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I don't have a good record with hand-made gifts.

This is not for lack of talent, skill, or desire; I learned to embroider when I was eight, sew when I was in my teens, and quilt when I was 21.  I can knit well enough to sell my scarves for extra money, tie-dye silk with natural dyes, and of course I'm a published writer.  I can even bake a pie from scratch, including the crust, which is more than most people can claim these days.

So one might be justified in thinking that I've delighted family and friends with hand-made gifts for years...and one would be wrong.  And as usual when it comes to me and my relatives, it all started with my aunt Betty.

It wasn't because Betty didn't think I was talented.  She was delighted with a couple of crewel embroideries I did, loved the embellished sweatshirt I made one year, and constantly urged me to open a boutique even though I didn't have the money, time, or inclination to run my own business, let alone stock it with my own work.  No, it was all because she wanted a macrame clutch "shaped like a loaf of French bread."  

Never mind that I didn't do macrame; Betty was so convinced of my genius that she pressed money into my hands and bade me go in quest of instruction books that would surely teach me all I needed to know.  And never mind that none of the said instruction books, virtuous and helpful as they were, contained a pattern for a bread-shaped purse, French baguette, Jewish Rye, or All-American Wonder notwithstanding.  These were but Botts' dots on the road to a macrame purse, and surely her clever and oh-so-handy niece would have no trouble overcoming these trivial obstacles to Betty's heart's desire.

That is why I spent a summer learning to do macrame, producing a vaguely hippie-styled purse for myself, a couple of bell pulls for my college dorm room, and some plant hangers for our non-existent Boston ferns.  I also acquired a large supply of nasty, rough-textured nylon cording in colors not found in nature, plus a diagram that purportedly would allow me to make a hanging chair where I could read to my heart's content after Mum hired workmen to reinforce the ceiling and spend only slightly less than it would cost to buy me an overstuffed armchair and matching ottoman.

All I can say is that it was the 70s.  You'd have to have been there to understand...and may I point out that at least we're talking macrame, not inventive craft projects involving soda can pop tops?  

Regardless...after much practice, many trips to many craft shops to find The Perfect Shade of Cord, and quit a few callouses on my fingertips, I finally was ready to make Betty's !#$@#!$@!$@! purse.  I thought it would take a few weeks since Betty didn't want anything fancy, just knots, a flap, and maybe an interesting pseudo-wooden clasp.  

My estimate would have been correct if I'd remembered to factor in the sheer tedium of making the same goddamn square knot over and over and over again.  

Gentle readers, only those of you have suffered through the macrame craze will understand what I'd let myself in for.  Just imagine...knot after knot after knot, all carefully tied and perfectly flat, and all exactly alike.  It was like I was trapped in one of those Longest Stories Ever Told about ants carrying away grain after grain after grain from a fully stocked granary, all recited in a droning voice by a royal bard who is doing it solely because the alternative is a choice between decapitation and defenestration at the hands of the royal mutes.

What should have been a couple of weeks stretched into a couple of months, and then of course I had to go back to college, where I had things like classwork, Glee Club, sacking out in the library, and playing Dungeons & Dragons to occupy my time.  I worked sporadically on the purse, but it wasn't until the next summer that I finally decided to finish it up before I became the crafting equivalent of the Ancient Mariner, perpetually saddled with a half-finished purse shaped like a baguette.

Fortunately Betty was smart enough not to carp about how long the purse was taking, at least after the third or fourth time I'd snarled at her.

Finally, finally, at long last, I finished the purse, lined it with fine quality acetate from the local Minnesota Fabrics, attached a clasp that looked rather like an overly varnished tiki, and gave it to Betty for her birthday.  She praised it effusively, proclaimed it perfect, and told me it would do just fine for work.

I think you can imagine how often she actually used it.

The Purse That Consumed My Life thus joined the long, distinguished line of hand-made objects I made at the behest of my beloved aunt she treasured so much she never used them.  The one that burned the most was the embroidered afghan that I labored over for two whole summers, then hand fringed, only to be reprimanded the one time I tried to use it to cover myself on a chilly December afternoon, but it was scarcely alone.  Betty was definitely of the "too nice to use" school, whereas Mum and I were firmly of the belief that things were made to be used, and not using them as intended was almost insulting to the maker.

Fortunately I never tried to knit Betty a sweater.  That might have led to blows, or at least tears.

Tonight I bring you only one book, but it's a doozy.  This mawkish, manipulative, pseudo-memoir has somehow become a contemporary Christmas classic, at least among the vast population who think that a blond Mormon who can and does weep on command is a reliable guide to life, the universe, and holiday crafts:

The Christmas Sweater, by Glenn Beck's long suffering ghostwriters Kevin Balfe and Jason Wright  - I'm sure everyone on this site is familiar with the life and work of that all-American success story, Glenn Edward Lee Beck.  Born 48 years ago, he's had to overcome alcoholism, drug abuse, a failed marriage, a daughter with cerebral palsy, and an early attempt at being a morning drive-time DJ to reach the pinnacle of his profession as a political broadcaster.  Many of us were instrumental in the boycott that forced him off the networks after a five year run on Fox that garnered high ratings, made him rich, and was marred only by a stunning disregard for the truth, an unhealthy dependence on low-tech visual aids, and an amazing ability to sound reasonable while spouting one outrageous smear after another.

I daresay that few, if any of us, would believe him if he told us that the blue is sky, grass is green, and the sun is yellow.

But how many of us know that there's a softer, sentimental side to this media darling?  That behind the apocalyptic rants, the wild accusations, the in-your-face religiosity, there's actually a wounded little boy?  Or that Glenn Beck's descent into cynical careerism began the day he was given a pressie he didn't like?  Or that years after rejecting a well-intentioned present, he finally had the courage to confront his past in the form of a Christmas parable for young and old?

