Saturday, December 6, 2014

Advent Calendar of Stories: Days 1-5

Here are my notes and thoughts on the stories I've read for the first five days of my Advent Calendar of Stories project.

Dec. 1: "Santa Claus Beat" by Rex Stout
A newly-promoted cop wants nothing more than to be called to the scene of a homicide on Christmas Eve. Instead, he gets called to a mail-order house where a ring has gone missing, potentially stolen. He solves the crime and gets to (reluctantly) play Santa Claus in the bargain. A very short but highly entertaining story.

Day 2: “The Bargain” by Richard Barre
This story is from a collection that caught my eye on Amazon: Christmas Stories in the Tradition of Rod Serling. How can you resist that, right? Well, I don’t know how much in the tradition of Rod Serling this story was, but it was good, and judging from some of the information in the book, Richard Barre is evidently one of those best-kept-secrets in the writing world that one stumbles across occasionally. The story revolves around Axel Maldonado, a Baltimore businessman who is jaded, cynical about Christmas, and, I thought, vaguely reminiscent of Scrooge. He contracts with the city’s Housing and Redevelopment office to house a sick, elderly woman in one of his apartment buildings which is just waiting to be demolished after the holidays. Along the way, what starts out as merely a business transaction turns into a life-altering (and heart-opening) episode for Axel. Throw in Axel’s encounter with a mysterious tall black Santa Claus on the sidewalk in front of the building, and you have the makings of a story that is well worth the read.

Day 3: “Merry Christmas” by James Thurber
This is not so much a short story as a humorous essay filled with Thurber’s thoughts and observations on the yearly ritual of sending Christmas cards. Written in his usual droll style, it seems a little dated now, since people don’t send Christmas cards like they once did. Still, it’s a wonderful piece filled with gems like:

Ninety per cent of women employ the annual greeting as a means of fending off a more frequent correspondence. One woman admitted to me that she holds at least a dozen friends at arm’s, or year’s, length by turning greeting cards into a kind of annual letter. The most a man will consent to write on a Christmas card is “Hi, boy!” or “Keep pitching,” but a wife often manages several hundred words. These words, in most instances, have a way of dwindling with the march of the decades, until they become highly concentrated and even cryptic, such as “Will you ever forget that ox bice cake?” or “George says to tell Jim to look out for the 36.”

Day 4: “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” by John Cheever
This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas stories, so I was excited to put it on the calendar. However, it’s not my favorite because it gives the reader a case of warm Christmas fuzzies -- far from it. The protagonist, an elevator operator named Charlie, is not the most likeable or admirable of characters. But the story itself provides a wry social commentary, and one which I think is as relevant today as it was back in 1949 when Cheever published this story in The New Yorker.

The protagonist, Charlie, wakes up on Christmas morning feeling sorry for himself, because he has to go work in his elevator, which is located in what seems to be a rather posh apartment building in Manhattan. His gloominess about his plight in life pervades even the language Cheever uses in the first part of the story. As the residents of the apartment building begin using the elevator and wishing Charlie a merry Christmas, he begins his litany of telling them he’s all alone, he has no family, and “Christmas is a sad season for the poor.” After a while he tires of this and begins to embellish it, adding children and a crippled wife to his litany, and of course this has predictable, humorous, and eventually disastrous consequences for Charlie as the residents of the building all begin to respond to his plight.

Day 5: "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote
This also is one of my favorite stories and I manage to reread it every year, so I knew it had to go on my list for this project. It’s such a simple story but so rich and timeless. A young boy and his elderly cousin gather the ingredients for their yearly baking of Christmas fruitcakes. That’s pretty much it, although the story also describes their preparations for Christmas, involving cutting a tree and making presents. Boring? Not a bit of it -- the language and imagery and themes of this story are moving and timeless. If you’ve never read it, you owe it to yourself to sweep everything off your list and read this story immediately. It’s short and wonderful.

1 comment:

  1. A great selection for your first five days! I'll have to look up that Cheever story via my TNY archive access. I love "the Chekhov of the Suburbs." :-)

    I'm about four stories into my advent calendar lite project. It may be hard to write about mine, as they are "speculative fiction" and many feature characters/worlds from the authors' other works that apparently I was supposed to already be familiar with. :-)