Snow-y Reads

It’s been a frigid start to March here in Europe. Even though it only amounted to a few inches in total, this is still the most snow we’ve seen in years. We were without heating for 46 hours during the coldest couple of days due to an inaccessible frozen pipe, so I’m grateful that things have now thawed and spring is looking more likely. During winter’s last gasp, though, I’ve been dipping into a few appropriately snow-themed books. I had more success with some than with others. I’ll start with the one that stood out.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (1992)

[trans. from the Danish by Felicity David]

Nordic noir avant la lettre? I bought this rather by accident; had I realized it was a murder mystery, I never would have taken a chance on this international bestseller. That would have been too bad, as it’s much more interesting than your average crime thriller. The narrator/detective is Smilla Jaspersen: a 37-year-old mathematician and former Arctic navigator with a Danish father and Greenlander mother, she’s a stylish dresser and a shrewd, bold questioner who makes herself unpopular by nosing about where she doesn’t belong.

Isaiah, a little Greenlander boy, has fallen to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment complex where Smilla also lives, and she’s convinced foul play was involved. In Part I she enlists the help of a mechanic neighbor (and love interest), a translator, an Arctic medicine specialist, and a mining corporation secretary to investigate Isaiah’s father’s death on a 1991 Arctic expedition and how it might be connected to Isaiah’s murder. In Part II she tests her theories by setting sail on the Greenland-bound Kronos as a stewardess. At every turn her snooping puts her in danger – there are some pretty violent scenes.

I read this fairly slowly, over the course of a month (alongside lots of other books); it’s absorbing but in a literary style, so not as pacey or full of cliffhangers as you’d expect from a suspense novel. I got myself confused over all the minor characters and the revelations about the expeditions, so made pencil notes inside the front cover to keep things straight. Setting aside the plot, which gets a bit silly towards the end, I valued this most for Smilla’s self-knowledge and insights into what it’s like to be a Greenlander in Denmark. I read this straight after Gretel Ehrlich’s travel book about Greenland, This Cold Heaven – an excellent pairing I’d recommend to anyone who wants to spend time vicariously traveling in the far north.

Favorite wintry passage:

“I’m not perfect. I think more highly of snow and ice than of love. It’s easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have affection for my fellow human beings.”

My rating:

 

 

One that I left unfinished:

 

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002)

[trans. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely]

This novel seems to be based around an elaborate play on words: it’s set in Kars, a Turkish town where the protagonist, a poet known by the initials Ka, becomes stranded by the snow (Kar in Turkish). After 12 years in political exile in Germany, Ka is back in Turkey for his mother’s funeral. While he’s here, he decides to investigate a recent spate of female suicides, keep tabs on the upcoming election, and see if he can win the love of divorcée Ipek, daughter of the owner of the Snow Palace Hotel, where he’s staying. There’s a hint of magic realism to the novel: the newspaper covers Ka’s reading of a poem called “Snow” before he’s even written it. He and Ipek witness the shooting of the director of the Institute of Education. The attempted assassination is revenge for him banning girls who wear headscarves from schools.

As in Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, the emphasis is on Turkey’s split personality: a choice between fundamentalism (= East, poverty) and secularism (= West, wealth). Pamuk is pretty heavy-handed with these rival ideologies and with the symbolism of the snow. By the time I reached page 165, having skimmed maybe two chapters’ worth along the way, I couldn’t bear to keep going. However, if I get a recommendation of a shorter and subtler Pamuk novel I would give him another try. I did enjoy the various nice quotes about snow (reminiscent of Joyce’s “The Dead”) – it really was atmospheric for this time of year.

Favorite wintry passage:

“That’s why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.”

My rating:

 

 

One that I only skimmed:

 

The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (2002)

Having recovered from an illness that hit at age 25 while he was studying for a doctorate, Fiennes set off to track the migration route of the snow goose, which starts in the Gulf of Mexico and goes to the Arctic territories of Canada. He was inspired by his father’s love of birdwatching and Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose (which I haven’t read). I thought this couldn’t fail to be great, what with its themes of travel, birds, illness and identity. However, Fiennes gets bogged down in details. When he stays with friendly Americans in Texas he gives you every detail of their home décor, meals and way of speaking; when he takes a Greyhound bus ride he recounts every conversation he had with his random seatmates. This is too much about the grind of travel and not enough about the natural spectacles he was searching for. And then when he gets up to the far north he eats snow goose. So I ended up just skimming this one for the birdwatching bits. I did like Fiennes’s writing, just not what he chose to focus on, so I’ll read his other memoir, The Music Room.

My rating:

 

Considered but quickly abandoned: In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

Would like to read soon: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen – my husband recently rated this 5 stars and calls it a spiritual quest memoir, with elements of nature and travel writing.

 

 


What’s been your snowbound reading this year?

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29 thoughts on “Snow-y Reads

  1. I had the same problem – an inaccessible frozen pipe that led to a fault with the boiler and no heating for two days… from what the plumber said loads of people experienced the same thing. Hopefully the worst is over now. Have a great week!

