art”.

The World Remade: America in World War I The US didn’t declare war until 1917, but it was certainly involved in the First World War from the very beginning.  In this accessible and thought-provoking history, journalist G.J. Meyer takes us through the bitter debates within American politics and society over the war and the possibility of American military intervention, as well as the global conspiracies, policies, and plans that affected those decisions.  His passion for understanding characters and personalities makes this story an engaging one that history buffs of all stripes will enjoy.  There is always a concern with journalists writing history, as the tendency is to over-simplify matters for easy consumption.  Meyer, however, does an impressive job outlining just how complicated and divisive a time this was in American history, and keeps a keen eye on the ramifications that the decisions made in 1917 have on us today.  The Washington Post agrees, saying, in a really excited review, that this book is “Thundering, magnificent . . . a book of true greatness that prompts moments of sheer joy and pleasure . . . It will earn generations of admirers.”

Shadowbahn: I’ll be honest with you, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this book, dear readers.  And that is precisely what makes it so exciting.  Steve Erickson’s story begins 2021 with the Twin Towers suddenly reappearing…in the Badlands of South Dakota.  To all the people who flock to visit them, including siblings Parker and Zema, who are traveling from L.A. to visit their mother in Michigan, the towers seem to sing–but everyone hears a different song.  But as Parker and Zema drive on, taking a detour through a shadowland that doesn’t appear on any map, ghosts, spirits, and the neverborn begin to awake, lured and driven mad by the music of the towers.   This is a story about music, about American culture, about what’s wrong with it–and full of hope for what might be made right again, and is being hailed as a wholly original kind of masterpieces by readers and critics across the country, with The New York Times Review of Books cheering that it is “compassionate, weird, unpredictable, jaunty. It’s sad, and it’s droll and sometimes it’s gorgeous … In this novel, Erickson has mobilized so much of what feels pressing and urgent about the fractured state of the country in a way that feels fresh and not entirely hopeless, if only because the exercise of art in opposition to complacent thought can never be hopeless”.

The Principles Behind Flotation: And speaking of books with bizarre premises, this delightfully quirky coming-of-age novel features a magical sea that appears overnight in a cow pasture in Arkansas.  Around that sea grows a religious order that puts on passion plays for tourists about the sea’s appearance and a thriving tourist destination, but the Sea’s owner has no interest in allowing any one to study the Sea of Santiago itself, which is hard news for A.Z. McKinney, whose lifelong dream has been to chart the sea’s depths and wring all its secrets from it, drop by drop (she resorts to carrying samples home in her bathing suit).   But for all of A.Z.’s big dreams, she is still a teenager, and still trying to figure out how she fits in the world, and on dry land, let alone on the great and mysterious Sea.  Alexandra Teague’s novel is one of the weirdest I’ve read in a while, but also one of the most fun, defiantly inventive, and strangely moving.  Also, there are lots of scenes set in a library (where A.Z.’s mom works), so that is always a plus.  Romantic Times Book Reviews agrees, giving this one a Top Pick rating, calling it “A rich, insightful, ambitiously inventive coming‐of‐age tale that will fire the imagination and capture the heart . . . The delightfully quirky details of this setting combine to create a richly textured world that readers will find difficult to leave behind, and the beautifully flawed and fully realized characters will linger long after the final page has turned.”

The Book Thieves The stories of how Nazis looted the museums, galleries, and private collections of Europe has been well told in film and in print.  But what we don’t talk about as much is how many books the Nazis stole.  Not to burn–though they did plenty of that–but to hoard, with a plan to wage intellectual warfare against the very people from whom these books were stolen: Jews, Communists, Liberal politicians, LGBT activists, Catholics, Freemasons, and many other opposition groups. But when the war was over, most of the books were never returned. Instead many found their way into the public library system, where they remain to this day.  But there is a team of librarians in Berlin who are working through their library system to find stolen books and return them–and Anders Rydell tells their story, and his own, in this heartbreaking, infuriating, hopeful, and redemptive story.  This is a book about history, about heroism, and about Rydell’s journey across Europe to return one book to its rightful family–the only item that survived its owner’s murder.  This is a book for book lovers everywhere, and a shatteringly powerful story about fascism, hatred, and hope.  A review from Rydell’s home country of Sweden states that his work  “constitutes a solid mapping of the quiet work being done in Berlin, Vilnius, Prague, Paris and other cities. The author tells of the monstrosities committed in the best possible manner. He mixes his library visits and historical background with a consistently confident tone. It might appear cynical to talk about tone here, but Rydell’s at times beautiful, at times matter-of-fact and restrained writing does wonders for the reader’s engagement. Reality as it has been – and is today – does not have to be added to with emotionally loaded pointers.”

