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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 14, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Precious Books, Christmas Songs, Catalogs

The Christmas holidays are when "precious" books come out in droves.

The word "precious" might seem condescending, but it's the official industry term for books in the 5-by-7 size.

Most hardcovers these days are about 6 inches by 9 inches, the size that suggests the book is aiming at bestsellerdom. Other hardcovers are 5 by 8; this size is usually used for literary novels and "quieter" presentations.

The 5-by-7 size is used for slender little books that are designed to be a quick read and make a single, simple point, and over the years it has become the size of choice for "occasional" books -- those that are tied to a particular occasion, like a holiday or Mother's Day.

Valentine's Day and the "parent's days" usually result in a burst of precious books, but it's Christmas that really brings them out in droves.

Often they're designed to be gifts, and experience teaches us that those that aren't humorous are meant to tug at our heart-strings.

Hence the term "precious," I suppose.

I have enormous resistance to books that go straight for tears. For instance, though I know this will make me seem un-American, I have never read The Christmas Box, and I probably never will, for the same reason that I've never read anything by Nicholas Sparks.

Which makes me a complete hypocrite, since I have a contract with my publisher to write a precious-sized book about Christmas in Battle School -- yep, that's right, a Christmas story set in the Ender's Game universe. Look for it next year, right next to The Christmas Box.

So ... now that we've gotten my hypocrisy out of the way, let's get back to the point. Like any other category of fiction, you can't safely dismiss the whole thing as being all alike.

There are always a bunch of celebrity Christmas books -- short Christmas stories by bestselling authors, sometimes set within an ongoing series (I'm dying to read Robert B. Parker's "Spenser and Susan Celebrate the Holidays with the Dog," especially the scene where Spenser decks Santa with a single blow to his glass jaw).

As with everything else, some of them are good, and some aren't. I'm sure every celebrity author who enters this category is trying to create something meaningful, and many of them succeed.

There are also books by authors you've never heard of, and some of them can be undiscovered jewels -- books that you don't just buy as gifts, you keep them and read them yourself.

One of the best is Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, by Ace Collins and Clint Hansen. Its 192 small pages are devoted to brief accounts of how some of the best-known Christmas songs came to be.

Now, I'm a lifelong singer of and listener to Christmas songs. Music has always been at the heart of the Christmas season, in my parents' family and in my own. It's music that makes the season.

In fact, in my family, as I was growing up, there was a strict rule against playing or singing any Christmas music prior to Thanksgiving. So the minute I had a place of my own, the Christmas music came out on the first day of September that had a cool breeze, and by the time the leaves started hitting the ground, I'd already listened to everything twice.

So many Christmas songs are loaded with emotional resonance for me -- as for millions of others. I remember singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" over and over during my one Christmas in Brazil where, as a missionary, despite being constantly in the company of others, I had never been so lonely in my life as during that holiday season.

It's no surprise, then, that Stories Behind ... tells us about what that song meant to soldiers in World War II -- and to others who were displaced from their homes during the struggle to rid the world of the scourge of imperialist fascism.

I imagined my father hearing or singing that song while in the Navy, knowing that his wife was pregnant with their first child -- a daughter that he would not see until she had already taken her first steps, and who would be afraid of this stranger -- despite having been taught to kiss a picture of her daddy and pray for him every night.

And the story of "I Wonder As I Wander" is mysterious and lovely. Somewhere, someone thought up those words and that melody, but it remained within a single family in the hills of Appalachia, to be discovered and preserved only because a little girl sat on a bench in a hill-country village and sang it to a stranger who wrote it down and published it.

I hadn't realized that part of the ongoing religious struggles over the centuries was the creation of popular hymns. Nowadays we think of many of these sacred songs as being part of stodgy church choir music, but when they were created, they were acts of rebellion. Songs written in the vernacular language, for common people to sing outside of church -- it was revolutionary! Subversive!

It's hard to think of Christmas caroling as an act of rebellion, but so it was.

If you love Christmas music, I can promise you'll enjoy this book, despite the tendency of the authors to occasionally pad an account with gush along the lines of "If these two songwriters had not gotten together, then we would not have this wonderful song, and so we owe this beautiful song to the getting-together of these two songwriters in order to create it for us, to make our holidays more enjoyable by letting us hear and sing what these two songwriters got together to create."

No, there's nothing quite that bad in the book. But there are a few moments that come close. Just ignore them and move on -- the book has plenty of real rewards.


It's catalog season, when anybody who has ever ordered anything by phone or mail finds his mailbox stuffed to overflowing with beautifully photographed and exquisitely printed pictures of items that will, when gift-wrapped and mailed off or put under a tree, convey to the recipient the exact cash value of our love for them.

No, no, it's not about money or impressing people. It's about finding gifts they'll really appreciate. That's why everybody on our list this year is getting first-rate Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings memorabilia from The Noble Collection catalog (http://www.noblecollection.com). We especially think that the swords and wands and rings of power really say "Christmas."

Or, from the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog (http://www.hammacher.com), the exclusive "Peaceful Progression Wake Up Clock," a pyramid-shaped clock/light/music/stink machine. Not only do the bands of light around the clock get brighter and brighter as the music gets louder and louder, the thing also gives of an "aroma" of your choosing.

