Tag Archives: Christmas

A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press

“In California they drink gin instead of tea.” 

a-very-russian-christmas

I saved A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press for the right time of year, and while I can’t say that the stories made me full of good cheer, they all definitely contained elements of Christmas in one way of another. There’s a universality to these stories which show Christmas as a troubling time, a time for reflection and, as cheesy as it may sound, being grateful for what we have. Here’s the line-up:

The New Year’s Tree: Mikhail Zoshchenko

The Boys: Anton Chekhov

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding: Fyodor Dostoevsky

At Christmastide: Anton Chekhov

Dream of the Young Tsar: Lev Tolstoy

Makar’s Dream: Vladimir Korolenko (translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh)

A Woman’s Kingdom: Anton Chekhov

A Distant Christmas Eve: Klaudia Lukashevich

The Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Christmas Phantoms: Maxim Gorky

A Lifeless Animal: Teffi

My Last Christmas: Mikhail Zoshchenko

Chekhov’s The Boys is the tale of a planned escape to America; In Mikhail Zoshchenko’s, The New Year’s Tree, the forty-year-old narrator recalls the lessons learned 35 years earlier. In another story from Chekhov, At Christmastide, an older couple pay someone to write a letter to their daughter who has married and moved away. Dream of the Young Tsar from Tolstoy was a bit of a disappointment; it’s sort of a Russian version of A Christmas Carol, heavy handed and moralistic.I’m not going to review all the stories, and instead I’m going to concentrate on my favourites in the collection.

Maxim Gorky’s story, Christmas Phantoms, is the story of a writer who, on one very cold night, is finishing a story about two peasants–a blind husband and his elderly wife, who, after an unsuccessful day begging on Christmas Eve, freeze together to death in the snow. What a dreadful story, I thought to myself, and I felt disappointed (too soon) by Gorky, but he pulled a few tricks and before the story was done, I had a few chuckles. All I’ll say is ‘writers beware what you do to your characters.’

Another favorite was Chekhov’s A Woman’s Kingdom. The story opens on Christmas Eve and focuses on unmarried Anna Akimovna, a young woman who owns substantial property, including a factory which employs 1800 workers. Every year at Christmas, she distributes a certain amount of money to the poor, but this year, an extra 1500 roubles lands in her lap, and she decides to give it away. But who to give it to? She’s faced with a stack of begging letters (and hateful letters), and letting fate award the 1500 roubles, she picks a begging letter at random.

A Woman’s Kingdom is a fairly long story, and one that could have been worked into a novel. We see Anna’s Christmas when she is visited by the local poor who shivering with cold, pay respects, Anna notes “in reality there is something cruel in these Christmas customs,” but she’s powerless to stop the century old traditions.

For Christmas dinner she’s joined by a civil councillor and a slimey barrister, Lysevitch. These men can be seen, ostensibly, as suitors, but neither of them court Anna-although sleek Lysevitch, “like a spoiled horse fresh from the stable,”  is full of stupid advice about Anna taking multiple lovers.He’d “long ceased to believe in anything he had to say in the law courts, or perhaps he did believe in it, but attached no kind of significance to it–it had all so long been familiar, stale, ordinary ..”

Anna, an extremely sympathetic character, was raised from peasantry to wealth by inheritance. She’s not entirely comfortable with her position. She longs for love and marriage, but it seems that she’s destined to remain unmarried. We see a life of privilege but a life that’s sterile. She has wealth but she’s being ripped off in various ways; she’d like to help those in need and give charity, but her actions are either thwarted or futile.

My favourite story in the collection was Dostoevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding. The narrator is an unnamed man who sees a wedding, and then casts his mind back to a children’s party which took place five years earlier on New Year’s Eve. The family who threw the party were wealthy, and the narrator, an outsider, observes the other guests, the children and their accompanying governesses.

Particularly charming was a blackeyed, curly-headed boy, who kept trying to shoot me with his wooden gun. But my attention was still more attracted by his sister, a girl of eleven, quiet, pensive, pale with big, prominent, pensive eyes, exquisite as a little cupid. 

Idle gossip between the guests whispers that the little girl will inherit 300,o00 roubles, and the supposedly disingenuous narrator notices that gifts, which seem to be randomly distributed, are awarded to the children with “presents diminishing in value in accordance with the rank of the parents of these happy children.” The son of the governess, “the child of the lowest degree” gets a cheap book while the little heiress receives the most expensive doll. To say what happens next would be to spoil the story for other readers, but once again Dostoevsky chronicles the lowest points of human behaviour.

Review copy

Makar’s Dream translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh

My last Christmas and The New Year’s Tree copyright estate of Mikhail Zoshchenko

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Filed under Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gorky Maxim, Korolenko Vladimir, Lukashevich Klaudia, Teffi, Tolstoy, Leo, Zoshchenko Mikhail

Silent Nights: Martin Edwards ed.

“Not a nice murder. Not at all a nice murder.”

Silent Nights, another entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, is a compilation of short stories–all with the common factor that the action takes place over Christmas. Police agencies and even the FBI warn that crime increases during the holiday season. Is it all the late night shopping, the carrying of cash? In other words, is the increase due to increased opportunities or are the statistics driven more by the need of the criminal to provide extra for their families? After reading Silent Nights, if there’s a connective theme, it’s how the Christmas season creates opportunities for criminals, and in some instances the season even creates such tempting opportunities that normally honest people turn to crime.

Here’s a breakdown of the stories:

  • The Blue Carbuncle: Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Parlour Tricks: Ralph Plummer
  • A Happy Solution: Raymund Allen
  • The Flying Stars: G. K. Chesterton
  • Stuffing: Edgar Wallace
  • The Unknown Murderer: H.C. Bailey
  • The Absconding Treasurer: J. Jefferson Farjeon
  • The Necklace of Pearls: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Case is Altered: Margery Allingham
  • Waxworks: Ethel Lina White
  • Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen
  • The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing
  • A Problem in White: Nicholas Blake
  • The Name on the Window: Edmund Crispin
  • Beef for Christmas: Leo Bruce

Short story collections are a great way to discover new names, and in  Silent Nights, there are some very famous names and others I’d never heard of. This collection begins with an intro by Martin Edwards and each story is prefaced with short biographical content.

silent nightsSome of the stories are very traditional ‘who-dun-its,’ so in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, the mystery concerns a lost top hat and a stolen diamond with Holmes managing to deduce a great deal from the hat that has seen better days while Watson stands on the sidelines wondering just how Holmes manages to make such brilliantly accurate conclusions.  Other stories, such as Dorothy Sayers’ The Necklace of Pearls and Edgar Wallace’s Stuffing take place at Christmas country gatherings. Some stories are very deadly serious detective stories which concern murder while other stories are light and humorous in tone.

“A radical does not mean a man who lives on radishes,” remarked Crook, with some impatience; “and a Conservative does not mean a man who preserves jam. Neither, I assure you, does a Socialist mean a man who desires a social evening with the chimney-sweep. A Socialist means a man who wants all the chimneys swept and all the chimney-sweeps paid for it.”

“But who won’t allow you,” put in the priest in a low voice,” to own your own soot.”

That’s an excerpt from the witty G.K Chesterton story, The Flying Stars.

Of the collection, and there’s a very nice range of stories here, I have to say that I was much more attracted to the unusual stories: The Unknown Murderer: H. C Bailey, Waxworks: Ethel Lina White, Cambric Tea: Marjorie Bowen, and The Chinese Apple: Joseph Shearing.

The Unknown Murderer from H. C Bailey is the story of a serial killer, and the story’s powerful sense of evil set this tale rather disturbingly apart from the others. Waxworks from Ethel Lina White concerns an intrepid young female reporter who opts to spend the night in a waxworks museum to investigate the truth behind the mysterious deaths that have taken place there. In Cambric Tea, a young doctor sacrifices  his Christmas holiday in order to attend to a cantankerous old man who insists he’s being poisoned by his wife. In The Chinese Apple, a woman reluctantly travels to England from Florence in order to take over the care of a niece she’s never met.

Ethel Lina White also wrote the novel Some Must Watch which was made into the film The Spiral Staircase. Joseph Shearing is one of the male pen names used by Marjorie Bowen, so in other words, she ( author’s real name, Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long)  made my short list twice. The biographical intro to the story from Martin Edwards mentions that ‘Joseph Shearing’ wrote For Her to See (made into the film So Evil My Love) which was inspired by the real Charles Bravo murder case. Film fans may be interested to know that Marjorie Bowen, as Joseph Shearing  also wrote Blanche Fury and Moss Rose. Three out of four of my favourite stories, Waxworks, Cambric Tea and The Chinese Apple were very cinematic stories, and perhaps that’s no coincidence.

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Filed under Allingham Margery, Chesterton G.K., Farjeon J. Jefferson, Fiction

The Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis

“Christmas was like a storm washing people to and fro to end up unwanted in each other’s homes.”

Christmas arrives regularly whether we are ready for it or not, and in The Birds of the Air from Alice Thomas Ellis, the celebration comes at an awkward time.  The novel covers a few days in December as three generations of one family converge on the home of the maternal grandmother, Mrs Marsh, a chirpy efficient woman who believes that ‘life must go on’ regardless of family tragedy, and as a widow she’s living proof of her fussy ability to cope.

Unfortunately, Mrs Marsh’s daughter, Mary, isn’t as resilient, and after the death of Mary’s son, Robin, “when it became clear that Mary could no longer live alone,” her mother insists that Mary should move in and be taken care of. While Mary “burned, as remote as a salamander in a blazing exaltation of grief, seeming to draw energy from what had devoured her,” Mrs Marsh’s mourning for her husband is relegated to one specific time of day:

she permitted herself to weep a little each morning in the bathroom before she put on her eyeshadow, but she knew and accepted what apparently Mary did not–that life had to go on. Mary had gone far, but had been wounded and forced to return; and her mother felt the ever so slightly spiteful vindication of the keeper of the cage. The bird had come back, if only to die.

The complacent living sometimes resent prolonged mourning, and that is certainly the case in the Marsh home, and here are the Christmas holidays which are supposed to be a time for celebrating:

she couldn’t suppress a feeling of annoyance with Mary’s Robin for being dead. The event had upset her daughter out of all proportion. Of course it was a dreadful thing to lose your loved ones, but life had to go on. What would happen if everyone collapsed?

Mary, apathetic and depressed, is in a strange twilight zone. She’s still in the world of the living but she longs to join Robin in death; she eats when she’s told to, but mostly she looks out at the garden and watches the birds, alone with her thoughts.

The sky had darkened when Mrs Marsh came back with lunch. She pushed the door with her bottom, balancing a tray covered with two cloths, one under and one over the food, lest germs should leap on it in the few feet between the kitchen and her child.

‘Why don’t you turn the light on?’ she asked, though if it had been on she would have asked why Mary hadn’t called her to do it, or remarked that too much light was bad for the eyes. Life had so treated her in recent years that she couldn’t trust it to itself for a second. A solitary magpie–vain, god-cursed bird, clad in eternal half-mourning-flew forever across her mind’s eye and had to be propitiated or cunningly foiled with constant changing and rearranging. By questioning and vigilance fate might be deflected.

Mrs Marsh is an admirable woman but lacking in the compassion department, and while The Birds of the Air is concerned with mourning, this is also a novel of manners, so complications ensue when Mrs. Marsh’s younger daughter, Barbara, her insufferable professor husband, Sebastian and their two children , Sam and Kate descend on the Marsh household. Sam, an awkward teenager, has just discovered that his father is engaged in a long-standing affair with ‘the Thrush,’ the wife of another professor. Much to Sam’s shame, his father and his mistress are a common long-standing joke amongst his father’s students. Barbara, on tranquilizers, a woman hardwired to cope rather like her mother, also discovers the affair during a Christmas party she is forced to host, but like her mother, she carries on and the family travel to the matriarchal home for Christmas.

the birds of the airWith birds and survival in nature as a central motif, Alice Thomas Ellis follows a few days in the lives of her characters. In the  human world, once we are fed and housed, our greatest challenges are emotional, and here we have a family headed by a woman who’s determined to put a cheery face on things despite glaring evidence to the opposite. The author wisely creates moments of sympathy for Mrs Marsh in the way she realizes she dislikes her son-in-law and the “faint weasel gleam of his smile.”

He made her think of hard roads under a film of rain, shallow and dangerous; of slugs and Nazis and the minister she sometimes met in the terminal ward of the cancer hospital when she was arranging the flowers ….

Mrs Marsh’s seeming lack of empathy is revealed as a fear of emotion and its assault on the respectable middle class security with which she surrounds herself. The perfect family Christmas is exposed as a torturous event with insufferable child, Kate, who obviously inherits her father’s genes, determined to be the ‘good child,’ so when she’s not showing up her rebellious brother, she’s spouting poetry. Meanwhile tensions between Sebastian and Barbara erupt as Mrs Marsh tries desperately to cover up all bad behaviour in front of her neighbours.

In spite of a theme of grief, this is an amazing, beautiful novel replete with sublime observations concerning Mary who manages to somehow, in her ethereal position, remain above some of the worst behaviour of Mrs Marsh’s guests. There are some very funny moments as Mrs Marsh struggles to conceal some of the uglier aspects of life as unexpected guests arrive. This is the fourth rereading of The Birds of the Air, and that should tell you how much I love this book.

She retired to the back room and opened the window. Dry flakes of snow drifted in, as ready and accustomed as doves returning to their familiar cote. She left the window slightly ajar to feel the cold after the heat of the front room, and told herself that alive or dead she wouldn’t undergo another Christmas. The year’s accumulated ill-will seemed always to find expression at this time. Relations who throughout most of the year had the sense to stay apart confined themselves in small spaces to eat and drink too much. And not content with this they felt it necessary to invite people who were lonely because they were unpleasant or boring and no one liked them. They had to be made to participate since it was felt that no one should be alone on this of all days.

