Christmas books are the gifts that keep on giving—to writers. Pen a yuletide favorite like Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box and you’re virtually guaranteed a perennial best-seller. This season, three very different authors offer holiday-themed books with one thing in common: They’re all short. Apparently, the best present you can give someone is to not make them read too much.
If you believe the publisher’s press release (and that’s almost as rational as believing in Santa), John Grisham’s novella Skipping Christmas is ”certain to become as timeless and beloved a classic as A Christmas Carol and The Grinch.” Grisham certainly begs comparisons to Scrooge with his main character, the all-too-aptly named Luther Krank, a miserly modern-day tax accountant who decides to save the money he’d normally spend on decorations and gifts and take his wife, Nora, on a cruise instead. (The cutesy monikers don’t end with the Kranks—two of Nora’s Xmas-obsessed friends are named Candi and Merry.)
Even at 177 minipages, Skipping Christmas feels padded, as Luther’s attempt to elude the holiday celebration becomes a scandal in his unnamed town. The furor over his refusal to join all the other homeowners on his block and put a Frosty the Snowman statue on his roof is meant to be a satire of suburbia, but it reads more like a bad sitcom. (Plus, are there no Jews, Buddhists, or Muslims in this neighborhood?) Despite a few nicely observed details—like Nora’s emergency stash of Christmas cards, ”so she could respond immediately to an unexpected card”—Grisham mostly trades in stale fruitcake jokes and sub-Christmas Vacation slapstick. Like his recent coming-of-age novel, A Painted House, Skipping represents a departure for the king of the legal thrillers, but in this case, it’s to an unworthy destination.
Still, Grisham’s book is like, well, A Christmas Carol or The Grinch compared with Jan Karon’s The Mitford Snowmen. This is the latest installment in the author’s wildly popular series set in the fictional small town of Mitford, a place so sticky-sweet that it could make Garrison Keillor gag. Unlike such earlier full-length works as At Home in Mitford, Snowmen weighs in at a whopping 23 pages, some of them filled with generic seasonal illustrations. The plot, if you can call it that, concerns a snowman-building contest, and the characters speak in Snuffy Smith-style rural slang (the word dadgum is used with no detectable trace of irony). The final page informs us that Hallmark offers a Mitford collection—which seems perfectly appropriate, since this is the literary equivalent of a greeting card.
For a more authentic account of country-style holidays, check out Jimmy Carter’s Christmas in Plains, a sequel to his best-selling boyhood memoir, An Hour Before Daylight. (Oddly, once-unpopular Presidents Carter and Nixon have enjoyed greater authorial success than the more widely approved Ronald Reagan, a fact that doesn’t bode well for Bill Clinton’s $10 million-plus book deal with Knopf.) In plainspoken prose, Carter recalls winters spent in his bucolic Georgia hometown, a beacon of calm that he finds himself drawn back to every December ”like the North Pole on a magnetic needle.”
His childhood anecdotes mix familiar Christmas traditions like church pageants, fireplaces, eggnog—Carter even includes his father Earl’s recipe for the beverage—with such regionally specific customs as setting off fireworks, firing buckshot at trees to gather mistletoe, and killing hogs for a seasonal treat known as sousemeat (”a conglomeration of feet, ears, faces, and other parts”). But the book’s best sections recount the four holidays Carter spent in the White House. Among the notable moments: Bob Hope’s fruitless offer to stage a show for the U.S. hostages in Iran; Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s embarrassing plea for people to spend the season praying for Carter’s recovery from hemorrhoids; and the President’s mad search to secure a scarce Trivial Pursuit game.
Christmas in Plains’ sole flaws are the rudimentary illustrations drawn by the President’s daughter, Amy. They suggest the work of a talented 12-year-old rather than the grown-up woman Amy is now. But only a Scrooge—or a Krank—would complain. Skipping Christmas: C+ The Mitford Snowmen: D Christmas in Plains: B+