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
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!
It's hard to think of Christmas caroling as an act of rebellion, but so it
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
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
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
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
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
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
For the pure kitchen gadget experience, nothing beats Chef's Catalog
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
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
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.