This year I didn’t have one.
Oh, I had some reading lined up – I always need that – but I didn’t have the book that I thought might once again help to define my Christmas for me… yes, it is sad, I know.
These seasonal reads don’t have to be festive or jolly or anything like that. Quite the opposite, in fact. A few years back, I had ‘In The Forest’ by Edna O’Brien, which may well be the bleakest book ever written. It was quite reviled in certain circles, here in Ireland, because it recounted a real-life murder and did so in great emotional and physical detail.
I liked it very much.
Then there was ‘I’m Not Scared’ by Niccolo Ammaniti. What a great Christmas treat that was! Have you read it? You really should. It’s about a boy who finds a similarly-aged boy trapped in a pit deep in the Italian countryside. I will say no more than that, lest I spoil it. There was a film too, which was good, but the book is a complete joy.
So here was I, this year, without a reserved seasonal read. I was re-reading ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and loving it all over again but that was only going to take and hour or two anyway. What to do?
Then we went round to our friend’s house on Christmas Eve, as we traditionally do, and she had four books on her table.
“I got talking to the bookshop owner,” she said, “and she recommended these.”
She suggested that I take one and read it and tell her if it was any good. It seemed like fate, perhaps it was.
They were four slim attractive volumes. I picked one, I can’t remember what the other three were, sorry.
I picked ‘Fists’ by Pietro Grossi. I had never heard of it. My reasons were selecting this one were as sophisticated as ever – I liked the look of the cover (with the horse and all) plus it reminded me of the aforementioned ‘I’m Not Scared’ because it was also Italian and the cover was brown. Like I said, sophisticated reasoning…
So, having read it, I now wish to wholeheartedly recommend my 2009 Christmas read to you. Pietro Grossi is a young writer who claims Hemingway and Salinger as influences. This is not hard to see. Maybe my perception was a little heightened by finishing ‘Old Man and the Sea’ at the same time, but Grossi writes most convincingly of the sporting challenge and the condition of being a Man. He also writes with that sparse, razor style that I admire so much in the writers who have influenced him.
The book is made up of three long short stories (too short to be classed as novellas). The first and best concerns boxing and gives one of the best accounts of a boxing match that I have ever read. The second deals with horses and the third and least convincing is about the friend of a man who believes he is a monkey.
I really enjoyed this book. The writer is confident enough to get out of his stories when he feels his work with them is done – even if we, the readers, might not fully agree. He writes like a man who knows what he is writing about – a man who has stood in the ring, a man who has healed horses. I believe him in what he writes.
So once again this year, I have had my holiday read. “Christmas 2009” will be partially defined for me by Pietro Grossi and his great little book.
Next year… who knows?
Post Script: Jim Murdoch reviewed this book some time ago. I would have read his review at the time. I must have forgotten about it... or did I? Read it here and note the Author's reply in the comments. Carries some literary weight, does 'Oor Jim'.