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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Sigel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa block.

Winter is almost here. And as the daylight fades, our critic Alan Cheuse suggests you pick up, what else, a good book. And this year, perhaps a DVD. Here's Alan's recommended reading and watching for the holiday season.

ALAN CHEUSE: Shakespeare has one of his characters announce that a sad tale's best for winter. I don't agree with Shakespeare on this count. We need effervescent storytelling too and I've got both type spread out here in front of me.

Let's start with a new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geraldine Brooks. It's called, "People of the Book," and it carries us back into European history into wars and inquisitions and family tragedies on a quest for the origins of an ancient Hebrew prayer book. The volume is adorned with fragile illustrations. And our narrator, an Australian book-conservator, tries to puzzle out the source.

Here's Brooks conjuring up 15th century Spain and the world of a young illustrator sold into bondage.

Ms. GERALDINE BROOKS (Author, "People of the Book"): (Reading) We do not feel the sun here. Even after the passage of years, that is still the hardest thing for me. At home, I lived in brightness. Heat baked the yellow earth and dried the roof thatch until it crackled.

Here, the stone and tile are cool always, even at midday. Light steals in among us like an enemy, fingering its narrow way through the lattices or falling from the few high panes in dulled fragments of emerald and ruby.

It is hard to do my work in such light. I must be always moving the page to get a small square of adequate brightness, and this constant fidgeting breaks my concentration.

CHEUSE: Geraldine Brooks, reading from "People the Book." The novel will be published in January and it promises to be one of the most celebrated works of fiction for the New Year.

On the comical side of things, on the eve of the New Year, go ahead have a sip champagne - or sparkling water if you prefer - and enjoy bubbly savor of Garrison Keillor's new novel, "Pontoon."

Holding a book in your hands, it's almost as good as laughing through a winter monologue from "A Prairie Home Companion." Keillor's going to read from a letter by a good Lutheran grandma from Lake Wobegon. She's on the loose in Columbus, Georgia.

(Soundbite of book "Pontoon")

Mr. GARRISON KEILLOR (Author, "Pontoon"): (Reading) The bed-and-breakfast was full up, but they gave me a little shotgun cottage across the street tucked into a bower of jasmine and honeysuckle and I don't know what all - the air is like sponge sugar.

I have a little porch, so I can look out on the street of old frame cottages with lawns of silvery grass, where I know nobody and nobody knows me, which suits me just fine, kiddo. I'm a pilgrim and it's good to be on the move so we don't get attached to the possessions and place.

CHEUSE: A letter from "Pontoon," the new novel Garrison Keillor.

Frankly, I can think of nothing better at any time than reading aloud from the pages of former poet laureate Robert Hass. He's fine new book of poems "Time and Materials" won this year's National Book Award for poetry.

(Soundbite of poem "Time and Materials")

Mr. ROBERT HASS (Author, "Time and Materials"): (Reading) In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow. Over and over, he enters the furrow.

CHEUSE: Nothing better, that is, unless it's Robert Hass reading a poem himself. Those verses were called "Iowa January." And here's the poem "September Inverness."

(Soundbite of poem "September Inverness")

Mr. HASS: (Reading) Tamal's Bay is flat blue in the Indian summer heat. This is the time when hikers on Inverness Ridge stand on tiptoe to pick ripe huckleberries that the deer can't reach. This is the season of lulls, egrets hunting in the tidal shallow, a ribbon of sandpipers fluttering over mud flats white and not, a drift of mist wisping off the bay. This is the moment when bliss is what you glimpse from the corner of your eye as you drive pass, running errands and the wind comes up, and the surface of the water glitters hard against it.

(Soundbite of music)

CHEUSE: Music, erupting under the words on the page. That's what happens when he opened New York Times Jazz critic Ben Ratliff's biography of a great American saxophone player. A book about the evolution of his distinctive sound to you it's called "Coltrane: The Story of a Sound."

(Soundbite of music)

CHEUSE: Another distinctive American sound. Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," which he wrote Martha Graham's famous dance work of the same name. You can watch the dance and listen to Copland's delightful American sound in a new two DVD package, "Martha Graham: Dance on Film." And as part of the package, you'll find notes on the origin of the project from the gifted dance critic Joan Acocella.

Ms. JOAN ACOCELLA (Journalist, the New Yorker): (Reading) In "Appalachian Spring," a young pioneer couple, the husbandman and the bride, accompanied by a kindly older neighbor, the so-called pioneering woman, a revivalist preacher and a bevy of the preachers female admirers come to take possession of their new home. So the story is quite simple. But Graham was a modernist. And in her work, as in proof for (unintelligible), narration is seldom straightforward. It is a collision off past, present and future - not necessarily in that order.

CHEUSE: Joan Acocella, reading from her essay "Martha Graham on Film."

Let's head out west now, to a rodeo of fine prose and novelist William Kittredge's essays about life in big sky country; about the sorrows and joys of boyhood on the late frontier. He is new collection is titled, "The Next Rodeo," and the title essay he takes us on an Oregon horse drive.

(Soundbite of novel "The Next Rodeo")

Mr. WILLIAM KITTREDGE (Author, "The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays"): (Reading) my grandfather picked me for that horse drive. He was stocky, blue-eyed man who'd come up from a starve-out, salt-flat ranch, to own an empire of horses and thousands of cows. It was common in his world to imagine that property would heal wounds, including emotional isolation. Anytime we got ahead, he bought cows. That lament came from my grandmother, after she had outlived him by a decade. Men like him, in rodeo parades behind flag bearers and the queen and her white hat court, were kings of the mountains in that country at that time.

CHEUSE: That's William Kittredge and a passage from "The Next Rodeo."

Finally, the cold, the snow of Christmas in old Russia, in a devilish fable called "The Night Before Christmas" by Nikolai Gogol, in the volume of Everyman's Pocket Classics "Christmas Stories" edited by Diana Secker Tesdell. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Pagans - we can all celebrate this winter scene.

The last day before Christmas had passed. A wintery clear night came. The stars peeped out. The crescent Moon rose majestically in the sky to give light to good people and all the world so that everyone could merrily go caroling and glorify Christ. The frost had increased since morning but it was so still that the frosty creaking under year boots could be heard for half a mile.

(Soundbite of music)

CHEUSE: It's cold outside. Yes, stay in. Hover close to small circle of light on the page. Give these gifts to loved ones and friends, and warm yourself with all these winter dreams.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Alan Cheuse teaches striking at George Mason University at Fairfax, Virginia. You can listen to extended readings and get more of Alan's recommendations at npr.org/holidays.

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