Patricia A. Kossmann
Don’t wait till it’s too late. Read Our Town by Thornton Wilder and learn Emily’s wisdom after she returns as a ghost. This advice to seize life, to be present to it in both its wonder and gloom, to see importance, value and purpose in the quotidian while we are still alive is among many pearls of wisdom in Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters, by the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft (Sheed & Ward). The author chides himself for not having been a better parent and leaves these notes as his legacy to his grown children and grandchildren.

The book offers 163 lessons for the good life based on Kreeft’s own experiences and study and just plain living (more than six decades). It is common sense delivered with uncommon ease and sincerity. The reader—and this is a book for all ages—will stop often along the way, so obvious are these bits of wisdom we fail to remember. Topics range broadly: making choices wisely, prioritizing, handling worry, time management, prayer life, sacrifices, marriage and family, keeping a chapbook, love, death. Before I Go belongs in every Christian family’s library, to be dipped into often.

Moving from philosophy to poetry, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver has written Our World (Beacon Press), a book of reminiscence and reflection on her decades-long friendship with the gallery owner and professional photographer Molly Malone Cook (dozens of whose photos run throughout the book). One of the first photographers hired by The Village Voice, Cook also owned a bookstore and later in life became Oliver’s literary agent. Oliver interweaves entries from Cook’s journal with her own prose-and-poetry text, revealing a richly textured life, a shared world that included pro-minent writers and artists. Among those depicted on (candid) camera are Jean Cocteau in Venice (1954), the photographer W. Eugene Smith in New York City (1962), “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry in New York (1958) and the Catholic activist Dorothy Day with children (1950s). Oliver’s lifelong observation of the glistening beauty of her landscape in Massachusetts yields fruit in much of her nature writing. Our World would make a wonderful gift this Christmas. You might wish to accompany it with Oliver’s last book of poetry, Thirst.

Now, from poetry to Pi—specifically Life of Pi: Deluxe Illustrated Edition (Harcourt). Yann Martel’s award-winning tale of a shipwrecked teenage boy who spent over 200 days adrift in a lifeboat with a few non-human companions, including a 450-pound Bengal tiger, is considered a modern classic. In reviewing the original edition for America (4/14/03), Gerald T. Cobb, S.J., said the book “reinvents the lost-at-sea novel in quite striking terms.” For this new edition the publisher sponsored an international contest in 2005 that drew thousands of submissions from illustrators. The winner was the Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac, whose 40 lavish four-color illustrations (his medium is oil) bring new life and perspective to the best-selling novel. These are stunning, creative depictions of key scenes in the story, reflecting both tranquility and ferocity, and always stop the reader in her tracks. Instead of another mincemeat pie on Christmas, consider giving this handsome “Pi” to a favorite friend. It will surely be passed around to others.

A truly impressive treat is Moravian Christmas in the South, by Nancy Smith Thomas (Univ. of North Carolina Press). When I visit my brother every Christmas in North Carolina, we take a long drive to Winston-Salem, where the Moravians (one of the earliest Protestant groups, hailing from Germany) took root in the mid-18th century. It was the Piedmont wildernesss at the time. And we stroll through Old Salem’s cobbled streets, visiting shops, museums, Salem College (the oldest educational institution for women in the United States), the huge bakery, Home Moravian Church, the cemetery and the Inn (for a superb home-cooked meal). It is all here—and more—in a lavishly illustrated volume full of historic detail, traditions and more. The illustrations span from the 1700s to the present and include photographs, paintings, pencil sketches and other forms.

The Moravians brought with them a distinct culture and unique customs. It is believed that the first verifiable Christmas tree in the South appeared at the Moravians’ Springplace Indian Mission in Georgia. Family and community are central (and sacred) to this devout Christian sect. So is simplicity in terms of Christmas gift-giving. The book abounds in fascinating and unusual details, from worship to cuisine, from delighting the children to musical traditions. Readers of all stripes can learn some wonderful and different traditions worth introducing in their own family’s Christmas observances. Moravian Christmas in the South is a book the whole family can enjoy. It’s the next best thing to being there (take it from me).

