This is my eleventh translated novella from Peirene Press* and, in my opinion, their best yet. It’s an intense work of autofiction about two years of hellish treatment for breast cancer, all the more powerful due to the second-person narration that displaces the pain from the protagonist and onto the reader.
This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel whole while reality shatters it into fragments. The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back, and after five centimetres makes a gentle curve up and continues to your armpit. It’s still fresh and red.
How does the story crumbling under your tongue and refusing to take on a firm shape begin to be told?
You knew on that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d get cancer?
Ever since that day, sixteen years ago, when your mother’s diagnosis was confirmed, that you’d never get cancer?
Both are equally true.
In 2014, just a couple of months after her husband leaves her – making her, in her early forties, a single mother to a son and a daughter – she discovers a lump in her right breast.
As she endures five operations, chemotherapy and adjuvant therapies, as well as endless testing and hospital stays, her mind keeps going back to her girlhood and adolescence, especially the moments when she felt afraid or ashamed. Her father, alcoholic and perpetually ill, made her feel like she was an annoyance to him.
Coming of age in a female body was traumatic in itself; now that same body threatens to kill her. Even as she loses the physical signs of femininity, she remains resilient. Her body will document what she’s been through: “Perfectly sculpted through all your defeats, and your victories. The scars scrawled on it are the map of your journey. The truest story about you, which words cannot grasp.”
As forthright as it is about the brutality of cancer treatment, the novella can also be creative, playful and even darkly comic.
Things you don’t want to think about:
Your bald head
Almost unbearable nausea delivers her into a new space: “Here, the only colours are black and red. You’re lost in a vast hotel. However hard you try, you can’t count the floors.” One snowy morning, she imagines she’s being visited by a host of Medusa-like women in long black dresses who minister to her. Whether it’s a dream or a medication-induced hallucination, it feels mystical, like she’s part of a timeless lineage of wise women. The themes, tone and style all came together here for me, though I can see how this book might not be for everyone. I have a college friend who’s going through breast cancer treatment right now. She’s only 40. She was diagnosed in the summer and has already had surgery and a few rounds of chemo. I wonder if this book is just what she would want to read right now … or the last thing she would want to think about. All I can do is ask.
(Translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth) [165 pages]
With thanks to Peirene Press for the free copy for review.
*Other Peirene Press novellas I’ve reviewed:
Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel
The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini
Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay
The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst
Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve
This year for Novellas in November, Cathy and I chose to host one overall buddy read, Foster by Claire Keegan. I ended up reviewing it for BookBrowse. My full review is here and I also wrote a short related article on Keegan’s career and the unusual publishing history of this particular novella. Here are short excerpts from both:
Claire Keegan’s delicate, heart-rending novella tells the story of a deprived young Irish girl sent to live with rural relatives for one pivotal summer. Although Foster feels like a timeless fable, a brief mention of IRA hunger strikers dates it to 1981. It bears all the hallmarks of a book several times its length: a convincing and original voice, rich character development, an evocative setting, just enough backstory, psychological depth, conflict and sensitive treatment of difficult themes like poverty and neglect. I finished the one-sitting read in a flood of tears, hoping the Kinsellas’ care might be enough to protect the girl from the harshness she may face in the rest of her growing-up years. Keegan unfolds a cautionary tale of endangered childhood, also hinting at the enduring difference a little compassion can make. [128 pages]
Foster is now in print for the first time in the USA (from Grove Atlantic), having had an unusual path to publication. It first appeared in the New Yorker in 2010, but in abridged form. Keegan told the Guardian she felt the condensed version “was very well done but wasn’t the whole story. It had some of the layers taken out, but I think the heart was the same.” She herself has described Foster as a long short story; “It is definitely not a novella. It doesn’t have the pace of a novella.” Faber & Faber first published it as a standalone volume in the UK in 2010. A 2022 Irish-language film version of Foster, called The Quiet Girl (which names the main character Cait) became a favorite on the international film festival circuit.
[Edited on December 1st]
A number of you joined us in reading Foster this month:
Lynne at Fictionophile
Karen at The Simply Blog
Davida at The Chocolate Lady’s Book Reviews
Tony at Tony’s Book World
Brona at This Reading Life
Janet at Love Books Read Books
Jane at Just Reading a Book
Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best
Carol at Reading Ladies
(Cathy also reviewed it last year.)
Our bloggers have been impressed with the spare, precise writing style and the emotional heft of this little tale. Their only complaint? The slight ambiguity of the ending. Read it yourself to find out what you think! If you’d still like to take part in the buddy read and have an hour or two free, remember you can access the original version of the story here.
