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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Thrills and Chills

Yes, I am writing another post about Christmas. Rather than peace and good will towards men, though, this post is going to be about the creepy, twisted, and macabre side of Christmas.

If you are a Dean Koontz fan (like me), you may have read Mr. Murder in which
the main character, Martin Stillwater, is a successful horror novelist (hmm wonder where Koontz got the inspiration for that). The book takes place during the Christmas season and Stillwater has written a story in rhyme that he reads to his daughters at bedtime. Since Stillwater is a horror novel (as is Koontz) it seems befitting that the story is about Santa's villainous twin, Bob, who has hogtied Santa and locked him in the cellar so he can wreak havoc throughout the world on Christmas Eve.  After Mr. Murder was published in 1993 fans clamored for Koontz to finish the story of Bob Claus and in 1996 a picture book version of Santa's Twin with lavish illustrations by Michigan native (WooHoo!), Phil Parks.

 I know that Santa's Twin looks and sounds a little scary for kids (not to mention that it is written by Dean Koontz). Most kids will understand that it is just meant to be a funny joke and the story does end with Bob apologizing and promising to change his ways. My own children thought that Santa's Twin was hysterical. Especially when Bob Claus threatens to:
Have a picnic in the midnight sun;
reindeer pie, pate, reindeer in a bun,
reindeer salad and hot reindeer soup,
oh, all sorts of tasty reindeer goop.
 (I think that I have mentioned that my boys are entranced by anything with carnage. Must be a boy thing.)

Now, Dean Koontz is no Dr. Seuss, so the rhyming can be a little clunky in some parts. For the most part, though, Santa's Twin is witty and comical and kids will love looking for the hidden snowmen on every page. Adults familiar with Dean Koontz will get a kick out of clever details like a copy of Mr. Murder on a table and a portrait of Koontz (before the toupee) hanging on a wall.
If reading Santa's Twin becomes a Christmas tradition in your home check out Robot Santa, a second adventure featuring Bob Claus that was published in 2004.

From a very modern picture book to a classic Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a holiday staple. Most of us are incredibly familiar with the story of A Christmas Carol,
whether you have watched the 1951 classic movie starring Alistair Sim, Bill Murray's modern spin in Scrooged, or even Mickey's Christmas Carol. In my previous post I wrote about one of my favorite adaptations, The Muppet Christmas Carol. Since we are talking about the spookier side of Christmas let's stick to the original text written by old Boz himself. As the title page to the left states, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, and it is actually pretty creepy. You have Scrooge who is described as: a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

Then there all of the ghosts. Marley rattling chains and moaning ominously, Ignorance and Want hiding beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present (I always thought that this part was incredibly disturbing), and the third ghost is pretty much the grim reaper. Add to that the impoverished masses that occupy Victorian London, and who have quite the dark and haunting tale.

Dickens would frequently read an abbreviated version of A Christmas Carol aloud for audiences. The heavily annotated prompt book that Dickens would actually read from is on display at the New York Public Library, but if you are a huge fan of Dickens can buy a copy here.

This podcast features celebrated author, Neil Gaiman, channeling his inner Boz as he reads  A Christmas Carol from Dicken's own prompt book. The fact that he dressed in full Victorian garb only makes me adore him more.

I was, am, and probably always will be a nerd (I have accepted it). Anyways, my favorite Christmas gifts were always books and one gift that I remember particularly fondly was a book called Murder for Christmas. I have a penchant for old mysteries and Murder for Christmas is a compilation of 26 stories by such illustrious authors as Agatha Christie, Rex, Stout, Ellery Queen, etc. and, of course, they all take place during the holiday season. What could be more festive then to hunker down in front of a fire with a mug of hot chocolate and read about murder, clues, suspects, and ingenious detectives?

Well, I cannot talk about creepy, scary Christmas stories without mentioning one of my all time favorite movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Is this a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? Let's just call it both which makes it even better since it covers two holidays.

