Posted December 16, 2013 by in Book Lists

A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Perfect Winter Reads

It’s cold. If you’re lucky, there’s snow on the ground. (If you’re unlucky, or in Britain, it’ll just be a frigid rain instead.) In any case, there’s no denying that it’s really winter now, and Christmas is coming soon. It’s time for snuggling up in blankets with a cup of hot tea or cocoa and reading an absorbing book. Here are five perfect winter reads I’d recommend this December:



1. The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel

Over the past few years I’ve been working my way through the short stories in this pleasant collection. So far I highly recommend “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote, “The Zoo at Christmas” by Jane Gardam, and “Christmas” by Vladimir Nabokov. Especially if you have a busy household full of small children or family members coming and going, you’ll appreciate having a fund of ten- or fifteen-page stories you can pick up and put down as the bustle of the holidays requires.



2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

In 1920s Alaska, a childless couple do an uncharacteristically whimsical thing: they go outside, fashion a figure out of snow, and pretend that it could be their daughter. The next day the snow child has melted, but a mysterious girl named Faina enters their lives. Based on a Russian folktale, The Snow Child is a magical and unpredictable story you’ll race through in just a few fireside evenings.



3. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

We’re firm fans of Tove Jansson here (Chantelle chose her The Summer Book for her Beachcombings list of perfect summer reading), even if the Swedish-Finnish author isn’t particularly well known outside of Europe. These stories are understated and bleak at times, with their sparse prose and the Scandinavian setting, but just right for picking up during a blizzard. Jansson is perhaps best known for her Moomin series of illustrated children’s fiction, and there’s still something of that playfulness here, in the evocation of childhood and the careful interplay of possibility and disappointment.



4. The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan

Marcus Borg is among my favourite popular theologians; though he comes from an academic background, he explains Christianity in simple, eloquent terms that make perfect sense to the layman. He and New Testament historian Crossan have joined up on several books now, including one on the events of Holy Week and another on Saint Paul. Whether you’re new to the Bible accounts or feel like you’ve heard it all before, you will learn so much from this book that you will never be able to think about the Christmas story in the same way again.


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5. Winter: Five Windows on the Season by Adam Gopnik

This book collects Gopnik’s Massey Lectures, sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and MasseyCollege at the University of Toronto. The author grew up in Canada before moving to the United States, and this is indeed a peculiarly Canadian book. He divides the book into five sections: “Romantic winter” is about the romanticizing of cold amongst German writers, English artists, and Japanese painters; “Radical winter” concerns polar exploration; “Recuperative winter,” by far the best chapter, tells of the development of Christmas traditions, especially through Charles Dickens and Thomas Nast, whose drawings of Santa Claus in Harper’s Weekly have become our standard images; “Recreational winter” is an indulgent discussion of winter sports, especially hockey; and “Remembering winter” remarks on our nostalgia for winter, especially where it has disappeared.

This is a meandering and not entirely cohesive book. In the end, as Gopnik himself realizes, “these chapters, in the guise of cultural observations and a kind of amateur’s cultural anthropology, are really a composite list of things that I like and that I don’t.” I couldn’t help but agree with Derwent May, the LondonTimes critic, who concluded, “there are moments when you feel he is straining too hard to make things interesting. This is not quite history and not quite entertainment. Sometimes you wonder exactly what it is.”

So, perhaps not one to read from start to finish, but certainly worth dipping into during the colder months. (And don’t miss the “Recuperative winter” chapter in the run-up to Christmas.)


Happy December reading!

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.