Saturday, December 31, 2011

Today's poem by William Cullen Bryant

A Song for New Year's Eve

Stay yet, my friends, a moment stay—
Stay till the good old year,
So long companion of our way,
Shakes hands, and leaves us here.
Oh stay, oh stay,
One little hour, and then away.

The year, whose hopes were high and strong,
Has now no hopes to wake;
Yet one hour more of jest and song
For his familiar sake.
Oh stay, oh stay,
One mirthful hour, and then away.

The kindly year, his liberal hands
Have lavished all his store.
And shall we turn from where he stands,
Because he gives no more?
Oh stay, oh stay,
One grateful hour, and then away.

Days brightly came and calmly went,
While yet he was our guest;
How cheerfully the week was spent!
How sweet the seventh day's rest!
Oh stay, oh stay,
One golden hour, and then away.

Dear friends were with us, some who sleep
Beneath the coffin-lid:
What pleasant memories we keep
Of all they said and did!
Oh stay, oh stay,
One tender hour, and then away.

Even while we sing, he smiles his last,
And leaves our sphere behind.
The good old year is with the past;
Oh be the new as kind!
Oh stay, oh stay,
One parting strain, and then away.

William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), 1864

Friday, December 30, 2011

December with Gladys and Rachel

To learn more about this yearlong adventure with Gladys Taber and Rachel Peden, you may scroll down to the 'letter topics' and click A Year with Gladys and Rachel.

Gladys begins her December entry with these words
The first snowfall is worth having winter for.
And ends with
My last words on each and every Christmas for over twenty years have been spoken from the heart to all the world, and they are simple, but heartfelt.
God rest you, merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay.
In between these marvelous words is a delightful meditation on what many of us feel is the most wonderful month in the year. Even if one isn't a practicing Christian, is there any time so dedicated to thinking of others? Every present we buy, each cookie we bake, the meals we cook are all for others. Not for ourselves.

Gladys writes
I think most mothers get tired during the Christmas rush. I do. There is always a low moment when I fervently wish it were just over and I could SIT DOWN. I wish it were August. And nothing at all going on.
And yet, when the children say, "Thank you for a wonderful Christmas, best we ever had," and one child whispers, "this was just all I wanted - how did you know?" and one child curls up to read the book you have chosen so carefully, and one says, "we never had such a Christmas," suddenly then all the tiredness ebbs away, and a pure happiness floods in.
For in spite of the tinsel and wrappings and struggle over presents, we still have an idea, after all, that Christmas means giving some special joy, an unusual joy to someone. And that compensates for the commercialism which sometimes seems to threaten to engulf Christmas entirely.
And this in 1955!

In addition to the Christmas bustle, there is talk of feeding birds and using herbs and spices, each quotidian subject leading her to higher thoughts.
It is as with much of life, I suspect, the richness is there, if one opens one's eyes to see it, and one's ears to hear it.
[Herbs and spices make] my meal getting romantic. For the whole world comes into the kitchen with saffron and sesame seed, chili powder, curry, basil and bay.

Rachel begins with burning brush on the farm. As her husband monitors this chore, his mind runs free.
his thoughts have gone on a wide, evaluating tour, which is the bliss of brush-burning.
From his field he can see the neighbors' farms and some of their barns and houses. It is a pleasant closeness, without trespass. The farmer reviews the local, unprinted news and his winter work plans.
She then goes on to say that
if he doesn't get back that winter, or for several winters, the brush pile will make a brushy, safe home for rabbits and a few birds, and some other small animals that need homes. It is really better for such use if the brush pile is near a hedgerow; but a brush pile out in the field makes a good oasis for small animals that have to cross from home to hunting ground and do not like to risk their small, important lives traversing too great an expanse of unprotected open space.
When I read this aloud to Tom, it was a completely fresh idea to him. Something he had never thought of before, and now fully intends to implement. It is Rachel's work which I read most often to him because though Windy Poplars does not support us, he is himself a farmer, working with fields and fencing, animals and chickens.