The Christmas Sweater, published in 2008 to critical hosannas that used words like "contrived" and "maudlin," was scarcely Beck's first book.  He'd cut his literary teeth with such beauties as The Real America: Messages from the Heart and Heartland (2003), the modestly titled An Inconvenient Book: Real Solutions to the World's Biggest Problems (2007), and the startlingly prescient yet inaccurate America's March to Socialism: Why We're One Step Closer to Giant Missile Parades.  All of these sold well, but none of them was as deeply personal and revelatory as this instant classic.  

The Christmas Sweater is, on the surface, one of those sweet, sentimental, conventional stories that we all trot out around the holidays.  It's firmly in the traditional of works like Why the Chimes Rang in its appeal to emotion, and like them is best read on Christmas Eve before the fireplace (or equivalent) with a nice hot cup of cocoa and a plate of sugar cookies before being put back on the shelf and forgotten until next December.  There are many, many, many of these books, some of which become minor classics, others of which became remaindered mulch after a year or two of low sales, and the worst that can usually be said is that one might need an insulin shot afterwards.

Not so The Christmas Sweater.  Sweet in the way that a field of enchanted poppies is sweet, this purports to be the real, true, genuine story of how Glenn Beck (here called "Eddie") first scorned, then learned to appreciate his mother's love and self-sacrifice.  It seems that the year his father died, all his mother could afford was a single present for Christmas:  a lumpy, ugly, scratchy, hand-knitted sweater instead of the bike "Eddie" longed for.  And since little "Eddie" is a typical snotty preteen, he crumples it up and chucks it on the floor, where his poor mother finds it and is heartbroken by the clear evidence that she's raised not a fine young man, but a spoiled little brat.  Events spiral out of control, yet another tragedy strikes "Eddie," he goes to lives with his grandparents, and it's only with the intervention of a friend who may or may not be Jesus (cleverly disguised as a guy named "Russell") that little "Eddie" realizes the error of his ways.  There's even a twist ending that may or may not be why so many readers had to have their drywall repaired due to the uncontrollable urge to throw the book straight through the wall into the middle of next year.

The book, actually written by "collaborators" Kevin Balfe and Jason Wright, was an instant success despite poor reviews; Beck's myriad fans shelled out plenty of their hard-earned cash to purchase copies to treasure for years, then still more copies to inflict upon their unbelieving  heathen commie-symp pinko liberal relatives.   Beck, eager to share his message of redemption while making a fast buck, soon put together a road show about the true meaning of Christmas where he would cry, talk, scribble on a whiteboard, and read The Christmas Sweater to the adoring masses.

All of which is to be expected from a media mogul trying to cement his place in the holiday traditions of red-blooded Americans, even if most such individuals can't boast Glenn Beck's amazing ability to cry on cue.  There's only one teeny, tiny, weeny, itsy-bitsy problem:

The supposedly true story bore about as much resemblance to Glenn Beck's actual childhood as the Clifford Irving "autobiography" of the late, great Howard Hughes bore to the inner workings of Hughes' brilliant but unbalanced brain:

-  Beck's father was poor, not dead.

-  It was his mother who died, possibly a suicide, possibly in a boating accident.

-  He wasn't twelve when his mother died, but fifteen.

-  "Russell" may have been a Jesus, or just a Jesus figure, but he sure wasn't Glenn Beck's neighbor since, like General Blackadder's Nibble-Pibblies, he was completely made up.

-  He moved in his not-dead father after his mother's death, not his grandparents.

-  Far from learning a lesson from his mother's sad fate, he spent over a decade drinking himself into a stupor, consuming vast quantities of illicit pharmaceuticals, and generally behaving like a jackass.

Now, none of the above should really matter; writers routinely mine their own experiences for use in fiction, and even supposedly truthful memoirs usually compress incidents, characters, and so on.  Unfortunately, the first chapter of The Christmas Story strongly implies that this mawkish little story is a true and accurate account of an actual occurrence in Glenn Beck's childhood, written by the man himself.  Worse, the book itself was so cliched and the ending (supposedly included at the insistence of his publisher) so absurd that many of Beck's adoring fans felt cheated to learn that the real-life little Eddie was a teenager with a living father, not a half-orphan with an attitude problem.

None of the above has prevented the book from selling well and continuing to sell; as H.L. Mencken so trenchantly remarked, no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.  But it certainly didn't help his reputation as anything but a latter-day Lonesome Rhodes....


And so, on this day after the Solstice that is also the last night of Hanukkah and the eve of this season of peace and light, what holiday books have made your heart seize and your toes curl?  How many sentimental little gift volumes have you chucked into the wall?  Don't be shy - it's the season of forgiveness, so surely we can forgive those who have given us such marvelously horrid gifts as a token of love and esteem....


And just because I love you all and want you to have a wonderful holiday, here is a fine selection of Christmas sweaters.  Contemplate, if you like, the sight of Glenn Beck sobbing uncontrollably as he wears one of these magnificent creations, and may your winter holiday of choice be merry and bright....

- Teach your little girl to knit with this jewel!

- How to make your boyfriend hate you in one easy lesson...

- Perhaps you'd prefer to humiliate yourself by wearing this in public?

- Or perhaps emulate actor/blogger/author Wil Wheaton?

-For the comic book lover on your list!

- Have fun, and live long and prosper!


Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views Brecht, bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
Thu (third each month - on hiatus)

Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 4:07 AM PT: It was pointed out in the comments that I botched the date of Hanukkah.  My apologies to my Jewish readers for once again proving what my best friend's husband has said for years:  I'm way too WASP for my own good. :)

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Dec 22, 2012 at 06:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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