Thursday, December 25, 2014

Some Notes on the Christmas Spirit

A Christmas Illustration By William Joyce, Holiday Artist Deluxe

Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy 2015 to all of our friends and readers.

We here at The Jade Sphinx are in the Christmas spirit – and have been for several weeks now, despite the fact that our neighborhood, our city and our country seem to be in a fairly dire place.  Our lives are very disrupted and in constant flux….

But we are still in the Christmas Spirit.  But, at this late date, just what does the Christmas Spirit mean? 

Well … I’m one of those people who is always predisposed to be happy.  I’m a happy man.  And, though I’m most happy at Christmas, I don’t think that’s quite the reason.

I think, for me, being in the Christmas Spirit is being aware of our time and the experience of being alive, and then enjoying it.  Being aware of passing time encourages you to be grateful for the many blessings that you have, for still being alive, for realizing that the world, no matter how terrible things sometimes are, is full of wonders and marvels.  It means reconnecting with the young person that you were, and seeing the world through the eyes of a child.  Of realizing possibilities, of feeling joy, of remembering that we are all human beings who are somehow inter-connected.  And of being happy – even when you don’t want to be.

In short, Christmas is a time for recognizing the miracle of our lives.

And, to be honest, I simply adore all the things that come with Christmas.  I love Christmas trees.  I love Christmas music – both traditional carols and popular Christmas songs.  I love the decorations and the garland and the mistletoe.  I love tinsel.  I love the traditions that are hundreds of years old that are briefly given life once again, only to immediately fade from our modern world.  I love the way people change and the kindnesses and recognition of the season.  I love the whole thing – it’s the centerpiece of my year.

Christmastime is an oasis.  An oasis not just in the course of the year, but in the course of our lives.  In the course of 2014 we did many things.  But Christmastime is a period that is completely removed from that bustle of activity.  It is a brief moment when people really do seem to be of good cheer, and to recognize one another and to live, too briefly, a little differently.  For me personally, it's a moment to reconnect with my sense of wonder, because wonder throbs through Christmastime like a powerful current hums through a high-power cable.  And, more importantly, it's a moment for me to realize that I'm alive, and that's a pretty terrific and wondrous thing.

We will resume blogging in the New Year!  Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Batman says, "and I don't smell!"

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Friend, Ebenezer Scrooge

Few books are more consistently misread than A Christmas Carol (1843), by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).  Everyone has seen some adaption of the story – featuring anyone from Basil Rathbone to Michael Caine to Mr. Magoo – or, more ubiquitous still, some parody or sendup of the tale.

Ask anyone what A Christmas Carol is about, and almost certainly they will tell you it’s a parable about greed.  Ebenezer Scrooge, they will tell you, is a miser, hoarding his money at the expense of his employee, Bob Crachit, and refusing to use a portion of it for the common good.  His late partner, Jacob Marley, sends to him the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, they will go on to say, showing him the error of his ways, and he reforms by becoming more generous.

That, however, is not the story Dickens wrote, nor the lesson he wished to impart.

Scrooge as miser is a woeful misreading of Dickens’ story.  The great sin of which Scrooge was guilty was not a niggardly withholding of money, but of personal warmth, distancing himself from the rest of humanity, and refusing his place in the community. 

Again and again the mighty Ghosts of Christmas haunt our protagonist with his refusals of human interaction, not mere miserliness.  As a boy, Scrooge was left at school during the holidays, alone and unloved.  His mother is never mentioned, and his father only in passing (‘he is so much kinder now’), but not in any way that demonstrates he loves his son.  Worse yet, Scrooge’s beloved sister Fran dies early; and Scrooge is later apprenticed to a man who provides one of the few positive influences of his life, Mr. Fezziwig.  But the lessons of Fezziwig do not take, and Scrooge turns away his chance at lifelong love by allowing his fiancée, Belle, to leave him.  Scrooge devotes himself to business, not simply to grow rich and comfortable, but to fill up his ever emptying life.  He keeps fellow human beings at a distance… alienating his one relative, his nephew Fred (presumably Fran’s child), and closing himself off from his colleagues or employees.

