Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
As Christmas approaches, my fellow villagers try to cope with the results of an unprecedented nineteen inch snowfall. In my house, we recently celebrated Hanukkah and we before we join our friends neighbours in a round of holiday jollity, we indulge in the Oblomovian pastimes a winter storm sanctions. We keep Morsolino, our splendid Scandinavian wood stove, working full time and we try to find good flics to watch--the latest ones on our list were a French production of La Belle Helene and the Russian House of Fools--and good books to read. Natasha's Dance: a Cultural History if Russia and A People's Tragedy, by Orlando Figes, are among the history books I enjoyed recently, along with Jason Goodwin's Lords of the Horizon. Goodwin, whose Yashim novels take the reader on a delicious romp from Ottoman Turkey to Italy also writes approachable nonfiction with a good novelist's elegant touch. He keeps the considerable weight of his scholarship from crushing the reader and he adds delectable anedoctes fit to to enhance chat at many a Christmas feast. I reccommend, particularly, his history of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons.
This is Goodwin's Christmas message,
I've been thinking about this, and I don't imagine that Yashim, the Ottoman investigator, has a Christmas list.
His more devout Greek friends in Istanbul will fast through Advent: even George the greengrocer keeps a three day fast. Christmas is not a time of gifts for them - that belongs to the New Year, St Basil's Day, when Christ was circumcised. Then a child - usually a boy - first foots his friends and relatives, bringing a 'dog onion' to each house. He goes away with a few coins.
Ambassador Palewski celebrates Christmas in his own way, naturally. On Christmas day he eats only what has been prepared the day before, and he lays an extra place on a white tablecloth in case someone turns up unexpectedly. That person is often Yashim. Under the tablecloth he puts straw. Otherwise, he watches the weather, according to the Polish tradition that the weather at Christmas foretells the pattern for the coming year. Once he invited Marta, his housekeeper, to pick a straw from under the tablecloth. A green straw for marriage, a yellow straw for spinsterhood, and a withered straw for more waiting; the short straw indicates an early grave. Inevitably the experiment led to misunderstanding, and tears.
Yashim visits the local orthodox church on Christmas Eve and lights a candle in memory of his Greek mother.
There's a little more about her in An Evil Eye, which comes out this Summer.
For more about Yashim, George, Palewski, Marta, and Istanbul in the 1840s, this astonishingly long link should take you to the UK Amazon website for The Janissary Tree, the first in the series.
And here's the US version.
Why Us? by James le Fanu. Perfect for anyone exhausted by the strident materialism of Richard Dawkins, or suspicious of a theory postulated by a Victorian which puts Victorian men in beards at the top of the evolutionary tree.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter. Sublime terror, with a proper ending, and pictures.
and finally ...
Tintoys.com delivers presents to anyone of any age who may have read Samuel Whiskers already.
Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year