The Ocean In My Eyes

A journey towards mindfulness

Title – The Ocean In My Eyes

Author – Marcey Heschel

Illustrator – Pei Jen

Genre – Children’s literature, fiction, poetry

A charming tale for little minds, which fills readers with delight on every single page – including its dedication to bubble makers, and a copyright infringement resulting in Nimbus clouds storming your seas. The story begins with a child who lives by the sea, and finds solace in the magical tides whenever she’s stressed. She finds a pair of magic flippers, which she believes a mermaid left specially for her, since they share the color of her eyes and the sea. When she falls off to sleep she awakens underwater, encountering coral reefs and sea anemones, turtles, crabs, octopi, and a host of sea creatures.

The child suffers from anxiety, and where people and human crowds make her nervous, the marine world keeps her calm and centered. Mindfulness helps her dive into the reefs, and turn her worries into bubbles that float to the surface and disappear. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch – she is more aware of the things around her, acknowledging every sense and making peace with her emotions.

Written by Marcey Heschel in the form of poetry and accompanied with beautiful illustrations by Pei Jen, the story is recommended for the age group of 6-13 years, but has a lot to teach readers of all ages. Mindfulness is a concept that can be practiced by all, especially in the pandemic era with stresses running amok. The Ocean In My Eyes could not be a more timely book – with lockdowns and quarantine and social distancing, our senses have been challenged in the past year. The COVID virus itself causes a loss of taste and smell, our sights and sounds are strained with an overload of screen time videos and calls, contacts are limited to family members and the virtual world. Children are particularly affected with a lack of social interaction through home schooling and online lessons, cooped up either by being quarantined themselves or dealing with parents testing positive, vaccination quandaries for younger age groups.

The Ocean In My Eyes arrives like a breath of fresh air in these trying times to help children address anxiety, and also help them recognize anxiety in friends so they can reach out and be supportive. Psychotherapist Marcey Heschel has brilliantly blended her professional experience, life with her own children, and hobby of scuba diving to create a wonderful literary treasure of empathy. Let this magical story help you dive deep to find your hidden treasures, and be mindful of the world within and with out.

Stitched Lips – An Anthology of Silenced Voices

Title – Stitched Lips

Editor – Ken MacGregor

Authors – Multiple

Genre – Horror

The book caught my attention with its catchy cover – a simple design that reveals a lot. I also liked how each of the contributing writers is mentioned on the front cover, unlike most anthologies that only feature the editor’s name. I hadn’t heard of any of these writers, except for Lee Murray whose works I’ve read and loved, and was looking forward to reading the book just for Lee.

Stitched Lips turned out to be a pleasant surprise; a phenomenal compilation in every way. As the tagline states, each of the stories are set around the theme of ‘silenced voices’, and I loved how every single writer interpreted the concept and integrated it with their stories.

The anthology starts with Wordeaters, R.L. Meza’s horrifying introductory piece about monsters who devour words. You’re safe as long as you’re silent; speak one word and meet a dreadful end. We then move on to Chorus of Whispers, a haunting tale by Sarah Hans (and one of my personal favorites from the collection), about female babies made to undergo procedures that remove their vocal chords. A band of women rebel by murdering men to “steal their voices”. Linda Nagle’s way with words is to be marvelled at, as she chooses a novel setting for Jack, inside the mind of a brain-dead patient, as past and present, reality and dreamland interweave. Avocation touches social and political issues through insurance corporations denying customers medical claims, as Lucy A. Snyder delves into the intricacies and sensitivities of employees seeking promotions and fat pay checks at the cost of patients dying due to a lack of means to fund treatment. Lee Murray addresses the immigrant diaspora in Nil By Mouth, as an elderly lady seeking help for her ailing granddaughter, meets with an accident herself and is unable to communicate in the language of her host country.

