A book about Christmas, The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be trite. This book is absolutely, one hundred percent pandering to the lowest common denominator. It cashes in on the tragedy and sadness of desperate people seeking meaning for the random, awful chaos in their lives. There are two kinds of Christmas books—those pertaining to what I consider the true meaning of Christmas: remembering your fellow humans and being kind and loving to them, even if they are strangers. Truly, we should embrace the spirit of Christmas all year, but Christmas serves to take us out of that selfish little rut we wedge ourselves into and it forces us to think outside ourselves, at least for a short season. Then there’s the second kind—the Jesus is the ‘reason for the season’ kind. Which, okay, technically, yes that is true, but as we become more secularized, more and more people are getting away from that mindset. This book is very much the second kind—the all roads lead to Jesus variety.
It’s a sappy story about a rich old white lady who lives alone in a mansion. She hires a family to take care of her and the property. She’s a super nice old lady, but the family can tell she’s got a past she isn’t talking about. When the family moves in, they are storing their things up in the attic and the narrator is digging through the woman’s things (a little messed up, but I digress) and he comes across an ornate carved box. He calls it the Christmas box because it has a nativity scene on the front. Since this guy apparently doesn’t believe in privacy, he opens the box, discovers letters, and decides to read them because he feels entitled to invade this lady’s privacy. He believes them to be love letters. Later, he starts dreaming about an angel. It all comes together in the end that this old lady suffered a terrible tragedy, and it taught her the “true meaning of Christmas,” i.e. Jesus is super great, etc.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who is Christian. However, speaking as an Atheist, this definitely wasn’t the book for me. I found it annoying and gimmicky and the absolute worst sort of hackneyed writing that exists in contemporary literature. It did not make me feel warm and fuzzy for the holiday. It annoyed me and made me feel attacked on multiple fronts—for being an atheist, not being appreciative enough of what truly matters (i.e. God sacrificing his ‘only son’ for me, etc.), and it also seemed like kind of a middle finger to single childless people. Another one of those YOUR LIFE HAS NOOOOO MEANING UNTIL YOU HAVE HAD A BABY AND FOUND JESUS. Insert Robert Downey Jr. eye roll.
Book 49, a book about magic, The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
I fell in love with Alice Hoffman’s books in high school, and I devoured as many of them as I could find. This period of my life was “pre-English major” and I enjoyed literature much differently. Back then, all I cared about was a good story that pulled me in. I had no idea what good writing was. I loved Alice Hoffman’s ability to weave magic into real-life in a way that was almost believable, even though it defied the laws of the natural world. She did it so expertly that I found it unnecessary to suspend my disbelief. Later, I learned that this is an entire genre called Magical Realism, and it is, to this day, one of my favorite genres. Alice Hoffman also excels at creating characters with serious depth. You feel very invested in their outcomes.
For this reason, specifically, The Rules of Magic was an excellent choice as it is a prequel to her novel Practical Magic. Quite possibly the best part of this novel is the fact that you get insight into the crazy aunts from her other book. She sheds more light on the intriguing Owens clan. That deep connection to the Owens family and their plight is what drives the reader forward. I would not say this Hoffman’s best work; it’s probably one of my least favorite books by her if we’re talking strictly style and storyline. However, the connection to Gilly, Sally and their Aunts Jett and Franny kept me intrigued. Her writing is, at times, a bit repetitive, a bit overdone, and the plot is a little derivative—you see what’s coming a mile away—but the journey getting there is quite fun.
Most likely, I cannot read Alice Hoffman’s work and enjoy it the way I did before I studied literature. I have mentioned before that it is very hard for me to read a book without a pen in my hand; the literary scholar in me wants to annotate, underline, and basically over-analyze/tear apart everything I read. I can’t simply read for enjoyment anymore, and that’s what Alice Hoffman’s writing is: something to just sit and read and enjoy. A story to get wrapped up in and escape reality for a little while. Is she the best writer ever? No. But she builds some very loveable and interesting worlds and characters, and it’s well worth the trip to her imaginary worlds from time to time.
An action story: The Last of Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
I have owned a copy of this novel for about five years. Every Fall, I get a weird motivation to read the book. Funnily enough, I have started the book about five times and never gotten past the first ten pages. After I fail to read it, I put it back on the shelf and dutifully feel the longing to give it another try the next year. I truly believed that if I could just get past the first few pages, I would be sucked into the story and love it. Sadly, this was not the case. Try as I might, I seriously could not get into this book. I even felt duly motivated because this year, I did part of my engagement photo shoot in the Moravian Cemetery where Chingachook is buried in real life! Look at how pretty it is!
I wanted so badly to just fall in love with the characters and this story, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it was the archaic writing style (thee’s and thou’s, etc.), the annoying, overly-pious White Christian characters, or the one dimensional Native American characters. Maybe it was the untranslated French rife throughout. No matter how you slice it, I HATED THIS BOOK. It was by far one of the most boring novels I have ever read. For an action packed story about escaping some of the toughest, scariest Natives in the North East, it was surprisingly dull, annoyingly pious, and of course, as a product of its time, almost offensively racist in the depiction of the Natives. The way the Natives speak—in these prolonged, annoying metaphors—was quite awful. I am hard pressed to find one thing I liked, so I will just say that I’m happy to finally mark this as read and take it off my shelves.
