Saturday, December 5, 2009


Right now there's about two inches of fresh snow on the ground and it's coming down like gangbusters. I can see about twenty feet out over the lake and then the rest of the world disappears. It seems the buffleheads have departed, though the silly geese are still bobbing about aimlessly. The trees, neighbors' homes, parked cars, sheds, shrubbery, everything in view is closing in upon my cottage as the falling snow obliterates perspective. Except for the muffled rumbling of trucks in low gear cautiously making their way along Highland Lakes Road, all is quiet. The larder is full, I've got plenty of firewood, a full bottle of Laphroaig, and a roomful of books.

I'd taken a walk earlier around the hill behind the upper lake just north of here. The roads hadn't gotten slick yet and the crows were still chatting away even though the snow was starting to accumulate on the branches of their maple. My hat and cuffs were caking with snow but I bounced along like a child. At one point I even bent my head backward, closed my eyes, and let the fat wet flakes fall into my open mouth. Ahh. Sometimes you just want to swallow the whole blessed world.

Now I'm getting warm again, thinking about some of my favorite snowbound books. When I was a kid around eleven or so, I devoured Alistair MacLean's
Ice Station Zebra. It was one of the first "adult" books I'd ever read, all about the Cold War in the Arctic and how a U.S. submarine is sent on a wild mission under the polar ice pack to rescue the crew of a burnt-out British meteorological station. God, it was an exciting read -- all kinds of physical peril, including a broken ankle and terrible storms, the sub torpedoing its way through the ice, raging fires in tight spaces, murderous Russian spies -- told with great energy, authenticity, and humor. For months afterwards I "played" submarine, on the lookout for double-crossing spies who might have happened to land on Long Island. Some years later Hollywood got a hold of the property and turned it into one of those silly loud spectacles in which everything looks fake. But it didn't queer my love for the book. MacLean, a Scot who wrote a passel of extremely competent high-octane thrillers perfect for boys of my generation, was a big deal back then. I wonder if anyone reads him any more.

About thirty years later, when I was still working in retail bookselling, someone gave me a galley of
Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter H√łeg. Everybody in the industry was buzzing about this oddball Danish mystery with its freaky, fearful heroine -- half Inuit, half Dane -- possessing an uncanny ability to "read" the various forms of snow. It was creepy, truly mysterious, brilliantly plotted, festooned with a good deal of esoteric knowledge about Greenland, Danish politics, snow, ice, meteorites and worms. It also contained a remarkably frank and arousing sex scene. I still count it one of the most entertaining books I've read, with some of the same propulsive energy as the currently best-selling Steig Larsson mysteries.

An even odder snowbound book, and one that appeared to me as if behind a backlit scrim -- I read it when I was working in a bookstore for the first time, and still hadn't gotten used to the notion that unsold books got returned to the publisher, and this was a book that definitely hadn't sold through -- was John Calvin Batchelor's
The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica. It was a fanciful apocalyptic stew made up of Norse mythology, Old Testament theology, the annals of polar exploration, and Beowulf. Published in 1983 by Dial Press, the novel could also be read as a woolly successor to John Gardner's earlier Grendel, except that Batchelor's book had been informed by the gas crisis of the 1970s and the sense of despair that gripped America before Mr. Sunshine Reagan became President. Though it fell short of its ambition, the story was impossible to put down, told in the kind of crazed buttonholing narrative style that grabs you and won't let go. Batchelor was a fine novelist, but he has since given up writing for hosting a libertarian, conspiracy-theory promulgating radio show. I still remember his book though.

Snow. I sit here and the words come rushing to mind. Wallace Stevens,
one must have the mind of winter. James Joyce, of course, and that mesmerizing last paragraph of "The Dead." Chris Van Allsburg. Those wonderful early panels in The Polar Express. And then silence as I peer out into the darkness, the snow-covered lawn illuminated by a single frosty back-door lamp, nothing moving, no one about. How comforting to be covered in snow.

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