You may recall a letter I wrote about calendars a while back. Well, Rachel has the most wonderful essay called 'Here come the new calendars.' She was writing in much the same time as my mother's calendars.
Calendars come in a variety of sizes, and by diverse ways. Some come by mail, in odd-sized envelopes or rolled up in a tight wrapper. Some are handed out by salesmen at the door or in stores. Some come importantly in cardboard tubes. Some come naked from the press. They have one common purpose, to perpetuate in kindness the memory of the donor in time of money expenditures.
She goes on to tell how each one sits on the kitchen wall as she tries them out in this month before they are needed, and ends
The one that remains the longest on the wall is the one with wide-open spaces around the dates so that memoranda can be written on it. Its white spaces fill up with notes of dental appointments and Fair Board meetings, who called about baling; with telephone numbers, grocery lists, addresses, recipes taken down over the phone, and important farm news such as "barn swallows returned" or "paid on tractor." … When this calendar is used up, it is too valuable to throw away. It belongs with the farm records and receipts and will be called on to help fill out income tax blanks. It's a diary, a volume of family history.
Rachel offers tales of hogs eating coats, an apology from a new neighbor, the description of a growing boy's footprints in the snow, and the poignancy of a children's Christmas show rehearsal.

In just a few pages each month, these women's words fill me with deep wonder and pleasure.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Last book notes of 2011

77. Penny Plain
by O. Douglas
fiction, 1920
Kindle book, 46
finished, 11/29/11

penny plain
plain and simple

I imagine the 1920 audience for O. Douglas' book knew exactly what the title referred to, while this reader ninety years on had to look it up. Jean, the heroine of the book is indeed this kind of person - she is 'plain and simple' with no airs about her. She is honest and forthright. She is the older sister of three young boys; two of whom are biologically related while the youngest one has a rather complicated connection. They all love him to pieces. Since the death of their aunt, Jean has been older sister and mother to the boys. She devotes herself to them without complaint. The book is a chronicle of daily life in her beloved Priorsford; the people who come into the town and into her life, and the people who are the inhabitants of the town. It is sweet and kindly and really everything you might want in a book when you are a wee bit tired of the news, or the pace of modern life. This is not to say that the characters have perfect or easy lives. Not by any means. There is for example a mother whose sons were all killed in what they called then, the Great War.

I came upon three wonderful writings about Penny Plain, and you may read them here, and here, and here.

78. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
by Agatha Christie
mystery - short story collection, 1960
Kindle book, 47
finished, 12/15/11

I wrote about The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding here, and then went on to read the rest of them. I didn't think any of them were quite as good as that one, though with any Agatha story there is always some appeal. There's an intriguing death in The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, which Poirot solves by using his excellent powers of observation, which also come into play in the story Four and Twenty Blackbirds. I guess I would say this collection was 'okay' but not particularly excellent or that memorable.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New books

These are the books that came into the house on Christmas day. Two others arrived earlier; Christmas on the Farm, and Journey into Christmas, both of which I plan to read and write about next year. I expect this week to be quite a bookish one here on the blog with end of the year book notes, book facts, and book lists.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The pillowcases were hung...

This year I had what I consider my best idea ever. Before I tell you, I'll explain the situation. We have beautiful, hand-knit Christmas stockings.

As you may imagine, I love these stockings beyond words ... except for one thing. They are rather small, especially at the openings. When the kids were little, Santa Claus brought little gifts so the stockings bulged on Christmas morning in a most satisfactory way. As the children grew older, however, the presents also grew - from matchbox cars and kaleidoscopes to books, and cds, and video tapes, and later dvds, none of which fit. So Santa struggled to find smaller, age-appropriate gifts to go inside the stockings, although there were always a fair amount of presents lined up beside them to be discovered on Christmas morning. It drove Mrs. Claus mad choosing presents and arranging them.

But this year, as I looked through the wonderful Garnet Hill catalogue, I saw exceptionally nice flannel pillowcases, and the lightbulb went on above my head. Pillowcases have great big openings plus lots of space for bigger gifts. I bought five sets, each one different. Just for this year everyone's new 'stocking' will contain the mate to their pillowcase. The fillable ones will live here, just as the stockings always have.

If the family grows, it will be easy to just buy another set of wintery/Christmasy pillowcases. Garnet Hill offers new designs each year so I won't have to worry about duplicates. I'm not putting names on them, but after this year everyone will know which one is theirs.

I am inordinately, incredibly, fantastically excited by this new scheme. And here they are, in alphabetical order.






Aren't they just beautiful?! And so, so soft.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A wonderful Advent gift

Years ago, a dear friend, who knew how much we loved England, sent us the most amazing, amazing e-card we had ever seen. It was an English country cottage, complete with dog and cat.

