Seven Snowy Stories

The winter’s first – and in these parts possibly only – snowfall put me in mind of books in which winter features prominently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ones that came to mind immediately were children’s stories. So here are seven snowy stories to surprise your children (nieces, nephews, grandchildren, your best friend’s horrible brat…) with. Perhaps for Christmas? 🙂

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

The first in the so-called Chronicles of Narnia, (although a prequel was later written), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is quite simply unforgettable. The set up is simple: Four siblings are sent away from London during World War II to live with an old professor in the country. Exploring the professor’s house on a rainy day, the youngest, Lucy investigates a wardrobe full of fur coats – a wardrobe that has no back panel. She wanders into a winter landscape at night time and feels the falling snow on her face – and so discovers the magical land of Narnia, where “it’s always winter, but never Christmas”…

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome

Like the title says: a winter holiday in the Lake District, as enjoyed by the Swallows and Amazons, Ransome’s enterprising heroes. Kids let loose on a frozen lake: ice-skating, sledging, building igloos, rescuing lost sheep and discovering ‘the Arctic’. What’s not to like? This is the fourth in the series about the Swallows and Amazons and introduces a new set of characters, the D’s, but perfectly readable as an independent book.

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

This is a picture book; so much so that there aren’t any words in it. That’s right: no text whatsoever. It’s the simple and – shall I say banal? – story of a snowman who comes to life. You make the plot up from the pictures as you go along. It’s a genius of a book, utterly enchanting, and not just for toddlers.

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

Perhaps Jack London’s best known story about a family pet kidnapped and sold off to be a sled dog in the Yukon area during the gold fever, this animal story is rather grim in places and definitely not a soppy Christmas read. Excellently written nevertheless, and no kid will be hurt by learning a little about the gold rush or the unfairness of life…

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

The fairy tales of the 19th century Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen don’t always end happily in the traditional sense (take for example The Little Mermaid, quite contrary to singing-dancing rubbish that Disney sells your children) but that’s no reason not to read them. The Snow Queen, one of his longest stories, is a heartwarming tale of friendship enduring in the face of incredible difficulties. And it even has a happy ending.

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Much better known in her native United States than elsewhere in the English-speaking world, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote children’s stories based on her own childhood: her parents moved westward from Wisconsin to Dakota as settlers in the second half of the 19th century. The Long Winter is the sixth of the so called Little House on the Prairie series and describes the winter of 1880-81, one of the severest winters in the history of the United States.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Not one of my favourites, this one, but then it was written for children after I already have grown up. The first in a trilogy of fantasy adventure, marketed for some unfathomable reason in the United States as The Golden Compass, this book takes place in the Arctic regions among witches and ice-bears. Well-written and atmospheric. The trilogy itself goes under the title of His Dark Materials.

You might also like:8 Beautiful Snow Scenes from Literature on Mental Floss

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Just One More PageNine Books to Read on a Greek HolidayThey that Go Down to the Sea in ShipsFive Books You Shouldn't ReadBooks that Transport YouFive Short Novels to Read on an Aeroplane
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A Bear of Very Little Brain (The World According to Pooh)

The other day, in the course of an argument, somebody called me a person with a small brain.

Even while I took offence, I recalled a line from my childhood bible, Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne:

“For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain and long words Bother me.”

(Winnie-The-Pooh)

I’m all with the Bear of Very Little Brain on this one: long words bother me too. Especially when used by people who don’t know what they mean.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Leave it to me: I’m always top banana in the shock department.

A Truman Capote novella about Holiday Golightly, a New York socialite in 1943. A girl who makes a living from being taken out by men. Not at all the kind of girl I’d have thought I had time for, not even if she only took up a hundred pages. Not at all the type of novella I’d have thought I had time for either, even it was only a hundred pages.

I found Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the bookshelf of Sophisticated Young Lady, whose bedroom I appropriated for my study while she’s at university. I’ve never read anything by Truman Capote and I was between books. I picked it up and glanced idly on the first paragraph.

I couldn’t put it down afterwards.

It made me think I might like to see New York in the rain. 
(Photo by Lei Han via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Silent Pain of the Species (The Mad Toy)

Leer esto en castellano

What effect has ‘the silent pain of the species’ in Silvio’s soul?

