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Sunday Song: ‘Just Like Christmas’ by Low

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Christmas, the Carol Ann Duffy Way

Last Christmas, I read the majority of Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poems, all of which I very much enjoyed.  To get us in the mood for the current festive season, I thought that I would amalgamate my short reviews of them all into one post.

Another Night Before Christmas (2010) 9780330523936
This extended poem, about a young girl’s longing to find out whether Santa is real, is just as lovely as ever.  The artwork here is gorgeous; minimalist and lovely.  A delightful volume.

The Christmas Truce (2011)
9781447206408This was the first of Duffy’s Christmas poems which I read after finding a lovely little copy for fifty pence in a Notting Hill bookshop, and it evokes one of my favourite historic Christmas stories, that of the 1914 truce between German and English soldiers in the trenches, when they played the famous football match and sang carols.  There is such humanity and sensitivity packed into these pages, and it is a true delight to settle down with each winter.

Wenceslas (2012) 9781447212027
A beautifully illustrated and rather sumptuous poem; perfect for making one think of Christmas past, and the true message of the season – good will to all men.

Bethlehem (2013)
9781447226123Alice Stevenson’s art is lovely and fitting, particularly with regard to scenery and still lives, and Duffy is on form with the originality of her wordplay throughout.  I particularly enjoyed the use of sibilants, and think that this would be a great volume to read aloud: ‘The moon rose; the shepherd’s sprawled, / shawled, / a rough ring on sparse grass, passing / a leather flask’, for instance.  On the whole, it is a really sweet poem which promotes a nice message, but I think it would have been better had it been extended slightly.  Still, it is a lovely contemplative Christmas read.

Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday (2014)
9781447271505I put off reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s Christmas Birthday when it was first released as Carol Ann Duffy’s annual Christmas poem, but couldn’t resist ordering a secondhand copy to read over Christmas 2016.  It’s not that festive, but it is a lovely little volume.  The art style is gorgeous, and I loved the use of just a few colours, an effective and evocative choice on the part of the illustrator.  The poem itself was sweet; not my favourite Duffy, but a simple and vivid story nonetheless.  It is not as playful as a lot of her other work; the vocabulary used is not unusual, and was even a little simplistic in places.  Still, I feel that I will probably indefinitely reread this once a year as the festive season rolls around.

The King of Christmas (2016)
9781509834570I love the fact that The King of Christmas is based upon tradition from the Middle Ages, in which a Lord of Misrule could be appointed to take charge if the original ruler was in need of a break, or some light relief.  The art here is very appealing, and Duffy’s rhyme scheme and wordplay worked perfectly.  Thoughtful and mischievous, The King of Christmas evokes winters past in rather a magical way.  It is a perfect addition to the set.

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One From the Archive: ‘Nancy and Plum’ by Betty Macdonald ****

Betty MacDonald’s Nancy and Plum has been republished as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics series, which features such titles as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  The novel includes an afterword by former children’s laureate Jacqueline Wilson, who says that it is her favourite work for younger readers, and charming new illustrations by Catharina Baltas. 9780099583356

Nancy and Plum, which was first published in 1952, begins on Christmas Eve.  MacDonald sets the scene immediately: ‘Big snowflakes fluttered slowly through the air like white feathers and made all of Heavenly Valley smoth and white and quiet and beautiful.  Tall fir trees stood up to their knees in the snow and their outstretched hands were heaped with it.’ The book’s young protagonists are ‘locked up in rotten Mrs Monday’s house, while all the other children have gone home’

Mrs Monday owns the ‘big brick Boarding Home for Children’, in which sisters Nancy and Pamela Remson – the latter who goes by the nickname of Plum – have been placed.  The girls’ parents were killed in a train crash when they were only small, and their guardian, bachelor Uncle John, had no idea what to do with children.  MacDonald exemplifies the differences between the sisters immediately; Nancy is filled with a ‘dreamy gentleness’, and Plum is daring, with a ‘quick humor’.  Her young protagonists have been built so well that they seem to come to life, and one is soon immersed within their tale.  Each child who meets Nancy and Plum is sure to fall in love with them.

The extra material in Vintage’s reprint is thoughtful, and makes a lovely addition to the story.  It includes a biography of American author Betty MacDonald, a quiz, a recipe for Nancy’s dream meal, a glossary of words which may be unfamiliar to younger readers, and a recommended reading list with which to follow the book.  Nancy and Plum is a heartwarming and entertaining novel, which is sure to delight children and parents alike.  It is the perfect choice for a cosy festive read.

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‘Dickens at Christmas’ ****

It is said,’ states the blurb of this book, ‘that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, and within these pages you’ll certainly find all the elements of a traditional Christmas brought to vivid life: snowy rooftops, gleaming shop windows, steaming bowls of punch, plum puddings like speckled cannon balls, sage and onion stuffing, magic, charity and goodwill’. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? Thankfully, ‘marvellous’ is an adjective which can be applied in good measure to this lovely book. 9780099573135

Dickens at Christmas contains many extracts from his seasonal writings, some of which are short novellas (‘A Christmas Carol’, which takes pride of place as the second story in the collection, and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, for example), and others which number just a few pages. All of Dickens’ Christmas books are included, along with a standalone story from The Pickwick Papers and those from various short story collections.