The great tragedy of Scrooge is that we see him as an imaginative boy, delighting in childhood tales of Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe … and we watch that boy almost obliterated by the unimaginative and unforgiving man he becomes.  What the Ghosts do, in essence, is connect Scrooge with his inner child.

Few authors wrote of children with the insight and intelligence of Dickens; perhaps that is because he was one of those few adults gifted with a childlike sense of wonder.  Mind – not a childish sense of wonder, for that rare commodity is no such thing.  Dickens, as Scrooge would, too, after his visitations, was able to see the world with the clear-eyed view of a child, and reprioritize what’s important.  As Dickens himself writes in the book, for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.

Though not a children’s novel by any stretch of the imagination, A Christmas Carol has been read and enjoyed by children for more than a century.  This is fascinating, because a great deal of children’s literature (most notably Peter Pan) is about putting away childhood things and parting ways with wonder and childhood passions.  That is the way, these books argue, to health.

Dickens, on the other hand, believes in an integration of wonder into the adult for successful and happy maturity.  Scrooge becomes whole by adopting the wonders of his vision of the Christmas Ghosts.  They are not, like a visit to Neverland, temporary, but permanent.  This is much to our taste.  We here at The Jade Sphinx like our heroes (and worldview) to incorporate wonder!  Bravo Dickens.  At ‘em Scrooge!

If you are visited by Christmas Ghosts tonight, we sincerely hope that the experience is as terrible, as wondrous, and as life-affirming as that of Ebenezer Scrooge.  We could wish you no greater gift.

A special Christmas message tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

It’s Christmas Day in the Workhouse, by George Robert Sims (1877)

Sometimes even bon vivants develop a social conscience.  Such was the case of George Robert Sims (1847-1922), dandy par excellence, who wrote humorous pieces for such magazines as Fun and The Referee

Like most aesthetes, his eyes were always open, and Sims saw the awful conditions created by the Poor Law of 1834.  Though a dedicated gambler and gamesman, Sims made a great deal of money as a playwright and journalist.  Sims wrote detective fiction, and would often discuss current, real-life criminal cases with fellow friends Max Pemberton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  He would die destitute and largely forgotten, except for one searing poem, summoning all of his indignation at conditions of the poor. 

First published in 1877, It’s Christmas Day in the Workhouse was much parodied or dismissed as mere sentimentality, but now, more than 100 years after its composition, it seems as fresh, compelling and … true as ever.

Sims wrote in his memoirs that after his poem was first published, it was vigorously denounced as a mischievous attempt to set the paupers against their betters.  Class warfare, indeed.

Following the success of his poem, Sims gave lectures on the need for social reform. After one of these meetings in Southwark, Sims was approached by Arthur Moss, a local School Board officer, who told him the terrible poverty that large numbers of working class people were experiencing in London.  He then offered to take Sims of a tour of the district.

Shocking images from the tour were seared into Sims’ brain.  He decided he would try to find a way of bringing this information to the notice of the general public. He approached his friend, Gilbert Dalziel, the editor of a new illustrated paper, The Pictorial World who agreed to publish a series of articles by Sims on the living conditions of people in London.

Illustrated by Frederick Burnard, the articles were later published in a 1889 book, How the Poor Live. Articles originally published in the Daily News appeared in another volume in 1889,  Horrible London.

Sims also wrote many popular ballads attempting to draw attention to the plight of the London poor, a selfless undertaking that raised public opinion on the subject of poverty and led to reform legislation in the Act of 1885. 

It is Christmas Day in the workhouse,
And the cold, bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
And the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the table,
For this is the hour they dine.

And the guardians and their ladies,
Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
Put pudding on pauper plates.
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
They've paid for — with the rates.