This was the question that I had to write a short essay about in a Spanish literature and conversation class a few months ago. I attended the class in the Cervantes Institute in London because I knew that my fluency in Spanish left much to be desired and because I like literature, obviously. I had imagined that in class I’d have the opportunity to speak about Hispanic authors and that I would have to read some books at home so that we could discuss them in class afterwards.

Er… no.

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El silencioso dolor de la especie (El juguete rabioso)

Read this in English

¿Qué efecto tiene en el alma de Silvio «el silencioso dolor de la especie»?

Esta era la pregunta sobre la que tuve que escribir un pequeño ensayo para una clase de literatura y conversación española hace unos meses. Asistí en la clase en el Instituto Cervantes de Londres porque sabía que me falta mucho la habilidad de hablar con fluidez y porque me gusta la literature, claro. Había imaginado que en clase tendría la oportunidad de hablar de autores hispánicos, y tendría que leer unos libros en casa para que podríamos discutir sobre ellos en clase.

Que no.

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The Future in the Past (2001: A Space Odyssey)

We live in the future that we used to read about: our smartphones bear more resemblance to The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy than to Bell’s telephone and there are people living on a space station above our heads. When I first read about helicopters and submarines in Jules Verne at the age of twelve, they were already reality; it was then difficult to grasp that to the author all this had been a fictional future. Good for Verne. There are plenty of contrary examples: books in which the authors were so wildly off the mark that we can only wonder at what they were thinking. Science-fiction? In many cases, the word science ought to be crossed off.

But not in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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The Persian Letters of Montesquieu

Thirty-odd years ago I thought that the French author Montesquieu was enlightened, witty and clever. I based this opinion on reading his Persian Letters, an epistolary novel which details the experiences of two Persian travellers, Usbek and Rica, in France in the early part of the 18th century. Last month I picked up Persian Letters again… and found out what a change thirty-odd years made.

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The Power and the Glory

I started to look at photos of the soaring church towers of Spain the other day, thinking of turning them into a photo post, but by a series of those associations that you afterwards can never explain, I ended up with my tattered and bath-soaked copy of Graham Greene’s best novel in my hand instead.

(You’ll have to wait for the church towers.)

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Five Short Novels to Read on an Aeroplane

Okay, so your work sucks and you only live for the holidays, right? Or maybe your work is the best thing ever, but even so you do go on holidays sometimes – right? So you need a book to read that’s just the right length for a short-haul flight.

(I’ll let you know my recommendations for long-haul when I’ve managed to get further than three hours’ flight.)

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Don Quijote de la Mancha

En un lugar de la Mancha…

When I picked up El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes last week and opened it on the first page (okay, in my edition that would be page 113), and read,

En un lugar de la Mancha,

de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo…

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen…

 …I felt the heady effect of a sudden shift in time and space: all at once I was somewhere in La Mancha, under a harsh sun, confronting whitewashed windmills.

Somewhere in La Mancha… Cerro Calderico, near Consuegra. Photo by Manuel via Flickr. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

(Cervantes once looked at these.)

—¿Qué gigantes?—dijo Sancho Panza.
—Aquellos que allí ves —respondió su amo— de los brazos largos, que los suelen tener algunos de casi dos leguas.
—Mire vuestra merced —respondió Sancho— que aquellos que allí se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento…

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills…

It is not often that you pick up a book – no matter how old, how famous – and you’re transported with such urgency before you even finished reading the first half sentence. But the unassuming En un lugar de la Mancha… must be the most well-known and memorable first line in Spanish-language literature – ever.

Somehow it doesn’t quite work the same way in other languages.

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Aesop’s Fables in Nahuatl

While reading a history of the Latin language recently, I came across one of the fables of Aesop – translated into English from Nahuatl. In case you’ve never heard of Nahuatl, it was the language of the Aztec empire and in consequence the lingua franca of Central-America up to the 16th century; it is still spoken in parts of Mexico.

The book in question is Ad infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler and I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public although if you do happen to be interested in historical linguistics and especially in Latin, it’s fine; all the more enjoyable if you can actually know Latin of course (sadly I don’t).

But what has a Nahuatl version of the fables of Aesop – who after all was Greek – got to do with the history of Latin?

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A Day’s Hiking (No One Writes to the Colonel)

Two years ago I read No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba) by Gabriel García Márquez on the train en route for a day’s hiking. (It was just the right length.) Yesterday it was the first genuinely nice day of the year, so we went hiking; and I re-read No One Writes to the Colonel on the train.

