Reading In The Dark – The Books I Read In February

February feels like it happened a thousand years ago. I was supposed to get this post up last week, while my memory of February’s reading journey had yet to be dimmed by my currently shoddy memory. But writing it was taking energy I didn’t have to give, so it’s been sat in my drafts until now.

Anyway, I hope there’s something here that piques your interest. If there is, or if you’ve read something I ramble about, please make yourself comfortable in the comment box. That’s enough yakking from me, I’ll give the books some space.

The Five Best Books I Read In February

Fifty Words For Snow By Nancy Campbell

Snow. Every language has its own words for the feather-like flakes that come from the sky. In Japanese we find Yuki-onna – a ‘snow woman’ who drifts through the frosted land. In Icelandic falls Hundslappadrifa – ‘big as a dog’s paw’. And in Maori we meet Huka-rere – ‘one of the children of rain and wind’.

From mountain tops and frozen seas to city parks and desert hills, writer and Arctic traveller Nancy Campbell digs deep into the meanings of fifty words for snow. Under her gaze, each of these linguistic snow crystals offers a whole world of myth and story. – Fifty Words For Snow.

I’m extremely thankful Nancy Campbell exists and that she loves the cold and that she writes about it. Fifty Words For Snow is, in Campbell’s words ‘a journey to discover snow in cultures around the world through different languages.’ She adds, ‘the climate is a prism through which to view the human world – just as language can be.’

Its chillingly inviting cover, tender dedication – for Anna who lost her words then began to find them again – heartrending prologue, captures of snowflakes frozen in time, and fifty short essays about unique, special words for snow, led me on a journey I didn’t want to end. Though saying that, I bolted through this book like I had a tiny bit of time before it would melt away in my hands.

I avoided looking at the contents page to see what words would greet me. There are too few good surprises in life right now, but by going through Fifty Words For Snow not knowing what word would come next, I knew I could have plenty.

I learned Immiaq is the Greenlandic word for ‘melted ice or snow,’ and also refers to drinking water. Though in the 19th Century, when food imports started to arrive in Greenland (due to demand from Danish settlers) Immiaq was also used to refer to other drinks too, such as beer.

The Sami language reflects the herders’ intimate relationship with their environment. The rich terminology for snow and ice includes words to describe the way snow falls, where it lies, its depth density and texture…

But while there are around one hundred Sami terms for snow, the words relating to reindeer are estimated to be over a thousand.

Nancy Campbell, Fifty Words For Snow

I learned the Scots word Smoor means ‘to perish in a snowdrift,’ the Icelandic word Hundslappadrifa means ‘snowflakes as big as a dogs paw,’ and the Finnish word Tykky is associated with ‘thick snow and frost that accumulates on tree branches and other structures.’

While learning northern words for snow fed my obsession with cold places, I did find myself enthralled by words from lands where you wouldn’t initially imagine snow to fall. There is, for example, the Mexican word Itztlacoliuhqui, which means ‘God of Frost.’ The Hawaiin word Hau kea which means snow. And the Maori word Huka-rere which means ‘snow, one of the children of rain and wind.’

Polar Bear By Margery Fee

This is a natural and cultural history of the polar bear, describing the evolution, species, habitat and behaviour of the animal, as well as its portrayal in art, literature, film and advertising. With many fine images throughout, this will appeal to the wide audience who love these outsize, beautiful, seemingly cuddly yet deadly carnivores. – Polar Bear.

I’ve read other books from the Animal series by Reaktion Books, of which Polar Bear is part, and I’ve enjoyed them so much. So I knew I was going to have a good time reading it, and learn a TON in the process. However, there was one little barrier – the price. All of the books in the Animal series are slim volumes but have quite hefty price tags. They’re gorgeously produced with illustrations and photos throughout, so I know the price is justified, but…still.

The cheapest I could find Polar Bear for was £9.99 *update: it’s now on Amazon for just over £3.00* and despite knowing it would be worth it, I knew I’d feel guilty about spending that money. So I decided I wouldn’t get, until I could find it cheaper. But then, I signed up to the online library Perlego and found it there and all was well and I was happy as could be.

