It might seem a bit superficial, but we’re always a sucker for a book with a map. It’s the perfect setup for this kind of wintery read – you’re immediately in the mood for adventure (but, actually, safely tucked up at home under a blanket). And this is a proper, old fashioned adventure, too. Comforts are in short supply, food is grim at best, bear attacks are a real hazard. It’s 1934 and life in the Arctic is hand-to-mouth.
In comes Christiane Ritter: a well-to-do Austrian painter invited to spend a year on a remote island of Norwegian Svalbard (yep, where the polar bears in His Dark Materials live…) by her husband to live as his, who’s spent years in the arctic hunting and living in almost complete isolation. Their nearest neighbours are hundreds of miles across the tundra and their only company is Karl, a brusk Norwegian who doesn’t speak any German. Her husband informs her their hut needs a “housewife”.
But despite domestic challenges, and almost everyone on the journey warning her not to go, Christiane is undeterred: and Woman in the Polar Night is surprisingly free from interpersonal drama. Ritter’s prose is refreshingly stark and unintrospective. It’s a far stretch from the trend of contemporary nature writers, in which nature is half of the topic, while the rest is personal and internal. Instead, it’s almost transcendental. In the lead up to the Second World War, the bleak, beautiful, dangerous arctic wilderness is framed as a tonic to European society.
This book has never been out of print in German and it’s easy to see why: it’s a short, beautiful, cold, revelatory read.
If you liked Woman in the Polar Night, try…
Previous subscription picks…
Boy Friends, by Michael Pedersen
Although the very existence of this book is in no small part due to a huge tragedy, specifically the loss to suicide of the author’s dear friend and artistic collaborator Scott Hutchison, we defy you to read a more empowering and heartening document. Michael Pedersen, a poet of international renown and a wonderfully idiosyncratic style, gently uses his experience to create an assessment of the platonic male relationships in his life, assembling them for us with often-hilarious anecdotal reportage, contextualising them within his own life, wondering just what each one has meant or will mean to his own personality.
We were so happy to welcome the Michael himself to Storysmith in October, where he delighted and moved a shopful of rapt readers (you’ll notice that your copy is signed by the author) by performing key passages for us. And while that experience was special, the power of Boy Friends resides in the pages, in the unique insight of the book itself. You may be inspired to pick up the phone to an old acquaintance, you may equally be moved to excommunicate another – the point is that you’re thinking about it. Male friendship is presented here not as a list of futtering, abandoned failures, but as an essential and ultimately joyful experience to be celebrated.
If you liked Boy Friends, try…
When Women Kill, by Alia Trabucco Zeran
(trans. Sophie Hughes)
Female murderers are irresistably fascinating, and this Chilean curio deals with the central theme of its title in a brilliantly creative way, turning the tropes of ‘true crime’ into something rather more profound than merely glamorising the four women it profiles. Detailing their shocking crimes and the repercussions with commentary on the research process itself, Zeran’s methods are exhaustive but eminently readable.
Using reimagined and fictionalised accounts of key moments in these stories, she explores how the criminals are judged and punished differently purely because they’re women. She also lays out some of the surprising reactions in the media and society at the time, and the way in which the crimes were subsequently mythologised in literature, theatre and songs.
This is a perfect mix of compelling crime and intelligent investigation to get your teeth stuck into this Spooky Season!
If you liked When Women Kill, try…
The Nation of Plants, by Stefano Mancuso
(translated by Gregory Conti)
There’s very much a time and a place for the respectable, English, button-down form of nature writing: flowery prose, poignant observations, the still contemplation of streams, ponds, a particularly fantastic piece of bark on an exemplary tree. This is not that kind of nature writing (if it is even strictly nature writing).
Which is not to say that this book is not one of serious, deep-level plant-preciation. But rather than aesthetic or spiritual, plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso opts for social, political, organisational, and moral appreciation. Can you learn about ethics from plants? Should plants have rights, a constitution? Is there even such a thing as plant “behaviour”?
It’s all up for debate of course, but like all the best philosophical ramblings, you start by accepting a slightly unexpected premise. But from this springs a remarkably playful, yet actually deadly serious, intellectual extrapolation. Open borders, non-hierarchical governance structures, and mutual aid are some of the seemingly unlikely (but actually watertight) ideas that flower from this fertile soil. While light on page count, this is the kind of book that makes you see the world from a different perspective.
If you liked Nation of Plants, try…
Everybody, by Olivia Laing
Everybody: Olivia Laing£10.99
An unbelievably broad topic somehow woven into a tight but meandering cultural-history/memoir. That’s Olivia Laing’s bread and butter: beautiful genre-ambiguous non-fiction. For those of you who have read any of her previous books, such as The Lonely City, a simply gorgeous meditation on cities and loneliness in the modern age, you’ll already know what I’m talking about. She gravitates towards a unifying theme, but then explores the lives of artists, writers and thinkers whose work best exemplifies it.