Oh, the paupers are meek and lowly
With their "Thank'ee kindly, mum's!'"
So long as they fill their stomachs,
What matter it whence it comes!
But one of the old men mutters,
And pushes his plate aside:
"Great God!" he cries, "but it chokes me!
For this is the day she died!"

The guardians gazed in horror,
The master's face went white;
"Did a pauper refuse the pudding?"
"Could their ears believe aright?"
Then the ladies clutched their husbands,
Thinking the man would die,
Struck by a bolt, or something,
By the outraged One on high.

But the pauper sat for a moment,
Then rose 'mid silence grim,
For the others had ceased to chatter
And trembled in every limb.
He looked at the guardians' ladies,
Then, eyeing their lords, he said,
"I eat not the food of villains
Whose hands are foul and red:

"Whose victims cry for vengeance
From their dark, unhallowed graves."
"He's drunk!" said the workhouse master,
"Or else he's mad and raves."
"Not drunk or mad," cried the pauper,
"But only a haunted beast,
Who, torn by the hounds and mangled,
Declines the vulture's feast.

"I care not a curse for the guardians,
And I won't be dragged away;
Just let me have the fit out,
It's only on Christmas Day
That the black past comes to goad me,
And prey on my burning brain;
I'll tell you the rest in a whisper —
I swear I won't shout again.

"Keep your hands off me, curse you!
Hear me right out to the end.
You come here to see how paupers
The season of Christmas spend;.
You come here to watch us feeding,
As they watched the captured beast.
Here's why a penniless pauper
Spits on your paltry feast.

"Do you think I will take your bounty,
And let you smile and think
You're doing a noble action
With the parish's meat and drink?
Where is my wife, you traitors —
The poor old wife you slew?
Yes, by the God above me,
My Nance was killed by you!

'Last winter my wife lay dying,
Starved in a filthy den;
I had never been to the parish —
I came to the parish then.
I swallowed my pride in coming,
For ere the ruin came,
I held up my head as a trader,
And I bore a spotless name.

"I came to the parish, craving
Bread for a starving wife,
Bread for the woman who'd loved me
Through fifty years of life;
And what do you think they told me,
Mocking my awful grief,
That 'the House' was open to us,
But they wouldn't give 'out relief'.

"I slunk to the filthy alley —
'Twas a cold, raw Christmas Eve —
And the bakers' shops were open,
Tempting a man to thieve;
But I clenched my fists together,
Holding my head awry,
So I came to her empty-handed
And mournfully told her why.

"Then I told her the house was open;
She had heard of the ways of that,
For her bloodless cheeks went crimson,
and up in her rags she sat,
Crying, 'Bide the Christmas here, John,
We've never had one apart;
I think I can bear the hunger —
The other would break my heart.'

"All through that eve I watched her,
Holding her hand in mine,
Praying the Lord and weeping,
Till my lips were salt as brine;
I asked her once if she hungered,
And as she answered 'No' ,
T'he moon shone in at the window,
Set in a wreath of snow.

"Then the room was bathed in glory,
And I saw in my darling's eyes
The faraway look of wonder
That comes when the spirit flies;
And her lips were parched and parted,
And her reason came and went.
For she raved of our home in Devon,
Where our happiest years were spent.

"And the accents, long forgotten,
Came back to the tongue once more.
For she talked like the country lassie
I woo'd by the Devon shore;
Then she rose to her feet and trembled,
And fell on the rags and moaned,
And, 'Give me a crust — I'm famished —
For the love of God!' she groaned.

"I rushed from the room like a madman
And flew to the workhouse gate,
Crying, 'Food for a dying woman!'
And the answer came, 'Too late.'
They drove me away with curses;
Then I fought with a dog in the street
And tore from the mongrel's clutches
A crust he was trying to eat.

"Back through the filthy byways!
Back through the trampled slush!
Up to the crazy garret,
Wrapped in an awful hush;
My heart sank down at the threshold,
And I paused with a sudden thrill.
For there, in the silv'ry moonlight,
My Nance lay, cold and still.

