Book Reviews

The following review appears in East Coast Ink’s fourth issue, Bridges

The difference between warmth and cold: a family’s move to the Alaskan wilderness

Book Review: Cold Spell by Deb Vanasse

It’s strange to think that a photo of a glacier pulled from the pages of a magazine could so deeply fascinate a woman from Pine Lake, Mn. For Ruth Sanders, the glacier is more than just a pretty photo framed on her bedside table; it is an opportunity to transport herself away from her broken home—and that is exactly what she does.

Deb Vanasse’s Cold Spell tells the story of Ruth and her two daughters Sylvie and Anna after their father leaves them for a new wife (and a new life). After Ruth’s boyfriend Kenny, an Alaska man, decides he wants to return home, she decides she will pick up her small family and follow along, much to the horror of 16-year-old Sylvie. Anna, her little sister, feels the opposite; a move to Alaska is a grand adventure she can’t wait to make.

Furious with her mother for moving to a place where finding friends and keeping them will be even more difficult, Sylvie feels as if no one understands her in Kenny’s small Alaskan town. Though Vanasse captures Sylvie’s need for friends and security perfectly as the family makes the big move away from her Pine Lake companions, her character is often a mystery—as much to the readers of Cold Spell as to her mother.

For example, Sylvie loves the epic poem Beowulf, comparing herself to the monster Grendel and periodically quoting memorized excerpts throughout the novel. Though an interesting fact about the troubled Sylvie, the Beowulf excerpts often fail to make an impact, as Sylvie recalls excerpts almost at random and there is often no translation from Old English. Though perhaps intending to be a beautiful characteristic, it ends up being a confusing one. Despite this, Sylvie’s character presents a stunning picture of a teenage girl struggling to find acceptance at home, in Pine Lake, or in Alaska.

The story compares Ruth’s desperation for a happier, more stable life with Sylvie’s desire to be loved and accepted by both her friends in Pine Lake and her own mother, who is too focused on securing a happy life than making a connection with her daughter. The two heartbroken women take paths that veer dangerously far away from each other, and, in the end, only a tragedy will shift Ruth’s focus away from Kenny and the glacier to her lost daughter desperate to be heard. Vanasse has a keen talent for showing the growing tension between mother and daughter, highlighting the awkward encounters within their own home in addition to their disagreements in public. Though written in third person, Vanasse changes the point of view from Ruth to Sylvie when appropriate, and it always feels like a natural shift.

And as the pair try to fit in—Sylvie reluctantly, Ruth willingly—they find out in much different ways that maybe the glacier wasn’t quite enough to create a new, happy life in Alaska. Much more is required to live in the wilderness in a small, close-knit community. Vanasse paints a true picture of this isolation for both characters; her experience as a 21-year-old living alone in the Alaskan wilderness paved the path for this kind of writing.

The glacier changes Ruth’s life for good, but maybe not in the way she would have expected. The reader gets to see a transformation in both characters that shows just how different life in Alaska is for the mother and daughter—and just how cold.


A trip to Goodwill filled the nooks and crannies of my bookshelf with fantastic novels I’ve always intended to read and never had the chance to get around to reading. A week in the mountains (with poor wifi) gave me the opportunity to actually read them. I began with Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Eggers’ first-person narrative takes us through the life of, well, himself, planting us right at the end of his sickly mother’s life and the beginning of a very new reality. After himself and his three siblings become orphans, they move across the country to begin a new life and try and leave the ashes of the old one in Chicago.

A Heartbreaking Work was an addicting read, as Eggers switches between free indirect speech and stream of conciousness and direct speech. We meet characters whose lives are in just as much—and sometimes more—ruin than Eggers, and we watch as Toph—Eggers’ little brother—grows up with his older brother as his guardian.

Eggers’ writing draws the reader in, and it is easy to find someone with whom the reader can keenly relate—whether with an experience or a personality trait. We find joy with Eggers’ publication meant to save the world reaches its moment of glory, and we weep when his friend falls into a coma, close to death.

It may be 14 years old, but A Heartbreaking Work is still one of genius.

Paul Auster has recently been my author of choice, as I have recently uploaded The New York Trilogy onto my Kindle and just finished his 2005 novel The Brooklyn Follies. His writing is simple yet absolutely astounding, and despite the slow pace of this novel, its characters had me hooked from page one.

The book tells the story of Nathan, a retired life insurance salesman who moves out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn and decides to finish out his life by eating lunch at the same diner every day and recording every fault he’s ever made in his book The Book of Human Folly. Instead, he finds a life full of more love and adventure than he could have ever imagined.

I adored this novel more for its characters than anything else: Auster expertly shows how people both abandon and save others, and his skilled prose made me fall in love with Nathan’s life and everything that affected it. The world in which Nathan and his friends and family lived was a comfortable home for me, and when I put the book down, I felt like I had just taken a course in human interaction, failure, and success. In my opinion, an author succeeds when his characters are real and relatable, and when the reader cares more about them than they do about plotline.

Paul Auster’s work is much and widespread, and if you’d like to learn more about this skilled writer, check out his interview in the Paris Review. I’m already excited to get my hands on everything he’s written.