"All things are connected . . .
Whatever befalls the earth befalls
the sons of the earth."
-Chief Sealth

Cover detail: Boy and
Woman in an Interior, by
Paul Mathey.

Woodcuts by Ellen Raskin
A Child's Christmas in

Short Order
The essay and short story hold a special place in the heart of most every writer. The old axiom "You have to walk before you can run," holds as true in the literary arena as in sports, and for many of us, both as writers and readers, the short story is what we took our first steps with.

The Gifts of Reading
by Robert MacFarlane
Random House, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-241-97831-3
$4.99, 34 pp

With the publishing of The Gifts of Reading, author and essayist Robert MacFarlane proves his generosity both as a writer and human being. Its 34 pages are dedicated to gifts: the gift one gives; the gift one receives; the gift one possesses in the form of talent, even if that talent is as simple as the act of giving. Robert MacFarlane is an expert on gifts, because Robert MacFarlane is a giver.

Economy of Words
Specifically, The Gifts is a reflection on books MacFarlane's received as presents. More broadly, it's a celebration of the entire concept of giving. He covers the anticipation of the gift (both by the giver and the recipient), the excitement of discovery one experiences when receiving a gift, and why it is giving - even when re-gifting - feels so much better than hoarding.

McFarlane begins with a reminiscence. He recalls a period of his life when he lived in China, teaching University. His subject was English literature, and had to be taught in accordance with the rules of the Chinese Communist Party. This required his department to concentrate on the writing, while condemning the content. For instance, Dickens' A Christmas Carole might be read for its structure, but the moral of the story had to conform to Maoist ideals. Dickens could be lauded for his craft, but Scrooge - as the involuntary representative of Western culture's imperial ambitions - had to be condemned with prejudice for the cumulative sins of capitalism. Oscar Wilde the socialist was celebrated, but Oscar Wilde the aesthete was not.

After leaving Beijing, MacFarlane found himself in London, hard at work on his doctorate. During this time he was visited by a man he taught with in Beijing. The timing couldn't have been worse. He was struggling with his doctorate, and company didn't help. Daily, he found himself devoting less and less time to his thesis, and increasingly more time discussing and entertaining his guest, until he finally took a hint and moved on to other parts of the British Isles. On the morning of his departure, McFarlane discovered his friend had left - among other things - a copy of A Time of Gifts (1977) by Patrick Leigh Fermor. A Time, like MacFarlane's essay, is a celebration of giving. Together with its companion books, Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and The Broken Road (2013), it chronicles Fermor's walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s.

Economy of Gifts
In 1983, Lewis Hyde published his classic on giving, The Gift. In it, the author reflects on giving as an economic system. He refers to it as "the gift economy" (as opposed to the cash enonomy), with giving as its basis of value. Whereas the cash economy values the hoarding of commodities, the gift economy holds no value to the individual until its commodities are freely given away. MacFarlane explains:

    [T]he commodity is acquired and then hoarded, or resold. But the gift is kept moving, given onwards in a new form. Whereas the commodity circulates according to the market economy (in which relations are largely impersonal and conducted with the aim of profiting the self), the gift circulates according to the gift economy (in which relations are largely personal and conducted with the aim of profiting the other) . . . Unlike commodities, gifts - in Hyde's account and my experience - possess an exceptional power to transform, to heal and to inspire.
Although Hyde's gift economy is attractive (especially at present, as I am composing this while under self-imposed quarantine - one could say hiding - during a pandemic that's hammered the equity and financial markets), his concept has been decried by economists as simple-minded, and (obviously) runs counter to capitalism. Whether it could be implemented on a large scale is debatable, but that it can be implemented in focused bursts is undeniable. Most of us implement it every December.

The main thrust of The Gifts of Reading is giving. It's not advice on what to give (although books are on the top of MacFarlane's list - particularly ones about giving), nor is it an essay on how to give. Rather, it is a celebration of the thing itself: giving. MacFarlane no longer has his copy of The Gift, having long ago parted ways with its dog-eared pages. He's not sure where it ended up, but does know this: he gave it away. Robert MacFarlane is generous; The Gifts of Reading, his gift to us.

A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor
by Truman Capote
Random House, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-1-60237-2
$13.95, 107 pp

Simultaneously described as a literary icon and national embarrassment, Truman Capote, was perhaps, both. Praised for his masterpiece In Cold Blood with which he defined - if not created - a genre of non-fiction murder mystery ripped from the headlines of the day. Part tabloid, mostly fact with minor liberties taken for the added benefit of spice, he honed in on a style of writing that resonated with the American public, and they ate it up. To say Cold Blood was a hit, is an understatement. It was a phenomenon.

Born Truman Streckfus Persons, Capote had the illustrious claim of having been the childhood friend of Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set A Watchman). Although he was born in New Orleans, a tumultuous family life landed him in Monroeville, Alabama, in the house next door to Lee's. It was Capote that Lee fashioned Mockingbird character Dill Harris after.

Originally published in 1958, the first story in A Christmas Memory, One Christmas, & The Thanksgiving Visitor appeared in Capote's critically acclaimed novel, Breakfast At Tiffany's. Apparent by their titles, these stories are all centered around the holidays. A Christmas Memory works through Capote's fractured family life. It is written through the eyes of a child, and with breviloquent prose describes an emotionally engaged childhood with his best friend, Miss Sook, a distant, unmarried cousin in her sixties. He describes her:

    A woman with shorn white hair . . . wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable - not unlike Lincoln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid.
Although Buddy (Capote) and Miss Sook share their residence with other relatives, they exist apart from them in a sort of on-premises self-imposed exile. He describes Miss Sook as still being a child. Of the other residents he says only, "though they have power over us and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them."

