There were the authors Dick Francis and Patrick O’Brian. There was also me, my sister and brother. You’ll note that there were two authors and only three siblings. The problem came when my brother grew old enough to realize that shopping for a Christmas present for Dad was really easy. At least it was before he got in on the game because what dad really wanted was the latest novels from each writer so after all the unwrapping, toy assembling, and battery insertion was done he could slip into a stuffed chair and read his way through the afternoon and into Boxing Day. He called them his Christmas Books.
Once young Jim was self-aware we had to reserve the right by “calling” either of the writers before the others did and register our claim with Mom to avoid any late-claim jumpingshenanigans. Thus were two of our Dad presents guaranteed to please, and not just in the “This is great!” way that parents deploy even when their children give them kerosene masquerading as cologne. Whoever acted third was left out in the cold trying without hope of succeeding to find that one thing that Dad hadn’t yet realized he absolutely wanted. One year I nearly convinced myself that despite the Alabama heat he'd really appreciate a pair of faux leather driving gloves. I think I ended up getting him a teapot again.
Thoughts of Christmas Books came up earlier today. My wife and I were out for a walk by the creek and running through a mental list of who we still needed to get a gift, who we could safely punt down the road as they were out of town for the holidays or stuck working (congratulations on graduating from medical school fair relative,) and making sure that neither of us forgot anybody’s Jack Horner present. We knew we’d have the same conversation tomorrow and every afternoon until the day itself when somewhere around one or two after a slow lunch we’d get to sit back and let our only concerns be about some imaginary detective or spurned lover who was based on a high school crush of the author.
I’ll read a Kingsley Amis mystery; probably The Riverside Villas Murder but I also asked for The Anti-Death League. My wife is planning on a novel by a favorite author who says her latest offering was planned and outlined and was to be a continuation of her series but something completely different came out as she typed so she went with it. It could be anything.
It struck me that Christmas Books, meaning escapist fiction to be read immediately on Christmas Day, as opposed to books we get for Christmas, a category encompassing all the other titles you’ll get to as soon as you find out who killed whom and why in seemingly more than one villa by a river, are a waste of money.
Like Dad, every year I pick a novel or two I really want to read and keep myself from buying so that I can add secular anticipation to the religious. By the end of the 26th, I’m done and the book is nestled on its shelf, likely never to be seen again. I re-read on occasion but for the most part when I want a mystery I want a new one so it’s a one- or two- afternoon stand relationship. I don’t need it anymore.
Twenty years ago we were newlyweds having dinner with seven or eight others at a friend’s parents’ house. Though our friend’s stepfather was a fantastic home chef, polio long ago restricted one of his arms so to cook for a crowd he enlisted his guests. It was a production with him dancing around giving instruction and pouring wine as the rest of us tried to trim this or chiffonade that while keeping up our end of whatever conversation over his latest Motown mix.
It was December and we were talking about goofy office gifts. “Flowers!” said our host. “That’s the best present. They look good and then they die and you can throw them out.”
“Wine’s good too,” he continued. “Maybe something to eat. I’m just tired of stuff. I have to find a place for it and remember where I put it for when whoever gave it to me comes over. I want something I can throw away when I’m done with it.”
As humbugs go, that was one of the more sensible ones I’ve heard. There’s a curtesy to it as well. It says, “Here’s something you can enjoy or not, if you don’t like it. It’ll be gone soon. It’s the thought that counts and you don’t have to serve me hors d’oeuvres on it next time I’m here.”
I took that to heart. Unless you’re a close friend or family member or I have inside information, you’re getting storage-saving summer sausages or a Rioja. I hope you enjoy your perishables.
As we walked back from the creek today, my wife and I were only half-kidding about not buying Christmas Books anymore. We’d still buy each other books for Christmas but, as for the Christmas Books, why not check them out from the library? There’s no reason we wouldn’t wrap them and make a ceremony of opening them as before but instead of ceding another 88 square inches of living space we’d set them aside for a few days and then drop them down the return slot. The librarians will keep them for us if we decide to read them again. We’ll still enjoy a relaxing Christmas afternoon, we’ll just save money by putting the books on the card.
Can you have a single murder in multiple villas?