Appalachian Town Takes Up Christmas Magic

Inspired in part by the 1988 children’s book, The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston, and in part by the author herself, the folks of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, are remaking themselves after a few years of job loss. They hope to become “the home of the perfect Christmas tree.”

Gloria Houston donated the rights to her book to the city of Spruce Pine and suggested they take up the new holiday theme. In response, the town’s people are making holiday decorations.

Reporter Kathy Kiely of USA TODAY states: “These aren’t amateur holiday fair items: The curvilinear red, green and walnut Carolina ‘snowflakes’ hanging at the White House are the creations of Billie Ruth Sudduth, a basket weaver whose work is displayed at the juried Smithsonian craft show. The White House trees also feature handblown glass ornaments by Virgil Jones, whose work is on display in galleries in Asheville, N.C.”

The town has the attention of the first lady as well. “This is a very wonderful American story,” Laura Bush said. “They all worked together, the people in the town, to figure out a new industry for themselves, and they came up with making these wonderful ornaments.”

Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I spent the bulk of my weekend in Wireless Router Purgatory. I got a little shopping in and went to church and all that, but Saturday and Sunday evenings were pretty much spent on the phone with a series of East Indians, most of whom seemed to be consulting the manual between instructions.

I’d tried wireless networking before, but gave it up after three set-ups because I always had to call Earthlink for a “bridge,” and Earthlink always made it fairly clear that I was cheating by not using equipment rented from them, but they’d stretch a point just this once.

So when I needed high-speed access for my tenant, I figured I’d just bite the projectile and order the fixin’s from Earthlink. All the difficulties I’d had setting up wireless in the past, I was sure, must have been due to the basic incompatibility of open-market equipment with Earthlink’s Own. This time it should be easy.

Ah, to be young again, guileless and starry-eyed.

After several hours with tech support I had everything working Saturday night. It worked right up to the time I signed off the internet on both computers. After that, neither computer had access anymore.

Finally yesterday I got to talk to a supervisor who knew what he was doing. It took 2 ½ hours, but we got it up and running in the end. Except that the laptop still doesn’t have access. He’s sending a new adaptor. For now I’m back to the same access I had before, except that I’m running it through more complicated connections.

Oh yes, I was going to review a book, wasn’t I?

Stephen Lawhead’s Hood is the beginning of a new trilogy. Lawhead has taken on the legend of Robin Hood this time, but of course, being Lawhead, he’s doing it his own way. I was a little wary of his approach, but all in all it worked for me.

Lawhead’s Robin Hood is not the Robin of the movies and television shows, nor even the Robin of the old English ballads. It’s Lawhead’s belief that such a legend could never have risen in the England where it finally established itself, but must in fact have older roots in a different place—Wales in the time of King William Rufus, successor to William the Conqueror.

I don’t generally care for literary relocations. I like my heroes in their proper places. I don’t like stories where Sherlock Holmes goes to New York (or Minnesota), or Philip Marlowe is transplanted to London. I don’t like stories about cowboys in Africa. Nevertheless, Lawhead got over my reservations and won my close attention.

This Robin Hood is Bran ap Brychan, the willful and immature son of a minor Welsh king. When his father is treacherously killed by invading Normans, Bryn first travels to London to appeal to the king’s justice. What he gets is a demand for payment for the restoration of his kingdom. When he returns to Wales he falls afoul of the Normans in possession and becomes a wounded fugitive. Wandering in the forest, he is rescued by someone who heals his body and helps him to discover his destiny.

I found Hood compelling reading. I don’t think Lawhead has ever managed to become the author his early career arc promised, but the story kept me turning the pages, and the characters were sharply drawn and appealing. Bran himself is fascinating—a spoiled, rebellious boy whose instinct is to flee his responsibilities, but who is led by grace to take up his destiny.

One element that worked well for me was an addition to the Robin Hood mythos—Lawhead puts Robin in a disguise. He wears a hooded feathered cloak and mask to resemble a large, supernatural raven (hence the title of the series, The Raven King Trilogy). This might possibly rise from the influence of Russell Thorndike’s Scarecrow of Romney Marsh stories. It worked marvelously well here, I thought.

Lawhead didn’t talk me over, personally, with his historical reasons for moving Robin to Wales. One fact he never mentions seems a weighty one to me—that Hood (or Hode) is a very common family name in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, the area where most of the ballads place the outlaw.

But that said, the book was a great ride and I look forward to the next one. I was also relieved that the reflexive anti-Catholicism of Lawhead’s recent work is nowhere to be seen here. There are good priests and bad priests, but no broad-brushed denunciations of the Roman church. So Catholic readers can relax. I discerned no major moral or theological lessons in the book (except for the importance of maturity and unselfishness), but Lawhead likes to leave that sort of thing for the very end.