The Toll takes us into the animal kingdom, through ZZ Claybourne’s tale of a female animal threatened by a male hunter. Joanna Koch navigates child abuse and pedophilia through Aristotle’s Lantern, as a movie runs for the reader through the eyes of a victim. Green of Bad Visions was another one of my favorites, as Gabino Iglesias combines immigration and botany in a thrilling tale of a scientist’s discovery being hushed up. Hailey Piper takes us to college with Why We Keep Exploding, to a land where girls explode if they speak. Artown Correctional Center is a stellar journey through Patty Templeton’s imagination of a monster that consumes inmates at a facility. Tableau Vivant ends the collection by traipsing into the world of art with Michael Paul Gonzalez, as a sidelined artist goes on a murderous spree of all the people who wronged him.

Stitched Lips is a powerful ode to voices that go unheard and people who remain unseen. Each of the stories has a strong metaphorical angle delicately balanced with pure horror and gore. When you read between the lines, the topics covered here are not uncommon. How often has someone been shushed while speaking, told to be grateful about having a job and stay silent to retain it, ordered to follow the hierarchy without asking questions, had credit stolen for work done, threatened to be extradited or fired for standing up and speaking out, the helplessness of not knowing the language of the people around you, speaking but not being heard, heard but not understood, being stalked or harassed, facing casual racism and sexism dismissed as a joke, considered irrelevant, suggestions and ideas discarded, treated like a living statue? Whether an actress abused by male co-stars, or a comatose man desperate for attention, an immigrant unable to ask for help, to a student whose research professors claim as their own, voices are silenced and people can be dismissed in myriad ways. Stitched Lips offers an ear to all those marginalized voices.

The stories were peppered with beautiful lines:

~If she didn’t move. If she didn’t speak. If she could make it look like she wasn’t breathing. This might just save her life.

~Being in a dark hole was better than being in the wide open with a monster.

~He liked making lists. He liked checking lists. He liked to think he created good by recording goods.

~It was much better to feed the Thing than be fed to it.

~Asking questions cost time and never paid extra.

~Someone always noticed, but if people thought you don’t matter, what you notice didn’t matter either.

~An echo is better than silence.

~The prison librarian was busier than deathbed regret.

~Whispers aren’t enough. Something inside me wants to roar.

~Unspoken words can’t escape. I watch her swallow them, and they stew in her guts like trapped gas in a mine.

~She clutches her gut, as if the unspoken words now burn her belly.

~Rumors in the hall were so bad they couldn’t be entirely made up unless whoever started them had a Stephen King-level imagination.

~Journeying inward, where feeling is the opposite of being.

~A thing made to be left alone, a thing to be watched only in silence.

~You want to see me prick myself on the needle of my moral compass. See what colors I bleed.

~There’s no hope, says the team. There’s every hope, says the mother.

~Hurrying nowhere gradually, their take their time in a rush, making small-talk to help pass the sixty-second, hundred-mile trip.

~The reading had stopped. The books had stopped. No words, no voices, no existence.

~He reminds himself to remember that it doesn’t matter if he forgets.

~We recommend you cease and desist robbing women of their voices, or we will take yours.

A dark collection that sheds light on important issues, Stitched Lips is not to be missed. When it comes to anthologies, it can be an arduous task to source writers of equal credibility, so that each story stands out and carries the volume to new heights. I would recommend this book not just for reading but also for great writing. There’s brilliance in every single one of the stories, when you consider how diverse they are while still adhering to a theme. Kudos to the editor Ken MacGregor for this wonderful initiative. Definitely a must-read for horror fans, Stitched Lips deserves to be read by all readers for the topics it addresses and the stand it takes for the oppressed, powerless and disenfranchised.

Some artwork I created based on the book.

Flight or Fright – A Book Review

Title – Flight or Fright

Author – Sudha Ramnath

Genre – Thriller

Close on the heels of finishing a Shirley Jackson book as part of a reading project, I wondered what to pick next. Any book would pale in comparison, so I was left deciding for a few days until I heard about a virtual author meet. Eager to interact with Sudha Ramnath – who is famed for her thrillers, mysteries and crime stories – I immediately plunged into Flight or Fright to prepare for the event, and it didn’t disappoint.

