I'm a huge fan of Mark Forsyth's books: The Etymologicon and The Elements of Eloquence being just two examples of his excellent writing on language. When he announced he'd be writing this small tome about the history of Christmas, I pre-ordered it, and I've been sitting on it all year, waiting for the Christmas season's approach to read it.
I needed something light after my last read, and this was perfect. It's written in Forsyth's usual dryly hilarious style and for such a small volume (171 pages including the index) it's chock full of Christmas facts. Spoiler alert: almost none of the Christmas traditions we know and love today are tied to paganism. If you want to know how this can be true, read the book. It won't be a waste of your time, and you'll probably laugh at least once along the way.
If you do read it, make sure you skim the index at the end. It might be the funniest index I've ever read (and I've been known to skim more than a few).
Pagan myths: see
"Outside, an hour later, Quoyle at his fire, the aunt taking things out of the food box; eggs, a crushed bag of bread, butter, jam. Sunshine crowded against the aunt, her hands following, seizing packets. The child unwrapped the butter, the aunt spread it with a piece of broken wood for a knife, stirred the shivering eggs in the pan. The bread heel for the old dog. Bunny at the landwash, casting peckled stones. As each struck, foaming lips closed over it."
"They sat beside the fire. The smoky stingo like an offering from some stone altar, the aunt thought, watched the smolder melt into the sky. Bunny and Sunshine leaned against Quoyle. Bunny ate a slice of bread rolled up, the jelly poised at the end like the eye of a toaster oven, watched the smoke gyre."
It's all there in the quotation, pulled pretty much at random from the pages of this novel. Short, choppy fragments of sentences. Highly specific and unexpected physical detail. Metaphor and simile that more often than not cause a double-take. The occasional very odd word.
In some ways, the distinctive language of this book overpowers the rest of it for me. It's not that the characters aren't interesting - they are - nor that the book lacks incident - it most certainly does not! There is death, cultural discovery, peril in the wildness of nature, a gruesome revelation and even a miraculous resurrection (oh, and a lowish-key love story). But in the end, I enjoyed it but never felt fully drawn in, and I attribute that in large part to the idiosyncratic narrative. It's as if I were constantly dancing on the surface of the language, exploring it - and that was certainly enjoyable! - but I never fell deeply enough into it, past all those fleeting physical observations and curious insights, to really care about Quoyle, or his bratty kids, or "the aunt", brave and resourceful though she was.
I don't know if that really amounts to a serious criticism - it may just mean that this book had virtues different from the ones I usually remark on.
Some characters. Some more characters. Even more characters. A horse. Even more characters...wait, who's this person, again? And this one? And this one fancies this one...or not. And this one doesn't fancy anybody...or maybe everybody...or maybe just that one who's engaged to that other one..
OK, I remember why I had to abandon this when ill...