Hood is suitable for teens and above. The morality is OK, considering the time and place. Robin Hood is a thief after all (I think we all knew that), but you can justify that on the basis of his being a king carrying on a war.

Pretty good book.

Relief Is a Great New Lit Journal

Must say I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Relief: a Quarterly Christian Expression. The first issue came to me several days ago. The editors chose to mix fiction, non-fiction, and poetry together so that if you read from front to back you would splash through a variety of word imagery. They also chose to put their choice selections, the best of the approved submissions for the issue, in the front for special recognition. Let me echo their kudos here; writers Michael Snyder, Nancy J Nordenson, and Jill Bergkamp have submitted excellent work.

I should blog on some of the stories in Relief later. I wish I could reproduce some of the poetry, but no, you’ll have to pick up a printed issue to read these bits of elegance. If you don’t care for elegance, keep read this blog.

Living in an MLK Neighborhood

From an article in my hometown internet news site by Michael Locke:

In WE CALL IT HOME: LIVING THE DREAM IN THE M.L. KING NEIGHBORHOOD, Greenfield recounts taking Sunday morning drives through these M.L. King neighborhoods and being fascinated by the desolation that had once been respectable:

“I wanted to photograph the old buildings where once a thriving black middle-class had lived, worked, prayed and been educated. The wrecking ball of time was nearby and I did not think even the powerful hand of God could forestall the inevitable collapse. I was wrong.”

We Call It Home by Stephen Greenfield, photographer, and Barry Parker, author, is a coffee table book for sale in downtown Chattanooga.

“You’ll have to sleep somewhere else”

Important News Update: I have now finished off my Thanksgiving leftovers.

Further developments will be reported as they occur.

Today was road trip day. Marty, a guy from the maintenance crew at work, and I drove a couple hours to a town in western Minnesota, to pick up thirty cartons of books donated to our archive.

The donor is the same guy I wrote about a while back, the one who perpetrated the classic “shrinking turkey in the microwave” Thanksgiving prank.

His name is Marvin, and he is the son of a pastor of the old Lutheran Free Church, predecessor to my own church body.

He showed me a story he’d written, called “My Father’s Best Sermon.”

I think it’s one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

I’m going to pass it on to our denominational magazine, but I’ll give you a condensed version.

When Marvin was a young teenager (around the 1930s or early ‘40s, I imagine), he asked his father if he could go with the other kids to some entertainment event (he didn’t say what kind). His father said it wouldn’t be appropriate and told him no. Marvin said he was going anyway, and headed out.

“If you go out without my approval,” his father told him as he reached the door, “this house will be locked when you get home, and you’ll have to sleep somewhere else.”

Marvin refused to back down. He left. He enjoyed the event.

That, he said, was the short part of the night.

When he got home he found the house dark, the doors locked. Even that window in the basement that the kids could sometimes work loose was locked tight.

Marvin stood in the dark, thinking about his options. It wasn’t winter, but it was fall and the night was getting cold.

He remembered a sort of loft in the chicken coop which his brother and he had appropriated as a “secret place.” It had a sort of a mattress and a ratty quilt.

He went into the chicken coop and climbed up. The “mattress” was there, but the quilt was gone.

Lacking other options, he lay down on the mattress and curled up in a fetal position. The cold wind blew in through the cracks. The coop stank of chicken droppings. There was no way to sleep. He lay there in the darkness hugging himself, shivering. The hours passed slowly. He wondered if he could make it through the night.

Then, at last, he heard a door open. He heard a creaking sound as someone climbed the board ladder to the loft. Someone put a pillow under his head, lay down and held him close, and pulled a quilt over both of them.

In the darkness, he heard his father say, “Marvin, when I said that if you disobeyed me you’d have to find another place to sleep tonight, I didn’t say that I would sleep inside.”

And so that pastor taught his son the true meaning of the Incarnation.

Wish I’d had a dad like that.

Wait. I do.

Losing face

I don’t know whether to take pride in this or feel like the kid not invited to the party.

Oh heck, I guess I’ll go with Number Two. It’s what I know best.

I saw a display from Myheritage.com on somebody’s blog the other day (if it was yours, I apologize. I just can’t remember which blog it was). They’re a genealogy site, but they have a sideline that uses face recognition software to tell people (on the basis of an uploaded picture) what famous people they resemble. They encourage you to post the result on your blog.

I thought, “That’s cool. I’ll probably be matched with somebody really embarrassing and be able to bounce a couple jokes off it.”