The synopsis is fairly simple – a flight bound from Mumbai to Delhi is hijacked, and the reader is taken along with the passengers to extricate themselves from the situation. But Flight or Fright is more than a hijack story. Written in a multilayered format, the first half of the book devotes a chapter to each character (and there are a great many of them). Sudha’s forte lies in the little details, so we aren’t just told about a photographer, a sports coach, corporate employees, foreign tourists, and a host of other people, but there’s a background story for every single one of them, with information that’s just enough to carry the story forward – why they do what they do, who they are and how their individual personalities work through the situation. The characterization is written so well, one doesn’t even need to keep flipping to the character list to identify each one – you know exactly whom you’re reading about and how they are connected to another character. The second half of the book doesn’t have chapter numbers but numbers of days, as the plane crash lands and the stranded survivors try to find a way to reach civilization. In between, we see correspondence exchanged among the terrorists in the form of transcripts. The narrative constantly keeps you at the edge of your seat, as you wonder what happens next and navigate through conversations, hidden and overt.

Flight or Fright is action-packed, but also has a very humane side in its presentation, as the myriad characters deal with hostile terrain, internal group dynamics, dwindling resources of food, physical and mental strength, terrorists incognito among the passengers, the quest to be found accompanied by the anxiety of being found by the wrong people – the flight crash lands outside borders and they don’t even know which country they’re in; equal chances of being welcomed by a hospitable village or thrown into a military prison. Every sentence, every word finds its place in the story, and not a single one is wasted. Sudha knows exactly what she wants to tell you, revealing enough for the reader to put the pieces together and solve the jigsaw, but holding back enough to challenge you every step of the way.

Through the crux of surviving or succumbing in a hijack, we also get side stories – each small one contributing to the larger canvas. A school principal removed through unfair means finds renewed purpose in banding people together, a housewife with a penchant for gardening enjoying the lush floral landscape, a photographer clicking memories, a politician trying to bribe his way out, people who want to play the hero and those who want to do nothing and expect others to do everything for them – the beauty of the writing is that the novel has no protagonist. Sudha gives equal strength to every character – they can either contribute to getting out unscathed, or bring harm to the whole group; a wait-and-watch rendering where everyone is a suspect.

While I have read Sudha’s short stories and screenplays, this was the first novel from the author, and she proves how wonderful a storyteller she is irrespective of story length or format. And it was a marvellous opportunity to hear her story of creating stories. Not a book to be missed!

My rating: 5/5

Grotesque: Monster Stories by Lee Murray

“Generosity could be as contagious as the plague, as long as enough people were willing to be carriers”, is a quote that opens the book and sets the tone for the kind of writing one is in for. A collection of eleven tales narrated as flash fiction, short stories and novelettes, Grotesque spans the horror landscape from mythological creatures to contemporary social media addictions, as the reader travels across France, China and New Zealand, meeting everyone from Maori warriors to zombies, spirits and sea gods and gods of earthquakes and volcanoes, Leonardo Da Vinci and Tangaroa, tin soldiers and kaiju. A taut collection I came across in a horror literature forum, the book is in equal parts thrilling, dark and educative, an action and horror fest, with layers of historical references and cultural influences.

The titular story opens the collection with an archaeological find transporting us to the 16th century to reveal its secret. As we move back and forth from the 1500s to present day, fantasy elements of horror merging with historical roots made Grotesque one of my favorite stories, and a fabulous one to start the collection as it sets the pace for what lies ahead. History is followed by mythology that serves to remind and educate about the stories of lore, as Hawaiki takes us through Chinese mythology, Taiwanese history, and the Maori immigration story; as does Maui’s Hook, another monster story with its foundations in Maori mythology. I love mythological retellings in literature as they teach you so much about different cultures around the world; legends and folklore containing treasures of life stories through the ages. The kaiju story was another one of my favorites.

The New Breed is a post-apocalyptic zombie story, while Cave Fever merges science fiction with horror through a two centuries old storm that forces mankind to seek refuge underground into a claustrophobic cave existence. Selfie and Dead End Town are out-and-out horror fests. I loved Lee’s take on the millennial social media obsession with her twisted spin on selfies in the former, while addressing domestic violence in the latter. Edward’s Journal was another stunner of pure horror – an epistolary story of colonialism featuring a British soldier from India helping white settlers in New Zealand, while Heart Music takes us through the restless spirit of a fourteen-year-old dead child. Into the Clouded Sky is a novelette of adventures in New Zealand – a ride through action, thrills, and monsters all the way, and Lifeblood pits marginalized groups against each other to detract from their actual problems.

