Tuesday, December 19, 2006

BOOKS: The Big Book of Holiday Feel-Bad Stories

There's something about this time of year that, without fail, turns me into a total friggin Who.

I'm making lists and checking them thrice. (I'm anal that way.) I'm knee-deep in wrapping paper. I'm renting any holiday special that doesn’t have Tim Allen in it. I'm, if not baking dozens of cookies, at least thinking about it. And thanks to my secular-with-Christian-trappings upbringing, I'm singing EVERY verse to every carol from "We Three Kings" to "Frosty the Snowman".

In other words, I'm milking the holiday of everything it has to offer in every conceivable cultural sector. Except for literature, strangely enough. Until now.

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories
Edited by Alberto Manguel (#47)
After you've read A Christmas Carol a couple dozen times, what’s left? Maybe there's an enormous realm of holiday-oriented literature I've missed out on, but I'm pretty sure not. Which is why I was so excited when, last Christmas, Rusty gave me
The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories (which has since been redubbed The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories).

Promising to be a compendium of short stories by some of the best writers in the western world, this book was masterminded by
Alberto Manguel, who – despite the fact that I find his writing annoying as all get-out, so much so that I had to give up reading his gratingly pretentious A Reading Diary after only thirty or so pages – is a heck of an anthologist. I may even have squealed when I unwrapped this collection, that’s how excited I was. In fact, I was so adamant about optimizing my appreciation of this book that I've been sitting on it for almost an entire year, waiting for the festive season to roll around so that I could enjoy these stories aside a crackling fireplace… or at least while picking pine needles out of my socks.

After eleven months of anticipation, I can only say that the results were… unexpected.

I don't know what I was expecting. This anthology contains stories by real writers. Serious writers. Writers like John Cheever and Alice Munro and Muriel Spark and Graham Greene and Mavis Gallant. (Watch your toes! Doppelganger's dropping names again!) I can't account for how I got the idea in my head that, from time to time, Alice Munro might secretly like to take herself off for a nice weekend in the country and write some uplifting prose with a feel-good ending. I also don't know how I got the idea that a short story entitled "Christmas Is a Sad Season for the Poor" might resolve itself with fruitcake and candycanes and group hugs. (And while I'm writing, let me take the opportunity to set the world straight on one thing: being an optimist means suffering crushing disappointment after crushing disappointment, and if you think that's easy, think again. THINK AGAIN.)

Oh, and by the way, ha! I just found this copy inside the book jacket:
Eminently readable, The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories is a celebration of the most magical of seasons.
Lies. Lies, I tell you.

There are exceptions, of course. This book contains a few tales that don't make me feel like sitting quietly on a twelfth-storey ledge and wondering what it all means and why bother anyway. "Winter Dog" by Alistair MacLeod made me cry, in a good way. And the final story in the bunch, Jeanette Winterson's "O'Brien's First Christmas" was a beacon of light – albeit a twisted beacon that bounces off a few funhouse mirrors before it reaches you.

Don't misunderstand me. These are good stories, very good stories. Some of them – particularly Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" and Vladimir Nabokov's "Christmas" – are even great stories. You should read them all. I'll probably even read the whole damn collection again myself, it's that good. But if you're looking for a nice book to curl up with while enjoying your steaming mug of 'nog, look elsewhere.

If, on the other hand, all the syrupy holiday movies of the week are getting to you and you're finding yourself staring down from your cave with a sour Grinchy frown at the warm lighted windows below in the town, this may be just what you need.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Christmas stories can so easily become sugar-laden crap. I can highly recommend one of my favourite authors and her collection of Christmas stories. Connie Willis's "Miracle and Other Christmas Stories" (link below) is a charming collection of stories that covers a range of topics. Because she verges on the sci-fi (don't let that put you off), some of them are indeed quirky. Try it - I think you will enjoy!