a-christmas-carolI haven’t been much in the holiday spirit this year. It’s been hard to allow it into an already full schedule. Meanwhile, sitting before me has been a new, special edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I borrowed it from the library, wanting to look at the photos of Dickens’ original manuscript pages that are included. Each page in his handwriting is positioned opposite a page of what it says in print.

It occurred to me to read the book, but why read this well-known story? I know what happens from all the TV and stage adaptations I’ve seen: The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, whose visitations transform him into a generous man. And yet, maybe the story would light up my Christmas spirit. So I began to read it.

The conversation between Scrooge and his nephew at the beginning of the story is where it grabbed me. Because the nephew, who enters Scrooge’s business on Christmas Eve to invite him to Christmas dinner, doesn’t easily give up when verbally attacked by Scrooge, who snarls:

“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

The nephew retorts: “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Dickens sustains their opposition in a momentous argument, driving home how firmly Scrooge is encased in his bitterness and his nephew in hope.

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A bit later in the story, the girlfriend of a young Ebenezer breaks up with him in a similarly memorable rejection scene shown to Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Past. She eloquently speaks about how Scrooge has changed, identifying why, and so I newly became aware of what fueled Scrooge’s life choices.

“You fear the world too much,” she says. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its reproach.”

The transformation of the man alone is not what felt strongest to me in this reading of The Christmas Carol, rather the impact of these and other moments that took my attention in meaningful directions.

Also, Dickens’ descriptions gave much to think about, such as when the Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a ship on “the black and heaving sea” where he witnesses men isolated by their work –“dark, ghostly figures in their several stations” – and yet they are humming Christmas carols and speaking of “bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.”

Note to self: Those men at sea didn’t need to be participating in all the seasonal busyness and galas to have the Christmas spirit. It resides in their hearts. And so with carols playing and several trees glittering in the house, I stopped being so hard on myself. Perhaps I’m more in the spirit than I’ve thought.

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Tiny Tim, the son of Bob Cratchit, who works for Scrooge, speaks the story’s hallmark last line: “God Bless Us Every One!” But it’s the previous line that lingered with me: “And it was always said of [Scrooge] that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

This unique edition includes a foreword by author Colm Tóibín and introduction by Declan Kiely, chief literary curator of The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, where Dickens’ original, hand-written manuscript resides and is displayed at Christmastime.

The following new and relatively new books are sitting on my desk, only they’re not physically present on my desk. They’re represented by pieces of paper torn from pages in book review publications. I consider this growing handful of paper a reading table of sorts. Actually, it’s a control measure due to books now living on the floor in my house, something I said I would never allow. Clearly, books on the floor is a sign I need to control my literary acquisitions. Hence, this style of reading table that gathers paper as a first step versus impulsively acquiring at first love.

I share these books because readers who don’t comb book review journals, especially those from London, may not be aware of them.

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon

NYRB Classics recently published this Georges Simenon novel, Act of Passion, about a successful doctor who abandons his comfortable married life to pursue and attempt to possess a love interest. Sounds like a common plotline; however, in the hands of Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, the story’s probably a well-crafted stunner. The Times Literary Supplement writes, “Simenon creates a character both compelling and repulsive, clear-eyed and deluded at the same time.” The novel was originally published in 1947 in France as Lettre à mon juge, a more fitting title to the story, considering it’s written as an apology letter from the doctor to the magistrate in his murder trial. Act of Passion is translated by the late Louise Varèse.

Julia by Otto de Kat

Perhaps it’s unfair to list this novel because it’s not published (yet?) in the U.S., although you can still purchase it online. I’ve come across it a few times in U.K. reviews, and it’s one I’ve got my eye on. Julia by Otto de Kat was originally published in Dutch in 2008 and recently translated into English by Ina Rilke. This slight, 168-page novel concerns a Dutchman’s encounter with a woman (Julia Berger) for a brief time in Germany, 1938. From The Independent: “De Kat’s ambition of theme is served by astonishing tautness of construction and spareness of language, beautifully rendered by Ina Rilke. And, most movingly, the novel offers us glimpses of uncompromising virtue, not always in expected places.”

