Monday, 25 December 2006

A Reader's Digest Christmas, Digested

I've been meaning to write a special Christmas-themed review about O. Henry's The Gifts of the Magi and four of his other short stories, but since I am now at my parents' place for Christmas and I cleverly left the O. Henry book at my own home in Toronto, I'll have to fall back on reviewing something from my parents' bookshelves.

So, I've unearthed a somewhat battered, Reader's Digest-produced copy of A Family's Christmas, copyright 1984. And I'm actually disposed to be more gentle with it than I would have been to The Gifts of the Magi. But please don't take this as some sort of endorsement of Reader's Digest.

Reader's Digest was always in my home as I grew up because my father subscribed to it, and it does seem to me to be a sort of yardstick to my development as a reader, the equivalent of old pencil marks on a wall being used to gauge a child's height. When I first began to read it at about eight, I read just the jokes. Then, perhaps a year later, I began to read the lighter articles. Then I began to read whatever articles interested me, and by twelve or so I was reading the entire magazine. At fourteen I beguiled away a good portion of a case of mono by reading ten years' worth of back issues. (I always remember my illnesses by my reading material, and have fond memories of the time I escaped from the miseries of a 2002 bout with Influenza A into a thick, small-print collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.) At fifteen I began to notice, as with an outgrown, outworn piece of clothing, the shortcomings of Reader's Digest, and consequently read it less and less. By the age of seventeen, I had stopped reading it all together, and now can't bear to read it at all. So, now, revisiting A Family Christmas as an adult, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the book I enjoyed so much as a ten-year-old still has some merit.

The book opens with an essay written by the excellent Jessamyn West. (Not, you understand, the living and equally excellent Jessamyn West, librarian and moderator, but the late and excellent Jessamyn West, Quaker writer.) West muses about her Christmas memories, and it's enjoyable reading, though I would enjoy it more if I didn't have to worry that Reader's Digest editors have gutted the piece — or as they call it, "condensed" it. The first time I ever read an original version of something I had only previously read as a Reader's Digest version I realized how cheated I had been, and it is this more than anything that destroyed my enjoyment of Reader's Digest materials. If the piece has been gutted, the editors certainly chose to leave in West's slightly didactic conclusion about the "heart-warmth" and religious meaning of Christmas. I can't help but suspect it would have seemed less preachy in the original form, as West, a woman who helped her own sister euthanize herself, had a very nuanced belief system and no tendency at all to proselytize.

Paging on, we enter a section called "Christmas Customs and Crafts". This section features pieces about the origin and practice of different Christmas customs followed by instructions for making your own Christmas paraphernalia. For instance, the first custom discussed is the Christmas tree. Origin of the custom, historical and present-day variations, a cute anecdote about Theodore Roosevelt's son's scheme to subvert his conservationist father's decree that there would be no White House Christmas tree, quotes from A.E. Housman, reproductions of works by Norman Rockwell, and Grandma Moses, pictures of antique ornaments, illustrations of various kinds of pine trees. Quite readable. Immediately following it we have instructions on how to make tree ornaments out of wood shavings, which look lovely. Then instructions on how to make Ecuadorian star ornaments out of yarn and foil covered squares. They're done in garish colours and look none too attractive in the book, but the crafter in me is thinking perhaps the idea has some potential...

Moving on more rapidly, there are pieces on creches, Christmas stockings, toys, Christmas cards, Christmas greens, and Santa Claus, and these are followed, respectively, by instructions on making one's own cornhusk creche, knitted Aran stockings, Cinderella doll and wooden wagon, Christmas cards, pine cone wreath and Advent wreath, and "Santa's dream dollhouse". Which I must admit mostly look attractive and damn tempting to me as a knitter, sewer, and person who loves to make things, and there's something to be said for a company that can produce crafts which still look good over twenty years later. The picture of a brooding Santa peering around a tree while a little girl plays happily with the dollhouse does look a little iffy, however.

Then we come to the "Christmas in the Kitchen" section. James Beard's Christmas recollections, and four separate menus for Christmas meals. Also a cookie section, featuring a photo of a pink-cheeked grandma happily making cookies with two children at her kitchen table. Grandma's pink cheeks are a little too obviously rouged, and there's no way any baker could possibly work on such crowded surface as her kitchen table, but we'll let that pass. The recipes certainly look good, but I'm already feeling sated on my mother's cooking, so I'll just move on to the next section.

Paging on, we find the section I remember the best, a collection of Christmas stories, which as always with Reader's Digest selections, range from the very good to the horrendous, and, as with West's piece, I cannot fully enjoy any of them for fear they have been gutted.

