Merry Christmas!

Last night I watched A Christmas Story, the only holiday movie I’ve watched more than once or twice. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen it: at least once all the way through every year, and even more in segments. I can turn it on at any point and know exactly what’s going on. In fact it’s playing in the background right now.

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Santa BearI love this movie because I see so much of my own childhood in it. Oh, not the BB gun, or the bully Scut Farkas. But the nerdy little kid? That was me, frequently broken glasses and all.

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I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee in the 1950s, a few years after the movie setting (I think—the year is never specified and the world outside Ralphie’s immediate view is never mentioned).

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I grew up walking to school in a snowsuit that barely bent at the joints. I lived in a house much like the Parkers’. We had a coal furnace, although it was better behaved than the one Ralphie’s Old Man fought with. The school room, the clothes, the weather, all bring back memories.

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I grew up listening to the radio, my mother’s favorite source of entertainment, even after my grandfather gave us an early TV set with a roundish screen about ten inches across. “Little Orphan Annie” was before my time, I think, and I never sent away for an official decoder ring, but I did drink Ovaltine.

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My dad worked at an advertising agency in downtown Milwaukee, and on Thanksgiving we would join all the families in the business in the office, several floors above the main drag to watch the big parade and the arrival of Santa Claus (back in those days the Christmas season did not begin before Halloween!). That is, the kids watched the parade from the office windows. I suspect the adults were across the hall drinking martinis.

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Ralphie’s ambitions for his theme ring a big bell. Heck, I still hope for a rousing reception for my written words (and I’m just as disappointed as Ralphie when the praise doesn’t materialize).

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And his daydreams! Mine didn’t involve creeping marauders or a Red Ryder air rifle, but I definitely lived in them (and sometimes coerced my friends into acting them out).

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And, of course, the broken glasses. I spent a large part of my childhood wearing glasses held together with tape at the bridge. I don’t remember ever breaking a lens, but I was hell on frames.

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So did Ralphie grow up to be a writer? Of course he did—he grew up to be Jean Shepherd. Thank you, Mr. Shepherd, for all the stories, and thanks to the movie crew for a treat that makes my holiday brighter every year.

Writer Wednesday: Favorite Holiday Books

Our Writer Wednesday assignment for November is “Tell us your favorite holiday books.” That’s a WW Novemberno-brainer for me: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. What, that doesn’t sound like the holidays to you? Well, four of the five stories that Jean Shepherd turned into my favorite holiday movie, A Christmas Story, came from that collection. (The fifth came from Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and other disasters.)

“Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” gave the movie its core, driven by Ralphie’s passionate desire for a “Red Ryder BB gun with a special Red Ryder sight and a compass in the stock with a sundial.” We hear about the Old Man’s battle with the furnace, Ralphie’s lofty expectations for his “What I Want For Christmas” theme, his visit to Santa Claus, Aunt Clara’s abominable bunny costume, and his broken glasses. I never lusted after an air rifle, but I sure can identify with the theme writing and the broken glasses.

The episode of the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, with its high anticipation and deep betrayal as Ralphie discovers the true meaning of the secret message, comes from “The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message, or the Asp Strikes Again.” The arrival and demise of the notorious leg lamp is described in “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” Ralphie’s epic battle with the neighborhood bully plays out in “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil.” (Fun fact for fans of the film: Scut Farkas character was added for the movie, with Grover Dill demoted to toady. Scut did appear in another story, “Scut Farkas and the Murderous Mariah” in the
Wanda Hickey collection.) The destruction of the Christmas turkey is adapted from “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” also in Wanda Hickey, in which the neighbors’ dogs destroyed the Parkers’ Easter ham.

All of Jean Shepherd’s writing was sharp and hilarious. My copies are old paperbacks, with small print and brittle yellow pages, that once belonged to my mother, who introduced me to Shepherd. I remember reading the Bumpus hounds’ story aloud to my late husband when he was ill, interrupted by frequent laughter. (The two of us also watched the movie every year, a habit I have continued.)

Writing this piece has made me think about the complexities of weaving several stories together into A Christmas Storya film that has become a Christmas classic. The five stories have been reprinted in one volume, A Christmas Story: The Book that Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film. I want to reread them (and admire Shepherd’s skill in adapting them) without struggling with those old paperbacks (I actually have new glasses on order; they might handle the small print, but they won’t do much for the brittle yellow pages or cracked binding), so I’m downloading the Christmas Story edition to my Kindle to reread during the holidays.


Do you have a holiday book you love and reread? Visit some other Wednesday Writers, Tamra Baumann, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, Jean Willett, and Sharon Wray,
and discover their holiday favorites.

The Influence of Books, Part 7 (and Last)

It’s been more than three months since I scribbled the names of old favorite authors on a scrap of paper, and almost a month since I posted part 6.  This, I promise, is the last one, and in some ways the hardest to write–Humor.

I love humor.  I do my best to write humor, I like to read humor, and I’ll take a comedy over a tragedy every time.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s enough tragedy in real life, in the newspaper, on television.  For entertainment, I want laughs.  My favorite romance and mystery authors include humor in their stories, and I’ve mentioned many of them already.  Science fiction and fantasy are somewhat less prone to comedy, but Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels), Terry Pratchett’s Discworld stories and the hard-to-describe tales of British writer Tom Holt spring to mind.  Among mainstream novelists I think of Carl Hiaasen.  Many writers sprinkle humor through their more serious works.

Backing up a few decades, I remember a few early favorites.  I still have an old paperback copy of satirist Will Cuppy’s Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.  Max Shulman wrote a number of comic novels, the best known of which is The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  Before William Peter Blatty became famous for The Exorcist  he wrote several comic novels.  I wish I still had a copy of his Which Way to Mecca, Jack?, if only to see if it was as hilarious as I remember it.

The two humorists whose books I read and and reread, and still have on the shelf, were the very funny, and very different, Patrick Dennis and Jean Shepherd.

Patrick Dennis is best remembered for Auntie Mame and its sequel, Around the World with Auntie Mame.  My copy of the latter is literally held together with clear tape and probably would not survive another reading.  Dennis wrote several other riotously funny novels, including Genius (the title character bore a marked resemblance to Orson Welles) and Paradise, about the loony inhabitants of a small resort in Acapulco.  Dennis’ most unusal books were the lavishly illustrated (with both posed and retouched stock photos) fictional memoirs Little Me (“the Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis”) and First Lady (“My Thirty Days Upstairs in the White House, by Martha Dinwiddie Butterfield, as told to Patrick Dennis”).  The two Auntie Mame books and Little Me have been reprinted, but most of Dennis’ other books are out of print.

Jean Shepherd was a radio personality and writer best known for the stories he wove together into the movie A Christmas Story, which he also narrated.  The tales came from two books, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and other disasters.  In Shepherd’s original version, the Bumpus hounds stole the Easter ham rather than the Christmas turkey, but the results were every bit as funny.  I also have a copy of a third collection, A Fistful of Fig Newtons, and every few years I reread them all.

Humor is the most subjective of genres.  What leaves one person with ribs aching from laughter may leave the next person wondering why.  That may be frustrating for the writer, but perhaps such diversity is just another part of the comedy equation.  Life and literature would be boring if we all laughed–or cried–at the same things.