3

‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill ****

Jenny Offill is an author whose work I very much enjoy; I was enraptured whilst reading both Dept. of Speculation and Last Things. Her newest novel, Weather, appealed to me on several levels, and I was eager to dig in.

The protagonist of Weather is Lizzie Benson, who managed to slide ‘into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree.’ Whilst this causes animosity with some of her colleagues, it also gives her ‘a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: as an unofficial shrink.’ Lizzie comes from a difficult familial background; her mother is ‘God-haunted’, and speaks to her of ‘the light, the vine, the living bread’, and her brother is a troubled, recovering addict.

From the outset of the novel, we are introduced to some of the library’s patrons, and their very particular quirks. There, is, for instance, ‘The man in the shabby suit [who] does not want his fines lowered. He is pleased to contribute to our institution. The blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper.’ There is some wonderfully strange imagery at play throughout Weather; for example, ‘But the man in the shabby suit tells me things I want to know. He works for hospice. He said that it is important when a loved one dies to try to stay alone in the house for three days. This is when the manifestations occur. His wife manifested as a small whirlwind that swept the papers off his desk.’

Lizzie’s old mentor, Sylvia Liller, was responsible for getting her young protégée her job. Sylvia is currently well-known for her ‘prescient podcast’ about the state of the world, entitled ‘Hell and High Water’. She proposes to Lizzie that she could build her career by answering the mail which she receives in response to the podcast; this is from ‘left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of Western civilization.’

As she is considering whether to take the job, Lizzie reveals: ‘I ask her what sorts of things she gets. All kinds, she tells me, but everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed. We need the money for sure, but I tell her I have to think about it. Because it’s possible my life is already filled with these people.’ She decides to accept, and begins to move in a different trajectory to that which her librarian job offers. As Lizzie becomes a part of this highly polarised platform, she finds that ‘the voices of the city keep floating in – funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

Offill has cleverly woven together several different elements, allowing us to really get to know her characters and their foibles. Alongside musings about Lizzie’s career, she worries deeply about motherhood, and protecting her young son, Eli: ‘I’m not allowed to think about how big this school is or how small he is. I’ve made that mistake after other drop-offs. I should be used to it by now, but sometimes I get spooked all over again.’ Offill gives us a real insight into her protagonist and what matters to her, as well as the tiny cruelties which play on her mind, and the more philosophical questions which she considers.

I warmed to Lizzie very quickly, and appreciated the character arc which is taken throughout the novel. She is a highly complex individual, who muses about such interesting things. One particular foible of Lizzie’s which I loved was her ‘bookish superstition about my birthday… I like to see what Virginia Woolf said about an age in her diaries before I reach it. Usually it’s inspiring.’ This could well be something which I choose to adopt in my own life, so taken with the idea was I!

There is always something in Offill’s novels which feels original, which is uniquely hers. Weather is no different. At just 200 pages, it is a relatively quick read, but so much fills it. It is a realistic novel, but at the same time, there is an almost magical, otherworldly quality to it. The structure of paragraph-long vignettes which have been used work marvellously. I really enjoyed the approach taken, and felt connected with the story from beginning to end. I sank into Offill’s prose from the very first page, and did not want to finish reading.

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‘Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence’ by Nick Hunt ****

Weather fascinates me, and therefore when I spotted Nick Hunt’s Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence in Fopp, I did not hesitate before picking up a copy.  This non-fiction work was shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Awards in 2018, and chosen as a book of the year by The Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator respectively.  Amy Liptrot observes that the book is ‘packed with wonder’, and Jan Morris concurs, writing that it is ‘full to the brim with learning, entertainment, description, scientific fact and conjectural fiction.  It is travel writing in excelsis.’

9781473665750In Where the Wild Winds Are, Hunt sets out to follow four of Europe’s prevalent named winds.  He begins in Cumbria with the Helm, the only named wind in Britain, before travelling to Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy to find the Bora which blows through all three countries, causing havoc for residents.  Hunt then searches for the ‘snow-eating’ Foehn in Switzerland’s alpine valleys, and the Mistral in the South of France, which ‘animated and tormented Vincent Van Gogh.’  Soon, Hunt ‘finds himself borne along by the very forces he is pursuing, through rain, blizzards, howling gales, and back through time itself, for where the wild winds are, there are also myths and legends, history and hearsay, sacrifice and superstition…’.

In his prologue, which is entitled ‘Blown Away’, Hunt reflects on his experience of the Great Storm which hit Britain in 1987.  Just a child at the time, he remembers how he was almost swept away by a gust of wind.  At this point, his obsession with one of our most unpredictable types of weather began.  Although he goes on to say that he did not take up a career in meteorology, or anything of the sort, what he did become ‘was someone with an urge to travel, and especially to travel by walking, which allows you to follow paths not dictated by road or rail, paths not marked on any map, or to follow no path at all; to wander and to wonder as freely as your feet can take you.  But every journey has a logic, even if it’s an invisible one.  All travelling, I came to understand, is an act of following something: whether a coastline, an ancient migration, a trade route, a border or someone else’s footsteps.’

Hunt then recollects the moment at which he came across a map of Europe’s winds, which linked regions in a way he had not previously considered.  He writes: ‘The fact that these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality.  They sounded like characters I could meet.  These swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before.  As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.’  Thus, his quest to follow four winds – sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so – ensued.

Hunt chose to locate four winds as ‘a nod to the proverbial four winds and the four points of the compass.’  The book has consequently been split into four corresponding sections, each of which contains a map of his route.  He also lets us, the readers, know about the daunting elements of the task which he set himself: ‘It was clear that to follow the wind meant following uncertainty, allowing myself to be carried along by the unknown and the informed, the guessed-at and the half-imagined.  Chasing the invisible was in many ways a quixotic quest, which appealed to my romantic side…’.