Everybody is her most ambitious work to date. In it, she tackles the most personal of all possible themes: the body (and its discontents). Starting with the psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich and his wildly influential and extremely wacky pseudo-scientific concept of “orgone energy” (which could supposedly be channeled to cure any and all bodily ills through isolation in an aggrandized wooden box sometimes referred to as the “orgasmatron”), Laing tracks a wide-ranging course through the 20th century by way of civil rights, the sexual revolution, faith healing, prisons, McCarthyism, and some of its greatest thinkers and renegades: Kathy Acker, Nina Simone, Freud, Susan Sontag, William S Burroughs.
Everybody doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects or their uncomfortable relevance to our world right now, but this is levelled with a tone and style that is reassuring, cathartic, and ultimately hopeful, coming together to make a book which reminds us of our most basic freedoms and why we can’t afford to lose them.
If you liked Everybody, try…
Days in the Caucasus, by Banine
(translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova)
This delicious memoir of a childhood spent in the Caucasus region of Azerbaijan is by turns heartwarming, funny and troubling. Our narrator, the inimitable Banin (or Ummulbanu Asadullayeva, to give her her full name), tells us her story of growing up in a wealthy oil-rich family in Baku in the very early 20th century as the city undergoes profound revolutionary changes. Her family are her constant companions throughout the trials of her childhood and early adolescence, with their vividly complex personal connections and eccentricities, along with various interlopers – a German governess, friends with temptingly liberal Western leanings, a dishy and mysterious Bolshevik soldier…
Despite the chaotic and exotic setting which can seem so remote from modern life, there are commonalities of childhood which resonate with all of us. Banine is in thrall to her family but frustrated by it, she can’t wait to leave her home behind but is still utterly bound to it – the evocative way she tells us her story will make you nostalgic for and slightly fearful of a time about which we knew so little. A true relic, and only published in English for the first time in 2019 since it first appeared in French in 1945, this story is quite unlike anything else we’ve read.
If you liked Days in the Caucasus, try…
My Father’s Daughter, by Hannah-Azieb Pool
This is an incredible memoir of lost and reconnected families, told with such clarity and warmth that it can be easy to forget just how momentous the story itself is. When Hannah-Azieb Pool discovers that the Eritrean family she never thought she’d meet desperately wants to see her, she decides to travel across the world to a community and culture remotely distant from her own comparatively comfortable, even affluent adoptive UK upbringing.
The interactions are charged and intense, knotty and difficult to process, but Pool’s prose is so engagingly approachable that these deeply complex events are made eminently readable, spinning the history of an area of immense geopolitical strife seamlessly alongside the more immediate and emotionally raw family drama. As her family begins to reveal its true entanglements, we are carried along as if we have exclusive emotional access to the predicaments, deeply connected.
If you liked My Father’s Daughter, try…
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders
Don’t be immediately put off by this, but you are about to experience a truly unique academic lecture. Taking the form of four annotated short stories written by the Russian masters of the form (Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol), this is a truly enlightening insight into the nuts and bolts of writing stories and – at a deeper level – the nature of creativity. George Saunders is a giant of the short story in his own right, and his gentle yet learned approach to these classic works sheds light on the process of their composition, and on the wider rhythms of how stories in their essence are told.
Saunders himself runs one of the most prestigious creative writing classes in the US (at Syracuse University), and it’s easy to see why young writers flock to his teachings. The tone is beautifully generous, his writing dotted with pearls of lightly-worn wisdom on matters specifically creative and more general, and the feeling on reading the book is not so much of being lectured but being encouraged to read more deeply, for more pleasure. And the stories themselves – well, there’s a reason Saunders selected them, and each one has its own distinct charms. This is a joyful and exploratory book about the meaning we unknowingly attach to fiction, and one we hope makes you feel more connected to everything else in your reading diet.
If you liked Ruth & Pen, try…
A Little Devil in America, by Hanif Abdurraqib
So many books about pop music cater directly to a very narrow stereotype of a reader – white, male and with a well-organised collection of vinyl across a surprisingly vanilla spread of genres. That’s one reason why Hanif Abdurraqib’s joyously grandiloquent and poetic examination of black performance is such a breath of fresh air. Another reason would be that it also happens to be irresistibly readable, organised into essays that hide their rigour and assuredness in personal reflection and melancholic humour.
The range of subjects is electrifying, and we discover so much through Abdurraqib’s searching questions: who sang backing vocals on ‘Gimme Shelter’, and why don’t we know that? What is the cultural legacy of the now-forgotten phenomenon of the dance marathon? What is a ‘magical negro’? And perhaps most surprisingly: was Chewbacca black? Almost imperceptibly weaving in autobiographical detail (and not in a mawkish way), this is a thoroughly unique read, and the the perfect riposte to the staid culture of most music writing. A book of praise in the best possible sense.