Polar bears are truly majestic animals: the largest land-dwelling carnivore on earth, these white-furred, black-skinned giants can measure up to three meters in length and weigh up to fifteen hundred pounds. They are also iconic in other ways. They are a symbol of the climate change debate, with their survival now threatened by the loss of Arctic ice, and their images decorate fountains and the cornices of buildings across the world. They sell cold drinks. They feature in children’s books, on merry-go-rounds, and under the arms of weary toddlers heading for bed.

Margery Fee, Polar Bear

Polar bear was, as I knew it would be, excellent. Fee didn’t waste a word, and I appreciated her attention to the bibliography (who doesn’t love a good, solid bibliography?) and references as much as I did the attention to her lyrical exploration of the natural and cultural evolution of the polar bear.

One of the most fascinating things I learned was how, when Inuit are on a polar bear hunt, they never ridicule the bear. To do so would bring misfortune upon the hunt. They treat them with the utmost respect for they believe bears to be just as intelligent as human beings, and capable of knowing when they’re being belittled.

There was an instance when a white man joined a hunt and wondered aloud ‘why the bear foolishly let the snowmobiles approach so closely.’ The Inuit men stopped their work butchering the bear they’d just killed, and warned him not to criticize the animal.

On Thin Ice: The Changing World Of The Polar Bear By Richard Ellis

Polar bears–fierce and majestic–have captivated us for centuries. Feared by explorers, revered by the Inuit, and beloved by zoo goers everywhere, they are a symbol for the harsh beauty and muscular grace of the Arctic. But as global warming threatens the ice caps’ integrity, the polar bear has also come to symbolize the environmental peril that has arisen due to harmful human practices. In the past twenty years alone, the world population of polar bears has shrunk by half. Today they number just 22,000. – On Thin Ice

I used about one a half packs of Post-It-Notes for On Thin Ice. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll encounter a more comprehensive book on polar bears in my lifetime. There was nothing (that I can think of) that Ellis didn’t touch upon in this studiously researched and impeccably written tome. Oh yes, it’s also illustrated. Beautifully, beautifully illustrated.

There’s everything to enable the even well read reader of polar bear literature to walk away from the book with a considerably more robust knowledge. From the lifecycle of polar bears to their first encounters with human beings, from polar bear nations and the impact of the bear in indigenous societies to their portrayal in art and their threatened existence due to mankind’s greed and criminal negligence.

In the past, if someone asked me, “Why polar bears?” about the best I could come up with was “I like polar bears.”

Richard Ellis, On Thin Ice

I got my copy off eBay at a little over £2. And, while it came etched with penciled lines and notes in the margins (some of which I greatly appreciated) the previous owner had otherwise kept it in immaculate condition, so I’ve no words of complaint.

It was an urgent, exhilarating and, at moments, almost too-distressing-for-me-to-handle read. The feels from reading this book, gods. They fluctuated like the weather during an Icelandic summer. I can’t say better than what was painted on the cover; ‘Thin Ice is both a celebration and a rallying cry on behalf of one of the earth’s greatest natural treasures.’

Note: Don’t go by the ratings on Amazon UK. They’re ridiculous.

Outpost: A Journey To The Wild Ends Of The Earth By Dan Richards

There are still wild places out there on our crowded planet.

Through a series of personal journeys, Dan Richards explores the appeal of far-flung outposts in mountains, tundra, forests, oceans and deserts. Following a route from the Cairngorms of Scotland to the fire-watch lookouts of Washington State; from Iceland’s ‘Houses of Joy’ to the Utah desert; frozen ghost towns in Svalbard to shrines in Japan; Roald Dahl’s writing hut to a lighthouse in the North Atlantic, Richards explores landscapes which have inspired writers, artists and musicians, and asks: why are we drawn to wilderness? What can we do to protect them? And what does the future hold for outposts on the edge? – Outpost

I thoroughly enjoyed most of Outpost and cackled plenty enough – Richard is hilarious – to make it a worthwhile read.

To celebrate, we had another navigational row, best summed up by ‘Fine, where do you think we are?’

Dan Richards, Outpost

However, the part which affected me most of all was near the end of the book when he was seeking out an outpost in Svalbard, Norway. His guide, Erelend told him of polar bears swimming out to sea ice that isn’t there and many, ultimately, drowning. There was one line in particular that I haven’t been able to forget ‘And those poor bears kept swimming before my eyes, disappearing over the horizon.’

