Like many of us, I start the new year with resolves to clear clutter and stay organized. For me, this means going through my bookshelves and hauling the books that I can part with to my local bookstore to sell. It’s not easy. As I began trolling my bookshelves last week, I found a book which I didn’t remember buying, but which I could see right away needed more consideration before I could add it to the giveaway pile. So I snuggled into a cozy chair, wrapped my fleecy blanket around my feet and began reading through it, forgetting all about the task at hand. Ahh.
It’s my favorite genre: books about books. A Year of Reading by Elisabeth Ellington & Jane Freimiller is divided into twelve chapters – one for every month of the year and includes suggestions for books to read in each month. It’s written like a book club guide but it’s so much smarter than those you find in the back pages of some popular fiction. The authors recommend five books for each month in these categories: crowd-pleaser, classic, challenge, memoir and potluck, with each month highlighting a different theme. For example: Winter’s Tales for January, Spiritual Gardening for April, Women’s Journeys in July and Comfort Reading in November.
So, I thought I’d borrow this great idea and recommend some books on different themes throughout the year here on the blog. My first recommendations are Books for Wintry Weather because, although we feel like we should be organizing our households in January, we really want to sit in front of a fire and read, right?
Two contemporary books for wintry weather which I recommend include one non-fiction and one written by a local Seattle writer: Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier and Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple. The first is a fascinating trek through Siberia with the New Yorker travel writer, a collection of characters who act as his guide and those he meets along the way. Don’t be disappointed that this wintry read starts out with Frazier travelling in the summer, be glad that those blood-thirsty swarms of mosquitoes can’t be found this side of the Sea of Irkutsk. The book details more than one of Frazier’s trips through Siberia, the last one in the frozen winter months. Frazier is engaging and personable in his narrative, capturing the land and people of this remote country with amusement and love. You’ll learn some things about Stalin, Siberian prisons and climate change. And, if you read it, you probably won’t ever feel the need to actually travel there.
My local suggestion, Where’d You Go Bernadette will have you laughing out loud as the author skewers a particular slice of upper middle class Seattleites — those earnest politically correct parents who all want their children to go to the best private schools (like Lakeside) and for whom life in our wet, slippery city is filled with mudslides, craftsmen bungalows, school fundraisers and Ted Talks at Microsoft. Not surprisingly, the protagonist, Bernadette, lately from LA, finds it necessary to light out for the territory — heading to Antarctica but only after alienating her neighbors, the other parents at her daughter’s school (the “gnats” as she calls them) and pushing her husband into the arms of his absurdly self-involved and gossipy personal assistant who has not one but two hyphenated names. Bernadette’s Indian virtual assistant will wreak her own havoc on the family, but that’s another story. The novel is told from the point of view of Bernadette’s daughter, also emails, letters, and interviews and flips around in time and space. When the rain gets you down, pick up this novel and enjoy the ride.
I borrowed my suggestion of a wintry classic from A Year of Reading and just finished My Antonia by Willa Cather. I remembered reading it in high school and liking it but had forgotten much of the brilliant detail of life on the prairie in the nineteenth century. It’s the story of Jim Burden, ten years old at the time he moves to the Nebraska prairie to live with his grandparents, and his recollections of the Bohemian family and their daughter, Antonia who move there at the same time. For Jim, life on the farm is filled with new adventures but he recognizes early on how much harder it is for Antonia and her family, who face not only the language barrier of a foreign country but also lack the resources available to his grandparents, as experienced farmers. Jim is fascinated by Antonia, how her determined strength prevails over the heart-breaking death of her father and the particular challenges of being a young woman in this time and place. Of course, Jim has always been a little in love with Antonia.
The novel is filled with brilliant descriptions of that country in the heat of summer: It seemed as if we could hear the corn growing in the night; under the stars one caught a faint crackling in the dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields where the feathered stalks stood so juicy and green. And, in winter: The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. . . . All about us the snow was crusted in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind.
Of course, we don’t experience these extremes in Seattle. And maybe I miss them a little, at least when curled up in a blanket and reading about them as the rain pelts my window but the temperature hovers around forty degrees. In the In the end, I found the book sentimental but still well worth the re-read.