Five Perfect Winter Reads

When possible I enjoy reading with the seasons. As the holidays approached last year I picked out a pile of wintry reads that would see me through the dark, cold days of January. I’ve had a chance to read five of them so far, and give review extracts below. I may report back later on in the winter about a few books I plan to read with “snow” in the title.

In the Grip of Winter by Colin Dann

In this second book of the Farthing Wood series, the animals endure a harsh winter in their new home, the White Deer Park. When Badger falls down a slope and injures his leg, he’s nursed back to health at the Warden’s cottage, where Ginger Cat tempts him to join in a life of comfort and plenty. Meanwhile, Fox, Tawny Owl and the others are near starvation, and resort to leaving the park and stealing food from farms and rubbish bins. They have to band together and use their cunning to survive. This was a sweet book that reminded me of my childhood love of anthropomorphized animal stories (like Watership Down and the Redwall series). I doubt I’ll read another from the series, but this was a quaint read for the season.

My husband received this book for free from his school for some reason. Even early on his tastes turned towards wildlife. [One annoyance: the author always referred to Badger’s “set” instead of his “sett”; although it appears this may actually be a permissible variant, it wasn’t cool with me!]

Favorite wintry passage:

“‘Every winter is hard for some,’ Badger answered. ‘The weakest among us always suffer the most. The small creatures: the mice, the shrews, the voles and, particularly, the small birds – every winter takes its toll [on] them. But yes – I sense that this winter will be one to reckon with. There’s something in that wind…’”

My rating:

 

This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich

Once a year or so I encounter a book that’s so flawlessly written you could pick out just about any sentence and marvel at its construction. That’s certainly the case here. I never want to go to Greenland; English winters are quite dark and cold enough for me, and I don’t know if I could stomach seal meat at all, let alone for most meals and often raw. But that’s okay: I don’t need to book a flight to Qaanaaq, because through reading this I’ve already been in Greenland in every season, and I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek. Impressively, Ehrlich is always describing the same sorts of scenery, and yet every time finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures. I’ll be looking into her other books for sure.

Favorite wintry passage:

“The ice cap itself was a siren singing me back to Greenland, its walls of blue sapphire and sheer immensity always beguiling. Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight, nudging the tops of three continents together. Summers, it burns in the sun, and in the dark it hoards moonlight.”

My rating:

Further reading on Greenland: A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice by William E. Glassley (see my Foreword review) and The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, an epic novel about an unconventional priest, set in late-eighteenth-century Denmark and Greenland (see my Nudge review). Also Sinéad Morrissey’s multi-part poem “Whitelessness.” You can read the first stanza of it here.

 

The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs

This short novel from 2005 deserves to be better known. It reminded me of Days Without End and On the Black Hill, but most of all of Francis Kilvert’s diary, perhaps as voiced by a rustic from Poldark. We journey through 1870 with Charles Wenmoth, a twenty-seven-year-old blacksmith’s apprentice and Methodist lay preacher in Cornwall mining country. Very little happens; the focus is on atmosphere and voice. The major struggle is with his melancholy spirit, which causes him to doubt his salvation. As winter circles round, the days grow shorter just as he senses life growing shorter. The short chapters are like undated diary entries (apparently based on the author’s great-great-grandfather’s); the sentences are almost completely unpunctuated, which at first had me twitching for my pencil to add commas to the run-on sentences, but eventually I gave myself over to the flow.

Favorite wintry passage:

“It is a shame we cannot stay children for ever and remain blind to the slow death of the land. How different it will all be in a few months the bare trees revealed as dark gnarled bodies. Something inside them though lives through the yearly famine and they always find new colour. I trust it is the same for us all.”

My rating:

 

Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This is my favorite of the three Knausgaard books I’ve read so far, and miles better than his Autumn. These short essays successfully evoke the sensations of winter and the conflicting emotions elicited by family life and childhood memories. The series is, loosely speaking, a set of instruction manuals for his unborn daughter, who is born a month premature in the course of this volume. So in the first book he starts with the basics of bodily existence – orifices, bodily fluids and clothing – and now he’s moving on to slightly more advanced but still everyday things she’ll encounter, like coins, stuffed animals, a messy house, toothbrushes, and the moon. I’ll see out this series, and see afterwards if I have the nerve to return to My Struggle.

Favorite wintry passage:

“winter not only muffles some sounds and intensifies others, it also has sounds that are entirely its own, unique to the season, and some of them are among the most beautiful of all. The low boom of ice-covered waters as they freeze, for instance, which can be heard on perfectly clear days or nights when the cold deepens, and which has something menacing or mighty about it, since it isn’t connected to an visible movement”

My rating:

 

Available Light by Marge Piercy

Many poetry volumes get a middling rating from me because some of the poems are memorable but others do nothing for me. This is on the longer side for a collection at 120+ pages, but only a handful of its poems fell flat. The subjects are diverse: travels in Europe (my cover depicts the Avebury stone circle in the gloom), menstruation, identifying as a Jew as well as a feminist, scattering her father’s ashes, the stresses of daily life, and being in love. The title poem, which appears first, has a slightly melancholy tone with its focus on the short days of winter, but the poet defiantly asserts meaning despite the mood: “Even the dead of winter: it seethes with more / than I can ever live to name and speak.” Piercy was a great discovery, and I’ll be trying lots more of her books from various genres.