We played it over and over again. It was the very beginning of Jacquie Lawson cards. Since then the company has grown, and it offers the most beautiful cards on the internet. There is a small charge for a year's membership. You have your own address book, reminders of special days if you wish, and choice after choice of very special cards. Now they have added note cards and letters as well.

Last year for the first time, an Advent calendar was offered. It was a little English village.

We bought it, and enjoyed each day. This year that same one is available, as well as one of London.

The company has outdone itself! There is an information center with 'brochures' about the places visited each day. What I've done is go to the information pamphlet first, and then the day. It is one of the most magical experiences I've ever had. And it isn't too late. In fact, I think it would be wonderful to buy it now, and go back and see each day. For three dollars, it is the finest gift you could buy yourself or someone you love this Advent season. And it's yours forever after.

Here is the website.

Click on 'The Jacquie Lawson Advent Calendar' for details.

The demo is here.

And here is the original card.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Old Peabody Pew by Kate Douglas Wiggin

81. The Old Peabody Pew: A Christmas Romance of a Country Church
by Kate Douglas Wiggin
fiction, 1907
third book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge
Kindle book, 49
finished, 12/22/11

Because I read this on the Kindle, my 'copy' doesn't have this old cover, but isn't it wonderful!

I read perhaps her most famous book seven years ago, and jotted down these words.

'Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm 1903
By Kate Douglas Wiggin
Recorded Books read by Barbara Caruso
Fiction A

This was wonderful and as fresh as if it were just written. It felt a bit like Anne Of Green Gables, and Pollyanna. Rebecca's family is very poor, and she is given the chance for an education by going to live with two old maiden aunts. The young girl has a wonderful, cheerful outlook on life. I have a sense that all these books were written about a girl who could be an example to the reader. She isn't without troubles and problems, yet she remains steadfast and optimistic. Even as a grown woman, I found myself learning from her. Well written with memorable, real characters.'

I found The Old Peabody Pew to be equally so. It is a lovely, enjoyable Christmas romance. We meet the Dorcas Society, a group of 'excellent women' as Barbara Pym would have described them. They care for the material needs of the church, the Tory Hill Meeting-House in Edgewood, Maine, doing as much of the work themselves as possible, and getting a few excellent men to do what they cannot. Kate Douglas Wiggin founded The Dorcas Society of Hollis & Buxton Maine, and was its first Honorary President. There is a short article about it here. The Old Peabody Pew is performed as a fundraiser each year in the very church named in the story, the Tory Hill Church. I'd love to attend this annual event.

The pre-Christmas project in our story is cleaning the pews and putting in as much carpet as they could afford. They put in a stretch of rug down the aisle, and then go to work on their own family pews. They talk as they go about their work, and the reader gets to know the various personalities, and some of the town stories. Kate Douglas Wiggin doesn't turn her writer's eye away from the sadnesses of life, but she also offers humorous aspects. Mrs. Burbank notes that
"indeed, most of those who once owned the pews or sat in them seemed to be dead, or gone away to live in busier places."
To which Lobelia Brewster replies:
"I've no patience with 'em, gallivantin' over the earth. I shouldn't want to live in a livelier place than Edgewood … We wash and hang out Mondays, iron Tuesdays, cook Wednesdays, clean house and mend Thursdays and Fridays, bake Saturdays, and go to meetin' Sundays. I don't hardly see how they can do any more 'n that in Chicago!"
We also learn that Lobelia 'would not have considered matrimony a blessing, even under the most favourable conditions.' But the Widow Buzzell sees life quite differently. Speaking of her late husband she says,
I used to think Tom was poor company and complain I couldn't have any conversation with him, but land, I could talk at him, and there's considerable comfort in that. And I could pick up after him! Now every room in my house is clean, and every closet and bureau drawer, too.
The Peabodys of the title are all dead now, except the son Justin, who is one of those who moved away looking for more opportunity. Mrs. Burbank has recently sent him a request for a contribution for church repairs at an address in Detroit. Justin tried to live in Edgewood. He worked the farm and though he did everything right, he 'could not make the rain fall nor the sun shine at the times he needed them.' He had a terrible time with crows and various insects.

