Winter of Our Discontent

With the holidays behind us we now face, let’s be honest, a month or two that can sometimes seem a little bleak. Sure you might get a glimpse of the sun now and again but the cold temperatures will remind you that spring is a ways off. When it comes to selecting what to read this time of year the healthy thing to do, most would say, is to distract yourself with light, humorous or optimistic fiction and be sure in the knowledge that the season will change.

Sadly, I just can’t take that advice. Perhaps it is a case of misery loving company but I always end up selecting titles that are more reflective of the short days and cold nights. If you are of my disposition, or just feel the tug of something dark at your sleeve now and again, you may want to sample a few of these titles. They are a bit strange, disturbing and at times a tad depressing but for your convenience I will list them from least to most despair inducing. If you have to bail early I totally understand.

downtherabbitholeTochtli, the young boy at the center of Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, has his heart set on one thing: A Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. It might seem an impossible choice but Tochtil’s father is a powerful, and paranoid, drug kingpin who denies his son nothing while keeping him, and a few retainers, isolated in a mansion in the desert. More absurdities abound (including a hat collection, samurais and a fascination with the French Revolution) but what humor there is, is definitely dark. This slim novel is told entirely from the boy’s unique perspective and skillfully reflects the isolated nature of his existence while blending the real with the seemingly fantastic.

The characters in the short story collection Stay Awake by Dan Chaon also inhabit a space somewhere between the real and, for lack of a better word, something else.stayawake What that “something else” actually is, is left tantalizingly unclear. But you definitely get the feeling it isn’t good. ‘The Bees’ tells the story of a boy’s inexplicable nightmares that trigger his father’s sense of guilt about the family he abandoned. ‘Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted’ is the tale of a directionless 20 something who is living in his dead parents’ house with a growing sense of dread. ‘I Wake Up’ follows a foster child who suddenly starts getting calls in the middle of the night from his long lost sister who wants to talk about a past he can’t remember. Chaon’s characters are sympathetically drawn and artfully reflect the confusion and pain of a personal loss that can lead toward an altered view of reality.

yourhouseisonfireThis last book is not for the faint of heart. But with the title of Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone that isn’t too surprising. The author, Stefan Kiesbye, has created a seemingly innocuous rural town in Germany, Hemmersmoor , that outsiders see as a bit backward but typical of its type. As the novel opens, several of the children who grew up there have come back later in life for a funeral. Their recollections, some repressed others freely remembered, of what occurred in their childhood are then shown in a series of interconnected stories. The town their tales reveal is a darkly fantastical place full of cruelty, vice, vindictiveness and horror. The best way to think of this chilling book is as a cross between Shirley Jackson and the Brothers Grimm.

You made it. Well done. Apologies if I bummed you out, but hey, it is January after all.

Richard

The Time When the Sun Stands Still

December 22, 2011 is the first full day of winter in the northern hemisphere. Now the sun has turned around and headed north and we realize that spring will return once more. It has been this way ever since ancient sky watchers, who may not have understood the movement of the sun, rejoiced when the sun discontinued its downward trend. In those days there were no light bulbs to illuminate the darkness and without the sun there can be no life. These days, since we have light on demand, many of us do not celebrate nor acknowledge the solstice.

In Persia, the solstice marked the birthday of Mithras, the Sun King, who was a precursor to Apollo. Mithras was sent to earth to slay a huge bull whose blood was the source of all fertility on earth. After doing so, he ascended back to heaven.

During the Roman era, the Emperor Aurelian declared December 25th to be the birthday of Mithras. In addition there was the lavish Roman festival of Saturnalia, which began around the Winter Solstice.  Sol Invictus, a festival marking the return of the sun, was also celebrated on December 25th. It was the Emperor Constantine, a follower of Mithras until he adopted Christianity, who chose the official birthday of Jesus to also be on December 25th.

But the oldest of the gods honored during winter was the Egyptian god Osiris. Married to Isis and much-loved and worshiped throughout the ancient world, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Set, who dismembered his body and hid it in various parts of Egypt. Isis searched until she found his remains and then restored Osiris to life on December 25th. Osiris’ death and resurrection came to symbolize the rising and setting of the sun.

Other ancient cultures also built monuments that observed the winter solstice:  Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland; Maeshowe in mainland Orkney, Scotland and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England.

Another event that observes the re-emergence of light is Chanukah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights. This holiday honors the legend of the miracle of the oil which burned for eight nights when there was only enough oil left for one night.

While there were many festivals, most had one thing in common – the exchanging of gifts. Mother Nature too, gives us gifts at this time of the year as the sky is clearer than in summer, the constellations shine brighter  and the nights are longer.

If you’re interested in the traditions of this season, these books will illuminate them for you.

Ceremonies of the SeasonsThe Winter SolsticeThe Book of the Year, and for children The Shortest Day and The Winter Solstice

Suzanne