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Paean to winter by a man who knows the cold facts

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Winter

Five Windows on the Season

By Adam Gopnik

Anansi, 256 pages, $23

AS the old saying goes, "Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it." Manitobans, and Canadians in general, sometimes seem to luxuriate in copious complaints about the cold, and winter in general.

Montreal-raised New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik has done something about the most dreaded of seasons. He has gathered his thoughts on the subject into a book that forms the basis of this year's popular CBC Massey Lectures.

Gopnik is delivering the lectures this month. They will be rebroadcast on CBC Radio One Nov. 7-11.

In print these five essays read smoothly and effectively. They show off Gopnik's encyclopedic knowledge and incisive research into a subject that affects Canadians intimately.

Gopnik has written many books on subjects as diverse as Paris, food, Darwin and Lincoln, as well as two children's novels. Here he mines music, poetry, art, and particular situations or scenarios to seek deeper understanding of the season and of human behaviour, both specifically and generally.

"Do we project form and meaning onto [winter] which is just an absence, a non-happening of the natural order of warmth and sunshine, or does winter offer some mysterious residual sign of divinity?" he asks. "If winter is ours, who are we?"

Gopnik doesn't mention having experienced anything as extreme as a Manitoba winter, but he doesn't pull any punches about winter's dangers.

In Romantic Winter, he talks about the way we see winter, and the way western culture has been alternately threatened and comforted by the cold, and by the development of central heating. He finds in the journals of Anna Brownell Jameson "two things at once -- the wonder of winter scenes, the absurdity of idealizing them."

Such dualities inform each section. Gopnik melds familiar and arcane without talking down to readers.

Radical Winter: The Season in Space examines expeditions in the 19th-century to find a Northwest Passage or reach the poles.

The explorers' interactions expose the meaning of an activity that "had been absurd from the beginning -- no point to it but the point of doing it -- so that to doubt the achievement, in a sense, was to doubt the purpose."

Recuperative Winter, Gopnik's discussion of Christmas, should offend neither religion nor materialism. He finds in the holiday "tension between renewal and reversal," between healing and excess.

For Recreational Winter: The Season at Speed, Gopnik again starts with music, art and poetry, and notes the duality of many winter activities that begin and end in community.

Gopnik calls himself an avid follower of sports. Like many Canadians, he reveres the 1970s Montreal Canadiens. "For this fourth chapter, my thematic note to myself read in full: Chance to talk at length about ice hockey."

"In no other sport," he says, celebrating Wayne Gretzky, "can a quality of mind so dominate as in the supposedly brutal game of ice hockey."

Gopnik also acknowledges that professional hockey today is "adulterated by a dross of brutality, and by brutality's mental twin stupidity."

He does not suggest a way out of the controversy of violence in hockey, but adds thoughtful definition to the debate.

Finally, Winter Remembered examines both the memory of winter and our memory during winter of more comfortable seasons by a nostalgic journey through the underground complex of Montreal.

Winter includes enough examples of the art to which Gopnik refers. All that is missing is a playlist of the widely varied examples of music that would help the reader both look out, and look in, at winter.

 

English teacher Bill Rambo moved from Miami, Fla., to Manitoba in 1990, partly because of the weather.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 22, 2011 J7

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