Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve at The Jade Sphinx

Toby Roan, the man behind the 50 Westerns From the 50s blog, graciously invited me to write a guest column on the Lone Ranger

At the same time, I was thinking about a special Year End column for The Jade Sphinx, and the more I thought about both, the more they morphed together.  So, please check Toby’s blog for a special post by Your Correspondent.  You can find it here:

Happy New Year to all my readers, and expect more of the same in 2017.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve at The Jade Sphinx

No time in all the Twelve Nights and Days is so charged with the supernatural as Christmas Eve.  Doubtless this is due to the fact that the Church has hallowed the night of December 24-5 above all others in the year.  It was to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night that, according to the Third Evangelist, came the angelic message of the Birth, and in harmony with this is the unique Midnight Mass of the Roman Church, lending a peculiar sanctity to the hour of its celebration.  And yet many of the beliefs associated with this night show a large admixture of paganism.

The above is a brief excerpt from the magnificent Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles, first published in 1913.  There is much to savor in this book, but to me, my favorite passages deal with Christmas Eve.  (You can find the entire book, for free, on the invaluable

Christmas Eve has always been the cornerstone of my Christmas celebration.  I was recently dining with a friend who observed that one of the chief joys of Christmas, as we grow older, is remembering Christmases past.  When I do, I find my mind returns again and again to Christmas Eve much more so than the day itself.

In my household, the family exchanged gifts to one-another on Christmas Eve (while ‘the mother lode’ was delivered by Santa as we slept).  This time always seemed more dear, more special to us than Christmas morning.  Many souls now long gone spring to mind as I remember those nights, and the phantoms of Christmas appear particularly bright.  And there are little tokens everywhere that litter my life from those Christmas Eves, even though the people are long gone.  I still have a beautiful meerschaum pipe given to me by family members more than 30 years ago – the pipe remains, but they themselves are just memories.  When I hold it on Christmas Eve, it is almost as if I can summon them back, for a brief time, and be content in the moment and in the day.

Earlier, when I was a very young boy, my maternal grandmother lived with us.  On Christmas Eve, by older brother William and I would lie abed till all hours, wondering at what wonders were to come.  We would sneak downstairs sometime around 2:00 a.m. or so, and find the gifts under the tree and the lights ablaze.  My grandmother would always stir and sit upon the stair and watch us, then admonish us to come back to bed.  These moments – fleeting, human, yet magical withal – are so much more important to me than the many happy memories of Christmas Day.

I think this particularly memory resonates with me because it illustrates the … complicity with which we greet Christmas.  My brother and I were up all night in league to see Santa; my grandmother watched from the stairs with a benign twinkle, and Santa, well… Santa had been plotting all year long.

So, yes, there is something about Christmas Eve.  Miles knew it 103 years ago, but any child could tell you the same thing today.  It is almost as if a veil between ourselves and a more magical, invisible world momentarily lifts, and we catch a glimpse of some inner miracle.  Christmas makes us more alive with the expectation of some transcendence, or, more rightly, makes us see and realize the miracle that has already taken place.  The quiet, happy miracle of our own lives, this is the spirit of Christmas time, not just the mirth and cheer we all feel.  It is deep and powerful magic that even the most dull and inattentive can tap into.

On Christmas Eve, be attentive and tap into this spirit.  Many of us will be fortunate enough to be with beloved friends and family.   But we all know someone less fortunate—who has just lost a loved one, or for some other reason is feeling alone. Reach out to those you love and cherish and let them know how you feel; make Christmas Eve a memorable night for them, and you make it one for yourself, as well.

On this Christmas Eve, we here at The Jade Sphinx wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a happy, prosperous and joyous New Year.  If you have only one goal this year, make it this: have fun with those you love.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Best in Snow, by April Pulley Sayre (2016)

Best is Snow is a charming books of photographs by April Pulley Sayer celebrating the mysteries of snow.  And what better mediation for this, the Eve of Christmas Eve?

Sayre is the author of a companion book, Raindrops Roll.  One imagines that she was inspired to move onto snowier topics by living in South Bend, Indiana, one of the snowiest cities in the United States.

The text of Best in Snow is a study in brevity – this review alone would equal three-to-four times as many words.  But if a picture is worth a thousand words, than this simple book speaks volumes. 

Sayre shows us photos of a variety of birds, squirrels and other animals as snow gently drifts on idyllic sylvan scenes.  These are pictures of remarkable beauty and refinement, and are perfect for a quiet evening before the fire … or even the radiator.

In addition to her animal photos, Sayre provides great shots of leaves, branches and ice crystals, and she illustrates the effects of ice, water, cold and snow on natural, living things.

The final two pages of the book are some fun facts about snow … some even obscure enough to be a surprise to Your Correspondent.

This is a great book for the winter-fans, snow-buffs and nature-lovers – not to be missed!

A Special Christmas Eve Message Tomorrow!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christmas Meat, by Charles Marion Russell (1915)

Though it may not be entirely true that deep in the breast of every aesthete beats the heart of a cowboy, it is certainly true of Your Correspondent.  Thoughts of Christmas always seem to carry with them thoughts of the Wild West – it’s the way my brain is wired.  For many Bing Crosby is the voice of Christmas; at The Jade Sphinx, it’s Gene Autry.  (By the way, there is no better way to feel elderly – if not prehistoric – than by trying to explain who Gene Autry was to a young person.)

