Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas!

I know what I really want for Christmas. I want my childhood back. Nobody is going to give me that. I might give at least the memory of it to myself if I try. I know it doesn’t make sense, but since when is Christmas about sense, anyway? It is about a child, of long ago and far away, and it is about the child of now. In you and me. Waiting behind the door of our hearts for something wonderful to happen. A child who is impractical, unrealistic, simpleminded and terribly vulnerable to joy. - Robert Fulghum in "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten"

May your Christmas be merry & bright - Dominique

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas...

For James

We were planning this for years! It never worked, no matter how much we tried. Each year we would promise to celebrate Christmas together, but each year around Thanksgiving at least four of us would find an excuse. Maybe because neither of us ever forgot that fateful Christmas Eve party of 1981. We were in it together. We promised to stay in touch and we did, but we kept avoiding each other. And no one ever mentioned Ginny.

Occasionally one or two of us would accept an invitation to a wedding or to a birthday party. And each of us knew what the others were up to. But the whole gang never met together again. Until this year, that is. Thirty years later!

We rented a house near Aspen and booked our air tickets on time. We agreed to take our spouses with us, but the kids were to stay at home. 

We all made it in life. Ron in Boston. Kira in New York. Bob's law firm was the best on the West Coast. Tom did well on Wall Street. Susan became a Governor of Texas. John decided to give a shot for the White House in the next elections. Chris directed the best Symphony Orchestra in the country. And my project won the prestigious 2011 Architectural Vision Award. Only Donna wasn't doing so well. Her company was under Congressional investigation and you could read about it for weeks in papers across the country. Even the British Financial Time mentioned the scandal. Heads would have to roll, they wrote, and we knew precisely whose head it was to roll first.

I guess, no one in the gang knew that John was cheating on Donna back then. They were to get married, but John could not resist temptation. Ginny was absolutely gorgeous and all the guys had eyes on her. But she was a taboo. Because of her father. There was even a rumor that she was a mistress of Senator Coldwell, but we did not believe it. Coldwell was a friend of her father. They both were running the political scene in Boston. We simply could not imagine that anyone would want to risk his career for a seventeen years old beauty. But after we found Ginny dead under the Christmas tree, I wasn't that sure anymore. 

We were so stoned at that Christmas Eve party that neither of us could even give a coherent testimony to the cops investigating the crime. We smoked too much Mary Jane and the Christmas punch was stronger than it was supposed to be. It was pure booze with cloves and cinnamon. Ginny's time-tested recipe. 

Poor Ginny was strangled that night and if she screamed for help, we did not even hear her. The music was too loud. 

I remember that there were few other people in the house, but they left early. Ginny's parents were attending a Christmas reception at the Governor's house and all the servants were given a day off. 

The police did not find any traces of an intruder and speculated that it must have been one of us. They could not prove anything, so Ginny's murder remained unsolved. 

Things were never the same for us after that. A shadow of suspicion spread over our friendship. After the funeral we decided to never talk about Ginny again. 

For years I suspected Donna, but never went to tell the cops. She was the jealous type. There wasn't a day that she would not make a scene. Eventually, John broke off their engagement and Donna moved to Chicago to live with her older sister. She told me that she wanted to get her degree there. I knew better.

* * *

My flight was delayed for another twenty minutes, but strangely, I was relaxed. I seldom traveled for pleasure and usually got very upset when my schedule got messed up. But today I was holding Jim's hand. He was still talking on the phone with his secretary. Last minute business had popped up unexpectedly.

The flight was quite pleasant, but I could not stop thinking about our reunion. Jim had met Susan and Ron before, and was a great fan of Chris, but I knew that his political views would collide with John's vision for the country. If we could only leave the politics out of our gathering! 

I took a nap while Jim was reading his book. I don't know how long I have slept. I only knew that I had a nightmare. For the first time in years I found myself in Ginny's house. Drunk. Everybody was singing and dancing. I saw John disappearing with Ginny. Oh, no! He was the last person who have seen her alive. It occurred to me that this actually wasn't a dream. It was a memory that I repressed for years. I could even hear Ginny's laughter. John meant nothing to her. He was not a match to the man she was in love with. 

I now clearly remembered that John reappeared from the library quite disheveled. Back then I thought that he just spent some exciting time with Ginny, when in fact, she was struggling with him. No sooner than he entered, Donna was all over him. I had another cup of punch. The next thing I remember was the scream. Susan had found Ginny under the Christmas tree. Ginny was lying there like an unwanted gift. Dead.

* * *

John probably will win the presidency. But what if he is a murderer? I need to talk to someone. Can anyone of them be trusted? Or shall I confront John? We were good friends back then...

Thirty years on and we still looked great! Everybody was already there when Jim and I  finally arrived. Many new faces. Susan came with her second husband. Ron brought his dazzling new wife. Kira came with her lover. Tom finally married his college sweetheart, a prominent Boston lawyer whose name I could never remember. And freshly divorced Chris brought his new love Maureen. She was Irish and played first violin in his orchestra. Chris looked very happy. But when didn't he?

The house was fantastic! We had a large Christmas tree in the living room. And a fire place! Donna took care of the entire arrangement. An old friend of her was a real estate mogul in Colorado. He knew how to live in style. You could actually smell the money.

Everything seemed perfect. It wasn't very cold outside and all was set for the greatest Christmas Eve party ever. A five star catering company took care of our meals, while John provided the champagne. He was in the mood to celebrate. The primary campaigns were absolute success and everything looked like he would secure his party's nomination. The incumbent in the White House had no chance! Dom PĂ©rignon for all!