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

Canadian author Emma Donoghue may bring to mind her best-selling Room, a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a kidnapping. She also wrote The Sealed Letter. It was published in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, before Room. It’s historical fiction based on a scandalous Victorian divorce in 1860’s London. Picador recently published it for the first time in the U.K. It was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, where it got my attention. On Donoghue’s website, a quote from the Daily Mail says it’s “a page-turning drama packed with sex, passion and intrigue.” Also, according to The New York Times review in 2008: “the plot is psychologically informed, fast paced and eminently readable.”

The Manuscript of Great Expectations: From the Townshend Collection, Wisbech by Charles Dickens

This book intrigues me because of the opportunity to experience an author’s decision-making, word by word, sentence by sentence, as he brings a story to life. It’s an exact reproduction in color and size of the hand-written manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The museum that owns the 1860 manuscript collaborated with Cambridge University Press to produce the original papers in book format for the first time (according to this article in The Guardian). I love that The Guardian provides a gallery view you can click through for a taste of what’s inside the book. What a wonder to think this is how books used to be written. Pen and ink seems so much more of an intimate, demanding experience with words than typing.

The New Granta Book of Travel
edited by Liz Jobey, introduction by Jonathan Raban

This collection of travel narratives will be available in the U.S. April 2012. It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in travel memoirs. One of my long-time favorites is Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare. More recently, I wanted to read but didn’t Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. And so here, a collection of diverse travels essays calling to me. From The Independent: “What’s particularly interesting is how it illuminates the diversity of modern travel. In ‘Arrival’ we have an asylum seeker’s first experience of coming to Britain. Albino Ochero-Okello’s poignant tale turns the idea of travel for pleasure on its head. For a refugee, travel is a means of survival.'” Also, reading the book’s introduction via Amazon’s preview option, Jonathan Raban describes an essay about a Victorian-style imperial expedition into the heart of the Congo as well as a walk in East Ayrshire — “Her journey lasts an hour or so, and covers perhaps a mile, but one need not travel far or for long to travel deep…”

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

I became a Penelope Lively fan with her Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, so a new book always gets my attention. How It All Began is getting positive reviews by the major U.S. papers, a story that starts with the mugging of a retired schoolteacher in London and then unfolds with the resulting consequences. The publisher’s website says, “Through a richly conceived and colorful cast of characters, Penelope Lively explores the powerful role of chance in people’s lives and deftly illustrates how our paths can be altered irrevocably by someone we will never even meet.” Sounds like another good one — How It All Began is Lively’s 20th work of fiction.

Wanting by Richard FlanaganRichard Flanagan creates an odd plotline in his new book Wanting.  

He jumps back and forth between two vaguely connected historical events and fails to guide the story with any kind of structural timeline.

First is the story of British explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane governing Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania . (Historically, that happened 1836-1843). While there, they try to raise a young savage girl, Mathinna, to become a civilized English woman. The experiment fails due to the inability of the Franklins to control Mathinna.  

When Sir John is asked to resign his governing post, they leave Van Diemen’s. Mathinna is left behind and descends into a deranged homeless girl. 

Jump to Charles Dickens’ Victorian London when he’s in between having completed Hard Times and beginning Little Dorrit. (Historically, that happened 1854 to 1855.) He learns from the widowed Lady Jane Franklin that an explorer discovered her husband’s Arctic expedition ships that disappeared years ago and all are dead.

There’s also evidence of cannibalism having taken place. 

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie CollinsDickens asks his friend and author Wilkie Collins to write a play based on Franklin’s tragic expedition, which Dickens produces and acts in. It’s called The Frozen Deep, and it consumes Dickens while his marriage to Catherine falls apart.

The narrative voice of Wanting is exceptional. Of the kind that sounds like the story is being read to us – lyric, thoughtful, dramatic. It is the strength that makes this novel work despite its erratic compilation. 

Such a huge difference it would make if Flanagan had added the calendar year to chapter headings, more defined historical descriptions to some of the characters, a map of Tasmania, or simply an historical timeline to ground us.

Something else: Flanagan writes in an Author’s Note that his story is a meditation on desire – “the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting.”

He weaves the theme with the desires of the Franklins, Mathinna and Dickens – especially Dickens, who lusts for an actress and writes in a notebook: “You can have whatever you want, only you discover there is always a price. The question is, can you pay?”

Despite Flanagan’s statement, the history generating the novel’s story is larger than the theme of desire. It’s what kept me reading, and it’s why I would recommend Wanting, but with caution: be prepared to read without a compass.

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