Dec 1, 2011

Twenty-one Midwinter Reads

Snowy tree branches
Photo Credit

The weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year’s are one of my favourite times of the year to read. Of course, the holidays being what they are I rarely get much actual reading done, but the moments I manage to steal here and there are an absolute delight. There’s something about the days growing shorter and the weather colder that makes curling up with a good book even more of a pleasure than usual. There’s also a slow, pensive quality to the twelve days of Christmas in particular that makes it a perfect time for reading.

Today I wanted to share with you twenty-one books that fit (or seem to fit) my definition of a perfect winter read. To me, the perfect winter book is one that manages to capture the atmosphere of this time of the year. Sometimes this has to do with setting; other times with a far less tangibly quality. Because in my imagination this atmosphere is very much cold weather dependent, this list will be Northern Hemisphere biased (apologies to my Southern Hemisphere friends). It’s also Christmas biased to some extent, since that’s the holiday I celebrate, but only a few of these are actually Christmas books.

The atmosphere I look for at this time of year goes beyond any specific references to the holidays – it has more to do with a balance between cosiness and an acknowledgement of the dark, bleak days we now face. Perhaps that’s why classic children’s fiction so often seems to fit the bill. Without further ado, here’s my list:

Midwinter book covers
  • The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – “The Dark is Rising” is also the title of a sequence of five books, but I particularly mean the second book in this sequence (which can actually be read first). I think it was Fyrefly who recommended that I read it close to Christmas some years ago, and I’ll be forever grateful for her advice. I doubt I’ll ever find a book that captures the atmosphere I was trying to describe quite as well as this one does.

  • I May Be Some Time by Francis Spufford – “I may be some time” were the final words spoken by one of Captain Scott’s men before leaving their tent, never to be seen alive again. The subject of this book is the relationship between ice and the human imagination, which is, after all, part of what this list is all about. I have not read this book yet, but I loved Spufford’s The Child that Books Built and have very high hopes.

  • The Box of Delights by John Masefield – This children’s classic from the 1930’s was my Christmas read last year, and it absolutely lived up to its title. Masefield masterfully reaches that balance between comfort and darkness I was talking about.

  • A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas - A beautifully written tribute to the Christmases of Thomas’ childhood. There is something to be said about this kind of romanticised nostalgia, of course, but it’s a very human impulse all the same, and Thomas makes it worth it to go along for the ride.

  • A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote — A very moving account of the friendship between a child and an older woman, and one of my absolute favourite short stories. Capote revisited this theme in his novella The Grass Harp, which I also loved.

  • A Winter Book by Tove Jansson – This collection of short stories may not be as perfect as The Summer Book, but it’s still a joy to read.

  • Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson – I haven’t read this one yet, but one of these years I will. The title says it all, doesn’t it? Plus there’s no going wrong with Tove Jansson.
Midwinter Book Covers
  • Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis — It’s Connie Willis! Writing about Christmas! This was recommended to me a few years ago, and I’m planning to finally read it this year along with my friend Kelly.

  • Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons — Another one on my mental list for this year. As much as I enjoy the holidays I do need some humour to survive them, and I know Stella Gibbons cannot possibly fail me in that regard.

  • Cold by Bill Streever — I received this as a Christmas gift two years ago and spent two wonderful days curled up in a bean bag by the fire reading it. Cold immediately became one of my favourite nature books: it’s a wonderfully written tribute to the Polar Regions with an urgent environmental consciousness that never feels heavy-handed. It will be sure to appeal to fans of BBC documentary series Frozen Planet.

  • Frozen Planet by Alastair Fothergill and Vanessa Berlowitz – Well, why not? The BBC series has absolutely stunning photography, and I doubt the companion book will disappoint. (Also: penguins!)

  • The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann – Everyone knows the ballet based on this story, but Hoffmann being Hoffmann, the original is eerier than most people probably imagine. There’s plenty of Christmas magic here, but also a welcome note of discomfort that perfectly captures the strangeness and stillness of this time of the year.