A Gothic Horror Story, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
I’m naming The Castle of Otranto my ‘WTF Did I Just Read’ book of the year. Of course, I mean this in the best possible way. The story is just so absurd, you end going, “wtf did I just read?” Yet it is highly entertaining, even though at times, it becomes so heavy-handed it feels a bit cheesy. A little history about this novel—it is considered the first gothic novel. This novel shaped what we know today as the modern Gothic genre. Also, it may be loosely based on a real story (according to Wikipedia, there is a real Castle Otranto and similar events may have happened to one of its residents). The novel is quite short, so I recommend everyone reads its, if for nothing else to see the “originator of Gothic.” Plus, it’s kind of crazy and hilarious. I don’t feel that I can get into the plot without giving too much away, but suffice it to say, this should be on everyone’s to-read list.
A noir story, The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Ah, Dashiell Hammett. I first met Dash in one of my graduate courses reading The Maltese Falcon. I think I became enamored with him more for his career as a detective before writing, and also the whole politic/blacklisting, than his writing, but nonetheless, I have continue to carry a flame for him all these years. He is considered the master of the hardboiled detective story, so if you’re into that genre, he is a must-read. For me, the plots become a little formulaic (as is the norm with these sorts of stories), but the narrator is pretty fun and it’s always a fun puzzle trying to solve the mystery before you get to the end. Usually, there’s at least one or two good curveballs I didn’t see coming, so he is never *too* predictable.
In this novel, our narrator is a retired private detective on vacation with his wife, enjoying lots of cocktails and parties in the Big Apple. One of his former acquaintance’s ex wives and children run into him, and gets embroiled in a very odd series of events. Our narrator is then in a race with the police to figure out what really happened before any further incidents occur. Hammett is, as always, a quick but entertaining read.
A book of short stories, Everything that Rises must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
In general, I am not a short story gal. I love a good novel that I can really sink my teeth into. Flannery O’Connor, however, is the exception to my rule. Something about her writing is just so intoxicating. Even in a short story format, it’s so rich and fulfilling. You feel as though you’ve plumbed the depths of her characters and their stories despite the brief length. To me, that marks an extremely talented writer.
I know that most people focus upon the Christian elements in O’Connor’s writing, which to be fair, are quite prevalent throughout all of the stories in this collection. However, the thing that struck me is the way she writes mothers. In nearly every story, there is a male narrator dealing, to some degree, with a well-meaning but overbearing (often racist/bigoted) white mother (or, in my favorite story, an overbearing wife). The father is almost always deceased or out of the picture–tapping into some autobiographical similarities with O’Conner herself, whose father died when she was young. I found the dynamic between the narrator and their mothers fascinating and quite telling. I also feel that the mothers represented the “Old South” and the narrators were the new breed of “liberal Southerner” trying to find a new way. The two are consistently at odds, and neither ever really “wins” in terms of the conflict. The fact that so many of her narrators are males also intrigues me–I’m not sure why, but it merits further thinking. O’Conner’s settings are also quite endearing–beautiful rural farmland, small town America–it evokes a nostalgia for a “better time” that perhaps, as O’Conner seems to suggest, never truly existed. Maybe this is her overarching theme in this collection.
Regardless of your intentions–be they scholarly interest or pure entertainment–O’Conner will not disappoint. Her characters are wonderfully, scandalously flawed, and entirely real in their shortcomings. The racial issues she takes to task are still completely relevant to today’s reader–some would argue maybe even more so. Whatever you take away from this collection, and believe me, there is a lot, you will be satisfied.
A book with non-human characters, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
One dark, misty evening, a man walks through a home with a long knife dripping in blood. The bodies of the three victims lie where he left them, but he continues onward looking for the last member of the slain family–a toddler. Unfortunately for him, the toddler is the adventurous sort and managed to crawl out of his crib and toddle up the lane to the local graveyard. In the middle of the night, the graveyard is inhabited by all manner of creatures–ghosts, ghouls, demons, and things so ancient the other creatures don’t even know what they are called. This interesting microcosm of undead critters makes a group decision to keep the toddler, protect him, and raise him as one of their own. Admittedly, this will be a difficult task, but it’s one they feel destined to undertake.
Nobody Owens, as the graveyard folk name him, grows up in the most unconventional of ways possible. His home, school, and playground is the consecrated ground of the cemetery–the only place his adoptive family can protect him. He learns the non-human tricks of blending in, moving like a shadow, and disappearing in order to remain off the radar of the human world. Yet, like all children, Nobody becomes more inquisitive and thirsty for knowledge of the outside world as he ages. Soon he longs to venture out into the world, much to the anxiety of his adoptive graveyard family.
This story is the adventures of Nobody Owens, child of the graveyard, as he ventures out to greet his destiny. As his place in the universe unfolds through a mysterious series of events, you can’t help but cheer him on. Above all else, this story demonstrates that love does, in fact, surpass the limitations of life and death. It is an eternal and improbable force to be reckoned with.