Thursday, December 1, 2011

Make bookclub a holiday fest

December is frantic, but shouldn’t be too busy to include a meeting. This is a fine time for festivity—and great subject matter.
There are several ways to make your December meeting relatively more fun than Christmas snacks.
Apply imagination, and results will follow.
Here are some ideas I created after only a little brainstorming:
• Bring in favorite (and brief) sections or quotes from a treasured holiday story; take turns reading aloud, with a time limit of about five minutes. (Toasting each reading at its conclusion might add a zesty touch—but those taking their turn late in the process may find reading difficult.)
• Serve foods named in favorite holiday reading—you know, Figgy Pudding, goose, candy canes, wassail, and the like! If there’s one thing members like more than talking about books, it may be food and drink.
 • Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” appears in several incarnations around the area each Christmas. Dickens’ great-great grandson Gerald Dickens will be reading the story in early December at locations in Salem, Mass., and Nashua, N.H. Alternatively, a professional, full-company presentation of this perennial favorite is being presented at the Hanover Dec. 16 through 23 in Worcester—tickets are hot, so hurry!
• What’s your favorite holiday book? Encourage members to bring one along for discussion. It may be Dickens, or Evans’ “The Christmas Box,” or even “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!” Share, briefly, what made this book significant to them, or—if nothing stands out for a member—a recollection of their own early Christmas (time limits are a must!). This works just as well if members who want to share other holidays: Hanukkah comes on Dec. 20, and Kwanza on Dec. 26. What’s more fun than sharing traditions and stories from beyond the better-known territory of Christmas?
• Select one or two holiday stories that can be read quickly enough for your December gathering. There’s a lot to choose from, most of them blatant ploys to gain the holiday shopper, but these stand out:
— “A Christmas Carol,” There are so many versions of this book that one can easily obtain it. I collect well-illustrated versions, and a favorite is paired beautifully with drawings by Italian children’s book illustrator Roberto Innocenti (Harcourt, 1990).
— “The Nutcracker,” There are many beautiful editions of this classic tale (and ballet) as well. I have one illustrated by Innocenti and another by Maurice Sendak—both are fun to read (Truth now: How many of you have only seen the ballet?). Written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, it’s fun to read, and comes in handy when you take a child to the ballet and said child asks what’s going on. Nowhere else is the “King of the Mice” quite so evil.
—Holiday stories by authors such as John Cheever, Frank O’Connor, Alice Munroe and John Updike, all originally published in The New Yorker magazine, appear in “Christmas at the New Yorker,” a wonderful compilation of mood and hijinks (Random House 2003). Dig in.
• Bring in a quote. If the group has already made another selection for December, supplement the discussion by assigning everyone to bring in a holiday-related quote to share with others. Have a quiz about the source, and reward the top guesser with a book or an extra slice of Buche de Noel.
• For fun, members might like to read aloud, either as an assigned character, or taking turns, from a classic Christmas story or drama. Some good ones: “The Long Christmas Dinner,” by Thornton Wilder or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by Dylan Thomas. If your group is particularly ambitious, they may wish to prepare a series of dramatic readings for the library to showcase during December 2012.
• If members want to keep it light during December, here are reading opportunities:
“A Christmas Blizzard” by Garrison Keiller—fans of A Prairie Home Companion will recognize the schtick, but members may also enjoy encounters with classic family horror stories, as in “The tree will catch fire” and “Your tongue will stick to a frozen pipe.” Mr. Sparrow, the main character, hates Christmas—the world's longest and unhappiest holiday, marked by the sheer horror of `The Little Drummer Boy'.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Dr. Seuss said it all, and everyone should read (or watch it) annually.
“Christmas at Fontaine’s,” “E.T.” author William Kotzwinkle’s fanciful mystery about a department store amid the chaos of the season. Great fun.
“Holidays on Ice.” David Sedaris has written hilarious stories and essays. “The Santaland Diaries” is a wonderfully imaginative recounting of his time in the trenches as a department store elf.
“An Idiot Girl’s Christmas,” by Lori Notaro, is also contemporary. Like Sedaris, Notaro can be very funny, with dead-on observations of the worst Christmas can bring. These short stories cover the gamut—from bad Christmas gifts to being stuck buying tampons in a busy Christmas line.
“Letters from Father Christmas,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote these for his children; they’re full of adventure and misadventure.
 “A Christmas Memory,” by Truman Capote, is his beautifully written story—quite autobiographical—of a childhood in Depression-era Alabama. Poignant, rich in detail, it describes the warm friendship between an elderly aunt and a lonely seven-year-old child.  Available on film as well.
 “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is Dylan Thomas’ poetic, funny tale of a child’s past Christmases, when there were good things to eat, anxious adults, and snow just made for snowball fights. Short, and available online for free ( Very beautiful.
• No time for reading? How about a movie night? Easy to buy or rent, they’re ubiquitous this time of year. Suggestions: “We’re No Angels,” the 1955 classic with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Basil Rathbone, Aldo Ray and Joan Bennett; “A Christmas Carol”: I recommend two—1984’s version with George C. Scott and the 1999 film with Patrick Stewart.
Ann Connery Frantz is a fiction writer and avid reader, and a member of several Lancaster, Mass., book clubs and writers groups. Reach her at Her column runs in The Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette on the last Sunday of each month.