Winter Reads, Part II: Au, Glück, Hall, Rautiainen, Slaght

In the week before Christmas I reviewed a first batch of wintry reads. We’ve had hardly any snowfall here in southern England this season, so I gave up on it in real life and sought winter weather on the page. After we’ve seen the back of Storm Franklin (it’s already moved on from Eunice!), I hope it will feel appropriate to start right in on some spring reading. But for today I have a Tokyo-set novella, sombre poems, an OTT contemporary Gothic novel, historical fiction in translation from the Finnish, and – the cream of the crop – a real-life environmentalist adventure in Russia.


Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)

This slim work will be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 23rd and came out elsewhere this month from New Directions and Giramondo. I actually read it in December during my travel back from the States. It’s a delicate work of autofiction – it reads most like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. You get a bit of a flavour of Japan through their tourism (a museum, a temple, handicrafts, trains, meals), but the real focus is internal as Au subtly probes the workings of memory and generational bonds.

The woman and her mother engage in surprisingly deep conversations about the soul and the meaning of life, but these are conveyed indirectly rather than through dialogue: “she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. … The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches”. Though I highlighted a fair few passages, I find that no details have stuck with me. This is just the sort of spare book I can admire but not warm to. (NetGalley)


Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021)

The only other poetry collection of Glück’s that I’d read was Vita Nova. This, her first release since her Nobel Prize win, was my final read of 2021 and my shortest, at 40-some pages; it’s composed of just 15 poems, a few of which stretch to five pages or more. “The Denial of Death,” a prose piece with more of the feel of an autobiographical travel essay, was a standout; the title poem, again in prose paragraphs, and the following one, “Winter Journey,” about farewells, bear a melancholy chill. Memories and dreams take pride of place, with the poet’s sister appearing frequently. “How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.” There are also multiple references to Chinese concepts and characters (as on the cover). The overall style is more aphoristic and reflective than expected. Few individual lines or images stood out to me.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.


The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (2020)

Henna is alone in the world since her parents and twin sister disappeared in a boating accident. She lives a solitary existence with her sister’s basset hound Rembrandt in a New England village, writing encyclopaedia entries on the Arctic, until she stumbles on a corpse and embarks on an amateur investigation involving scraps of 19th-century correspondence. The dead woman asked inconvenient questions about a historical cover-up; if she takes up the thread, Henna could be a target, too. Her collaboration with the police chief, Fletcher, turns into a flirtation. After her house burns down, she ends up living with him – and his mother and housekeeper – in a Gothic mansion stuffed with birds of prey and historical snow samples. She’s at the mercy of this quirky family and the weather, wearing ancient clothing from Fletcher’s great-aunts and tramping through blizzards looking for answers.

This is a kitchen-sink novel with loads going on, as if Hall couldn’t decide which of her interests to include so threw them all in. Yet at only 221 pages, it might actually have been expanded a little to flesh out the backstory and mystery plot. It gets more than a bit ridiculous in places, but its Victorian fan fiction vibe is charming escapism nonetheless. What with the historical fiction interludes about the Franklin expedition, this reminded me most of The Still Point, but also of The World Before Us and The Birth House. I’d happily read Hall’s 2010 short story collection, too. (Christmas gift)


Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen (2022)

[Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston]

In the middle years of World War II, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against Russia, a mutual enemy. After the Moscow Armistice, the Germans retreated in disgrace, burning as many buildings and planting as many landmines as they could (“the Lapland War”). I gleaned this helpful background information from Hackston’s preface. The story that follows is in two strands: one is set in 1944 and told via diary entries from Väinö Remes, a Finnish soldier called up to interpret at a Nazi prison camp in Inari. The other, in third person, takes place between 1947 and 1950, the early years of postwar reconstruction. Inkeri, a journalist, has come to Enontekiö to find out what happened to her husband. An amateur photographer, she teaches art to the local Sámi children and takes on one girl, Bigga-Marja, as her protégée.

Collusion and secrets; escaped prisoners and physical measurements being taken of the Sámi: there are a number of sinister hints that become clearer as the novel goes on. I felt a distance from the main characters that I could never quite overcome, such that the reveals didn’t land with as much power as I think was intended. Still, this has the kind of forthright storytelling and precise writing that fans of Hubert Mingarelli should appreciate. For another story of the complexities of being on the wrong side of history, see The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.

Winter words:

“Fresh snow has fallen, forming drifts across the terrain. White. Grey. Undulating. The ice has cracked here and there, raising its head in the thawed sections of the river. There is only a thin layer of ice left.”


Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)

Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia – much closer to Korea and Japan than to Moscow, the region is also home to Amur tigers. For his Master’s and PhD research at the University of Minnesota, he plotted the territories of breeding pairs of owls and fit them with identifying bands and data loggers to track their movements over the years. He describes these winter field seasons as recurring frontier adventures. Now, I’ve accompanied my husband on fieldwork from time to time, and I can tell you it would be hard to make it sound exciting. Then again, gathering beetles from English fields is pretty staid compared to piloting snowmobiles over melting ice, running from fire, speeding to avoid blockaded logging roads, and being served cleaning-grade ethanol when the vodka runs out.

The sorts of towns Slaght works near are primitive places where adequate food and fuel is a matter of life and death. He and his assistants rely on the hospitality of Anatoliy the crazy hermit and also stay in huts and caravans. Tracking the owls is a rollercoaster experience, with expensive equipment failures and trial and error to narrow down the most effective trapping methods. His team develops a new low-tech technique involving a tray of live fish planted in the river shallows under a net. They come to know individuals and mourn their loss: the Sha-Mi female he’s holding in his author photo was hit by a car four years later.

Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. He boils down complicated data and statistics into the simple requirements for this endangered species (fewer than 2000 in the wild): valleys containing old-growth forest with large trees and rivers that don’t fully freeze over. There are only limited areas with these characteristics. These specifications and his ongoing research – Slaght is now the Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society – inform the policy recommendations given to logging companies and other bodies.

Amid the science, this is just a darn good story, full of bizarre characters like Katkov, a garrulous assistant exiled for his snoring. (“He fueled his monologue with sausage and cheese, then belched zeppelins of aroma into that confined space.”) Slaght himself doesn’t play much of a role in the book, so don’t expect a soul-searching memoir. Instead, you get top-notch nature and travel writing, and a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. This is the kind of science book that, like Lab Girl and Entangled Life, I’d recommend even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (Christmas gift)


And a bonus children’s book:

If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here by Simona Ciraolo (2020)

The little boy loves nothing more than to spend hours at the swimming pool and then have an ice cream cone. His big sister warns him the carefree days of summer will be over soon; it will turn cold and dark and he’ll be cooped up inside. Her words come to pass, yet the boy realizes that every season has its joys and he has to take advantage of them while they last. Cute and colourful, though the drawing style wasn’t my favourite. And a correction is in order: as President Biden would surely tell you, ice cream is a year-round treat! (Public library)


Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?

26 responses

  1. Seems like you’ve not had an outstanding or memorable run of wintry reads. For once I don’t seem to have read any… probably because I miss skiing too much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not an overwhelmingly successful set, no, though I did read a few great ones back in December. And the Slaght knocked everything else into a cocked hat. So, I can’t complain!


  2. Your reviews sound more positive than the 3 stars you’ve actually given most of them. But I’d already decided that Owls of the Eastern Ice was the one for me, even before I saw your 5 star rating.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I try to describe a book’s contents, and bring out the merits, but the star rating is my ultimate and overall reaction, and of course totally subjective.


  3. PS. I’ve just reserved it from the library.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reminds me I’ve still got Lab Girl sitting on the shelves. The others aren’t for me I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jahren wrote a follow-up book as well. I’m not sure it got nearly as much attention. Probably because it’s about climate change and no one wants to read about that because it’s too depressing (guilty as charged).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Rebecca,
    we read this year about ice and snow:
    Buddy Levy “Labyrinth of Ice” – about the Reely Expedition, at least 4 stars
    Ranulph Fiennes “Shackleton” – very well researched, 4 stars as well
    Julian Sancton “Madhouse at the End of the World” – about de Gerlach’s Belgica expedition, also 4 stars
    Keep well
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like reading about polar exploration! I’ll have a few Antarctica books coming up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear Rebecca
        Then there are some more books we can recommend. We read them last year:
        Hampton Sides “In the Kingdom of Ice”
        Andrea Pitzer “Icebound”
        Brad Borken “When your Life Depends on it”
        We collect books about expeditions and blogged about our expeditions. This about the North in literarure
        also here
        We are looking forward to your reviews of Antarctica books
        The Fab Four of Cley
        🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. The owl book sounds marvelous, Rebecca. I love a good mix of nature/science and personal narrative. I’ve never read Louise Gluck either… I keep saying I want to give her a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was such a great read! I hope you can get hold of it through your library.

      I don’t think I’ve found the best stuff by Gluck yet … I’ll keep searching!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. We felt exactly the same about The Snow Collectors! Lots of stuff thrown in that wasn’t all integrated. I’d read more by her, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It had some silly twists and turns but I liked all the elements, so I do think her short stories would be worth seeking out.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think I would love this owl book! Does 2020 count as backlist reading in your backlist-reading year? I know it’s kinda arbitrary. I’ve not been reading anything wintry but am pleased that we’d had far more snow this season than we have had in recent years (though it’s still not a healthy amount, obviously). Today it is raining fiercely and then tomorrow it’s going to drop another 20 degrees and, the following day, snow again. Still, I love the snow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, we’ll go ahead and call it backlist 😉 It was a cracking read! And I envy you your snow.


  9. The owl one has been calling to me, though I’d be sad to read about all the losses. I’ve been boiling in Texas with Larry McMurtry this week myself!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He doesn’t really dwell on the losses; there’s just the one owl lost to a car accident and another to a poacher.

      That must be odd to read about hot sunny weather. Does it make you feel warmer?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha – I don’t think it did, to be fair!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Do you think Owls of the Eastern Ice would be accessible to a 10-year-old (independently or as a read-aloud)?


    1. Hard to say! It is quite a dense 300 pages (pretty small print in my Penguin paperback) and there is some getting blind drunk, plus animals in peril. You’ll know whether he’s too sensitive and/or precocious enough 🙂


  11. The kids’ book looks adorable! And I love the sound of the owl book – it’s the first I’ve heard of it.
    It’s still snowing here. Twice this week so far! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d really enjoy Owls of the Eastern Ice. Alas, apart from a few flurries we had no snow this year. I’ve mentally moved on to spring.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It would be nice to get spring just a teensy bit sooner… 🙂


  12. […] Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght: Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia. Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. Amid the science, this is a darn good story, full of bizarre characters. Top-notch nature and travel writing; a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. […]


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