I Saw Three Ships
David R Godine, 2008
64 pp., $15.95
Tommaso and the Missing Line
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2008
40 pp., $15.99
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), 2008
40 pp., $15.95
Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis (Clark Lectures)
Matthew T. Dickerson
University Press of Kentucky, 2008
320 pp., $35.00
Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008
W. W. Norton & Company, 2008
208 pp., $25.95
Christmas books generally start arriving late in the summer, and most of them inspire a great weariness. But some stand out from the throng. First Christmas, by Alastair Macdonald, with illustrations by Adel Nassief, is a keeper. This is a narrative poem that tells the Christmas story from the point of view of Joseph's donkey. Poetry for children often leaves something to be desired, alas, and that is true here. (The author mentions that he had never written poetry before. It shows.) But the lines trot along, and you will enjoy reading aloud from this handsomely made book with your kids draped around you, taking time to savor the extraordinary illustrations. Adel Nassief works in the tradition of Coptic icons, and his images of the familiar scenes will help you see them afresh.
Another fine Christmas book for children and their parents is Elizabeth Goudge's I Saw Three Ships, reprinted by that admirably independent publisher David R. Godine. This is a little tale set in the early days of the United States (one of the characters is an exile from France whose family has been killed during the revolution there). The illustrations, by Margot Tomes, are winsome, and the book is small enough to fit in a Christmas stocking.
Two children's picture books—not Christmas-themed but quite wonderful—are Matteo Pericoli's Tommaso and the Missing Line (the wittiest picture book I saw this year) and Hyewon Yum's Last Night, a wordless book with deliciously retro linocut illustrations. Pericoli grew up in Italy, Yum in South Korea. He is now is New York, she is in Brooklyn, and we are very lucky.
If books about C. S. Lewis aren't quite as numerous as books about Christmas (not yet, anyway), in recent years they have nonetheless begun to constitute a menace. Still, it would be self-defeating to write off the whole lot. I was very glad to have Alan Jacobs' The Narnian a couple of years ago, and Michael Ward's Planet Narnia more recently, and now I am thankful for Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C. S. Lewis, by Matthew Dickerson and David O'Hara, a book which fully justifies what might seem at first to be a risible subtitle.
Your gift list may include a young woman who is combining an academic career with the demands of motherhood, or who is contemplating that challenging task (perhaps she's a married grad student who doesn't yet have children). For that young woman—and her spouse—consider a collection of essays, Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life, edited by Elrena Evans and Caroline Grant. The writers represent a wide range of attitudes and outlooks, and I can't imagine a reader who would find them all equally congenial, but there is plenty to choose from. (A good place to start is p. 49, with Elrena Evans' essay "Fitting In.")
Perhaps someone on your list is a great reader of mystery novels, crime fiction, and such. You'd like to find a writer who would come as a surprise. That's not easy—devoted readers of that genre tend to go through a ton of books in a year, and they are always on the lookout for something new even as they re-read old favorites—but one possibility is The Draining Lake, by Arnaldur Indridason, from Iceland. (To the second "d" in his last name, add a horizontal line.) The vogue for Scandinavian crime fiction in translation is a phenomenon we've noted before, and I'm working on a piece about that. Even a fairly assiduous reader is unlikely to have sampled the whole menu now available (I haven't!), and it's possible that your spouse or sibling or friend hasn't yet tried Indridason—possible too that having done so, she will want to read more of the series in which this book takes its place. (If she likes Henning Mankell, the odds are pretty good.)
Not many poems get circulated on the web with the viral speed of a YouTube video. But something like that happened with Clive James' poem "Windows Is Shutting Down." (You remember the first stanza, don't you? "Windows is shutting down, and grammar are / On their last leg. So what am we to do? / A letter of complaint go just so far, / Proving the only one in step are you.") Another poem of his, "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered," enjoyed an enviable circulation as well. Both are included in Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008, as is my favorite James poem, "Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini."
How did we get from the first Christmas to the poetry of Clive James (who in one of his guises is a rather bumptious atheist)? I suppose that is 2,000 years of history in a nutshell. So as we gather around the tree to celebrate the Incarnation, we will also be praying, "Come, Lord Jesus."
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
Copyright © 2008 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.