We have written about self-proclaimed ‘cowboy artist’ Charles Russell (1864-1926) before.  When we reviewed his letters and diary snippets, we were delighted to learn how wonderfully boyish and enthusiastic Russell was in person.  Russell never fully grew-up and he often approached his life, like his art, with a child-like sense of wonder.

So it comes as no surprise that Russell loved the Christmas season.  He would often retreat into his studio weeks before the holiday, designing his Christmas card(s), writing letters to close friends and oft-times painting a holiday-themed picture.

Today’s beautiful watercolor, Christmas Meat painted in 1915, is a picture of great warmth, despite the presence of snow.  In it, a Westerner brings a fresh-killed stag to a lone homesteader for Christmas dinner.  Russell painted many Christmas pictures with greater whimsy (Westerners coming across Santa during a snowy night, for example), but here he chooses instead to illustrate the holiday with a simple act of kindness.

In these days of easy consumption and near-instant gratification, we forget the every-day difficultly of the lives of previous generations.  Distances in the West were vast; a simple motor trip today would last several days on horseback.  People were extremely isolated on the countryside, with no phones, electronic entertainment, news, or, very frequently, neighbors. 

Russell, who went West in the waning days of the frontier, lived among the cowboys and knew how isolated it could all be.  But, he also loved the West, and was continually moved by the neighborliness, the open-handed generosity and many acts of human kindness he encountered there.

Let’s take a look at Christmas Meat.  As always, Russell’s command of anatomy is sketchy, at best (where, for example, is the rest of the cowboy’s left leg?), but he more he is more than able to pose his figures dramatically in the composition of narrative.  The outstretched hand, the visible smile, the bow-legs, and upheld rifle speak volumes – here’s Christmas dinner, pard, I got it myself.

And look at the homesteader!  Hand in his pants (so, clearly, a bachelor), complete with pipe and red union suit underwear, this man is clearly a character.  And his head leans forward in thanks, in appreciation, and admiration. 

Marvel at Russell’s sense of color.  Blue is the dominant color … and wonderfully suggests the cold.  The frozen trees in the distance are just impressionistic dabs of blue, as is the wooden smokehouse to the left.  Even the smoke from the cabin’s fireplace has a blueish tint … rest assured, it is cold outside.

Also, Russell uses the mountains of his backdrop to illustrate the expanse of the Western terrain.  There is no one for miles around; however, he undercuts the feeling of cold waste by a smart use of yellow.  The yellow light in the distance, along with the warm yellow of the window and doorway of the cabin, illustrate the warmth of human kindness at Christmas time.

The partially cut wood in the foreground may seem superfluous, but Russell, a master of composition, knew that something was essential there to keep the eye moving through the picture.  (It also serves to illustrate the cold … the homesteader does not tread far to get his firewood!)

This is a lovely little grace note of a picture, filled with honest feeling and a great deal of warmth.  It doesn’t descend into the overly sentimental, and it shows people at their best.

As such, it makes for a hell of a Christmas picture.

More Christmas books tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Candy Cane Lane, by Scott Santoro (2016)

One of our favorite memories of Christmas 2016 will be having read Candy Cane Lane, by Scott Santoro, under our Christmas tree.  It is a delight.

Santoro is the author and illustrator of Farm-Fresh Cats and Which Way to Witch School?  He has also worked on several animated feature films, including The Lion King, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Gnomeo and Juliet.  He is a great talent and deserves wider recognition; it is our hope that Candy Cane Lane is the breakout holiday book of the 2016 season, and that it reaches a wide readership.

The story is about a little girl who lives on the eponymous street.  Every house is a marvel of outlandish holiday decoration, each lawn is more elaborate than the one proceeding it.  Her house, however, is always empty, as her father cannot afford fancy lawn ornaments.

Just before Christmas, a mighty storm blows in, and the ornaments of Candy Cane Lane are scattered everywhere.  A plastic choirboy ends up in the nearby trashbin, and she takes it for her own.  Her pleasure is short-lived, however, when the trashmen take it away.

Alone, in the snowy city dump, the choirboy pines for Candy Cane Lane and the little girl.  He is befriended by a plastic, illuminated reindeer, and, later, by a discarded Halloween ghost.  They decide to join forces and find their way back.

Lost, they come upon the offices and showroom of Giant Displays, where they are befriended by the plastic Giant out front, along with the scores of factory rejects (like Green Santas or giftless Magi) who also need homes.

What follows is a parade of ornaments and over-sized product avatars seeking their own, special Christmas refuge.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the charm of this book.  The illustrations have a loose line and sense of fun, and the coloration of the pages is stunning.  Each page is filled with work that has real forward momentum … many of the figures seem ready to fly off the page.  Santoro also has the gift for capturing ‘glowing’ light, and, better still, the quality of light thrown off by Christmas lights in the darkest of nights, against backdrops of snow.