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    1. Yeah, that sounds like exactly the same problem. Our boiler is in the attic crawl space, of all places, and the condensate pipe coming out of it couldn’t be reached to try to defrost it. We just had to wait for it to defrost naturally and kept trying the heating at various points yesterday afternoon. I hope spring will be on its way now!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The house got down to 11 degrees C, and I was in 8 layers! But we survived just fine, and it’s been a treat to have a warmer house since then.

      Aww, poor thing! Our Alfie has seen snow before, though maybe not quite this much. He didn’t want to stay out for long.

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      1. Nor did Mischief when she finally made it through the catflap. In fairness, we had to clear a mini-snowdrift before she could get out.

        I’m glad normal heating service has been resumed. You must have felt like a Michelin woman!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was given this just as the snow started and I couldn’t put it down – All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski. Set in East Prussia in the depths of the terrible winter in the last months of World War II. It’s January, the Russians are advancing and the Germans, in their thousands, begin a last desperate flight West in carts, cars and on foot. Subtle, nuanced and compassionate, it tells the interlinked stories of a wealthy family of Prussian aristocrats, the village school teacher, local Nazi party members and others caught up in the mass evacuation.

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  3. I’ve been trying to find snowy reads as well! Just bought Dark Matter by Michelle Paver and reading Force of Nature by Jane Harper, which isn’t wintry but has the isolation-in-a-forbidding-landscape thing going on. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is one of those books I remember seeing lying around the house as a teenager and never picked up. It sounds good.

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    1. I do like the sound of Dark Matter. The Bookshop Band have a suitably spooky song about it, “Steady On” — there I go banging on about them again 🙂

      Miss Smilla strikes me as one that would be good for people who don’t read much suspense fiction and wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a Scandi crime book. That was certainly true for me.

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  4. I really like snowy clime reading (I’m a skier, so I love snow, but not the kind we had here in the UK.) Sorry to hear about your boiler woes. I was also stuck in the house, but luckily without heating worries.
    Also recommend Michelle Paver’s Thin Air and Dark Matter. I really enjoyed Miss Smilla at the time – because it’s a cross-genre experience. And I think, from what I’ve read of Pamuk, that he does have the tendency to go on a bit. I like his style, but only in small doses.

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    1. I’d read some reviews of his latest book that mostly commented on his heavy-handed symbolism. And unfortunately I found that to be the case. That and the heavily political content is what made me stall.

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  5. I just finished The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn while sequestered during a dangerous wind storm. Our power was out, so I read by flashlight as I sat in front of our fireplace. I devoured it within 36 hrs. A film is being made. Can’t wait for it! Excellent writing and superb story!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  6. I have The Snow Leopard on my list as well, I love everything about Peter Matthiessen. Nice reviews, and the Pamuk quote was so much inspired by The Dead (which I love). Hope it warms up for you – they say when March comes in like a lion it leaves like a lamb. 🙂

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  7. Going without heat is quite the statement of dedication when it comes to getting in the mood for snow-filled reading! We’ve been in that position a few times too, and I always miss having a gas-fuelled stove under those circumstances, so at least there is some heat somewhere in the house (I suppose a fire-place would serve the same purpose, but that seems even less likely around here). Hope things are back to normal for you now!

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    1. Yep, we’re all back to normal here. We actually have a wood-burning stove…but have been afraid to use it (it’s a rental house, and we’re not clear on how the stove works) and don’t have any wood anyway. Shame we didn’t think to get it working before the freeze!

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  8. I keep wanting to read Miss Smilla for the Greenlandic bits but can’t face the violence. Oh dear! That other Greenland book is up next on my books to buy, though. Through the cold snap I’ve mainly been ensconced with a massive book on the suffragettes, but when I was ice bound and couldn’t run, i got through 40% of the Lucy Mangan book Bookworm in one long gym cardio session – hooray! Happy thawing for one and all.

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    1. You could probably ‘shut your eyes’/turn the page for the violent scenes in Miss Smilla without missing too much. I hear there is a well-regarded film, but I don’t know how violent that would be.

      Bookworm sure does sound cosy. I miss my Kindle reading sessions on the cross trainer — it’s in our unheated utility room, so I can only use it in warmer months.

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  9. We were away for the week before the snow hit and the house inside was 7 degrees when we got back. Took a while to warm it up again! I have Miss Smilla on my shelves and have picked it up and put it down again several times – without opening it. I’m feeling more encouraged now 🙂 The Snow Leopard sounds wonderful, and you’ve reminded me about The Snow Goose, which I must seek out again 🙂 Hope you’re warmed up properly now!

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  10. I tried reading “Snow” by Pamuk many years ago and ended up abandoning it. I sometimes wonder if I would like it better now, but your experience has put my mind at ease that I would probably feel the same about it. So that is one I can cross off my list – yay!

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