December 2021 in Books

In addition to carrying on with my Reading Oxford Project, I spent December reading Christmas classics. A quick footnote about my definition of ‘Christmas classics’ here: anything before 1950 that is set during Christmas, I’ll take it as qualified to enter my pool of choices.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

According to our definition, It’s definitely a Christmas classic – the most important parts of the story happen during Christmas and New Year, and it was written before 1950; it was written way before 1950, it was from the late 14th-century, which means it’s part of my Reading Oxford year-2 curriculum. When a title ticks both boxes, it always gives me extra motivation to read it.

I have a nagging little voice that says I ought to like classics because they have stood the test of time. But in reality, I don’t always like classics. On top of this, I had two things against Sir Gawain and the Green Knight before I started: firstly, it was one of the oldest pieces of writing that came my way and I was intimidated by the idea of reading old English; secondly, it was poetry! I failed poetry completely in 2021. All this is just to say, how pleasantly surprised I was with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated and narrated by Simon Armitage.

After a bit of intro, the story starts with “It was Christmas at Camelot”. King Arthur and “the great and the good of the land” were having a party. A giant man, completely green, appeared in the banquet hall and said, ‘here’s a challenge for you, one of you chop off my head, and one year later, you come and find me, and I’ll chop off your head in return’. Arthur said ‘oh come on don’t be silly, join the feast and forget about it’. But the giant said ‘nope’. So Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, took up the challenge and chopped off his head. And now a year later it’s Christmas again, Sir Gawain has to go find this Green Knight dot dot dot.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, simply because I completely understood what was happening throughout the whole story. I was gripped by the bizarre challenge and the tense atmosphere in the banquet hall. I admired Sir Gawain and his noble qualities facing all sorts of challenges, some in the form of pain and blood, some in the form of anxiety and fear, some in the form of someone else’s beautiful wife. Parts of it were very funny. I understood and enjoyed a 14th-century poem! I’m so happy.

Dickens at Christmas

I’ll do this in chronological order, we’ll now time travel from 14th century to 19th century England.

In addition to the most well-known novella A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote quite a lot of Christmas stories. This is a collection of five novellas and nine short stories. It’s a chunky collection, the hardback is 592 Pages, it took me a whole month to finish. I won’t go through all of them. I’ll just briefly tell you what the five novellas are about. A novella is basically a short novel. All five novellas here are about the same length – about 90 pages.

A Christmas Carol was written first of all in 1843 and is definitely the best of all. It’s about the dramatic change in Scrooge when he encountered the three Christmas spirits and it’s about the social issues, especially poverty at the time.

The second one The Chime was written a year later in 1844. In a similar way to A Christmas Carol, but this time a poor man sees an alternative life for himself and his family in a dream. I imagine Dickens had his well-off readers in mind, and tried to show that society’s ‘solutions’ for poverty were insufficient and merciless, and to correct the stereotype that the poor were born bad.

The third one The Cricket on the Hearth and the fourth one The Battle of Life were written in 1845 and 1846, both love stories with a lot of domestic scenes.

The last one The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain was written two years later in 1848. This one is about a man whose memories of pain and hardship were taken away and was given the power of erasing all memories of pain and hardship from others. It’s a discussion of what sufferings do to a person.

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

We are still in the 19th century but have now left England for Ukraine. The Night Before Christmas or Christmas Eve is a short story by Nikolai Gogol. I was only introduced to Gogol this year and this is the second short story I read. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s the most magical of the lot. It’s sparkling. It’s as light and playful as a feather in the wind and as down-to-earth and matter-of-fact as a sack of coal.

This is how it starts. On Christmas Eve, there were stars in the clear winter sky, snow carpeted the ground, all was calm in the village. A witch rose from a chimney. As she got higher and higher, the stars faded one after another. She tucked them in her sleeves. In another part of the sky an “ordinary devil” stole the moon so Oksana’s father wouldn’t go out in the dark, so the blacksmith couldn’t visit her in secret. The devil wanted to stop the blacksmith visiting his sweetheart because he hated the blacksmith because the blacksmith painted a fabulous mural of the devil being tormented on Judgement Day on the church porch. That’s the beginning of the story.

