This Year’s “Snow” and “Winter” Reads

Longtime readers will know how much I enjoy reading with the seasons. Although it’s just starting to feel like there’s a promise of spring here in the south of England, I understand that much of North America is still cold and snowy, so I hope these recent reads of mine will feel topical to some of you – and the rest of you might store some ideas away for next winter.

(The Way Past Winter has already gone back to the library.)

Silence in the Snowy Fields and Other Poems by Robert Bly (1967)

Even when they’re in stanza form, these don’t necessarily read like poems; they’re often more like declaratory sentences, with the occasional out-of-place exclamation. But Bly’s eye is sharp as he describes the signs of the seasons, the sights and atmosphere of places he visits or passes through on the train (Ohio and Maryland get poems; his home state of Minnesota gets a whole section), and the small epiphanies of everyday life, whether alone or with friends. And the occasional short stanza hits like a wisdom-filled haiku, such as “There are palaces, boats, silence among white buildings, / Iced drinks on marble tops among cool rooms; / It is good also to be poor, and listen to the wind” (from “Poem against the British”).


Favorite wintry passages:

How strange to think of giving up all ambition!

Suddenly I see with such clear eyes

The white flake of snow

That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!

(“Watering the Horse” in its entirety)

 

The grass is half-covered with snow.

It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,

And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.

(the first stanza of “Snowfall in the Afternoon”)

My rating:

 

Wishing for Snow: A Memoir by Minrose Gwin (2004)

One of the more inventive and surprising memoirs I’ve read. Growing up in Mississippi in the 1920s–30s, Gwin’s mother wanted nothing more than for it to snow. That wistfulness, a nostalgia tinged with bitterness, pervades the whole book. By the time her mother, Erin Clayton Pitner, a published though never particularly successful poet, died of ovarian cancer in the late 1980s, their relationship was a shambles. Erin’s mental health was shakier than ever – she stole flowers from the church altar, frequently ran her car off the road, and lived off canned green beans – and she never forgave Minrose for having had her committed to a mental hospital. Poring over Erin’s childhood diaries and adulthood vocabulary notebook, photographs, the letters and cards that passed between them, remembered and imagined conversations and monologues, and Erin’s darkly observant unrhyming poems (“No place to hide / from the leer of the sun / searching out every pothole, / every dream denied”), Gwin asks of her late mother, “When did you reach the point that everything was in pieces?”

My rating:

 

The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2018)

It has been winter for five years, and Sanna, Mila and Pípa are left alone in their little house in the forest – with nothing but cabbages to eat – when their brother Oskar is lured away by the same evil force that took their father years ago and has been keeping spring from coming. Mila, the brave middle daughter, sets out on a quest to rescue Oskar and the village’s other lost boys and to find the way past winter. Clearly inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia and especially Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, this middle grade novel is set in an evocative, if slightly vague, Russo-Finnish past and has more than a touch of the fairy tale about it. I enjoyed it well enough, but wouldn’t seek out anything else by the author.


Favorite wintry passage:

“It was a winter they would tell tales about. A winter that arrived so sudden and sharp it stuck birds to branches, and caught the rivers in such a frost their spray froze and scattered down like clouded crystals on the stilled water. A winter that came, and never left.”

My rating:

 

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1937; English translation, 1956)

[Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker]

The translator’s introduction helped me understand the book better than I otherwise might have. I gleaned two key facts: 1) The mountainous west coast of Japan is snowbound for months of the year, so the title is fairly literal. 2) Hot springs were traditionally places where family men travelled without their wives to enjoy the company of geishas. Such is the case here with the protagonist, Shimamura, who is intrigued by the geisha Komako. Her flighty hedonism seems a good match for his, but they fail to fully connect. His attentions are divided between Komako and Yoko, and a final scene that is surprisingly climactic in a novella so low on plot puts the three and their relationships in danger. I liked the appropriate atmosphere of chilly isolation; the style reminded me of what little I’ve read from Marguerite Duras. I also thought of Silk by Alessandro Baricco and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – perhaps those were to some extent inspired by Kawabata?


Favorite wintry passage:

“From the gray sky, framed by the window, the snow floated toward them in great flakes, like white peonies. There was something quietly unreal about it.”

My rating:

 

I’ve also been slowly working my way through The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, a spiritual quest memoir with elements of nature and travel writing, and skimming Francis Spufford’s dense book about the history of English exploration in polar regions, I May Be Some Time (“Heat and cold probably provide the oldest metaphors for emotion that exist.”).

