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Stories for a Winter's Night

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

There’s a scene in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where the Griswold family is gathered together, Christmas tree lights twinkling in the background, reading aloud “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, Clement Clark Moore’s classic poem. And for many families, that’s not just an idyllic holiday tradition staged for a film; in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, there’s something to be said for taking time to slow down and sit curled in a favorite chair or on the couch, cozily reading (by yourself, or with loved ones snuggled up close).

In that spirit, during this often-too-busy season, here are some suggestions for holiday stories to slow down with and savor. Most of them are no more than a few pages, so whether you can only spare fifteen minutes of solitude to catch your breath or you’ve carved out an entire evening’s worth of time for yourself, you can read these one by one or all at once. So grab a blanket, a warm mug of a favorite drink, and settle in for a long (or short) winter's read.  

Bertie’s Christmas Eve by Saki

“Dang kids nowadays!”—that's the cliché refrain of a stereotypical crabby older person, upset and disillusioned with the youth of today. As Saki’s short story proves though, it’s not just the older generations of our modern day who dealt with rebellious "ne'er-do-wells"; they were around in the 1800s causing trouble too.

In Bertie's Christmas Eve, we join the Steffink family’s party as they entertain guests for the holiday. Like most young adults, now and then, Bertie Steffink begrudgingly tolerates the celebration until a mention of an old Christmastime belief gives him an idea about how he can liven up the party.

Saki was the pen name of British writer H.H. Munro, who is considered by many to be one of the masters of the short story genre. His work often satirized Edwardian era culture and society, and are known for sometimes having mischievous elements in them. Bertie’s Christmas Eve is a prime example of this, and while it’s not nice to laugh at other people’s misfortune, you probably won’t be able to stop yourself from at least smiling at what Bertie does to make his night a little bit more interesting.

You can find a link to this story at: www.eastoftheweb.com

Christmas; or, The Good Fairy by Harriet Beecher Stowe

American writer and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe may be best known for her most famous work, the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but her belief in caring and compassion comes through very clearly in this short story too.

First set in the house of a well-off young lady named Ella, readers have the chance to listen to her conversation with a friend as she laments about what kind of Christmas gifts she should buy for the people on her list who seem to (truly) “have it all”. When her Aunt Eleanor chimes in and suggests that she put her money to a more charitable use, Ella learns that "gifts coming from love, and tending to produce love; these are the appropriate gifts of the day." 

You can find a link to this story at: www.americanliterature.com

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

People all over the world recognize the name Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish writer probably best known for the fairy tales he crafted. His work has had such a lasting impact that each year, Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday, April 2nd, is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.

In a season of peacefulness and cheer, The Little Match Girl might seem like an odd choice to include on my holiday reading list. Yes, it’s set in winter, on a snowy New Year’s Eve, but (without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it yet) on the surface it might seem like there's not much comfort and joy to be found within the story. It's the vivid descriptions of what the little match girl sees that icy evening and the promise of hope even when things seem like they can’t possibly get any bleaker that make this a beautiful story that's moved readers for well over a century.

You can find a link to this story at: www.online-literature.com

The Legend of the Christmas Spider

If I mention the word “spiders”, I’ll bet you a million dollars that the first holiday you think of is one that involves pumpkins and costumes, not one with evergreen trees and gift-wrapped presents. But in this folktale that has its roots in the Ukraine and Germany, spiders are the unlikely stars of this legend.

Curious about a special visitor that the mother of the house has spent all day preparing for, the timid spiders unwittingly make Christmas a little more festive for the family they live with when they go exploring later that night. I’ve never been a fan of spiders, but for the well-meaning arachnids in this story, I'll make an exception.

You can find a link at: www.kraftmstr.com

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

I can’t say that I’ve saved the best for last, since I chose all of the stories here because there was something in them that made me want to share their bits of magic. If one shines just a tiny bit brighter though, like the star atop a Christmas tree, it would have to be The Gift of the Magi, a story that both captivated me and broke my heart since I first read it, many, many years ago. 

Introduced to Della and Jim, a young married couple, on the day before Christmas, readers follow Della as she struggles to get the perfect gift for her husband. Things quickly turn into a bittersweet comedy of errors when she gives Jim his present, and she unwraps the one that he's gotten for her. Without revealing too much here, I'll just say that, to me, it embodies the very meaning of the season: selflessness and giving that is done out of love.

You can find a link to this story at: www.eastoftheweb.com

No matter what holidays you might celebrate, peace and joy to you and yours. What are some of your favorite winter tales?


Vic Chesnutt

by John Bloner, Jr.

When the late southern singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt's recording, The Salesman & Bernadette, arrived on Amazon.com's list of critics' top picks for 1998, Napster was still a few months away from its launch date and iTunes wouldn't debut until October 2001. While my ears couldn't hear a sample of the music, I was intrigued enough by the record's title--Who was this salesman and who is Bernadette?--as well as the website' review--"This album comes on with a quiet grace, gradually unwinds, then sidles into your heart with a kind of mournful soulfulness"--to add the disc to my online cart. It was one of the best mouse clicks I ever made.