Favorite wintry passage:

(from “Available light”)

In winter the light is red and short.

The sun hangs its wizened rosehip in the oaks.

By midafternoon night is folding in.

The ground is locked against us like a door.

Yet faces shine so the eyes stretch for them

and tracks in the snow are etched, calligraphy

My rating:

 

(And one book that didn’t quite work for me; I ended up abandoning it at 14%.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: Some striking turns of phrase, an enchanting wintry atmosphere … but a little Disney-fied for me. I got this free for Kindle so may come back to it at some point.

Favorite wintry passage:

“The years slipped by like leaves. …The clouds lay like wet wool above the trees.”)

 


Have you read any wintry books this year?

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31 thoughts on “Five Perfect Winter Reads

  1. No I haven’t. Real winter is quite enough for me. But I’ll bookmark most of them. Farthing Wood never quite did it for me or my children. A bit too whimsical as I recall. But all the others sound well worth discovering.

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  2. I read Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie and one of the essays was set in the Arctic and spoke of icebergs and northern lights, even her Scottish island visits are wintry at any time of year and then there was the Norwegian Natural History museum with the whalebones, definitely a good one to read indoors on a wintry day.

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  3. Each of these sounds enjoyable to me, too, in its own way, in the right mood (especially the bagers, but definitely needing the right mood for that one). The winter reading on my shelf most recently was John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor, which opens with a girl gone missing on a remote island in Sweden, whose trail of footprints simply ends in the snow. It’s a long book, with plenty of backstory, so all the seaons are represented, but one ends up feeling very cold most of the time! (Which I love, I love the winter.)

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      1. I think Lindqvist is considered apart from that tradition maybe partly because his books are also longer and denser than the typcial genre read and also because he makes a place for the inexplicable in his stories which sometimes leads him to be shelved with horror, as with Let the Right One In, although that doesn’t feel quite right to me either, because I think his literary side would frustrate a lot of genre readers. (I’ve heard Miss Smilla referred to as the book that launched Nordic Noir for English readers but I don’t think it was the first in the context of Scandinavian literature in Scandinavia, although I may have misunderstood about that.) It just freshly snowed here again last night: are you enjoying Miss Smilla?

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    1. Yes, I’m enjoying Miss Smilla. I don’t read crime as a general rule, but this feels a lot more literary than your average crime novel. Although she’s performing her own little investigation of an unexplained death, the mystery isn’t really the focus. It’s been a good follow-on from This Cold Heaven as Smilla’s mother is from Greenland and there are flashback scenes to Greenland and remarks on the status of Greenlanders in Denmark.

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  4. What an interesting assortment of winter reading. I’m adding This Cold Heaven to my TBR list; I’ve read some of her books set in the American West, but missed this one. I did a lot of seasonal reading for the Christmas holidays. The standouts imo were: Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson and Rock Crystal, a novella by Adalbert Stifter set in the Swiss Alps, with wonderful descriptions of walking in a snowstorm through the mountains.

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  5. Oh how lovely! Winter in Thrush Green and The Winter Cottage are favorites. I’ll have to think about this more! I like reading the winter sections of Gladys Taber’s memoirs on her farm, Stillmeadow. Susan Branch’s books are wonderful for winter too, because they lend themselves to hot drinks and quilts well.

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  6. You’ve included quite a variety here, Rebecca! I haven’t read any of these, nor have I read any other wintry books in the last few months. And I’m quite alright with that. I’ve given myself over to being completely fed up with winter.

    That said, I might try the Farthing Wood books (I’m sure you’re not surprised) and also Marge Piercy’s poetry. Thanks for putting this post together. 🙂

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    1. We’ve had plenty of cold here, but nary any snow. The Farthing Wood books would be good with grandkids, I imagine. Marge Piercy’s books seem to be hard to find, but I’m sure I can pick up secondhand copies at some point. The poetry volume was a random find on our last trip to Bookbarn.

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  7. Love the sound of the Greenland book. Sorry you didn’t get on with the Arden – I’m an absolute sucker for Russian fairy tales, so that was right up my street. I haven’t read any particularly wintery books lately – but was given John Christopher’s The World in Winter for Christmas – perhaps I should read that.

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  8. This Cold Heaven sounds fabulously up my alley, so thanks for mentioning it. I tend to love the big Dickens novels for winter, and got him out of the way early this year with The Old Curiosity Shop in December, although there’s not much in the way of specifically wintry scenes in that one.

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  9. I can’t help but notice that, with the exception of the last book, all the covers are wintry colours, which I love. It sounds like you had good luck with this lot!
    A few months ago, I read Minds of Winter, which is obviously wintry. More recently, I’ve read Touch by Alexi Zentner in which the community gets covered in snow for a couple of months. And two books set in Newfoundland that are not all wintry but definitely have wintry parts to them.

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    1. That’s true. The Knausgaard has an especially lovely cover, though unfortunately that’s the one I don’t own in print.

      I would love to read Minds in Winter but — same old story — it doesn’t seem to be readily available in the UK. I’ve heard of Alexi Zentner but not read anything by him.

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