The best books to give for Christmas 2010
A look at some leftfield seasonal offerings - no celebrity autobiographies or TV annuals
When bestselling memoirist Augusten Burroughs was a kid, he had something of an identity crisis. For him, Jesus Christ and Santa Claus were the same person. He couldn’t quite figure out which one of them came down the chimney on Christmas Eve and which one celebrated his birthday the following day. Not that he would get any clarification on the issue from his alcoholic father or his heavily-medicated mother who divorced when Burroughs was 12, leading to him being adopted by his mum’s psychiatrist.
While his complex upbringing has been bludgeoned into submission over the course of several books, kicking off with his 2002 debut Running with Scissors which made it onto the big screen starring Annette Bening and Brian Cox, You Better Not Cry gives his childhood traumas a seasonal flavour. Dipping back into his diagnosed ‘sensory processing disorder’, a condition of heightened mental sensitivity that he claims causes him to retain experiences more vividly than the rest of us (handy for an autobiographer, that), we hear tales of how his Claus/Christ confusion led to him inadvertently beating a life-sized Father Christmas to a waxy pulp, and in later years, waking up hungover next to a large Frenchman in a Santa suit.
Wryly observant of his family mores and able to plumb the depths of his own flawed personality, Burroughs’ book is caustically hilarious. If You Better Not Cry is an extravagantly north American take on the festive season, John Julius Norwich’s Twelve Days of Christmas is as politely English as it gets. Illustrated by Quentin Blake, the slim tome imagines the fate of one woman, Emily, at the receiving end of a literal interpretation of the carol by a male suitor, Edward. The partridge, pear tree and turtle doves are warmly welcomed, but by the time the milking maids and leaping lords are cavorting in her garden, she is apoplectic with fury. Through a daily series of increasingly haughty letters, Emily expresses her concerns to Edward before putting matters into the hands of her solicitor who pens the inevitable restraining order on the 5th of January.
The meatiest collection of the season is The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, which could have been subtitled: ‘I really like Christmas, but … ‘ as many of the 42 chroniclers here are apologetic to the point of guilt about their love of the season matched only in intensity by their disdain for the underlying ‘meaning’ of it all. So, Simon Le Bon discusses his own loss of faith, while arch humourist Charlie Brooker wonders whether God has a sick sense of fun, and Derren Brown (a former Christian who saw the atheistic light when he began to get into the psychological-illusionism game) believes that seasonal goodwill platitudes are flawed and that kindness should be for life and not just for Christmas. There are some heavyweight rationalist debates conducted by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox (the other, sciencey one) and AC Grayling, but your senses will be equally stirred at Richard Herring’s offering, ‘A Christmas Miracle’, where he writes of helping his sister’s cat get some water from the bathroom sink while he enjoys a festive poo.
You Better Not Cry and The Twelve Days of Christmas are published by Atlantic; The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is published by The Friday Project. All books are out now.