Today marks 189 years since poet Christina Rossetti’s birth in 1830. You could hardly find better reading for Advent than poet–priest Rachel Mann’s new seasonal devotional, In the Bleak Midwinter, which journeys through Advent and the 12 days of Christmas via short essays on about 40 Rossetti poems.
If your mental picture of Rossetti’s work is, like mine was, limited to twee repetition (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow,” as the title carol from 1872 goes), you’ll gain a new appreciation after reading this. Yes, Rossetti’s poetry may strike today’s readers as sentimental, with a bit too much rhyming and overt religion, but it is important to understand it as a product of the Victorian era.
Mann gives equal focus to Rossetti’s techniques and themes. Repetition is indeed one of her main tools, used “to build intensity and rhythm,” and some of her poems are psalm-like in their diction and emotion. I had no idea that Rossetti had written so much – and so much that’s specific to the Christmas season. She has multiple poems entitled “Advent” and “A Christmas Carol” (the technical title of “In the Bleak Midwinter”) or variations thereon.
The book’s commentary spins out the many potential metaphorical connotations of Advent: anticipation, hope, suffering, beginnings versus endings. Mann notes that Rossetti often linked Advent and apocalypse as times of change and preparation. Even as Christians await the birth of Christ, the poet seems to say, they should keep the end of all things in mind. Thus, some of the poems include surprisingly dark or premonitory language:
The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him. (from “Advent,” 1858)
Death is better far than birth,
You shall turn again to earth. (from “For Advent”)
Along with that note of memento mori, Mann suggests other hidden elements of Rossetti’s poetry, like desire (as in the sensual vocabulary of “Goblin Market”) and teasing mystery (“Winter: My Secret,” which reminded me of Emily Dickinson). Not all of her work is devotional or sweet; those who feel overwhelmed or depressed at Christmastime will also find lines that resonate for them here.
Mann helped me to notice Rossetti’s sense of “divine time” that moves in cycles. She also makes a strong case for reading Rossetti to understand how we envision Christmas even now: “In some ways, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ offers the acme of our European cultural representations of this season.”
With thanks to Canterbury Press for the free copy for review.
(I also reviewed Mann’s poetry collection, A Kingdom of Love, earlier in the year.)
For December I’m reading Do Nothing, the Advent booklet Stephen Cottrell (now the Bishop of Chelmsford; formerly Bishop of Reading) wrote in 2008 about a minimalist, low-stress approach to the holidays. I have to say, it’s inspiring me to cut way back on card-sending and gift-giving this year.
A few seasonal snippets spotted in my recent reading:
“December darkens and darkens, and the streets sprout forth their Christmas tinsel, and the Salvation Army brass band sings hymns and jingles its bells and stirs up its cauldron of money, and loneliness blows in the snowflurries”
(from The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood)
“Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and colour with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.”
(from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot)
A week to Christmas, cards of snow and holly,
Gimcracks in the shops,
Wishes and memories wrapped in tissue paper,
Trinkets, gadgets and lollipops
And as if through coloured glasses
We remember our childhood’s thrill
… And the feeling that Christmas Day
Was a coral island in time where we land and eat our lotus
But where we can never stay.
(from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice)
I’m always on the lookout for books that seem to fit the season. Here are the piles I’ve amassed for winter (Early Riser imagines a human hibernation system for the winters), Christmas and snow. I’ll dip into these over the next couple of months. I plan to get more “winter,” “snow” and “ice” titles out from the library. Plus I have this review book (at left), newly in paperback, to start soon.
Have you read any Advent or wintry books recently?
It’s been a frigid start to March here in Europe. Even though it only amounted to a few inches in total, this is still the most snow we’ve seen in years. We were without heating for 46 hours during the coldest couple of days due to an inaccessible frozen pipe, so I’m grateful that things have now thawed and spring is looking more likely. During winter’s last gasp, though, I’ve been dipping into a few appropriately snow-themed books. I had more success with some than with others. I’ll start with the one that stood out.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)
[trans. from the Danish by Felicity David]
Nordic noir avant la lettre? I bought this rather by accident; had I realized it was a murder mystery, I never would have taken a chance on this international bestseller. That would have been too bad, as it’s much more interesting than your average crime thriller. The narrator/detective is Smilla Jaspersen: a 37-year-old mathematician and former Arctic navigator with a Danish father and Greenlander mother, she’s a stylish dresser and a shrewd, bold questioner who makes herself unpopular by nosing about where she doesn’t belong.
Isaiah, a little Greenlander boy, has fallen to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment complex where Smilla also lives, and she’s convinced foul play was involved. In Part I she enlists the help of a mechanic neighbor (and love interest), a translator, an Arctic medicine specialist, and a mining corporation secretary to investigate Isaiah’s father’s death on a 1991 Arctic expedition and how it might be connected to Isaiah’s murder. In Part II she tests her theories by setting sail on the Greenland-bound Kronos as a stewardess. At every turn her snooping puts her in danger – there are some pretty violent scenes.