The women have spoken of him as being weak, by offering this information, the reader learns that he did make an honest attempt before heading west. Yet even there, after he's earned some money, he invests it and loses it, showing us that maybe there really is something called bad luck and that it happens even to good people who try. The news is full of people in our own time who have worked all their lives and now have no job or house.

Our heroine is Nancy Wentworth, a thirty-five year old schoolteacher; a kindly, cheerful person with a hidden melancholy, for she is in love with Justin. The descriptions of their relationship from ten years earlier show readers that we are in a very different time and place. Love was expressed quite modestly and innocently in such a society in those days. Nancy recalls a time when she sat in the Peabody pew with her friend, Justin's sister Esther.
Justin sat beside her, and she had been sure then, but had long since grown to doubt the evidence of her senses, that he, too, vibrated with pleasure at the nearness. Was there not a summer morning when his hand touched her white lace mitt as they held the hymn-book together?
And after his two years of trouble with the farm, when he was downtrodden and leaving Edgewood, he says upon parting.
"You'll see me back when my luck turns, Nancy."
And to her these words were 'a promise, simply because there was a choking sound in Justin's voice and tears in Justin's eyes.' Nancy 'lived for' this phrase all the years since. Then she receives two anonymous letters listing meaningful verses from the Bible which raise her hopes that they might be from Justin.

Nancy tells the women that she will clean and carpet the Peabody pew rather than her own because it is more visible in the church, and also in honor of her friend, Esther. She comes back after her supper, and does her work alone in the church. At least she believes she is alone.

I dearly loved this book. You may read it online here.
Many of her books are also available here, as well as on Kindle.

This is my third (adult) book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesdays - Christmas Every Day and Other Stories by William Dean Howells (plus a poem)

80. Christmas Every Day and Other Stories
Told For Children
by William Dean Howells
juvenile fiction - short story collection, 1892
third children's book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge
Kindle book, 48
finished, 12/20/11

Not every story in this most delightful collection is about Christmas but each one is a little Christmas present.

I 'bought' (it was free) this for the Kindle, on a whim, thinking it would be nice to read some old stories. Well, they may be old but they are fresh, and great fun to read. There's nothing stuffy about the way Mr. Howells tells a story. Usually the narrator is a father, or an uncle begged by one or more children to tell a story.
... the little girl had snuggled in his lap into just the right shape for listening.
Don't you just love that line?

These children are very funny. They are impertinent, demanding, and they 'pound' our kindly storyteller when he tells about pigs, or pretends to forget, or makes a bad joke. The reader is able to sense the great love between the teller of tales and his young listeners. I was reminded of the wonderful Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, The Children's Hour.

Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O'er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, O blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

Along with the warmth, there is a great deal of wit and humor in these tales, with a quiet, little moral, if he is able to slip it in without the children being aware, for they hate morals to stories. Christmas Every Day tells what life would be like if it were Christmas all year long. I know that even I, grownup that I am, feel a sadness to let December go. I love the bustle and the lights and really, every single thing about these days coming up to Christmas. In fact I just told someone that I wish there were two Decembers in the year. But would I really be happy if it were Christmas every single day of the year? In the story, as the days go by, everyone gets 'crosser,' and
at the end of a week's time so many people had lost their tempers that you could pick up lost tempers anywhere; they perfectly strewed the ground. Even when people tried to recover their tempers they usually got someone else's, and it made the most dreadful mix.
All the shopkeepers got rich, while the buyers got poorer and poorer, and had to go to the 'poor-house.' Care isn't being taken anymore in wrapping and labeling gifts.
people didn't carry around presents nicely any more. They flung them over the fence, or through the window, or anything. ... Nearly everyone had built barns to hold their presents, but pretty soon the barns overflowed, and then they used to let them lie out in the rain, or anywhere.
And because all the best story times between parent and child involve conversations, the little girl says:
"I thought you said everybody had gone to the poor-house."
"They did go, at first," said her papa; "but after a while the poor-houses got so full that they had to send the people back to their own houses."
And on it goes, until the little girl is perfectly content with the ending.

The participation of the children continues in a tale called Butterflyflutterby and Flutterbybutterfly. There are orphan twins, a prince and princess, and one child remembers which name belongs to the prince, and the other to the princess, so that when the uncle reads along, one of them pipes up with the proper name.

