Winter Reads, Part II: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Howard Norman & Picture Books
As hoped for in my first instalment of winter reads, the weather is warmer now and signs of spring are appearing in the form of cherry blossom, crocuses, daffodils, primroses and snowdrops. So I’m bidding a (perhaps premature) farewell to winter with these two novels featuring very chilly settings. I also borrowed from the library a big ol’ pile of wintry children’s books full of bears, rabbits, snowmen, snowballs and days off school.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (2016; 2020)
[Daunt Books Originals; translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins]
Another title doing double duty for #FrenchFebruary and #ReadIndies month. This was Dusapin’s debut and won the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine-Deforges.
Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.
The protagonist is a young mixed-race woman working behind the reception desk at a hotel in Sokcho, a South Korean resort at the northern border. A tourist mecca in high season, during the frigid months this beach town feels down-at-heel, even sinister. The arrival of a new guest is a major event at the guesthouse. And not just any guest but Yan Kerrand, a French graphic novelist. Although she has a boyfriend and the middle-aged Kerrand is probably old enough to be her father – and thus an uncomfortable stand-in for her absent French father – the narrator is drawn to him. She accompanies him on sightseeing excursions but wants to go deeper in his life, rifling through his rubbish for scraps of work in progress.
The underemployed, self-sabotaging young woman is so familiar these days as to be a cliché (and I’d already met a very similar one, also Korean, in Ro from Sea Change by Gina Chung), but there is still something enticing about the atmosphere of this novella. I also enjoyed the narrator’s relationship with her mother, a fishmonger, which sets up for the entirely inconclusive and potentially very disturbing ending. Impossible to say more without spoilers, but I’d be interested to hear what others who have read it think will happen after the last page. (Birthday gift from my wish list)
The Northern Lights by Howard Norman (1987)
Norman is a really underrated writer and I’m a big fan of The Bird Artist and especially I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. This is a weird one; it’s his debut and you can see the autobiographical inspiration (per his Introduction) and the sorts of interests that would recur across his oeuvre, such as subarctic Canada and its Indigenous peoples, absent fathers and hotels (not the only reason this reminded me most of early John Irving).
The Canadian settings represent the two poles of isolation and the urban: Quill, Manitoba versus Toronto in 1959–60. The novel opens with the death of teenage Noah’s best friend, Pelly, who fell through a frozen lake while riding his unicycle. Noah’s family dynamic changes quickly, as his cousin Charlotte, orphaned by a factory disaster, comes to live with them and then his cartographer father leaves them to become a hermit in a remote cabin furnished with musical instruments. Noah stays with Pelly’s parents, Sam and Hettie (a Cree woman), to brave a harsh Quill winter –
January and February mornings you would get a crack of icy static in the nostrils when first stepping outside and have to shade your eyes against the harsh glint of snow, if the sun had worked its way through. Certain days neighbors were seen only on their way to their woodsheds. Chimney smoke was our windsocks. Enormous drifts had built up against the houses, sculpted in various shapes. Even brief walks were taken on snowshoes. Winter might be seven months long.
– while his mother, Mina, takes Charlotte to Toronto to run The Northern Lights, the movie theatre where she met her husband as a young woman. The previous alcoholic owner has run it into the ground; “the curtain smelled like a ten-thousand-year-old moose hide.”
At the time that Noah joins them, he’s never seen a movie before, but as “manager” of the theatre he soon sees The Magnificent Seven 15 times in quick succession. Norman does a peculiar thing here, which is to introduce a key character quite late on in the action. Noah hires Levon, a Cree man, to be the projectionist and he promptly moves his entire family into the building. Had Noah relocated to Toronto earlier, we might have seen more of these characters. Norman’s habit of mimicking broken speech from non-native speakers through overly frequent commas (indicating pauses, I suppose) irked me. There are lots of quirky elements here and I enjoyed the overall atmosphere, but felt the plot left something to be desired. I’d start elsewhere with Norman, but could still recommend this to readers of Robertson Davies and Elizabeth Hay. (Secondhand – 2nd & Charles)
And a DNF:
Snowflake, AZ by Marcus Sedgwick (2019): I wanted to try something else by the late Sedgwick (I’ve only read his nonfiction monograph, Snow) and this seemed ideal. I could have gotten onboard with the desert dystopia, but Ash’s narration was so unconvincing. Sedgwick was attempting a folksy American accent but all the “ain’t”s and “darned”s really don’t work from a teenage character. I only managed about 20 pages. (Public library)
Plus a whole bunch of children’s picture books:
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen [adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean; illus. Laura Barrett] (2019): The whole is in the shadow painting style shown on the cover, with a black, white and ice blue palette. It’s visually stunning, but I didn’t like the language as much as in the original (or at least older) version I remember from a book I read every Christmas as a child.
