Warming a Winter’s Night
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
It’s that maddening time of year again. We’re now in that small portion of the year given over to the lustful yearnings of teenage girls for the latest Hannah Montana CD or video game, the insatiable desires of Moms and Dads for the latest version of Barbie or Nintendo or Tickle-Me Elmo (it’s still around) to buy for their children, and the concupiscent cravings of every teenage boy for the Guitar Hero video game. It’s a little strange, though, I haven’t seen many (well, I’ve seen no) reports of buyers lining up on Black Friday at bookstores or shooting each other over the latest Danielle Steel, Stephen King, John Updike, or Margaret Atwood. As Charlie Brown so mournfully pleads in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Can’t anyone tell me the true meaning of Christmas?”
Set aside for a moment the typical religious reasons given for the meaning of Christmas (They’re all wrong anyway; Jesus was likely born in the spring of the year, and the holiday we now call Christmas was a Roman affair that celebrated the Sun.), and the fact that, as Lucy so lucidly points out in that same television special, Christmas is run by a big Eastern syndicate (which we affectionately call Wall Street). The real meaning of Christmas, as every reader knows, consists in satisfying that ravenous desire to devour slowly, morsel by delicious morsel, the luscious body you’ve just picked up and between whose covers you lie, waiting to be tantalized. Running your fingers slowly over every line as your new found love removes one diaphanous layer after another to lead you to undiscovered heights, you give yourself over rapturously to these adventures and passions. Exhausted and spent, you soon reach over to extinguish the flame, knowing that when the day dawns you will excitedly mount these passions once again.
Yes, for readers and for those who love books Christmas is all about finding that long-awaited book under the tree or in a stocking, curling up with it next to the fire (family, friends, and food be damned), and losing yourself in another world. Every reader has his or her wish list and hopes that friends and family have been attentive and will buy the books and not the sweater this year. I can still recall asking for a copy of Faulkner’s Uncollected Stories one Christmas. I didn’t receive it under the tree, but my grandfather, bless his soul, recognized my lust so well that he kindly gave me plenty of money to purchase that book as well as a few others in hardcover. My list isn’t so long this year mainly because as a book reviewer I’ve been able to snare many of the books I’ve really wanted as they’ve been published, and I usually have three or four books going at once but I’m still after Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy and The Insanity Defense as well as a few others (Delmore Schwartz’s Genesis and some other long out-of-print treasures).
Christmas is great time for catching up on the classics, for dipping into that new literary biography, discovering the secrets of an admired movie star or musician, and reveling in the beauties of well-wrought prose. Here are a few books some have appeared in the past year or so and some are classics and listed in no particular order that will continue to excite after the glitter fades.
John Updike, Due Considerations, Knopf, $40. Yet another collection of essays by our most arguably erudite writer and most brilliant stylist. Updike ranges breathlessly over subjects from Kierkegaard and Coetzee to Grass, literary biography, and contemporary art.
Martin Duberman, The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, Knopf, $37.50. Anyone who has seen The Nutcracker over the Christmas holidays owes Kirstein a tremendous debt. He brought George Balanchine (the choreographer responsible for the Tchaikovsky ballet) to America. Duberman tells Kirstein’s often agonizing, often stunning story Kirstein also helped build Lincoln Center, found the Modern Museum of Art, and founded Dance Index, the leading journal of dance in magisterial style.
Günter Grass, Peeling the Onion, Harcourt, $26. Grass, who turned 80 this year, peels away the layers of his life in this compelling memoir. The book stirred tremendous controversy when Grass reveled that he had served in the Waffen SS as a youngster, but the memoir is really about Grass’s hunger to succeed as an artist.
Philip Roth, Exit Ghost, Houghton Mifflin, $26. Roth brings to a close (?) the career of novelist Nathan Zuckerman. As he has so brilliantly done in his previous novels, Roth captures the anguish and angst of an individual continually searching for the meaning of life, and he hauntingly captures the bankruptcy of American culture in the few short years following September 11, 2001.
Adam Sisman, The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Viking, $27.95. The brilliant story of a collaboration and close friendship that eventually ended in tension and rivalry. Sisman performs for these two Romantic poets what he had earlier succeeded in doing for Boswell and Johnson in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task.
J.M. Coetzee, Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005, Viking, $25.95. There is simply no better guide to contemporary literature unless it’s Milan Kundera than Coetzee. In these sumptuous essays, Coetzee ranges over the writings of Italo Svevo, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald, and Nadine Gordimer, among others.