There is also an antic sweetness to the book that irresistible.  Perhaps it is Santoro’s background in animation that makes so much of this book reminiscent of the animation style of the Little Lulu or Mighty Mouse cartoons of the 1940s, produced by Famous Studios and Terrytoons, respectively.  

Like the best animated cartoons, it makes the inanimate live, and shows us the interior lives of the objects around us.  One could almost imagine a Big Band score to accompany the illustrations – and Your Correspondents hopes that Candy Cane Lane becomes a cartoon itself, some day.  The book is touching without being cloying, and smart without being knowing.  In short, Santoro has created a little Master’s Class in making the difficult seem easy, all with a wonderful vibe that is both retro and timeless.   

Candy Cane Lane is a delicious confection – and our favorite Christmas picture book of 2016.  Bravo Santoro – and more, please!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Night Gardener, by The Fan Brothers (2016)

There are so many great picture books for children this Christmas season that it’s almost impossible to write about them all.  But there are a few standouts that demand particular attention, and we will try to bring them top-of-mind this week.  (The number of excellent prose novels recently released for Young Adult readers is equally impressive, and we will tell you about some of those before the New Year rings in, we promise!)

One of the most original and delightful books to cross our desk this season is The Night Gardener, by Terry Fan and Eric Fan.  These extremely talented brothers are Ontario-based writers and illustrators, and The Night Gardener is their best book to date.

The story tells of life on Grimloch Lane.  Life continues apace, without much interesting seeming to happen.  Young William notices, though, a mysterious gardener steal by one night, a gardener who transforms an ordinary tree into a magnificent topiary sculpture of an owl.  The neighborhood falls agape with wonder … and the mysterious gardener continues to ply his trade, leaving these amazing wood-and-leaf sculptures in his wake.

William, of course, promises to stay up one night and catch him in the act…

There is so much going on in The Night Gardener that adults will delight in unpacking the story as much as children.  The evocative illustrations for this book were rendered in graphite, and then digitally colored.  Fortunately, the Fan Brothers exercised as much restraint in the coloration process as they did with their drawings.

Grimloch Lane in the early pages of the book is a fairly gray, monochromatic place.  As the Night Gardener creates more and more topiary art, the pages slowly and subtly infuse with color, reaching a full, rich coloration at the end.  But this is never used to cheap effect; indeed, illustrations that take place in moonlight are just as mysterious and creamy as they are subdued. 

The drawings themselves have a great deal of charm; they are mindful, in their way, of the pen-and-ink work of Edward Gorey (1925-2000).  But where Gorey was macabre and mordant, the Fan Brothers are more mysterious and insinuating.  The brothers have a happy knack of composition, and the drawings are filled with witty details that catch the eye. 

Any attentive reader paging through the book will, again and again, return to the word ‘subtle.’  We are told very little about William, but there is a picture of his parents on his windowsill.  We never learn anything about them, and it was not until my second page-through that I noticed that the building he leaves at one point is an orphanage.  And our gardener seems to sculpt his animals based on whatever animals happen to be in the neighborhood.  And who are the mustached, hat-wearing twins in nearly every group drawing?  Could it be the Fan Brothers, themselves?

But just as interesting as the illustrations are, the story is even more compelling.  Are the Fan Brothers offering a parable on the affect that art has upon us, or a story of transferring intergenerational expertise?  Is it about the soul-crushing effects of ugly neighborhoods and urban blight, or about the restorative effects of engaging in the arts?  Is it a meditation on seasonal changes, or a commentary on created families?

This is a book with no easy answers, but many earned pleasures.  The Night Gardener is sure to intrigue both children and adults with its subtle drawings, evocative narrative, and hidden clues.  A gem!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas Carols Part III: Away in a Manger

Away in a Manger is one of Your Correspondent’s favorite carols, probably because it is the only one he can sing in (approximate) key…  It also presents something of a Christmas carol mystery.

Though many have attributed Away in a Manger to Martin Luther (1483-1546), there are no documents in any way connecting it to him.  Indeed, there are no German manuscript documents of that vintage that make reference to the carol, at all.  (There are no German texts, in fact, prior to 1934 that reference the tune.)

Most scholars now believe that this lovely carol is entirely American in origin.  The first two verses of the lyrics were published under the title Luther’s Cradle Song in the November 1883 issue of The Sailors Magazine and Seamen’s Friend (claiming authorship to Luther); with another article in the May 1884 issue of The Myrtle, with the same lyrics and the same claim.  Prior to that … no trace of it exists.

The first known musical setting was published in the Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, in 1885, under the title Away in a Manger.  The third verse was written some time later, by Dr. John T. McFarland, secretary of the New York Board of Sunday Schools, between 1904-1908.  It has been in use ever since.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.

A particularly lovely recording by the late John Denver can be found here:

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas Carols Part II: The First Noel

One of our favorite, traditional English Christmas carols is The First Noel.  (Noel is an Early Modern English synonym for Christmas.)  There are many, many excellent recordings, but perhaps our favorite is that of Bing Crosby (1903-1977), which can be heard here:  (Oddly enough, this wonderfully evocative Christmas recording was cut on May 11th in that long-ago year of 1949.)