This was my sixth book by Holloway, a retired Bishop of Edinburgh whose perspective is maybe not what you would expect from a churchman – he focuses on this life and on practical and emotional needs rather than on the supernatural or abstruse points of theology. His recent work, such as Waiting for the Last Bus, also embraces melancholy in a way that many on the more evangelical end of Christianity might deem shamefully negative.
Being a pessimist myself, though, I find that his outlook resonates. The title of this 2021 release, originally subtitled “An Anthology of Memory and Regret,” comes from Virgil’s Aeneid (“there are tears at the heart of things [sunt lacrimae rerum]”), and that context makes it clearer where he’s coming from. In the same paragraph in which he reveals that source, he defines melancholia as “sorrowing empathy for the constant defeats of the human condition.”
The book is in six thematic essays that plait Holloway’s own thoughts with lengthy quotations, especially from 19th- and 20th-century poetry: Passing – Mourning – Warring – Ruining – Regretting – Forgiving. The war chapter, though appropriate for it having just been Remembrance Day, engaged me the least, while the section on ruin sticks closely to the author’s Glasgow childhood and so seems to offer less universal value than the rest. I most appreciated the first two chapters and the one on regret, which features musings on Nietzsche’s “amor fati” and extended quotes from Borges, Housman and MacNeice.
We melancholics are prone to looking backwards, even when we know it’s not good for us; to dwelling on our losses and failures. The final chapter, then, is key, insisting on self-forgiveness because of the forgiveness modelled by Christ (in whatever way you understand that). Holloway believes in the edifying wisdom of poetry, which he calls “greater than the intention of its makers and [continuing] to reveal new meanings long after they are gone.” He’s created an unusual and pensive collection that will perform the same role.
With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.
I knew pretty much nothing about this when I went into it and that was for the best. Only after I’d finished reading it (in one sitting) did I remember that there’s a Peter Sellers film; I’m glad I wasn’t imagining him in my head the whole time.
If you keep in mind that this is a satire on certain American qualities – gullibility, the obsession with money and appearance – you can probably, like I did, excuse the thinness of the plot, the clichéd behaviour of the characters, and the sometimes dated feel (this is from 1970).
Chance is an utter innocent, an illiterate orphan; his whole history is a blank. Most of what he knows comes from television, which he watches devotedly. He lives in one half of a house; the Old Man in the other. Apart from one maid or another, he sees no one else and has never left the complex for any reason. Aside from TV, his only hobby is gardening. The house’s walled garden is his haven and his joy. When the Old Man dies, the lawyers can find no record of a hired gardener or other retainer so Chance, like Adam, is cast out of his Eden and into … suburban New York City. Where he’s promptly hit by a limo, then taken to recuperate at the home of the rich businessman’s wife who was riding in it, Elizabeth Eve (or EE) Rand.
With his gardening stories that everyone takes to be metaphorical, Chase soon wins over Wall Street and White House alike, and fields propositions from men and women just the same. He takes his cues for how to act in social situations from his extensive mental archive of TV programs. It all gets a bit silly, but the naïf at the heart of it is so sweet that I didn’t mind. He’s like Forrest Gump or any number of other simple characters who get drawn into current events (it seems like quite the Hollywood trope, in fact); just by going along with what people assume about him, he comes across as intelligent and wise. His name can’t be coincidental, with its connotations of risk, fate, or just seizing opportunities. Luckily, the satire doesn’t outstay its welcome. However, I felt that the book just stops, with no proper ending.
(Kosiński’s life story is its own stranger-than-fiction tale; the biographical essay in the back of my paperback is only about five pages long but there were many points where I wondered if it was a tongue-in-cheek appendix! The novella is autobiographical, it seems, in that the author was married to a rich American widow and moved in the kind of wealthy circles the Rands do.)
[105 pages] (Secondhand purchase)
This was just what I want from a one-sitting read: surprising and satisfying, and in this case with enough suspense to keep the pages turning. When beautiful 30-year-old widow Mary Panton, staying in a villa in the hills overlooking Florence, receives two marriage proposals within the first 33 pages, I worried I was in for a boring, conventional story.
However, things soon get much more interesting. Her suitors are Sir Edgar Swift of the Indian Civil Service, 24 years her senior and just offered a job as the governor of Bengal; and Rowley Flint, a notorious lady’s man. Edgar has to go away on business and will ask for her answer when he’s back in several days. He leaves her with a revolver to take with her if she goes out in the car. A Chekhov’s gun? Absolutely. And it’ll be up to Mary and Rowley to deal with the consequences.
I’ll avoid further details; it’s too much fun to discover those for yourself. I’ll just mention that some intriguing issues get brought in, such as political dissidence in the early days of WWII, charity vs. pity, and the double standard of promiscuity in men vs. women.
