December 25, 2009

Christmas Stories

presenting a few of my favourites

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol will always be for me the story which most makes me feel like Christmas. In  our house, my father read it out loud to us every year, a chapter a night, on the days leading up to Christmas. Even now when I read it, it is his version I hear. Scion of a theatrical family and a bit of a ham, he was a splendid, uninhibited reader who always enjoyed  his performance as much as we did.

"Marley was dead, to begin with." He gave the opening line a neutral, conversational tone, which contrasted marvellously with the tingle of excitement running through us as finally, after dinner, coffee and cigarette (for him) we settled on the couch to let the yearly ritual begin. But by the time we got to "What a turkey! There never was such a turkey", the words were rolling forth in inspired waves, pulling you under into their oceans of gusto and jollity. Finally I could forget the terrifying chapter where the ghostly hand draws back Scrooge's bedcurtains, which would keep me awake for hours afterward with the sheet drawn up to my eyes, casting my eyes about in the dark to make sure no ghost could creep up on me unannounced.

The reading was dosed so that the final triumphant chapter would fall on Christmas Eve. When we got to the lines "And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge"  my father read them out with such heart that I had to agree with my sister, thirty or more years later, when she suggested it would be the single best phrase to remember him by.

You can read both the abridged version of A Christmas Carol, which Dickens used to read aloud on his incredibly popular author tours, and the longer version, at  

And while you're at it, visit David Perdue's wonderful site, the Charles Dickens Page, where The Christmas Carol page offers links to illustrations, maps of Dickens's London, even things like Dickens's original accounts page for A Christmas Carol (6000 copies sold the first day). At the very bottom, there is this jewel from A Christmas Carol:

"It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself."

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

Even if you didn't grow up where it snowed, A Child's Christmas in Wales will be one of the stories most evocative of Christmas you'll ever read, which shows you what a great poet can do. It's all there: the panoply of human types -- the imbibing aunts, the snoozing uncles, the human arts of music and conversation, the human love of sweets, and the mysteries of human time which is both unstoppable and yet capable of preserving some things for you forever.

One of the very best ways to experience A Child's Christmas in Wales is to hear Dylan Thomas reading it aloud. It takes 20 minutes on the wonderful Caedmon collection of Dylan Thomas recordings, 11 CDs where he reads his work and the work of others, including Shakespeare, which you can get from the library.  But you will probably enjoy it so much that you'll want to hear more.

The Gift of the Magi by O.Henry

I am always telling people to read this beautiful little turn-of-the-century story by O.Henry about, as they say, the meaning of Christmas. O.Henry is famous for short stories with a twist ending, often given you to read in school as ambassadors for the form, also because mostly they are very funny - The Ransom of Red Chief about the kidnapping of a little boy so annoying that in the end the kidnappers are willing to pay the family to take him back is one of my favourites. But The Gift of the Magi is sad and sentimental. Approach it with an open mind and you won't be disappointed. You can read it on the Literature Collection website.

O.Henry, a romantic figure (although he always demurred on this) who had headed west from the Carolinas as a young man to work on a cattle ranch, spent time in prison for embezzling bank money, which he may or may not have done -- he first ran off to Central America, to somewhere for which he later invented the term "banana republic", but returned to the United States to be with his wife who was dying of tuberculosis, entering prison the next year and spending three years there -- said "There are stories in everything. I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands."

Who knows what stories you might get from this bench - in Christmas colours, note - photographed in front of an Irish library?

Book bench by Irish typepad

December 16, 2009

First fruits

This is just to say  (William Carlos Williams)  

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Biting into the first plums of the season this month, I could not help remembering this poem by William Carlos Williams and being overcome, as well as by the flavour of the plums, by the desire to pass this poem on. So here you are.

syndetics-lcYou can read more poems by this bespectacled doctor from New Jersey who was a friend of Ezra Pound and an inspiration to Allen Ginsberg on the Poetry Foundation website   -- which if you like poetry you should know about anyway -- where you can also hear Library of Congress recordings from the 1940s of WCW reading his poetry aloud, including the famous "The Red Wheelbarrow", which has a special meaning for me, in as much as hearing it dissected at University in a Modern American Literature class made me forswear an academic career forever --  I might even say that had it not been for "The Red Wheelbarrow", I would not today be the person I am.