A Polar Bear in the Snow by Mac Barnett [art by Shawn Harris] (2020): From a grey-white background, a bear’s face emerges. The remaining pages are made of torn and cut paper that looks more three-dimensional than it really is. The bear passes other Arctic creatures and plays in the sea. Such simple yet intricate spreads.
Snow Day by Richard Curtis [illus. Rebecca Cobb] (2014): When snow covers London one December, only two people fail to get the message that the school is closed: Danny Higgins and Mr Trapper, his nemesis. So lessons proceed. At first it feels like a prison sentence, but at break time Mr Trapper gives in to the holiday atmosphere. These two lonely souls play as if they were both children, making an army of snowmen and an igloo. And next year, they’ll secretly do it all again. Watch out for the recurring robin in a woolly hat.
The Snowflake by Benji Davies (2020): I didn’t realize this was a Christmas story, but no matter. A snowflake starts her lonely journey down from a cloud; on Earth, Noelle hopes for snow to fall on her little Christmas tree. From motorway to town to little isolated house, Davies has an eye for colour and detail.
Bear and Hare: SNOW! by Emily Gravett (2014): Bear and Hare, wearing natty scarves, indulge in all the fun activities a blizzard brings: snow angels, building snow creatures, having a snowball fight and sledging. Bear seems a little wary, but Hare wins him over. The illustration style reminded me of Axel Scheffler’s work for Julia Donaldson.
Snow Ghost by Tony Mitton [illus. Diana Mayo] (2020): Snow Ghost looks for somewhere she might rest, drifting over cities and through woods until she finds the rural home of a boy and girl who look ready to welcome her. Nice pastel art but twee couplets.
Rabbits in the Snow: A Book of Opposites by Natalie Russell (2012): A suite of different coloured rabbits explore large and small, full and empty, top and bottom, and so on. After building a snowman and sledging, they come inside for some carrot soup.
The Snowbear by Sean Taylor [illus. Claire Alexander] (2017): Iggy and Martina build a snowman that looks more like a bear. Even though their mum has told them not to, they sledge into the woods and encounter danger, but the snow bear briefly comes alive and walks down the hill to save them. Delightful.
Snow (2014) & Lost (2021) by Sam Usher: A cute pair from a set of series about a little ginger boy and his grandfather. The boy is frustrated with how slow and stick-in-the-mud his grandpa seems to be, yet he comes through with magic. In the former, it’s a snow day and the boy feels like he’s missing all the fun until zoo animals come out to frolic. There’s lots of white space to simulate the snow. In the latter, they build a sledge and help search for a lost dog. Once again, ‘wild’ animals come to the rescue. /
The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer (2021): I’ve seen Zommer speak as part of a conference panel on children’s nature writing. The Aurora Borealis unfolds across the sky above the creatures and people of the far north: “We sashayed for an Arctic fox. We swayed above an old musk ox.” I expected more anatomical accuracy (i.e., faces not flattened so that eyes appear to be next to each other on the same side of a face) but I loved how vivid and imaginative it all is.
Any snowy or icy reads (or weather) for you lately?
Love Your Library Begins: October 2021
It’s the opening month of my new Love Your Library meme! I hope some of you will join me in writing about the libraries you use and what you’ve borrowed from them recently. I plan to treat these monthly posts as a sort of miscellany.
Although I likely won’t do thorough Library Checkout rundowns anymore, I’ll show photos of what I’ve borrowed, give links to reviews of a few recent reads, and then feature something random, such as a reading theme or library policy or display.
Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’m co-opting a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.
Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):
- Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
- An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
- Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
- A description of a particular feature of your local library
- A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
- An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
- A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.
If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!
The Echo Chamber by John Boyne
John Boyne is such a literary chameleon. He’s been John Irving (The Heart’s Invisible Furies), Patricia Highsmith (A Ladder to the Sky) and David Mitchell (A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom). Now, with this Internet-age state-of-the-nation satire featuring variously abhorrent characters, he’s channelling the likes of Jamie Attenberg, Jonathan Coe, Patricia Lockwood, Lionel Shriver and Emma Straub. Every member of the Cleverley family is a morally compromised fake. Boyne gives his characters amusing tics, and there are also some tremendously funny set pieces, such as Nelson’s speed dating escapade and George’s public outbursts. He links several storylines through the Ukrainian dancer Pylyp, who’s slept with almost every character in the book and has Beverley petsit for his tortoise.