You can get scents like their "morning" package ("coffee, energy, lavender, and stress relief") or the "relaxing" group ("eucalyptus, romance, freesia, and ocean breeze"). I wonder what "energy" smells like -- sweat, perhaps? -- and I don't even want to think about what "romance" is going to smell like.

The truth is, these are both wonderful catalogs. No longer is the Sears catalog the annual "wish book" of the American people -- there are dozens of wish books.

But the older we get, the more we find that we and our friends have about as much stuff as our houses can hold. Which is why we look for consumable gifts.

Restaurant gift certificates, for instance, allow us to introduce local friends to some of our favorite places -- without the tension of having us sitting there with them saying, "Isn't this wonderful?"

Santa usually finds a way to slip some movie tickets or gift certificates into our Christmas stockings. Along with obscene quantities of rare and delicate foods, mostly made of chocolate and designed to make sure none of the clothes we unwrap will fit.

Check out See's Candies (http://www.sees.com), Murray's Cheese (Google it -- the URL is too long to type in); The Chocolate Fetish in Asheville (http://www.chocolatefetish.com), and North Carolina's own The Peanut Roaster (http://www.peanut.com).

Some of our favorite gifts to give and receive are in the "fruit basket" category. Hickory Farms is always delightful, especially now that they no longer have year-round retail stores (http://www.hickoryfarms.com).

But the best of the food gifts, in my opinion, come from Harry and David (http://www.harryanddavid.com). When you give someone a year (or some portion thereof) of H&D fruit, you know that it will arrive on schedule, in perfect condition, and delicious.

Ditto on the flowers or plants from Calyx & Corolla (http://calyxandcorolla.com). You can send cut flowers or living plants for three, six, or twelve months, and your loved ones will have reminders of the Christmas season. (Though you should be warned that twelve houseplants can be a burden rather than a gift to someone with a small apartment or a brown thumb.)

The "year of" gifts can be expensive, but these catalog companies also offer one-time baskets that will be gratefully received -- but won't leave the recipient's house cluttered with stuff.

Since we live a food-centered life, our favorite catalogs often focus on the kitchen. The Williams-Sonoma catalog is one of the thickest, and it contains far more than any retail store could ever display. Besides food of the highest quality, they also have an excellent array of kitchen utensils and gadgets (http://www.williams-sonoma.com).

For the pure kitchen gadget experience, nothing beats Chef's Catalog (http://www.chefscatalog.com).

Unless, of course, it's wandering through the cramped aisles of The Extra Ingredient at Friendly Center in Greensboro, where you can actually see and touch the tools, gadgets, appliances, dishes, food, and cloth goods before you buy.

Which brings us right back to local retail stores. Because no matter how good a job catalogs do of suggesting gifts that others might appreciate, there's still something wonderful about walking along in front of shop windows or strolling the aisles, thinking, not of what we want for ourselves, but what might be appreciated by someone that we love.

Don't complain to me about the commercialization of Christmas. I think it speaks well of America that so many of our retail stores depend on sales during the Christmas season for their very survival.

A nation that sustains its retail life by giving gifts has a good heart, even if our motives in gift-giving are sometimes complicated and even if the buying season begins before the trick-or-treating is over.


Speaking of Christmas shopping, for us the real inauguration of the season is the Craftsmen's Christmas Classic Arts and Crafts Festival at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center over the Thanksgiving Weekend.

There is no shortage of gimcrack and tacky, as you might expect, but there are also many skilled artisans doing valuable work that you can't easily find anywhere else.

The line at the food and drink stands is always long, and there are few places to sit and rest, so eat before you come and bring a bottle of water. Admission is $7.00 for adults, a buck for kids from six to twelve, and nothing at all for kids younger than that.

On Friday the hours are 9 to 9, on Saturday from 10 to 6, and on Sunday from 11 to 5. The earlier you go, the better the selection.


For twenty years we've been taking our artwork to The Framin' Place at Quaker Village, 5603 West Friendly in Greensboro.

For the first dozen years or so, it was Sumner and Ruth Feinburg who owned and operated the shop. They gave us our education in finding exactly the right frame and matte for a very eclectic mix of art, and the work was always meticulously done. They also provided a good array of prints and original local artwork -- some of our best pieces reflected their tastes first.

Then they retired and sold the shop to Alicia Flowers and Cherry Hershey. We soon learned that they were up to the challenge of meeting the Feinburg's high standards.

And if we had any doubts about the newest owners, Ann and Dick Shaw, they were dispelled when we got home from Barcelona with a piece of art that I had hand-carried onto the airplane.

It seems that the vibrations of carrying the piece and occasionally bumping it lightly were enough to chip pieces of the ceramic tile-work off the wooden backing. It was far more fragile than I had imagined, and clearly it was a total loss -- it wasn't in a condition to be displayed.

But we took it in to The Framin' Place and showed it to them. "I know it can't really be repaired, but can you find a way to take some of these pieces and turn it into something?"

They took on the challenge. We didn't pester them. They worked on it at odd moments over a period of months, and then announced to us that it was finished.

It was perfect.

Not identical to what we originally bought, but since it was an abstract piece we would have needed a photograph of the original to find the differences. It's beautiful, it's on our wall, and The Framin' Place is still in good hands.

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