New Directions. 96p $11.95
A wonderful stocking stuffer, this collection of Christmas poems, carols and ballads (assembled by the publisher) draws from the literature of many places and times—spanning, in fact, almost 2,000 years. Its contents of 84 entries very tidily provide seven reflections for each of the 12 days of Christmas. At times such as this, when people are beset with a host of woes and worries, poetry and prayer are reliable anchors for a flagging spirit. And only the “best of the best” will do for that: Denise Levertov (“The Holy One, Blessed Be He…”) Alfred Lord Tennyson (“Ring Out, Wild Bells!”), John Donne (“Nativity”), Marie Ponsot (“Gigue for Christmas Eve”) and the traditional “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” are just a few. Tennyson’s words, it would seem, offer a message to us in the here and now: “Ring out a slowly dying cause,/ And ancient forms of party strife;/ Ring in the nobler modes of life,/ With sweeter manners, purer laws.” Patricia A. Kossmann
By Dylan Thomas
New Directions. 64p $9.95
First published by New Directions in 1954, Dylan Thomas’s child’s-eye view of Christmas in Wales has earned its reputation as a holiday classic. Recounting the delight he experienced in childhood with uncommon lyrical grace, Thomas conveys the spirit of the season with all the breathless wonder of youth. He presents a panoply of Christmas treasures: “Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers.” (There are many such lengthy sentences broken up only by the occasional comma or semicolon.) An imaginative view of a snowball fight transforms the author and a friend from two children into fur trappers from Hudson Bay; and a caroling mission becomes a perilous “snow-blind” journey along which he and his friends face the threat of “he-hippos” and are heralded by dogs “baying ‘Excelsior’.” Thomas only hints at darker facets (aunts “poised and brittle,” unwanted by anyone; poor children with “bare red fingers”), leaving them, as a child would, as part of the mise-en-scène instead of making them objects of pity. Creating a world insulated from grief and cynicism, A Child’s Christmas in Wales is the perfect way to revisit the youthful excitement of Christmas, but with an appreciation that comes only with maturity. Regina Nigro
The Holy Land in Hand-Painted Photographs
By Richard Hardiman and Helen Speelman
Overlook Press. 364p $65
If you are looking for a deluxe item for Christmas gift-giving, look no further. A spectacular and captivating book, this volume contains 180 hand-colored photographs (from a collection of 1,200) of the Holy Land, taken by the Matson Photo Agency, a part of Jerusalem’s American Colony, at the turn of the last century before color photography came to be. The history and international displays of these photos (originally glass plates), and the painstaking process of adding color, are as fascinating as the world and people they so strikingly depict. Richard Hardiman teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Helen Speelman is an artist and granddaughter of Arie Speelman, who commissioned these colored renditions. And there is generous textual commentary prefacing each of the book’s eight sections. We travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, Galilee and much more. Village life comes palpably alive, evoking Jesus’ own time. Included too are numerous depictions of the Bedouin and their practices, homes and families at work or play, beggars and shepherds, potters and carpenters, synagogues and mosques. The book is a veritable pilgrimage to first-century Palestine, a close look into history that will be cherished by all people of the Book. P.A.K.
A Tale of Hope
By Josephine Nobisso
Illustrated by Katalin Szegedi
Gingerbread House. 32p $17.95 (cloth)
A Tale of Faith
By Josephine Nobisso
Illustrated by Katalin Szegedi
Gingerbread House. 32p $9.95 (paperback)
What a pleasant surprise I received when these books crossed my desk unbidden. Though I was acquainted (in name only) with the publisher, I had never heard of Josephine Nobisso. It turns out she is an award-winning educator, and her books are award-winners too. Recognized by the National Catholic Educational Associa-tion as well as the Catholic Press Association, author and books display a clear grounding in deep faith. Queen (just published this month) and Mass (originally published in hardcover in 2003) are fables for children, each with a specific lesson or “take-away.” The former tells the story of once-favored villagers who transgress against their King and wind up losing all their resources. Finally, in repentance and regret, they seek the intercession of the gentle and kind Queen. And, of course, all is forgiven and restored to the people, who learned a valuable lesson about trust, greed and more. Mass is a powerful, moving tale about a poor widow seeking a crust of bread, a wealthy but stingy baker, a royal wedding and the faith of the baker’s son. The books are handsomely designed, the full-color drawings sharply detailed. Parents and children alike have a surprising treat in store. P.A.K.
Books in Brief is written by Patricia A. Kossmann, literary editor of America, and Regina Nigro, literary assistant.