Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advent Calendar of Stories: Days 13-21

I'm still marching along with my Advent Calendar of Stories project. I am truly enjoying this! I will say, however, that writing short blurbs about stories like I am doing is ALMOST as involved as writing full reviews. Still, it is a fun process.

Day 13: “Old Folks’ Christmas” by Ring Lardner
I have one word for this story: DEPRESSING. Tom and Grace Carter have two children, Tom Junior and Grace. But the children have changed their names to Ted and Caroline and this is what they insist on being called. This information is related in the first paragraphs of the story, and it’s an indicator of what is to come. Ted and Caroline are ungrateful wretches, and they manage to make Christmas miserable for their parents. I hope Mr. Lardner did not mean this story to be humorous, because it just made me sad. And mad. As Shakespeare wisely said via King Lear, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

Day 14: "Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N and the Magi" by Leo Rosten
Mr. Hyman Kaplan is an immigrant and a member of a ESL class in New York, and in this story he is also part of a committee to buy a Christmas present for their teacher, Mr. Parkhill. Parkhill has been on the receiving end of many of these presents from his students, and the presentation of the gift is one he always dreads. But Mr. Kaplan’s involvement makes this year’s presentation a little different. This is a genuinely funny story, and I was glad to discover that Rosten wrote a whole series of Mr. Kaplan stories, all of which were originally published under a pseudonym in The New Yorker. I’ll be looking for some more of these.

Day 15: "The Burglar's Christmas" by Willa Cather
Willie is a shabby, down-and-out man who is led towards theft on Christmas Eve. He enters a house, intending to make off with some jewelry or anything else he can steal, and it turns out that he has stumbled into the house where his mother and father live. (It’s not the house he grew up in, so that’s how Cather can get away with this little bit of contrivance in the plot.) Willie is the long-lost lamb returned to the fold, and his mother and father end up forgiving him all his youthful indiscretions that led him away from them in the first place. I’m afraid I have made this story sound tremendously trite and maudlin, but I promise you it’s well worth the reading, especially if you like Cather. It’s available online if you’d like to read it.

An illustration from the original publication of Cather's story

Day 16: "I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus" by George Baxt
Oscar Leigh is the son of Desiree Leigh, the owner of the Desiree cosmetics empire. She supposedly received the rights to the formula for the Desiree Rejuvenating Lotion as a Christmas gift from her boss, one Professor Tester. But Oscar doesn't remember it quite that way -- he remembers Professor Tester dressed up as Santa Claus, confronting his mother with her theft of his formula, and his mother shooting the professor with a gun which was never recovered. But the turkey and stuffing tasted really strange at the Christmas Day meal later on...

Day 17: "The Tree That Didn't Get Trimmed" by Christopher Morley
What is it about Christmas that makes us want to anthropomorphize everything, from nutcrackers and mice to candy and Christmas trees? I have no idea. But that’s what happens in this story -- a simple but affecting story about a scraggly tree that was cut down too early and then no one wanted it for a Christmas tree. Do you know what happens to the Christmas trees nobody wants? The answer presented in this story was interesting, and it turned what could have been an outrageously sappy story into a pretty good tale.

This scraggly tree got trimmed. Lucky, lucky tree...

Day 18: "Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas" by John Mortimer
Rumpole is a British lawyer and probably the most famous of John Mortimer’s characters (along with Rumpole’s wife Hilda, AKA “She Who Must Be Obeyed”). I have never read any other Rumpole stories, but this one was good. Rumpole is given the task of defending Eddie Timson, of the Timson clan, who is charged with the murder of a man who belongs to the O’Dowd clan that lives in the same apartment building. (Think Hatfields and McCoys, and you’ll understand the relationship between these two families.) Rumpole pleads with the prosecutor, Wrigglesworth, to give him the Christmas present of not pursuing the prosecution of young Timson. This is a short, simple story, and not really much of a mystery, but highly entertaining nonetheless.

Day 19: "At Christmas Time" by Anton Chekhov
This was a pretty unsatisfying story, and it’s probably because I missed quite a bit of the underlying story behind the narrative. Peter and Vasilissa are elderly peasants whose daughter Efimia got married and moved away many years ago. They never hear from her, although they have written to her often. The story takes place as they are undertaking to write her another letter (using the talents of a local who is actually able to write) but this time we get to see what happens on the other end as Efimia receives the letter and “interprets” it. It’s available online if you’d like to puzzle it out for yourself.

Day 20: "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum
Baum is, of course, best known as the author of The Wizard of Oz (and several other Oz books to boot). I was unfamiliar with this story but it was pretty good. Santa Claus is kidnapped by the five Demons of the Caves (the Demons of Selfishness, Envy, Hatred, Malice, and Repentance) because his gifts and kindness keep people away from their caves and they are getting lonely. With Santa Claus gone, his helpers have to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve as best they can. This was an interesting story (albeit just a teensy bit reminiscent of The Nightmare Before Christmas) and well worth the read. It’s available online as well.

Day 21: "The Plot Against Santa Claus" by James Powell
This story reminded me in many ways of the novel The Fat Man, which I read a few weeks ago. But it's nowhere near as entertaining or interesting as that novel. For one thing, it was so long that my interest in it petered out long before the end of the story. And there were way too many characters in the story -- so many that it got more and more irritating as new characters popped up, only to get a one- or two-sentence cutesy description. The whole story is supposed to be a hard-boiled take on disgruntled elves and plots to do away with Santa. But it just didn't work for me. I skimmed through to the ending to see if I would like it by then, and I didn't.

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