I cannot explain how much I adore this fiendishly, magical movie written and directed by the unrivaled king of disturbing weirdness, Tim Burton.

One of the best parts of the movie is when Lock, Shock, and Barrel kidnap the Sandy Claws. Yes, it is totally twisted, but that is what makes it so much fun.

There is a picture book available of The Nightmare Before Christmas featuring Tim Burton's gorgeous artwork.

The artwork of Edward Gorey is very similar to Tim Burton's in that both are macabre and more than a little off-kilter. I don't know what that says about me since I am a huge fan of both.

If you have a sardonic, oddball sense of humor (or know someone who does) you will love The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, written by John Updike and illustrated by Edward Gorey.  The text is sarcastic and hilarious and Gorey's bizarre and somewhat ghoulish illustrations are the perfect accompaniment.

 Maybe it is not technically a Christmas book, but The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe does have an appearance of Santa. It is also not really all that creepy or scary but, hey, there is a witch.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is by far the most familiar book in The Chronicles of Narnia. The White Witch has cast a spell that causes Narnia to be trapped in a perpetual winter where Christmas never comes. It is only when Aslan returns and the White Witch's power wanes that Santa comes and delivers gifts to the talking animals of Narnia.

I love the image Lewis creates of the lamp post standing amidst the snow covered trees. The crunch of snow underfoot, the flutter of snowflakes on the cheeks. You can feel the icy chill when the Pevensie children step from the wardrobe into Narnia.

Ok, this is the last book and it is most definitely not for faint of heart.  Joe Hill's horror novel, NOS4A2, may give you some serious Christmas nightmares. Charlie Manx troll around in his supernatural Rolls Royce (license plate NOS4A2, as in Nosferatu), and invites children to Christmasland, where everyone is happy and perfect. Of course, Manx leaves out the part that the children never get to leave Christmasland and their parents usually die horrible gruesome deaths. If you enjoy scary books you do not want to miss NOS4A2 or any of Hill's other books. It really makes you wonder what kind of childhood Hill had as the only son of Stephen King. He clearly inhereited his father's talent for scaring the pants off people.

Charles Dickens and the Gilmore Girls

Hi everyone it's been awhile but I am reading another book off the Gilmore challenge.  Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" is on the list.  I'm making my way through this book and it is taking a lot longer than any book that small should.  The writing is wonderful it's just the language is definitely different which makes it a little more difficult, it doesn't read as fast.  I also think it's that I have watched, I don't even know how many versions of this book, so it is not like I'm on the edge of my seat wondering what will happen next.  But being a Christmas junky I thought I should read probably one of the most well known Christmas stories in existence. It is a great book and Dickens is brilliant.  What I find funny is as I am reading I see all the different versions of the Christmas Carol that I have watched, all jumbled together.

 For example when Marley's ghost is with Scrooge all I can see is Goofy tripping all over the place and it makes me giggle.

 The Muppet's Christmas Carol is another film that comes to mind a lot while reading this book.  It actually sticks pretty well to the book but has the fun of characters like Gonzo. I love the part where Rizo says "Light the lamp not the rat! Light the lamp not the rat!"

There are probably thousands of different versions out there I'm not really sure which is my favorite.  They all make me laugh, some make me cry, some even make me think about whether or not I keep Christmas in my heart all year long.  I find A Christmas Carol  actually a really sad story, but it does have a happy ending and teaches a great lesson. We should always do what we can to help others and show love and understanding all year long.   So I will be more than happy to add this book to my list of books I have read and will also be happy to not be embarrassed I have never read it. :)

I can't for some reason seem to locate where it is mentioned in Gilmore Girls it sounds really familiar and I can almost remember but it just keeps escaping me.  I am not sure what I am going to read next and I don't guess it much matters since I keep changing my mind anyways. :)  That's it for now...