"Up to the blackened ceiling,
The sunken eyes were cast —
I knew on those lips, all bloodless,
My name had been the last;
She called for her absent husband —
O God! had I but known! —
Had called in vain, and, in anguish,
Had died in that den — alone.

"Yes, there, in a land of plenty,
Lay a loving woman dead,
Cruelly starved and murdered
for a loaf of the parish bread;
At yonder gate, last Christmas,
I craved for a human life,
You, who would feed us paupers,
What of my murdered wife!"

'There, get ye gone to your dinners,
Don't mind me in the least,
Think of the happy paupers
Eating your Christmas feast;
And when you recount their blessings
In your smug parochial way,
Say what you did for me, too,
Only last Christmas Day."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part III: O Little Town of Bethlehem

In this last Friday before Christmas, we here at The Jade Sphinx continue to look at some of our favorite Christmas carols.  Near the top of the list is O Little Town of Bethlehem, which has, we think, a particular sweetness and charm.  There are many, many excellent recordings, but by far our favorite is that of Burl Ives, which can be heard here:

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was an American Episcopal bishop, famous for his preaching and liberal views.  On Christmas Eve, 1865, he rode from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and is said to have viewed the town from the field where shepherds received the news of Christ’s birth from the angels.  Three years later, he wrote the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem; his organist, Lewis Redner (with whom he had collaborated when writing the carol Everywhere, Everywhere, Christmas Tonight, wrote the music, which he said came to him in a dream with an angel strain.  It was first performed by the children of their Sunday school.

In England, Redner’s tune has been overtaken in popularity by a 1906 Ralph Vaughan Williams version of the folk tune The Ploughboy’s Dream, or Forest Green.  Other tunes by Henry Walford Davies and Joseph Barnby have attracted less interest.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part II: Twas Night Before Christmas (A Visit From St. Nicholas), by Clement C. Moore

Though certainly not a carol in the traditional sense, Clement C. Moore’s wonderful Twas Night Before Christmas (originally entitled A Visit From St. Nicholas) has often been set to music.  There are several delightful musical renditions of the poem, and perhaps our favorite here at the Jade Sphinx is that of Christmas Cowboy Deluxe, Gene Autry (1907-1998), recorded with Rosemary Clooney (1928-2002).  If you don’t believe us – listen and see:

(Before moving on to Mr. Moore and Mr. Claus, a quick word on Gene Autry.  The very best Christmas present one could get is the classic cowboy’s Christmas album.  Autry introduced Frosty the Snowman, as well as Here Comes Santa Claus and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and his recordings of these numbers are definitive.  In addition, the other songs on the album – including Santa, Santa, Santa and the lovely and evocative Merry Christmas Waltz – are seldom-heard gems, and they have become a tradition in our household.  They should become a tradition in yours, as well.)

Clement Moore (1779-1863) lived with his beloved wife, Elizabeth, and their nine children in a large, comfortable Georgian manor house in what is now the Chelsea section of New York.  The estate, called Chelsea, rested on 96 acres of farmland, which hopefully illustrates that, if nothing else, Manhattan is constantly changing.

Early one Christmas Eve, in his carriage en route to Washington Market to buy a holiday turkey, he began composing a Christmas poem for his six-year-old daughter, Charity.  Back home in his study, he consulted Henry Irving’s History, and finished the poem in three hours.  That night, at supper, he read it aloud to his family – it was the first time Twas Night Before Christmas was heard by an audience.  It was an instant hit.  Charity brought it to her Sunday School class, and then friends had the poem published in the Troy, New York Sentinel the following Christmas in 1823.  Moore, a scholar and serious educator, was initially reluctant to admit authorship.

It was more than 40 years later that the political cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) created the modern Santa Claus when illustrating a republication of Moore’s poem.  As cartoonist for the influential illustrated Harper’s Weekly, for each Christmas issue he drew a Santa, which he claimed was a welcome relief from his usual round of political cartooning.  One wonders how he would feel now.