Dickens’ wit and love of Christmas shine through on each and every page. All of the many elements of this time of year have been presented by the master himself, and encompass both the rich and the poor, the merry and the miserly, the ghostly and the real. The religious aspects are mentioned in some detail, along with the importance of the family dynamic over the Christmas period. Each scene is wonderfully written and beautifully evoked. Only Dickens could write so meticulously and creatively about a rainy day: ‘the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat… when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and repassed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums…’

I cannot write a review of Dickens at Christmas without mentioning how beautiful this edition is. The cover sparkles, and Emily Sutton’s illustrations, both on the cover and before each story, have been wonderfully drawn. It is truly an object of beauty, and is sure to delight many people this Christmas – a perfect gift to show you care, or simply one with which to adorn your own bookshelves.

Dickens at Christmas is wonderful for already established fans of Dickens’ work, but it also provides a lovely introduction to his stories and style of writing. The volume can be easily dipped in and out of, and the stories themselves are so rich in detail that they can be read again and again. Their sheer timelessness makes them suitable Christmas fare for many years to come.

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‘Professor Andersen’s Night’ by Dag Solstad **

Merry Christmas Eve, one and all!  I am wishing you a wonderful day today, whatever you may be doing.

Heralded as ‘Norway’s most distinguished living writer’ by The Sunday Times and as ‘an unflinching explorer of the plight of educated humankind in the inexplicable’ by The Guardian, it seems as though Dag Solstad’s Professor Andersen’s Night will be a treat for readers everywhere.

9780099578420First published in Norway in 1996, this rather short novel was translated into English in 2011. The story begins on Christmas Eve, where readers will instantly recognise his frustrations with the holiday – wrestling with the lights and putting up the tree, for example. The third person narrative voice which Solstad has used throughout is interspersed with Professor Andersen’s muttered thoughts about his Christmas Eve supper – ‘if the crackling isn’t perfect, I’ll be furious, I shall swear out loud, even if it is Christmas Eve’ – and the way in which he finds himself alone at the time of year which is generally celebrated with one’s family. In this way, the loneliness and sense of melancholy which weaves itself through the majority of the book is founded at its outset: ‘He celebrated Christmas mainly because he felt very uneasy at the thought that he might have done the opposite’.

Professor Andersen is a middle-aged literature professor at a university in Oslo. Many questions regarding the man and his lifestyle are present in the minds of the reader almost from the outset. We wonder why he is alone, and why he seems so detached from everything around him. The main thread of the story comes when Professor Andersen, looking out of his window into the Christmas Eve darkness, witnesses a man strangling a woman in one of the flats opposite his. Little emotion is created as he surveys this scene, and the event almost comes across as an everyday occurrence in the way it is told: ‘She flailed her arms about, Professor Andersen noticed, her body jerked, he observed, before she all at once became completely still beneath the man’s hands and went limp’.

Although he feels he should call the police, he does nothing: ‘He went over to the telephone but didn’t lift the receiver… Instead, he stationed himself at the window… and kept watch on the window where he had seen a murder being committed’. Professor Andersen himself is clearly a complex character, but he comes across more often than not as a cowardly oddball, rather than as anything deeper.

With regard to Solstad’s writing style, some of Professor Andersen’s thoughts merely repeat the narrative in parrot fashion. Many of the sentences also seem rather too long and clumsily written, although whether this is merely a translation oversight or if it actually mirrors the author’s original manuscript is difficult to tell. It may perhaps be due to the stream of consciousness style which has been adopted throughout the book, as this does provide some problems of its own. The repetition of phrases is rather common, and it feels rather strange that there are no chapters or even page breaks included throughout. Several of the scenes are more drawn out than is necessary, and we never really get to know any of the characters as the book progresses. They are flat, lifeless creations for the most part, and the continuous paragraphs, which are filled with dialogue exchanges between more than two characters, can be a little confusing at times.

The prose itself is clinical at times, and rather matter-of-fact: ‘The rectangular curtains which covered the whole window, in an extremely compact manner’ and similarly oddly phrased sentences can be found throughout. There are few descriptions throughout, and even fewer scenes which contain any emotion whatsoever for any of the characters involved. Professor Andersen’s Night is not one of the easiest books to read, merely due to the style in which it has been written. Its telling is dull and stolid when it has no reason to be, and as Professor Andersen himself is not the most likeable of characters, a feeling of detachment on behalf of the reader is present throughout, particularly with regard to some of the decisions he makes. Not all of the loose ends are tied up, and although the story itself is interesting, but it could have been told in a much more inviting and literary way.

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