Once in my possession, the disc did not capture my heart right away. "It's not a disc that's easily appreciated on the first listen," record reviewer Jason Josephes wrote. "But a few patient spins unravel something opaque yet shiny as hell. For me, it took more than a few spins. Six months went by before my curiosity changed into obsession, even though I played the record often. Nowadays, I can't get Bernadette out of my head.

Just these three syllables--Ber-na-dette--from Chesnutt's elliptical tongue conjure an entire movie in my mind.

French actress Bernadette Lafont with Claude Chabrol.  Photo: SIPA PRESS/REX FEATURES
Throughout his career, Chesnutt weaved names of the well-known and obscure into his songs. His titles included Isadora Duncan and Stevie Smith, honoring the late dancer and poet. The Salesman & Bernadette offers up reclusive artist Henry Darger, dance master Arthur Murray, the film Harold & Maude, Woodrow Wilson, and an unapologetic activist for civil rights for African-Americans.

She said her brother wished he was Negro
Went to school in African American studies
Once he had his picture taken with Adam Clayton Powell

By just listening to a few of his songs, it should come as no surprise that Chesnutt relished poetry and was once an English major in college. His lyrics hold up against the pantheon of Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. He writes with extreme economy, each line, a seed, ready to bear fruit for his fans.

I do not know if Chesnutt was thinking of French new wave actress Bernadette Lafont (see above) when writing the Salesman & Bernadette album or if he was familiar with the French author Violette Leduc or the film based on her book, Therese and Isabelle, when he penned the lines below, but I cannot help thinking of these women when I am wrapped up in his album. Like all the great poets and songwriters, his songs spin meanings beyond their maker. They become part of our personal makeup.

Essy Persson and Anna Gael in the film adaptation of Violette Leduc's novel, Therese & Isabelle
Chesnutt was born in the "redneck Riviera", his nickname for the state of Florida, and moved at an early age with his parents and sister to Zebulon, Georgia. At the age of 18, an auto accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. He spent four months in the hospital. During rehab, he gained enough mobility to play simple chords on his guitar. Following his release, he moved to Nashville and then on to Athens, Georgia, home to The B-52s, Drive-By Truckers, Widespread Panic and the sad-eyed champions of the minor key, R.E.M.

Michael Stipe of R.E.M. recognized Chesnutt's talent and produced his first two records, Little and West of Rome. Prior to recording The Salesman & Bernadette, Chesnutt also released the albums, Drunk, Is The Actor Happy?, and About To Choke. While the instrumentation for these records is sparse, focusing on Vic's plaintive yowl, he brought in the Nashville-based ensemble, Lambchop, for his next record to give his tunes a growl and a kick.

Lambchop redefines Nashville with its sound coming from lap steel, the burp of baritone sax, strings, whistles, organs and vibes, an assortment of small percussion items, and the powerful punch of a horn section, heard on the tune "Until The Led", that ventures south of the border near song's end. It's a glorious, body-shaking piece of music. Turn up your speakers!

Writing for Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner commented on Vic's songwriting. "Chesnutt's writerly voice is as literal as it is lyrical," Deusner wrote. "Not merely because he writes in stories and often in scenes, nor because his subject matter aligns very closely with the concerns of Southern writers like Barry Hannah and Eudora Welty, but mostly because Chesnutt can cajole words into new shapes and meanings."

R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe said, "He was able to bring levity to very dark emotions and feelings, and he had a humor that was really very unusual." Singer/songwriter, Kristin Hersh added, "Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his songs messages from the ether, uncensored."

Chesnutt's album tells a story of a traveling salesman, who is often alone, sorting through duty free shops or leafing through glossy girly magazines while he picks at his breakfast inside a highway restaurant. It's not a glamorous lifestyle.

Travellin' will do him in
Trudging through the waves of people
Till his heart is cluttered and feeble.

The record reminds me of Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, and its desperate character, Willy Loman. "They don't know me anymore," Loman says of his customers, just before killing himself. Over his grave, his son speaks of him as "a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoestring. And when they start not smiling back--that's an earthquake."

Chesnutt's salesman has seen many not-smiling faces. The thrill of the connection has passed him by.

I always heard this was such a festive town
but everybody over ten years old is frowning

His sad life descends downward until he's sitting alone in a cold room, contemplating his ruined soul. In the song, Square Room, Lambchop delivers a cold, lonely sound that whispers behind Vic's plaintive voice. It's the darkest tune on the album, but probably its best.  The salesman becomes one of T.S. Eliot's "Hollow Men"--"Voices are/in the wind's singing/More distant and more solemn/Than a fading star"--moving from town to town, belonging nowhere.

Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's 1945 film, The Lost Weekend
I could read The Salesman & Bernadette as his biography, substituting salesman for singer/songwriter who's out there on some desperate road, pulling into a new town every night, making some temporary connections and trying to find the light switch in yet another hotel bathroom. 

Vic Chesnutt knew darkness. He titled his 1993 album, Drunk. It wasn't a casual choice. He had attempted suicide several times during his 45 years before he overdosed on muscle relaxants on Christmas Day, 2009. 