Bobby Braddock, Down in Orburndale, Louisiana State University Press, $24.95. Country songwriter Braddock (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today”) conducts us on a rollicking coming-of-age journey in the small central Florida town of Auburndale, long before the Mouse roared and redneck Florida was still filled with cowboys, religion, and orange groves.
Gary R. Mormino, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida, University Press of Florida, $34.95. This is a truly brilliant history of where Florida has been and where the state is going. Do you remember Carolina Snowball? The Citrus Tower? Marineland? Before Disney, they were prime attractions in the Sunshine State. If you ever wanted to know the true Florida, this is the book for you.
Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClercq, An Antebellum Plantation Household: Including the South Carolina Low Country Receipts and Remedies of Emily Wharton Sinkler, with Eighty-Two Newly Discovered Receipts, University of South Carolina Press, $29.95. When she was nineteen, Emily Wharton married Charles Sinkler and moved from Philadelphia to Charleston, South Carolina. Her letters home to her family are chock full of her riveting observations on life on a cotton plantation and provide generous insight into the social life on a plantation in the Antebellum South.
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Harper, $26.95. The Kingsolver family decides to move from Arizona to Virginia and to live only on the food that either they can produce on their land or that they can procure locally. Humorous and genuine, this beguiling book makes us rethink our food choices without hitting us over the head with numbing facts and figures.
Joseph Epstein, In a Cardboard Belt: Essays Personal, Literary, and Savage, Houghton Mifflin, $26. Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar and our heir to Addison and Steele, shares his marvelous gift with us in these essays on subjects ranging from turning seventy and weeding his library to Proust, I.B. Singer, and writer’s block.
Michael C. Long, ed. First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson, Henry Holt, $26. In the days of selfish athletes like Barry Bonds, it is refreshing to have these letters. Robinson is of course famous for having broken the race barrier in baseball, but these newly discovered letters prove that Robinson crusaded for civil rights long after he left the diamond.
Michael Dirda, Classics for Pleasure, Harcourt, $25. Always thought classics should be hard to read because of your ninth-grade English teacher? Dirda, our eminent man of letters, puts that to the lie in this splendid gift for giving. Arranged thematically, the book’s sections contain meditations on “classics,” ranging from Thomas Love Peacock’s Crotchet Castle and Zola’s Germinal to Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
Betsy Carter, Swim to Me, Algonquin, $23.95. A gorgeous coming-of-age novel set among the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida. Anyone who loved Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants will love this beautiful tribute to a time and place now gone.
Diane Diekman, Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story, University of Illinois, $29.95. An authorized biography of one of country music’s most flamboyant singers and performers. Diekman’s biography generates a new love for the Singing Sheriff.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Knopf, $37. A new translation by Richard Peavar and Larissa Volokhonsky, the team that brought us the new translation of Anna Karenina a few years ago. The new translation clocks in at close to two-thousand pages, including appendices, enough to keep even the speediest reader busy for many winter nights. Peavar and Volokhonsky’s rendering will inevitably invite comparison with the famed translations of Constance Garnett and Aylmer and Louise Maude, but the story’s the thing here and most readers will find some measure of enjoyment or satisfaction in having lived through the story of two families set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.
Howard Hampton, Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocaylpses, Harvard, $28.95. Scorching dispatches from the pop culture scene, Hampton’s pronouncements range over topics from Cat Power, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting to the “uneasy ride of rock and the new Hollywood,” Lester Bangs, Jean-Luc Godard, and Pauline Kael.
And, don’t forget those classics that warm a winter’s night:
George Eliot, Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke’s transformation into Teresa of Avila in this still compelling novel of manners, morals, and reform.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary. Shopaholic Emma Bovary may be the perfect companion for those who must add one more purchase to their already overtaxed accounts.
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. Like War and Peace, this monumental meditation on love, death, memory, and family is the perfect companion to long, winter nights; since Proust never left his bed while writing this, readers can do the same, accompanied by a cup of warm tea and that certain kind of cookie.
Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books. No holiday season is complete without a re-reading of A Christmas Carol.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. Take a journey through despair with these three chummy brothers; sort of like the Three Stooges meet Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman; what better way to while away a winter’s night than pondering the existence of God through questioning the suffering of innocent children.
Shakespeare Anything by the Bard including Winter’s Night will whisk you away to new lands (or old lands, as the case may be) and quickly put you in the presence of unforgettable characters.
Eudora Welty, The Collected Stories. Welty combines a wicked humor with a dagger-sharp insight into human nature, and her stories are among the best of the twentieth century.
Well, the list could go on, of course, but these should carry you through the dark days and cold nights of winter.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at