I would place the first story, "A Miserable, Merry Christmas" in the "very good" category. Lincoln Steffens tells the story of the boyhood Christmas he told his parents that he wanted "a pony or nothing" for Christmas, and how he awoke to find Christmas morning to find he'd been taken at his word. Steffens, so Wikipedia claims, is known for remarking, upon his return from a 1921 visit to the Soviet Union, that he "has been over into the future and it works", but let us leave that aside and give him credit for at least understanding his own past, and presenting us with an evocative representation of a childhood experience, with its wild expectations and painful hopes and sudden plunges from joy to misery and back again.

Next we find the lyrics for "Go Tell It On The Mountain". I'd say this was public domain (read: "free") filler and am musing on whether in today's cultural climate the Reader's Digest editors would still chose to subtitle the lyrics "American Black Spiritual".

On page 148, Selma Lagerlof's "The Legend of the Christmas Rose" begins, a mystical tale of monks and robbers and a forest that blooms and is visited by angels every Christmas. It's not bad, and it does achieve that certain flavour of a tale that has been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Next is Valentine Davies' "Miracle on 34th Street". I read this story before ever knowing about the movie. Now that I know about the movie and have skimmed over the story again, I found myself wondering if the story was the "fictionalization" of the movie — fiction written from the screen play. Such fictionalizations are usually flat and mechanical, like this story. Upon looking it up, I find the movie was made from the "novel". Since the story in the Reader's Digest book is just 35 pages long, I suspect the story has been stripped to the bare bones. It's hardly fair to assess it in this state.

Norah Lofts's "The Lord of Misrule" follows "Miracle on 34th Street". In medieval times, a minstrel and a penniless girl of good family fall in love. They know they would never be allowed even to speak together under ordinary circumstances, but when the minstrel is named Lord of Misrule they seize their chance. It's a good story, and is well told.

Then we come to "Mr. Edward Meets Santa Claus", as excerpted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Not a bad story, nor badly written. And, of course, it's imbued by all those values Reader's Digest and Wilder's libertarian daughter Rose Wilder Lane (who heavily edited and rewrote her mother's work) hold so dear — the bonds of family and friendship, and hardy self-reliance.

Next is Pearl S. Buck's "Christmas Day in the Morning", the story of an elderly man's memories of a boyhood Christmas surprise for his father. More about the bonds of family and love, but the story has a dark vein, because it more than hints at the loneliness of an elderly couple whose children are busy with their own lives.

Then we read Kay Thompson's "Eloise at Christmastime". Somehow even at ten I never cared for this story. I don't think I really had the patience to read it properly. I always liked a good story, and this one is short on actual narrative and long on nonsense rhymes and whimsy.

On to Frank R. Stockton's "Old Applejoy's Ghost". The ghost of a man from the eighteenth century pulls some strings to manage a Christmas and other matters for his great-granddaughter. It's not literature by any means, but it's readable enough.

Then we find Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver", which is supposed to be among the best of Millay's work. I hope this isn't the case. "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver" is maudlin, subscribes to the awful mother-reverence that was far too prevalent in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, and is barely above doggerel.

Next is "Christmas Every Day" by William Dean Howells. A little girl gets her wish and has Christmas every day for a year. I hope it's not just my love for nineteenth century children's and pulp fiction speaking when I say I really like this one. I suppose it's supposed to be a morality lesson instructing little girls in the dangers of greed, but to my mind it's just as much about the excesses of Christmas and how once a year is as much Christmas as anyone can bear, and this subtext amuses me no end.

Finally, we come to "A Conversation About Christmas", by Dylan Thomas. A Welsh man describes his boyhood Christmasses to a small boy. It's a poetic piece about the nature of nostalgia.

We finish with more public domain filler — a poem from Tennyson, and then "A Christmas Prayer Book", which is a few pages of short poems and readings from various sources.

As you can tell from my description, it's a reasonably enjoyable, worthwhile book on the whole. The problems I have with it, and with Reader's Digest materials in general, are like unto the problem I have with Christmas as a whole. I don't like the painful contrast between the ideal presented as reality and the actual reality, the saccharine feel-good vibe, the unreasonable, unrealistic expectations nearly everyone develops and is subjected to. I don't like the nostalgia that laces its way through everything. The lament for "how things used to be" is literally everywhere in this book, even in the medieval-era The Lord of Misrule. But then Christmas, like such "family oriented" materials as this book, are not things that can or should be experienced every day. Perhaps they are well enough in their place.

I'll just say then, that I hope we all enjoy Christmas, and all such artificially sweet fare, on our own terms, and then enjoy equally our return to a more holistic way of living and perceiving.

No comments: