Day 24. Montana novelist Kevin Canty agreed to be our poster-author for last-minute shopping, and boy are we glad we asked. We’ll let him tell about his shopping technique, with links to his favorite stores, Fact & Fiction and Shakespeare & Co in Missoula:
Well, it’s happened again: first week of December, the postal person drops off the mail, my dog barks his fool head off, I go out expecting nothing and there it is: the L.L. Bean catalog that says “There’s Still Time!” in big red letters on the cover.
This happens every year and every year I find myself yelling at a catalog. I say, Of course there’s still time! Christmas is practically a month away! “Last-Minute Shopping” is weeks from now! The “last minute” starts at 11:59 am on December 24th. Anything before that is anticipatory.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I come from a long line of Christmas junkies. I have a respectable collection of trashy Christmas music, from the Ronettes through Los Straitjackets, and enough sparkly ornaments to outfit Liberace’s tree. But unto each thing its season, people, and that season is not Thanksgiving! Nobody can be Christmasy for a month.
Plus last-minute shopping (the real last minute) is super-pleasant and relaxing. The carolers are out, the window displays are sparkling, and everybody else is home making pie. Do you see anybody macing the other shoppers over a Blu-Ray player? No you do not. Those people are all home, or in jail. The people who were going to freak out about things all freaked out a month ago, when the first last-minute catalog showed up. The rest of us are just going about out Christmas business,whistling Good King Wenceslas.
When I lived in Portland years ago, I developed the perfect shopping technique. I’d park by Powell’s and make my way across downtown, shopping—but never buying—in every interesting store along the way. At the far end, I’d grab a Guinness at the Veritable Quandary and cross- reference cool presents with the people on my list. On the way back to the car, there was no more shopping, just buying—and at the end of the trail there was Powell’s. In the end, almost everybody got books. In those days Powell’s was a gigantic unheated gloomy barn of a place but they had something for everybody: a 1974 Fiat owner’s manual for Tom, a Nan Goldin book for Lucy. Everybody was happy on Christmas morning, and I was home safe by 4 o’clock, ready to wrap with an eggnog in my hand.
So here’s to you, last-minute shopper. Well played. Enjoy your Christmas. And just in case you have a few blank spots on your shopping list still, here are some suggestions.
For novels, I’ll suggest Old Filth by Jane Gardam, a kind of coming-of-old-age novel, quite funny and moving. The central character is a retired judge, back in England after a career in the East; the “filth” in the title stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Also out in paperback is one of my favorite novels from the other year, Day for Night by Frederick Reiken, a dazzling, swift and almost indescribable novel about almost everything.
One other long-shot: If you have a real dedicated reader on the list, you might give them the first volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. This is a 12-novel series (!) following the British 20th century through the lives of a sprawling set of characters; we meet them as schoolchildren and last see them in the beginnings of old age. I found these novels funny, strange and deeply satisfying, and there’s something about the size of the project that really sets it apart. (They come packaged three novels to a volume so you don’t have to give the whole bookshelf).
For stories: I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black is a debut collection by an occasional Missoulian. Very smart, very sharp.
My favorite art book of the last couple of years is A Study of Vermeer by Edward Snow. This is by no means a coffee-table book, though it is beautifully illustrated. Rather, it’s an extended act of seeing, of reading into these beautiful pictures, of helping the reader to see what’s right there on the surface.
Also by Edward Snow is his translation of The Poetry of Rilke. This was recommended to me by a poet pal as the best English translation, and while I’m in no position to judge one way or another, what’s on the page seems sensible and musical and exact. (I asked for this for Christmas last year & I got it!)
Finally, if you’re tired of dragon tattoos or hysterical overplotting, the mystery novels of Henning Mankell are similarly Scandinavian and very satisfying. His main character is a somewhat depressive, exhausted police detective named Kurt Wallander. I took The Fifth Woman on a transcontinental trip recently and the hours in the air passed painlessly. Very enjoyable, plenty of mayhem lovingly described.