Much of my winter is spent sitting on window sills and peering with darkened eyes at the dismal scene outside. Today as I peered into the 4:30pm sunset I had a dark vision of the impending season: Every morning, I awake with cracked, bleeding lips. My bicycle leans against the basement wall, lonesome and sobbing. Shrouded old ladies slip on the icy streets pulling me down with them. I suddenly feel very “white” with my newly found fair complexion and wind-whipped cherry-tomato cheeks. Big bowls of pasta don’t even make me smile. Scarves begin to look like so many nooses marching through the black snow sludge. Okay, so obviously I have an unhealthy and overwrought dread about this season, but most of that vision is accurate.
These dramatics are all in order to introduce something that is direly needed in the winter yet unjustly claimed by the summer season. I’m talking about summer reading lists. I don’t know what magazine editor decided people only need to read in the summer, but somehow the season that already has everything also gets to tell people what to read. Yet, it is the winter when I most need that kind of moral and literary support. Books in the summer are nice but everything in the summer is nice. It is the foul weather of the winter that shuts us up in our homes and after watching every BBC detective show on Netflix, what are we to do? It is in this cruel, barren time that books can be the last bastion of sanity and human empathy.
In order to reverse the perverse trend of summer reading lists, I have compiled a list of five books I think would be good winter fare.
The Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
To answer my previous question, the first thing you do after watching every BBC detective show on Netflix is go to the mother ship of all British detective stories: the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. These stories are practically cut out of the cloth of winter. I mean that quite literally: the stories (or more accurately the mythology surrounding them) are filled with upturned collars, wool coats and dramatically adorned scarves. There is also no denying that the winter evokes an obscure mood of mystery and conspiracy. Or perhaps some of us find, as Sherlock himself does, dulled by the monotonous existence of ordinary life, in which case the perfect cure, short of becoming involved in an actual bloody mess, is to indulge in some old-fashioned literary gum-shoeing. And, for those interested in such things, there are also ample opportunities to critique the underlying frameworks of British colonialism that guide our narrator, dear Dr. Watson, in his interpretations and retellings of Sherlock’s adventures in the great art of deduction.
The Girl by Meridel Le Sueur
I know I said I would try very hard not to talk about my boyfriend in this blog, but like the fox he is, he has snuck his way into a post. He recently introduced me to a book, The Girl, incessantly pleaded with me to read it and even insisted I should review it for Mixedblood Messages. Seeing as how we are probably gonna find ourselves inside in close quarters often during the winter, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to start making good now. And in all sincerity, what more could I ask for than a guy who brings me novels by working-class feminist socialists?
The Girl, written and set during the Great Depression, is the kind of book you could read in the span of a single snowed-in day. Along with being rather short in length, it is written in the colloquial language of the poor souls of St. Paul and filled with dialogue that glides off the page with an urgent poeticism. The main character of the title is never given a “proper” name because her story is actually the pooling of many women’s experiences. As simply “the girl” she can be related to by all the women of the world who have suffered under the unjust economic and gendered oppressions of this world, past and present. The books tells the many stories of this oppression, whether at the hand of single male abusers or more systematic forms of patriarchy, but then ends as a story of hope and resistance. While reading it I was actually reminded of the strong women zinesters I talked about. As Le Sueur describes it in her afterword, their writings and her own serve similar ends: “to mirror back the beauty of the people, to urge and nourish their vital expression and their social vision.”
Petersburg by Andrei Bely
The winter season is a good time to tackle those books that spend time on our shelves intimidating us with their size, scope and reputation for difficulty. These are most often the books we feel we “ought” to read but which we never get around to. Or, just as often, they are books we read because we felt we ought to, but also feel we will probably have to re-read a couple times to truly “get”. Such classic tomes include Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past, Infinite Jest, etc. If you are prone to taking on such reading projects, I suggest a slightly more obscure but no less enriching Grand Novel of the 20th Century, Petersburg. In fact, if you are truly ambitious I think you could make a whole winter course in Russian novels (the misery of winter is well reflected in the Russian literary spirit) and then cap it off with Petersburg, rewarding yourself with a sip from your hot tottie at every literary reference you recognize. You might want to make that drink on the weak side, however because the book is a veritable labyrinth through Russian novels, history and culture. The story itself tells of anarchist conspirators, a ticking bomb, unwitting bureaucrats, torturous love affairs, mischievous masqueraders and a Peter the Great statue that possesses the city and its people. It is a book that will surely keep you busy.
The next two books on my list are more recent and I haven’t read either yet so I can’t say with any certainty that will be worth your time, but I do plan on reading them this winter and possibly reviewing them here, so I am hoping that perhaps somebody will join me.
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco joins Anthony Burgess in being a scholar of linguistics (well, semiotics but close enough) who also writes novels, and darn good bestsellers at that. He gives me hope that I too, a lowly one-time student of linguistics, may one day finish the scraps of fiction hiding in my desk. Eco also indulges my taste for historical conspiracy theories. In his latest novel, just released earlier this year, he tackles the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a real-life forged document written to “reveal” the conspiracy for a global Jewish takeover. I don’t know much else about it, but it has the word Prague in the title and I am a bit of a czech-o-phile as well, so my interest is piqued thrice over.
The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, and other true stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge border town by Stew Magnuson
I always begin books on the subject of Native peoples written by white authors with a guarded and skeptical attitude. This book is certainly no different. I am also hopeful, though, that a white author has turned their eye (I hope a critical one) to Indian country border towns. Border town violence is one of the most overlooked instances of racism in modern America. Over the past few years, a few particularly outrageous and outraging cases have gotten extended coverage in Indian Country Today, but for those who do not live in/around bordertowns the Jim Crow-like violence and rule that defines these places is a reality easily ignored. The book apparently also covers some of the historical figures behind the American Indian Movement, who along with all their high-jinks also attempted to create pan-tribal border town violence response teams and reveal the ugly face of white settlement on Indian lands. Let’s hope the book looks to accomplish the same.
Those are my suggestions. Leave your own in the comments!