I read this fairly slowly, over the course of a month (alongside lots of other books); it’s absorbing but in a literary style, so not as pacey or full of cliffhangers as you’d expect from a suspense novel. I got myself confused over all the minor characters and the revelations about the expeditions, so made pencil notes inside the front cover to keep things straight. Setting aside the plot, which gets a bit silly towards the end, I valued this most for Smilla’s self-knowledge and insights into what it’s like to be a Greenlander in Denmark. I read this straight after Gretel Ehrlich’s travel book about Greenland, This Cold Heaven – an excellent pairing I’d recommend to anyone who wants to spend time vicariously traveling in the far north.
Favorite wintry passage:
“I’m not perfect. I think more highly of snow and ice than of love. It’s easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings.”
One that I left unfinished:
Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002)
[trans. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely]
This novel seems to be based around an elaborate play on words: it’s set in Kars, a Turkish town where the protagonist, a poet known by the initials Ka, becomes stranded by the snow (Kar in Turkish). After 12 years in political exile in Germany, Ka is back in Turkey for his mother’s funeral. While he’s here, he decides to investigate a recent spate of female suicides, keep tabs on the upcoming election, and see if he can win the love of divorcée Ipek, daughter of the owner of the Snow Palace Hotel, where he’s staying. There’s a hint of magic realism to the novel: the newspaper covers Ka’s reading of a poem called “Snow” before he’s even written it. He and Ipek witness the shooting of the director of the Institute of Education. The attempted assassination is revenge for him banning girls who wear headscarves from schools.
As in Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, the emphasis is on Turkey’s split personality: a choice between fundamentalism (= East, poverty) and secularism (= West, wealth). Pamuk is pretty heavy-handed with these rival ideologies and with the symbolism of the snow. By the time I reached page 165, having skimmed maybe two chapters’ worth along the way, I couldn’t bear to keep going. However, if I get a recommendation of a shorter and subtler Pamuk novel I would give him another try. I did enjoy the various nice quotes about snow (reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead”) – it really was atmospheric for this time of year.
Favorite wintry passage:
“That’s why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.”
One that I only skimmed:
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (2002)
Having recovered from an illness that hit at age 25 while he was studying for a doctorate, Fiennes set off to track the migration route of the snow goose, which starts in the Gulf of Mexico and goes to the Arctic territories of Canada. He was inspired by his father’s love of birdwatching and Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose (which I haven’t read). I thought this couldn’t fail to be great, what with its themes of travel, birds, illness and identity. However, Fiennes gets bogged down in details. When he stays with friendly Americans in Texas he gives you every detail of their home décor, meals and way of speaking; when he takes a Greyhound bus ride he recounts every conversation he had with his random seatmates. This is too much about the grind of travel and not enough about the natural spectacles he was searching for. And then when he gets up to the far north he eats snow goose. So I ended up just skimming this one for the birdwatching bits. I did like Fiennes’s writing, just not what he chose to focus on, so I’ll read his other memoir, The Music Room.
Considered but quickly abandoned: In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
Would like to read soon: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen – my husband recently rated this 5 stars and calls it a spiritual quest memoir, with elements of nature and travel writing.
What’s been your snowbound reading this year?
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…’”
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.”
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.”
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”
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
(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?
Somehow the end of the year is less than four weeks away, so it’s time to start getting realistic about what I can read before 2018 begins. I wish I was the sort of person who was always reading books 4+ months before the release date and setting trends, but I’ve only read three 2018 releases so far, and it’s doubtful I’ll get to more than another handful before the end of the year. Any that I do read and can recommend I will round up briefly in a couple weeks or so.
I’m at least feeling pleased with myself for resuming and/or finishing all but two of the 14 books I had on hold as of last month; one I finally DNFed (The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen) and another I’m happy to put off until the new year (Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America by Jay Atkinson – since he’s recreating the journey taken for On the Road, I should look over a copy of that first). Ideally, the plan is to finish all the books I’m currently reading to clear the decks for a new year.
Some other vague reading plans for the month:
I might do a Classic of the Month (I’m currently reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin) … but a Doorstopper isn’t looking likely unless I pick up Hillary Clinton’s Living History. However, there are a few books of doorstopper length pictured in the piles below.
Christmas-themed books. The title-less book with the ribbon is Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak, a Goodreads giveaway win. I think I’ll start that plus the Amory today since I’m going to a carol service this evening. On Kindle: A Very Russian Christmas, a story anthology I read about half of last year and might finish this year.
Winter-themed books. On Kindle: currently reading When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow by Dan Rhodes; Winter by Karl Ove Knausgaard is to be read. (The subtitle of Spufford’s book is “Ice and the English Imagination”.)
As the holidays approach, I start to daydream about what books I might indulge in during the time off. (I’m giving myself 11 whole days off of editing, though I may still have a few paid reviews to squeeze in.) The kinds of books I would like to prioritize are:
Absorbing reads. Books that promise to be thrilling (says the person who doesn’t generally read crime thrillers); books I can get lost in (often long ones). On Kindle: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.