The carol tells of the Annunciation to the Shepherds and their adoration of the Christ child.  Oddly enough, the Star of Bethlehem does not appear in the Biblical books that also mention the adoration of the shepherds. 

The carol is Cornish in origin, and was first published in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Carols (1833), edited by William Sandys.  The version you hear today is usually the four-part hymn arrangement by the English composer John Stainer (1840-1901), published in Carols, New and Old, which appeared in 1871. 

The First Noel has a fairly unusual melody in that it consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a refrain which is a variation of that phrase.  All three phrases end on the third of the scale.

The first Nowell the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter's night that was so deep:
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell,
Born is the King of Israel.

They looked up and saw a star,
Shining in the east, beyond them far:
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night:

And by the light of that same star,
Three Wise Men came from country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star whersoever it went:

This star drew nigh to the north-west;
O'er Bethlehem it took its rest;
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay:

Then entered in those Wise Men three,
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense:
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with his blood mankind hath bought.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas Carols Part I: The Sussex Carol

We will look at some of our favorite Christmas Carols this week as we gear up in anticipation of Christmas.  (Hurray!)  I would like to open with a little-known and less-appreciated carol, The Sussex Carol.  If you are unfamiliar with it, click hear to listen to a wonderful rendition:

Your Correspondent had somehow never heard this, despite a lifelong devotion to the holiday, until 1984, when the tune serves as the centerpiece for the George C. Scott television adaption of A Christmas Carol.

The, however, is very popular in Great Britain, and is sometimes called On Christmas Night All Christians Sing.  The words to the carol were first published by Luke Wadding, a 17th Century bishop, in his book, Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684).  It is uncertain whether or not Wadding is the actual author of the tune.

The text and tune were later rediscovered by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who heard it sung by Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex.  (It is Williams who dubbed the tune The Sussex Carol).  The tune generally heard today is the one heard by Williams as sung by Verrall, and published in 1919.

Vaughan Williams included that carol in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, first performed during the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral in 1912. 

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

I love this carol first of all for the melody.  It seems so joyous and spritely … one could almost imagine it as something played at a Renaissance Faire as much as a Christmas tune.

Another theme that I continually return to in listening to Xmas music is that of listening.  So many Christmas carols exhort us to listen … to the angels, to the settling of snow, to the mysteries of the Invisible World.  Not only that … but that the Invisible World is a place of both joy and mirth.

I would hope that readers would consider incorporating The Sussex Carol into their Christmas listening this season.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Interview with William Todd, Author of A Christmas Coda (2016)

It’s not often that a Christmas book crosses our desk as smart, as moving and as ornate as A Christmas Coda, by William Todd.  We were lucky enough to read and review his new book last week, and even luckier when Mr. Todd graciously consented to an interview.

A Christmas Coda is a sequel to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and is a worthy addition to the Scrooge mythos.  It has excited a great deal of interest among Dickens scholars and Carol enthusiasts alike, and is well on its way to becoming a holiday classic in its own right.

Here Todd responds to our questions….

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your career?

I was born in 1960 in Detroit, Michigan, and spent the first couple decades of my life doing non-writing stuff.  So let's start at age 23, when I moved to Los Angeles to begin my first job (of any type, ever) as an aerospace engineer.

Like a lot of new hires, my first couple weeks on the job were basically "free roam," where not much is really expected of you except learning how to use the copy machine.  That's how I found myself one day sitting in my office with a bunch of other new hires, shooting the breeze, until someone raised one of those "Book of 1000 Questions" type of questions, which was:

"If wages were no object, and you could do ANYTHING you wanted to do with the rest of your work life, what would it be?"

To my surprise, I started hearing such answers as "I'd play the saxophone" or "I'd race boats" (which I didn't even know was a career option!).  But an even bigger surprise was that not one of the new hires in my office, aerospace engineering majors all, said, "I'd build the best spaceship ever" or even "I'd become the head of NASA...”

...including me - which was by far the BIGGEST surprise of all.

You see, I'd grown up loving the world of entertainment - books, plays, and especially movies and TV.  But I'd also grown up in Michigan, about as far away from the centers for these activities as you could get, geographically and psychologically.  Entertainment as a career path was never even remotely on my realistic radar.  I was good at school.  I was good at math and science.  An engineering career was a guaranteed job back then.  Why aerospace?

I loved Star Trek.  That should have been a clue.

Instead, I did what I was expected to do.  I got my degree (or two), got my guaranteed job, moved out to the Promised Land...

...and for the first time, stared down the barrel of 50 years doing this.  And, as embarrassed as I am to admit it, waiting my turn to answer the "Book of 1000 Questions" question, not having ever REALLY considered what I'd REALLY like to do with those 50 coming years.

And as it turned out, somewhat to my surprise (and somewhat not), the answer wasn't "to become the best damn engineer I could."

So what DID I want?

And that's how, within a month of graduating from college with two aerospace engineering degrees, and within a week of moving my life out to Los Angeles...

...I started writing scripts.  After work.  Every night.

And didn't stop until I finally sold one, four years later.