Every story offers a unique reading experience, and encourages you to read between the lines into the theme being expressed in each one. Grotesque is a splendid collection to note the range of the writer’s prowess in relaying stories across genres and themes, having relatable elements as well as something new to learn wherever in the world you might be reading the book. Lee’s dark and disturbing tales cover commonplace topics like clicking selfies, address issues like dementia and child abuse, turn the spotlight on immigrants and grave robbers – causing the reader to ponder upon who the real monsters are. Grotesque is a collection filled with monsters, but through an array of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mythology and more, Lee reminds us that we have already encountered many monsters, with many more still to be met.

In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories force us to challenge our fears. ~Lee Murray

This book will delight horror fans, and is a magnificent collection for those new to the genre to explore. I would also recommend it to readers of mythology – there’s much information to be gleaned about world cultures. The Maori glossary is a wonderful touch to familiarize readers with terms and phrases in the stories, although Lee does a splendid job in explaining them through the context of the story itself. Lee’s creations are out of this world and each one surprises in its own way. There’s an aftertaste that you could read an entire novel surrounding each plot.

Lee Murray is an award-winning writer and editor with several novels and series to her credit. Grotesque is her first short story collection, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards this year in the category of collections.

My rating of the book: 5/5

This literary review has also appeared in the March 2021 edition of Horror Addicts under their theme of ‘Monster Madness’.

Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins – A Literary Legacy

When Australian writer Aiki Flinthart was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wanted to work on a final book as a literary legacy. Her shout out to writers who were willing to participate in a project was answered from around the globe. So, we have Garth Nix, Neil Gaiman, Lee Murray, Ken Liu, Ian Irvine, and several other authors from the fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror, experimental fiction, and speculative fiction coming together to support a fellow writer. And what a stunning display of literature has been brought forth for the reader!

Aiki’s theme was relics, wrecks, and ruins – very narrow in itself, heightening the reader’s curiosity into what the contributors could possibly have come up with. And they surprise you with one story after another! A magical carpet woven with stories that come alive, an underwater village of corpses, a submarine under attack by the real world and saved by a mythical one, a life composed of 16-minute loops, a dog stealing enchanted artifacts, musicians conducting exorcisms through rock music. A world of witches and fairies, alien interactions and underwater adventures, past and future, the highest points in space and the depths of the oceans – Relics, Wrecks, & Ruins lives up to its task of creating a legacy.

Aiki Flinthart passed away earlier this month. Her final creation is an astonishing work of art, considering the extraordinary circumstances of how it came into being. A must-read for all readers, irrespective of the genres mentioned above. It’s just so well written! When it comes to anthologies, sourcing multiple writers with equal credibility is a task in itself. Add to that their numerous genres, the narrow scope of the theme, and the fact that they’re scattered around the world and still working as a team. Flinthart could not have been prouder of the legacy she left behind.

Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down – An Autobiography of Ida Keeling

Book title – Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down

Authors – Ida Keeling and Anita Diggs

Genre – Non-fiction, autobiography

“When I ran my first race I was 67 years old. I didn’t care whether I won or not. I didn’t care whether I survived or not. The only reason I was in it was to satisfy my daughter.”

When Ida Keeling’s daughter Cheryl asked her to accompany her for a run, she immediately thought her daughter was being stalked and decided to keep her safe on the road. Having found both her sons murdered, she “couldn’t afford to lose any more children” and promptly went ahead, with maternal instincts taking over any race preparation. She won a podium in the 5K in her age category.

‘Can’t Nothing Bring Me Down’ is the story of this formidable woman who is presently 105 years old – the track and field athlete Ida Keeling, a Masters record holder. The American of Caribbean descent walks us down memory lane of having been through two world wars, the Great Depression, the American Civil War, from hearing Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ standing in front of him, to wondering if she would ever get to see a black man in the White House, battling homelessness and joblessness, being a single mother to four children, tackling racism and sexism across two centuries, addressing the African diaspora from Jamaican to Haitian history, completing college in her forties, running in her sixties, competing internationally in her eighties, here is a woman who has literally seen, heard, and done it all.