Hunt’s writing oscillates between matter-of-fact and descriptive.  When in Croatia, he writes, for instance: ‘After climbing for an hour I reached a layer of dense cloud, which brought about the sensation of entering a different realm.  I waded upward through submarine light, condensation slapping on the wet forest floor like rain, with the muscular trunks of beech trees looming through saturated air.  Deciduous trees gave way to pines.  Here and there blobs of snow lay like stranded jellyfish.’  Of one of the winds which he does locate, he comments: ‘It was in my ears, but it wasn’t blowing; nor was it moaning, whistling, howling, or any of the other words usually used to capture wind.  It was less a sound than a sensation, a nameless energetic thing that erased the line between hearing and feeling; for the first time in my life, I understood sound as a physical force.  It was in my lungs, under my skin.’

Before picking up Where the Wild Winds Are, I had not encountered a travel book like it.  Although it took a little while to really get into, I found myself fascinated by the mixture of elements which Hunt has woven in, from the history of forecasting the weather and the tools which the process entailed, to the quirky and eccentric characters whom he met along the way.  There is a definite human perspective which has been considered, strengthened because Hunt is always keen to ask those he meets how they feel about the wind, and how it affects their day to day lives.

Where the Wild Winds Are is not as focused upon the weather as I expected it would be.  Whilst Hunt’s aim is to follow the four named winds, he does so in a manner which is largely unscientific.  He discusses many things as he goes about his travels, from the fall of Yugoslavia and historic battles in Britain, to immigration, and its perceptions.  The title, too, is sometimes a little misleading.  Whilst Hunt does make some of his journeys on foot, he often relies on public transport to get him quickly from one place to another if rumours of the wind in question being in a particular location have reached him.

Where the Wild Winds Are is both an interesting read and a gentle one.  I enjoyed Hunt’s prose, which is often quite evocative.  The author does go off on tangents from time to time, which I did not find overly compelling, but on the whole, the book is accessible and relatively easy to get into.  I would recommend it if you enjoy travel writing and are looking for something a little different to sample.

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‘The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall’ by Charlie English ****

I had been itching to read The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World’s Purest, Deepest Snowfall by Charlie English since I purchased it back in August 2017.  I felt that it would be best saved until late Autumn as a seasonal read, and it proved the perfect tome to settle down with in the fading afternoon light of November.

9781846270642Metro calls The Snow Tourist a ‘wonder and a delight’, and Joanna Kavenna deems it ‘an enchanting tale of one man’s search for snow, a report on the precarious state of our extreme climates, an evocative poem to lost childhood winters…’.  Robert Macfarlane says that The Snow Tourist is ‘a finely written and many-sided account of the fascination – both fearful and loving – that we have for snow.’  Wanderlust compares English’s ‘easy-going narrative style’ to Bill Bryson’s, which endeared me to it even further.

In The Snow Tourist, Charlie English has travelled all over the world, over a period of a few years, to find snow.  He begins in his home city of London, and journeys to such places as Vermont, Austria, and the Inuit-inhabited lands of northern Canada.  English certainly has part of an old-fashioned explorer within him; he seems fascinated with everything he sees, and everyone he meets, despite the odd wobbles he encounters due to the extreme cold.

Of his choice to undertake the journeys detailed in The Snow Tourist, he writes: ‘every autumn now my thoughts return to snow.  Snow is something I identify myself with.  Like my father, I am a snow person.’  This inheritance, passed down from his father, is all the more important to English, as his father committed suicide when he was just ten years old.  English goes on to detail his hopes for his travels: ‘The expedition I decided upon one grey day in London consisted of a series of journeys linked by a single natural form – snow.  I would travel to the best snow in the world, discover how people lived with snow, and what they did with it.  As on previous expeditions, the principal objective would be the journey itself, the knowledge and experiences I would gather, and the people I would meet along the way.’

The Snow Tourist is filled with startling facts and conjectures.  English writes, for instance, that ‘someone once estimated that a million billion snow crystals were created around the earth every second, in a jumble of shapes and sizes, from simple hexagonal prisms to flat plates and many-footed stars.’  English also explores such things as the history of skiing.

English intersperses his travels, and writing about those whom he encounters, with memories of snow from his own childhood.  He remembers the following, rather touching moment: ‘A Super-8 film shows me and my brother being towed on the back of a sledge to a famous local hill, Granny’s Bump.  My father is in his wellington boots, red weekend trousers and Norwegian fisherman’s jumper.  My mother is wrapped in a long padded coat, with a woollen hat.  My brother and I wobble about on the sledge and fall off as they haul us along by a rope.  Watching it again now, these three flickering minutes give me a sense of warmth and loss, of nostalgie de la neige.’  Throughout, there is a near-perfect balance struck between facts and personal experience.

The Snow Tourist is engaging and fascinating from the outset, and English’s chatty yet informative prose style makes his book accessible to all.  The travelogue is reflective yet up to the minute, detailing the effects which climate change has had upon some of the snowiest places on earth, and how rapidly the snowfall which some of us live with for many months of the year is beginning to melt way ahead of expected time.  There is an awareness throughout of ways in which snow is changing, and how this affects different cultures which rely upon it.  A lot of historical detail has also been included – for instance, the history of Western snow science.  The ‘Dictionary of Snow’ included as an appendix is a lovely touch, and provides a lot of interesting facts to retain, as well as a slew of different words for different kinds of snow.

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