Yep, my self-administered "university education" on How To Become A Writer was four straight years of just doing it.

Which, of course, turned out to be only the beginning...

What was it about A Christmas Carol that told you that it needed a sequel?

A Christmas Carol has always been my favorite Christmas story.  Especially Act Three, where the reborn Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning.  I love this part so much that I often watch just this sequence from several of its many movie adaptations, all in a row, for the simple shared joy of it.

But there have always been lingering questions.  And for years, like the spirits that haunted Scrooge, these would occasionally visit me:

- How did Scrooge help Tiny Tim to walk again?
- Could there be any chance for Scrooge to redeem lost love?
- How could Scrooge ever repay a debt of the magnitude he owed Jacob Marley?

Inevitably, these led to speculative musings (most often in the shower, a writer's greatest think tank!) and the eventual forming of answers, image by image and scene by scene.

It took years.  Literally.  But there finally came a time when the enterprise as a whole elbowed its way to the fore and said, "It's time."

And so I began what would be, for me, the most difficult thing I ever wrote in my entire life.

Are there any real-world events that make a sequel to A Christmas Carol particularly pressing at this time?

Yes.  And no.

And forgive me, because my intention is not to waffle, but to hope that A Christmas Coda, like A Christmas Carol before it, is more universal in nature, rather than tied to any specific place, time, or event.  Certainly, there are things in the real world today that beg a re-acquaintance with "goodwill toward men," just as there were very real issues in Victorian times that coincided with the motions of Dickens pen.  But these are universal, ongoing, human issues, not fixed in time, as the longevity of Dickens tale instructs.

The economic realities of Scrooge’s world are pretty bleak; have we come far enough?  Have we lived up to the ideals of The Carol?

We can never - and will never - "come far enough"...

...but that doesn't mean we should stop trying.  I'll broaden the point philosophically to say, there will always be evil in the world, just as our goal should always be to completely eliminate it - even though we know that to be impossible.

We'll never completely "live up to the ideals of The Carol" because that would involve an end point, a state of flawlessness in an inherently flawed universe.  But this is not a matter of despair, because fighting the good fight is what our lives are all about:  It gives us meaning.

[And before anybody beats me to it, yes, I'm the guy who wrote the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie!]

So much of A Christmas Carol and A Christmas Coda are about redemption, and then making good on that redemption.  Why does redemption resonate with you?

I think it relates to the above:  Trying your best to be as good as you can be, inevitably failing to achieve any ideal standard, but finding that it's never too late to do better.

I’m delighted that Jacob Marley is such a large presence in A Christmas Coda, even though he doesn’t appear onstage.  What is the heart of the Marley Paradox, for you?

I'm not sure what the "Marley Paradox" even is!  But I'll give it a shot:

The thing that always bugged me the most about A Christmas Carol was the idea that Jacob Marley, the guy who moved (presumably) heaven itself to save a friend, was himself never saved, but instead, forever condemned to chains, and in his own wailing words, "doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what [I] cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!"

That's not fair!  That's not right!  Scrooge got a second chance...

...why not Marley???

And thus the seed of a sequel was sown...

What is it about A Christmas Carol that has made it such a classic?  Is it the story?  The character of Scrooge?  Or something else?

If only the S.A.T. had been this easy--

e.)  All of the above!

And, yes, more.

But mostly, I believe, is its message of Redemption:

It's never too late - for anyone - to change for the better.

Take THAT, Relentless Focus On The Negative In Modern Culture!

I can imagine that someone who wrote A Christmas Coda is a fan of the holiday.  What are your thoughts and feelings on Christmas?

I've always loved Christmas.  It's been my favorite holiday ever since childhood, when I actually experienced the magic of a Midwestern winter morning transformed by the kindness of parents into a warmly glowing treasure hunt initiated by siblings in knit pajamas well before the rise of the sun, tearing open package after package of colorfully wrapped gifts, piled 'neath a twinkling tree... made of aluminum.

I thought it the most beautiful thing in the world.  I used to lie under it at night reading Archie Christmas comic books, staring up at the ornaments, slowly changing hue from the rotating color wheel with its ratcheting metal plate and blindingly hot floodlight bulb that could only exist in a fairy-tale era before OSHA.

The gifts are the very least of it for me now.

I love it for the music, and the food, and, yes, the fact that people at least try to experience it as "a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time".

In other words, I love it for a lot of the same reasons Charles Dickens did.

How do you envision Scrooge?  Is there an actor or interpretation you had in mind while writing your novel?

I sometimes envision a specific person (such as an actor, but not always) as a physical model when writing a script, and it was (perhaps too) easy to let Alastair Sim slip into the role of Scrooge, given that the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol has become all but canon amongst movie adaptations.

Certainly, in the opening sequence of A Christmas Coda, Mr. Sim was much in mind, right down to the whooping of his post-salvation laugh, since his interaction with Mrs. Dilber was purposely reminiscent of the scene in the 1951 movie (which does not exist in Dickens' novella) where she threatens to "scream for the beadle".

Soon thereafter, however, I abandoned all physical reference to Scrooge, even the original John Leech illustrations, in favor of the original character Dickens described, and thus available to be cast to the particular taste of any reader, in their own mind's eye.