For more Alice Thomas Ellis:

The Summer House (made into a film)

The Inn at the Edge of the World

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Filed under Ellis, Alice Thomas, Fiction

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park

This year, I wanted to read something with a Christmas feel to it, and that brings me to The Light of Amsterdam by David Park–not quite a Xmas novel, but Xmas is mentioned, so as far as I am concerned it counts. Plus the novel depicts people on holiday, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for novels that take people on holiday.

The Light from AmsterdamDavid Park’s The Light of Amsterdam begins, quite beautifully, with the funeral procession for George Best. Watching the cars and remembering Best’s glorious career is Alan, a divorced, middle-aged, sad sack of an Art teacher who, after twenty-two years of marriage which culminated in a pathetic moment of listless infidelity, finds himself alone and living in a grotty flat. As Alan watches the procession, he experiences an “unsettling sensation” and connects with the life of the dead footballer through the memory of a lost autograph. It was something he should have treasured, but he can’t remember now how he even lost it. This thread of lost things–be they people, moments, feelings, or relationships, appears throughout the novel which finds three characters on the brink of some sort of change.

Alan, who’s facing crises in both his personal and professional lives, has arranged a nostalgic weekend trip to Amsterdam which includes a concert by Bob Dylan, and he’s guilted by his ex into dragging his disaffected teenage son along for the ride. Another main character is Marion, a 54-year-old who coowns a busy, successful garden centre with her husband, Richard. When Marion receives the gift of a gym membership from her husband, she’s convinced that it’s evidence of her husband’s dissatisfaction with her, and so she plans something significant for the weekend in Amsterdam.

And this present-and she can’t even begin to think of it as a present-of a year’s membership of this swanky fitness and leisure complex was filled with unanswered questions and once again it confused her that a man who could speak so directly in business continued to be someone unable to express himself openly in other matters.

The third main character is Karen, the single mother who pulls extra shifts at her two cleaning jobs in order to pay for the fancy bang-up wedding her selfish, vain daughter Shannon demands. Shannon has organised a hen party to Amsterdam, and her mother is included. This may sound like fun, but all the guests are required to dress as American Indians, and while that style may flatter Shannon and her youthful friends, it serves to make middle-aged Karen feel out of place and rather ridiculous.

We’re given some illuminating glimpses into the lives of these three main characters: Alan who experiences moments of disorientation in his new life, Marion who suspects her husband may be having an affair with a Polish employee, and Karen who’s accused of theft at the nursing home. So when these three people take a flight to Amsterdam in December 2005, they’re troubled and preoccupied by other concerns. 

Once the main characters and their personal lives were introduced, I had a feeling that I could predict the direction the plot would take. It’s unfortunate when that happens–especially when the predictions become true, and because some of the plot is predictable, the interest here isn’t so much what the characters do as much as what they think in private moments:

You come to a point in your life when you’re weary of thinking of others and when for the very first time you can’t think of anyone other than yourself and suddenly you want to refind who that self is, in the hope that it’s a better, happier self than the one you find yourself with now.

Another problem with the novel is that all three characters are downers. While Alan’s son is in the throes of teenage angst, the three main characters, Marion, Karen and Alan are definitely mired in painful, middle-aged angst. No fun-filled spontaneity here. Alan is obviously having a difficult time accepting the fact that it’s time to move on; Marion has a lot to be grateful for and doesn’t seem to realise that she’s haunted by her own aging rather than her spouse’s wandering eyes, and Karen, well Karen just needs the courage to tell her daughter to think about someone else for a change. She’s spent a lifetime indulging her only child, and that indulgence has fed Shannon’s selfish streak. Just as Alan wonders how he can reach and reconnect with his troubled teenage son, Karen realises, rather poignantly, that the selfishness built around Shannon’s preoccupation with appearances, is a monster of her own making.

Both Alan and Karen “feel” genuine; I wasn’t so convinced by Marion, but I liked the author’s writing style and the way in which we see glimpses of these characters’ private thoughts and doubts. The author conveys the sense that these characters–all from different walks of life–find themselves shipwrecked in lives they don’t want for a range of reasons–even though those lives are built on a series of choices. They all feel dismay, on one level or another, about how their lives reached this point. There’s one marvellous scene when Alan is called in to talk to the head of his department, Stan, a man who “once looked like a Belfast Ginsberg and who as a young man thought that the purpose of art was to shock and disturb” but who is now weighed down by department politics and complaints from students about Alan’s noticeable lack of focus. Told by Stan that he must “evolve or face extinction,” Alan has mixed feelings about hoping to publish a paper or whip up an art show, and yet what are his options? Will he be able to abandon his lethargy and become productive once again?

The novel ends on a note of optimism that’s shadowed by the idea that in order for life to change, it’s sometimes necessary to overcome ourselves, our weaknesses and our prejudices, and for some of us, that’s both a tall order and a stumbling block.

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Park David