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.
“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?
As literature in translation week of Novellas in November continues, I’m making a token contribution to German Literature Month as well. I’m aware that my second title doesn’t technically count towards the challenge because it was originally written in English, but the author is German, so I’m adding it in as a bonus. Both novellas feature an insular perspective and an unusual protagonist whose actions may be slightly difficult to sympathize with.
The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind (1987; 1988)
[Translated from the German by John E. Woods; 77 pages]
At the time the pigeon affair overtook him, unhinging his life from one day to the next, Jonathan Noel, already past fifty, could look back over a good twenty-year period of total uneventfulness and would never have expected anything of importance could ever overtake him again – other than death some day. And that was perfectly all right with him. For he was not fond of events, and hated outright those that rattled his inner equilibrium and made a muddle of the external arrangements of life.
What a perfect opening paragraph! Taking place over about 24 hours in August 1984, this is the odd little tale of a man in Paris who’s happily set in his ways until an unexpected encounter upends his routines. Every day he goes to work as a bank security guard and then returns to his rented room, which he’s planning to buy from his landlady. But on this particular morning he finds a pigeon not a foot from his door, and droppings all over the corridor. Now, I love birds, so this was somewhat difficult for me to understand, but I know that bird phobia is a real thing. Jonathan is so freaked out that he immediately decamps to a hotel, and his day just keeps getting worse from there, in comical ways, until it seems he might do something drastic. The pigeon is both real and a symbol of irrational fears. The conclusion is fairly open-ended, leaving me feeling like this was a short story or unfinished novella. It was intriguing but also frustrating in that sense. There’s an amazing description of a meal, though! (University library)
The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer (2020)
This debut novella was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize – a mark of experimental style that would often scare me off, so I’m glad I gave it a try anyway. It’s an extended monologue given by a young German woman during her consultation with a Dr Seligman in London. As she unburdens herself about her childhood, her relationships, and her gender dysphoria, you initially assume Seligman is her Freudian therapist, but Volckmer has a delicious trick up her sleeve. A glance at the titles and covers of foreign editions, or even the subtitle of this Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback, would give the game away, so I recommend reading as little as possible about the book before opening it up. The narrator has some awfully peculiar opinions, especially in relation to Nazism (the good doctor being a Jew), but the deeper we get into her past the more we see where her determination to change her life comes from. This was outrageous and hilarious in equal measure, and great fun to read. I’d love to see someone turn it into a one-act play. (New purchase)
A favourite passage:
But then we are most passionate when we worship the things that don’t exist, like race, or money, or God, or, quite simply, our fathers. God, of course, was a man too. A father who could see everything, from whom you couldn’t even hide in the toilet, and who was always angry. He probably had a penis the size of a cigarette.
The Zookeeper’s Wife
By Diane Ackerman
A different sort of Holocaust story, set at Warsaw Zoo in the years surrounding World War II. Even after Nazis dismantled their zoo and killed many of the larger animals, Jan and Antonina Żabiński stayed at their home and used the zoo’s premises for storing explosives and ammunition for Jan’s work in the Polish resistance as well as sheltering “Guests,” Jews passing through. This is a gripping narrative of survival against the odds, with the added pleasure of the kind of animal antics you’d find in a Gerald Durrell book. Their son Ryszard kept as pets a badger who bathed sitting back in the tub like a person and an arctic hare who stole cured meats like “a fat, furry thug.” Much of the book is based on Antonina’s journals, but I wish there had been more direct quotes from it and less in the way of reconstruction.
Walking Away: Further Travels with a Troubadour on the South West Coast Path
By Simon Armitage
As a sequel to Walking Home, the account of his 2010 trek along the Pennine Way, Armitage walked much of England’s South West Coast Path in August–September 2013. As before, he relied on the hospitality of acquaintances and strangers to put him up along the way and transport his enormous suitcase for him so he could walk about 10 miles a day to his next poetry reading. Emulating a modern-day troubadour, Armitage passed around a sock at the end of readings for donations (though the list of other stuff people left in the sock, with which he closes the book, is quite amusing). Along the way he meets all kinds of odd folk and muses on the landscape and the distressing amounts of seaside rubbish. His self-deprecating style reminded me of Bill Bryson. A pleasant ramble of a travel book.
Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival
By Bernd Heinrich
This great seasonal read carefully pitches science to the level of the layman. Heinrich, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Vermont, surveys various strategies animals use for surviving the winter: caching food, huddling together, hibernating or entering torpor, and lowering their body temperature – even to the point where 50% of their body water is ice, as with hibernating frogs. He carries out ever so slightly gruesome experiments that make him sound like a lovably nutty professor:
To find out how quickly a fully feathered kinglet loses body heat, I experimentally heated a dead kinglet and then measured its cooling rate. … I do not know how many seeds a chipmunk usually packs into each of its two pouches—I easily inserted sixty black sunflower seeds through the mouth into just one pouch of a roadkill.
His passion for knowledge carries through in his writing. I came away with a fresh sense of wonder for how species are adapted to their environments: “Much that animals have evolved to do would have seemed impossible to us, if experience has not taught us otherwise.”
Poor Your Soul
By Mira Ptacin
Ptacin’s memoir is based around two losses: that of her brother, in a collision with a drunk driver; and that of a pregnancy in 2008. She skips back and forth in time to examine the numb aftermath of trauma as well as the fresh pain of actually going through it. In places I felt Ptacin sacrificed the literary quality hindsight might have allowed, prioritizing instead the somewhat clichéd thoughts and responses she had in the moment. Still, I loved so much about this book, especially her memories of growing up in the cereal capital of America and the account of her mother coming to America from Poland. Her mother is a terrific character, and it’s her half-warning, half-commiserative phrase that gives the novel its title (not a typo, as you might be forgiven for thinking): a kind of Slavic “I pity the fool.”
Miss Fortune: Fresh Perspectives on Having It All from Someone Who Is Not Okay
By Lauren Weedman
Weedman is a playwright and minor celebrity who’s worked on The Daily Show, Hung and Looking. This is a truly funny set of essays about marriage (from beginning to end), motherhood, working life and everything in between. Self-deprecatingly, she focuses on ridiculous situations she’s gotten herself into, like the world’s unsexiest threesome and an accidental gang symbol tattoo. Amid the laughs are some serious reflections on being adopted and figuring out how to be a responsible stepmother. With a warning that parts can be pretty raunchy, I’d recommend this to fans of David Sedaris and Bossypants.