A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

What a charming, delightful book. The language is beautiful, as one might expect from Dylan Thomas. Moreover, there is a melancholy sense of nostalgia to it, the feeling you get as an adult remembering your childhood days of innocence and play.

I was so delighted by the illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. Apparently, she was an illustrator for Cricket magazine and book illustrator extraordinaire. I am including an example of her work in this post, but I don't think it is nearly as charming as the illustrations for the Thomas tale.

Here is part of the text, which takes place at the end of the day when the family gathers for storytelling. The setting immediately brings on another memory. (The description of the gas meter ticking really got to me. It's such a fine detail -- something so small and specific you feel as if you had been there. The fact that this leads into another memory, makes it even more bittersweet: A child remembering his own childhood. You just know he is growing up!) You'll find the full text here. If nothing else, I hope you can listen to Thomas read his tale. There's something about a poet reading his words that brings the whole expedition to life.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn't the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. "What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?"
"No," Jack said, "Good King Wencelas. I'll count three." One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen ... And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.
"Perhaps it was a ghost," Jim said.
"Perhaps it was trolls," Dan said, who was always reading.
"Let's go in and see if there's any jelly left," Jack said. And we did that.

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.


The pleasure of pulp

Here's an interesting article from Bookforum about the nigh-forgotten genre of pulp. (Plus, you gotta love the illustrations.)

For example, did you know pulp fiction was written by men while almost all the classic English crime writers were middle-class women? It's interesting to observe how the crime genre of dainty Agatha Christie and dire Dorothy Sayers stowawayed across the Atlantic and morphed into the gritty American pulp of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. And why and how did crime and pulp hold sway over readers from the 20s through the 60s? Author John Banville speculates that:

Crime fiction flourishes in hard times. The fiction reflects the times, and the times color the fiction. There is a rawness in the pulp stories, even those by “literary” writers such as Chandler and Hammett, that is not due entirely to the exigencies of the marketplace. At their best, and even, perhaps, at their worst, these yarns express something of the unforgiving harshness and dauntless optimism of life in America in the decades between the wars. Of course, the plots are almost uniformly absurd.

There is some sort of grim fascination for me with scar-faced criminals and brooding detectives and loose women with felt hats and guns in their purses (tucked right next to the bold red lipstick). I can't get enough of James Cain, for instance: do yourself a favor and when you're in the mood for a martini, read Mildred Pierce and then rent the movie with Joan Crawford.

The anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, sounds tantalizing. Do you suppose I'd shock Santa if I asked him to leave a copy of The Book of Pulps in my fishnet stocking?


What I'm Reading

Oh, I haven't posted much about books because I'm reading like a veritable demon! So, I thought I'd do a post about what I'm reading...

Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo. At the halfway mark. I loved it until Hugo just veered into lengthy descriptions of architecture and religion. I resent his interrupting the fascinating plot and wonderful characters, even if I do see why he is doing it.

A Child's Christmas in Wales,Dylan Thomas. I received this yesterday and tore right through it. (It is a children's book after all.) The illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman are truly dazzling -- they really make the book. I thought the text gorgeous in spots, and will do more on this post, but the first reading puzzled me slightly.

Out of Africa, the Untold Story, Linda Donelson. I found this in a used bookstore -- obviously it was marketed to capitalize on the film. But, I really enjoyed reading about Karen Blixen and her turbulent life. I think all of her travails with relationships somehow speak to me just now. To wit (and I paraphrase):

On describing the relationship between men and women, she says: "Men are guests and women are hostesses." And she asked a man, "What do guests want?" The man said, "We want to shine, to be welcomed, to be appreciated for who we are and to be given a chance to be at our best....what is it that hostesses want?" To which Blixen replied, "To be thanked."

Isn't that brilliant? I found another book on Dinesen: Isak Dinesen, The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman. This book, which I've just started, gives more reference to Blixen's literary leanings.

All of which means, I have to dig out all of my Dinesen books: Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass and (I think) Winter's Tales.


A me-me-me meme

I was tagged by Hallie over at Belles and Whistles, so here we go...

5 things I was doing 10 years ago
1. Working in another division of the company I now am at today!
2. Probably dealing with my winter blues
3. Writing short stories
4. Hanging out with friends and avoiding relationships
5. Basically, doing everything I'm doing today, only 20 pounds lighter and with two different cats in the house

5 things on my to-do list today
1. Drafting text for a work project
2. Going to gym (which I did, only I found out it closed!)
3. Drinking lots of water (I just drank some more)
4. Eating well (oatmeal for breakfast, soup for lunch, and probably some veggie concoction for dinner)
5. Searching those horrid online dating sites fruitlessly (went on one called Ethical Singles yesterday. The only guy in my age range wrote in his subject line "Capitalism must end!" Uh, I'll pass...

5 things I would if I were a millionaire
1. Buy a house.
2. Set up a scholarship fund for writers.
3. Travel!
4. Hire a personal trainer and dietician.
5. Invest wisely.

5 things I'll never wear again
1. My favorite size 6 little black dress.
2. Neon
3. Palazzo pants (does anybody else remember those? See the little drawing above.)
4. Anything that reveals anything in the vicinity of a midriff
5. Platform shoes

5 favorite toys
1. Barbie dolls
2. Scrabble
3. My stuffed animals, especially Bess and Pinkie
4. Card games
5. Clue

5 bloggers to tag

Tara at Books and Cooks
Charlotte at Charlotte's Web
Kirsten at Nose in a Book
D. Chedwick

And anyone else who wants to take a stroll down memory lane with this meme!