Champagne helped us relax into a festive mood. We cracked old jokes and laughed at our past adventures. The music was loud and someone brought Mary Jane. Like in the old days! We smoked at the porch and drunk hot Christmas punch that wasn't as good as the one Ginny made years ago. All the years that separated us from that fateful day seemed to be forgotten and we were our old selves again.

Susan was making angels in the snow and everybody laughed. Ron was dancing with Kira. Jim mingled with the other spouses. I approached John and asked him to follow me into the house. No one seemed to have noticed that we disappeared from the porch. Standing next to the festive Christmas tree, his smile vanished when I told him that I knew he killed Ginny. If this ever came out he could forget the White House. The next thing I knew was that John was glaring at me, his hands around my neck. I could hear everybody sing my favorite Christmas song. Have yourself a merry little Christmas... La la la la la... I struggled. Unable to utter a sound, I saw my world disappear into a deep, scary blackness...

By Dominique Allmon

Creative Commons License
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas... by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Also of interest Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Mark Steyn. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Winter Reading

This was supposed to be a holiday gift guide for readers and book lovers, but I was busy doing other things and now it is almost too late. Most gifts are already bought, wrapped, stashed away and waiting impatiently for Christmas. 

No holiday gift guide this year, but a winter reading inspiration instead. 

I believe that book lovers have a secret code. When it starts to snow in December the bookstores are filled with greedy buyers. Some books are bought for others, but most money is spent on books that we take home to devour by ourselves. And believe me, there is nothing better to do on a dark, cold winter afternoon that to read a book in a comfort of a warm and cozy study. Or in bed.

One of the books I would love to read right away is an ingenious and clever book written in 1934 by Dorothy L. Sayers - The Nine Tailors. Set in the remote village of Fenchurch St. Paul, this mystery involves an unknown body, which has been disfigured and mysteriously buried in the same grave as a local woman, shortly after the New Year. Many years before, a magnificent necklace of emeralds was stolen here, though it was never found. Two men and a local woman were implicated in the theft, and both men served time in prison. Now the unknown body, the fate of the two men involved in the theft of the emeralds, the whereabouts of the necklace, and the involvement of seemingly upright citizens of Fenchurch St. Paul are all under investigation. 

Here is another book that was published some years ago: The Archivist by Martha Cooley. This literary debut tells a story of a young woman who is after a sealed cache of T. S. Eliot's letters. The critics wrote that this an emotionally charged novel - a story of marriage and madness, of faith and desire, of jazz-age New York and Europe in the shadow of the Holocaust. Published in 1999, The Archivist was a word-of-mouth bestseller and one of the most jubilantly acclaimed first novels of recent years. To me the plot seems quite intriguing and I am willing to explore the universe  guarded by the proud archivist Mathias Lane.

Just like any reader I often dare to tread a new territory. By chance I stumbled upon a writer who was a complete terra incognita to me: an American writer Johnathan Carroll who currently lives and writes in Vienna whom critics compared to South American magical realists. I decided to pick his latest publication - a compendium of thirty eight extraordinary stories that appeared last November under the title The Woman Who Married a Cloud. A little magic and fantasy on a cold winter afternoon is probably what anybody needs right now.

Vienna! An European city that occupies a very special place in my heart. As every year, millions of people all over the world will watch the New Year's Concert performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The program takes the listeners on a journey to Austria of the Strauss Dynasty and the lightness of the operetta. Among many things, Vienna is a birthplace of exquisite pastries, Art Nouveau, and of course, the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud. What would be more tempting than a mystery novel about the Herr Doctor's most famous patient's demise set in 1910? Published in 2000, The Fig Eater by Jody Shields has an intriguing plot: When a young woman's body is discovered in the summer of 1910 Vienna, the Inspector's wife is certain the figs found in her stomach during the autopsy are the clue to the identity of the murderer - for there are no fresh figs in Vienna at this time of year. What separates The Fig Eater from ordinary mystery fiction is the look it offers at detective work in the early 20th century.

Imagine Vienna forty, fifty years later. It is the time of Cold War and the neutral Austria is caught between two worlds. Vienna is a place where spies and diplomats peddle their "goods." And while the people in the West enjoy their freedom, those in Eastern Europe are forced to live under the heavy boot of Soviet Russia.

No one in the East expected that this was to be their existence after the brutal Nazi occupation, but the powers to be drafted their future at Yalta months before the war ended. What followed was a brutal subjugation of millions of people that lasted more than four decades. A fascinating new book sheds light on the events that took place after the fall of the Third Reich. Published in July 2012, Savage Continent by Keith Lowe is a must for anyone who is trying to understand how historical consequences of that period shaped the Europe of today.

As the year is nearing its end we not only have big hopes for the future, but we also try to make sense of what happened in the last twelve months. What would be better than reflect on the purpose of life on earth under the guidance of a prominent thinker? In his new book An Unknown World philosopher Jacob Needleman frames our role on this planet in a completely new and refreshing way. He moves beyond the usual environmental concerns to reveal how the care and maintenance of a world is something vital and basic to our existence as authentic human beings. The book is timely as winter is a good time for reflection.

But what a winter reading list be without such classics like the Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Letter From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien, or The Glamour of the Snow by Algernon Blackwood? Or The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey beautifully set in Alaska of the 1920? Or the Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher? Or the now almost forgotten Smila's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg?

How about something a little more sinister like The Eighth Circle of Hell by a British crime author Gary Dolman? Set in the 19th century British Empire, this chilling novel touches a disturbing subject that is maybe not everybody's cup of tea, even if it should. I will not reveal more. You really have to go and get the book to find out more. 

Thousands of books are published annually and thousands of writers wait to be discovered. Winter is a good time for exploration. Booksellers offer great deals before Christmas and like many other things, books are on sale now. 

Wishing everyone fascinating literary adventures this winter - with much Love, Light and Laughter - The Reader