Snow and Winter Reads, Part I

We’ve only had a couple of inches of snow, plus another afternoon of flurries, so far this winter, but January was the UK’s coldest month since 2013. As usual, I’m charting the season’s passage through books as well as by taking walks and looking out the window. I have a few more wintry books on the go that I’ll hope to report on at the end of the month. Today I have a few short works, ranging from poetry to nonfiction, plus a novel set partly in frigid Nebraska.

 

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway (1936)

During a laughably basic New Testament class in college, a friend and I passed endless notes back and forth, discussing everything but the Bible. I found these the last time I was back in the States going through boxes. My friend’s methodical cursive looked so much more grown-up than my off-topic scrawls. Though she was only two years older, I saw her as a kind of mentor, and when she told me the gist of this Hemingway story I took heed. We must have been comparing our writing ambitions, and I confessed a lack of belief in my ability. She summed up the point of this story more eloquently than Hem himself: if you waited until you were ready to write something perfectly, you’d never write it at all. Well, 19 years later and I’m still held back by lack of confidence, but I have, finally, read the story itself. It’s about a writer on safari in Africa who realizes he is going to die of this gangrene in his leg.

Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the stating. Well, he would never know, now.

he had always thought that he would write it finally. There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.

This duty: to be a witness, to crystallize your perspective and experience as a way of giving back to the world that has sustained you – it’s a compelling vision. Of course, Hemingway was a chauvinist and so the protagonist is annoyingly dismissive of the woman in his life; she might as well be a servant. I still found this everyday tragedy affecting. I couldn’t, however, be bothered to read any further in the volume (mostly Nick Adams autobiographical stories).

 

The World Before Snow by Tim Liardet (2015)

I couldn’t resist the title and creepy Magritte cover, so added this to my basket during the Waterstones online sale at the start of the year. Liardet’s name was unfamiliar to me, though this was the Bath University professor’s tenth poetry collection. Most of the unusual titles begin with “Self-Portrait” – for instance, “Self-Portrait as the Nashua Girl’s Reverse Nostalgia” and “Self-Portrait with Blind-Hounding Viewed in Panoramic Lens.” Apparently there is a throughline here, but if it weren’t for the blurb I would have missed it entirely. (“During a record-breaking blizzard in Boston, two poets met, one American and one English. This meeting marked the beginning of a life-transforming love affair.”) There were some turns of phrase and alliteration I liked, but overall I preferred the few poems that were not part of that pretentious central plot, e.g. “Ommerike” (part I) about mysterious mass deaths of birds and fish, “Nonagenaria,” a portrait of an old woman, and “The Guam Fever,” voiced by an ill soldier.

 

The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett (1997)

I’d only seen covers with a rabbit and top hat, so was confused that the secondhand copy I ordered with a birthday voucher featured a lit-up farmhouse set back into snowy woods. The first third of the novel takes place in Los Angeles, where Sabine lived with her husband Parsifal, the magician she assisted for 20 years, but the rest is set in winter-encased Nebraska. The contrast between the locations forms a perfect framework for a story of illusions versus reality.


SPOILERS FOLLOW – impossible to avoid them.

Patchett opens with the terrific lines “Parsifal is dead. That is the end of the story.” Ironically, his brain aneurysm burst while he was inside a hospital MRI machine, but it’s a mercy that he died quickly; he could have lingered for years with AIDS – like his lover, Phan, who died 14 months before. You see, while Parsifal while Sabine’s best friend, and in some ways the love of her life, their marriage was only a formality so that she could receive his assets. She knows little of his past; in taking on the name and persona of Parsifal the magician, he created a new life for himself. Only after his death does she learn from the will that his real name was Guy Fetters and that he has a mother, Dot, and sisters, Kitty and Bertie, back in Nebraska.

Dot and Bertie come out to L.A. to see how Guy lived and pay their respects at the cemetery, and then Sabine, lost without a magician to assist, flies out to Nebraska to stay with them for the week leading up to Bertie’s wedding. There is a tacit understanding among the family that Guy was gay, and Sabine assumes that’s why he was sent off to a boys’ reformatory. In fact, it’s because he was involved in his father’s accidental death. This kitchen has seen more than its fair share of climactic events.

END OF SPOILERS


The long section set in Nebraska went in directions I wasn’t expecting. It’s mostly based around late-night kitchen table and bedroom conversations; it’s a wonder it doesn’t become tedious. Patchett keeps the tension high as revelations emerge about what went on in this family. There are two moments when threat looks poised to spill into outright violence, in an echo of previous domestic violence.