The Future Of Ice: A Journey Into Cold By Gretel Ehrlich

Over the course of a year, Ehrlich experiences firsthand the myriad expressions of cold, giving us marvelous histories of wind, water, snow, and ice, of ocean currents and weather cycles. From Tierra del Fuego in the south to Spitsbergen, east of Greenland, at the very top of the world, she explores how our very consciousness is animated and enlivened by the archaic rhythms and erupting oscillations of weather. We share Ehrlich’s experience of the thrills of cold, but also her questions: What will happen to us if we are “deseasoned”? If winter ends, will we survive? – The Future Of Ice.

I first came to Gretel Ehrlich’s work through her masterpiece This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons In Greenland, and I’ve been addicted to her writing ever since. (Though I remember writing to her on Facebook about ten years ago, and she didn’t get back to me despite having read the message the day I sent it. Perhaps I came across as slightly desperate, I don’t know. But it made me sad for a while.)

This Cold Heaven is something of a beast, so I was ever so slightly disappointed when The Future Of Ice arrived and turned out to be a slender volume of two-hundred pages. (What is it with me and short books?) I decided I was just going to have to take it slowly – a few pages in the morning, a few at night. As with Campbell, The Future Of Ice was written out of Ehrlich’s love for the cold, for winter and remote places.

One of my favourite things that I’ve read from other’s writing about The Future Of Ice is Outside who say ‘The book howls.’ Someone on Amazon called her a ‘linguistic shaman.’ There are probably as many Post-It-Notes in my copy as there are pages – there were so many parts I wanted to share with you – but I’ll share a paragraph from the Prelude entitled A Winter Solstice Blizzard.

It’s dark and I walk. I hear movement in the trees; the wolf runs. Willows ringing dry ponds writhe in sudden blasts of snow. On the moraine a pine needle pierces the palm of my hand. I lick sap from a spindly trunk. Wind stops dead. Vanilla brews in the bark of a yellow pine. Far above, in the high peaks, I can hear snow rinsing the wombs of vanished glaciers.

Gretel Ehrlich, The Future Of Ice

I spent about a week with Ehrlich; living remotely, following wolf tracks, tramping through snowdrifts, squatting down in an icy river. It was an illuminating, heart wrenching, beautiful experience. One which I’m grateful to have taken.

Other Books I Read

*It’s getting late and I want to watch The Terror and I’m really hungry, so apologies but I’m just going to put ratings for the rest.

How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price : 2/10

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport : 9/10

The Little Book Of Snow By Sally Coulthard : 5/10

Snow The Biography By Giles Whittell : 2/10

Winter By Adam Gopnick : 6/10

Snow by Marcus Sedgwick : 9/10

Those That Cause Fear By Neil Christopher : 9/10

The Woman Who Went To The Moon By Rosemary Clewes : 7/10

4 thoughts on “Reading In The Dark – The Books I Read In February”

  1. Hello!
    So delighted you enjoyed Outpost and all these other wonderful books.
    Here’s to a better polar bear-filled/friendly future.
    Thank you for the support.
    Dan

    1. Hi there! It really was a thought-provoking and immersive read. Had me up late for a few nights! Looking forward to reading Climbing Days next. A polar bear filled/friendly future is the future I very much hope we see.

  2. I didn’t realise Reaktion Books did that sort of series on animals – am going to have a closer look at all the other titles.

    How did you get on with ‘Snow’ by Marcus Sedgwick? He’s one of my favourite authors based on his young adult novels, but ‘Snow’ is one of his books which I haven’t read.

    Also, how are you finding Perlego? I read about it when you first posted about it and got quite excited as it looks a pretty great website, but then I saw the post you did about your issues with Scribd. Is Perlego living up to expectations?

    I’ve only just cottoned on to the fact that ‘The Terror’ is now available on BBC iPlayer. Am looking forward to starting watching it sometime soon-ish. 🙂

    1. They are SO GOOD! I am about to read Walrus. 🙂 I got on with ‘Snow’ very well. It’s stuffed with post it notes. My only complaint is that I wish it had been longer…I’ve never read any of his young adult novels, but I’m going to check them out now! Perlego is, and I’m not kidding, fucking amazing. I haven’t had a single issue with it. NOT ONE! I’ve actually been meaning to send them an email and let them know how much I appreciate the site. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I’m going to do a post on it soon. 🙂 I’ve finished the Terror now, and I enjoyed every second of it! X

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