What is Boyne spoofing here? Mostly smartphone addiction, but also cancel culture. I imagined George as Hugh Bonneville throughout; indeed, the novel would lend itself very well to screen adaptation. And I loved how Beverley’s new ghostwriter, never given any name beyond “the ghost,” feels like the most real and perceptive character of all. Surely one of the funniest books I will read this year. (Full review).
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
I was one of those rare readers who didn’t think so much of Normal People, so to me this felt like a return to form. Conversations with Friends was a surprise hit with me back in 2017 when I read it as part of the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel the year she won. The themes here are much the same: friendship, nostalgia, sex, communication and the search for meaning. BWWAY is that little bit more existential: through the long-form e-mail correspondence between two friends from college, novelist Alice and literary magazine editor Eileen, we imbibe a lot of philosophizing about history, aesthetics and culture, and musings on the purpose of an individual life against the backdrop of the potential extinction of the species.
Through their relationships with Felix (a rough-around-the-edges warehouse worker) and Simon (slightly older and involved in politics), Rooney explores the question of whether lasting bonds can be formed despite perceived differences of class and intelligence. The background of Alice’s nervous breakdown and Simon’s Catholicism also bring in sensitive treatments of mental illness and faith. (Full review).
This month’s feature
I spotted a few of these during my volunteer shelving and then sought out a couple more. All five are picture books composed by authors not known for their writing for children.
Islandborn by Junot Díaz (illus. Leo Espinosa): “Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else.” When the teacher asks them all to draw a picture of the country they came from, plucky Lola doesn’t know how to depict the Island. Since she left as a baby, she has to interview relatives and neighbours for their lasting impressions. For one man it’s mangoes so sweet they make you cry; for her grandmother it’s dolphins near the beach. She gathers the memories into a vibrant booklet. The 2D cut-paper style reminded me of Ezra Jack Keats.
The Islanders by Helen Dunmore (illus. Rebecca Cobb): Robbie and his family are back in Cornwall to visit Tamsin and her family. These two are the best of friends and explore along the beach together, creating their own little island by digging a channel and making a dam. As the week’s holiday comes toward an end, a magical night-time journey makes them wonder if their wish to make their island life their real life forever could come true. The brightly coloured paint and crayon illustrations are a little bit Charlie and Lola and very cute.
Rose Blanche by Ian McEwan (illus. Roberto Innocenti): Patriotism is assumed for the title character and her mother as they cheer German soldiers heading off to war. There’s dramatic irony in Rose being our innocent witness to deprivations and abductions. One day she follows a truck out of town and past barriers and fences and stumbles onto a concentration camp. Seeing hungry children’s suffering, she starts bringing them food. Unfortunately, this gets pretty mawkish and, while I liked some of the tableau scenes – reminiscent of Brueghel or Stanley Spencer – the faces are awful. (Based on a story by Christophe Gallaz.)
Where Snow Angels Go by Maggie O’Farrell (illus. Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini): The snow angel Sylvie made last winter comes back to her to serve as her guardian angel, saving her from illness and accident risks. If you’re familiar with O’Farrell’s memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, this presents a similar catalogue of near-misses. For a picture book, it has a lot of words – several paragraphs’ worth on most of its 70 pages – so I imagine it’s more suitable for ages seven and up. I loved the fairy tale atmosphere, touches of humour, and drawing style.
Weirdo by Zadie Smith and Nick Laird (illus. Magenta Fox): Kit’s birthday present is Maud, a guinea pig in a judo uniform. None of the other household pets – Derrick the cockatoo, Dora the cat, and Bob the pug – know what to make of her. Like in The Secret Life of Pets, the pets take over, interacting while everyone’s out at school and work. At first Maud tries making herself like the others, but after she spends an afternoon with an eccentric neighbour she realizes all she needs to be is herself. It’s not the first time married couple Smith and Laird have published an in-joke (their 2018 releases – an essay collection and a book of poems, respectively – are both entitled Feel Free): Kit is their daughter’s name and Maud is their pug’s. But this was cute enough to let them off.