Midwestern winters are like bad performance art–long, self-indulgent, and performed against a chicly dark backdrop. When we first moved here, it snowed in early October. Soon it thawed, but of course it snowed again. There was snow continually on the ground from December through the end of March. One day I had to crawl up an icy hill to reach the bus stop. That was the ultimate humiliation.
Well, it is only November, but it is very cold and dark. Persephone has gone to the underworld. How do we survive till spirng? My personal secret is to wall myself up between stacks of books and bright electric lights. The 150-watt bulb in the floor lamp sparks memories of natural sunlight, while the books provide an escape from the gloom.
Although some of my friends like to read hot-weather books in the cold, I strive to generate warmth through more adventurous reading. Reading about the cold while I lounge in my living room gives me a sense of cheating the elements without actually braving them. But I’m an eclectic reader, shamelessly curling up with a Regency romance one day and a bone-chilling mountain-climbing novel the next. In the following list of books for reading in the cold, I’ve tried to compile a judicious blend of cozy comfort reads with stark adventure lit.
For the Cozily Inclined
Everyone loves Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. There are three movie versions of Little Women, to my knowledge, and a new BBC adaptation is coming to PBS in 2018. I llong to see the BBC series, but I also wonder, Why doesn’t someone make a TV series of Alcott’s better, shorter novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl?
An Old-Fashioned Girl is one of my favorite books, and for many years I thought I was the only one who had read it. Then,, a friend and I discovered our mutual fondness for this classic. Both of us read it for the first time at the age of nine, when we wanted to be just like Polly, a poor country mouse who is not swayed by fashion when she visits her rich friend Fanny in the city. We reread the book and enjoyed a brief revival of “Polly”-ism.
Feminists will approve Polly’s questioning of gender restrictions: “[One] thing that disturbed Polly was the want of exercise. To dress up and parade certain streets for an hour eery day, to stand talking in doorways, or drive out in a fine carriage, was not the sort of exercise she liked, and Fan would take no other. Indeed, she was so shocked when Polly, one day, proposed a run down the mall, that her friend never dared suggest such a thing again…. She longed for something more lively than a flock of giddy girls, who tilted along in high-heeled boots, and costumes which made Polly ashamed to be seen with some of them.”
Polly’s struggles with poverty and loneliness six years later as she tries to earn her living as a music teacher give this novel an edge over some of Alcott’s more sentimental stories.
As a woman who has never undertaken what I’m told is the ultimate female adventure, i.e., childbirth and motherhood, I retain my lifelong fondness for boys’ adventure stories. Thomas Wharton’s Icefields is one of the most haunting and strange of these.
The novel begins on August 17, 1898, when Doctor Edward Byrne slips on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies. He sees a shape in the ice–is it man or angel?–which determines the course of his life. Wharton’s style is stark, cool, and icily poetic. He invents a cast of almost mythic Canadian characters, drawn with a few bold strokes: Elspeth, the genteel manager of a glacier chalet, Freya Becker, the sexy but androgynous journalist, Hal Rawson, the poet who falls in love with Freya, and Trask, the guide who hopes to turn the glacier into a tourist attraction. Yet the glacier represents an impersonal, mysterious force that transcends human ambitions and desires–and changes them forever.
A friend calls Victorians “the plot-masters of the universe,” and I have to agree no living writer can rival Anthony Trollope’s convoluted plots. The Way We Live Now, often hailed as Trollope’s masterpiece, is a fat, juicy potboiler that is entertaining and elegantly written. I curled up on the couch reading far into the night because I couldn’t bear not to know the answers to pressing questions like, “Will Marie Melmotte elope with the drunken Sir Felix? Will the American divorcee Mrs. Hurtle get her man?” Scandal buffs will be fascinated by the financial maneuvers of Marie’s father, the richest man in London.
Golden Age Detective Fiction
Reading Golden Age Detective fiction is at the top of my list for escapes from the first glimmering of wintry weather. There is something soothing about a murder investigation, especially with a discerning English detective at the helm. The detective interviews people and finds clues, but all violence is off the page. There are cottages, manors, London flats, fens, helpful butlers…and other elements that make it relaxing.
I recommend the following, and have provided links to my posts about them:
Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery
Freeman Wills Croft’s Antidote to Murder
Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time
Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly
Happy Thanksgiving! Don’t catch a cold!