I hope that you can see from these little examples the joy and fun and cleverness of the stories. I can well imagine that a child of 2011 would enjoy them as much as did a child in 1892. I enjoyed them so much that I am going to buy a print copy with illustrations. This is a book I'll happily read over and over again.

I've added several more books by Howells to my Kindle library, including one for the Venice in February challenge called Venetian Life.

Short Stories on Wednesdays is hosted by Breadcrumb Reads.

This lovely book is offered for the Visions of Sugarplums section of The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Christmas Village by Melissa Ann Goodwin

79. The Christmas Village
by Melissa Ann Goodwin
juvenile fiction, 2011
library book
second children's book for The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge
finished, 12/16/11

Jamie Reynolds and his mother are heading off from their home in Virginia to her parents' home in Vermont for the holidays. They simply must get away from the gossip and unkind treatment they have received because of Mr. Reynolds' monetary misdeed, and his subsequent disappearance.

So off they go to the country, where Jamie begins to relax a bit.
It felt good to be outside, and to be here in Bell's Crossing, where no one knew about his dad or what he had done. …
The warmth of the house and the smells of coffee and freshly-baked biscuits instantly embraced him.
But soon enough, Jamie realizes that even people here know about what happened, and from overhearing his grandparents' conversation learns how depressed his mother is about the whole situation. He himself has had some terrible nightmares about being chased. It thus becomes very natural for the poor boy to want to escape, and that escape takes the form of a little Christmas village his grandmother sets up. Jamie imagined how good life would be in a perfect little village like 1932 Canterbury. His heart ached to live in such a place, where nothing ever changed. "I wish I could live in Canterbury," he whispered. As the days go on, Jamie daydreams about the inhabitants, and his mother tells him stories about them.
"I wonder which house they live in."
"Who?" Mom asked.
"The boy and girl on the skating pond. Do you think they are friends, or brother and sister?"
Mom hesitated, then played along. "Oh! You mean Kelly and Christopher! They're brother and sister. He's twelve years old like you, and Kelly is ten. They live in that big house up on the hill - the blue Victorian with the fancy porch and gingerbread trim."
Well, that's all I needed to draw me right into the story. I think many of us might admit that we imagine lives lived in Christmas villages or dollhouses. I know that Tom and I delight in setting up our London Christmas village each year. He places the buildings and I place the people. I decide which ones are heading home with the Christmas tree, which ones have just come out of the bookstore with packages, and which ones are caroling or going off to church. Jamie is awakened by the clock striking midnight. He hears whispers and then laughter coming from the direction of the Christmas village. He walks over and watches mesmerized as the brother and sister skate on the pond.
Jamie realized that he was holding his breath. It occurred to him that if he reached out, he could pick up the pocket-sized Kelly and Christopher with his fingers … Jamie stayed perfectly still, barely even breathing, afraid that if he moved or made a sound, he would break what seemed to be a spell that had made the village of Canterbury magically come to life.
After watching them for a while, his eyes move over to Miss Ida's Boarding House and he listens to the talk going on there until he hears a crack of the ice and a cry from Kelly. She has fallen through and is drowning. Jamie reaches across the table and grasps Kelly's hand, and is brought right into the scene. From then onward, Jamie is a living participant in the life of this place so many years ago.

The Christmas Village is reminiscent of two of my favorite children's books, The Indian in the Cupboard which I haven't written about in my letters, and Tom's Midnight Garden which I reported on here. I wondered if the author may possibly have meant The Christmas Village as a sort of homage to Tom's Midnight Garden. There are a few charming connections between the two books.

The tale is beautifully told. There is friendship and kindness, but there is also treachery and suspense in the new life Jamie literally falls into. And for him there is the added question of how can he get back to his 2007 life. This book has a particularly satisfying ending. I absolutely loved the way Melissa Ann Goodwin connected these two places and times. When I wrote to the library and asked if they could get it through Inter Library Loan, the librarian wrote back and said she thought it sounded so good that she was going to buy it for the library. And I enjoyed it so much that I am going to buy my own copy to read again during some other Decembers. I highly recommend it for you and for any child in your life.

I read this for the Visions of Sugar Plums section of The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, and in fact, the Christmas Spirit blog is where I first heard of the book. Please go over and visit, and meet the author in this interview.

The writer's blog is here, and a blog dedicated just to The Christmas Village is here.

Monday, December 19, 2011