  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling — One of these years I would love to revisit this entire series over the holidays. The Christmas scenes at Hogwarts are some of my favourite ever.

  • Stardust by Neil Gaiman — I first discovered this book one Christmas over a decade ago now, and so in my mind it became permanently associated with the holidays and Midwinter. I think rereading it every year would make a wonderful Christmas tradition. Like the best fairy tales, this is a story that perfect balances elements of comfort and darkness; of cosiness and untameable wildness.

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke — This and Stardust are companion novels in my mind, and I imagine it would be perfect to read one right after the other. Besides, this satisfies another one of the requirements of the perfect Midwinter read: that it be deliciously long.

  • Tam Lin by Pamela Dean — I can’t quite decide if I think of this as an autumn book or as a winter one, but I do know I’ve been dying to revisit it for months now. Pamela Dean’s take on this traditional ballad is also satisfyingly long, dark, and full of comforting references to books and reading. Meghan has just read it, so I’ll let her convince you.

  • Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass) by Philip Pullman — Polar bears! Aurora Borealis! One of the greatest stories ever told! I’ve been a fan of this series for a long time, so I can’t believe I have yet to reread it over the holidays.

  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien — I imagine the association between this story and the holidays will be strengthened over the next couple of years, with the release of Peter Jackson’s two movies. But why not start now?

  • Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien — I read this one last year, but sadly I never got around to writing about it. Tolkien’s letters, originally written for his children, are very funny and sometimes a little wistful.

  • A String in the Harp by Nancy Bond — A Newbery Honour Book from the 1970’s that is set in Wales over the Christmas holidays. I grabbed it on Bookmooch recently based on the fact that the plot description reminded me of The Dark is Rising, and started it a few days ago. I’m loving it so far – the atmosphere may not be as perfect, but I think it could prove to be an even better novel than Cooper’s.

  • The Last Great Quest by Max Jones — Another non-fiction title from my wishlist to wrap things up. This is an account of the Scott Antarctic expedition, and what makes it particularly appealing to me is the fact that it’s described as being not only about the expedition itself, but also about the Edwardian environment that led to it and its cultural repercussions. I think it would also be interesting to be reminded of the very real dangers of winter – Christmas imagery is often based on a romanticised, defanged, toy version of inhospitable weather. I understand why we do this and indulge in it as much as anyone, but I would also like to keep the real thing in mind.
Do the final weeks of the year put you in the mood for a particular kind of book? What is, to you, the perfect winter read? Anything to add to this list?

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  1. What a great list! I think think winter is the perfect time for reading. Long nights & cold temperatures mean lots of time indoors with a good a book.

  2. I love these recommendations. I've been struggling to find the perfect book to read right now. I think I'll put Stardust and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on reserve at my library right now.

    I didn't realize there was a Frozen Planet book. My kids and I (even my husband) are really enjoying the Frozen Planet BBC series. I'll have to try to get my hands on the book. My kids are big animal lovers.

  3. A lovely list! I always think of holiday when it's Christmas and inevitably reach out for something cosy. This year I'll be reading Snuff and also The Hunger Games (maybe not so cosy!)

  4. Frozen Planet has been amazing. My five year old grandson is hooked on it and I didn't realise there was a book, so that might appear among his pressies.

    The book I'm reading at the moment is Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman. It's set right now, Nov/Dec... in fact I read one sentence where they said which day it was and it was the day I was reading it - weird! It's brilliantly atmospheric and rather creepy. Perfect for the time of year.

  5. Has to be "The Snowman" by Raymond Briggs &, of course, the film. Perfect Christmas fare.

  6. Beth F: Yes, exactly :)

    Kristi: I hope you enjoy those books as much as I did! And I'm with you on Frozen Planet. My partner and I are completely hooked.

    Sakura: Snuff is actually very dark too! But I'll say no more lest I spoil it.