I mean the first time round I thought it was brilliant and my Spanish is two years better now.

It’s BRILLIANT.

(The day’s hiking wasn’t bad either.)

There’s only one problem with No One Writes to the Colonel: I feel completely discouraged from picking up any of García Márquez’s other books ever again: there’s no way  he could have surpassed this one.

In fact, I know he didn’t think he ever did.

You might also like:Gabriel García Márquez, Minus Magical Realism

The Siege (El asedio)

In a city under siege, the bodies of gruesomely murdered young women begin to appear. And at every spot where the police finds a corpse, a bomb has fallen. Is there a connection?

This is the (brutally simplified) premise of The Siege, a historical novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. A novel set in Cádiz during the French siege in 1811 and 1812, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars, two years during what the Spanish call the War of Independence.

Cádiz. [Public domain via Pixabay]
En una ciudad bajo sitio aparecen cadáveres de jovencitas asesinadas en una manera horripilante. Y en cada lugar en que el policía encuentra un cadáver, ha caído una bomba. ¿Hay alguna conexión?

Eso es la premisa (simplificada de manera brutal) de El Asedio, una novela histórica por Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Una novela ambientada en Cádiz durante el asedio francés en los años 1811 y 1812, la era de la Guerra de la Independencia. 

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Don’t Panic!

Stop the World, I want to get off!
Stop the World, I want to get off!

There’s an Argentinian cartoon from the late 1960s-early 70s, about a little girl called Mafalda, whose exclamation, ¡Paren el mundo, que me quiero bajar! (Stop the world, I want to get off!) became an internationally known phrase. As we all have moments in which we want to get off (I did, yesterday afternoon), perhaps it might be a good idea if you keep The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at hand?

As the title suggests, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the only – electronic – book you’ll ever need if you should actually succeed in getting off by hitching a ride on a passing UFO. It will also provide you with light relief while you’re waiting by the roadside, as it were, with your thumb stuck in empty air as those heartless aliens are driving by without stopping.

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The World According to Tolstoy (El mundo según Tolstói)

Over a year ago I read an article by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was at the time engaged in re-reading War and Peace by Tolstoy. It was so damnably well-written that not only it made me re-read War and Peace myself but it also made me to read Mario Vargas Llosa.

El año pasado leí un artículo por Mario Vargas Llosa (enlace al final del post), quien en aquel momento se dedicaba a releer la Guerra y paz de Tolstói. Y estaba tan condenadamente bien escrito, que no sólo me causó volver a leer Guerra y paz, sino también me animó leer el propio Mario Vargas Llosa. 

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (of 2016)

Last year I borrowed the title of this well-known spaghetti western of my childhood for an end-of-year post, choosing a book for each category. I don’t see why I shouldn’t cast a look back at this year’s reading and do so again… (And I hope you appreciate that I’m sparing you an embedding of Ennio Morricone’s theme tune to play in the background while you’re reading this!)

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Philosophical Books (and the Death Sentence)

Okay, so there are books and there are philosophical books and when you hear the adjective philosophical in this context, you slam the book shut and run a mile or more, without so much as looking back – and by god, I don’t blame you. Twice I had to study philosophy at university and twice it bored me to tears.

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Federico García Lorca: Impresiones y paisajes

Read this in English (written in two parts)
⇒ Sketches of Spain: CastileSketches of Spain: Granada

Hay libros de los que no hay nada que escribir porque todo se ha dicho ya. Y hay otros de los que no hay nada que escribir porque lo único que puedes hacer es citarlos. Impresiones y paisajes por Federico García Lorca es uno de esos últimos.

La noche tiene brillantez mágica de sonidos desde este torreón. Si hay luna, es un marco vago de sensualidad abismática lo que invade los acordes. Si no hay luna…, es una melodía fantástica y única lo que canta el río…, pero la modulación original y sentida en que el color revela las expresiones musicales más perdidas y esfumadas, es el crepúsculo… Ya se ha estado preparando el ambiente desde que la tarde media. Las sombras han ido cubriendo la hoguera alhambrina… La vega está aplanada y silenciosa. El sol se oculta y del monte nacen cascadas infinitas de colores musicales que se precipitan aterciopeladamente sobre la ciudad y la sierra y se funde el color musical con las ondas sonoras… Todo suena a melodía, a tristeza antigua, a llanto.

Continue reading “Federico García Lorca: Impresiones y paisajes”