Do you have a favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol?

Actually, no.  Not even what seems to be the consensus pick for "Best Adaptation," which, as mentioned above, is the 1951 Renown Pictures version starring Alastair Sim.

As alluded to farther above, I tend to judge A Christmas Carol adaptations by their third acts, and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

A particular strength of the 1951 version is the scene in which Scrooge goes to his nephew Fred's house on Christmas Day to finally accept his annual dinner invitation.

[An aside:  In an example of just how much people love that 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol, and for anyone who might particularly appreciate a story of heroic research, there is the tale of "Fred's Maid".  She appears in a scant 42-second scene in which she answers the door to Scrooge, and silently encourages him to enter the party.  This actress didn't have a single word of dialogue, and is nowhere credited in the film, but she became such a beloved character to many over the years that she eventually sparked an internet hunt for her identity.  Only recently has the mystery been solved!  If anyone cares to, you may read about it here:]

There, he encounters Fred and his wife, a woman he had heretofore refused to acknowledge (previously thinking it a bad match - financially) and, in one of the most emotional scenes in the entire movie, asks forgiveness.  And all to the strains of "Barbara Allen" - quite the concentration of weepy emotion in and of itself!

Similarly, the 1984 movie adaptation starring George C. Scott finds its deepest emotional resonance in that very same scene, Scrooge literally capping it with, "God forgive me the time I've wasted."

I love these scenes.  Perhaps best of all.  And the most fascinating thing about them is this:

These moments DO NOT EXIST in Dickens' original "A Christmas Carol".

Instead, he wraps up the entire Fred visit in barely half a page:

In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew’s house.  He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:
“Is your master at home, my dear?” said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl! Very.
“Yes, sir.”
“Where is he, my love?” said Scrooge.
“He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.”
“Thank’ee. He knows me,” said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. “I’ll go in here, my dear.”
He turned it gently, and sidled his face in, round the door. They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.
“Fred!” said Scrooge.
Dear heart alive, how his niece by marriage started! Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool, or he wouldn’t have done it, on any account.
“Why bless my soul!” cried Fred, “who’s that?”
“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let
me in, Fred?”
Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!

And now, a Sacrilege:

I actually like the movie versions of the Fred scene better than Dickens' original.  To me, they resonate with far more emotion.

But before you gather pitchfork and torch and set GPS coordinates for my home address, pause a moment, as I once did, to consider that perhaps some good can come out of this realization...

...because for me, it was a sign that I, too, might dare extrapolate the work of The Inimitable.

Or that you, perhaps, could actually enjoy it.

My fond hope, of course, is that you will.

For my dearest hope is that A Christmas Coda, like The Carol before it, will become a small part of YOUR love of the Christmas season - blessed to Dickensian fullness--

With Tidings of Comfort and Joy,

William Todd

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Little Wizard Stories of Oz, by L. Frank Baum (1914)

We have never taken a prolonged look at the corpus of Oz books by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) and that is something we will do in 2017.  They are perhaps the most important and accomplished work of sustained fantasy in the 20th Century (take that, J.R.R. Tolkien!), with the first six books in the series being especially delightful.  We will fix his absence in these pages soon.

As an appetizer, and considering the holidays are upon us, I thought I’d take a look at the only collection of short stories in the Oz canon, The Little Wizard Stories of Oz, written in 1913 and collected in 1914, with illustrations by the greatest of the Oz artists, John R. Neill (1877-1943).

The stories were conceived by Baum and his publisher, Reilly & Britton, and were intended for publication in little booklets for each story (each costing 15 cents).  The Oz books were traditionally written for middle readers – ‘tweens,’ in today’s lexicon – while these short stories were created for very young readers.  Baum and company hoped to generate interest in Oz at a very early age, and continue to promote Baum and all of his books into a brand name for kiddie lit.

Because of the younger audience, Baum tones down a bit of the irony and pun-play found in his longer books, and the plots are significantly less intricate.  But taken on a level of simple fun and games in the land of Oz, these stories are unbeatable.

There are six stories in the book, with three of them being particularly charming.  In The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, both big cats are bored standing guard at the throne of Ozma, princess of Oz.  The Hungry Tiger would particularly like to eat a little baby, while the Cowardly Lion is eager to maul some innocent.  They leave the castle and promptly come upon a lost baby and, later, the distraught mother – both ripe for consuming and mauling.  The self-deceptions they use to avoid creating mayhem are hilarious, and very human.

Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse shows two of our favorite characters from the later novels work together to save a boy lost in the forests of Oz.  This is particularly grand because Baum always tried to work out the absurdities of Oz to their most logical conclusions…. For example, since neither Jack nor the Sawhorse sleep, when night comes, they simply stand by the side of the road till daylight.  (A somewhat disquieting image.)  And when Jack’s pumpkin head is spoiled, he must go headless until he gets back home.  There is more than enough to delight any child with a sense of whimsy here.

The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman features, perhaps, the two most famous characters in the series.  When the two friends go boating, the Tin Man falls overboard.  He lies at the bottom of the riverbed, his tin stuck in the soft earth.  The Scarecrow would save him, but his straw would not allow him to submerge.  The two finally escape with the help of some low comedy crows, but things get significantly better when the Wizard himself shows up.