For a long time I didn’t know what to make of the novel. It’s odd that all the consequential events happened before the first page and that we never truly meet Parsifal. Yet I loved the way that Sabine’s dreams and flashbacks widen the frame. Magic initially appears to be an arbitrary career choice, but gradually becomes a powerful metaphor of deception and control. Parsifal’s family are obsessed with a Johnny Carson performance he and Sabine once gave: they watch the video recording nightly, longing for the magic to be real. Maybe it is in the end?

 

Snow by Marcus Sedgwick (2016)

This Little Toller book is, at just over 100 pages, the perfect read for a wintry afternoon. It’s a lot like The Snow Tourist by Charlie English, though that book is travel-based, whereas for this one Sedgwick stayed put at his home in the Haute-Savoie, an alpine region of eastern France (and was even snowed in for part of the time), and wandered in his memory instead.

He writes that snow is “a form of nostalgia” for him, bringing back childhood days off school when he could just stay home and play – he loves it for “the freedom it represented.” He asks himself, “did it snow more when I was young, or is it just my desire and recreated memory?” Looking at weather statistics from Kent, he is able to confirm that, yes, it really did snow more in the 1960s and 70s.

Sedgwick briefly considers the science, history, art, and literature of snow, including polar expeditions and film, music, and paintings as well as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain et al. He also likens the blank page to a snow-covered field, such that writers should not be daunted by it but excited by the possibility of creation.

 

In the Winter Dark by Tim Winton (1988)

A taut early novella (just 110 pages) set in an Australian valley called the Sink. Animals have been disappearing: a pet dog snatched from its chain; livestock disemboweled. Four locals are drawn together by fear of an unidentified killer. Maurice Stubbs is the only one given a first-person voice, but passages alternate between his perspective and those of his wife Ida, Murray Jaccob, and Veronica, a pregnant teen. These are people on the edge, reckless and haunted by the past. The malevolent force comes to take on a vengeful nature. I was reminded of Andrew Michael Hurley’s novels. My first taste of Winton’s fiction has whetted my appetite to read more by him – I have Cloudstreet on the shelf.

 

Have you been reading anything particularly wintry this year?

38 responses

  1. I love your planned reading themes, I rarely do this, but have actually read one wintery novel in Jan (Winterkill – an Icelandic detective novel). I loved Sedgwick’s Snow. I have the Patchett on my shelves, so skipped the spoiler section.

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    1. It’s not your average magician novel in that the magic act is by no means the focus, but there are some descriptions of their tricks and even explanations of how a couple of them work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read the Sedgwick for #ReadIndies month, and absolutely loved it!

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    1. It did what it set out to do perfectly. I’ve been so impressed with what I’ve read from Little Toller.

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  3. The Magician’s Assistant is a strange one, isn’t it? I also read it when I was having a very difficult time personally and find it hard to disentangle it from that.

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    1. It’s in some ways a jumble of elements that shouldn’t work, and yet I ended up quite fond of it. Have you read all of Patchett? I couldn’t get through Run and Taft looks ill-advised. I’d like to read The Patron Saint of Liars, though.

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      1. I think Taft is the only one I haven’t read. I have to say I quite liked Run, and struggled with The Patron Saint of Liars – but you might like it more.

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  4. Tim Winton is stalking me! He was mentioned on the Bookcast Club podcast I listened to yesterday, a conversation between two Australians, so it may have been inevitable: Check out #33 My Life in Books – Anna from Books on the Go Podcast https://www.stitcher.com/show/524655/episode/79170367 I must see if my library has any of his books. I was going to say that Marcus Sedgwick must have lived in a different part of Kent to me because it hardly snowed when I was growing up there, but like me, he comes from East Kent. Mind you, we lived right on the coast, so perhaps escaped it. We never had enough snow to make a snowman. Then, the year after I left home, East Kent was snowed in. I would have loved that! It was quite a shock to live in the middle of the country and feel really hot in the summer (with no sea to swim in) and see trees covered in ice in the winter.
    http://www.marketgardenreader.wordpress.com

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    1. Sorry about the podcast link. I didn’t realise it would say “Check out bla bla bla.” Whoops!

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    2. Do you know, I’ve never listened to a podcast! There’s no time in my life where I can see them fitting in. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Winton turned up in any discussion of Australian fiction. I do recall now that I’ve read a nonfiction book of his, Island Home, so I’ll adjust that reference above.

      I grew up in the 1980s-90s in Maryland, USA, where cold winters and lots of snow were common. Snow days with sledding and building snowmen and igloos were the best!

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      1. I’m not a big consumer of podcasts, either. I don’t get on with earphones and I prefer not to listen to anything while I’m walking. Sometimes I remember when I’m doing something mindless like sorting washing, but more often than not, I just don’t think of it. I just happened to be pairing up socks yesterday and managed to listen to one and a half episodes. I’d rather read a review than watch or listen, though, otherwise I miss details or forget what they’re talking about.

