I'm not much for Christmas.
This was not always the case. I'm German on my mother's side, which means that my childhood Christmases were awash in decorations, baking, Advent calendars, music, visits to family members, and of course a live tree dripping with ornaments and those big old-fashioned lights that were hot to the touch. Every December we'd watch The Charlie Brown Christmas special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and of course The Grinch (Mum always tried to write down the names of the Whos' musical instruments because she thought they were funny), eat Mum's magnificent cookies, and sing carols. Of course we'd go to church on Christmas Eve, then open our presents on Christmas Day and either head over to my aunt and uncles' house or drive to my grandmother's farm in Venango County for the holiday.
It was a marvelous time. There were loads of presents for everyone (although I, as the youngest person present, always seemed to get the lion's share), one of my uncles would take me out to the barn to play with that year's crop of kittens, and Mum would cook a big dinner while Betty assisted by playing Solitaire and announcing periodically that she was bored and why was Mum trying to cook a goose anyway? It felt old-fashioned even then, at least in part because my family was a good generation older than my friends' families and didn't buy into 1960s abominations like artificial trees, rock n' roll, or consuming excessive quantities of anything but post-prandial coffee, but what's wrong with that?
I may have even gotten an orange in my stocking from time to time.
Gradually Christmases changed for my family. Grandma died in 1970 and we stopped going to the Farm, at least on Christmas Day itself, although Mum, Dad, and I still went over to Betty, Oscar, and Lou's house for the usual excellent meal. The year my father died was every bit as emotional and horrible as one might expect, but once again the holiday celebration adapted as we worked our way through the grief.
Still, some things remained constant: the beautiful triple-thick Alcoa foil wrapping paper Betty used to buy from a friend who worked for one of the corporations that made Pittsburgh great in the 1960s and 1970s; Mum's superb baking; the old Firestone Christmas compilation albums with their "gift-wrapped" artwork and selection of favorite music ranging from classical to contemporary; the beautifully decorated tree, every light meticulously positioned by Oscar before he would allow Mum, Betty, and me near it to hang the ornaments; Betty playing cards while Mum baked and cooked. It was staid, and occasionally it was annoying, but it was familiar, and beloved, and very much home.
And the years turned, and more things changed. I moved to Massachusetts after college, married a man who should have never been more than a college romance, and spent less and less time with my family. My leaving was necessary for my sanity - Mum had never been quite the same after Dad died, and the rest of the family had grown increasingly insular to the point that it was like pulling teeth to get them to interact with anyone who wasn't blood - but regardless of how tense things got, I never missed Christmas in Pittsburgh.
The last time I went was 1994 - and you have no idea how odd it is to write those words, and realize that it's been eighteen years since that last, painful year. Mum's Alzheimer's had become so obvious that we didn't dare let her bake, so I made a couple of fruit cakes and a few batches of cookies before driving down from Springfield. We all did our best to pretend that it was normal, but it wasn't; Oscar wasn't well, Lou had passed from a heart attack years before, and Betty, always the family princess, resented me not moving home to help her but never quite came out and said so. I think I knew when I hugged them all and got in the car next to my husband that next year there would be empty places at the table.
I was right. Oscar lost his battle with cancer less than a year later, Mum went into a nursing home and never came out, and I was unemployed and couldn't afford to fly back, even for a few days. And the year after that, Mum finally joined Dad and her brothers ten days before what had been her very favorite holiday. I cried, but it was as much relief that her ordeal was over as it was sorrow that she was gone.
As I said above, I'm not much for Christmas. At least these days.
New Year's, on the other hand - that is my winter holiday, and it's because somehow, some way, in spite of divorce and financial difficulties and all the experiences and issues that I've dealt with over the course of fifty-two years on this oblate spheroid we humans call our home, I've managed to acquire a new family. This family, this group of people, is one of choice, not blood. Whether I've met them through my church, or the SCA, or fandom, or on-line, these people are my tribe, the ones I turn to in the dark times and reach out to in turn when tragedy blights their existence. Some I've known for most of my life, some only a few years, but they are no less beloved or necessary than the ones I've lost to time and disease.