Until next week, beloved patrons, happy reading, and Go mbeirimíd beo ar an am seo arís!

International Women’s Day!

You may very well have heard that today, dear readers, is International Women’s Day, a day that seems to be grabbing a lot more headlines this year for a number of reasons, including the spectacular turnout on seven continents for the International Women’s March in January…but what exactly are we celebrating when we observe this day?

New York, 1908

Some sources cite the first ‘Women’s Day’ as taking place in 1908 when 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York in support of shorter hours, better pay and voting rights, but one year later, in 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared a National Women’s Day on Sunday, February 28–the day was specifically chosen to allow even working women to participate (and let’s just remember here that a Socialist party is not a Communist party, and the goals of one are by no means the goals of the other).  And one year after that, and the second International Conference of Working Women. which was held in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin of Germany suggested an International Women’s Day. The day, as she proposed, would be recognized in every country, to advocate for issues critical to all women.   The next International Women’s Day, in 1911, was recognized by nine countries.

In 1913, the Russian Socialist Party moved the celebration to March 8, the day on which it is still observed today.  During the First World War, women’s work in international pacifist organizations used this day to promote work across borders and above international hostilities to make life better for human people everywhere. Though they didn’t bring the war to an end (though not through lack of trying), in 1917, women in Russian went on strike with a message of “peace and bread”–and four days later, the Tzar abdicated, signaling an end to Russia’s involvement in the First World War.

Bread and Peace Strike, Petrograd, 1917

Though the UN officially recognized IWD in 1975, it hasn’t been a big thing for quite some time…..until, in 2011, President Barack Obama declared March ‘Women’s History Month’, and the nine countries around the world that first celebrated IWD developed national programs to promote education and opportunities for young women.  This year, IWD will be celebrated in the following countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

So what can you do to celebrate?  If you want to go big, pledge to support the equality of human life worldwide by sponsoring universal education and access to fundamental resources.  And then do something about it.  Teach a kid to read.  Donate to a local charity.  Tell a young person in your life, regardless of gender, that their contribution to the world is important.  Listen more.
And then, come into the Library and check out some books that have been selected from around the world for this year’s International Women’s Day!

From London’s Evening Standard:

The Handmaid’s TaleMargaret Atwood:
Set in the near future, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel follows the story of Offred, a young handmaid to a powerful commander, who is a lynchpin in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. What unfolds is a story of female subjugation at the hands of a male dictatorship, and the desperate hope of a young woman who clings to the memories of her former life and identity. As unpleasant as it is brilliant, this cruel and bone-chilling story will stay with your for the rest of your life – not just because it’s terrifying, but because it’s terrifyingly possible. 

From Australia’s Reading Australia:

Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville:
Lilian Singer was born in 1901, a time when the education of women was considered unnecessary, even dangerous. Intelligent, resilient, and with a burning desire for independence, Lilian rejects the life deemed “acceptable” by society. Instead, she becomes an eccentric – energetic, happy and true to herself. This story is all the more captivating for being inspired by the real-life Bea Miles, a familiar figure to Sydney-dwellers, who lived on the streets and recited Shakespeare in exchange for money.

From TheCultureTrip:

A Woman in the Crossfire : Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek
Samar Yazbek’s writing takes many different forms: novels, short stories, cultural criticism and scripts fill her résumé, and she has even been responsible for editing a feminist e-zine, entitled Women of Syria. What unites all of her writing is a deep-seated political and social awareness and engagement with contemporary issues, which she weaves throughout her work. Her most recent work A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (2012) is a brutal account of her involvement in the protests against the Assad regime, before her eventual escape and exile to Paris. The book was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize, awarded yearly to an international writer who has been persecuted for their work.

In a survey by The Guardian on their readers’ favorite books by women:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah has moved me like no other in recent memory…It’s an honest book about race, identity and the constant longing and nostalgia one feels for this metaphorical place called home…Reading this has made me realise that some of the most powerful narratives in contemporary fiction have been written by young, highly educated female African writers, who are tired of the old clichés frequently bandied around about Africa. Ngozi Adichie is a new, powerful and incredibly talented voice; her novel Americanah is the expression of a different African tale, of a continent and its people that have many more magnetic stories to tell, as well as critiques to raise about the so-called enlightened West.”

