I'll never forget the first time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I wish I could say that I was impressed with the crisp, jovial flow of the language or that as a precocious 8-year-old, I got the allegory behind Aslan and the Deep Magic. But no, what impressed me most was the food. Forget Turkish Delight. I'm talking about buttered toast with honey, little jam cakes, lightly boiled brown eggs ... Good god, those fauns could eat.
If you can't bear another trip to the mall, another forced-merriment Christmas party or another holiday dinner with the fam, why not hunker down with a good book? These are a few of the books that I'm leaning on to get me through the season - a heady seasonal grog of old favorites and new discoveries. Enjoy. And if you're making a snack first, give me a call.
1. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
You just can't find a more evilly delightful spin on the holidays. The Santaland Diaries, Sedaris' by-now-famous memoir of working as a Macy's Christmas elf, is full of cynical observations ("After awhile, it was hard to tell where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began"), lust for his fellow elves, and surprising moments of humanity.
"Dinah the Christmas Whore" is my other favorite in a uniformly excellent collection; the Sedaris family dynamics lend their own weirdly warm humor to what would be an otherwise squalid tale of a woman whose shoes resemble "the size and color of paint cans."
2. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
It's sentimental as hell, but I still love this story about the young newlyweds who unwittingly sell her hair and his pocket watch in order to get her some new hair combs (doh!) and buy him a new watch chain (dammit!!) for the holidays.
3. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
I read this again last year after not having read it since the fourth grade, and it's almost funnier for adult readers. Those rotten Herdman children are timeless and universal.
4. Lost by Gregory Maguire
Famous for reinventing familiar children's stories, Maguire (Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) here turns to A Christmas Carol for his modern-day morality tale/ghost story. Spooky and affecting good fun.
5. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
While we're at it, let's not forget this venerable chestnut. It's another one in the pantheon of "better as you get older" holiday titles.
6. The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore
What I like about Christopher Moore (Bloodsucking Fiends, Fluke) is that he typically jumps into satire with all the juvenile abandon of a 10-year-old in a room full of whoopee cushions and fake vomit. Here, young Joshua Barker is trying to come to terms with seeing Santa get hit in the head with a shovel while the rest of Sleepy Pine Cove must contend with El Nino, flesh-eating zombies and an exceptionally clueless visiting archangel.
7. The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
Christmas wasn't always the orgy of consumerism, domesticity and excess we know and love (?) today. While its identity was always about the birth of Christ, its rituals are deeply rooted in pagan traditions (with all the drinking and debauchery such a thing might imply). In fact, the Puritans outlawed Christmas in 1658 because of all the drunken wassailers extorting food and drink from the well-off. Scholarly yet approachable, The Battle for Christmas is an engaging seasonal history.
8. It's a Wonderful Christmas by Susan Waggoner
Another great book on the traditions of Christmas, this time wallowing in all the glittery kitsch of the '40s, '50s and '60s. Lots of glossy, kind-of-hilarious photos from years gone by -- ya gotta love those 1950s ladies in gloves carrying mountains of presents -- as well as some interesting text on how many of our current Christmas traditions were born in mid-20th-century America.
9. Jewish Holiday Fun by Barbara Rushkoff
The author of the popular late '90s Jewish 'zine Plotz offers a hip and irreverent coffee table book that will prove useful to Jews and non-Jews alike. Rushkoff uses elements of middle American pop culture (the Sears catalog, I Love Lucy, TV Guide) to reinvent Jewish holiday traditions.
And finally, three novels set at least partly during the holidays and as such, informed by a certain festive and familial energy:
10. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Lambert family has seen better days: Dad is slowly slipping into dementia, Chip's affair with a student cost him his cushy academic job, Denise won't forsake her married lover and Gary the family man is clinically depressed. Does that keep Mom from trying to get the whole brood together for one last Christmas? Hell, no! Reading The Corrections is like settling into the empty spot at a sitcom dinner table - the real drama exists under the mock-cheerful surfaces.
11. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
He'll never be mistaken as a "feel-good" author, but Rick Moody turns out some of the most taut, compelling contemporary fiction you'll ever find. Set during Thanksgiving weekend, The Ice Storm details a suburban '70s family's quietly grim unraveling. A key party signifies the growing cold front in a troubled marriage, while a downed power line brings tragedy and redemption. Lots of pop cultural references temporarily lighten a rather dark tale.
12. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
It's time to rescue Bridget from the movie franchise. The original Bridget is quite a bit smarter than the movie creation, and her diary - chronicling her hijinks one year from New Year's to Christmas - is still a boozy, witty and altogether enjoyable holiday read.
Publication date: 11/25/04