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Books

Untraditional reading, kind of for the holidays

Christmas, as every one knows, is the season to be jolly, and also to be thankful. But sometimes I have trouble being jolly or thankful because Christmas is also the season to publish and promote Christmas-themed books. Lots of them. Too many for most of us to be able to, on our own, separate the worthy from the tolerable from the absolutely wretched.

Turn to the Internet for help, you say. Well, I did that, and I found lists and lists and more lists devoted to the Best Christmas Books for 2012, and also the Best Christmas Books for Kids, for Toddlers, for Preschoolers, for Book Clubs, for Kindergartens, for Finns, for Dogs, for the Lovers of Dogs, and for Adults.

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Since I’m in theory one of those, I paid especially close attention to the lists of Best Christmas Books for Adults, which recommended tomes with titles like “The Christmas Box,’’ “Christmas with Paula Deen,’’ “The Christmas Sweater,’’ “The Purpose of Christmas,’’ “The Christmas Quilt,’’ “The Christmas List,’’ “The Light of Christmas,’’ and thousands of other books with Christmas in the title.

Now, I’m probably not going to read any of those books, although I’m sure that at least one of them is not totally execrable. But these lists did inspire me to create my own lists of various categories of best Christmas tales. The only rules guiding my choices were that the books and stories had to be books and stories that I loved, no matter the season; they must not include Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol’’ nor any books that would probably make anyone else’s list of the Best Christmas Books; and that each list could include only one narrative listed in that particular category.

In other words, what follows is a series of off-puttingly personal lists that perversely exclude pretty much all the most beloved Christmas books of all time and instead include several yarns that aren’t about Christmas at all. For that matter the lists aren’t really lists at all. Enjoy!

The Best Christmas Story Set in an Orphanage:“The Birds for Christmas” from “Charity’’ by Mark Richard (Nan Talese/Doubleday, 1998)

Richard is the author of four remarkable, idiosyncratic books (most recently last year’s wonderful, weirdly touching memoir, “House of Prayer No. 2’’), and in all of his books, and especially in his short stories, he does an expert job of cutting the sweet with the profane.

Nowhere is this more true than in “The Birds for Christmas,” in which all that two probably-too-old-to-be-adopted boys want for Christmas is to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds’’ on their TV, which was “donated thirdhand by the Merchant Seamen’s and Sailors’ Rest Home, a big black-and-white Zenith of cracked plastic and no knobs, a dime stuck in the channel selector.”

When one of the nurses says that particular movie is not especially suitable Christmas viewing for a child and suggests “Frosty’’ instead, Michael Christian (an African American kid with an enormous Afro and a bum leg) suggests doing something unmentionable to Frosty and then adds, “I want to see ‘The Birds,’ man. I want to see those birds get all up in them people’s hair. That’s some real Christmas TV to me.” If “The Birds’’ is some real Christmas TV, then “The Birds for Christmas” is some real Christmas fiction: irreverent and wistful and absolutely heartbreaking in its examination of what people settle for wanting when they can’t get the thing they really want.

That Other Best Christmas Story Written by That Other Famous Welsh Boozer That Is Also So Lazily Written and Executed as to Be Charming, and Strangely Moving: “A Christmas Story’’ by Richard Burton (1964, Reprinted by W.W. Norton, 1991)

I know what you’re thinking: Richard Burton! The actor! Wrote a Christmas story! It’s true. And like his fellow famous countryman Dylan Thomas’s more famous Christmas story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’’ Burton’s “A Christmas Story’’ is slender (the book weighs in a whopping 41 pages) and autobiographical (it’s about a boy, in Wales, whose mother-figure sister is about to give birth on Christmas Eve) and so tossed-off seeming as to at first appear dismissible. But it’s not. It is actually a smart, deeply felt examination of the tradition — I don’t mean the Christmas tradition; I mean the tradition of Christmas literature.

It begins like so: “There were not many white Christmases in our part of Wales in my childhood — perhaps only one or two — but Christmas cards and Dickens and Dylan Thomas and wishful memory have turned them all into white.” That’s a beautiful sentence, and a complicated idea, and the story that follows moves so quickly that you’ll want to go back to see how it manages to affect you so. And you should do that.