"[T]hough they have power over us and frequently make us cry,

we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them."

Memory plunges headlong into the Christmas season. It reminisces on an unconventional friendship, while avoiding the pitfalls of waxing too nostalgic. It's a difficult balance to strike, yet Capote manages it well. Whether grousing over having to make his own Christmas ornaments, sharing the annual ritual of procuring the appropriate ingredients for holiday fruitcakes (of which Miss Sook makes enough each year to supply a small town), or locating, cutting and decorating the Christmas tree that's "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star," he relays his Christmas memories as if they happened a minute ago. Never mind that it's the same story played out year after year by the young Buddy; in Capote's hands, it is singularly fresh.

One Christmas, the second story, was written some twenty-five years later. It recounts a Christmas when Buddy was summoned to spend the holiday in New Orleans with his estranged father. It was the last place he wanted to spend Christmas, and having never been out of Alabama since his arrival in Monroeville, he was terrified. His mother, having divorced after only a year of marriage to his father, lived in New York in ambitious pursuit of social status. Although he didn't know squat about his father, the mere fact his mother had sought a divorce was reason enough for avoidance.

Upon arriving in the Big Easy, Buddy is met with disappointment. He'd been informed there was snow in New Orleans; there wasn't. His father is a tall, strapping man, with a gift for charming the ladies, not at all what Buddy was expecting. Having been married six times, Buddy is horrified to learn his father is a bit of a womanizer, with a penchant for older women - or, as he came to realize years later, older women's money. As if these things alone weren't disappointing enough, on this trip - at Christmastime no less - Buddy learns Santa Claus isn't real. We feel Buddy's disappointment. We sense his retraction from faith in anything and everything; a lack of trust in his own understanding of the world. We picture him looking just like the boy in the painting on the book cover (Boy and Woman in an Interior, by Paul Mathey), a mixture of questioning, fear and disbelief, all in the same expression.

One Christmas revisits the holidays with one distinct advantage Memory lacks: time. As a story written many years after the fact, it benefits from the time passed. Time brings perspective to the story. Blanks can be filled in with information learned - about his mother and father - years after his visit to New Orleans, which Capote takes full advantage of in characterizing his father: "Just a gigolo," he writes, utilizing the lyrics of the tune by the same title popularized by Irving Caesar, "Everywhere I go, people stop and stare . . ." Due to perspective, One Christmas may be a more accurate picture of Capote's childhood, at least in so much as it applies to parental relationships. It's not a precious memory of childhood, nor is it nostalgic, befitting a story in which the young protagonist's belief system is turned on its head.

The third, and final story in the collection is The Thanksgiving Visitor. It's a gear-shifter, exploring the nature of friendship, hatred, and common decency. When Miss Sook invites the school bully - Buddy's nemesis - to attend Thanksgiving dinner, Buddy doesn't think too much of it except that it's a bad idea. Figuring the bully (oddly named Odd Henderson) wouldn't accept anyway, Buddy puts it out of his mind until the day of the event, when Odd unexpectedly shows up: "I was aware of him before I saw him: the sense of peril that warns, say, an experienced woodsman of an impending encounter with a rattler or bobcat alerted me." For the most part, Odd pays Buddy no mind, but Buddy in his thirst for payback can't ignore him, and when he sees an opportunity to call him out for the thieving menace Buddy believes him to be, it backfires. Badly.

This collection, by and large, avoids moralizing. With Visitor, though, Capote throws caution to the wind. Miss Sook, being the simple, childlike adult in the room, delivers the lesson in the simplest of terms. She explains that while Odd might be in the wrong for stealing, what Buddy did was much worse. "[Y]ou planned to humiliate him. It was deliberate," Miss Sook tells him. "[T]here is only one unpardonable sin - deliberate cruelty. All else can be forgiven. That, never," (emphasis his). Well, nobody does like a tattletale (emphasis mine).

The jury's still out for many on Truman Capote. Is he a literary icon or an embarrassment? Speaking only for myself, with the weight of these early short stories fresh in mind, he's definitely the former, moralizing or not.

A Child's Christmas in Wales
by Dylan Thomas
New Directions, 1959
ISBN: 0-8112-0203-8
$3.95, 32 pp

In my freshman year of college, I was in a stage production of Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. It's a beautifully crafted play, a tribute to the residents of a fictional Welsh fishing village called Llareggub. I've been a fan of Thomas' words ever since.

A Child's Christmas in Wales, the holiday classic that has been in continuous print since 1954 and pioneered the audiobook industry, captures Thomas at his best: writing about the people and villages he knows and loves. As a writer, and Child's Christmas is no exception, Thomas resides in the space between poetry and prose; at the edge of the waking world and that of dreams. His rhythms are unruly - rushing here, slowing there as if in competition - yet balance against each other in perfect meter. Next to his sublime imagery though, rhythm and tempo are merely bit players.

The poem opens on its narrator comparing Christmases. He decides they're all pretty much alike, before thrusting his hand into a "wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays," pulling out a Christmas memorable for a housefire. From there, he goes on to tell of other Christmases, employing an imaginary audience of one, only described as "a small boy," who engages the narrator throughout the remainder of the piece with questions that advance the storytelling. The boy reflects our own sense of wonder - mesmerized by snow that "came shawling out of the ground | and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and | bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight . . ." or captivated by the narrator's list of "Useless Presents" (which includes a fake nose and a "mewing moo" that sounded more like the noise of "an ambitious cat . . ."). Thomas shares one Christmas memory after another, with no distinction as to the year, unrolling them as it were, from a single ball, the "bell-tongued ball of holidays" in his mind.

Dylan Thomas resides in the space between poetry and prose. What a beautiful place to live.

posted 04/22/20