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December 6, 2009

Mary Carter on TIME AND AGAIN

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Sometimes, all it takes to transport you to an entirely different time, place, and state of mind are a few lines from a favorite book. Mary Carter, author of SUNNYSIDE BLUES, shares with us one her particular favorites that never fails to conjure up the magical feeling of Christmas.

As I looked back on all my favorite books, I prayed one of them had been given to me as a Christmas gift, so I could whip up a brilliant holiday blog. I yearned for a rare, autographed copy of A CHRISTMAS CAROL discovered in the attic on Christmas Eve --- a warm and wise tome wrapped with love, whose between-the-pages-wisdom rescued an otherwise hopeless holiday. Or I wanted to write a second coming of THE GIFT OF THE MAGI --- impossible to read without falling to your knees and giving thanks for your own head of hair then looking sideways at your lover and thinking: And all you gave me was a triple-slotted toaster.

When I couldn’t think of any such memory, I was tempted to make something up. I am, after all, a novelist --- it’s in my nature. But then I realized Santa may be reading this, and I’ve promised not to be naughty. The truth is, if there was a book I wanted, by the time Christmas came, I’d probably already read it.

I come from a long line of readers, especially on my mother’s side. My grandmother was a librarian. My sister and I, in addition to being avid readers, are both writers as well. My mom loves books so much that when she and my father were married and people asked him, “What does your wife do?” he would answer: “You put her under a light and she reads.” Giving us books for Christmas would have been like giving us a glass of water. We were such fixtures at our local library that had we failed to show up one Saturday afternoon, they would have filed a Missing Persons Report.

There were items we coveted and saved all year round, only to bring out during the holidays. My mother’s Christmas china: plates, and tea cups, and saucers, made in Ireland; rimmed with gold, adorned with hand painted holly and bells, soon to be covered with juicy turkey, home-made mashed potatoes, and stuffing. My grandfather’s Lionel trains, snug in boxes all year round, would finally emerge to chug along their miniature metal tracks, and my sister and I would hover over it, waiting in pent-up glee for the sleek black engine to blow its whistle and shoot real smoke through its stacks. And of course, our stockings were hung, and we never, ever ate cranberry sauce at any other time of the year. But books? Books were as ubiquitous as our bathwater.

So instead, I will tell you about a book that, for me, captures the Christmas spirit. The story is magical, unpredictable, exciting. It sat on my Aunt Bessie’s shelf in Steubenville, Ohio. It was a hardback, with a black linen cover, the title embossed in gold. It was TIME AND AGAIN by Jack Finney. The minute I opened the pages and started reading, I fell into another world. In the following passage, Si Morley, a 20th-century illustrator, is living in an apartment in Manhattan overlooking Central Park. The United States Government has been conducting an experiment to see if they can send him back in time:

“Carrying my book, I walked to a window, and whatever it is that leaps in your chest with excitement sprang up now; there were six inches of new snow, unmarked and sparkling, on every horizontal surface outside, ten billion more fat flakes rushing past my window. Nothing moved on the street below me, and there wasn’t a parked car in sight, every one of them moved from the curbs before the snow trapped them. Under my window Central Park West was level with untouched snow, the traffic lights uselessly clicking from green to red, red to green, and across the street Central Park was a delight.”

That’s exactly how I want to feel on Christmas morning! Now, I live in that magical city depicted in the book. I am an author. And I believe in miracles --- because they live in the library down the street. They sit on your shelf or (gasp!) get downloaded to your Kindle, they await you in airports, they arrive in boxes at your front door, they sit in book stores across the country, they are given hand-to-hand by friends, and if you’re lucky, there might just be one under your tree. Here’s wishing you many good books this year, naughty or nice. And if you need an extra light to read by, ask Rudolph to lend you his nose. Ah, books: little bundles of Christmas joy. God Bless ‘em, every one.

-- Mary Carter

Later today, Robert Goolrick details a special (if dubious) gift from the writer of one of the greatest American novels ever written.