From the Center for Southeast Asia Studies:

Soul survivors : stories of women and children in Cambodia by Carol Wagner
Soul Survivors gives voice to women and children in Cambodia who survived the genocide (1975 – 1979), when nearly two million people died from execution, starvation, or disease. Through their detailed personal stories, fourteen people reveal the brutality of Pol Pot’s regime, how they managed to survive, and what it took to rebuild their lives afterward. This new edition is updated and contains recent historical events and an epilog telling what happened to the survivors since the first edition was published in 2002. It also includes information about the two charitable humanitarian organizations (friendshipwithcambodia.org and artinabox.org) the author and photographer were inspired to create to help the poor in Cambodia.

From SugarStreetReview:

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar
The elder stateswoman of Francophone literature, Djebar is one of the most distinguished writers in the Arab world, although she herself comes from the Algeria’s significant Berber minority.   Djebar, whose real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayène, has written about the role and repression of women in Algeria in many of her novels and says “Like so many other Algerian women authors, I write with a sense of urgency against misogyny and regression.” …A number of her novels have also been translated into English from the French, and all are more than deserving of your time. We particularly recommend Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, if you can rustle up a copy from somewhere.

From Msafropolitan:

Part of My Soul Went With Him by Winnie Mandela:
For insight into the life of one of the most revolutionary, African female figures of our times, this semi-autobiographical book is a must read. Winnie has achieved more for Africans, female and male; and for women, of all ethnicities, than others could dream of. Her life is one full of sacrifices, personal and political, and yet one gets the sense that if she were to choose, she would do it all over again. Through the collection of conversations, letters, supplementary speeches and anecdotes, it becomes clear exactly how much in debt we are to her.

In solidarity, readers.  Happy International Women’s Day!

Love is Everywhere!

I have already lost count, dear readers, of how many emails I’ve received from publishers, from Amazon, from various other bookish outlets to which I subscribe, all touting romance novels for Valentine’s Day.  And we still have a week to go (or only a week, I suppose, if Valentine’s Day is your thing…)!  We all know that I really love my romance novels, and we here at the Free For All are always ready to support any reader who would like to explore and enjoy romance novels, as well.  But the overwhelming focus on the genre this week got me thinking about love stories….And the fact that they are everywhere.

…I just said that.

Romance novels deal very specifically in the act of falling in love; in the realization that love makes life worth living.  But they are by no means the only genre that focuses on love.  In fiction, especially, love often defines the stakes of a plot, whether it be a mystery, a science fiction adventure, or a horror novel.

Love gives a story its high stakes, no matter what that story is.  The only reason Benjamin Mears goes after Barlow in Salem’s Lot is because of his love for Susan Norton.  Hamletconsidered by many to be the greatest drama ever written, pivots on any number of love stories.  Heck, even Richard Kadrey’s Coop Heists, which are officially among the weirdest (and most sublime) books I’ve ever read, feature Coop and his girl Giselle, and that bond is a foundational aspect of this series, and a critical part of Coop’s own development as a character.

And that doesn’t even touch on the other kinds of love stories that can be found in literature.  Whether its a love of cooking or creating to the love we have for our pets, to the love we have for our sports teams, love defines us, gives us purpose, and sets the stakes for whatever journey we’re on.

So let’s not pretend that love is a thing that only lives in romances, or that love stories aren’t critically important aspects of the stories that we read and tell.  In fact, since we’re on the subject, let’s look at a few books that definitely don’t feature “romance” stickers on them…

SecurityOne of the most haunting, unsettling, fascinating books I’ve read in a very long time, Gina Wohlsdorf’s debut is also a story about love–the things we are distances we go, the chances we take, and the pain we suffer for it.  Though it’s a violent, scary, and super-twisted book about a covert attack on a new building that is billed as the ‘world’s most secure hotel’, it’s the love stories that are revealed in the course of the book that make you care whether anyone survives.  Don’t read this book in the dark, but read it.  I promise you’ll be surprised, and even a little charmed–even if it’s in spite of yourself.

The Kenzie and Gennaro SeriesI have read this series, set in the Dorchester of the 1990’s, multiple times.  Dennis Lehane is an absolute master at creating a scene, and sketching characters that are as familiar as your own neighbors.  His plots are clever and twisty and raise detective fiction to something close to classic literature.  But what I always take away from these books is the love between Patrick Kenzie and his partner, Angie Gennaro.  I won’t spoil anything for you by telling you how their story unfolds; read these books for their neo-noir atmosphere; read them for their bitterly prescient discussions of race, class, and power; read them for the thrill of recognizing your home in someone else’s books…but read these books for these two characters, too.  Their journey, together and separately, are what makes these books the classics they are.

