On a Dark November Night: Reading in the Cold

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.

Adventure Lit

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!

Winter Reading Recommendations from Bloggers, Commenters & Friends, Part One

It’s winter.

What should you read?

doctor-zhivago51kbsizoufl-_sx322_bo1204203200_That’s what I asked several bloggers, commenters, and friends.

My own predilection?  I curl up with Russian novels.  I love the beautiful descriptions of snow and sleigh rides in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

But for a dark take on winter, get out Boris Pasternak’s depressing masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago.   This hibernal classic, set during the Russian Revolution, describes the struggles of the hero, Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his brilliant, sensitive lover, Lara, to survive war, politics, and changes of regime.  The winner of the Nobel Prize, Doctor Zhivago was deemed too radical to be published in the Soviet Union and first published in Italy in 1957.

But what do you read if you’re not reading Russian novels? Here are some recommendations from bloggers, commenters, and friends, in the first of two (or possibly three) posts.


1. Belle of Belle, Book, and Candle writes,

nichols-merry-hall-618mqj6rl1l-_sx348_bo1204203200_Since the New Year, we have had snow, followed by days in the high 60s, followed by a week of rain and thunderstorms. OK. That’s enough weather for one year!

I hope to escape this meteorological madness by rereading the delightful Merry Hall house and garden restoration trilogy – where there is always Sunlight on the Lawn and Laughter on the Stairs – by Beverley Nichols. Also ready to join Bill Bryson for One Summer: America, 1927 which I bought a couple of years ago but never read. Perhaps now that we are on the cusp of the 90th anniversary of that season it will prove to be prime reading for winter.

I just bought four books on a recent Bookstore Quest that I hope to read before the dust settles too thickly on them:

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead; The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs; The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches by William Maxwell; and Notwithstanding by Louis de Berniers. I will most likely begin with the Maxwell and de Berniers books. The first is nonfiction and the other includes fictional tales from a small English village in the 1930s.

2.   Roger writes,

kilverts-diary-513h3n6tbdlOne of the best evocations of winter is Philip Larkin’s novel A Girl in Winter – the whole book, not just descriptions, and for the psychological feel of winter. Robert Bridges’ poem “London Snow” came to mind because of the panic caused by half-an-inch of snow today.

In passing Francis Kilvert’s Diary evokes winter wonderfully, Take this passage, describing Christmas Day, 1870:

“As I lay awake praying in the early morning, I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost.

I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all around the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass.

The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice.

Gilbert White’s nature diary is another book with wonderful observations of winter weather. And, of course, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” “The Ancient Mariner,” for all its evocation of cold isn’t really about winter.

As for anthologies, Walter de la Mare’s – Come Hither, Behold This Dreamer, Love…- and Daniel George’s – Tomorrow Will Be Differennt, A Peck of Troubles…– all have very light attribution and annotations and obscure sources, so they are great pleasure to use with the ‘net.

3. Kevin Neilson writes,

righteous-mind-41h9bymawl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt—arguably the most important book in popular science since the Selfish Gene. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt plumbs the latest in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary theory to provide an account of how people think and the evolutionary forces that have shaped our thoughts and feelings—in morality, politics, and religion.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams—Moby Dick meets Little House on the Prairie. An exceptional novel by a colossally talented writer. I also highly recommend Augustus for the snooty literary type. Bone up on Cicero in advance or the glories of the novel will be partially, maybe even substantially, lost on you.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean—yes, that N. Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It. The book is about the Mann Gulch fire that devoured a young crew of cocky, athletic firefighters. Although Maclean fails at the end of the book, as he must, when he is consumed by the Platonic fire of mathematics, I forgive him and love him for it, because he’s cocky and athletic in his own right.

Leaving Cheyenne and The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry—Well, I admit it: I love Lonesome Dove, and I was curious if these two offerings are as good. Of course they’re not as majestic, but they’re damn fine pieces of writing.

Visit Kevin at https://www.instagram.com/jkneilson

4.  Eleanor Gluck, author of the blog Silver Threads, writes,

I have just finished reading The Night Manager by John LeCarré. It’s a good thriller with important themes and a romantic undertone but not ideal for winter reading. I have been alternating the novel with Sisman’s biograpy of LeCarré. As a delayed birthday present I have treated myself to a hardcover copy of Michael Chabon’s new book, Moonglow, and I plan to read that next. If you want a book to put you in a good mood (whatever the weather) I recommend Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin.


long-winter-laura-wilder51rvqurgsyl-_sx334_bo1204203200_5.  Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings writes,

Currently reading – The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft. My first experience of this author, so far it’s a rather chilling read, reaching back to the time of Salem and featuring alchemy and all manner of unnatural things – ideal reading for this time of year when the cold dark nights are naturally spooky.

Winter recommended reading – my therapy book for when I’ve had enough of dark and cold and snow is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It always reminds me that a couple of inches of the white stuff is nothing compared with what some areas of the world have to deal with, I’m not like likely to starve to death and I should quit moaning and get on with life!