Compared to something like Of Human Bondage, sure, this 1941 novella is a minor work, but I found it hugely enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone looking for a short classic or wanting to try Maugham (from here advance to The Painted Veil and The Moon and Sixpence before trying one of the chunksters).
Some plot points are curiously similar to Downton Abbey seasons 1–3, leading me to wonder if this was actually a conscious or unconscious influence on Julian Fellowes. Mostly, though, this reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a deliciously twisted little book where you find yourself rooting for people you might not sympathize with in real life.
And how’s this for a last line? “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.”
(See also Simon’s review.)
[120 pages] (Public library)
Novellas in November is here! Our first weekly theme is short classics. (Leave your links with Cathy, here.)
Left over from a planned second R.I.P. post that I didn’t get a chance to finish:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)
A few years ago for the R.I.P. challenge I read The Haunting of Hill House, which is a terrific haunted house/horror novel, a genre I almost never read. I was expecting this to be more of the same from Jackson, but instead it’s a brooding character study of two sisters isolated by their scandalous family history and the suspicion of the townspeople. Narrator Merricat (Mary Katherine Blackwood) tells us in the first paragraph that she is 18, but she sounds and acts more like a half-feral child of 10 who makes shelters in the woods for her and her cat Jonas; I wasn’t sure if I should understand her to be intellectually disabled, or willfully childish, or some combination thereof.
Her older sister Constance does everything for her and for wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian, the only family they have left after most of their relatives died of poisoning six years ago. Constance stood trial for their murder and was acquitted, but the locals haven’t let the incident go and even chant a cruel rhyme whenever Merricat comes into town for shopping: “Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea? / Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.” Julian obsessively mulls over the details of the poisoning, building a sort of personal archive of tragedy, while in everyday life a curtain of dementia separates him from reality. When cousin Charles comes to visit, perhaps to get a share of the money they have hidden around the place, he threatens the idyll they’ve created, and Merricat starts joking about poisonous mushrooms…
I loved the offbeat voice and unreliable narration, and the way that the Blackwood house is both a refuge and a prison for the sisters. “Where could we go?” Merricat asks Constance when she expresses concern that she should have given the girl a more normal life. “What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people.” As the novel goes on, you ponder who is protecting whom, and from what. There are a lot of great scenes, all so discrete that I could see this working very well as a play with just a few backdrops to represent the house and garden. It has the kind of small cast and claustrophobic setting that would translate very well to the stage.
Joyce Carol Oates’s afterword brings up an interesting point about how food is fetishized in Jackson’s fiction – I look forward to trying more of it. (Public library)
This month I also hope to have a look through Great Short Books by Kenneth C. Davis, a selection of 58 classic and contemporary works (some of them perhaps a bit longer than our cutoff of 200 pages). It’s forthcoming from Scribner on the 22nd, but I have an e-copy via Edelweiss that I will skim.
Just two weeks until moving day – we’ve got a long weekend ahead of us of sanding, painting, packing and gardening. As busy as I am with house stuff, I’m endeavouring to keep up with the new releases publishers have been so good as to send me. Today I review three short works: the story of accompanying a beloved husband to Switzerland for an assisted suicide, a coolly perceptive novella of American girlhood, and a vivid memoir of two momentous relationships. (April was a big month for new books: I have another 6–8 on the go that I’ll be catching up on in the future.) All:
In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom
“We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.”
(Ameche family saying)
Given the psychological astuteness of her fiction, it’s no surprise that Bloom is a practicing psychotherapist. She treats her own life with the same compassionate understanding, and even though the main events covered in this brilliantly understated memoir only occurred two and a bit years ago, she has remarkable perspective and avoids self-pity and mawkishness. Her husband, Brian Ameche, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, having exhibited mild cognitive impairment for several years. Brian quickly resolved to make a dignified exit while he still, mostly, had his faculties. But he needed Bloom’s help.
“I worry, sometimes, that a better wife, certainly a different wife, would have said no, would have insisted on keeping her husband in this world until his body gave out. It seems to me that I’m doing the right thing, in supporting Brian in his decision, but it would feel better and easier if he could make all the arrangements himself and I could just be a dutiful duckling, following in his wake. Of course, if he could make all the arrangements himself, he wouldn’t have Alzheimer’s”
She achieves the perfect tone, mixing black humour with teeth-gritted practicality. Research into acquiring sodium pentobarbital via doctor friends soon hit a dead end and they settled instead on flying to Switzerland for an assisted suicide through Dignitas – a proven but bureaucracy-ridden and expensive method. The first quarter of the book is a day-by-day diary of their January 2020 trip to Zurich as they perform the farce of a couple on vacation. A long central section surveys their relationship – a second chance for both of them in midlife – and how Brian, a strapping Yale sportsman and accomplished architect, gradually descended into confusion and dependence. The assisted suicide itself, and the aftermath as she returns to the USA and organizes a memorial service, fill a matter-of-fact 20 pages towards the close.