Just keep reading!
Just keep reading!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Tis the Season

Baking, entertaining, shopping, wrapping, decorating, cleaning, driving...   My Christmas To Do List just keeps getting longer. The frenzied chaos of the holiday season can make me so frazzled that I neglect to enjoy the time with my friends and family. I have to remind myself that my most cherished Christmas memories do not involve parties, expensive gifts, or sitting on some fat stranger's lap. As you probably know from my other posts, I am a huge dork so when I was a kid I loved to read Christmas stories and watch old holiday movies with my mom. Now I get the pleasure of recreating these special memories with my own children.

Most people are familiar with How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but if you haven't shared this classic with your kids read it first (because you should always read the book first) and then watch the animated version. I do not recommend watching the live action film, especially with little kids. Don't get me wrong, Jim Carrey is a comedic genius, but his portrayal of the Grinch is just creepy. Actually the whole movie is creepy and so is the live action Cat in the Hat. The weirdly wonderful imagination of Dr. Seuss really only works with animation (at least in my opinion).

Speaking of classic Christmas stories that I love to reread every year, Cranberry Christmas is one of my favorites. Does anyone else remember the Cranberry series by Harry and Wende Devlin? The first book, Cranberry Thanksgiving, was published in 1971 and it was followed by a slew of other books featuring Maggie, Grandmother, and Mr. Whiskers in the town of Cranberryport. Cranberry Christmas came out in 1984 and I must have read it a few hundred times. I adored Mr. Whiskers and I even tried cranberries for the first time because of this book.

I am probably the only person that remembers this one too, but I don't care. It is still one of the all time greatest Christmas stories ever written and subsequently turned into a movie featuring Jim Henson's Muppets. Have you guessed or is the suspense killing you? It's Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas!!! Russell and Lillian Hoban are probably best known for the adorable Frances Series, but in my opinion, Emmet Otter is their greatest collaboration. Believe it or not (and no doubt you will if you know me because I then you know how weird I am) I still have my Weekly Reader edition of this book. Yes, I got Weekly Reader books as a kid!

The book was first published in 1971 and Jim Henson (one of my idols) directed the television special in 1977. Words cannot express how much I love Emmet Otter's  Jug-Band Christmas, both the book and the muppet version. I used to have Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas on VHS, but  (HOORAY) now I have it on DVD! The last few years my daughter (who is now 13) has given me the eye roll and snotty "Do we have to watch this again?" I still make all three of my kids watch Emmet Otter with me, though. It's a Christmas tradition (whether they want it to be or not-Mwaahhaaahaaa!).

Another childhood favorite is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Who could ever forget the Herdmans who terrorize the neighborhood, but ultimately teach the community the true meaning of Christmas after they take over the annual church Christmas Pageant. I have read this a couple of times to my kids and we have also watched the made for television movie starring Loretta Swift (from MASH). A couple of years ago Harper Collins came out with a picture book version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, but the original 1971 chapter book is still the best.

I am not even sure if it qualifies as a Christmas book, but The Velveteen Rabbit always puts me in a Christmasy state of mind. After all, when we are first introduced to the toy rabbit he is in a little boy's Christmas stocking.
I would describe William's beautiful, heartstrings-tugging book as the original Toy Story.

I have already mentioned some Christmas movies based on books that I love, but there are a few others that I cannot leave out.

 Maybe you haven't read the original version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but you have to have seen at least one of the 50,000 film adaptations. As you know, Jim Henson is my hero so I adore The Muppet Christmas Carol in which Bob Cratchit is portrayed by Kermit the Frog and Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew are collecting donations for the poor. I am amazed that the impeccable, two-time Oscar Winner Michael Caine manages to keep a straight face while playing Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Since Chris Van Allsburg is a Michigan native I have to talk about The Polar Express. This visually stunning picture book was made into an equally beautiful CGI animated film in 2004. Van Allsburg is an extraordinary author/illustrator and all of his books (Zathura, Jumanji, The Stranger, etc. are magical and unique.