One of the many interesting things in Santa’s evolution is that Moore originally conceived of Santa as elf-sized.  This somehow got lost in the details, as Nast’s Santa was republished everywhere: calendars, cards, posters and wrapping paper.  Between Moore and Nast, the modern Santa Claus was born.

Here’s the original poem:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Father Christmas Letters, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know that we find the tales of hobbits, orcs, elves and trolls by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) to be fairly indigestible.  The popularity of Tolkien’s fantasy oeuvre is just something we have to acknowledge, if not understand.

However, we are delighted to report that the collection of letters he wrote to his children under the guise of Father Christmas is infinitely delightful.  Beginning at Christmas, 1920, when Tolkien’s eldest son John was three years old, the author would write and illustrate letters to his children for the next 20 years (through the childhoods of Michael, Christopher and Priscilla.)  Sometimes the envelopes would have special North Pole stamps, or bear bits of snow or magic dust.  The meticulous pen-and-ink drawings would show Father Christmas with his pack in the arctic waste, or building a new home, or provide a peak into the storeroom of presents.

Over time, Tolkien would expand upon his Christmas universe – Father Christmas will acquire a new assistant, a great white North Polar Bear, the PB’s nephews would later join the narrative, and, of course, various skirmishes with goblins in their massive caves beneath the Pole.

These goblins seem to return every now and then; and the North Polar Bear in single combat takes down one hundred of them before the gnomes polish off the rest. The goblins spend the next several years building their forces for one final conflict.  When World War II breaks out, and so much of the world is occupied with the conflict, the goblins see this as their chance to mount another attack on the North Pole.

The Father Christmas Letters were first published in 1976, three years after Tolkien's death. There are several different editions, some omitting the earlier (and less interesting) letters, while other deluxe editions reproduce the letters in individual envelopes.  Depending on your pocketbook and interest in the illustrations, it is hard to go wrong with any of them.

I have been returning to this slim volume of beautifully illustrated letters every year since I first received my copy nearly two decades ago.  I respond to this simple book in ways I could never relate to the more ambitious hobbit books.  The world of Father Christmas is both more familiar and more accessible than his stories of Middle Earth; frankly, Father Christmas’ world in the North Pole is also infinitely more interesting than Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  Also, since these were written for his children without thought of publication, the many novelistic failings Tolkien was prone too are absent.  His inability to move narrative forward, or his extremely tiresome digressions and displays of needless erudition are not in evidence. 

What is amply on display is Tolkien’s seeming kindness, his delight in folklore and myth, his simple humanity, and his delight in the holiday season.  This book contains all of Tolkien’s charms and none of his drawbacks – if you must own only one of his books, this is the one.

One last note – what a delightful thing to do for one’s children.  Tolkien not only wrote these letters in the rather shaky hand of Father Christmas, but he also created the many charming pen-and-ink illustrations, as well.  They are surely not the casual work of a moment, but the loving and thoughtful creation of a father trying to please his children.  Perhaps the reason we connect to the Father Christmas Letters so is not because of the letters themselves, but for the warmth and love that went into their creation.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Carols, Part I: Joy to the World

Joy to the World is a true oddity: it is one of the loveliest and most delightful carols, but it really has nothing to do with Christmas.  Read carefully:

Verse 1
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Verse 2
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

Verse 3
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

Verse 4
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

The beautiful lyric is by English Hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and is based on Psalm 98.  Watts first published it in 1719 in The Psalms of David: Imitated In the Language of the New Testament, and Applied to the Christian State and Worship.  But, clearly, the lyric refers to Christ’s return to earth, an event at the end of time, and not his birth here on Earth.  Joy to the World does not celebrate Christmas, but, rather, the end of days.  Joyful, surely, but sobering, as well.

Lowell Mason (1792-1872), an American, adapted and arranged the music to Watt’s lyrics in 1839, using an older melody that may have originated with Handel (1685-1759), as pieces of the music appear in the composer’s Messiah.  It is doubtful, however, that Handel composed the entire tune.

