Once, in my late teens, I made the mistake of slogging through a hot beach holiday in Greece reading Charlotte Bront?’s Villette, a long, dour tale that, as I remember, had numerous scenes of overcast skies and windswept Belgian landscapes to accompany its plotline of gloom and heartache. No diss to Bront?, but I resolved there and then to think carefully about the fictional world I immerse myself in vis-à-vis where I am in the real world.
In midwinter, there would appear to be two main options: Double down or escape. At a time of snowpocalypse and bomb cyclones, I go deep. Nothing makes me happier than curling up in the darker months with a book featuring extreme weather, preferably with the words “snow” or “wolves” in the title, often Nordic in origin, set in the kind of place where they have 22 words for snow itself. I loved David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. Peter H?eg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow is an all-time favorite.
The Tenderness of Wolves, a fantastic thriller by Stef Penney set in the fur-trapping communities of northern Canada in the 19th century, was another high point. Never mind that Penney, an agoraphobic, never left her native Scotland to evoke the snowy wilderness she so enveloping-ly describes. So I was thrilled when a new novel by Penney, Under a Pole Star, appeared in the office, also a murder mystery and set, thrillingly, in the Arctic.
I canvassed my colleagues to see who went icy and who went escapist with their winter reading. For theater critic Adam Green, it’s the latter: “At the top of my list is Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, the first of a three-volume prequel to the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy,” Green says. “Enchanting, ingenious, magical, and terrifying, His Dark Materials stands with such other great works of fantasy as The Chronicles of Narnia and A Wrinkle in Time, and its not-so-veiled critique of the Catholic church adds a powerful moral dimension. I can’t wait to dive back into the world of its young heroine, Lyra, and her daemon, Pantalaimon.
“If someone will get me an advance copy of The Kremlin’s Candidate,” he adds, “I will happily plunge myself back into the international arena of espionage, murder, politics, and sex that ex-CIA officer Jason Matthews evoked with such skill in the first two books of his Red Sparrow trilogy. Never mind that the plot of this one—it involves Vladimir Putin’s attempt to install a Russian mole at a high level of the U.S. government—feels less like an escape than one might like, I want to read this before the film of Red Sparrow comes out, so I can conjure up my own image of its spy-crossed lovers, Dominika Egorova and Nathaniel Nash, rather than picture them as Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton.”
“Finally, I plan to do one of my periodic re-readings of Moss Hart’s theater autobiography, Act One, which takes him from his impoverished childhood to the opening night of his first play, Once in a Lifetime, written with George S. Kaufman. Whether you love theater or not, this book will leave you feeling better about life—funny, tender, smart, charming, and inspiring, it evokes the vanished world of 1920s New York and Broadway so vividly that you’ll wish you could live in it, even if it never truly existed quite.”
On writer Leslie Camhi’s nightstand are assorted cultural escapes to the Europe of the last century. “I’m curious to finish a couple of new biographies: my friend Justin Spring’s dishy—excuse the pun—new book, The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (A. J. Liebling! Alice B. Toklas!) and Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café, about the interconnected lives and philosophies of Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus, and company. Continuing in this ‘relational’ vein, there is art critic Sebastian Smee’s The Art of Rivalry, about four painter duos—Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollock and De Kooning, Freud and Bacon—who were both friends and ‘frenemies,’ influencing each other and spurring on developments in Modernism.”
Southwestern France is the setting for Martin Walker’s “delicious, a little awful, fun, unlikely Bruno books,” says food writer Tamar Adler, who is ready to read more. “The best thing about them is the food. Bruno, chief of police of a little town in the Périgord, keeps his own chickens and tends his own gardens—from which he plucks the smallest, most tender greens when a paramour stops by for dinner. He makes his own patés; forages for his own wild mushrooms; protects the local farmers at the marché before solving cases that range from simple murder to satanic ritual. Most importantly, the food scenes are all basically correct—omelets take a few brief moments, herbs are added just at the end, salads are appropriately dressed, and so far, he hasn’t settled down with anyone, which keeps a certain someone slowly falling in love with this small-town policeman/gourmand feeling hopeful.”
It should be noted that virtual voyaging can also have a habit, like Adam Green's pick The Kremlin’s Candidate, of bringing readers sharply back to the present. “For months, I’ve been looking forward to reading Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred,” says Los Angeles–based writer Abby Aguirre, “in which a young black woman repeatedly time travels from contemporary California to the antebellum South, where she must decide whether to save the life of a slave owner without whom she will not be born. It’s escapist in the way all good fantasy is, but the themes—racism, power, generation-gap problems—couldn’t be more relevant.”
Meanwhile, a new title has landed on my desk, whose publisher’s blurb describes its setting as the icy landscape of the Canadian Yukon, “the vast wilderness of nothing.” By Tyrell Johnson, it’s called The Wolves of Winter. Bingo.