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    3. Lots of snow in Kent this weekend, apparently?

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  5. I haven’t read that particular Patchett so I skimmed your review – it’s one I’d like to get to.

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    1. An unusual one, but I reckon you’d like it! It has an offbeat charm.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your great list, we collect books about snow and ice and “The World before Snow” is new to us! Looking forward to part II! I’ll send your blog post Klausbernd.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder how you’d find it; it’s not the most accessible poetry collection!

      I’m reading another few novels now and will see if I can finish and review them before the 28th (i.e., before meteorological spring starts): one with snow in the title, one with winter in the title, and a children’s book that starts off in winter. I also have a nonfiction option in the wings.

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  7. The Magician’s Assitant was my first Patchett and I loved its eccentricity. Sabine’s sadness was beautifully handled and her unexpected happiness later an expected but pleasing twist. I’m glad you enjoyed it although possibly not as much as I did.

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    1. I’ve always remembered Erica Wagner’s enthusiasm for this novel. I’m not sure I found that twist believable…

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      1. I so wanted Sabine to be happy that I swallowed it!

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  8. Gosh, the Patchett sounds really rather good!

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    1. Give it a go! It’s quirky in a good way.

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  9. I’ve only read the Tim Winton, but you remind me I have a Sedgwick somewhere to read sometime. The nearest I’ve got to a ‘snowy’ title recently is Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens which has a wintry episode or two.

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    1. Sedgwick has another title that I could use in a future one of these posts: Snowflake, AZ, a YA novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not aware of that title but I’ll look it up; the one I’ve got is Sedgwick’s riff on the creation of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

        Oh, and I read another title recently with ‘snow’ in the title — how could I have forgotten it already? — The Snow Goose, though there’s precious little of the white stuff in the story, more a chill ache.

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  10. As a keen skier, I rather like snow-themed books, so you’ve really hit a nail there for me! I haven’t read that Patchett yet and have been meaning to get hold of Sedgwick’s Snow.
    I also liked Laura Kasischke’s Mind of Winter and of course Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book and The True Deceiver.

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    1. I watched Claire Fuller interviewing Melanie Finn the other day. Finn lives in Vermont and is a ski instructor as well as a novelist; she drew some interesting comparisons between the two disciplines!

      I’ve read A Winter Book but don’t know the other two.

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      1. Interesting… So far I’m discovering that writing is easier on the knees, but harder on the back!

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  11. I love Tim Winton. My favourite author. Cloudstreet can take a little bit to get into it but stay with it. A brilliant book. Snow appeals to me. Probably as we are in summer now, my least favourite season though we are cooler than normal this summer with wonderful rain.

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    1. I understand he’s beloved in Australia! I will look forward to trying more of his work.

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  12. The Magician’s Assistant isn’t my favourite Anne Patchett novel, but I don’t think there are any that I dislike. I liked the parts set in Nebraska more than the ones set in LA.

    I would love to read one of Tim Winton’s books sometime. Breath is the one I own, but the library has several others.

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    1. I would agree this one was somewhere in the middle of Patchett’s oeuvre for me. I really love her nonfiction, though most people think of her primarily as a novelist. Commonwealth and The Dutch House are my favourites of her novels I’ve read so far.

      Cloudstreet is one I picked up from the secondhand book stall at the hospital for 50p! (I’m always proud of a bargain.) I can also access Dirt Music through the library, but otherwise his books are somewhat hard to find over here.

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  13. I’ve only ever seen the magician and top hat for that Patchett novel too. I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one (I reviewed Truth and Beauty when it was new and read her backlist prior to that, but there was one title that I couldn’t access at that time and I can never remember which one, without looking it up, this one or Taft). That Little Toller title caught my eye on Karen’s blog too: I think I would just love it. But, no, I haven’t been doing any wintry reading lately. Even though it’s become my favourite season! And now you’ve read Wolves of Willoughby Chase too–one of my fave winter tales.

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    1. I had a Little Toller binge last year and all the books I ordered direct from them have been excellent. Wolves is coming up in Part II! Along with Snow Falling on Cedars, which I’m loving.

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      1. Re: Gutterson I might be misremembering or combining two catalogue takeaways, but I think Soho has a new book/mystery about Japanese American internment during WWII coming soon that sounded interesting.

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    2. Lmk if you find the details. I recently heard about a YA take that I might seek out: We Are Not Free by Traci Chee. I’ve also heard that Phantoms by Christian Kiefer is a readalike.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. […] I wrote about my first batch of wintry reads in early February, it’s turned much more spring-like here in southern England, with blue skies […]

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  15. […] I’ve found with a number of Little Toller releases now (On Silbury Hill, Snow, Landfill), knowledge meets passion to create a book that could make an aficionado of the most […]

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