Cozy reads. Animal books, especially cat books, generally fall into this category, as do funny books and children’s books. My mother and I love Braun’s cat mysteries; I read them all starting when I was about 11. I’ve never reread any, so I’d like to see how they stand up years later. Goodreads has been trying to recommend me Duncton Wood for ages, which is funny as I’ve had my eye on it anyway. My husband read the series when he was a kid and we still own some well-worn copies. Given how much I loved Watership Down and Brian Jacques’ novels as a child, I’m hoping it’s a pretty safe bet.
Books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. ’Nuff said. On Kindle: far too many.
And, as always, I’m in the position of wishing I’d gotten to many more of this year’s releases. In fact, there are at least 22 books from 2017 on my e-readers that I still intend to read:
- A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved Its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement by Philip Ackerman-Leist
- In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
- The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst
- The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard
- The Best American Series taster volume (skim only?)
- The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne*
- Guesswork: A Memoir in Essays by Martha Cooley
- The Night Brother by Rosie Garland
- Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
- The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson
- Eco-Dementia by Janet Kauffman [poetry]
- The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
- A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life by Lauren Marks
- Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer by Antoinette Truglio Martin
- Homing Instinct: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick
- One Station Away by Olaf Olafsson
- Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry
- Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia by Gerda Saunders
- See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
- What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro
- Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*
* = The two I most want to read, and thus will try hardest to get to before the end of the year. But the Boyne sure is long.
[The 2017 book I most wanted to read but never got hold of in any form was The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas.]
Are there any books from my stacks or lists that you want to put in a good word for?
How does December’s reading look for you?
I like this reading with the seasons lark. It’s a shame that my library hold on Ali Smith’s Autumn didn’t come in until well after it turned to winter here in England, but I was intrigued by the sound of her post-Brexit seasonal quartet. Then, as if one winter anthology wasn’t enough, I tried another – this time a broader range of literature, history and travel writing.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Smith is attempting a sort of state-of-the-nation novel in four parts. Her two main characters are Daniel Gluck, a centenarian dying at a care home, and his former next-door neighbor, Elisabeth Demand, in her early thirties and still figuring out her path in life. The present world Elisabeth and her mother navigate is a true-to-life post-Brexit bureaucratic nightmare where people are building walls and hurling racist epithets – “news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.” Mostly the book is composed of flashbacks to wordplay-filled conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel when he used to babysit for her, as well as dreams/hallucinations Daniel is having on his deathbed. But there’s also a lot of seemingly irrelevant material about pop artist Pauline Boty and Christine Keeler.
This was most likely written very quickly in response to current events, and while some of Smith’s strengths benefit from immediacy – the nearly stream-of-consciousness style (no speech marks) and the jokey dialogue – I think I would have preferred a more circumspect, compressed narrative. In places this was too repetitive, and the seasonal theme felt neither here nor there. I’ll listen out for what the other books are like, but doubt I’ll bother reading them. Aspects of this are very similar to Number 11 by Jonathan Coe (the state-of-Britain remit, even the single mother hoping to appear on a reality show), but I much preferred his take. [Gorgeous cover, though – David Hockney’s Early November Tunnel (2006).]
Winter: A Book for the Season, edited by Felicity Trotman
This seasonal anthology contains a nice mixture of poetry, nature and travel pieces, and excerpts from longer works of fiction. Some favorite pieces were W.H. Hudson on the town birds of Bath in the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain on his determination to keep wearing his trademark white through the winter, a Hans Christian Andersen dialogue between a snowman who longs to be by the stove and the yard-dog that warns him away, and Richard Jefferies on those who go out to work on a winter morning. But I enjoyed the poetry the most. Trotman includes a wide range of celebrated poets, from Shakespeare and Keats to John Clare and Wordsworth. I particularly liked a more recent contribution from Carolyn King, “First Snow,” in which a cat imagines that a giant wallpaper stripper has produced the flakes.
All told, though, there are too many seventeenth-century and older pieces with archaic spellings, and a number of the history and travel extracts, in particular, feel overlong – with nearly 40 pages in total from Ernest Shackleton’s South. Especially given the thin pages and small type, this represents a tediously large chunk of the book. Shorter pieces increase the variety in an anthology and mean the book lends itself to being picked up and read a few stories at a time. This is one to keep on the coffee table each winter and dip into over several years rather than read straight through. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
As it happens, I’ve now read five books titled Winter: besides the Wildlife Trusts anthology and the novel about Thomas Hardy, both of which I’ve already reviewed here, there’s also Rick Bass’s wonderful memoir of his first year in Montana and Adam Gopnik’s wide-ranging book about the season. But beyond those with the simple one-word title, there are a whole host of titles on my TBR containing the word “Winter”. Here’s the whole list!