It’s not a long story but a bewildering number of things happen one after another. I love the whirlwind of bizarre happenings balanced by zooming in on everyday details. It’s fabulous, I almost didn’t care about how the story would end, I just wanted the random and whimsical story to carry on and on.

A Merry Christmas: And Other Christmas Stories by Louisa May Alcott

We’ll stay for one more in the 19th century but we’ll move across the world to the US. This Christmas story collection is by Louisa May Alcott. The most simple and wholesome of the lot. It’s full of loving relationships, some are family, some newly discovered family, some neighbourly, some between human and animals, some romantic. In a similar vein as Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, a lot of them are about a dramatic change of heart at this special time of year, about forgiveness and reconciliation, and the joy that comes from it.

Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford

We are now back home to England in the 1930s. This is my first Nancy Mitford.

Christmas Pudding starts with a young writer called Paul. Paul just published a heart-wrenching tragedy and received a lot of positive reviews. But he was depressed because the reviews all raved about how hilarious the novel was. In order to rescue his career as a serious writer, Paul decided to infiltrate the house of Lady Bobbin under disguise as her son’s holiday tutor in order to get access to a previous Lady Bobbin’s diary, so he could write a biography of her and restore his reputation.

It reminds me of the 1930s vibe from, for example, Rebecca and Cold Comfort Farm. They’re very different stories but the 30s feeling is very distinct, a kind of charming listlessness. People are all very glamorous, everyone seems to be Sir, Lady, Lord or Duchess so and so. No one has any real trouble and no one seems to do any real work. Their life is so languid, or ‘boring’, to quote the characters, you can hardly tell what they’re living for.

However, in contrast to our 21st-century life, where people work 9 to 5, commute like sardines, are glued to mobile phones and social media be it eating or sitting on the loo, I’m quite jealous of their 1930s lifestyle – live in a big house in the Cotswold countryside, have friends around every evening, ride horses, read great grandmother’s diaries, eat breakfast in bed. Among the whole lot this month, this would be my favourite time travel destination.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie

I hesitated picking this one because of the letter at the very beginning of the book. It’s a letter from Agatha Christie to her brother-in-law, James. It says,

“My dear James, you have always been one of the most faithful and kindly of my readers, and I was therefore seriously perturbed when I received from you a word of criticism. You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for a ‘good violent murder with lots of blood’. A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! So this is your special story – written for you. I hope it may please. Your affectionate sister-in-law Agatha.”

I was worried it would be too gruesome for Christmas. But in the end it wasn’t too bad and it was the perfect story to listen to on an 8-hour train journey.

The story is about a rich old man gathering all his sons and family to his house for Christmas. In the house, there are three married sons and their wives, one unmarried prodigal son, a granddaughter visiting from Spain whose deceased mother was the old man’s only daughter, a son of an old friend from South Africa where the old man made his fortune, a valet, a butler, and after the murder, Poirot and two police officers.

I tried to solve the murder along the way and Agatha Christie was so good at making one person appear suspicious on one page and another on the next. In the end, I realised I was miles away from the truth.

Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas by Adam Kay

OK this is not a classic but a very fitting title. It’s Adam Kay’s non-fiction account of his shifts around Christmas and New Year over seven years as a doctor. It’s in the same style as his first book which I loved. It makes me laugh, it shows me the twisted, ugly and disgusting side of people, but also the good and selfless side of people.

It talks about serious subjects like death. There’s one account of him performing an abortion that stands out particularly. Abortion is a hot topic and there are many views. But this is the first time I read a first-hand surgical description of removing a baby from a womb from the doctor’s point of view and the impact the procedure had on the doctor. He said, ‘I don’t feel it in my hand, I feel it in my soul’.

The theme for January is going to be ‘On Reading and Writing’. Happy reading!


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