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Christmas Books Round-Up

December 15, 2008

A new spin on Christmas: Classic tales for the modern reader

Tis the Season
Lorna Landvik
Ballantine Books, 228 pp., $22

“Tis the Season” is an epistolary novel of celebrity party girl Caroline Dixon’s journey from scandalous debauchery to genuine holiday cheer — and even redemption.

E-mails, letters and gossip columns piece together an unlikely series of friendships. At the center is Dixon, whose wild, drunken antics get her mocked by gossip columnists. But a few people remember the “real” Caroline. Both her Norwegian former nanny and the taciturn manager of an Arizona ranch remember her as a lonely teenager. Their reconnection makes for generous holiday warmth.

Landvik captures each correspondent’s voice beautifully. This is a challenging tale to tell via e-mail and letter because it’s ultimately about the closeness and holiday connection of far-flung characters. It’s more difficult, initially, to piece together characters’ relationships than it might be for a novel told in straightforward prose. Still, because each voice is so strong, their emerging closeness unfolds in sweet counterpoint to the typical gossipy tale of celebrity misbehavior.

— Elizabeth Willse

The Handmaid and the Carpenter
Elizabeth Berg
Ballantine Books, 176 pp., $17.95

Bestselling novelist Elizabeth Berg’s lyrical prose draws the reader into the lives of Mary and Joseph, forced to travel far from everything familiar in Nazareth. Berg transforms the familiar Nativity story into a close look at a very human couple, struggling with their faith in each other and in God. Her writing gives a sense of a distant place and time, while keeping the couple’s tangled emotions immediate.

This is a story of faith in many senses. It is not easy for Joseph and Mary to comprehend her pregnancy, with only her own faith and a few muddled dreams as guidance. Joseph wrestles with his religious beliefs, as well as his ability to trust Mary’s word and stay close to her.

Berg’s tale is both an intimate view of the love and utterly human flaws in Mary and Joseph’s relationship, and also a respectful invitation to the reader, to meditate on their place in the larger tradition.

— E.W.

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits
Les Standford
Crown Publishers, 256 pp., $19.95

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is a treasure trove of information about Dickens’ past, the evolution of the publishing industry and, of course, the beginning of the modern Christmas celebration. Readers may be surprised to know that the Christmas holiday Bob Cratchit asked Scrooge for was not commonplace in 19th-century England or America, and Christmas cards, gifts and turkey dinners were not prevelent in 1843. For Charles Dickens, who published “A Christmas Carol” himself, marketing the story was quite a gamble, with no indication of the classic it would become or the traditions it would inspire.

Although Standford reveals himself as more of an academic than a storyteller in somewhat dry prose, his attention to historical detail is sure to fascinate and delight curious readers, and may inspire reading or rereading of the original “A Christmas Carol” or other Dickens works.

— E.W.

Holidays on Ice
David Sedaris
Little, Brown, 166 pp., $16.99

David Sedaris’ take on the holidays reads like the eggnog-spiked ramblings of a boozy but hip young uncle.

“Holidays on Ice” will bring you and yours holiday cheer, if you like your humor black as a lump of coal. “Santaland Diaries,” his insider’s view of a department store elf’s world, is bitingly funny. In “Christmas Means Giving,” competition with generous neighbors becomes a depraved, escalating satire from writing a check for charity to using organ donation as a sort of charitable one-upmanship.

Under Sedaris’ satirical eye, even barnyard animals are conniving and sarcastic, as they plan a Secret Santa in “The Cow and The Turkey.” “Season’s Greetings,” the Dunbar family Christmas letter, reads less like holiday wishes than a litany of family miseries not even Jerry Springer would believe.

In short, this collection is David Sedaris at the top of his game, making it a must-have for the Sedaris fans on your Christmas list.

— E.W.

Santa Clawed
Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown
Bantam, 256 pp., $16.50

According to legend, Christmas Eve is the night animals talk. In Rita Mae and Sneaky Pie Brown’s “Mrs. Murphy” series, animal chatter is part of the fun.

Mary Minor Harristeen, or “Harry,” with cats named Mrs. Murphy and Pewter, and a Corgi named Tucker, finds herself uncovering a Yuletide murder mystery. Some monks in the Brothers of Love have dark secrets in their pasts. After a brother’s throat is cut in the snowy woods of the order’s Christmas tree farm, it is clear that someone will kill to keep those secrets. Will Harry solve the mystery before she becomes a target?

Descriptions of Christmas decorations and parties are welcoming, and much of the animals’ commentary will bring warm chuckles. So much seasonal joy makes the pacing of the mystery uneven. A perilous climax seems tacked on as an afterthought that tumbles into a rushed resolution. While it’s a wonderful Christmas story, mystery lovers may find it too gentle, preferring other entries in the Mrs. Murphy series.

— E.W.

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