An equally deluxe book that would make a welcome centerpiece on one’s coffee table—and a conversation starter for guests—is Art of the Crèche: Nativities From Around the World, by James L. Govan (Merrell). The author and his late wife, Emilia, were avid collectors of crèches, many of which were gifts; others were procured during their travels. They also engaged museum curators, merchants, missionaries and others in building this unique and unusual collection. Their story brims with little-known facts, traditions, spiritual and artistic insight and captivating historical and cultural detail. Accompanying each crèche depicted is detailed background text on its origin and meaning. As these works of art originate in a variety of countries around the globe, so they convey a variety of forms, images and symbolism. From Poland to Peru, Texas to Tanzania, Ireland to Ivory Coast, Montana to Malawi and dozens of other places, each full-color piece tells its own story. We observe the celebration of Christ’s birth in virtually every corner of the world. Add Art of the Crèche to your Christmas gift list.

A book as much fun to give as to receive is Inventing English: The Imaginative Origins of Everyday Language, by Dale Corey (Booksurge). If you’re a fan of William Safire’s weekly column, On Language, in The New York Times, this book is for you. It is fun, informative and a handy resource. “From the Elizabethan stage to the Sunday funny papers,” the author notes, “fictional people, places, and concepts have left their mark on the English language.” She explores the origin of scores of expressions, ranging from “Aladdin’s lamp” to “yellow journalism.” And in between are such favorites as “Beauty and the Beast,” a theme common to folk literature, and the writings of Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Charles Darwin and many others, who likewise provide the source for our literary allusions. Inventing English would be a useful stocking stuffer for the students on your shopping list.

The next book I read in galley form. Its official publication date is Dec. 26. Unlike the foregoing, this one is not at all a fun read. But it is a noteworthy entry to the growing genre of resistance literature. My Life as a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani with Robert Hillman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is the memoir of a young Iranian university student arrested and sent to the infamous Evin prison, where she underwent horrific inquisitions and torture. The daughter of fairly well-off parents, living in a suburb of Tehran, Ms. Ghahramani was 20 at the time. Her arrest was ostensibly for baring part of her hair on a sunny day. A more or less model Islamic woman in public, she and her family were less so in the privacy of their home. The story is told in alternating chapters of personal growing-up reminiscences and her daily ordeal in a tiny cell. Disaffected by their government’s repressiveness, she and a group of friends had taken to airing their views and asking questions. After grueling weeks wracked by despair, she yielded information on members of her group, identified in photos taken by the police. That won her a mock “trial” and ultimate release in the dark of night, dropped in the middle of nowhere. The writing is taut, clear and always engaging. At the risk of sounding clichéd, My Life as a Traitor is a page-turner. But most of all, it is a vivid testament to one woman’s rising above a treacherous regime and winning back her dignity.

Also, we cannot forget the little ones on our list—those inquiring minds, with life “aspirations” that change daily. For yours who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, here are a couple of suggestions. Ernie & the Big Newz: The Adventures of a TV Reporter, by the award-winning New York television anchorperson Ernie Anastos (New World Books), tells the story of a young boy who fulfilled his dream to become a television reporter. The eponymous hero is a voracious reader at a young age. From a make-believe studio in his basement, and with help from a few “assistants,” young Ernie kept everyone up to date on local events. We follow him all the way to adulthood and his first huge breaking story on Thanksgiving Day. The book has charming illustrations by the distinguished Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo.

Growing Up With Loukoumi, by Nick Katsoris (Loukoumi Books) is a book for the littlest ones. The titular Loukoumi is a lamb we follow during the course of a day after she meets a farmer who plants “seeds” of possibility with our heroine. We watch her “try on” many possible choices, each deftly illustrated (by an Indian artist known only as Rajesh) and sharing a common refrain: “Believe in yourself and dreams come true.” The book comes with a CD featuring the voices of Gloria Gaynor and Olympia Dukakis, among others.

Finally, for the Civil War buff on your list—or anyone who enjoys great history—consider A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, by the Yale University professor David W. Blight (Harcourt). The book includes two newly discovered slave narratives and the gripping story of the men who wrote them—Wallace Turnage (Alabama) and John Washington (Virginia). They were but two of the four million who traveled from slavery to freedom in the 1860s. Blight, a noted scholar who has devoted himself to advancing black studies and whose prior books include Race and Reunion, has once again written a compelling history of one of our nation’s darkest times. Abraham Lincoln described the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as “the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the nineteenth century.” Messrs. Turner and Washington un-doubtedly said “Amen” to that.

Merry Christmas, dear readers!

Patricia A. Kossmann is literary editor of America.

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