Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Author: Charles Dickens
Title:A Christmas Carol
Publication Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843

Over the course of December, I’ve participated in an online book club called A Dickens December where Charles Dickens’ classic story of Christmas redemption was released in short chunks for each day up until December 26.  I am, like most people in the English-speaking world (and beyond), very familiar with the story of the greedy and self-interested old Ebeneezer Scrooge who is transformed by spirits of the Past, Present, and Yet to Come.  Not only have I seen this story adapted into several films, but also I participated in two different stage productions in my childhood!

And yet this is the first time I’ve actually read the book.  The adaptations tend to get it right, adding embellishments more than leaving anything out.  The big thing about reading the book though is seeing Dickens way with words.  I’ve included several of my favorite passages below that show Dickens’ talent with a turn of the phrase.  As always it’s nice to revisit something familiar and see it in a new light.

Favorite Passages:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.

They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart, perhaps, than they were.

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and, knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Review: It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

Title: It Happened on 5th Avenue
Release Date: April 19, 1947
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Production Company: Roy Del Ruth Productions

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a very Capra-esque comedy of class set in New York City just after World War II.  In fact, it was originally optioned for Frank Capra but he chose to direct It’s a Wonderful Life instead.  Each winter, the second-richest man in the world, Michael J. O’Connor (Charles Ruggles), boards up his mansion on the Upper East Side and winters in Virginia.  The homeless Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore) discovers a way into the mansion and squats in the residence while the O’Connors are away.

One day he makes acquaintance of a recently-evicted veteran, Jim Bullock (Don DeFore), and invites him to stay at the mansion since his apartment building had been demolished to make way for a skyscraper that O’Connor is building.  Soon Bullock brings some of his fellow veterans into the mansion with their wives and young children and they begin working on a plan to develop more permanent housing on an abandoned military base.

When O’Connor’s 18-year-old daughter Trudy (Gale Storm) leaves her finishing school and comes to the mansion, she decides to hide her identity and stay in the growing household. Trudy and Jim soon fall in love, and Trudy calls on her divorced parents, Mike and Mary (Ann Harding), to also move into their own mansion disguised as poor people so they can get to know Jim.  Hijinks ensue with a lot of gags involving McKeever ordering Mike around.

But there’s also a lot of sweetness in this movie as the found family really care for one another.  The central problem of the movie is based on the mostly forgotten post-war housing shortage. In real life the solution was to build housing projects in the cities and sprawling developments in the suburbs.  We’re still dealing with the increased inequality and environmental damage of those solutions so the film feels very relatable.  The political undertones as well as some sexual entendres make this movie feel more modern than 1947. I also like that Jim never actually finds out that Trudy is the O’Connor’s daughter onscreen which seems like a funny thing to leave unresolved.

The humor in this movie is hit or miss and the various subplots have a way of knocking into one another, so I can’t recommend it as a holiday classic.  On the other hand it is an enjoyable romp that is worth checking out.

Rating: ***

Holiday Movie Review: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Title: Miracle on 34th Street
Release Date: June 11, 1947
Director: George Seaton
Production Company: 20th Century Fox

Revisiting this holiday classic, I am impressed by how efficient it is.  In just over 90 minutes its full of iconic scenes that live on in the cultural memory but also has character-developing moments when the characters are given the space to just talk.  The cast is excellent with Maureen O’Hara starring as Doris Walker, a no-nonsense divorced mother of Susan (Natalie Wood), whose views on reality are challenged by Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), a genial man she hires to play Santa Claus at Macy’s department store, who may or may not be the actual Santa.  John Payne feels like a weak link as Fred Gailey shoehorned in the story as a romantic interest for Doris, but I do like Alvin Greenman as Alfred, a young Macy’s janitor who befriends Kris.

I suppose someone could write entire essays on the depiction of gender in this movie.  I find it interesting that the two lead men are nurturing and imaginative, while the woman is logical.  Also, for 1947, it feels unusual to see a single mother working in an important managerial position in a Hollywood movie.  On the downside, the fact that Kris and Fred decide that they need to “fix” Doris and Susan comes off a bit icky.

The movie is filled with memorable scenes.  I love that they did location shooting on Thanksgiving to capture one-take scenes during the actual parade.  Kris singing with the Dutch orphan, Fred calling the District Attorney’s son to testify, and of course, the moment when the postal workers dump thousands of letters to Santa on the judge’s desk! This definitely remains a movie worth watching every holiday season.

Rating: ****

Christmas Movie Marathon Review: The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Title: The Bishop’s Wife
Release Date: December 9, 1947
Director: Henry Koster
Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions

Post-World War II cinema offers many examples supernatural beings offering inspiration to the film’s protagonist.  These include angels (A Matter of Life and Death and It’s a Wonderful Life), Santa Claus (Miracle on 34th Street), and the … ghost(?) of a girl (Portrait of Jennie). Add to this The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays the dapper angel Dudley who answers the prayers of the titular Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) and his wife Julia (Loretta Young).

The problem is that Henry has become estranged from Julia and their old friends because he’s caught up in fundraising for a new cathedral.  And so Dudley steps into help by showing Julia a good time and falling in love with her.  This movie gets really awkward really fast especially since Dudley is awesome and Henry is a fuddy-duddy and we don’t really know who we should be rooting for in this bizarre love triangle.  There are some lovely performances and some charming moments, but the movie just feels off to me.  It’s not a surprise that it didn’t become a Christmas classic.

