Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book 26: Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy (and 26A-C: Three Christmas Graphic Novels)

Week 26. Half way to my goal! Of course you've already read my comments on this, but if not, see above! This week's main book reminds me of why I'm doing this. The excitement of finding a new writer which impacts your world view is rare, but worth the wait.

Love Begins in Winter is a collection of five short stories written around the theme of love. Yes, love. In today's cynical world it is hard to find many talented writers who can celebrate love without making it sound like a bad Hallmark card. Van Booy not only succeeds, he excels. These are exquisitely written stories which show us a writer with the ability to see the many shades of love through a variety of fully drawn characters with a variety of experiences.

The title story is a short masterpiece of writing. We meet a world famous musician who is cut off from the world and people as he remembers the loss of a young companion. We are also introduced to a woman who lost a beloved brother at a young age and has struggled with companionship since then. If you hope for love at first sight, you find it in this story in a way which is remarkably above any lustful look. Instead, kindred souls recognize one another and begin what is the process of loving. Van Booy knows love can happen quickly, but even a loving relationship takes time to develop. This does not give away as much of the plot as it sounds since the story's constant progress is its plot.

"Tiger Tiger" shows the surprising places and way love appears, even across generations. A young doctor and her boyfriend see the dissolution of his parent's marriage as they work on their own relationship. When she receives a book her boyfriend's family doctor had written years before she passes on reading it, but when she looks over it a few years later she realizes he had written about children with an insight and love not expected from a single man. In other words, love shows up in unexpected ways.

"The Missing Statues" is a beautiful short story about how the power of love from years before can move a young man to tears with a simple reminder. Van Booy explores the many ways love appears, and in this story we see the simple caring of the stranger as a gift of love. Love's intensity is seen most clearly in "The Coming and Going of Strangers," where the love of a Romany Irish gypsy for a Canadian girl he does not know is beyond reason. The end provides a unique twist, and while Van Booy is never above the surprise ending, upon reflection they are never as surprising as they seem.

He ends the book with "The City of Windy Trees" in which years after the fact a man a one-night stand has given him a child. As he seeks out to reconnect, the power of love to transform a person is nearly overwhelming. And here we see one of Van Booy's clearest themes as his characters move from isolation to love, seeing the gift of love for what it is -- an act of grace beyond our control, but open to our reception.

The fact that Van Booy pulls all this off without becoming sentimental is a testament to his understanding the topic he addresses. He avoids the idea of love sick strangers staring longingly into one another's eyes. Instead, his characters often resist the idea of love until the reality hits them, which emphasizes the power love has in our lives. How wonderful to find a writer who intelligently celebrates what so many of us do experience even in a world seemingly devoid of love. 

Visit Simon Van Booy's Website

The publisher HarperCollins has created a new imprint called It Books to capture the popular culture audience, so it is no surprise they would release three graphic novel representations of three Christmas stories While their publicity claims these are Christmas classics, few will be familiar with L. Frank Baum's "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" which is adapted here by Alex Robinson. Baum, better known for the "Wizard of Oz," created a short fable about Santa who is kidnapped in flight by the demons Selfishness, Envy, Hatred, and Repentance. His work is carried on by four helpful assistants who know how to get the sleigh around, but mix up the presents the children are receiving. All could be lost, but never count out the magic of Christmas. Robinson adds a small love story and a great deal of humor to Baum's story, which seems perfectly suited for the graphic novel format. Robinson's stark black and white illustrations are either filled with details or clear in their simplicity, depending on how he wants to move the story forward. Of the three books released, Robinson's style will be the most familiar to those with a long history of comics with several panels on a page and balloon text throughout.  His adaptations to the story are an improvement and worth seeking out.

The truly classic "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry gets a retelling by Joel Priddy. The story of a young couple selling their prized possessions to purchase each other a gift is well known to most through a variety of adaptations. Priddy also keeps the colors simple, mainly black and white although at times with a bluish tint, that is until Della's legendary hair is revealed. From a black and white bun comes a wave of orange which cannot be contained in even two pages and only disappears slowly as the hair goes back into hiding.  The impact is immediate and successful in its attempt to portray the beauty of the hair to the reader. He keeps very close to the story itself, omitting just a few lines which he can easily show, and he moves the story along at the leisurely pace in which it was written. Many pages contain no text as Priddy gives us a glimpse into the couple's private life which he plays out at times with full pages, at times with panels, and often a mix of arrangements. The book opens with several pages setting the scene without text as we see a store window version of the magi give way to the snow and our story; as the story ends he takes away from the domestic life and out into the stars as O. Henry's text puts the story in perspective. Priddy's adaptation rescues the story from the numerous sentimental versions in existence by allowing O. Henry's voice to be heard, and providing a vehicle which enhances the story.

Lilli Carre's adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Fir Tree" adds more than a splash of color to the trio. She also keeps very close to the text, which is too bad since the story of a short tree full of self pity sounds like just so much whinnying in today's world. Written over 160 years ago, Anderson's readers may have been more sympathetic than many of us to the "victim" format. But Carre takes Anderson at his word and her illustrations reflect his work with little comment. In fact, the book feels more like a picture book than a graphic novel as her simple, yet beautiful, illustrations reflect the text but stand alongside it rather than being involved. It is a lively book, but would benefit from having the illustrations frame the story.

If It Books is hoping to hit a more pop culture audience than this is the right method. The small books are created with the possibility of being stocking stuffers this holiday season, and they would be a good fit for many stockings.

Reading Challenges

As you can see I did plenty of reading and writing and actually finished all this by Friday. Van Booy's novel is a quick read because it is so good. Do not rush through his book because the writing is too good to miss, but be it still will not take long. I have a busier week coming up, but the collection I'm reading is short.

Next Up

Which brings me to the interestingly titled "Love in Infant Monkeys" by Lydia Millet. After this I'm caught up with my review books and I have a couple of others I want to read, but I'll get some new books ordered soon. 

Happy reading!


  1. Love begins in winter certainly sounds interesting. I'll look out for it. Thanks.

  2. Our sixth grade teacher had a tradition of reading "The Gift of the Magi" to her students every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I have a copy of it around here somewhere. Thanks for reminding me of it.
    And congrats on being Blogcritics "Writer of the Day"!

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