When it comes to memoirs, there is often a tendency of writers trying too hard to come across as inspirational, by listing problems which only showcase their privileges instead. Ida offers a fresh take with her matter-of-fact narrative, dismissing her hardships as “people have been worse off”. The conversational tone feels like talking to a wise old grandmother, proffering life lessons and advice on the way without praising herself. Encouraging women to have professional careers rather than being dependent on a spouse, highlighting the importance of education, the pride in supporting her niece to become an armed forces officer, the loss of two children who were found murdered with both cases never solved because no witnesses wanted to get involved with the law, the importance of reading, the uselessness of regrets, the ease with which black people get blamed and white people go free, breaking shackles of mental slavery, training for races under the guidance of her daughter, taking care of family, aiming for the sky, writing poetry, going to the gym, the fear of being trampled in her first race, the serenity that accompanies running, the elation of having another day to do what you want to do. Over a hundred years can never be compressed into a book, and a review does even lesser justice of a life story that covers everything and still leaves you wanting more.

“The gun sounded, and I was off, putting to shame younger couch potatoes, excuse givers, or plain old slackers. I surged forward in my yellow shoes, salmon-colored shirt, and matching earrings.”

Surge forward, like Ida does! And when a 100 plus woman trained by her 60 plus daughter speaks, you listen to her wisdom. Read this wonderful book to learn about this amazing personality.

My rating – 5/5

Ida and Cheryl Keeling

The Hellbound Heart – Revisiting Some Old Horror

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.”

This classic line from Clive Barker’s masterpiece, that also made it to the movie, sums up the horror ride being embarked upon. Frank Cotton is in search of Lemarchand’s Configuration – a cube that promises infinite joy by theologians of the Order of the Gash once the puzzle is solved. A pleasure dome where those who have exhausted the trivial delights of the human condition might discover a fresh definition of joy, created by the craftsman Lemarchand in the form of a musical box that can be toyed with for a lifetime and never let you in. Stories, fantasies, legends – the puzzle has an aura of mystery. Lemarchand’s device comes with pragmatic and metaphysical rules to break the seal – To solve the puzzle is to travel. The box is not just the map of the road, but the road itself. Setting the right configuration summons beings that provide a surplus of the good things in life. Only, everyone’s definition of happiness is different. Frank takes up the challenge and successfully solves the puzzle and the Cenobites deliver, but not what he expected.

Rory Cotton moves into his old family home with his wife Julia. His estranged brother, Frank, has been missing for over a year, and with no one to lay claim to the family property, they decide to settle in. Rory sustains an injury while shifting boxes, and the blood from the wound brings the house alive. Frank Cotton – or whatever is left of him – has been in the house all along, trapped in his world and tortured in the dimensions of the box. He wanted to call the Cenobites here, they took him to their realm instead. The simplicity and complexity of Lemarchand’s Configuration unleashed at once – two parties meeting, which place is the right one? Who decides right and wrong? And as Julia helps him cross over into the land of the living, the reader is taken on a journey of the cube and the echo it symbolizes, as Frank navigates his duality in the lands of the living and the dead. You can’t dream agonies away. They have to be endured.

While the Hellraiser movie, and its string of sequels (nine of them!), were a gore fest of the eighties like no other (the screenplay having been written by Clive Barker himself in his vision for the big screen, his directorial debut aimed at primarily American audiences though the book is classic British horror), the book dives deeper into the origins and workings of the box, each of the Cenobites, and what exactly happens to Frank Cotton before, during, and after solving the cube. A crossword maybe, whose solution would lift the latch of the paradise garden, or a jigsaw in the completion of which lay access to Wonderland. Those who enjoy solving jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, and Rubik cubes will marvel at Barker’s twisted take on schadenfreude through a simple musical box. The Hellbound Heart is a wonderful metaphor through horror, the Cenobites symbolic of people who find joy in other’s misfortunes, lift themselves up by bringing others down, and base their happiness on the unhappiness of others. Everyone’s definition of happiness is different, and the same situation can be interpreted in markedly different ways by two people. Someone’s hell is another person’s heaven. The mending of broken hearts is a puzzle neither wit nor time has the skill to solve.