    Cath: I'm tempted to get the book as a Christmas gift for my father. He hasn't watched the series yet, but he loves anything nature relate. Also, Midwinter of the Spirit sounds perfect!

    Ali Mal: I have neither watched nor read it! Sounds like I should do something about that.

  7. What a wonderful list.
    I was thinking that this year I'd like to read only classics and books with a cozy atmosphere during December and the Chsritams season. You list captures this spirit so well.

  8. Great recommendations and some of my favorites too. I agree with you about the Harry Potter books having some of the most wonderful Christmas scenes. I came across Stardust on my shelf the other day and thought about re-reading that one along with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Also Cold and Frozen Planet will be added to my list. They sound like perfect January books!

  9. I like this idea. I struggle to define the blend of cold yet cozy that makes a December read perfect. I like The Time Traveler's wife (I think because it talks so much about absence and presence, two things I feel a lot at Christmas). There is a beautiful book by Julie Lane, with woodcut illustrations, called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which never fails to charm me - my kids and I would read it a chapter a night in December. And Rumer Godden's The Story of Holly and Ivy, and Jane Aiken Hodge's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, too. I'm going RIGHT NOW to make a stack of December reads!

  10. The Susan Cooper is my go-to holiday season book, but I haven't read it in a couple years. Might be time to dig it out again. I'd like to try some of the Tove Jansson too; it's been years.

    Another literary tradition for me is listening to Alan Maitland reading Frederick Forsyth's The Shepherd, a holiday ghost story about an RAF pilot flying home for Christmas in 1957. Never fails to get a shiver and a tear from me; it's so lovely. Our public broadcaster plays it every Christmas Eve.

  11. Thanks for this fantastic list, Ana! I saw several I now want to check out myself.

    have you read the Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin? I'm not finished with it, yet, but I think at least the first section kind of fits, it's a sort of fantasy set in New York and there's a ton of snow and also Christmas. IDK, I'll see what the rest of the book is like but maybe? Sadly it's like 600 pages.

  12. I always want to read Christmasy books at this time of the year, but it never seems to work out as planned. One year I will accomplish it!

  13. I really like your description of the wintry atmosphere. The Dark is Rising and the Francis Spufford book both sound interesting to me. As for my favourite winter read...I'd go for The Snowman too! And maybe two other childhood books, Little Women and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

  14. I haven't read most of the books on this list, but I do go into Harry Potter glomania during the holidays. They feel like very cozy books, and Christmas novels (in my opinion) definitely need to have ghosts and some sort of magic going on.

    I had no idea ETA Hoffman wrote the original Nutcracker story until a few weeks ago. I ordered the book from ILL at my library (plus the version of the Nutcracker Alexandre Dumas wrote) and am planning on reading it this month!

  15. What a great list! I have only read a few of these, so now my wish list has been bulked up tremendously! Lots of them sound so interesting and perfect for this time of year!

  16. Caroline: Thank you! I look forward to seeing what you'll read over the next few weeks :)

    Amy: Yes, though January is usually the time when I start feeling I've had enough of winter and can it please stop being cold :P That probably won't happen this year, since the weather has been really mild.

    Nancy: I love what you said about absence and presence in TTTW. I read it between Christmas and New Year's one year when my partner was overseas, and I think you perfectly articulated why it was so perfect. The Wolves of Willoughy Chase is a great one too. Also, I have a review of The Story of Holly and Ivy scheduled for tomorrow!

    Kiirstin: Thank you so much for the recommendation! I read somewhere that reading ghost stories over Christmas sued to be a big tradition in England, and it sounds like this would be a perfect way to revive it in a small way.

    Amy: I haven't, but Aarti also recommended that to me years ago! It sounds like something I could love.

    Kelly: I hope you will this year, with Miracle :P

    Sarah: Ooh, those are good ones as well, yes!