If you visit the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan you can ride the real Polar Express, the Pere Marquette 1225. The 1225 provided the sound effects and was used as the model for the film The Polar Express. You can purchase tickets to ride the 1225 year round, but every winter the Polar Express travels to the North Pole where kids can meet Santa, and enjoy rides, games, and other Christmas activities.

Once your kids are older it is time to introduce them to classic holiday films. Personally, I only watch the original movies and certain ones have to be in black and white. For some reason Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and It's a Wonderful Life are just not as good in color. Now, White Christmas was filmed in color so that one is okay.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Top 100: 41-50

And the countdown goes on:

50. The Borrows by Mary Norton
Another oldie, but, hey, classics are classics because they are good and stand the test of time. At least most of the time. There are those horrible classics that you had to read for school that you always wonder why someone even published them (i.e. The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, No self-flagellation and visions of Hell for me thank you very much).

So back to The Borrowers by Mary Norton. I do not remember a book capturing my imagination the way the story of Pod, Homily, and Arietty did.  I went so far as to creating little furniture out of matchboxes, thimbles, etc. and putting them in a shoebox. It was actually my love of the cartoon Here Come the Littles that made me first want to read The Borrowers.

Incidentally the cartoon was based on a series of books written in the 6os and 70s by American author, James Peterson. The Littles books were inspired by English author, Mary Norton, who published The Borrowers in 1952, The Borrowers Afield in 1955, The Borrowers Afloat in 1959, The Borrowers Aloft in 1961, and, finally, The Borrowers Avenged in 1982. If you are interested in reading The Borrowers series it was just re-released in paperback and I ordered it for ourlibrary. We also have many of The Littles books, which are much shorter and simpler chapter books.

The Borrowers has been adapted into several film versions, both live action and animated. I haven't watched any of them (I usually avoid movies based on books that I like) so if you particularly enjoyed a version let me know.

49. Stuart Little by E.B. White
From a mute swan who plays the trumpet to a sweet and sensitive mouse born to a human family.  As I mentioned in my previous post, part of White's genius is the way he creates such a believable cast of human and animal creatures. In Stuart Little it never seems strange that this New York couple's second son is a mouse, the reader just goes along for the adventure.

Stuart Little also has a great message for all of us overprotective parents who want to encase our children in bubble wrap. Mr. and Mrs. Little love their mouse son and only want him to be safe, but they don't allow him to experience anything for himself. Granted the situation is slightly different since most of us do not have to worry about the family cat eating our child.

The movie version of Stuart Little is pretty darn cute. Not only does Michael J. Fox perform the voice of Stuart, Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie (pre-House) play his parents. To blow the top off of the cuteness meter, the movie has Jonathan Lipnicki, the Jerry Maguire kid.

48. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
I really wish that this book had a different title, because "Princess Academy" sounds so prissy and girly and this book is anything but those things. As with all of Hale's books, Princess Academy features a strong female lead and explores the themes of feminism, prejudice, and gender roles.

When the priests of Danland determine that the crown prince's future bride must come from isolated Mount Eskel, the princess academy is established. The academy is meant to educate the girls so that they may be suitable potential brides, but the impact of the school is much more profound. I love how Miri uses her  brain to dramatically improve the lives of everyone in her village.

47. Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

"All children, except one, grow up." Whether or not you have read the original book by J.M. Barrie you are more than likely familiar with the story of Peter, Wendy, the Lost Boys, and Tinkerbell. After all, there have been how many movies about Peter Pan? Not to mention, that there have been continuous performances of the play or variations of it since it first premiered in 1904.

 Speaking of the play, specifically the Broadway musical, I first read the book Peter Pan after my family saw it performed at DeVos Hall. Peter was played by former gymnast, Kathy Rigby, and I remember thinking how cool it was when she flew out over the audience. I must admit that I still think it is strange that the character of Peter is always played by an adult woman. I understand that an adult has a bigger voice for the songs and an adult woman is going to look and sound more like a boy than an adult man, but it is still a little creepy.

