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Nina Sankovitch

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New Books Ring Out the Ghosts of Christmas Past

Posted: 12/13/09 08:36 AM ET

Three new books offer ghosts from Christmases past, bringing laughs, tears, and a bit of joy into the present (yes, pun intended) season. Augusten Burroughs' You Better Not Cry, Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin', and John Mortimer's posthumous release of five Rumpole Christmas stories in A Rumpole Christmas all pop a cork of nostalgia for times gone by.

Burroughs hits the high and low notes with perfection in You Better Not Cry, his cacophonic version of the carol of the bells. Family lunacy, a Santa/Jesus identity crisis, pill popping, binge drinking, a Christmas gift of operatic heights, first love, and settled monogamy ring up and down the scales of Burroughs' remembered Noels. Each story is tuned just right to make readers laugh and cry in sorrow and in joy. Not for the faint of heart or the more traditional of folks, You Better Not Cry is a gem of holiday storytelling, and a great addition to the library of Burroughs' memoirs.

Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin' will go over well with every age group and inclination, but will hit home hardest and funniest for those who've lived through Catholic schooling, the Sixties, and/or participation in the school holiday pageant wearing mom's nightgown. Lamb added new elements to possible pageant costumes: a wedding garter belt pulled over the forehead to hold the shepherd's cowl in place and the use of a real child's head with the decapitated body of baby doll as a stand-in for Baby Jesus (don't ask, just read). Throw in Annette Funicello, Ranger Rick's TV show (and a dirty joke told on live television), a Pillsbury bake-off, driving lessons administered by a teenage sister, lay teachers (not what you think: lay teachers were non-nuns brought in to parochial schools to supplement staff), and a Russian exile with a fast pitch, dirty mouth, and willing heart, and you've got Lamb stew for Christmas, hilarious, rich, and satisfying.

A Rumpole Christmas by John Mortimer is a collection of Rumpole stories brought out for the first time together in a book. Mortimer died in January of 2009 and A Rumpole Christmas is a nice homage to the man and his most famous character, Horace Rumpole. This sweetly predictable and comfortable collection of classic Rumpolian moves (cases solved at the last minute, drinking and enjoying bad claret) and characters (such as Hilda, "She Who Must Be Obeyed" and the forbidding Justice Gravestone) will warm old readers with good memories of Rumpole adventures past and will draw in new readers to the club.

Other honorable mentions for new holiday booking: Matchless by Gregory Maguire, is a retelling of my favorite Christmas story when I was a child, "The Little Match Girl," in which Maguire adds on a prequel and sequel to Hans Christian Anderson's sad story and brings new light to the dark tale (I've waited years for some comfort about that poor, little girl who loses her slippers and uses her last matches to imagine happiness before succumbing to a cold death and Maguire gives it); Tinsel by Hank Stuever, in which reporter Stuever goes down to a snow-less town in Texas to make wry, compelling, and telling commentary on the state of giving, getting, and celebrating in the holiday season; and Holiday Grind by Cleo Coyle, a new addition to the coffeehouse mystery series that starts slow but then adds in jolts of souped-up coffee, sweet cooking, sappy sex, and super sleuthing to deliver a fun and gripping fa-la-la-la latte surprise.

 
 
 

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