You could think that the man and his music was a real downer. "I have a dark worldview," he told Mike Burr of Prefix. "But I'm also full of yuks. I'm always on the prowl for yuks, and I'm very quick to laugh." 

His friend and fellow musician, Kristin Hersh, spoke to John Doran of The Quietus in 2013, about depression and coming through it. "Darkness is real," she said, remembering what Vic had once told her. "If we go into it as darkness, it will kill us. If we go into it as light--music and life--then it will save us."

There are plenty of yuks in Vic's intro to his song, "Granny", before he tells a simple story, in music, of a child asking questions of his grandmother, and in the time of four minutes and a few chords, he is able to lift a veil on not only his life, but everyone's life who's ever loved and lost someone, and make you cry and weep with joy at the same time when the little boy's grandmother tells him repeatedly at song's end.

She said you are the light of my life and the beat of my heart.

The Neighbors Dog, a Saskatoon-produced TV series filmed Chesnutt performing this song at a house concert in Canada in late 2009.

The title of this article comes from a remark that Chesnutt makes in Speed Racer, a 1994 documentary. "People often ask me," he said, "How come you don't write songs about your wheelchair and stuff? And I say, I dunno . . . what rhymes with wheelchair, anyway?"

If you're new to Vic's music, I'd suggest that you not start with The Salesman & Bernadette, as I had done, but instead dive into the magical waters of his 1995 record, Is The Actor Happy?, which Allmusic.com called, "probably as good an album as Chesnutt has made," and of which the "1000..Before You Die" series named as one of the essential albums to hear before you breathe your last breath. 


The Dam At Otter Creek

by Jav Rivera

The 1990s were flooded with the wave of alternative bands. Many of them came to the forefront of the public eye after releasing a ballad-type track. The band Live was no different. Although they had released several hard tunes like "Selling The Drama" and "I Alone", their popularity didn't really explode until their slower song, "Lightning Crashes." I was impressed by all of their singles and eventually bought their 1994 album, "Throwing Copper." As I played the album for the first time, I admit that the first track on the album, "The Dam At Otter Creek", didn't catch my attention. Due to its slow build, I probably didn't give it much of a chance. Instead, I skipped to the more hard-hitting tunes. Little did I know what was hiding in that little creek.

Album cover (artwork "Sisters of Mercy" by Peter Howson)
Live's second album, "Throwing Copper", contains some of the more potent lyrics and music within the 90s. To me, it's their best album. In fact, I never quite followed them after this album. The original line up consisted of Patrick Dahlheimer (bass), Chad Gracey (drums, backing vocals), Ed Kowalczyk (vocals, rhythm guitar), and Chad Taylor (lead guitar, backing vocals). I thought "Throwing Copper" was an interesting album with variety and intensity.

Eventually, as with all the albums I own, I put this one aside. Every once in a while I'd rediscover one of the tracks playing on my iTunes in shuffle mode. But it was years later -- maybe even ten -- that I put the album on and for the first time really took the time to listen to it in its entirety. I was totally shocked by the opening piece.

It begins with a lone guitar, the reverb echoing and sounding like it's just been plugged in with the strings ringing. In the background, distant voices can barely be heard. A few seconds later the main riff starts; the guitar sounds eerie and secluded. Ed's voice joins in quietly with his haunting lyrics:

When all that's left to do
Is reflect on what's been done
This is where sadness breathes
The sadness of everyone

Just like when the guys
Built the dam at Otter Creek
And all the water backed up
Deep enough to dive

We took the dead man in sheets to the river
Flanked by love
Deep enough to dive
Deep enough to dive
Be here now

We took him there and three
In a stretcher made from trees
That had passed in the storm
Leave the hearse behind
To leave the curse behind
Be here now

A minute and a half in, and Ed chants the line, "Oh be here now" over and over. A couple more bars of the main riff and a drum thumps in. The song changes into a slightly more frightening tone. Ed's voice isn't timid anymore; the cymbals ting and ting. A little more than two and half minutes into the song and you can feel the song about to switch into overdrive. 

The drums are thumping, bass driving, guitars blaring, and vocals have seemingly reach their peak. But just as you think it couldn't get more intense, at three and a half minutes, the song has lost complete control. The listener's head is spinning from the intensity for a few seconds, and then as if the song was drowning, the instruments stop. The ending feels like the notes from each member of the band are floating at the bottom of a river.

Original Band Members: Chad Gracey, Patrick Dahlheimer, Ed Kowalczyk, and Chad Taylor
What I find most compelling about the track is how much it stands apart from the rest of the album. Though "Throwing Copper" contains a nice variety, "The Dam At Otter Creek" seems in its own world: Ed's unusual vocals, the band's patience in letting a song build into the beast, and the sheer fact that it's the opening track to an album. Most albums will lead with a radio-friendly tune, but that just wasn't the case here.

For more information, visit Live's official site: www.freaks4live.com. And visit Ed's site here: www.edkowalczyk.com

TRIVIA: Original lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Ed Kowalczyk left the band in 2009, though the band continues to tour and record.