All Our Wrong Todays: This book is on it’s way to us right now, and is a pitch-perfect blend of science fiction and love story.  Elan Mastai’s debut focuses on Tom Barron a young man who lives in an alternate, idyllic 2016, where there is no war, no fear, and technological developments aplenty.  But Tom makes a mistake.  A critical, stupid mistake that brings him into our screwed up, messy, angry world.  But when he’s provided with a chance to return to the world he knew, he begins to realize what I’ve been saying this whole time…that it’s not the things we have, but the people who make our futures worth exploring.  That we are defined by love–all kinds of love.  We are made human by love.  And that love can make any journey worthwhile.

Saturdays @ the South: A Christmas Mystery

‘Tis the day before Christmas, and Hanukkah, too, 

And the South Branch has uncovered a mystery for you… 

‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ handwritten Manuscript, gifted by author Clement C. Moore (credit: New-York Historical Society)
‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ handwritten Manuscript, gifted by author Clement C. Moore
(credit: New-York Historical Society)

Anyone who recognizes the meter and rhyme scheme of the above parody will easily attribute it to “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” as it’s officially titled, but more often referred to as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”  Because today is Christmas Eve (among other things, including the first day of Hanukkah), I thought it would be fun to write a bit about Clement C. Moore, the person who I recognized as the author of the poem and maybe even include the poem here, but as I was researching whether or not the poem was in the public domain, I came across these words from www.poetryfoundation.org: ” Authorship is typically attributed now to Major Henry Livingston, Jr., whose great-grandson spent many years trying to establish Major Livingston as the author.”

Huh? I grew up reading this poem every Christmas Eve with my mom (until we switched to A Christmas Carol later in my reading life) and saw the author as Clement C. Moore. The South Branch has a fairly extensive collection of wonderfully different illustrated versions of this poem – all attributed to Clement C. Moore. The Library of Congress attributes the poem to Clement C. Moore. Who is this Henry Livingston Jr. of which the Poetry Foundation speaks? Has my childhood been a lie?

Cement Clark Moore: Beloved poet or literary fraud?
Clement Clark Moore: Beloved poet or literary fraud?

Part of the problem is that the poem was originally published anonymously on December 23, 1823 in the Troy Sentinel and it was fourteen years before it was attributed to anyone. A friend of Moore’s, Charles Fenno Hoffman attributed it to his friend in 1837 and Moore himself assented to having it appear in an anthology of his works in 1844. Henry Livingston died prior to the authorship claims in 1828 and never made the claim of authorship himself. However, at the turn of the century, Livingston’s surviving family began to claim authorship on his behalf, asserting family lore, including that he had recited the poem to his children prior to its publication in the Sentinel. In 2000, a  scholar specializing in authorial attribution from Vassar College insists that it was Livingston, not Moore who wrote the poem, citing that several Dutch words were originally used in the poem of which Moore, an American who spoke some German, would not have known, but Livingston, an American descendant of Dutch farmers, would have known. However, Moore is said to have been friends with Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow writer Washington Irving, whose familiarity with the Dutch traditions and culture in New York is well documented, and who wrote about St. Nicholas as smoking a pipe and laying a finger beside his nose before he disappeared (familiar images in the poem, yes?) in his A History of New York.

Regardless of who wrote it, the poem shaped much of how we view Santa Claus today.

Encyclopedia Britannica claims that a “21-st Century, computer-aided analysis indicated that ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ showed more similarities to Livingston’s poetry than to Moore’s.” One would hope that Britannica would have a definitive answer, but it would appear that the debate still rages on. Mental Floss puts together an interesting article outlining both sides and the New York State Library has some interesting facts as well. If you’d like to hear the Livingston angle from the Vassar professor in a bit more detail, you can check it out here.

Sadly, I can’t put forth any answers for you here, but I did manage to solve one mystery:  even though authorship isn’t 100% certain, the poem is now in the public domain, so I am able to reproduce it here for you. Till next week, dear readers, have a safe and happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and anything else you may celebrate this time of year! Enjoy!

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 the 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 the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it 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 dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top 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 peddler, 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 of 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 bowlful 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!”

