Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

Holiday Grab Bag

Holiday Grab Bag

By Miriam R. Kramer

As Christmas and Hanukkah approach, we are looking at a different way of celebrating. We will probably have holiday Zoom parties this year to satisfy social distancing requirements, since we are heading into another wave of the pandemic. Reading is one of the best ways to escape and cheer us up during this uncertain but hopeful time transitioning to a new presidency and the happy possibility of effective vaccines arriving soon. Please stop doomscrolling on Twitter or diving into Facebook. Take the opportunity to find stories to satisfy yourself and give to others in the spirit of the season.

The Deepest South of All, by British author and outsider Richard Grant, tells a fascinating tale about his visits to Natchez, Mississippi, an insular city that celebrates its many eccentricities and internal historical contradictions. On the one hand, Natchez often promotes a whitewashed image of its Confederate heritage, with grand parties at which women still wear hoopskirts, belong to warring “garden clubs,” and celebrate Natchez’s array of well-kept antebellum mansions. Simultaneously it struggles to reconcile itself with its African-American heritage of oppression. Those descended from slavery attempt to bring Natchez into the twenty-first century, with their own set of peculiar, colorful histories brought to the forefront. Inextricably intertwined, the histories of Whites and Blacks make for a complicated and compelling tale of life in contemporary Natchez. If you enjoyed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the absorbing nonfiction story of Savannah by John Berendt, this account will almost certainly intrigue you.

Don Winslow, author of the masterful, thinly fictionalized accounts of Mexican drug wars and their North American economic entanglements, The Cartel Trilogy, recently released Broken, a collection of short, haunting novellas that focus on criminals, the police, government agents, bounty hunters, and ordinary people trying to do the right thing. Winslow writes forcefully and kinetically, creating tautly written tales that draw in a reader by examining the juxtaposition of good and evil, along with the shades of grey in between. He sometimes leavens his dramatic stories with humor, making them more palatable for those needing a break from everyday tensions. For those with short attention spans who are fans of crime and detective stories, this book is an excellent choice. For fans of authors like Michael Connelly, I would also recommend his less-recent book about corruption amongst the police in New York City, The Force.

A few of Winslow’s stories seemed to be influenced by Carl Hiaasen, the noted Floridian humorist and columnist who writes satirical crime novels about the craziness of Floridian criminals and oddball residents. From Hiaasen’s experience as a reporter, he is perhaps the one most apt to write about “Florida Man,” a popular meme that reports on bizarre Floridians who do stupid things and end up in jail.

Hiaasen’s new novel, Squeeze Me, is a joyful, hilarious romp through the snobby, old-money realm of Palm Beach, Florida. Hijinks ensue when a Burmese python, one of an invasive species that has consumed many native animal species in the Everglades, slithers into a society benefit outside one of Palm Beach’s many mansions. Hiaasen’s story showcases an unnamed, boorish President of the United States and his unfaithful First Lady, who arrive from Washington, DC regularly to visit the so-called Winter White House, named here “Casa Bellicosa.” When an animal wrangler has a headless frozen python stolen from her, she meets the chief of the Palm Beach police and a steadfast Secret Service agent. Then she is invited back to take care of an ensuing onslaught of pythons wreaking havoc amongst arrogant Palm Beach society and the President’s sycophants. Hiaasen’s novels often address the destruction of the environment in the Everglades, but they are always hilarious. Squeeze Me proves no exception to the rule. I read it while waiting to find out the results of the recent presidential election, and it was the perfect antidote to election stress.

If you seek a compelling coffee table book suitable for almost anyone, The Color of Time is a great choice. Historian Dan Jones and artist Marina Amaral have collaborated on depicting just over a hundred years of world history, from the beginning of photography as a widespread art form and method of recording history in about 1850 throughout its evolution to 1960. Amaral specializes in precisely coloring black-and-white photographs to make them more accessible to contemporary readers. As Dan Jones presents a historical timeline, he describes the events behind the photographs Marina Amaral colors, thus bringing to life historical happenings both through vivid descriptions and carefully tinted portraits and group photos. Purchase this book for yourself or for the historian in your life who would appreciate brilliant visuals that illustrate momentous events in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

If you can, consider buying your literary presents at independent bookstores online or in person. If they cost a bit more than they do at Amazon, remember that your purchases help keep businesses on their feet and your neighborhood’s economic health strong. Speaking of health, here’s to a lovely holiday season that brings us a reprieve from our worries and a new year offering solutions to the problems we faced in 2020.

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