The other stories, Little Dorothy and Toto, Tiktok and the Nome King and Ozma and the Little Wizard are all fine, and worthy of attention.

The book is available online, but can also be gotten in a low-cost hardcover reprint from Books of Wonder, complete with the original illustrations.  Their Web site is:  For the Oz completest, or to introduce younger readers to the world Oz, it makes for amusing reading.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery, by James Ponti (2016)

For anyone actively engaged with children’s literature and Young Adult fiction like Your Correspondent, the challenge isn’t in finding the good, but in keeping up with all that is good (and great).  I am constantly amazed at the high quality of the books that come across my desk, and marvel at what a Golden Age this is for the medium.

Case in point – Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery by James Ponti.  I approached this book with trepidation, expecting just another juvenile mystery in the Hardy Boys vein.  What I found instead was a novel that is smart, beautifully constructed, and often screamingly funny.  Framed! ranks as one of the best books I’ve read this year – either for adults or young readers. 

Framed! is all about Florian Bates, a 12 year old who recently moved to Washington, DC, with his art conservator mother and museum-security specialist father.  Bates is an extraordinary boy in that he has an uncanny knack for noticing things, and making educated suppositions based on tiny facts.  He calls his method TOAST, or the Theory Of All Small Things.

He meets his neighbor, Margaret, and promises to teach her the TOAST technique.  She is a more than adept pupil, and is quickly matching Florian deduction-for-deduction.  While providing her with TOAST training at DC’s National Gallery, their observations lead them to believe that something shifty is afoot.  When key Impressionist paintings are stolen from the museum, his deductions bring him to the attention of the FBI, who, realizing themselves how outlandish it all is, bring Florian onto the case.

Framed! often reads like a Young Adult version of the popular series Sherlock; and it shares with that series an almost beatific regard for the lead’s deductive powers, and the comedic interplay between the lead characters.  Author Ponti really makes the entire notion of TOAST come alive.  It is essentially a riff on Sherlock Holmes’ famed powers of observation and deduction, but Ponti makes a point of walking us through Florian’s mental gymnastics as they occur, rather than explaining afterwards.  It is an effective twist.

The novel begins with Florian kidnapped by the Romanian mafia, and then trying to remember the lessons of his hostage survival course provided by the FBI.  When he comes face to face with the criminal kingpin, Florian makes another key deduction, which then leads to a book-long flashback explaining how he got into this fix.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the book is Ponti’s regard for Florian’s intellectual prowess.  There are many (many!) books where young protagonists rely upon magic or science fictional ideas to succeed; Florian is a creature of the mind and exults in his intelligence.  More, please!

One minor quibble, not that any of the younger readers would make note, is that in Ponti’s world, the FBI is a benevolent entity filled with agents of real integrity who are focused on justice, rather than a highly politicized entity spying on innocent Americans.  Given a tracking chip by the bureau (with a promise never to spy on him), I feared that young Florian would grow up to spend his adulthood in hiding with Edward Snowden

But real-life disappointments have little to do with this marvelously realized book.  It is fabulously addictive from the very opening.  For example, here is Florian talking to his Romanian kidnapper (with a very uncertain grasp of English) while trying to ply his hostage training:

Survival Step 2 – Disrupt Your Captor’s Train of Thought

“Do you mean ‘not wrong’ as in I’m not wrong in what I’m saying?  Or ‘not wrong’ as in you’re not wrong in whom you kidnapped?”

I waited for a response, but all I heard was a low, frustrated growl.  I assumed this was his deep-thinking noise.

“If you don’t use pronouns, it really makes the conversation hard to follow.  You need to say ‘You’re not wrong’ or ‘I’m not wrong.’  Especially in a situation like this with threats and demands.  The wrong pronoun could have someone else ending up with your ransom money, and that wouldn’t be good for either one of us.”

“Not wrong!” he barked again as if saying it louder suddenly solved the grammar issues.  Just then he swerved to avoid another car, blasted his horn, and yelled what I assumed were choice Romanian curse words.  I figured he was distracted enough for me to start inching toward my backpack.

“Don’t feel bad,” I continued.  “I understand how hard it is to learn a new language.  My family moves all the time.  I’ve had to learn French and Italian.  It’s molto difficile.  That’s Italian for ‘very difficult.’”

“Stop talk!”

“That’s a perfect example of what I mean.  You said ‘stop talk’ but it should be ‘stop talking.’  English is so complicated.  But let’s forget about grammar and get back to you kidnapping the wrong person.  Like I said, it’s an easy mistake and easy to fix.  If you let me go, I promise not to tell anyone.  Just drop me off at the nearest Metro station.”

“Shut mouth or else!”

The “or else” was ominous, and combined with the continued lack of pronouns it reminded me of the third step from my training.

Survival Step 3 – Do Not Antagonize Your Captor

(When I told Margaret about the steps, she couldn’t believe this wasn’t first.)

