Winter is Coming: What books to read to see you through

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Winter is coming. Courtesy of George RR Martin, those three words raise spectres of frosty zombies and impending doom for many people –  but even prior to Game of Thrones exploding into mainstream popularity, they could make many of us feel a little bluer, a little bleaker, even a little scared of the coming months.

If you’re a romantic soul, of course, and not really given to reading fantasy, ‘winter is coming’ might also conjure up images of freshly fallen snow and pretty frost etchings on the windows; snowball fights followed by cosy nights at home under a blanket in front of a roaring fire, with hot chocolate in one hand and a good book in the other – ideally with another selection next to the chair so you don’t have to move. New characters, old favourites, and terrible weather giving you the excuse to never look up from the pages.

But the reality of winter is that it is tough, even in the mildest of years. Crispy, blue sky days are few and far between; there is too much rain and not enough Vitamin D, and the cold is seepingly damp. If you have any kind of commute, it frequently involves travelling in the dark and watching the weak, grey sunlight leach away behind misted glass. And though the festive season might pull us through December, January and February stretch on like so much mood-dampening fog.

And this year – this year will be harder. There’s no way around that: the pandemic means the flu season will be scarier than ever. Many of us may be cut off from our support networks and worrying about how to pay bills, let alone for presents. So how to get through it? Well, books, of course – and the selection below, ranging from self-help, to crafty, to philosophical will, I hope, help us face the dark months head on and with some pleasure, rather than hide under a cover until it’s all gone away.

First up, face winter with a fundamental shift in your approach to it. Katherine May’s wonderfully biographical exploration of the season and its many aspects Wintering: the Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (Rider) explores winter as both a season and as period of struggling mental health – a natural combination, as many people find their mental health suffers in the darker months. Indeed, the hardback was originally subtitled ‘how I learned to flourish when life became frozen’, as May writes about her own wintering, a time when she was unable to concentrate or work, and sets off to see how others cope. She looks at how people in the Northern countries approach winter. In Scandinavia, winter isn’t just miserable and a bit grey – they face killing cold and perpetual night. And so they spend their summers preparing for the season to come, so as to be able to live as comfortably and happily through it as possible, treating it not as ‘dead’ time, but as recovery time. In Wintering, May uses plants as an example to remind us that spring and summer and even autumn require a lot of energy:  growing takes energy, bearing flowers and fruit takes a lot of energy. In this cycle, winter is an enforced pause; a necessary recovery period for plants and trees so that they can put forth again in full bloom come spring. Dead trees in winter are not dead: the tip of every twig is a bud containing a sleeping leaf. Humans often fight against this cycle – in Western society it goes against our need to be endlessly on, and often when we burn out, it is our minds and bodies enforcing a wintering because we need it. We need to stop and recover for a while. I found myself uplifted – buoyed by the reminder that there really is light at the end of the winter tunnel, and that the dark months are something to embrace while your body and mind recovers from the rigours of spring and summer. In other words, if you are feeling listless or sleepy over the coming months – lean in to it, without guilt, and be kind to yourselves.

But how best to be kind to yourself in this fallow period?  Sitting and staring at the rain can only cause gloom, and after several hours of being asked if you’re still watching, even Netflix loses its appeal. What does help is doing something physical – and I don’t mean exercise. Humans like to feel useful, and studies have shown that making and doing is a great way to lift your spirits. The key to wintering is to find something without pressure to do, that still gives you a glow of ‘I made this’! Emma Mitchell’s Making Winter: a creative guide to surviving the winter months (LOM Art) is a gorgeous book to inspire you and set on the path to cosy productiveness – all of the activities suggested spark pleasure and small joys. Activities range from baking to crochet to foraging to making jewellery – and I cannot emphasis strongly enough just what a beautifully produced book this is. Even if you find yourself stymied by the complexity of some of the crafts suggested, just flicking through its beautiful pages is a comfort – though a comfort boosted, truly, by making the delicious blondies from the recipe in the book, and eating them as you read.

Making Winter may be a touch too difficult for the whole family, though, so if you have small and extremely active beings in your house who also need buoying up and keeping busy through rainy days and another lockdown, check out Great Family Days In: over 75 ideas for rainy days, school holidays, and everything in between by Claire Balkind (Pan Macmillan). A mother and teacher herself, Balkind’s books of activities includes a range of distracting things to do – whether you’re an adult or child, to be honest, and whether you prefer sport or art. And it’s truly helpful when it comes to organising the activities – from the list of useful items to keep stocked up at home, to the cheerful key that makes it easy to pick out the activity you need just by flicking through. Do you need something calming, or something to burn of rainy day energy? Do you need a distraction fast, or do you have time to plan ahead? It doesn’t matter, every option is catered for. And if that’s not enough, the book itself is an activity: throughout its pages are hidden 25 illustrations of puzzle pieces for you or your little ones to find as you decide what to do.

In the same vein, The Indoor Kitchen Gardening Handbook by Elizabeth Millard (Cool Springs Press) is distracting and comforting AND handy. Though this was originally published in 2014, it has been rereleased in the UK this year, and right in the nick of time. Though we now know, courtesy of Wintering, that ‘dead’ winter plants are actually just sleeping, one of the worst things about winter is the lack of greenery. This handy guide to growing fruit and veg in your kitchen is the ideal way to bring the outdoors in and cling on to that spring feeling of growth and renewal, while also boosting your food stores. You may, like me, be looking doubtfully at your tiny box of a kitchen and thinking you can’t fit plants in – but Millard has tonnes of ingenious tips and tricks to make the most of any extra window ledge space, or mug hooks.

Of course, while bringing the outside inside is soul-soothing, we all benefit from getting outside, however unappealing it might be when the cold is damp and the wind is howling. There is, of course, the old saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’, but sometimes even the right clothing isn’t enough to make us open the door. One book guaranteed to encourage you to step outside and make the most of the short light hours is Melissa Harrison’s forthcoming The Stubborn Light of Things (Faber). As an avid listener of Harrison’s podcast by the same name, which helped thousands and thousands of people through lockdown by bringing the Suffolk countryside to the ears of people stuck in flats and which is still available, this is the sort of soul-searching, vivid nature diary that will make you look afresh at your surroundings. The book is a collection of Harrison’s writing from the nature column she’s contributed to The Times since 2014. It divides neatly, per Harrison’s personal experience, into City and Countryside entries, so whatever your location you will find something to relate to and apply to the walk it will inevitably inspire you to go on – where, dare I say, you might find similarly hardy people to smile at, and the world will seem a little larger and more alive.

Are you exhausted from all of that activity? I am. It’s time to lean back into Not Doing Much At All. By which I mean a return to that romantic image of winter I painted at the beginning of this post, of blankets and books and not moving much.  For a bit of wintery non-fiction to take you around the world, there’s Arctic traveller Nancy Campbell’s 50 Words for Snow (Elliot & Thompson). Campbell takes us on a journey around the world, using different words for different types of snowfall or winter descriptions from different cultures as a jumping-off point to intertwine facts, history, travel stories, and myths and legends from each culture – how has snow affected economics and social history? More than you’ll realise. It’s a mesmerising journey, if read in one swoop. Or perhaps, if we have snow this year, you may, as I know I will, find yourself dipping in and out looking for the perfect term to apply to it.

Though much of this piece has been based around non-fiction, there is a place for sinking into a good wintery tale. There are some classic winter-based texts out there, as I’m sure you’ll all know, conjuring up landscapes and grand romance (Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, perhaps, or that classic Dr Zhivago). Two recent favourites of mine, though, and appropriate to read with children, if need be, are Kiran Millwood-Hargrave’s lush Russian adventure The Way Past Winter (Chicken House), and Katherine Rundell’s icy adventure The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury Children’s). These are children’s books, yes, but deserve to be a classics read by adults and children alike. In The Way Past Winter, three sisters find themselves on a life-or-death voyage across an endless winter to rescue their brother, stolen by a mythical Bear, and undo the curse laid on their village, while in The Wolf Wilder, young, Feodora takes on the Russian Army as she tries to find her mother, with her wild wolves at her side. The evocations of winter, and snow, and wild landscapes and frosted trees in both these books are vivid, and both are infused with the warmth of friendship and family, and hope in hardship – perfect to curl up with and forget the greyness of the real winter around us.

 

Francoise Harvey is a writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals and in Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt Publishing). She won a Northern Writers Award in 2017. She is also a freelance production editor and proofreader with an extensive background in publishing, offering services for writers and publishers. http://francoiseharvey.wordpress.com