There's nothing like cosying up with a book in the colder months! Kate Townshend explores the perfect books to warm you up at this time of year
As the weather turns and the sky darkens, autumn and winter can often feel like the perfect time for curling up with a good book. (Crackling fire and hot drinks optional!)
But I wonder if it's just me who finds that my reading tastes seem to change along with the seasons? The books I might choose to read in some sun-drenched garden are very different to the ones I want (need) when the wind is howling outside and a few precious hours of watery daylight are the best we can hope for.
"In the midst of the coldest, darkest part of the year, I want a book to be 'a ball of light' in my hands"
I've always valued writing that evokes time and place, and in the midst of the coldest, darkest part of the year, I want more than ever for a book to be "a ball of light" in my hands, as Ezra Pound famously once put it—a reminder of life and love and resilience.
Books that keep you warm
I also need a certain degree of cosiness in a winter read—something that will keep me warm when the weather won't! Give me gothic mansions in the snow, with heroines whose passions burn brightly. Or let me escape completely, into some fantasy setting—but I'd still like my forests icy and pine scented. Give me stories of survival and re-birth. Remind me that this time of year has meaning too.
Katherine May’s beautiful, poetic meditation on the season, Wintering, does precisely this. It’s ostensibly non-fiction, interweaving aspects of her life with more universal ponderings on how we might winter well but there’s a lyrical, symbolic quality to the writing that blurs prosaic concepts like "genre." She acknowledges that in winter we need different tools to get us through the season and simultaneously offers one such tool, since Wintering itself is the perfect guide book and companion to see you through until spring.
For me, books that help me see the beauty of the season will always be high on my list of winter reads. And The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is equally adept at finding something lovely and meaningful in these colder, darker times of the year.
It sits somewhere between historical novel and literary fairytale, amidst the myth and folklore of mediaeval Russia, in which certain aspects of winter are personified—in particular, the "frost king" Morozko. This enigmatic figure functions as a sort of metaphor for our complex feelings about winter in general, as well as proving a source of danger and fascination and strength for the novel’s protagonist.
Speaking of whom, Vasya Petrovna is utterly compelling in her own right. Through her, the novel also has all sorts of things to say about the treatment of women and the dangers of religion and groupthink. Thought-provoking and escapist in equal measures, this is one of my absolute favourite fictional books to settle down with in December.
"Books that help me see the beauty of the season will always be high on my list of winter reads"
If I tell you that Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan draws inspiration from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe—for many a quintessentially wintry novel—that might be enough. But this tender, thoughtful musing on the nature of stories and their impact is also a winter heart warmer. Meg is an Oxford student in the 1950s and her terminally ill little brother is desperate to know where Narnia comes from, despite her attempts to convince him it’s just a story. She ends up taking tea with C S Lewis, who is a professor at the university, and his brother in an effort to grant her sibling his last wishes—and in the process her own assumptions are challenged and upended.
Obviously there is sadness tangled in the subject matter here, but there is also love and hope and magic to light the way. And again, there’s something in this coexistence that speaks to the time of year too.
Of course sometimes it’s not tenderness or comfort we’re seeking in a winter book. It can also be a time for something harder or grittier, which perhaps explains why Dickens is an author often associated with a certain wintery frisson. The juxtaposition of harsh realities amidst apparent festivities speaks to many people’s experience of the season after all. So Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead, a re-telling of the Dickens classic David Copperfield, will also be on my bedside table this winter.
It updates but retains the unflinching social commentary of the original as well as a sense of seasonal place despite the setting relocation to modern-day Appalachia. Yes there is poverty and hypocrisy and struggle, but as with its progenitor, its protagonist is likeable and observant, so there is more than unrelenting bleakness to enjoy.
But let’s face it, a little bleakness at this time of year can be rather atmospheric, in much the same way as the bare, monochrome fields and the plummeting temperatures. And A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore gets the balance just right. Gothic, lyrical and disturbing in equal measure it focuses on the strange, isolated lives of Cathy and her brother Rob who roam their grandfather’s neglected country house trying to make sense of their parents abandonment. The subject matter is often dark and upsetting but it’s ideal for hunkering down with, and there’s a sense that spring does eventually come—a useful reminder for us as readers too.
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