Saturdays @ the South: Holiday Horrors

checklist-1817926_640I’m sure everyone has a holiday horror story of some type. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, something goes wrong in the holiday prep a story ensues that will be told at future get-togethers. “Remember that time the turkey caught fire and we had to order pizza for the holiday dinner?” Horror is not all that uncommon this time of year, for authors, either. Whether this time of year is dorkily loved (like yours truly) or utterly reviled, sometimes you just need a break from the saccharine holiday cheer.  We’ve already mentioned on the blog how books can be a great retreat, (particularly when there’s a blanket fort involved) and can have restorative measures. Well, sometimes a little antidote for holiday cheer is precisely what the doctor ordered.

This antidote for holiday cheer and spreading a little holiday horror isn’t a new concept. In Germany and Austria, they have had a centuries-old tradition of the Krampus. The name, derived from the German krampen (meaning claw) is considered the anti-St. Nick and was used, partly as a means to frighten children into being good. The Krampus, according to folklore said to be son of Hel in Norse mythology, is a half-goat, half-demon, horned creature that whips children into being good. This is the yang to St. Nicholas’s ying. Where St. Nick goes around on December 6th  (known as Nicholaustag) in Germany, Austria and Hungary, delivering sweets to the children who have been good, Krampus appears the night before December 6th (known as Krampusnacht) to whip the bad children with his bundle of birch twigs and take the particularly wicked ones away to his lair. It brings on a whole new meaning to “he knows if you’ve been bad or good; so be good for goodness’ sake!” In recent years, here in the States, the Krampus has been gaining a bit of popularity,  appearing in a recent feature-film, making an episode cameo on the TV show Grimm and, apparently in something called a Krampus party as well (Google it; it’s a Thing). It’s an interesting reaction against the commercialization of the holiday season; though if you’re concerned about Krampus getting too commercialized, you’re about 120 years too late. Krampus postcards and other items have been manufactured in Germany since the 1890s.

Greetings from Krampus – This was a Viennese Krampus card circa 1911.

In other horror and suspense news, this past Wednesday, December 14th would have been Shirley Jackson‘s 100th birthday and I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a list of holiday-related horror books that would likely have set even her spine a-tingle.

3206706Krampus by Brom

Brom most recently gained acclaim earlier this year with Lost Gods, but his 2012 works took the Krampus legend to a whole new level. With themes of family and hope this book might seriously creep you out, but its underlying heart may have you thinking that a little horror this time of year isn’t quite so bad…

3243262NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

This book by Stephen King’s son (make no mistake here, Hill is an astounding author in his own right and deserves his solid reputation sans any nepotism) is profoundly unsettling. A man, who’s license plate is the titular inspiration, kidnaps distraught and disadvantaged children and takes them to Christmasland, his own personal Christmas theme park which doesn’t quite live in this plane of existence. These children eventually lose their teeth to fangs, their blood to ice and their humanity to… something else. This is the type of horror that has some supernatural elements in it, but what is truly scary here is the capacity for people to lose their humanity and what happens when good intentions go terribly awry.

51rgydnykfl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Horror for the Holidays ed. by Scott David Aniolowski

This book has a little something terrifying for every holiday, from Valentine’s Day to the Pagan Yule to, yes, Christmas with it’s cover story featuring none other than Krampus. This sampling ranging from classic to modern horror tales can chill you all year ’round.

2656597Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

So this comes more under the humor than horror category, but the essay “The Santaland Diaries” is equal parts hilarious and terrifying; anyone who has been stuck at the mall waiting in line for Santa knows that it can be it’s own special version of hell. If you’re looking for something that’s not quite as terrifying but still an antidote for a holiday cheer overdose, this would be a terrific pick.

3580651Twelve Screams of Christmas by R. L. Stine

We started off this post with a list from the kids’ horror master Stine and I’d be remiss if I left off a little something for the kiddos (or kids at heart) who want a scare of their own. From his perennially popular Goosebumps series, this book has two frenemies who need a rehearsal space for the school’s Christmas play practicing in a space that just might be haunted…

While I won’t be replacing my decorations and festive lights with furs and demon horns, sometimes a little respite from the holiday madness is just what’s needed to get us through the home stretch. Till next week, dear readers, find whatever you feel comfortable with on these cold nights and maybe consider exploring the dark side of the holidays and see if its the remedy you might need.