Rating: **1/2

Christmas Movie Marathon Review: Tangerine (2015)

Release Date: July 10, 2015
Director: Sean Baker
Production Company: Duplass Brothers Productions | Through Films

On Christmas Eve in Hollywood, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a transgender sex worker just released from 28 days in jail, learns that her boyfriend/pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been unfaithful. Sin-Dee goes on a rampage hunting down the cisgender sex worker Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) for revenge. Meanwhile, her compatriot Alexandra (Mya Taylor) tags along trying to prevent “drama” and promoting her musical performance at a local bar.  While this is all happening, we also see Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) pick up passengers, and also be a customer of Alexandra and Sin-Dee, as well as have Christmas dinner with his family.

As you may have guessed, this is not your traditional Christmas movie.  The humor can be very dark, but also offers a real glimpse into a subculture.  The film was shot on iPhones which helps lend it a verite feel.  I thought things get very grim for all the main characters by the end of the movie, but it ends with a scene of kindness that lends a sweetness to the whole movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Christmas Movie Marathon Review: Klaus (2019)

Release Date: 8 November 2019
Director: Sergio Pablos
Production Company: Netflix Animation | Sergio Pablos Animation Studios | Atresmedia Cine

I heard good things about Klaus, but ended up sorely disappointed.  Let’s start with the good things.  This movie is gorgeous, and a rare example of hand-drawn animation in this day and age of computer imaging.  There are shots of birdhouses swaying in beech trees with the sun filtering through that are stunning.  Unfortunately, the animation isn’t supported by a good story or characters.  The movie purports to be a reimagining of the Santa Claus mythos and every moment it winkingly lets you know how some different element of Santa Claus was created.

The story is set on a remote island in the northern latitudes where the son of the postmaster general is sent to work as punishment for his self-centeredness and laziness.  The first flaw of this movie is that Jesper Johansen (Jason Schwartzman) is so obnoxious in that ironic, detached manner of characterization that should’ve died in the 1990s. Jesper finds himself in a town with an ongoing feud between the two main families.  Their ongoing battles aren’t all that funny, but we sure do get to see a lot of them.

Jesper befriends a woodworker, Klaus (J. K. Simmons), who lives on an isolated part of the island and makes hundreds of toys. Jesper learns he can reach his goal of delivering 6000 letters by having the children write to Klaus asking for toys and then delivering them by night.  The beats of the movie that follow are pretty predictable – unexpected changes in the town, a moment of betrayal, a change of heart.  The movie wants you to feel everything as magical, but I found myself just getting whiplash between heavy snark and cloying moments.

Rating: **

Christmas Movie Marathon Review: Robin Robin (2021)

Title: Robin Robin
Release Date: 27 November 2021
Director: Dan Ojari & Mikey Please
Production Company: Aardman Animations

Robin Robin is a stop-motion animated short that has the charm and whimsy typical of Aardman Animations. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at and very sweet at its heart.  The story is more of your basic misfit’s tale. Robin (Bronte Carmichael) is a young bird raised by a family of mice, under the leadership of the single Dad Mouse (Adeel Akhta). Mice in this story specialize in sneaking and stealing bits of food from humans, which the clumsy Robin is not very good at.  But with the help of Magpie (Richard E. Grant) and the the threat of Cat (Gillian Anderson), Robin may find a Christmas miracle and discover himself.  It’s not all too original but it is very winsome.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Hawkeye (2021)

Title: Hawkeye
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Jonathan Igla
Director: Rhys Thomas (episodes 1,2, & 6), Bert & Bertie (episodes 3-5)
Season: 1
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios

Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), is the overlooked Avenger, who not only never got his own movie, but was just kind of there when the first Avengers movie began.  So this is a belated Hawkeye story that focuses on the aging superhero/dad dealing with the trauma of losing his friend Natasha Romanov as well as hearing loss.  Enter Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), who as a child witnessed the Battle of New York in 2012 when her house in Manhattan was damaged and her father killed. Seeing Hawkeye’s heroics, Kate dedicated her life to learning archery and martial arts skill.

This series is obviously a “passing the baton” story as Barton just wants to get home to his family for Christmas but gets caught up in a crisis that center around Kate.  They have a good chemistry and the show has a good balance of humor, action, and more reflective moments.  It also has an surplus of villains including the Tracksuit Mafia, Maya Lopez (Alaqua Cox) – a deaf leader of the Tracksuits set on vengeance against Barton’s alter-ego Ronin, and Natasha’s sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), who was introduced in Black Widow and once again steals scenes left and right.

I won’t go into much detail but it’s an enjoyable series and another great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.



The Modern Holiday Music Playlist

Several years ago I noticed that our local Holiday Music 24/7 station played basically the same 10-12 songs but by various artists.  I decide to challenge myself with seeing how many holiday songs I could list without repeating.  Eventually this resulted in the Modern Holiday Music Playlist.

I came up with three basic guidelines for the playlist:

  1. The songs would be “modern” in that they would be original songs composed since the emergence of a recorded popular music industry roughly 100 years ago.  The list could get a whole lot longer if you added in traditional carols and religious songs from everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world.
  2. Wherever possible I added the earliest recording of the song possible, or a version of the song that is most iconically associated with a particular artists.
  3. The playlists includes songs about Christmas and other winter holidays, as well as winter weather themed songs that have become associated with the holidays even if they weren’t initially written as such.

I’ll admit that not all of these songs are not very good, but I do enjoy listening to it each year at this time.  Check out the playlist on Tidal or Spotify below, and let me know if you have any songs I should add.



Podcasts of the Week Ending December 26

Welcome to the final Podcasts of the Week post for 2020.  Stay tuned for the Podcasts of the Year post on December 29!

Radiolab :: A Terrible Covid Christmas Special

Is Santa an essential worker? This and other questions are answered about Christmas in Covid Times.

99% Invisible :: Mini-Stories: Volume 9

Some short pieces on topics such as the process of novelizing a hit movie, Switzerland’s strange defensive measures, and ABBA’s outlandish outfits.