This is a delightful book and comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Christmas Coda, by William Todd (2016)

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of the central place Christmas holds in my life, and the paramount importance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in my personal philosophy and worldview.  To Your Correspondent, Ebenezer Scrooge is not just a fictional character, but a friend, an example, and a terrible lesson all-in-one.  The book is my secular liturgy, my heart-laid-bare, the best reflection of my best self.  People who wish to reimagine or write a sequel do so at their peril.

There have been many continuations of A Christmas Carol since 1843, many of them created in Dickens’s own lifetime.  Most of them have been dire.  We have seen Scrooge and Sherlock Holmes, Scrooge and Cratchit taking on corrupt businessmen, a grown Tiny Tim involved in international conspiracies, Scrooge and zombies...  Sigh.  There have also been several serious literary visitations to Scrooge: for example, Robertson Davies (1913-1995), one of the great voices of 20th Century letters (if not the great voice), wrote a continuation of A Christmas Carol which is utterly indigestible.  It is almost as if the Christmas Cosmos created by Dickens is too big, too intimidating, too … honest for other writers to approach on an equal level.

So, it was with some little trepidation that I approached A Christmas Coda, just e-published by author William Todd.  Trepidation entirely unjustified, as Todd has written a wise, moving and wonderful book, fully in keeping with both Dickens and the Carol, and a worthy literary achievement in its own right.

In Todd’s novel, it is exactly one year since the events of A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge is as good as his word, and has become as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as he possibly can.  But … the thing that most occupies him is repaying his debt to Jacob Marley.

Readers versed in the Carol will remember that the visitation of the mighty Christmas Ghosts and Scrooge’s redemption were all at Marley’s intervention.  While Scrooge has his reclamation, poor Marley is doomed to walk forever fettered in chains, witnessing what he cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.  Scrooge is determined to alleviate the otherworldly suffering of his late friend.

To do this, he creates The Jacob Marley Foundation to help those who need it most.  He also practices personal philanthropies, such as sponsoring the surgeon who cures Tiny Tim, creating an annual Fezziwig Ball, and helping dozens of the needy on London streets.

The linchpin of the novel is Scrooge’s association with a young businessman, Midas Stump.  Stump – rapacious, consumed with gain, unthinking of the human toll his ambitions would take – is much like the younger Scrooge.  Scrooge hopes to reform him while helping the Jacob Marley Foundation; this task becomes more urgent when he learns that Stump is engaged to the daughter of the woman he loved in his youth, Belle.  To achieve his ends, Scrooge must assume the tasks of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come to save a young soul, and relieve another in torment, but without supernatural aid.

It is nearly impossible to say enough good things about this book.  Todd assumes a sustained Dickensian diction and prose line that is surprisingly successful.  The new characters – Stump and his assistant, Pockle, for instance – come wonderfully to life.  (Todd also has a knack for Dickensian names.)  But best of all, Todd understands Scrooge and the others from the original novel with a humane, novelist’s empathy.  Here is Scrooge talking to Tim, “You see, Tim, sometimes we get used to things that aren’t good for us.  It becomes hard to imagine living any other way.  But we can be shown, by those who care, how to walk a better path. To change.”

One of the most interesting things in Dickens’ original novel is the sense of … ritual.  Scrooge, before his reclamation, does many things by route and habit.  In Todd’s novel, that remains; he has, to some extent, fetishized his experience with the Ghosts into his own secular ritual.  He wants Tim to walk specifically on Christmas Eve, as explained here:  Scrooge made straightaway to Tim, still in his father’s arms.  “You see Tim,” he began, in earnest chord, “that’s why I arranged the doctor’s visit today.  Christmas Eve is very special to me.  I wanted it to be just as special for you.  For us all.  Every one.”

This is great stuff; true characterization without shtick or caricature and, mercifully and blessedly free of irony.  Better still is the climactic scene with Scrooge and Stump at the gravesite of Jacob Marley on Christmas Eve – Scrooge, avenging angel, merciful father and very human man all at the same time. 

Todd gets Scrooge – which is wonderful, as so many do not.  The popular reading of A Christmas Carol is that it’s a parable against greed – but that is a complete misreading of the text.  Scrooge is not damned because he’s a miser, or even because he is a business shark – he’s damned because he has cut himself off from his own humanity and the humanity of others.  His soul was barren – he filled it up with business and gain, but it could’ve been alcohol or sex or anything else, and the effect would have been just the same.  He lost the fact that all of our actions affect those around us, and to be uncaring of other people and their fates has profound consequences. 

That is the Scrooge that Todd gives us, not the bah, humbug cartoon so often served up. 

Readers who love Christmas tales – and you know who you are – will also find little Easter eggs strewn throughout the book.  Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who has no last name in Dickens, is christened Gailey by Todd – the name of the lawyer in Miracle on 34th Street.  There are also a few lines that reference that other great holiday icon, the Grinch.  But these references never become jokey or dumb; they are merely there for the eagle-eyed to spot.

I cannot recommend this book enough.  It is only available – inexplicably – in e-copies.  (Why was this book not published by a mainstream house?)  You can find it on Amazon here:

Buy this book.  Buy this book now.  Buy this book now and read it today – and God bless us, every one.