From the library:

 -- Random House's  William Carlos Williams from The Voice of the Poet series is a 1 hour CD of WCW reading his poetry and an accompanying book with the texts of the poems

 -- WCW's Collected poems in two volumes

-- The William Carlos Williams Reader edited by M.L. Rosenthal

December 08, 2009

Alone in Berlin

When I was 15 or 16 and going through my Hemingway period, reading everything I could find by him or about him and copying bits from Death in the Afternoon to tape up above my desk, I came across something in which he listed the books he thought everyone should read. Everyone! Me!

As I recall, the list was heavy on Rooshians, as Hemingway describes Ezra Pound calling his beloved Dostoevsky & Co in A Moveable Feast  --  “To tell you the truth, Hem, I’ve never read the Rooshians” he has him confessing -- which were a big part of my literary landscape at the time anyway, and there would have been a few others I’ve forgotten because I simply got them and read them, but there were two which eluded me, due to them having eluded my parents and our small local library.

In those pre-internet days that meant you just kind of filed them away in your head to see if you’d run across them someday, somewhere. The first one, The Lost Grove, the autobiography of the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti, showed up maybe ten years later, in a remainders bookstore in Italy. The second held off until ... this year.  It was Everyone dies alone by Hans Fallada. I hadn’t thought of it in years, had long stopped wondering who this mysterious man with the strange interlanguage, fairy tale name was, but suddenly there was a review of it in the TLS, a brand-new English translation, with a less-literal version of the title – it’s called Alone in Berlin – but it was clearly The Book, the one Hemingway wanted me to read.

Hans Fallada turned out to be the pen name of a man who in his life knew both success and suffering, mostly suffering: at eighteen he had killed a friend in a bungled suicide pact, he was addicted to drugs, spent time in prison for theft, and although in the interwar years he had written bestsellers including one picked up by Hollywood and made into a movie, he couldn't make himself leave Berlin when he should have and spent the war in a terrible state, with Goering pressuring him to write pro-Nazi propaganda, which he sort of gave into and sort of didn't, succumbing to alcohol and drugs again and ending up in a Nazi insane asylum. He wrote this book the year after the war ended, in only 24 days, and died not long thereafter.

I asked the library to get it. It came, and I started reading it by chance on the day after the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 9th. More pertinently, it was also the day after the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, as the book turned out to be a depiction of life in Berlin under the Nazis, as seen through the thoughts and actions of a cast of average, just-getting-through-the-day men and women. It is over 500 pages of which every single one is dark. It reminds me of nothing so much as Rossellini’s great neorealist film Germania Anno Zero, perhaps the most depressing film I’ve ever seen, and I've seen many, set in Berlin after the city's surrender and occupation.

Maybe it’s even more depressing, considering that in Germania Anno Zero we see a beaten people, which you can’t help but feel contributes to their passivity. Here they are active, and most of them are either jackals or suck-ups to authority, or both. The plot -- based on a true story -- revolves around a couple who are dropping anti-Nazi postcards around Berlin, risking their lives, and it goes something like this: out of 48 postcards they distribute, 44 are in the hands of the Gestapo within a few weeks, and the four which are not, were not passed from hand to hand to read, as they had hoped, but had been burned, or ripped up and flushed down the toilet.

I skipped bits at first, the build-up was uneven (not much time to rewrite and polish when you write a 500 page novel in 24 days) but when I got to the last third or so, from when the couple are caught and put on trial, I couldn't skip a word. The depiction of the nightmare world of totalitarianism is so disturbing  that it made me physically uncomfortable, not because of scenes of gore or torture but because of the overwhelming sense of oppression. I can see how Hemingway would have loved us all to read this book, together with Rafael Alberti's terrible stories about the other ghost stalking Europe, as one of his poems called Generalissimo Franco of Spain.

One funny thing that came out of all this was that I went searching the internet to see if I could find that list again to see what else was on it. It turns out that Hemingway loved making lists of books everyone should read, and there are hundreds of them around. Among them was hidden this gem: a list of the books in his library in his Finca in Cuba, compiled by a team of Cuban librarians after he died. As they couldn’t speak English, the books were all the same to them, so that right after his Rooshians, you find the recipe booklet for his Waring Blender. Or maybe they were smarter than it seems and were simply well aware of the essential role of the frozen daiquiri in Hem’s philosophy of life.

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