Saturdays @ the South: The Ghost of Childhoods Past

quote-i-am-the-ghost-of-christmas-past-long-past-inquired-scrooge-no-your-past-charles-dickens-305003The holidays (and by that I mean any holiday, not just those that appear during this particular holiday season) are times when I like to indulge in my inner child. I’ve mentioned several times about my love for children’s books, but I also have a great love for classic children’s holidays shows. These are rarely in the form of movies. Instead, I’m a sucker for the half or one-hour specials that punctuated my childhood and that my mother dutifully recorded for me so I could watch them year after year. Some of these are newer traditions, but most come from my earliest childhood days and are among the things I most look forward to for each holiday.

It happens that this particular holiday season is an embarrassment of riches in this department. Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween and even Election Day all have their moments in the sun, but Christmas is when producers, writers and networks traditionally pull out the big guns and slather us with specials. Not all of these specials are good, nor are they necessarily lasting classics. NPR’s All Things Considered recently wondered why recent Christmas specials are either bad or seemingly a corporate mechanism. While there may be a couple of exceptions (I, personally liked the Madagascar and Toy Story Christmas specials), I tend to agree that the modern specials aren’t always up to the holiday snuff of their classic predecessors.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

That’s why it is often so good to dust off those old classics and relive childhood in a way that few other activities can achieve. it’s also why I’ve guarded collection of recorded holiday specials so closely throughout my life. I’ve flabbergasted college roommates at the breadth of my collection and we spent many an evening firmly entrenched in childhood nostalgia. I recently re-introduced a friend, who did not have the luxury of repeated viewings as a wee one, to the pleasures of holiday nostalgia and I have to say, part of the pleasure I derived was not just in the viewing itself, but in the sharing and being able to watch someone else take similar glee in reminiscing about these particular holiday memories.

From TNT’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Joel Gray makes an oddly creepy Ghost of Christmas Past, no?

With that spirit in mind, I invite all of you to take a trip down memory lane with me with a few of my favorite titles:

3465729Mickey’s Christmas Carol – This is easily one of my favorite Christmas specials. It was surprisingly true to Dickens’s original text (albeit abridged) but with added humor that is simple enough for a child to get, but classic enough for adults to enjoy. The addition of favorite Disney characters in the classic roles of Scrooge, the Cratchits and the Christmas ghosts were all delightful, but Goofy as Jacob Marley will forever be my favorite rendition of that character.

2048621A Charlie Brown Christmas – I probably don’t really need to mention this one because this is one of the few specials of my childhood that has never been lacking for air time. And yet, few specials fill me with as much nostalgia. Maybe it was the fact that Schultz insisted on having his characters played by actual children, and not grown actors. Maybe it’s because this is one special that everyone I know has memories of and so it’s easy to compare nostalgia. Either way, few things get me into the holiday spirit as easily as watching Snoopy skate so gracefully in the opening scene.

2017291How the Grinch Stole Christmas – This is in a similar category as A Charlie Brown Christmas in terms of air time, but it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, so I think that alone makes it worth mentioning. I’ll be honest here and tell you I’ve never seen the Jim Carey version as I’m just too afraid that it will mar my viewings of this classic that I’ve loved wholeheartedly for as long as I can remember. I even have the audio of the story, plus all the song tracks on my iPod because I can’t get enough.

2340402A Muppet Christmas Carol – This is the only full-length feature to make the list. While I wish NOBLE had Jim Henson’s Muppet Family Christmas special with John Denver on DVD somewhere in its catalog, this is my second favorite Muppet Christmas special. Statler and Waldorf may not beat Goofy as my favorite Jacob Marley, but Rizzo and Gonzo’s delightful banter makes this movie both fairly true to text and wonderfully innovative and original in a way that only the Muppets can be.

the_stingiest_man_in_townThe Stingiest Man in Town – What can I say, I’m a huge fan of A Christmas Carol. This hand-drawn animated special was created by the same team that brought us the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There was a time when the team of Rankin and Bass seemed unstoppable in their Christmas merrymaking. They created a slew of Christmas specials  in the 1970s and, with all due respect to Rudolph, this one is my favorite of theirs. It stars vocal talents like Walter Mattheau and Tom Bosley and was an adaptation of a little-known live-action musical adaptation of Dickens’s classic tale from the 1950s. The overlay of the Ghost of Christmas Present with Santa Claus in a musical number alone makes this show worth seeing, but it is actually one of the better musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol that I’ve seen (and given my love for the story, I’ve seen a LOT).

Till next week, dear readers, I encourage you to not only indulge yourself in these viewings, but to share them with someone you think may enjoy the nostalgia just as much, or maybe even someone who will experience them for the first time. There’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes to get you looking at something you’ve seen dozens of time in a brand new way.