A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this edition on Amazon US

52 thoughts on “A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

  1. Interesting isn’t it, FictionFan, that the autobiographical stories are more overly sentimental than are the others. I don’t care much for mawkish, myself, so I can see how that aspect didn’t appeal to you very much. But the other stories sound engaging, and I like the way Capote explores relationships.

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    • Yes, after In Cold Blood I think I was very aware that Capote is happy to manipulate “truth” for emotional effect, so the tidy moral lessons in the autobiographical stories didn’t ring true to me, whereas the emotionalism in the fictional ones worked because they weren’t supposed to be true – if that rambly sentence makes any sense! I do like his writing style, though – must make a mental note to stick to his fictional work in future!

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  2. We read Children on Their Birthdays in an English class when I was 12 or 13 and the minute you mentioned Miss Bobbit I remembered it, although I hadn’t thought of it once since (nor even remembered that it was Truman Capote who wrote it). Isn’t that strange?

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    • I think he’s worth reading, although I don’t think I’m ever going to become a major fan. This collection has had far more glowing reviews from other people, so don’t let me put you off!

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    • I’ve only read this and In Cold Blood, which I also had some issues with around the way he manipulates “truth”. In future I think I’ll stick to his fictional stuff – that seems to work better for me.

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  3. That’s a shame the autobiographical extracts came across as overendulgent, I guess there always needs to be a degree of distance between art and the self. The fiction stories seem to have had more going for them, so at least you got something from the experience. I rather liked the Avonlea short stories, so if they were in the same veign, I might get something from these too.

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    • Yes, in future I think I’ll stick to his fictional stuff – I never feel he really tells the “truth” in his non-fictional work – I had similar issues with the way he manipulated events for emotional impact in In Cold Blood. I loved the Avonlea stories when I was a kid and feel it’s long past time I revisited them. From memory. the moral messages in them were balanced by humour…

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  4. The last one you’ve listed sounds like the best here. Those autobiographical ones would be torture for me to read. Why do writers feel a need to work through the travails of their youth, especially when nobody is alive to verify or protest? Seems he should have put this stuff in a diary or journal, then tossed the key! (Oops, I’m getting a bit snarky, aren’t I? Sorry!)

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    • Haha, I must admit I feel brutal about writers pouring their self-pity all over me too! It’s like the fashion for misery memoirs – I always find myself wanting to tell them to stop whining, pull themselves together, and move on! 😂

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  5. I’m surprised this garnered four smiles from you based on what you said. Far different from In Cold Blood! I think I’ll pass on this one, though I’d still like to give Breakfast at Tiffany’s a shot.

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    • Strictly mathematical – 3×3 + 5×3 = 24/6 = 4! 😉 Yes, although I had similar issues with In Cold Blood, in that he cheerfully manipulated the “truth” for emotional effect. However, when he goes fully fictional he works much better for me, so I’m still looking forward to Breakfast at Tiffany’s sometime too.

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  6. I haven’t started Capote yet, gasp! I might begin here with short stories although I loath being preached at (my problem with Little Women, louder gasp) would you suggest something else?

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  7. I wonder if the autobiographical ones had not been written in the first person and had the names changed whether that would have made them more palatable? After all, pretty much every memoir is, by definition, written by an unreliable narrator, is it not?

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    • Interesting thought! I think they’d then have read a bit like children’s morality tales, except for the brief passages where he discusses his parents’ failings. I’m not a fan of memoir in general – the tendency to self-pity seems to be hard to avoid.

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      • Tricky, isn’t it. My son is keen I write a memoir of my upbringing in Hong Kong and I do try now and again, but as you say, it’s hard for me as an adult not to pity and excuse the child I once was, meaning I soon grind to a halt. Not sure writing in the third person avoids that either.

        And then there are the questions like ‘Do I go all literary or stay matter-of-factual? And bearing in mind the memory’s unreliability, do I keep apologising for wishful reconstruction of events or do I plough on and just tell a story?’ As I say, tricky.

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        • Yes, on the whole I find journals more palatable than memoirs – things written contemporaneously tend to ring “truer” than emotions looked back on from a distance. But what do I know? Memoirs are hugely popular, especially at this moment! I certainly couldn’t write one – not only has my life been exceptionally average, but my memory is shocking – my entire childhood memories could fit into a short story… or a blog post! 😉

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  8. For some reason, I’ve never thought about reading his work. Maybe because I always associate him with In Cold Blood. And this book doesn’t pique my interest, either. There are just too many others much higher up on my list right now that I struggle to find time to read. I am also surprised that you rated it as highly as you did, given that half weren’t up to your standards.

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    • And you with a mathematical brain too! 3×3 + 5×3 = 24/6 = 4! See? There’s always a grain of method in my madness… 😂 Yes, I’m not sure I’m ever going to be a real Capote fan – he’s got too many problems with what constitutes “truth” for my liking.

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  9. I am so glad you reviewed this. I will have to find a copy (to add to my towering piles of books). I have only read In Cold Blood and that was back when it first came out. So I would like to read more by Truman Capote.

    Now I remember, I also read Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the last couple of years.

