(SHOULD I READ IT OR WATCH IT?)
I was so relieved when I went to bed last Sunday (January 4th) and was able to turn the light off because there was no power failure! I honestly don’t know how my family made it to Monday unscathed, but we did―sixty year-old maples and all.
Still, I spent most of the day with a knot in my stomach, because I was having such feelings of déjà vu. Did anyone notice that last Sunday’s freezing rain storm coincided with the date of the official first day of the 1998 Ice Storm? I couldn’t forget it even for a minute: the 1998 storm left such a mark on me.
For most people, dramatic weather such as super storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and a recent newcomer, the Polar Vortex, are kind of fascinating to see or read about in the news or in documentaries, but mostly worrying, disruptive, inconvenient, property-threatening events that are no fun at all. But there are also extreme weather lovers, or storm chasers, who seek out severe weather, often putting themselves in harm’s way for the heightened feelings and exhilarating rush they experience as eye witnesses.
Luckily, there are enough great books and movies about extreme weather at the Library to satisfy our need for chills, thrills and great stories, and to turn us all into armchair storm chasers. Most of these can be divided into three simple themes: wind, water and winter.
Setting the stage for all natural cataclysms is the havoc caused by water. I suppose that the greatest flood story of them all is found in the biblical book of Genesis. In fact, there are dozens of books for children and adults inspired by the story of Noah, at the Library. One of my favourite interpretations of Noah’s odyssey (Noe in the novel) is David Maine’s The Preservationist. Though I read it many years ago, I remember it as a down to earth yet imaginative (as well as bawdy, funny, and surprisingly reverent) account of the flood that changed human history. A great read, as a matter of fact.
I suspect that Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah (released in 2014), starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, is a lot wetter and more dramatic, though I haven’t seen it. In any event, the Library’s collection includes the two interpretations. Maybe you could try both?
In Hollywood, when it rains it often pours, leading to movies like White Squall, based on the true story of the brigantine Albatross which sank May 2, 1961, and on Charles Gieg’s account of this tragedy, The Last Voyage of the Albatross.
An even more intense and harrowing tale of vulnerable boats buffeted by a savage sea is Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (1997), a true story described the following way in the Library catalogue:
“In October 1991, three weather systems collided off the coast of Nova Scotia to create a storm of singular fury, boasting waves over one hundred feet high. Among its victims was the Gloucester, Massachusetts-based swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail, which vanished with all six crew members aboard.”
If you’re squeamish or bothered by seasickness, then borrow the book rather than the movie of the same name which, though terrifically suspenseful and with excellent acting performances and pulse-boosting suspense, isn’t always easy to watch (especially on a high resolution TV!).
But there’s more to flood narratives than rocking boats and walls of water. One very near catastrophe that has fallen from our collective memory is the devastating 1966 flood in Florence, Italy that nearly obliterated the city’s irreplaceable art. Seattle writer Robert Clark’s “Dark Water: Art, Disaster and Redemption in Florence” brings this story back to life, also providing an account of the worldwide effort to save the city’s treasures, and you can find it at the Library.
Of course, we all know that water combined with heat and wind is the recipe for a natural phenomenon that meteorologists have previously named Ivan, Charley, Katrina, Ingrid and, somewhat ironically, Paloma, among hundreds of other monikers. If you’re looking for mystery, laughs and lots of humidity, read Carl Hiaasen’s Stormy Weather, which “(…) takes place in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida, including insurance scams, street fights, hunt for food and shelter, corrupt bureaucracy, ravaged environment and disaster tourists.”
Masses of hot air and moisture sometimes wind themselves into funnels: that cloud shape that sends so many into underground shelters (especially in the United States’ tornado alley). I mean twisters, of course, a word that evokes images of a rustic farmhouse twirling up into the sky with a girl and her dog on board, and also of maniacs in pickup trucks barreling down dirt roads, aiming for the eye of a tornado. Created almost a century apart, L. Frank Baum’s book for children, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1919) and film director Jan de Bont’s Twister (co-written and co-produced by Michael Crichton), are iconic and terrifically enjoyable examples of tornado fiction (even if watching The Wizard of Oz movie (1939) made me cry as a child every December) . The byline of New York Times critic Janet Maslin’s review of Twister, the film, is: “Dorothy and Toto had it easier”, which is both playful and accurate.
However, no self-respecting Canadian can call him/herself an armchair storm chaser without having sought out books and movies about snowstorms and the cold. In my online searches, I even found a blog titled “10 Movies With Worse Weather Than The Polar Vortex”, which didn’t really live up to its promise, (A-Ha!) but which instantly brought me back home to winter.
Narratives that feature winter’s deep freeze belong to the literature of the northern hemisphere, with few exceptions, and in them, the blinding whiteness, the crunch of frozen snow underfoot, the painful burn of blizzard winds, the treacherous ice, breath that escapes as thick vapour and the quiet, frigid slumber of the world serve as the backdrop for all kinds of stories, as in such classics as Russia’s Doctor Zhivago and War and Peace (available in multiple translated versions) or C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (or the movies here, here and here, available at the Library). In fact, there are hundreds of novels and movies in which winter provides the backdrop for murder, tragedy and conflict.
Among the best of these, I count Fargo (the Coen brothers’ movie with the memorable wood chipper scene), The Day After Tomorrow (which suggests that all of life can be flash-frozen by a polar storm) and most definitely Stephen King’s The Shining (translated to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick), in which harsh winter weather amps up the sense of terror and claustrophobia experienced by a family trapped in an old hotel in the off-season.
Still, there are times when being trapped by a snowstorm is the best thing that can happen to a person, as we discover in the movie Groundhog Day.
Closer to home, while it left us stranded without electricity and trapped by ice and cold for days on end, the 1998 Ice Storm also brought us together as neighbours, friends and communities, providing us with our own stories to share. And so we come full circle.
I guess that leaves just one question:
DOES NICE WEATHER MAKE FOR BORING STORIES?
“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me; my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.” (Blaise Pascal)
“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.” (Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat)