Autumn is a time for hoarding books. Like a squirrel and its acorns. Like my children and their Halloween candy.
Winter, the reader’s favorite season, will soon be here. And, yes, despite what we might say, winter is our favorite season. We can admire the beauty of fall, the fresh breezes of spring. We can enjoy mucking about in our gardens come summer. But, as readers, we are always at our happiest curled up with a book.
Short, dark days are welcome because they let us off the hook. What else is there to do but pull the blanket closer and go on reading our book?
Here are a few recommendations to help pad your winter reading list.
The first is welcome throughout the year, but I usually only remember it come fall. The Autumn Board Book, by Gerda Muller, is one of four wordless board books focused on the seasons.
I’m afraid I lost some of you when I wrote board book. But this is no ordinary board book.
As one of my favorite picture book characters would say, board books are the raisins and zeros of the book world. Condemned to be chewed upon. Containing only simplified, shortened versions of classic stories. I like to have a few lying around for the actual baby, but, otherwise, I give them a pass.
Except for these.
Muller’s four books are exquisite. I keep one nestled in with the candles and bowl of acorns on our kitchen table. It’s the kind of book you will want to pick up and enjoy for at least a few minutes every day.
These books make great first gifts for a new baby, but they are wonderful for older children, too. A good friend with grown children recently purchased all four. She told me she’s setting them aside for future grandchildren, but I’m quite sure she’s enjoying them in the meantime.
Autumn … the year’s last, loveliest smile. – William Cullen Bryant
One of my favorite things about this hinge season between summer and winter is the food. No more quick pestos or sauteed garden veggies. Now is the season for slow-simmered curries and meaty sauces and cranking the oven back to high.
Whether or not you care much for food or cooking, you will enjoy Ruth Reichl’s memoir, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (Random House Reader’s Circle). Reichl, a celebrated food writer and restaurant critic, is the exact right person for memoir. Not only is she a great writer, but she is curious. She collects stories and experiences like I collect books.
This memoir is full of fun and sweetness, but it tells some hard stories, too. I realized while reading it that quite a few of my favorite memoirs are written about girls growing up with mentally ill mothers. I have no idea why this is. I do know that Reichl’s book is an excellent addition to a list that includes memoirs by Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls.
The most powerful things about this book is the way it makes you care. First, for Ruth, and then for her family and friends and even the stray characters who cross her path. Reichl sees the world (and writes about it) through a lens of love. And I believe we only see the world, other people, and our own lives truly when we look with love.
My parents entertained a great deal, and before I was ten I had appointed myself guardian of the guests. My mission was to keep Mom from killing anybody who came to dinner. – Ruth Reichl
Luci Shaw is one of my favorite poets. I’ve mentioned her here before. She is a poet of faith and substance and beauty.
What the Light Was Like: Poems is a perfect collection for this season of shifting light. Reading poetry slows us down, something I always long to do this time of year, and Shaw’s work, especially, calls us to notice the natural world and to listen to its messages.
Light has a peculiar quality of transforming what it touches, like gold foil over wood. In Hebrew the word for glory has the sense of heaviness, as if light adds to the bulk of its significance. When I see the road that runs in front of my house and the bushes along the sidealk touched with sunlight, even the black tarmac and the faded winter leaves look glorious. – Luci Shaw
Every winter I am surprised to remember that the return of the light is accompanied by the coldest weather. These days are snowier and chillier, but they are brighter, too.
Old, Pennsylvania farmhouses are known for their extra deep window sills. So, these days, instead of sitting in front of the fire, I am reading my book while perched on the sill of these floor-to-ceiling parlor windows. All the better to catch every ray of this golden, late-winter light.
Appropriately, I’ve been reading The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm. Part travel memoir, part history, this book is magical and intellectual.
Inspired by her childhood love of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, Sjohom helps us see the beauty of a world that is almost (but not quite) in total darkness. This book reminds us how special snow and ice can be. It also asks hard questions about the intersection of tourism and indigenous culture. We may share Sjoholm’s fascination with the Sami people, the reindeer herders of northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, but we are not allowed to forget that they too live in the modern world. After all, some of them still herd reindeer, but they do it with helicopters and snowmobiles.
I was out of sight of the Icehotel now, far away on the snow-covered still-frozen river, sliding along on my simple kick sled, no desire to turn back yet, into the wide world, rejoicing. – The Palace of the Snow Queen
I like to think of myself as someone who collects seasonal children’s books. I imagine pulling out a basket of warm-weather themed books on midsummer’s eve and books about autumn and back-to-school in September. Truthfully, except for a few Easter titles, what I have actually accumulated is a collection of Christmas and winter books that is threatening to take over our house. (Winter! I love you, I hate you, and I am always and forever inspired by you. One of the saddest seasons of my life? The two years I spent reading Gingerbread Baby and It’s Snowing! in Florida.)
This December we added A Day On Skates by Hilda van Stockum, and I am in love. The kids are pretty happy, too.
First published in 1934, this is the (delightful! enchanting!) story of a Dutch ice-skating picnic.
I’m sorry, do I need to say more? Are you not already rushing out to buy this book? Because, truly, can you imagine anything more wonderful than spending your school-day skating frozen Dutch canals with your teacher and classmates while stopping occasionally for adventures and warm snacks?
Well, if you think you can, then I dare you to read this book. Van Stockum was a painter before she was a writer, and the full-color, full-page illustrations are … well, I don’t know what to say except this: I want to live in them! I want to wear wooden shoes, I want to join in a school-wide snowball fight, I want to see my twin brother rescued from beneath the ice, and I want, oh how I want, to eat Snow Pancakes.
In that small country called Holland, with its many canals and dykes, its low fields and quaint little villages, Father Frost went prowling round one January night, with his bag full of wonders. – A Day on Skates
Tell me there’s no need to go on?
Okay, I’ll say this one thing more: I may include amazon links for convenience, but this is where you should be discovering and buying children’s books. Yes, amazon is convenient. Yes, amazon will save you money. Yes, the big-box bookstores have a train table that keeps your three-year-old happy. However, they also have case after case of Disney-themed this and Wimpy Kid-that, and I can practically guarantee they do not carry works of art your children will always remember. No one ever wanted to live in a Captain Underpants book.
Since I’m already on this soapbox can I recommend one of the greatest short stories ever written (and, surely, it is the greatest short story featuring snow)?
The Dead by James Joyce (I own this edition: Dubliners: Text and Criticism; Revised Edition (Critical Library, Viking)) concludes the stories collected as Dubliners. If you’ve tried to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake and are afraid – don’t be. This is realist fiction at its finest: highly symbolic but readable. It is the story of a middle-class holiday party. It is the story of a marriage.
Like all of Joyce’s work, there are quite a few allusions to nineteenth-century Irish history and politics. Don’t worry about all that. Your job is to enjoy the party. Feel nervous with Gabriel as he prepares his toast. Indulge his self-important fantasies about a night away with his wife, and feel his shock and pain when he realizes how little he truly knows of life, and love, and death.
Most of all, your job is to read the final paragraphs aloud. Slowly. Quietly. Close the door, if you must, and listen to these words as they float, gently, on the air:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. – “The Dead”
Find earlier recommendations here: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, and Week Five.
Another Saturday, another peak at my bookshelves … this time with a little Downton Abbey inspiration.
Now, Sybil, dear, this sort of thing is all very well in novels, but in reality, it can prove very uncomfortable. (Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham)
I’m a lucky lady. Not only will my husband happily watch hour after hour of PBS Masterpiece Classics like Downton Abbey, but he’ll put up with my distracting, far-too-knowledgeable-for-my-own-good asides.
I spent ten years of my life studying the literature and culture of early twentieth-century Great Britain, so I get a tad opinionated about historical accuracy (for instance, Downton’s portrayal of master/servant relations is decidedly rosy, and no one would have disapproved of Edith’s marriage to an older man, there simply were not enough eligible men left alive after the war).
A bit of Ireland’s tumultuous history is reflected in the Tom/Sybil plotline. If you’d like to take a closer look, I’d recommend Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Last September. Bowen was, herself, the daughter of an Irish Big House. Many of her neighbors and friends lost their great houses in the literal flames of Ireland’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule.
Bowen wrote her novel only a few years after the historical events she describes, but in those years the entire culture of Anglo-Irish landed gentry had all but vanished. For the Anglo-Irish, whose Protestant ancestors had arrived from England hundreds of years before to claim Irish land in the name of the British government, it really was the “last” September. Irish independence left them, metaphorically and often literally, homeless.
Here, there were no more autumns, except for the trees. … Next year, the chestnuts and acorns pattered unheard on the avenues, that, filmed over with green already, should have been dull to the footsteps – but there were no footsteps. Leaves … banked formless, frightened,
against the too clear form of the ruin. (from The Last September)
Interested in a country house novel for the beginning reader? Yes, there is such a thing! Of course, the main characters are, as one would expect, not people but mice. My daughter loves Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall by Emily Bearn. Again, this is that rare combination: funny, clever, and easy-to-read.
No list of country house fiction would be complete without a ghost story. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize (I almost always love the Booker Prize winners).
This novel about a declining family, their haunted manor house, and the village doctor who becomes entangled in their fate is smart, subtle, and atmospheric. Like most good, literary ghost stories the ghost itself is almost beside the point. In this portrayal of post-WWII Britain and the decline of the old family homes, it’s easy to imagine a Downton Abbey sequal in which that formerly bustling estate is inhabited only by Lady Mary, one aging servant, and the ghosts of a once-glittering past.
Find earlier book recommendations here: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, and Week Four.