Winter is Here, Jon Snow

Some people love winter, love the brisk air, the blinding glare, the crystal-clear night skies, soft fluffy snow and cups of steaming hot chocolate. Other people hate the freezing cold, the knifing winds, the treacherous roads, bare trees, and endless brown mud and slush clinging to shoes, cars, and pet feet tracking through the house.

For me, winter is a romantic time, curled by a fireplace (wood, gas, or electric) before a window with long velvet drapes (one of my favorite possessions), reading a book in a favorite chair while snow swirls outside the window and an animal lounges at my feet. It means a stew bubbling on the stove, fresh bread in the oven, or perhaps fresh shortbread cookies and a cup of Earl Gray tea by that fire. Perhaps it’s a holiday, with candles and lights and decorations, waiting for company to make it through the snow. Yeah, yeah, there’s no groundsman to shovel the walks when it’s over, I have to do it myself, but for a few hours I’m lost in an old English fantasy, there’s a mystery in the air, a challenge ahead, but love and fortune win in the end (note: I have never achieved this fantasy, but I keep hoping).

English Tales of Winter

Which made me think: why are all those images we cling to English fantasies? Sure, that period of literature is within what’s called the Little Ice Age, which ran from the 1300’s to the 1890’s, killing off the Vikings in Greenland and creating all those iconic Currier and Ives scenes, but it also put those chunks of ice in Washington Crossing the Delaware, and in 1816, with the dust of the exploded volcano Mount Tambora in the air, summer never arrived, and temperatures were still below freezing in June. Where is the American winter tale? American stories tend to be about blizzards, hardship, starvation, and ghosts. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Washington Irving are hardly on par with Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Reading about the Donner party probably isn’t a good idea before eating stew.

American Tales of Winter

The only American “winter” tales I know well are children’s literature: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Left By Themselves by Charles Paul May, the semi-historical Seven Alone by Honore Morrow, and the absolutely timeless endearing tale of Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards (Yes, Mary Poppins herself. Adults will love this, too!). But where are the adult books? Problem is, not much adult American literature of that period gives off that type of security.

That period of literature we think of is called the Romantic movement and includes Gothic literature, dealing with mystery, spiritualism, ghosts, hauntings, and torturous love – Frankenstein, Les Miserables, Dorian Gray, Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist – some of our most famous classics, running from about 1760 through the Victorian age, around 1890.  America in 1776 was not only new and still forming, it was mostly unsettled, and people in the colds of Fort Duquesne, Fort Niagara, and Fort Cumberland were more concerned with staying alive than writing literature. Of course you still had authors, but not to the degree England – a stable civilization for 1200 years – did. While Heathcliff was brooding the lonely moors, Americans were exploring and giving us stories like Last of the Mohicans, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Moby Dick, and The Scarlet Letter. Not the same, and certainly not the same as being snowed in and wringing one’s hands on the family estate. The American experience is uniquely American in that regard.

Just because our snow stories don’t go back to King Wenceslas (ok, Wenceslas was Bohemian/ Czechoslovakian, but the song, 900 years later, is English) doesn’t mean American literature isn’t good, it just means it’s different. Maybe you’ll have to settle for cotton twill drapes and a medium double-latte with a space heater and a Snuggie. If you love gothic literature, delve into a classic or something newer; there are hundreds of books (and films!) to choose from. If you love reading about snowy days while curled in a chair listening to the winds howl, try some of these modern tales (and films):

Office Girl by Joe Meno

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

 Snow by Orhan Panuk


  Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

The Snow Child  by Eowyn Ivey

Wolf Winter by Celia Ekback

Winter Solstice  by Rosamunde Pilcher

The Book Thief by  Markus Zusak

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

 The Shining  Stephen King

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, 

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Whale of a Tail

whole-body-of-a-sperm-whaleThe Book of Lists – a wonderful book of eclectic knowledge by David Wallechinsky – lists Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, as the Number One Most Boring Classic of all time.

I can’t disagree.

It’s not an easy read, combining flowery Miltonian prose, poems, sea shanties, Shakespearean asides, and some detailed exposition on whaling. The only way I made it through at all was by looking for the thematic and quote references used in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan for a term paper (and there are a long list of them).

Don’t judge me. An easy English credit with an A is still an English credit.51K5TZOIvtL._SX318_BO1,204,203,200_

Moby Dick, the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit to revenge the loss of his leg to a white whale, was based on a number of true stories – an actual white whale named Mocha-Dick, and the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in the Southern Pacific in 1820. The book was first published in 1851, but never gained ground. By the time of Melville’s death more than 30 years later, only 3,000 copies had been sold.

When cut up and rehashed to a sensible, modern vernacular, Moby Dick is a good, straight adventure novel at heart, the story of a man who feels wronged by a whale and will do anything, risk anything or anyone, to have his revenge, and a giant marine mammal who’s been around enough not to fear a wooden fish filled with pesky mariners. And there have been a number of decent movie adaptions to capture that fatal showdown.

imagesThe most recent, and most intriguing, is In the Heart of the Sea. This one gives the story a twist by going back further, to tell the tale of the Essex, as Melville is learning the facts and trying to write Moby Dick. Starring Chris Hemsworth, current action-hero, it’s a worthy film that covers all the points without getting bogged down in Melville. It’s the story behind the story, so to speak.

The “classic” Moby Dick tale comes from 1956, starring Gregory Peck, with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury. A masterpiece of its time, it’s dated for today’s audiences.0027616862945_p0_v1_s192x300

A longer but more modern version is 1998’s Miniseries, starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab (and Gregory Peck as Father Mapple, originally played by Orson Welles). Running four hours, it won Gregory Peck an Emmy award for Best Supporting Actor.

If you’ve hacked through Moby Dick, or enjoyed watching one of the films, there are similar books and films certain to keep your whaling interest. Leviathan, by Eric Jay Dolin, will give you a history of whaling in America. In the Heart of the Sea began as a book by detailed historian Nathaniel Philbrick.  War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz uncovers the true story of an ultrasonic submarine detection program run by the US Navy that was causing whales to beach themselves. To learn more about several different types of whales, try The Grandest of Lives : Eye to Eye with Whales by Douglas H. Chadwick. For stories that mimic Moby Dick but aren’t about whales, try Ray Bradbury’s Leviathan 99, or, of course, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. If you want to go for the thematic stretch, you could include the musical Sweeney Todd here, too. “To seek revenge may lead to Hell/ but everyone does it and seldom as well.” Of course, the perfect summer trip is to recreated whaling village Mystic Seaport, where you can walk the decks of the whaler Charles W. Morgan and feel the wind of the sea in your hair.

Whales Charles_W_Morgan_2008aren’t fish. They’re aquatic mammals: they breathe air, give birth to live young (ones that weigh a full ton), and feed them off milk just like any other mammal. They are known to be intelligent, and the scenario of Moby Dick, of such a mammal remembering who may have harmed it and seeking out revenge of its own, is entirely in the realm of possibility.