The JFB Christmas Advent Day 11 – Lisa Tuttle’s Christmas reading

There’s nothing better than a good book at Christmas and so asked Lisa Tuttle, author of The Mysteries, what her Christmas reading would be this year. Find out below.

The idea of having something special picked out to read on Christmas Eve goes back to childhood, when I’d be too excited to go to sleep – but also desperate to do so because it would make morning and presents come more quickly.  The conflict of Can’t Sleep/ Must Sleep means that the book I read had to be really good, but not so new and surprising (and long) that it would keep me up all night to finish, which meant the best bet was short stories, or a book I’d read and loved before. I’m more blasé about presents and Christmas morning now (alas!), but when so much of the year is spent trying to keep up with new publications, it’s nice to relax and reread and old favourite.  That means I tend to return to the same authors again and again at Christmas.  Let’s hear it for comfort reading!   Everyone will have their own favourites – what makes the best comfort reading is a very personal thing, of course – but here are my top three authors for Christmas:

Little WomenLouisa May Alcott – Little Women was the top of my Christmas list when I was ten.  I had read an abridged version, found in my primary school library, and although I loved it, the idea that it was not complete, that there were whole chapters I was missing out on, nearly drove me crazy.  So I impressed upon my parents that what I wanted was the original, complete and unabridged edition, and they came through with the goods.  I still have the same, much-read, much-loved copy, still feel happy whenever I pick it up, and for me it may be the Christmas book, because this is how the March sisters (some of my favourite characters in all fiction) are introduced on the first page:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

            “It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

            “I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

            “We’ve got father and mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly, from her corner.

            The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly:

            “We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.”  She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.

The MezzotintM.R. James – The English don and perennial bachelor, master of antiquarian ghost stories, could hardly be more different from the female, family-oriented American who is my first choice, but also a great choice to read in front of a crackling fire on Christmas Eve, whether to yourself, or aloud to a close circle of friends, as James actually did with his own spooky tales. The tradition of a ghost story at Christmas-time is not one I came across growing up in Texas (where ghost stories were for Halloween – or scaring the life out of your friends at a slumber party).  But in Britain, the ghost story is one of those classic Christmas traditions established by Charles Dickens in Victorian times.  Dickens’ own ghost stories are well worth reading, but M.R. James surpassed him. His stories, deceptively simple, rooted in his own academic life and interests, filled with humorous, down-to-earth touches, retain their power even after multiple re-readings. Might be better not to read these too close to bedtime, but I recommend “Casting the Runes,” “The Mezzotint,” or “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” to start with.

One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars’ church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of.

13 Clocks James Thurber – Is Thurber still as popular now as he was when I was young? I don’t know; he’ll always be important to me, but I’ve just realized that it has been years since I’ve re-read anything by him.  I encountered Thurber first as a cartoonist – my parents had a collection of his work – and, probably around the same time, as the author of the witty, sinister, magical fairy tale for all ages, The Thirteen Clocks. I was attracted by the pictures, and I remember my father reading it to us at bedtime,  before I was able to read it myself. The Thurber Carnival is a collection of some of the best writings and drawings by James Thurber, received (as I noted on my bookplate) as a Christmas present in 1966. It is a wonderful collection, too, containing many of his best and funniest cartoons and essays, short stories, fables, illustrated poems, and all of My Life and Hard Times – the only notable omission are the fantasies – The Wonderful O, The White Deer, and, above all, The Thirteen Clocks, a timeless classic which has had a great influence on many subsequent writers. Here’s how it starts:

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales. He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was. One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half. He had lost one eye when he was twelve, for he was fond of peering into nests and lairs in search of birds and animals to maul. One afternoon, a mother shrike had mauled him first. His nights were spent in evil dreams, and his days were given to wicked schemes.

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