It is with this beloved community, my family of choice, that I will ring in 2013 on Monday night. We'll gather at the home of my choir's countertenor dressed in our finest, eat and drink and watch movies, and when the seconds count down we'll toast each other with champagne and wine and sparkling cider. Some of us will stay over for breakfast the next morning, while others will return home that night to our own beds.
And on the way, amidst the merriment and the joy, we'll reflect on what we've done, and what we've seen, and what and who we've lost. The Romans believed that January was governed by a god who looked both to the future and the past, and so will we. And if there are tears amidst the laughter, and toasts to friends absent as well as present, well, isn't learning to accept the bad with the good part of life itself?
So it is with books. For every wonderful book, there are far more that are mediocre, or silly, or simply bad. A precious few are so bad I write about them here, so that others can laugh or read or imitate Usain Bolt running in the opposite direction. But those aren't the ones I'd like to celebrate tonight.
Tonight I bring you something a little different: the ten books, both fiction and non-fiction, that I enjoyed the most in the past year. Some are brand new, some are new to me, and some are old favorites that I reread, but these are the ones that stood out in some way above the stacks of reading material that I worked my way through. Some may to be your taste, others not, but these are the ones that I'll remember from 2012:
The Tainted City, by Courtney Schafer - one of the best books I read last year was Courtney Schafer's astonishingly assured first novel, The Whitefire Crossing. This excellent sequel is darker and more complex, as heroes Dev and Kiran struggle with the consequences of their actions. No one's motives are pure, everyone's beliefs are tested, and both Dev and Kiran must face their worst nightmares in a novel that both confirms Schafer's talent and makes the reader long for the third (and hopefully not last) book set in this world, the still-in-progress The Labyrinth of Flames.
Casket of Souls, by Lynn Flewelling - it's no secret that one of my favorite fantasy writers is Lynn Flewelling, author of the splendid Tamir Triad. This book, the penultimate volume of the wonderfully entertaining Nightrunner series, is one of her best. There's political intrigue, war on the borders, a touching romance between two unlikely characters, genuine tragedy, a chillingly amoral villain, and plenty of action, magic, and derring-do. And as always, at the core of the book is the rock-solid relationship between Alec and Seregil, the dashing spies/adventurers whose love for each other anchors both their work and their lives. I've read it twice already and it holds up just as well on rereading, which is not nearly as common as one might hope.
Captain America: Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection, by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Steve Epting, Mike Perkins, John Paul Leon, and Michael Lark (artists) - yes, I know this isn't really a book, or even a graphic novel, but a collection of comic books that were published nearly ten years ago. Yes, I know it's about a superhero. Yes, I know that it's the oldest of all comic book cliches, "we're bringing back Character X that everyone thought was dead for ___ years." If that weren't enough, it's nearly ten years old...but man oh man, it holds up well. Ed Brubaker was determined to undo the damage done to one of Marvel's signature characters after a decade of mediocre scripts and some epically horrible mid-90s art, and he did so by taking Steve Rogers straight back to his World War II roots. Strong writing, excellent art (especially by Steve Epting), and a sense that "yes, this could really have happened" that is far too rare in superhero comics combine to take a character who could easily be an All-American blowhard and make him human.
New York to Dallas, by JD Robb (Nora Roberts) - one of my favorite mystery/suspense indulgences is JD Robb's excellent "In Death" series of police procedurals set in a near-future New York. The main characters, tough but damaged homicide detective Eve Dallas and her equally wounded billionaire husband Roarke, are marvelous together, and supporting characters like the stalwart Det. Peabody are great fun. This installment takes Eve way out of her comfort zone by sending her to Dallas, Texas, the place where she found the strength to break free from her abusive father...and where she not only has to confront the first criminal she ever arrested, but what could be a shattering revelation about her past.
