Christmas Book Reviews

Let’s just wrap up this year (which ended a few days ago, now) with a triple-review of Christmas-related reading. (For my original list of Christmas recommended reading—from which I pulled these titles for this year—click HERE.) And off we go…

THE GREATEST GIFT

Image from Amazon.com

The Greatest Gift is the story on which the movie It’s a Wonderful Life was based. A novella—or maybe even a short story in book-form, it’s that short—written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943 was likewise inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas classic and is usually on lists of best movies, especially best holiday movies, of all time. Let me tell you, as okay as I am with reading this book, the movie brought a lot of life to a story that was otherwise flat in its brevity. There is, for once, a reason that one would skip the book and watch the movie. The movie is better and adds so much to the story that the book is no longer needed. Sorry Van Doren Stern. It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t my favorite movie of all time, but it is a beloved, really good one (and I do enjoy watching Jimmy Stewart). The original story is more like the skeleton of a book (yes, I’ve said that many times before) and the movie—though less than two hours—goes much deeper with the characters and more intricate with the story. You would recognize in the original the intent to rework A Christmas Carol (which has become a common theme for Christmas stories of all mediums) and for that we can be thankful. Van Doren Stern gives us George Bailey and the angel who otherwise looks like an ordinary man. We’re given the setting and the bridge for a backdrop. But none of it is as compelling, that’s all. Maybe read “The Gift of the Magi,” instead, and then watch 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Image from Amazon.com

A CHRISTMAS STORY

Another story-to-movie, A Christmas Story is an after-the-fact compilation of Jean Shepherd’s four short memoir pieces that contributed most to inspiring the 1980s movie A Christmas Story. Yes, you read that right. A Christmas Story is based on at least four short stories (nonfiction, I think) by Jean Shepherd, which were strung together and altered into one story for the movie and Jean Shepherd is, therefore, Ralphie. (He co-wrote the movie, too, and is the familiar narrator. You can hear his voice in your head right now, can’t you? (He’s also an actor.)) While I think, once again, the movie is better than reading the four random pieces, it is fun to read A Christmas Story. The fourth story, “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” let me warn you, can get uncomfortably stereotyping of country folk. However, it seems this is only a comedic version of what really happened to him when he was a kid. Anyhow. The writing is decent. It might make you wonder what else Jean Shepherd wrote. Maybe a collection of his works would be a nice gift for someone who could still remember the good ol’ days of the mid-century. (A Fistful of Fig Newtons, In God We Trust…) Seeing as the stories have little to do with one another, it’s more like reading a short story collection where the narrator is always the same. There are fun differences to discover, like the Bumpus hounds ate the Easter ham, not the Christmas turkey. Overall, though, the spirit of the thing is right there in the short stories and I, too, could sometimes hear Shepherd reading me the lines from the stories. Especially interesting for a fan of the movie.

Image from Amazon.com

WAITING HERE FOR YOU

I have been looking for a great Christmas advent book for years. I have never yet found a family advent book that I love, though there is one meant for reading at dinnertime (and for lighting the advent wreath) that we use every year (We Light the Candles by Catharine Brandt). My kids are practically adults, these days, and I have decided to look instead for a meaningful, well-put-together advent book for myself. (It helps that I made a Christmas best books list last year and it has a (short) advent section.) I don’t mind switching up the book year to year, but it would be nice if they were all meaningful and well-put-together, in that case. The first title on the list (for no particular reason) was Waiting Here for You by Louie Giglio. Giglio is a Baptist pastor out of Atlanta and his book was one of a dozen recommended to me by the internet. He’s an evangelical mega-church pastor, so we might have some words for each other if we met, but this is the first thing I have read by him.  The format is contemporary and each day’s reading is brief, encouraging the reader to pause and perhaps stay paused after the reading. Each day has scripture (not necessarily the obvious ones) and a short prayer, as well as a short writing from Giglio and often a quote (perhaps a few stanzas of a song) from another father/mother of the faith. I really don’t think the photos are necessary, and bracketing the whole season with the beginning and end of a random story was too weird for me—it was a little hokey and there was no way I was remembering that story from beginning to end of the month (or not just flipping back and reading the thing straight off). But overall the thoughts lead you toward being more contemplative during what should be a holy time of year while also understanding that your advent reading may only get mere minutes in any given, frantic day. An Advent Journey of Hope worked for me. It didn’t exactly grab hold of me and refuse to let go, but it is a fine advent reading if you are of the protestant Christian persuasion.

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