So I tried it today.

Nothing.

No matches. Not a single famous person looks at all like me.

This leaves me just where I was before with the eternal question, “Who would I choose to play me in a movie based on my life?”

I’ve agonized over this decision for years. Especially since Michael J. Pollard stopped working.

I’ll have to play me myself.

But who will play The Young Walker?

Maybe Michael J. Pollard has a kid.

Walker has good day. In other news, pigs take up barnstorming

Today is a good day. A day that will live in my yellowed book of memories, for reasons I’ll explain below.

Dave Lull sent me this link, about how it looks like some Norwegians served in the Roman legions.

Archaeological findings have strengthened notions amongst scholars that quite a few Norwegians, from the farthermost north of Europe, in all likelihood served as soldiers in the Roman legions.

You may or may not know that it was the practice of the Romans to station “auxiliaries” (that is, legions made up of “barbarians” from the provinces) in corners of the empire farthest from their original homes, so as to prevent them growing sympathetic to local insurgents. A large number of the soldiers who served in Palestine came from Germany. Assuming that the Norwegians would have been lumped together with the Germans, some of my ancestors (my great-grandfather was born at Avaldsnes) might have been witnesses to the life, death and even resurrection of Christ.

Might have scourged Christ personally, as a matter of fact. Though I prefer to imagine virtuous centurions.

Anyway, the good thing that happened today was that I came home to a package from Norway in the mail (you thought I was writing about your package, weren’t you, Phil? Well, your package was great too. Thanks again). This was from Cousin Trygve in Hardanger, and it was the CD De Beste, by Sissel Kyrkjebø (sorry, no picture there).

As is to be expected in a “Best of” album, a lot of it is stuff I already have (as if I can ever have enough copies of Sissel’s songs). But it includes some cuts from the very beginning of her career, when she was a girl soloist on a Norwegian TV show called “Syng Med Oss” (“Sing With Us”). One of them is a song that was on an album the show’s cast did for the Norwegian National Cancer Foundation, which I once borrowed from a friend and of which I made an illegal copy, one of my treasured possessions to this day. (No, I don’t condone illegal copying, but this was an album absolutely impossible to acquire by legal means. That’s not an excuse, just an explanation.)

The song was Sissel doing the Japanese international hit “Sukiyaki.” I know it sounds ridiculous—a Japanese song sung in Norwegian by a Norwegian. But it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Sissel was born to sing that song. According to the liner notes, I’m not the only person who’s been dreaming of a re-release of that cut. They’ve been getting requests from all over the world (Sissel is actually very big in Japan). And now it’s here. And I have it.

If I never post again, it’ll because I’ve died of joy. Life can only go downhill from here.

Update: In case anyone should be thinking of ordering the De Beste album (and I do recommend it), I should give one warning. What I’ve heard so far has been almost uniformly great, with some wonderful surprises, but one big disappointment. One of the cuts on the second disk is Sissel’s “duet” with the rapper Warren G, over the music to Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” It’s a very odd mix, with Borodin’s lovely music and Sissel’s transcendent voice backing up Warren G’s hostile and frankly dirty rap lyrics. There’s a lot of profanity in it, and it sits like a cowpie in the middle of a cathedral. I understand the song did well commercially, but I wish Sissel had turned it down. So be warned.

Legion of Lit Mags Showcase

I have run out of time this evening, so let me copy and paste:

Legion of Lit Mags event on Saturday, December 2, 5-10pm at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, New York. Nine prominent literary magazines will team up to showcase the latest issues of their magazines, raffle off incredible prizes, and offer an opportunity to meet and talk with influential literary journal editors in a celebratory evening filled with readings and entertainment. Lit mags, Small Spiral Notebook and Ballyhoo Stories will host the event.

The Legion of Lit Mags includes: Ballyhoo Stories, BOMB, Opium, Pindeldyboz, Post Road, Quick Fiction, Small Spiral Notebook, Swink, and Tin House. Readers at the event include: Noria Jablonski, Irina Reyn, Brian McMullen, Aaron Hamburger, Elizabeth Searle, Salar Abdoh, Brian McMullen, and others. Musical Performances courtesy of Pindeldyboz.

Relgious People Out Give Secular Folks

Today, I heard an interview with professor Arthur Brooks, who wrote Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. He makes remarkable claims which contrast the books by atheists which we’ve discussed briefly in earlier posts. The book cover summarizes one of Brooks’ points: “Strong families, church attendance, earned income (as opposed to state-subsidized income), and the belief that individuals, not government, offer the best solution to social ills-all of these factors determine how likely one is to give.” That points a political spin on it, but in the interview today, Brooks said religious people in general are more charitable than irreligious people–er, I mean, secular people. He didn’t distinguish between religions, at least in the interview, so I understand him to say that faithful commitment to broadly religious ideas indicate a charitable spirit. Brooks went so far as to say that if you take out local religious people, the local PTA will fall.