Ayn Rand Nation, by Gary Weiss - this impeccably researched, devastating examination of Ayn Rand's beliefs, books, and followers is one of the most chilling books I've read in years. The influence of this so-called philosopher goes far, far deeper into American conservatism (and American life in general) than most people can imagine, and it has had a devastating effect on our country and our politics. A measure of the book's worth is that not only did Randites do their best to downrate it into oblivion on Amazon.com, a couple of them actually came here after I gave it a favorable review and tried to argue me into oblivion (fat chance). A must-read for any progressive who wants to know just why Paul Ryan thinks the way he does, and how so many people have come to believe that America's motto has become "I've got mine, screw you" instead of "e pluribus unum."
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz - excellent, deftly written account of John Brown, the fanatic who was willing to kill, and then to die, to free the slaves, and the doomed raid on Harper's Ferry that launched a wave of hysteria across the nation that culminated in the Civil War two years later. Brown comes across as both sympathetic and terrifyingly flawed, while the women who were involved with him and his followers play a surprisingly large role in the unfolding tragedy.
Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday, by Frederick Lewis Allen - I first read Only Yesterday about twenty years ago and was enthralled by its engaging near-contemporary portrait of the Ballyhoo Decade. Fads, fashions, slang, economic issues, politics - this is social history at its best, and it holds up very well indeed. I didn't read its sequel, Since Yesterday, until very recently, and since I was reading the one decided to read them both. This time I was struck not only by the witty prose and the sharp insights into what was for Allen modern life, but by the unmistakable parallels between the interwar period and today. It's all here, just the way it was eighty and ninety years ago: the debate over how to handle an economic collapse, the battle between modernity and tradition in morals and culture, the folly of investing in real estate and financial bubbles, the human need to escape into games and entertainment. If nothing else, these are a prime example of the truth of the adage, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks - scathing look at the decline in American generalship from World War II to Iraq. Ricks, author of the equally devastating Fiasco, takes as his model general George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during World War II and later architect of the Marshall Plan. It's hard to argue with his choice as Ricks explores how Marshall, the man who chose Dwight Eisenhower to lead the Allies against Hitler, not only modernized and expanded the Army, but was never afraid to replace a failing commander. The contrast with the later Army, where it's literally easier to discipline a grunt for losing a rifle than a William Westmoreland for losing a war, is acute, and painful. I'm not crazy about some of Ricks' conclusions (he's way too fond of David Petraeus for my liking) but it's hard to argue with his ultimate message: the modern Army is blighted by bad leadership and a concern for covering its actions instead of taking care of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day.
The Second World War, by Antony Beevor - superb one volume history of the greatest war of the 20th century, impeccably researched and lucidly written. One of its greatest strengths is its emphasis on the war in Asia, especially the awful, all but forgotten conflict between China and Japan (with interference from the USSR) in the 1930s that eventually led to the war in the Pacific. The account of the scorched earth campaign of the Nazis in the Soviet Union is particularly memorable, as is the story of a poor Korean who, thanks to war, conquest, and a whole heap of terrible luck, ended up fighting for Nazi Germany late in the European war.
American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, by Nick Taylor - wonderful popular history of the Works Progress Administration, the government jobs program that literally put America back to work during the Roosevelt administration. FDR's vision, political savvy, and insistence on helping the desperate now by giving them "the dignity of work" is an object lesson on how to handle an economic collapse, and a real slap in the face to the conservatives who insist that jobs programs are useless. Again, every progressive should read this...and if nothing else, at least check out the chapter on the opening night of The Cradle Will Rock, the Marc Blitzstein play that nearly brought down Hallie Flanagan and the Federal Theater Project.
And there you have it: ten books that I (re)read and enjoyed in 2012. What are your favorites from the past year? What holiday traditions do you cherish from the past? How will you celebrate the advent of 2013? Hoist a glass and share!
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule