We continue with the great catch up and skip ahead a little bit by not mentioning a couple of books I don’t want to discuss here, and talking instead about Adam Gopnik’s beautiful book Winter. But first, news! It has been announced that two British writers I greatly admire, David Mitchell and Ian McEwan, are both coming out with new novels this September. This is extremely exciting, as I’m a big fan of both David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet surprised and engrossed me, Cloud Atlas blew my mind, and Black Swan Green broke my heart) while Ian McEwan is one of those writers whom I got into when I was younger and had a crush on Keira Knightley and now feel obliged to read all of his new books and work my way through his backlog (which is great fun, as he’s brilliant). Mitchell’s new novel is called The Bone Clocks, Ian McEwan’s is called The Children’s Act. So two things to look forward to.
Adam Gopnik’s Winter came into my hands when I saw its lovely white spine pop out in a local second hand bookstore here in Vancouver. I bought it at the end of the summer and read it in the fall, which is an odd time to have read it because usually in the fall you’re kind of dreading the season to come. However, since in Vancouver there is no winter as I’m used to them in Montreal, it was thrilling to read about the season I would only get a glimpse of over the holidays, and from an author who also grew up in Montreal. (As it turns out, I would get more than a glimpse of winter over the break—temperatures reached -45 degrees celsius in early January when I was there, it was fucking awful.)
Gopnik’s book is part of the CBC Massey Lecture series, which is quite a big deal here in Canada (illustrious people like Alberto Manguel and Ronald Wright and Doris Lessing have all given then). The deal is that the writers give a number of lectures around a certain theme, and then those lectures get turned into a book. Gopnik explores the theme of Winter, clustering his essay around five big ideas of the season: Romantic Winter (about the early to late modern artistic and ideological interpretations of winter), Radical Winter (mainly about polar expeditions), Recuperative Winter (about the holidays), Recreational Winter (about Hockey, which Gopnik writes about majestically), and Remembering Winter (about how we deal with the season today, how we remember it, and also about Montreal and its underground city).
The book is very good, and I found it a charming and, sometimes, even an engrossing read. But then, I am a sucker for personal essays, when writers meld personal experience and anecdote with reflections about art and ideas. Oddly enough, I just came across an extremely negative review of Winter at a blog I like, Tales from the Reading Room. The blogger there hated the book and just couldn’t get into it. I see her point, that you sometimes feel like you’re sort of wading through a muck of half-formed ideas and concepts with Gopnik, while he skims over swathes of knowledge and goes in circles or else jumps from one topic to the next, as if he were slightly tipsy. There is a little bit of that, but to me that’s part of the pleasure of the personal essay—the breadth reached by having the speaker rambling on, as if he were sitting by the fire, chatting amiably, glass of wine in hand. By the way, that’s exactly how Gopnik intended the book to be—before he gave the official Massey lectures, he began by jotting down some notes and giving them to family and friends in the comfort and intimacy of his own home. To me, he isn’t quite as crisp a stylist and as fine a thinker as my favourite personal essayist, Anne Fadiman, but Winter was still a delight.
Gopnik, by the way, is a writer I’m very excited to read more of. He had a wonderful piece about bread in a recent New Yorker food-themed issue, in which he tells some hilarious anecdotes about his parents. After reading that, I ordered his book about Paris, Paris to the Moon, and these days I read the essays in that book to G. before going to bed. We’re both enjoying it a lot.