The Hellbound Heart is a beautifully written book with amazing quotes. Those who have watched the movies and could not stomach the gore can give this one a go if you enjoy good literature. Just like Stephen King, however visually overwhelming the movies might be, the writing from a master storyteller is not to be missed. The Cenobites are neither named in the original story nor movie, but Barker’s descriptions are so vivid that Pinhead, Chatterer, and Butterball have achieved distinct horror icon status through the years. The imagery and storytelling is so good! An absolute horror classic whose movie adaptation lived up to the book, even though Barker changed the narratives.

The Shadow Runner – Book Review

Title – The Shadow Runner

Author – Vishal Bahukhandi

Genre – Frame Fiction (story within a story)

Theme – Armed forces

I came across this book while looking up a book gift for a friend, and was so piqued by the title and synopsis that I bought a copy for myself, too. Written by an ex-Army officer, The Shadow Runner offers a unique reading experience – a novel set around life in the academy which turns cadets into officers.

While the tagline itself reveals a story about two boys, the book opens in the thick of battle at Kashmir where a special forces officer remembers his “brother”, immediately heightening the reader’s curiosity about why the story begins with just one of them and what could have happened to the other. The crux of the novel surrounds two boys – Virender and Govind – complete opposites of each other, with their own reasons for wanting to don the maroon beret. We are gradually led into the Indian Military Academy (IMA), with its myriad tales of military life, training, anecdotes, friends and enemies made, banter and shared experiences, camaraderie – everything young cadets go through to complete their training and earn their status as commissioned officers of the Indian Army.

Through his own experiences serving in the army in areas of high insurgent activity like Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern states, the author enlightens us about the preparations our officers go through in order to keep our borders safe. The academy sees all kinds of candidates – those who want to serve the country, those who have been sent there by parents who themselves didn’t get the chance to serve the country, those whose parents served and were sent to the academy by default of being army kids, those who want to start a new life, get over relationships and break ups, leave their old life behind, those discouraged by family and friends over taking up “risky” jobs, those who work hard but fail to get through, those who don’t put in the effort but happen to clear the tests – a plethora of personalities who enter the academy for various reasons, but are ultimately transformed into people who would do anything for their country.

So, each of the characters have their own back story into why they are where they are. And the past leads us to another past, culminating into the reasons for the book’s present. A story within a story within a story, such that the conclusion draws you back to the beginning. I love embedded narratives as a genre, and Major Vishal has done a splendid job with this nested story. Of particular interest as a reader, is where the title fits into the storyline, and the revelation of The Shadow Runner is truly magnificent in its tribute to the men in uniform.

A book about friendship, love, sacrifice, discipline, brotherhood, heartbreak, The Shadow Runner is definitely a book for armed force aspirants, but can be enjoyed by every kind of reader. Besides memoirs and non-fiction books about historical events featuring the armed forces, fiction books authored by officers themselves are rare. It’s so beautifully written by a debut writer, I’m glad my year began with some wonderful books and I hope to see more of Major Vishal’s literary prowess. Highly recommended for its storyline, characters, niche genre, theme, and overall writing.

My rating – 5/5

Christmas Reading – Santaland Diaries

Title – Santaland Diaries

Author – David Sedaris

Genre – Essays

An autobiographical account of comedian David Sedaris’ own experiences dressing up as an elf during Christmastime, Santaland Diaries is a series of stories and anecdotes ranging from amusing to humorous and laugh-out-loud funny, while also being poignant and unsettling, heartwarming and cringe-worthy in equal measures. Centered around the theme of “Santaland”, we are taken into a world of santas and elves and all the people responsible for the cheery, joyous, festive season.