On next year’s docket: The Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell (on my Kindle) and Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

 

Last year I had a whole article on perfect winter reads published in the Nov/Dec issue of Bookmarks magazine. Buried in Print spotted it and sent this tweet. If you have access to the magazine via your local library, be sure to have a look!

 

Have you read any particularly wintry books recently?

33 thoughts on “This Year’s “Snow” and “Winter” Reads

  1. I’m not a seasonal reader at all, so can’t think of an offering off hand. But since my bedside pile is already so tottering, your fairly low-key recommendations may not make the cut today.

    Like

    1. Fair enough! The Gwin memoir was a standout for me, but I can see how it wouldn’t appeal to everyone.

      Have you managed to get hold of any of the Wildlife Trust seasonal anthologies edited by Melissa Harrison? Those make for excellent bedside books through the seasons (and there are two entries from my hubby!).

      Like

  2. I didn’t get on with The Girl of Ink and Stars at all, despite its enticing blurb, so haven’t read anything else by Hargrave.

    In terms of seasonal reads, I just read The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, which is a bit of a silly thriller but has a great wintry Scottish setting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love both crime and Victorians for winter; I always read a Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby this year, in January), and Paraic O’Donnell’s new novel, The House on Vesper Sands, is set in a snow-bound late-Victorian London that delivers big-time on chilly atmosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yeah, I remember you not liking it. Bummer! (The other great winter reads in my recent experience are Cyril Hare’s An English Murder–flawless, self-aware, ironic Golden Age crime, set over a snowbound rural Christmas–and Philip Pullman’s first Book of Dust installment, in which descriptions of storm, flood and cold are so tactile as to make me extremely pleased to be inside on the sofa.)

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been very lucky particularly as I don’t live in London. That book was a pleasure to put together. The second edition’s better than the first which was pretty well lifted from the guides I wrote for Bloomsbury’s website. They were flush with Harry Potter money at the time!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. No ice cold reads for me; living it at the moment is more than enough! In the last month or so I have read Dear Life by Alice Munro; LIfe Love and Unions by Helen Potrebenko (poetry); The Painted Girls by Cathy Buchanan (I found to be somewhat disturbing) and I’m currently reading Philip Marsden’s The Main Cages. I’m not far into it, but I have yet to be deeply moved, as the reviewers say.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think I appreciated her much when I was younger, mostly because I didn’t love short stories. My reading habits continue to evolve and I’m considering rereading her earlier work.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. My favourite snowy reads come from the crime fiction series by Louise Penny set in Quebec and featuring the chief of police. I read Snow Country – it was an enigmatic tale but that’s the case with a lot of Japanese fiction it seems….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the introduction to Snow Country spoke of it being in a sort of haiku style, which made sense, but isn’t perhaps my favourite thing to read.

      I still mean to try the Louise Penny series. What was stopping me was that my library system doesn’t own the first two books, but some readers have suggested it’s fine to start with a later book anyway?

      Like

  6. Great post! And well done–one of your reading goals was to read more translation, right? I’m reading a translation from the German right now–pretty cold, set in East Prussia in the winter of 45 if not super snowy–called ALL FOR NOTHING. It’s a little slow but it’s finally ramping up long about page 130. I’ll be interested to know what you think of Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. That’s my best comp for my historical novel MS, but it’s old now so no one remembers it anymore. My new MS features a snowy landscape. I love how snow can cover the old and provide a clean slate for starting over–but then those of us who’ve lived in snowy places also know how a clean blanket of snow can soon turn dirty. And the sun does eventually come to uncover what was buried beneath!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! More lit in translation is one of my goals, so I’m always pleased when I can slip a translated book in there towards a particular challenge, or get one as a review copy.

      A book I recently saw compared to Snow Falling on Cedars is Phantoms by Christian Kiefer. I loved his novel The Animals, so I’m looking forward to this one, out in April.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s really interesting. I’ve never read with the seasons but I like the idea. I can’t think of wintry reads off the top of my head. Maybe Frankenstein, at least the last few scenes. My boyfriend loves mountaineering books, so any number of those will apply. (Into Thin Air, South, Denali’s House, The White Spider, The Worst Journey in the World and so on!)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I reread Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in January because it begins and ends with snow.

    “It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hungf rom the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearning it with brooms and shovels.”

    It’s a real favourite! And it turned out that the second book ends on Christmas Eve. Lovely.

    What fun to see my tweet embedded in your post. Thanks for including a link!

    Liked by 1 person

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