Pay no attention to me. I’m delirious today.

Still feeling punk. Left work early again, as soon as an assistant was in to watch the library.

I put my (artificial) Christmas tree up over the weekend. It’s in front of one of the big windows at the front of my house, so that you can see it from outside, and it gives the interior a warm glow.

I don’t belong to the “Welcome to St. Nick’s Casino” school of Christmas lighting. I prefer my lights to say, “This is a home full of love” (that mine isn’t a home full of love is beside the point.).

When people pass by I want them to say, “It looks warm and cozy in there. I’d like to be in that house.”

But of course they can’t come in. It’s my house. Mine, mine, mine!

And after all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Talk show hosts Michael Medved and Dennis Prager disagree today on whether freshman congressman Keith Ellison should be permitted to be sworn in on the Koran. Medved says yes, Prager says no.

Since I’m going to be one of Mr. Ellison’s constituents (for my sins), I’ll break the tie.

Medved is right.

There is no religious test for public office in America. If that puts the Koran into an American ceremony, well, I may not like it but I’ll have to live with it.

Reports on Christmas Carols

Redemption returns with ‘Christmas Carol’ by Tony Brown

“And while others give gifts, an undertaker, a charwoman and a laundress sell a dead man’s belongings to the local fence. Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas’ is no walk around the tinseled mall.”



“Ex-Scrooge is a fine director of `Christmas Carol’ present by Chris Jones


Last year, old Ebenezer at the Goodman Theatre was starting to look dangerously like an undigested bit of beef. This year, a recovering Scrooge has swung open the coffin door of this seasonal perennial and breathed notable new life into its tired Dickensian veins.”

‘Christmas Carol’ stays true to Dickens’ voice by David Lewellen

“Charles Dickens’ novella became an instant classic when it was published in 1843, and stage versions have proliferated ever since.”

A Veritable Chorus Of `Carol’s By Deborah Hornblow

From downtown Hartford to Westport to Ivoryton and Stockbridge, Mass., the spirit of Christmas has arrived at theaters, where six distinct productions of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” inspire holiday cheer in audiences of all ages.

The Jamestown 400 Treasure Hunt

Vision Forum has staged a three-phase treasure hunt for a chest of 400 solid gold coins. They say, “To crack the code and find the four hundred gold coins, you must take a journey through history that will reveal America’s greatest national treasure — the providential hand of God in the life of this nation.” Read about The Jameston 400, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of its founding, May 13, 1607.

No, I don’t mean all rules are conditional

This will be short, if I have anything to say about it. I’m not feeling very well. One swollen gland (on the left side of my jaw, in case you’re making a diagram), and feeling run down. I chickened out of work a little early today, and hope to spend the evening on my back.

My renter has moved in, and so far he has made himself almost invisible. That’s how we like our renters around here. He’s even found a couple things in the house he thinks he can upgrade for me.

Of course that’s how it would start, wouldn’t it, if this were a slasher movie? The quiet, helpful tenant moves in and proceeds to gradually take over the house, and then my life, until the moment when he finally reveals his horrid, unspeakable plans for me…

However, I’ve noticed that real life generally resembles horror movies only in this regard, that if you feel under your seat you’ll find dried gum.

Dennis Prager had a guest on the other day who’d written a book on grammar. One subject they brought up was the common “John and I” mistake, where the person says, “He delivered the pizza to John and I.”

In fact it ought to be “John and me” in this sentence. You can figure out what to do by simply dropping John (and believe me, honey, you should have dropped the bum long ago) and seeing how the sentence goes without him. “He delivered the pizza to me” is obviously correct. Adding John to the mix does not change the matter.

But I know where the problem comes from. It comes from overextended rule-following. I remember even today my mother hearing me say, “Moloch and me went out into the grove,” and she corrected me. “It’s ‘Moloch and I went out to the grove.’”

She failed to add (and I probably wouldn’t have understood it if she had, at that age) that this only applied to the objects of sentences, not the subjects. (Or is it subjects, not objects? I always get them confused. Look it up? I’m sick, you sadist!)

Anyway, many people never get past that lesson and believe that “X and I” is correct in all situations.

Thus do we try to apply as absolutes rules which are only conditional. No doubt there are many such situations, in grammar and life.

But I’m too tired to think about it.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture