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Discoveries: 'The Snow Tourist' by Charlie English

Plus: 'On Thin Ice' by Richard Ellis and 'Little Fingers' by Filip Florian

November 22, 2009|By Susan Salter Reynolds

The Snow Tourist

A Search for the World's Purest, Deepest Snowfall

Charlie English

Counterpoint: 272 pp., $15.95 paper

Even my daughter, who has grown up in Los Angeles, feels a hankering for snow in November; the smell of it, the feel of it in the air before it falls, the color of a sky heavy with it. Charlie English grew up in northern England. A few weeks before his father killed himself, he gave Charlie and his brother "copies of a photograph of himself as a young man on skis in an Austrian resort, framed by a bank of spring snow." With this photo lodged in his memory, English begins a 'round-the-world odyssey in search of deep snow. He begins in Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut, where the average annual snowfall is 6 1/2 feet. He visits the Vermont town of Jericho, where the late Wilson Bentley, author of "Snow Crystals," the definitive visual catalog of the various wondrous forms snowflakes can take, lived. He goes to the Swiss Alps, learns about avalanches and studies snow in paintings throughout history (his favorite is Bruegel's "The Hunters in the Snow," a portrait not just of a snowy scene but of the coldest winter in the 16th century). In his childhood, English skied in Scotland, and he ends his journey in Aviemore in the Cairngorms. "We resemble those crystals," he writes of our relationship to snow. "Like them, we are made mostly of water. When we die, the water in us will find its way to the sea, where in time it will be lifted up by the sun, to fall again as snow."

On Thin Ice

The Changing World

of the Polar Bear

Richard Ellis

Knopf: 400 pp., $28.95

As the ice in the Arctic melts due to global warming, the world's population of polar bears has dropped to 22,000. Richard Ellis, who has written widely on animals in our cultural imagination and has painted them as well, begins with a look at polar bears in ancient Scandinavian texts, in expedition logs from the 1800s, in literature, mythology and art. The ice bear is fixed in our understanding of the implications of climate change; we envision cities submerged, glaciers calving and polar bears swimming until they drown, unable to find vestiges of their habitat (pack ice) or seals to eat. Ellis writes about the Inuit's relationship with the polar bear and the changes in the ecology of Greenland. Through his eyes, the ice bear becomes more than a sacrificial symbol; it becomes a vital part of the mental and physical landscape we inhabit. "I wanted to pay homage to a wild spirit," he writes in his explanation of the book's genesis, "and I wanted to correct the misconceptions that surrounded it. . . . The great bear, dominant over its environment as no other wild creature ever was before or since, now finds itself threatened by the careless and uncaring predator that has -- usually at the expense of the natural world -- become the only creature in history that can drive other species to extinction and modify the earth to suit his needs."

Little Fingers

A Novel

Filip Florian, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 202 pp., $24

Fingers are missing -- freshly severed fingers from a grisly, newly discovered mass grave in a Romanian village. Petty bureaucrats, magistrates, monks and archaeologists attempt to date the grave and solve the mystery of the missing fingers. One archaeologist sits on the veranda drinking marjoram tea and brandy and listening to his landlady's stories. There is factual evidence, and there is divination -- by cards and coffee grounds. Time passes in layers -- great sheets of collective and individual memories. Filip Florian lives in Bucharest. In this, his first novel, written in 2005, his writing is reminiscent of Poe and Dostoevsky -- we enter the mind of a madman and are not sure where reality begins and ends. The writing is deliciously foreign, even in translation: "The wind is chilly, and it has a taste, a taste of mulberries. The boat passes by a white poplar. Over the water hang scattered streaks of haze, whelps of mist. The boat leaves behind a row of dwarf willows. A bluish-black night, like ink!"

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