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?
Just a short post this time. I call it serendipitous when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such incidents. I post these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)
- Characters sit for a portrait in The Confession by Jessie Burton and The Hoarder by Jess Kidd.
- An obsession with saints in Fifth Business by Robertson Davies and The Hoarder by Jess Kidd.
- A mention of the urban myth regarding why our fingertips prune in water (something about an outdated evolutionary strategy for gripping underwater) in The Body by Bill Bryson and Humiliation: Stories by Paulina Flores.
- Memories of childhood trips to Martha’s Vineyard in Chances Are by Richard Russo and The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall.
- The River Thames is the setting for Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.
- Mentions of pelicans being clubbed to death in God Unbound: Theology in the Wild by Brian McLaren and Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale.
- A character who speaks and writes backwards words in The Poisonwood Bible and The Robber Bride.
- Epigraphs containing folk names for the hare, and soon enough a dead hare, in Ring the Hill by Tom Cox and Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley.
- An unexpected THIRD set of conjoined twins encountered this year (after Cutting for Stone and The Girls) in Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie Macdonald.
- The song “Oh My Darling, Clementine” is quoted in The Robber Bride and Fall on Your Knees.
- Warming an orphaned lamb in a low oven in Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood and The Dig by Cynan Jones.
- A character is presumed incapable of laughter in Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann and Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken.
- Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is mentioned in The River Capture by Mary Costello and Surrender by Joanna Pocock.
Happy Halloween! I enjoyed taking part in R.I.P. for the first time this year. My top two choices out of the six fantastical and/or spooky books I managed to read would be The Loney and The Graveyard Book (see below). For this second installment I’ve been reading eerie short stories that take place in the English countryside, a young adult fantasy novel set mostly in a graveyard, and a ghost story that unfolds in the Himalayas of the 1930s.
Help the Witch by Tom Cox (2018)
I knew Tom Cox for his witty books about his many cats, including The Good, the Bad and the Furry. His first foray into fiction was published by Unbound earlier this month; I pre-ordered it on a Kindle deal for £1. The settings are dilapidated cottages, moorland and villages, mostly in the North of England. Even in the spookier stories, there’s always a welcome touch of humor. “Seance” raises the ghost of a cyclist who was killed on his bike and now is destined to cycle evermore. He doesn’t, at first, realize that he’s dead. “‘Morning!’ he called to a middle-aged couple with a labradoodle, cheerfully, as he cycled past Whiddon Scrubs. They ignored him. ‘Shitbags,’ he said under his breath.”
The three sets of flash fictions, “Listings,” “Nine Tiny Stories about Houses,” and “Folk Tales of the Twenty-third Century,” particularly made me laugh, though each perhaps overstays its welcome a bit. My two favorites were proper ghost stories: “Speed Awareness,” about a peculiar mix-up with the course teacher, and “Just Good Friends,” in which a woman’s Internet dating experiences turn strange when she meets someone with inside knowledge about her past. I could see the latter being anthologized. These are enjoyable enough stories to flip through around Halloween.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)
Nobody “Bod” Owens has lived in a graveyard ever since the night he climbed out of his cot and toddled there – the same night that a man named Jack murdered his parents and older sister. He was the only member of his family to survive the slaughter. Although he passes a happy childhood among the graveyard’s witches, ghouls and ghosts from many centuries, he knows he’s different. He’s alive; he has to eat and craves human friendship. As valuable as his lessons in Fading and Dreamwalking prove to be, he longs to attend school and discover more of the world outside – provided he can keep his head down and avoid notice; previous trips beyond the cemetery walls, such as to a pawnshop, have bordered on the disastrous.
Bod’s japes with his returning friend Scarlett turn more serious when he learns that Jack is still after him. This is quite a dark book for its young teen audience, but as I remember from the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he’s a master at balancing sadness with humor and magic. The illustrations by Chris Riddell are terrific, too.
Silas, Bod’s guardian: “You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change.”
“Mother Slaughter’s headstone [was] so cracked and worn and weathered that all it said now was:
which had puzzled the local historians for over a hundred years.”
Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (2016)
In 1935 Dr. Stephen Pearce and his brother Kits are part of a five-man mission to climb the most dangerous mountain in the Himalayas, Kangchenjunga. Thirty years before, Sir Edmund Lyell led an ill-fated expedition up the same mountain: more than one man did not return, and the rest lost limbs to frostbite. “I don’t want to know what happened to them. It’s in the past. It has nothing to do with us,” Dr. Pearce tells himself, but from the start it feels like a bad omen that they, like Lyell’s party, are attempting the southwest approach; even the native porters are nervous. And as they climb, they fall prey to various medical and mental crises; hallucinations of ghostly figures on the crags are just as much of a danger as snow blindness.
This is pacey, readable historical fiction with a good sense of period and atmosphere. I enjoyed Pearce’s narration, and the one-upmanship type of relationship with his brother adds an interesting dimension to the expedition dynamics. However, I never submitted sufficiently to Paver’s spell to find anything particularly scary. I’ll try again with her other ghost story, Dark Matter, about an Arctic expedition from the same time period.
“The Sherpas are wrong. This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is.” [famous last words…]
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
I’m not at all one for scary books; horror and even crime fiction rarely make it onto my reading agenda. But in advance of Halloween I did read a few books that would count as creepy. Maybe you’ll fancy picking one of them up today?
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Vol. II by M.R. James
I’ve only ever read one M.R. James piece before, in an anthology of stories about libraries. This was perhaps not an ideal way to encounter his ghost stories for the first time. Though all four (“Number 13,” “Count Magnus,” “Oh, Whistle and I Will Come to You, My Lad” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”) are adapted by the same pair, Leah Moore and John Reppion, each is illustrated by a different artist, so the drawing style ranges from rounded and minimalist to an angular, watercolor Marvel style. The stories have thematic links of research, travel, archaeological discovery and antiquities. Very often there are found documents that must be interpreted. Several narrators are scholars coming across unexplained phenomena: a hotel room that appears and disappears, a sarcophagus lid that opens on its own, a storm summoned by a whistle, and so on.
In a brief introduction, Jason Arnopp applauds the decision to “show readers the ghouls and ghosts,” but I disagree – to me a central problem with using the graphic form for these tales that center around nameless horror is that depicting the source of horror saps it of its power. Still, I appreciated the introduction to James’s ghost stories.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley
In Hurley’s Lancashire farmland setting, Devil’s Day is a regional Halloween-time ritual when the locals serve up the firstborn lamb of spring as a sacrifice to ward off the Devil’s shape-shifting appearance in the human or animal flock. Is it all a bit of fun, or necessary for surviving supernatural threat? We see the year’s turning through the eyes of John Pentecost, now settled back on his ancestral land with his wife, Kat, and their blind son, Adam. However, he focuses on two points from his past: his bullied childhood and a visit home early on in his marriage that coincided with the funeral of his grandfather, “the Gaffer”. The Endlands is a tight-knit community with a long history of being cut off from everywhere else, which makes it an awfully good place to keep secrets.
The first and last quarters of the book flew by for me, while the middle dragged a bit. The rural atmosphere and the subtle air of menace reminded me of Elmet and Bellman and Black. I’ll certainly seek out Hurley’s acclaimed debut, The Loney. [Read via NetGalley]
“Nothing changed in Underclough. Nothing happened. Not really. … elsewhere was always a place where the worst things happened. … The world outside the valley might well collapse but we wouldn’t necessarily feel the ripples here.”
Slade House by David Mitchell
“If I could just see a ghost, just once … Just one ghost, so I know that death’s not game over, but a door.”
This was so cool! I feel like I’d never experienced a “real” Mitchell book before (having only read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is in some ways the odd one out), and I was impressed by how he brings everything together in this short novel. Every nine years between 1979 and 2015, a different visitor gets sucked into the treacherous world-within-a-world of the Grayer twins’ Slade House. This dilapidated mansion located off an unassuming alley morphs to fit each guest’s desires. To reveal more would spoil the fun, so I’ll just say that I love how Mitchell lulls you into a pretty horrific pattern before springing a couple of major surprises in later chapters. Each time period and narrator feels distinct and believable, and I’m told one character is from two other Mitchell novels (and the phrase “bone clock” even makes an appearance). I need to pick up Cloud Atlas soon for sure. [Public library copy]
Recommended spooky listening: The album That Ghost Belongs to Me by The Bookshop Band – all songs inspired by scary books.