Watts is one of the more interesting figures connected with the Christmas holiday.  Author of more than 750 hymns, he was also a logician and theologian.  It would seem that versifying was uncontrollable for him – during prayers, he once said he was distracted by A little mouse for want of stairs/ran up a rope to say its prayers.  Punished for the infraction by his staunchly religious father, Watts said, O father, father, pity take/And I will no more verses make.  We’ve all known children like that.  We will look more closely at Watts in the weeks ahead.

There are many fabulous recordings of Joy to the World, which is one of the most popular carols in the English speaking world.  We at The Jade Sphinx particularly like the Arthur Fiedler (1894-1979) recording, as well as the one by Percy Faith (1908-1976).  Our favorite, perhaps, is that of Nat King Cole (1919-1965); to our ear his voice is a vehicle for pure happiness.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holmes For the Holidays, Edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg and Carol-Lynn Waugh

Longtime Jade Sphinx readers know of our weakness for all things Christmas and all things Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle combined the two himself with his wonderful story of a Christmas goose and valuable gem, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.  So what could be better than various authors collaborating on a volume of Sherlock Holmes Christmas tales?

Well … I’m sure that was the idea, but sadly the execution is often wanting.  Holmes For the Holidays is yet one of many collections of stories continuing the career of Mr. Sherlock Holmes long after the death of Doyle.  As is often the case with such anthologies, some entries are markedly better than others.  This book contains stories by such celebrated authors as Edward D. Hoch (1930-2008), William L. DeAndrea (1952-1996), Loren D. Estleman (born 1952) and Jon L. Breen.  It is a pleasant enough time-waster, but one wishes that the ratio of good stories was a little higher than five out of 14.  In addition, the fact that two stories flirted with pedophilia, and an additional two included descendants of Ebenezer Scrooge, indicated to this reader that three editors meant none of them were actually reading the tales prior to publication.

The cream of the crop included “The Adventure of the Canine Ventriloquist” by Breen.  In it a long-winded professional writer (paid by the word) is the victim of a Christmas haunting.  Holmes and Watson are both shown to good effect, and Holmes’ disdain for the supernatural world well portrayed.

The late William L. DeAndrea’s “The Adventure of the Christmas Tree” is excellent, and easily the jewel of the collection.  In it, Holmes must determine why someone would steal a nobleman’s Christmas tree, only to return it.  Though the story felt more like a thriller – fairly reminiscent in tenor and tone to the author’s wonderful novel, The Lunatic Fringe – it still managed to distill a distinct Holmesian flavor.

Estleman, who in previous novels paired Holmes with Count Dracula, here has the Master Detective consult with a now-adult Tim Cratchit in “The Adventure of the Three Ghosts.”  Tim, now Lord Chislehurst, acquired Scrooge’s firm long ago, and saved it from the brink of financial ruin.  Now he too is visited by Christmas ghosts just as he is about to indulge in a little corporate downsizing.  (The more things change….)  It is all a little too pat, but, for all of that, quite amusing.

Gwen Moffat (born 1924) provides the most disturbing story in the collection with “The Adventure in the Border Country.”  Here, Holmes and Watson investigate a missing husband, only to find that some crimes are more terrible than others. 

Hoch – simply the most indefatigable short-story writer in the mystery field – delivers the delicious “The Christmas Client,” in which Prof. Moriarty is blackmailing Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) over some artistic pictures the Reverend made of underage children.  (The more things change….)   

Though certainly not everyone cup of holiday cheer, Holmes For the Holidays is a diverting read for undemanding mystery buffs during the holiday season.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Many Memories, Little Thanks -- Hope: Entertainer of the Century, By Richard Zoglin

Here is something rare and wonderful: a celebrity biography that is not only balanced, nuanced and impeccably researched, but deeply human and moving.  Richard Zoglin (born 1948) has managed all of this in his indispensable Hope: The Entertainer of the Century, which is simply one of the very best books of 2014.