Hard as parts of this are to read, there are so many lovely moments of kindness (the letter her psychotherapist writes about Brian’s condition to clinch their place at Dignitas!) and laughter, despite it all (Brian’s endless fishing stories!). While Bloom doesn’t spare herself here, diligently documenting times when she was impatient and petty, she doesn’t come across as impossibly brave or stoic. She was just doing what she felt she had to, to show her love for Brian, and weeping all the way. An essential, compelling read.
With thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso
I’ve read Manguso’s four nonfiction works and especially love her Wellcome Book Prize-shortlisted medical memoir The Two Kinds of Decay. The aphoristic style she developed in her two previous books continues here as discrete paragraphs and brief vignettes build to a gloomy portrait of Ruthie’s archetypical affection-starved childhood in the fictional Massachusetts town of Waitsfield in the 1980s and 90s. She’s an only child whose parents no doubt were doing their best after emotionally stunted upbringings but never managed to make her feel unconditionally loved. Praise is always qualified and stingily administered. Ruthie feels like a burden and escapes into her imaginings of how local Brahmins – Cabots and Emersons and Lowells – lived. Her family is cash-poor compared to their neighbours and loves nothing more than a trip to the dump: “My parents weren’t after shiny things or even beautiful things; they simply liked getting things that stupid people threw away.”
The depiction of Ruthie’s narcissistic mother is especially acute. She has to make everything about her; any minor success of her daughter’s is a blow to her own ego. I marked out an excruciating passage that made me feel so sorry for this character. A European friend of the family visits and Ruthie’s mother serves corn muffins that he seems to appreciate.
My mother brought up her triumph for years. … She’d believed his praise was genuine. She hadn’t noticed that he’d pegged her as a person who would snatch up any compliment into the maw of her unloved, throbbing little heart.
At school, as in her home life, Ruthie dissociates herself from every potentially traumatic situation. “My life felt unreal and I felt half-invested. I felt indistinct, like someone else’s dream.” Her friend circle is an abbreviated A–Z of girlhood: Amber, Bee, Charlie and Colleen. “Odd” men – meaning sexual predators – seem to be everywhere and these adolescent girls are horribly vulnerable. Molestation is such an open secret in the world of the novel that Ruthie assumes this is why her mother is the way she is.
While the #MeToo theme didn’t resonate with me personally, so much else did. Chemistry class, sleepovers, getting one’s first period, falling off a bike: this is the stuff of girlhood – if not universally, then certainly for the (largely pre-tech) American 1990s as I experienced them. I found myself inhabiting memories I hadn’t revisited for years, and a thought came that had perhaps never occurred to me before: for our time and area, my family was poor, too. I’m grateful for my ignorance: what scarred Ruthie passed me by; I was a purely happy child. But I think my sister, born seven years earlier, suffered more, in ways that she’d recognize here. This has something of the flavour of Eileen and My Name Is Lucy Barton and reads like autofiction even though it’s not presented as such. The style and contents may well be divisive. I’ll be curious to hear if other readers see themselves in its sketches of childhood.
With thanks to Picador for the proof copy for review.
XO by Sara Rauch
Sara Rauch won the Electric Book Award for her short story collection What Shines from It. This compact autobiographical parcel focuses on a point in her early thirties when she lived with a long-time female partner, “Piper”, and had an intense affair with “Liam”, a fellow writer she met at a residency.
“no one sets out in search of buried treasure when they’re content with life as it is”
“Longing isn’t cheating (of this I was certain), even when it brushes its whiskers against your cheek.”
Adultery is among the most ancient human stories we have, a fact Rauch acknowledges by braiding through the narrative her musings on religion and storytelling by way of her Catholic upbringing and interest in myths and fairy tales. She’s looking for the patterns of her own experience and how endings make way for new life. The title has multiple meanings: embraces, crossroads and coming full circle. Like a spider’s web, her narrative pulls in many threads to make an ordered whole. All through, bisexuality is a baseline, not something that needs to be interrogated.
This reminded me of a number of books I’ve read about short-lived affairs – Tides, The Instant – and about renegotiating relationships in a queer life – The Fixed Stars, In the Dream House – but felt most like reading a May Sarton journal for how intimately it recreates daily routines of writing, cooking, caring for cats, and weighing up past, present and future. Lovely stuff.
With thanks to publicist Lori Hettler and Autofocus Books for the e-copy for review.
Will you seek out one or more of these books?
What other April releases can you recommend?
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)