Anne Stinson - December 2006

Books for the Holidays
Anne Stinson

     The holiday season is such a mixed bag - nostalgia for Christmases Past, excitement over a stack of gifts or cards from new friends and always, always...the joys of children in this wonderful season.
      For those reasons, my holiday bag of books contains a fairly new book for us fogies, an old book for the whole family and a book for the age group that’s just past listening for reindeer hoofs on the roof.
      First, the delightful memoir by Charles Osgood, Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack, subtitled A Boyhood Year During World War II. The year was 1942, little Charlie Osgood Wood (he used only his first and middle names on radio and television) was nine years old, a happy child, a good student and an altar boy in an era when “McDonald’s was only a farm in a children’s song, but you could get a hamburger at White Castle for a nickel.”
      Those of us who grew up in that era will relate to every recollection Osgood calls up of a time when America was united in a great war. His family, like millions of American families, wanted to cooperate in any way they could help the war effort, from planting a Victory Garden to young Charlie’s earnest attempts to use his chemistry set to make a stink bomb that would paralyze the enemy if an invasion ever reached Baltimore.
      Yes, a war was on, but there were distractions for a boy of nine. His passion for radio dramas was an antidote to that year’s news of Japanese victories in the Pacific. His after-school fascination for the adventure stories - the Shadow...Superman...The Lone Ranger...Jack Armstrong...Spiderman - are still vivid in his memory for the way they exercised the imagination. In his mind’s eye he could picture the heros much better than their characters in movies or later on television, he says.
     “American radio of the 1940s had such a profound influence on me that it is the reason that I am doing what I do today...,” he writes, referring to his storytelling magic on CBS News Sunday Morning every week as well as daily segments on CBS Radio.
      He was also addicted to movies, the plots of which he would relate with uncanny accuracy for a friend. His account of “Pride of the Yankees” baffled his listener with his rendition of the scene at the end of the picture.
     “And he stands there at the microphone in the stadium and he says ‘ consider myself...consider myself...the luckiest man...luckiest man...on the face of the earth...face of the earth .’ “
     “Why does he say everything twice?” little Charlie is asked.
     “It must’ve been the disease.”
      Remember when doctors made house calls? Osgood does, citing the time he chewed a wad of paper and lodged it in his ear. He notes that nowadays a kid could chew the whole sports section and the doctor’s nurse would say, “Bring him in next Thursday at four. If he vomits, press six.”
      His enthusiasm was muted when his parents ordered him and his younger sister to turn part of the backyard into a Victory Garden, “to grow all the things I left on my plate,” It was all part of helping the war effort, and was no more successful than his experiments to produce a practical stink bomb.
      Oh, how vividly he recreates the days of our pasts, those of us who were children during that war! Like many of us, he also took music lessons and learned to play the piano and the organ, once performing “The Happy Farmer” at a recital. You can’t get any more authentic than that.
      He describes his piano teacher as “a no-nonsense woman, which was ideal for me because nonsense was my major.”
      Whoever said “Nice guys finish last” never listened to Charles Osgood.

     Now we move on to the Book for Everybody territory. My pick, my all-time annual favorite is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. Its first copyright dates to 1956 (updated several times since) and it’s safe to say that I have read it every year since its first publication. If you don’t have a copy, shame on you. You deserve some ghastly punishment like being tied to a chair in a mall and forced to listen to piped-in music of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” from now until January 1.
      It’s reputed to be autobiographical - a remembered Christmas during the Great Depression in the deep South, an account of Capote as a child and his best (and only) friend, an aging distant cousin. The story is told in the child’s voice, a love story about two misfits who are barely tolerated by the other people in the house. These two inseparable companions have learned to create a memorable Christmas in a private world of their own.
      It’s an event they prepare for long before the actual date. They earn money, one nasty, greasy penny at a time, by swatting flies in summer, The money is saved for a fund: they must buy supplies to bake fruit cakes and postage to mail them. Many, many fruitcakes for people who have given them pleasure, like the engineer who sometimes waves from the train as it goes through town, or people they’ve met only once. Always, the best cake is mailed to President and Mrs. Roosevelt for their Christmas dinner.
      The story opens with a morning in November, a frosty morning in a kitchen with a fireplace that has just begun its seasonal roar. And the old lady exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “ Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather.”
      The two friends collect fallen pecans from a neighbor’s tree and push an old baby carriage full of nuts back to the kitchen to shell them. In subsequent days, they count and recount their coins for a trip to the store for flour and eggs and spices and candied fruits.
      The most expensive item, and hardest to buy, is the whiskey they need for their recipe. That purchase requires a trip to a sinful fish fry and dancing café down by the river. The proprietor, Haha Jones, is notorious for his evil temper. Only necessity drives the timid pair to approach him. Another whole day is spent mixing and baking while the black iron stove turns red with the effort.
      That chore accomplished, the two take a day-long walk through woods and briar patches to find the perfect Christmas tree, cut it down and drag it home. They make all their own ornaments, cut-out fish, tin foil angels and tufts of cotton saved from summer for “snow.”
      In secret, each makes a gift for the other, a kite, the same thing they made last year and the year before.
      I can never read the end of the story without crying at the simple beauty of the two mismatched souls, sending their kites into the sky on their last Christmas together.
      So tender, so touching, A Christmas Memory makes “The Little Match Girl” look like a comedy.

     Finally, I recommend a quirky book for the ‘tween set, the not-quite teens but old enough that best friends are more compelling than Barbie dolls. The novel is Click Here (and find out how I survived seventh grade) by Denise Vega.
      In recent years it has become a cliche (not to say a source of wonderment) that modern kids are more at home on the computer at an early age than their elders will ever be. When Erin, our heroine, is launched into middle school with her best friend Jilly, her world suffers a seismic shift.
      How to cope with the angst and fear of adjusting to a new atmosphere? Type it into a personal blog, a chronicle of anxiety, humiliation and confusion. Just make sure it stays as guarded as your own private diary.
      It doesn’t take a psychic to see where the plot’s headed. When Erin’s blog appears on the entire school’s intranet, the resulting emotional scars spread like acne.
      There are enough painful lessons to go around for both the good kids and the bad ones. Readers in the targeted age group will learn to keep things in perspective as well as the virtues of candor and tolerance.
      Happy reading, fellow bookworms!