What’s a Christmas party without a Santa? How can shopping malls and community gatherings ensure a jolly vibe without Santa hearing wishes, elves giving out gifts, and pictures for posterity clicked around all the seasonal tropes (Christmas trees, snowmen, giant stars, nativity scenes). Sedaris gives us an insight into the other side of Christmas – Is making Christmas memorable for some achieved at the expense of others?

Rowdy shoppers, parents holding up the line instead of kids, squalling babies and screaming children forcefully thrust onto Santa for pictures, uninterested kids coerced into smiling for parents to post on social media, grooming (including make up and hairspray) while Santa struggles to turn away and protect his poor eyes, racism in insisting on santas of a specific skin tone, the mandatory merriment while on the job, meeting disabled and terminally ill children, the different temperaments of santas, santas who don’t like kids at all, elves arguing over who gets which Santa, and all the travails and tribulations of those who dress up to play Santa and elves for the gaiety of others.

A peculiar book that focuses on the festive season, but from a different angle that might not necessarily be festive, offering an interesting perspective into the lives of people in Santa and Elf costumes. Sedaris’ observations offer a plethora of emotions which make this book a refreshing read compared to the usual Christmas fare.

~The children are rarely allowed to discuss their desires with Santa. They are too busy being art-directed by the parents.

~I saw a parent spray their child’s hair, Santa treated as though he were a false prop made of cement.

~Santa is an anagram of Satan.

~You are the most beautiful girl I have seen in 617 years.

~All I do is lie, and that has made me immune to compliments.

~Today a child told Santa that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

~Santa was shaking each child’s hand, until he met a child with no hands. So he began patting them on the knee, until he met a child with no legs.

~A woman decided she wanted a picture of her cat on Santa’s lap. After being smuggled in and seated for exactly 5 seconds, 45 minutes were spent tracing the absconding feline.

While I read the print version of Santaland Diaries, I’ve heard the audiobook is very good, with David Sedaris having narrated it himself. If audiobooks work for you, do check out the narration as well – a substitute that promises to be more emotive in the author’s own voice.

My rating – 4/5

Christmas Reading – The Night Before Christmas

Title – The Night Before Christmas

Author – Nikolai Gogol

Original language – Russian

English translation – Anna Summers

It is the night before Christmas. A witch blots out the stars from the sky. The Devil flies up to the moon, grabs it like a hot pancake, and stuffs it into his pocket. The world is plunged in darkness. Carolers, revelers, family and friends – people cannot see where they are going, who they’re bumping into, all houses look the same, the road cannot be seen at all. A series of misadventures and misfortunes plague a quaint little Ukrainian village on Christmas Eve.

Written in 1831 by one of the juggernauts of literature, often referred to as the Father of Russian literature, Gogol’s dark take on the night before Christmas is based on Ukrainian folklore, and his story is still read to Russian and Ukrainian children on Christmas Eve. A night of adventure with a moon stealer and his hidden agenda against a local blacksmith, who is trying to win the love of the village beauty, whose father is besotted by a witch, who doesn’t get along with her son, who is trying to outwit the Devil…throw in a tsarina and a deacon, and on and on we go in the dark, snowy night.

Accompanied by some marvellous illustrations that fill you with laughter and admiration at the same time. And the beautiful prose! Makes you marvel at the ingenuity of the translator who faced a commendable task, considering a lot of Gogol’s writing involves a witty concoction of wordplay and idioms of the local dialect.

~If a man carries the devil on his shoulders, he doesn’t have far to go.

~He stared at him with his mouth open, as though ready to swallow the very first word of explanation like a noodle.

~She cares for me as little as for a rusted horseshoe.

~A moonlit night, brighter than daylight.

~What devil has done this to the moon, I want to know?

~The witch collected a sleeve full of stars.

~The day of Christmas Eve ended, and the night began.

~The district scribe crawled out of the tavern and saw the moon dancing in the sky, but who would believe him?

A peculiar Christmas story that combines tradition with fantasy and legend, with classic tropes of good versus evil in a rollicking ride of hilarity. There’s a reason why classics stand the test of time, and why Russian literature is replete with such masterpieces – you can never be disappointed, whatever you pick up. A wonderful read to learn about world cultures, and different traditions surrounding the same occasion. Or read this just for Gogol.