Barrie is such a magical storyteller; reading the book just makes you feel like you are covered in pixie dust and flying above London. I always imagined myself as Tigerlily, but if I were Wendy I would have stayed in Neverland.

46. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

I am a Michigan girl so, of course, Bud, Not Buddy is on my top 100 list. All joking aside (even though I am very proud to claim that Christopher Paul Curtis is from my home state) Bud, Not Buddy is a truly exceptional book about one boys quest across Michigan to find his father during the Great Depression. An orphan during the Depression may sound, well, depressing but Bud , Not Buddy is a heart-warming, sincere, and funny book.

Bud, Not Buddy has been adapted into a very successful stage play, that  I would love to see one day.  I think that the story would translate magnificently to the stage, since Bud's father is a musician. Whenever music plays a significant role in a book it always adds to the story to be able to listen to it being performed.

45. Homecoming by Cynthia Voight
Once upon a time I was a bratty, self-centered, know-it-all tween and Homecoming was the book that made me realize how blessed and just plain lucky I was.

Life with their unstable, mentally ill mother has never been easy for Dicey Tillerman and her three younger siblings. Nothing could prepare them, though, for being abandoned in a shopping center parking lot. Fear of foster care and being separated from one another prompts Dicey to lead her siblings on a trek from Connecticut to Maine in search of an unknown relative.

As someone who was raised in a safe and secure home by two loving parents, it was difficult for me to even imagine the fortitude Dicey needed to keep her siblings together and moving. Forget Hermione Granger, Jo March, or Lizzie Bennet; Dicey Tillerman is a true literary heroine.

44. Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Lisa Shurtliff

Twisted fairy tales seem to be a current, popular trend in children's chapter books. Most of these, however, seem to be geared more towards girls and feature princesses, fairies, etc. For example: The Everafter High series by Shannon Hale; the Whatever After series by Sarah Mlynowski; or the Tales of the Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker.

 These are all great books and series, but what I love about Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin is that it is NOT about a princess. Who knew that Rumpelstiltskin wasn't some evil baby-stealing troll, but just a young boy cursed by magic and searching for his true destiny. Rump is clever and unique and pee-your-pants hilarious. Love, love, love, loved it!! What more can I say!

43. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

I know that the title makes it sound like a horror novel, but Hatchet is the captivating survival story of a boy alone in the Canadian wilderness.

Hatchet is a book that even the most reluctant boy readers love. It is almost like magic. A mom or dad will come in with their son who "hates reading" and after they read Hatchet they cannot wait to read Paulsen's other books. Paulsen just seems to be the tween/teen boy whisperer.

Don't think that girls cannot enjoy Hatchet, though, because I am a girl and I loved it. Hatchet is a simple yet extremely powerful and gutsy story.

42. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

If you have only watched the movie Hugo, then I insist that you go to a library or bookstore immediately to get a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There is no possible way for a film to capture how stunningly beautiful this book is. It is simply not the same story unless it is accompanied by Selznick's mesmerizing illustrations. I know some people think that it is just the pictures that make The Invention of Hugo Cabret a wonderful book. After all, it won the Caldecott not the Newbery.  I think that the text and illustrations work perfectly in tandem, though, to create a story that is pure magic.

41. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Aagghhhhhh! Why do there have to be so many gut-wrenching books about animals? Why do they have to be so good, but completely horrible at the same time. I promise that this is the last "dog" book on my list, but Where the Red Fern Grows is no doubt the best one (even though I sobbed buckets).

Billy is just so sweet and he is totally devoted to his coonhounds, Little Ann and Ol' Dan. They in turn are completely devoted to their young master as well as each other. 

Ok, I am tearing up just thinking about this book so I am happy to finish off this post. I will go grab a box of tissues now.