January 10, 2009

snow books

So far I'm enjoying this winter more than I ever thought I would, and I think I have Rawi Hage's Cockroach to thank for it. I read it right at the beginning of November, before we had any snow that stayed, and there was something so romantic about the misery of the protagonist as he shuffles along Montreal's wintry streets that it actually made me look forward to the four-to-five frozen months in store:

"As my feet trudged the wet ground and I felt the shivery cold, I cursed my luck. I cursed the plane that had brought me to this harsh terrain. I peered down the street and hesitantly walked east, avoiding every patch of slush and trying to ignore the sounds of friction as car wheels split the snow, sounds that bounced into my ears, constantly reminders of the falling flakes that gather and accumulate quietly, diligently, claiming every car windshield, every hat, every garbage can, every eyelid, every roof and mountain. [...] I am doomed!"

Bitterness is romantic, right? Maybe I just like a passionate complaint. A great book that effectively captures the exaggerated despair of a Montreal winter.

Earlier this week I was walking home through a snowstorm (so pretty! so hushed! all the cars reduced to a timid crawl!) and I tried to think of other favourite wintry books:

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

This is my favourite postmodern comic novel of all time (though truth be told, I haven't read many postmodern comic novels). I read it in Rome while I was laid low by the heat, having found it on my host's bookshelf. I've since read all her other books save the two latest (which are winking temptingly at me from the bookcase), but so far this remains my favourite. Set in the 1970s in Dundee University and centred on the members of an English department, the book tells the story of Effie, who is simultaneously trying to write an essay on George Eliot and finish a detective novel which is the thesis for her degree. She has a hapless stoner boyfriend, a death-obsessed roommate, a mother who claims to be a virgin, innumerable bizarre classmates all nurturing their own writing ambitions, and she is almost certainly being followed by a private detective and yellow dog. But all of the novel's considerable hilarity is set against the backdrop of a Scottish winter plagued by frequent power outages and buses that never come.

Wonderful winter misery after returning an absent-minded professor to campus: "I trudged home, an icy interstellar wind at my back..." And on a stroll through a cemetery: "The cold was raw and chafing, there was no sunshine to make the snow pleasant in any way, only a wintry greyness cast over everything, including the sleeping dead."

Mmmmmm. (I do feel like I have to acknowledge the novel's dreadful title -- and I cannot imagine how it was arrived at -- but don't let that put you off. It doesn't do justice to the book.)

Street of Riches by Gabrielle Roy

It wouldn't be right not to include a Manitoban. Winner of the Governor General's Award in 1957, Street of Riches is a very sweet collection of eighteen stories chronicling a young girl's upbringing in Winnipeg's francophone quartier, St. Boniface. In "The Storm," Christine sets off with her cousins from her uncle's farm to go to a gathering of young people a few hours away. They travel in a kind of covered sleigh dubbed "the cabin," with a slot for the reins, the teenagers crowded together under buffalo robes with heated bricks at their feet. But the storm is worse than they imagine, and as the blizzard descends, they get lost. Everything is flat and dark. Twice they come up to large haystacks mistaking them for ominous houses. Several times, they get out of the travelling cabin to try and determine where they are:

"Nothing belongs more fully to the wind than snow -- so docile, so malleable! And here was the wind holding suspended in the air all that swollen snowy dust. Oh, the fine play of black and white comingled! [...] Whereupon the wind started to weep in so sorrowful, so absurd a fashion that of a sudden I thought of the beautiful Archangel cast into darkness -- for thus had he been called aforetime. And I firmly believed that the wind was Lucifer, to whom, for a winter's night or two, belonged Manitoba!"

A scary story, but all ends happily, and on balance, their enjoyment of the winter ride in the sleigh is what I mostly remember about this story.

Street of Riches is also a New Canadian Library title, and I look forward to seeing it on Roughing it in the Books, an ambitious blog project by two intrepid readers who hope to make it through the whole catalogue. It's No. 56, but Roy's better-known The Tin Flute is No. 5 and next up.

Baltimore's Mansion by Wayne Johnston

I've read a number of Johnston's novels and enjoyed all of them, but this literary memoir might be the simplest and most perfect. Set in Newfoundland, there's plenty of inclement weather. A book about his grandfather and his father and a lament for Newfoundland's lost independence, Baltimore's Mansion comes to a close with Wayne Johnston in a remote cabin, where he has gone to decide once and for all whether he will return to his home province. A storm comes while he is exploring a church in a nearby abandoned settlement:

"I have never heard a sound like the wind makes as it funnels through the windows, a shrieking whistle whose upper pitch seems to have no limit. I can only hear the sifting snow between the gusts, hear it on the floor of the church and on the ground outside, snow on snow, the island's terrain shape-shifting by the minute."

So two winter books and two storm scenes. What other snow books are out there?


miserablemiracle said...

Feverish winter misery and the dangers of extreme cold figure prominently in William H. Gass's vivid and weird novella, The Pedersen Kid, set on the nightmare tundrascapes of North Dakota, Gass's childhood home.

"Big Hans yelled, so I came out. The barn was dark, but the sun burned on the snow. Hans was carrying something from the crib. I yelled, but Big Hans didn’t hear. He was in the house with what he had before I reached the steps.

It was the Pedersen kid. Hans had put the kid on the kitchen table like you would a ham and started the kettle. He wasn’t saying anything. I guess he figured one yell from the crib was enough noise. Ma was fumbling with the kid’s clothes which were stiff with ice. She made a sound like whew from every breath. The kettle filled and Hans said,

Get some snow and call your pa.


Get some snow."

Jonathan Ball said...

So how great is Cockroach, on a scale from "Good" to "You Must Read It"?

saleema said...

I think it's a must-read, for sure. Even if you end up being less crazy about it than I am, it's an amazingly fast read -- you can finish it in a day or so -- and it is worth at least that much time to find out what all the fuss is about.