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    • I’ve only read this and In Cold Blood too – another one I liked but felt he manipulated “truth” for emotional effect too much. I think I prefer him when he’s in properly fictional mode. I have Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the TBR, so will get to it one of these days!

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  10. It’s interesting that the biographical ones are not as good as the fiction ones. For me the real stories are much more fascinating, but, of course, it depends on how they are made. Maybe I should remember this for next Christmas. 🙂

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    • I’m never too keen on memoirs, unless they’re a memoir of living through an unusual experience – like Orwell and the SCW, for instance. But general “here’s my ordinary life” type memoirs often don’t ring wholly true, as the temptation to self-pity or to try to make oneself look good seems to be irresistible for a lot of authors! But the fictional stories in this one make it well worth looking out for. 😀

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  11. Great review! I would have said I hadn’t read these stories but the first one sounds so familiar. Maybe I came across it in a Christmas story collection? I have read some of Capote’s short stories elsewhere and have not loved them. Interesting that you compare him to Montgomery, who I have a huge soft spot for. I wouldn’t have made that connection but I can see what you mean.

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    • I have a feeling the first one is the best known, and so it probably has appeared in a lot of anthologies over the years. It was the small town life aspect that brought the comparison to my mind, plus these stories were mainly about children and adolescents, and the morality aspects. But for my money, Montgomery’s stories are much more appealing – warmer, and more humour, and truer even though they’re fictional. This left me wanting to re-read them…

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    • I have a very low tolerance for sentimentality, especially when it’s told as “true”, so I certainly wouldn’t let my opinion of these put you off. Other reviews are much more glowing! I think in future, though, I’ll stick to his purely fictional work…

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  12. I wonder if I’m somehow immune to noticing when something is trite-perhaps I feel a different way about it, and I do recognize it’s not a good thing b/c it puts off so many readers, but I think I have difficulty recognizing it? How does it make you feel when you read it FF? How do you spot it? perhaps I just label it differently in my mind…

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    • It kinda makes me feel as if the author has ended their story with the equivalent of “and they all lived happily ever after”. Like, they’ve just gone for something unoriginal and rather meaningless, and not altogether believable? In this one it was all – the wise cousin teaches the boy a life lesson and it makes him a better person. Thinking about it, it depends on what genre it is – two people falling in love, marrying and living blissfully ever afterwards is fine in a rom-com because that’s what the reader wants to happen, but would seem trite as an ending in lit-fic which we expect to reflect the messy real world, if you see what I mean? If these stories had been aimed at children, I probably wouldn’t have called them trite…

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  13. Now you’ve done it. Here I am, tentatively dipping a toe back into the waters of the blogosphere, attracted by my love of A Christmas Memory, the short story, and what do I find? Not only that our views differ somewhat (no surprise there really) but that the short story is one of a recently published collection 😭 How am I supposed to avoid buying any new books when you start me off with a Capote collection – themed around Christmas to boot! I fear I am undone already! 😱 But no! I shall place it on my wish list for next Christmas… Ha! Sorted! 😂 Only another 11 months to get through…. 🤔

    So, I can only comment on that first story which I just happen to love. And I’m not really commenting at all since I’m not yet thinking bookish thoughts, A summary of my well-considered response is: ‘Well, I like it a lot, so there!’ 😂

    (I agree that it’s sentimental but I do love the way it’s written. I agree about Montgomery’s writing too, and it reminds me also of Bradbury’s Green Town stories.)

    Hope all is well with you, FF 😊

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  14. Lovely to hear from you, Sandra! Haha, well, if you loved A Christmas Memory I’m certain you’ll love the other ones in this collection just as much, even if curmudgeonly old me found them overly sentimental! I haven’t read Bradbury’s Green Town stories – he’s an author I’ve had a mixed reaction to, kinda the writer version of from the sublime to the ridiculous. This left me wanting to re-read The Chronicles of Avonlea – I must see of my old copy is still hanging around somewhere…

    Hope things are getting back to whatever counts as normality for you. Still in lockdown up here, still fed up and grumpy, but clinging to the hope of the vaccine! Did you hear we’re doing another review-along in March? The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn. Just sayin’… 😀

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  15. Yes, we’re heading back to what will now be a new family normal and all things considered, it’s not a bad normal at all, lockdown notwithstanding. And the vaccine is a-rollin’ out… (Feels like there’s a song in there somewhere)

    So. A readalong eh? New author to me but sounds very tempting. I’m intruiged by how this one came to be chosen for a readalong; any background there, FF? Cornwall libraries have a number of Gunn’s books but not this one so I’ve downloaded a sample for starters. Not that I’m commiting yet, mind 😆 Is there a date for posting our reviews? Just asking, I’m REALLY not commiting… 😉🤦‍♀️

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    • Glad things are looking a little more settled. 🙂

      New author to us all! It’s on my Classics Club list – a replacement for one I abandoned – and I thought it sounded like the kind of thing we all might enjoy. Rose also suggested Vanity Fair which we all fancied too, so we’re going to do it later in the year. The review date for this one is 24th March so you have plenty of time… you know you want to… 😈 😉

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