Books: My favorite Christmas tale teller

December 23, 2013 

  • Readings at The Regulator

    •  Barbara Claypole White

    7 p.m. Thursday Jan. 9: Barbara Claypole White’s latest novel “The In-Between Hour” finds Bestselling author Will Shepard is caught in the twilight of grief, after his young son dies in a car accident. But when his father's aging mind erases the memory, Will rewrites the truth. The story he spins brings unexpected relief…until he's forced to return to rural North Carolina, trapping himself in a lie.

    •  Trish Foxwell

    7 p.m. Wednesday Jan. 15: In Trish Foxwell’s new book “A Visitor’s Guide to the Literary South” one can follow in the footsteps of some of American literature’s most renowned writers: See the hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to pen “The Great Gatsby.” Step inside the Asheville home that became the model for Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.” From Virginia to Louisiana, you will experience the haunts, havens, and homesteads of important writers who lived in, visited, or were inspired by the South’s fertile soil.

    •  Elizabeth Spencer

    7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16: On the release of her first novel in 1948, Elizabeth Spencer was immediately championed by Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty, setting off a remarkable career as one of the great literary voices of the American South. In “Starting Over,” Spencer returns to the deep emotional fault lines and unseen fractures that lie just beneath the veneer of happy family life.

I first heard one of my now favorite Christmas stories on NPR on Christmas Eve, 10 years ago.

I was driving home from work, and let's just say I was not in a receptive mood for any nonsense about sweetness and light. Don't get me wrong, working at the bookstore through the holiday is wonderful – you get to be Santa Claus hour after hour, day after day. But after a month of this, Santa can get tuckered out.

By 6 o'clock this particular Christmas Eve I was dog tired and not at all looking forward to our usual holiday rituals of opening presents and a big family dinner. Like Ebeneezer Scrooge, all I wanted to do was crawl into bed, sleep and be left alone. Looking for some help in staying awake on my 20-minute drive, I turned on the radio.

The man on WUNC had a familiar Southern voice, but I couldn't quite place it. He was telling a story, in the first person, of a socially awkward loner named Verne who was managing a pet shop in a mall, somewhere along an interstate in North Carolina. A runaway pregnant teenage girl had taken to hanging out at the mall, and out of sympathy for a fellow outcast, Verne befriended her.

I soon figured out that the voice on the radio belonged to Hillsborough writer Allan Gurganus.

And ten minutes later, as Allan brought his story, “A Fool for Christmas,” to a close, I was reaching for the kleenex. My Scrooge-like heart had been transformed, (thankfully without the intervention of any ghosts), and I was happy that it was Christmas Eve, and that I was coming home to be with my wonderful wife and the family that I loved.

Since that long-ago drive home in 2004, Allan has performed his marvelous tale at the bookshop at least four times. Every time he changes the story a bit, and every time I end up reaching for something to dab my eyes. Allan reprised “A Fool for Christmas” at The Regulator last Friday. Simply put brothers and sisters, Allan Gurganus can flat out Tell a story. And he knocks this one out of the park.

‘A Christmas Carol’

The Christmas season is of course full of grand stories, starting with the one in the Bible. Then back in 1843 a Mr Charles Dickens penned a little story called “A Christmas Carol” that has easily stood the test of time. If you are like most people (and like me until about five years ago) and have never actually read “A Christmas Carol,” you should not deprive yourself of this treat much longer. As good as some of the movie versions are, the book is better.

If you have read the book, you will be intrigued by Les Standiford's “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.” It seems that after initial fame – but not yet serious fortune – from books like “Oliver Twist” and “The Old Curiosity Shop,” Dickens in 1843 had fallen on hard times after the disappointing sales of his latest novels, “Barnaby Rudge” and “Martin Chuzzlewit.” Dispirited and deeply in debt, he walked the streets of London seeking inspiration. The Christmas ghost story that he came up with was initially turned down by his publisher (!) but Dickens found a willing printer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Grinch is still great, as is “The Polar Express.” Another of my recent favorites, Donald Hall's “Christmas at Eagle Pond “(2012) tells a charming, truly heartwarming story of a Christmas spent at his grandparent's farm in rural New Hampshire in 1940.

Christmas is a time of sharing. And the best holiday stories are all about sharing, so they are, to me, an essential part of what makes Christmas a special time. Share your favorites by reading them out out loud with family and friends.

Tom Campbell is the co-owner of the The Regulator Bookshop, at 720 Ninth St. in Durham. 

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