    Heidenkind: I'm with you on the ghosts and magic - that's my preference too. Looking forward to your thoughts on The Nutcracker!

    Zibilee: I'm happy to add to your wishlist, since you so often do the same to me ;)

  17. The Christmas period is one of my favourite times of the year to read too. I've only read a few of the books you've mentioned so you've given me lots of ideas for future winter reading! I've just finished reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, which is a beautiful story based on a Russian fairy tale. It's due to be published in February and I'm sure it will become a popular winter novel.

  18. Helen, I was just putting together a list of my most anticipated book releases of 2012 and that's one of them! It sounds right up my alley, and yes, perfect for winter.

  19. This may well be the most fun book list ever!!! And that's saying something! I want to read every last one of them. I so love it that I've never even heard of some of them!

    But yeah, the downside is that I'm managing to read about two pages a day so far this season. :P

  20. Good Lord I am late to the party. Sorry! I should just print this list out and go with it! I am pretty much a broken record, but whe I think of cold, two thoughts go through my head. #1: Jo Nesbo. Because Norway is cold even in the summer. #2: Smilla's Sense of Snow (too lazy to look up the author, but how many books could have this title?). Love this book. Love, love, love. Need a re-read.

  21. What an amazing list: thanks for posting it for all of us!

  22. After The Box of Delights you might want to consider reading The Midnight Folk!

  23. This is such a great list! I definitely agree with Stardust! Perfect for winter!

    I'm currently reading Wintertown which is also a great winter read. Maybe it'll make your list next year!

  24. I am so freaking excited that you wrote this post :D I've read two Christmas books based on your recommendations, A Child's Christmas in Wales and A Christmas Memory and A Christmas Memory is still one of my all time favorite pieces of writing :) Thanks for sharing this Ana!! Can't wait to read what I haven't from this list!!

  25. I'm with Chris - great post, Ana! Oh, so many books.....I love Susan Cooper and the Dark is rising series. I was thinking rereading The Dark is Rising again - you are so right, it does capture the spirit of this time of year so well. So this makes me put A String in the Harp on my wishlist!!!

    I also agree with Cath - Midwinter of the Spirit, and many of the Merrily Watkins series she's reading, is one of my favourite current mystery series. It's haunting and eerie, and dark, and will offset any sweetness overload of the holidays. I have the latest in my Christmas box :-)

    I also own The Letters from Father Christmas, I must read it through! I bought A Child's Christmas in Wales last year because of you, I think it's time I finished reading it, don't you? lol

    If you want horror, don't forget Michelle Paver's Dark Matter, and The Terror by Dan Simmons, are both set in the Arctic (different poles).

    I'll have to think of any I reread or associate with Christmas, now. This was a lovely post, and bookish, Ana! Thank you.

  26. I'm hoping blogger will start taking my comments again! I've lined up Stardust to read this December. I've been meaning to get to it for ages, and now it's definitely on the list. Lovely choices, Nymeth. I'd like to read the Tove Jansson too!

  27. Some fabulous books on that list. I own quite a few of them too. I must read Dark Is Rising but I need to read the first one first. I want to get Cold Comfort Farm at Christmas!

  28. I totally agree that at this time of year curling up with a good book seems even more special for some reason. I tend to lean towards cosy crime, fantasy, and classics at this time of year.

    I love re-reading The Hobbit at this time of year, I haven't read Tolkien's Christmas Letters but they sound wonderful. I would also like to try Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and The Dark is Rising.

  29. I just picked up Cold Comfort Farm at Christmas and can't wait to dig into it over the holidays!

  30. Love this list. Though for Connie Willis, my midwinter read is DOOMSDAY BOOK. Yeah, I know, plague. But still. I read it for the first time one Xmas and it just stuck with me.

  31. Awesome! Thanks for these. I'm always in the mood for something wintery in December, and I always end up with something disappointing. Great list. =)

  32. So many great books for the season! I don't read very many sappy books, but I always tend to crave one aroudn the holidays.

  33. I haven't read many of the books on this list but now I really want to! I love Stardust and Harry Potter. You're definitely right about Northern Lights being a perfect winter read. Great post, Nymeth!

  34. What a wonderful idea! I loved Streever's Cold when I read it two years ago and many of my favorites are on your list. I really do need to read The Dark Is Rising. Now would be a perfect time.

  35. Debi: Glad you liked it!

    Sandy: I hereby promise you (and Jill) that 2012 will be the year when I finally read Jo Nesbo!

    Buried in Print: You're most welcome!

    Jeanne: Yes! I had forgotten about it, so I appreciate the reminder.

    Christa: I'll have to look that one up!

    Chris: Enjoy!

    Susan: I had so much fun reading The Dark is Rising with you all those years ago. Hopefully next year we'll be able to do something like that again. I finished A String in the Harp and I really think you'd love it. Also, thanks for all the recommendations :D

    litlove: Hooray! So glad it's letting you comment again. I look forward to hearing what you think of Stardust :)

    Vivienne: You can actually start the Dark is Rising sequence with book two - the only thing that matters is that you read the first two before you move on to the third, which ties them together. But since books one and two introduce different characters the order is interchangeable.

    Jessica: Cosy crime, fantasy and classics all sound great to me! Enjoy your holiday reading this year :)

    Booksnyc: Me neither! I'm hoping to start it next week.

    Victoria Janssen: That was acttually when I first read it too, and yes, I agree. It was pretty much perfect.

    Cam: I hope you find something good this year!

    Melissa: I didn't find any of these sappy, but of course that varies from reader to reader :P

    Vasilly: Thanks!

    Gavin: I think you'd really, really love The Dark is Rising.

  36. I feel like commenting on all your choices, but will stick to one: Capote's short-story.

    Also one of my favorites and during this time I feel I start to bug all those around me to read it. I'm so glad to discover you're also a fan. I feel it's not recognized enough.

  37. What a lovely list! Some of those children's books seem amazing!

  38. Alex: Agreed! Such a beautiful story. It could easily have been sappy, but it wasn't.

    Joanna: I hope you enjoy them if you decide to give them a go :)

  39. I haven't read most of these but can I still say I love this list?! It gives me ideas. I still haven't read Cold Comfort Farm, that sounds like one to read, I love the idea of humor during this season, but since I haven't read the first, I should wait on the Christmas one.

    And COLD just sounds fantastic. I think last year I thought it sounded too COLD this time of year, but now I'm thinking it would be just right, assuming I'm all bundled up and warm...

    I tend to like long books this time of year too. And I personally love to revisit A CHRISTMAS CAROL each year too. This year, I probably won't read it -- just watch the Muppet version...he he he. the best ever.

  40. I loev your first book set picture, because you've found covers that all have a wintery colour scheme. You're tempting me to revisit some classics soon (particularly the Pullman and Cooper books). And thanks for adding another Scott book to my TBR list - did you enjoy DA's trip to the preserved expedition hut on Frozen Planet? I'm dying for this new book of photos taken on the expedition 'The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott'.

    I like a good ghost story, or polar exploration novel at this time of year and am recommending 'Dark Matter' by Michelle Paver as a greta combination of both.

  41. Rebecca: I'm glad it gave you ideas, since that was the goal! I've just finished Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, and it's actually very different than I expected. Only one of the stories is set at CCF, and only three altogether are seasonal. Still a good read (it's Stella Gibbons, after all) but I wish they'd titled it "and other stories" to avoid misleading readers. And YES on the Muppets version of A Christmas Carol!

    Jodie: I was quite proud of the colour scheme, so it made me happy that you said something :P And yes, I did love that bit of Frozen Planet! It was amazing how it looked like they'd just ledt. Your review of Dark Matter definitely made me curious. I have a feeling I'll also wish I was reading the Sarah Waters version of the story, but it still sounds good.


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