Smells like Christmas spirit

Never mind annual longings for strings of blinking lights, fussily wrapped packages and a glut of frosted cookies — despite our best efforts in those veins, the holiday season still has an annoying way of making us question our material ideals.

After the Grinch stole Christmas, the Whos down in Whoville still held hands and sang songs. After being visited by three ghosts, Ebenezer Scrooge had a change of heart.

Keeping with that theme of moral revelation, two contemporary authors, in two just-published holiday tales, are offering decidedly different wake-up calls.

Plenty of sugar, easy on the spice

Fannie Flagg is perhaps best known for her Southern-flavored book-to-movie Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. In her latest effort, A Redbird Christmas (Random House, 2004), Flagg delves into the Deep South once again, finding Christmas cheer in balmy weather, friendly folks and laid-back living.

OK, there’s a fair amount of schmaltz, too. Chicago-native Oswald T. Campbell, who boasts a hard-luck story to rival Little Orphan Annie’s, gets his walking papers, so to speak, from his physician. The verdict: Leave the brutal Northern winters or prepare to perish before the new year.

And that’s supposed to be a grueling decision?

Anyway, Campbell finds himself suddenly in the sultry Alabama village of Lost River. Content to fritter away his remaining days doing nothing, our hero is surprised to find himself quickly drawn into the tiny town’s goings-on. In fact, he’s a bit of an instant celebrity — an eligible bachelor plunked down in a town of lonely single women.

This is probably the most enjoyable part of the book: aging Campbell as an unwilling Casanova, the eccentric and nosey-but-well-meaning Lost River residents, and the multiple lonely-hearts stories woven into the narrative. But there’s also the redbird theme — an injured bird that befriends a ragged little girl — which elevates the tale to tearjerker status.

“Isn’t it amazing how one little bird changed so many lives?” the former Windy City-slicker muses at the book’s close. Well, it’s not like you don’t see it all coming, but there’s still an aw-shucks feeling of alcohol-free holiday cheer.

Don’t expect brilliant narrative or surprise twists (this is no Gift of the Magi), but do look forward to a happy ending and Flagg’s requisite inclusion of tasty recipes.

Topping Santa’s blacklist

Realizing Christmas has a tendency toward the saccharine, author Christopher Moore heartily rebels with the rancorous The Stupidest Angel (William Morrow, 2004). Yes, there are Salvation Army Santas and lots of evergreens in Pine Cove. There are also brain-sucking zombies.

Moore actually warns his readership that his book contains “cusswords as well as tasteful depictions of cannibalism and people in their forties having sex.” That caveat, for this reader, was the selling point.

Here’s the premise: An angel has been sent to earth to grant a Christmas wish to one child. That child happens to be a kid who’s just witnessed the murder of Santa — or at least an evil, drunk developer in a Santa suit. Thinking that with Santa dead he’ll never get the gifts he was planning on, the kid wishes Santa resurrected. Here’s the problem: The angel would’ve done better working for Charlie than for the Almighty. He’s just too blond for his own good.

Throw in a stoned cop; a retired actress who hallucinates she’s a warrior princess; a battle-ax bar wench; a lady-killer with a pet fruit bat and El Nino — and you’ve got all the necessary ingredients to whip up Moore’s Christmas of the living dead.

But readers whose hearts flutter at the likes of Redbird may be courting coronary danger with the caustic Angel.

“‘Oh my, I don’t seem to be walking very well,'” said Esther, dragging one foot behind her and plowing a furrow in the mud as she moved. “‘But IKEA does sound like a delightful after-supper adventure.'”

Moore goes on to pen: “No one knows why, but second only to eating the brains of the living, the dead love affordable prefab furniture.”

Of course, Angel isn’t all gore and destruction. Like in Frosty the Snowman, when the snowman melts into a sad puddle, there is indeed a Christmas miracle that unfolds in — what else? — the nick of time. But don’t expect too much magic dust in Moore’s cynical yarn — the moronic angel has to figure out himself how to unravel the mess he’s created.

While this book isn’t exactly good clean family fun, it is highly recommended for those who prefer a little holiday jeer to balance all the cheer.

A Redbird Christmas and The Stupidest Angel are available at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.), Barnes & Noble (89 S. Tunnel Road), Books-a-Million (136 S. Tunnel Road), and Accent on Books (854 Merrimon Ave.).

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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