It should be noted that we here at The Jade Sphinx think Bob Hope was a wonderfully funny man.  I saw him live at Madison Square Garden in 1989, where he played with George Burns.  Though the show itself was quite bare-bones, it was a great joy to see them both, and Burns was in particularly good form.  Hope’s Road films, with frequent costar Bing Crosby, were the only comedy series that paired two comic actors of equal caliber; and also remarkable were the number of standards in the Great American Songbook introduced by Hope throughout his film career.

Though alternately forgotten or reviled today, Bob Hope was one of the great comedians of the 20th century and a legitimate hero, as well.  Hope was born Leslie Townes Hope in England in 1903.  His family moved to Ohio in 1908, where they led a fairly hardscrabble existence.  Though things were difficult, Hope (and his many brothers) did remember this time with affectionate nostalgia.  However, despite the haze of Norman Rockwell reminiscence, it seems clear that Hope lived in a fairly rough environment, and was something of a rough kid himself.  Zoglin’s research uncovered some time spent in reform school (most probably for shoplifting), which Hope in later years either deflected with an offhand joke, or sought to expunge it from memory for good.

Hope loved attention and was a born entertainer.  He moved from street busking to the vaudeville circuit where he honed his craft as dancer, comedian and monologist.  Most important – he created the man known as “Bob Hope,” the brash, confident and urban wise guy.  Here was a comic who did not rely on baggy pants or ethnic tropes, but, rather, was the new All-American model; it is one of America’s greatest acts of assimilating while defining the national character.  Hope ascended quickly, conquering Broadway, early movie shorts, and radio before becoming a comedic leading man in films, a legitimate radio star and Broadway name.  The age of Hope had arrived.

In a book of deft touches, one of the many things that Zoglin conveys wonderfully is Hope’s seemingly inexhaustible well of energy.  His capacity for work would deplete a platoon of men.  Most comfortable onstage, where he could inhabit his created persona, Hope would move from film shoot to radio show to personal appearance or charity event in stride.  No wonder he lived to be 100.

The defining moment of Hope’s career was his stint entertaining the troops during World War II.  Not content with setting up camp shows and providing song-and-dance perilously near firing lines, Hope and his entourage went from hospital to hospital visiting the wounded, would scrupulously return messages home, and provide a much-needed morale boost.  Zoglin peppers his account with several hair-raising moments (Hope’s plane nearly crashed outside of Alaska), along with heart-felt reminiscences from the ground-forces comforted by Hope.

Following the war, Hope was a juggernaut – he made many of his finest films, his radio show was immensely popular, he would go on to host the Academy Awards more than any other celebrity, and the well of goodwill he created seemed nearly inexhaustible.  He would go on to conquer television, the only star of his generation to continue to work regularly in the medium (and to good ratings) well into the 1990s.

Sadly, things would crumble around him during the 1960s.  It was a decade that was not only a public catastrophe for the United States (from which we never recovered and are still reeling from the effects), but a personal one for Hope as well.  The social, cultural and political changes effectively ended the American Century, and the sneering dismissal of the left and the political disconnect of the right rendered Hope, the first great comic to deal in current events, rudderless.  He would continue to do what he always did – entertain the troops – but in a polarizing war; Hope became a tool of the right and an object of scorn to the left.  He never fully understood what happened.

It is part of the power of Zoglin’s book that Hope emerges from his life a tragic-hero.  Here is a man who achieved not only the absolute pinnacle of success in his profession, but was a beloved national treasure.  Then, suddenly, the public turned on him, leaving Hope bewildered, unsteady and resentful.  Despite the multiple millions Hope made during his career, it was adulation and applause that he needed most.  When it stopped, the protective shell that he created – the Bob Hope persona – became redundant.  The personal man, the interior Hope, was insufficiently developed; retirement wasn’t an option, and Hope overstayed his welcome, tarnishing his once-sterling reputation.  He deserved better.

