Winter Reading Roundup, Part I: A. Trollope and Christmas short stories

Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old (The Plough Publishing House, 2002)

Despite my bias against seasonal short stories, based on a possibly unjustified perception of their predilection for sentimentality, this collection caught my attention. The table of contents featured the names of several prominent twentieth-century writers whom I knew only as novelists (Madeleine L’Engle, Katherine Paterson, Pearl Buck), as well as some particular to my personal history (Selma Lagerlof, Elizabeth Goudge). 

Several selections do circle around the predictable (though nevertheless valuable) theme of generosity at Christmas, but most avoid over-simplification or moralizing. The nativity figures into most of the stories, either by suggestion or as a central narrative feature. I derived greatest enjoyment from “The Riders of St. Nicholas,” by Jack Schaefer, and “The Vexation of Barney Hatch,” by B.J. Chute. The authors of both tales skillfully capture the tone and voice distinctive to their settings.

I also enjoyed “The Miraculous Staircase,” by Arthur Gordon, as I have been to the chapel in Santa Fe that houses said staircase. “The Other Wise Man,” by Henry Van Dyke, had come to my attention some years ago, but I must have been introduced to an abridged version. I found the story’s language and general craftsmanship much more artful than I had anticipated. 

The collection also introduced me to Nikolai Lesskov, whose work I intend to read more of in the future. Which brings me to …

“The Sealed Angel,” by Nikolai S. Lesskov

After reading “The Guest” in Home for Christmas, I sought out The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories. “The Sealed Angel” seemed a good place to start, as it was purported to be a Christmas story. I am not sufficiently learned in Russian literature to offer much insight or analysis, but I enjoyed Lesskov’s gentle humor and quirky characters. From the preface to his novel Cathedral Folk, I gather Lesskov was also capable of biting satire, but he likely regarded that as inappropriate for a Christmas story.

I also appreciated the devotion of the Old Believers and the nod to religious mysticism. I suspect the story–particularly the ending–may have been calculated to fly under the radar of the official censors. In any case, the two Lesskov stories I have read incline me to read more of his work.

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

I listened to this 19th-century novel about a decade ago, along with several other works by this prolific author, all of which I found charming. Last fall I suggested Barchester to my husband as a congenial read unlikely to impose unwelcome jolts on his post-surgery sensibilities.

Once past the initial ambling overtures, he entered enthusiastically into Trollope’s accounts of clerical dramas in Barchester. We found the female protagonist disappointingly inconsistent and two-dimensional. But other townspeople proved sufficiently eccentric, endearing, or vexing to sustain our interest.

A little Wikipedia research enlightened us regarding conflicts within the Church of England in the late 19th century–principally between individuals with high church tendencies and those with more evangelical proclivities. This knowledge deepened our understanding of the novel and even enabled a few parallels to the contemporary church scene.

The plot did flag a bit in the middle–a literary pitfall also not unique to the 19th century. But overall it was an enjoyable late-autumn excursion into a beguiling English cathedral town.

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