The Best Christmas Story That Makes No Mention of Christmas and That Does not Actually Take Place over That Particular Holiday but That Does Feature Lots and Lots of Snow:“The True Deceiver’’ by Tove Jansson (translated, from the Swedish, by Thomas Teal; originally published in 1982; reissued in 2009, New York Review of Books)

“It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. Katri screened the lamp so she wouldn’t wake her brother while she made coffee and put the Thermos beside his bed. The room was very cold. The big dog lay by the door and looked at her with his nose between his paws, waiting for her to take him out.”

Thus begins one of the most remarkable novels I have ever read, a novel about two women (the aforementioned Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin, a famous children’s book author who in some ways resembles Jansson, who wrote the well-known Moomin children’s tales) trapped in an endless Scandinavian winter (the novel isn’t absolutely clear about its setting, but Jansson was a member of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority and had a house on an outer island in the Finnish archipelago, a place that sounds as if it might resemble this novel’s setting) and who do battle for much of this tense, funny, relentless novel. When I say “do battle” I mean that each woman has a firm sense of herself and a sense of what she wants from the other, and it’s fascinating to watch each try to change the other while laboring mightily not to be changed. And by “relentless” I mean, among other things, the snow, which falls and falls and will not stop falling. I don’t know of another book that so perfectly recreates the terrible, claustrophobic pleasure of being snowbound.

The Best Subtropical Christmas Story: “Gringos’’ by Charles Portis (1991; reissued in 2000 by Overlook Press)

Most of you will be familiar with Portis from his novel “True Grit,’’ which was his least Charles Portis-like novel. This is not to say that “True Grit’’ isn’t great — ‘tis — but that every other book he wrote is even greater, including “Gringos,’’ his most recent novel. “Gringos’’ begins with this sentence — “Christmas again in Yucatán.” — narrated by one Jimmy Burns, an expatriate American antiquities scrounger and bounty hunter who is as exactly as world-weary, jaded, and lost as that first sentence suggests. Over the course of this wild, hilarious novel, Burns does not necessarily get less cynical (think of Burns as a sunburned Michael Corleone: He wants to stop living an itinerant and quasi-illegal life, but the novel’s alcoholics, burnouts, thieves, archeologists, child-snatchers, hippies, and fascists keep dragging him back in), but his cynicism is the kind that rejects nihilism and allows for at least the possibility of hope, the possibility of a future, even if it’s a future full of people who make your life interesting if not especially happy. A Christmas sentiment if I’ve ever heard one. Which leads me to . . .

The Best Christmas Novel That Is Again not Remotely About Christmas but That Does Feature a Large, Unruly Family Gathering That Prominently Features a Roaring Fire:“The Hundred Brothers’’ by Donald Antrim (1997; paperback edition, 1998, Vintage; 2011 Picador)

This raucous novel begins with its own list: a tally and description of the titular 100 brothers (“Andrew, the civil rights activist; Pierce, the designer of radically unbuildable buildings . . . ”) who have convened in their dead father’s house because they have “resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of [father’s] ashes.” The narrator and his brothers do just that, and the resulting novel is a riotous, ingenious account of how adults regress to their old familiar selves when in the company of family. Of course, your family might not be exactly like the family in “The Hundred Brothers’’ (the father’s house has a library, for instance, and in it the homosexual brothers cruise for each other), but I’d be willing to bet at certain moments over the holiday, in a house crowded with family members, that your thoughts sometimes turn from yuletide to homicide. Hopefully your thoughts remain just thoughts as they do not remain in “The Hundred Brothers.’’ But even if they do, then I hope at least your house has a fireplace. For as Antrim writes at the end of his wise, brutal book, “It is true that there is nothing like a blaze in the hearth to soothe the nerves and restore order to a house.”

Brock Clarke, the author most recently, of “Exley,’’ teaches at Bowdoin College. He can be reached at brockwayclarke@yahoo.com.
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