Zoglin does not sugarcoat Hope’s many personal failings.  He was a chronic philanderer, often villainously cheap, occasionally high-handed and filled with a sense of entitlement.  But Zoglin also details the many, many acts of simple kindness, his generosity to family and friends, and his untiring civic service (there is not a charity event that Hope would not play).  In addition, Hope defined what it meant to be a celebrity and a comedian – inventing the standup monolog, harnessing the power of his fame for good causes, and his deep connection to his fans.  (The book includes a wonderful story of Hope and frequent costar Bing Crosby leaving a hotel with Hope carrying a pillowcase of his fan mail to answer; an incredulous Crosby said he threw his out.)

After spending four days in Hope’s company while devouring this book, I was reluctant to let him go.  While it is possible to quibble with Zoglin on some of his assessments (Zoglin dismisses Son of Paleface rather airily, while your correspondent thinks it one of the greatest comedies of the 1950s), it is impossible to disregard the achievement of this book.  Your correspondent confesses to actually crying at the end … and how many celebrity bios can produce that effect?

Hope: The Entertainer of the Century is required reading for anyone interested in American Pop Culture.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Landscape with a View of a Distant Village, by Thomas Gainsborough (late 1740s or early 1750s)

We continue our look at the truly stellar show at the Frick Collection here in New York featuring 10 masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery with a picture by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788).

Gainsborough was born in humble circumstances.  His father was a weaver in Suffolk, and not much is known about his mother.  However, he seemed to be one of a brood of creative children: his brother John (known as Scheming Jack) was a well-known designer of curiosities, while his brother Humphrey invented the method of condensing steam in a separate vessel. 

Thomas left home for London in 1740 to study art; his mentors included Hubert Gravelot, Francis Hayman and William Hogarth.  He married Margaret Burr in 1746, and they had two daughters. 

A move to Bath in 1759 was a great career boon, as there he became a fashionable society painter.  He was soon exhibiting in London, and, in 1759, he became a founding member of the Royal Academy.  Despite founder-status, he had a tempestuous relationship with the organization, and he would sometimes pull his work from upcoming exhibitions.

Thomas and family returned to London in 1774, where he painted the royal family.  He soon became enamored with landscape painting, and his later years were devoted to depictions of the English countryside.  (He is credited as one of the founders of the British landscape school.)  He grew to love painting landscapes more than portraits, and his landscapes are among his finest achievements. His career was cut short with a diagnosis of cancer, and he succumbed in 1788.

Gainsborough was a meticulous painter, but he painted with great speed and fluidity.  His palette was generally light, with brushstrokes that were precise without being fussy.

Your correspondent must confess that he considers Landscape with a View of a Distant Village on show at the Frick as among the weaker selections in the exhibition.  The composition is perhaps too polished and too … calculated, leaving nothing for the eye to linger upon.  Though it follows the strain of naturalism popular at the time, the eye is disturbed by the overwhelming symmetry of the piece, as if calculated more for commercial reproduction that personal contemplation.

More off-putting still is the placement of various elements, as if Gainsborough were running through a list of crowd-pleasers necessary for a picture.  Pastoral lovers?  Check.  Strategically placed cattle?  Check.  Dog?  Check.  Even the clouds and trees look more like stock figures hustled out for effect rather than a reflection of either mood or reality.

In person, this rather wide picture further disappoints because the eye roams without direction.  As demonstrated in our posts on Constable and Velasquez, artists gifted in composition keep the eye in constant movement.  There is nothing in the composition to pull the eye along, and the effect is rather-well painted elements that just lie there without dynamism.  It’s not a bad painting … it is merely uninteresting.

It is particularly disappointing when compared to the truly champion Constable hanging on the same wall.  There, Constable’s fecund imagination takes a similar theme, and creates a picture that is teeming with life.  Indeed, the composition suffered to some extent by sheer virtue of Constable’s ability to render the scene real.  Both painters were men of talent and genius, but Constable was a painter of vision. 

More from the Frick Collection tomorrow!