Baby, it’s cold outside. When the holiday season ends, we’re left with the prospect of two or three months of dreary, gray days punctuated by snow bomb cyclones and unseasonably warm respites from the below-freezing temps (shout to climate change!). What’s a reader to do? Curl up with the softest blanket you can find and a pile of good books, of course.
This week, we asked our editors to share some of their favorite winter reads. For those of you lucky enough to live where it never dips below forty (we’re looking at you, California), vicariously experience the longest season of them all in these pages. For the rest of us, these are books that will feel appropriate to the weather outside our windows without requiring us to, you know, go outside and experience said weather.
The Glacier’s Wake by Katy Didden
In her debut poetry collection, Katy Didden attends to the large-scale tectonics of the natural world as she considers the sources and aftershocks of mortality, longing, and loss. A number of the poems in the collection are monologues in recurring voices—specifically those of a glacier, a sycamore, and a wasp—offering an inventive, prismatic approach to Didden’s ambitious subject matter. In The Glacier’s Wake, the scientific, the elegiac, and the fantastical intertwine in the service of considering our human place—constructive and destructive, powerful and impermanent—amidst the massive shiftings that are occurring endlessly all around us.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
A lone human ambassador is sent to Winter, an alien world without sexual prejudice, where the inhabitants can change their gender whenever they choose. His goal is to facilitate Winter’s inclusion in a growing intergalactic civilization. But to do so he must bridge the gulf between his own views and those of the strange, intriguing culture he encounters. Embracing the aspects of psychology, society, and human emotion on an alien world, The Left Hand of Darkness stands as a landmark achievement in the annals of intellectual science fiction.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the rebellious Anna and the dashing officer Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and thereby exposes herself to the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.
The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Antarctica is a vortex that draws you back, season after season. The trick is to get what you need and then get out fast. At least that’s how thirty-year-old Rosie Moore views it as she flies in for her third season on the Ice. She plans to avoid all entanglements and do her work as a galley cook. But when her flight crash-lands, so do her plans. Mikala Wilbo, a brilliant young composer whose heart—and music—have been frozen since the death of her partner, is also on that flight. She has come to the Ice as an artist-in-residence, to write music, but also to secretly check out the astrophysicist father she has never met. Arriving a few weeks later, Alice Neilson, a graduate student in geology who thinks in charts and equations, is thrilled to leave her dependent mother and begin her career at last. But from the start she is aware that her post-doc advisor, with whom she will work in Antarctica, expects much more from their relationship. As the three women become increasingly involved in each other’s lives, they find themselves deeply transformed by their time on the Ice. And ultimately, each finds redemption in a depth and quality of friendship that only the harsh beauty of Antarctica can engender.
Swallowed by the Cold by Jensen Beach
The intricate, interlocking stories of Jensen Beach’s extraordinarily poised story collection are set in a Swedish village on the Baltic Sea as well as in Stockholm over the course of two eventful years. People are besieged and haunted by disasters both personal and national. Again and again, Beach’s protagonists find themselves unable to express their innermost feelings to those they are closest to, but at the same time they are drawn to confide in strangers. Shot through with loss and the regret of missed opportunities, Swallowed by the Cold is a searching and crystalline book by a startlingly talented young writer.
That Winter the Wolf Came by Juliana Spahr
That Winter the Wolf Came is written for this era of global struggle. It finds its ferment at the intersection of ecological and economic catastrophe. Its feminist and celebratory energy is fueled by street protests and their shattered windows. Amid oil spills and austerity measures and shore birds and a child holding its mother’s hand and hissing teargas canisters, it reminds us exactly what we must fight to defend with a wild ferocity, and what we’re up against.
Oranges by John McPhee
A classic of reportage, Oranges was first conceived as a short magazine article about oranges and orange juice, but the author kept encountering so much irresistible information that he eventually found that he had in fact written a book. It contains sketches of orange growers, orange botanists, orange pickers, orange packers, early settlers on Florida’s Indian River, the first orange barons, modern concentrate makers, and a fascinating profile of Ben Hill Griffin of Frostproof, Florida who may be the last of the individual orange barons. McPhee’s astonishing book has an almost narrative progression, is immensely readable, and is frequently amusing.
Many Ways to Say It by Eva Saulitis
Many Ways to Say It is a series of prayers, cries, dispatches, observational records, secret messages, weather reports, daily logs, love poems, trespasses, confessions, letters, and songs. A trained marine biologist, Eva Saulitis uses poetry as a tool to push past the laws of biology, objectivity, and detachment, and to get as close as she can get to the harsh inner and outer place she calls home. Though chosen, for her, place requires constant re-negotiation and exploration. Living for more than two decades in coastal Alaska is like an arranged marriage, rife with ambivalence and risk, desire and loss.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.
Rain: a Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
Cynthia Barnett’s Rain begins four billion years ago with the torrents that filled the oceans, and builds to the storms of climate change. It weaves together science—the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains—with the human story of our ambition to control rain, from ancient rain dances to the 2,203 miles of levees that attempt to straitjacket the Mississippi River. Now, after thousands of years spent praying for rain or worshiping it; burning witches at the stake to stop rain or sacrificing small children to bring it; mocking rain with irrigated agriculture and cities built in floodplains; even trying to blast rain out of the sky with mortars meant for war, humanity has finally managed to change the rain. Only not in ways we intended. As climate change upends rainfall patterns and unleashes increasingly severe storms and drought, Barnett shows rain to be a unifying force in a fractured world.
The Snow Watcher by Chase Twichell
The Snow Watcher is a sequence of poems that asks a single obsession question: what is the self? The book is a radical re-envisioning of what makes us human rather than animal, human rather than insentient. The poems delve into parts of childhood more comfortably forgotten, and into the ancient stillness of the monastery (Twichell is a student of Zen Buddhism). In both realms the known self dissolves, or is intentionally dismantled, and what is left is something impossible to name, though its startling voice can be heard in the austere, near-empty rooms of these poems.
Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello
Beginning with Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mummified woolly mammoth found in the Siberian permafrost, each of the sixteen essays in Animals Strike Curious Poses investigates a different famous animal named and immortalized by humans. Modeled loosely after a medieval bestiary, these witty, playful, whip-smart essays traverse history, myth, science, and more, bringing each beast vibrantly to life.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Epic battles between good and evil, fantastic creatures, betrayals, heroic deeds, and friendships won and lost all come together in this unforgettable world, which has been enchanting readers of all ages for over sixty years.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
In the winter of 1953, Boy Novak arrives by chance in a small town in Massachusetts looking, she believes, for beauty—the opposite of the life she’s left behind in New York. She marries Arturo Whitman, a local widower, and becomes stepmother to his winsome daughter, Snow. A wicked stepmother is a creature Boy never imagined she’d become, but elements of the familiar tale of aesthetic obsession begin to play themselves out when the birth of Boy’s daughter, Bird, who is dark-skinned, exposes the Whitmans as light-skinned African-Americans passing for white. And even as Boy, Snow, and Bird are divided, their estrangement is complicated by an insistent curiosity about one another. In seeking an understanding that is separate from the image each presents to the world, Boy, Snow, and Bird confront the tyranny of the mirror to ask how much power surfaces really hold.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
In August 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica, where he planned to cross the last uncharted continent on foot. In January 1915, after battling its way through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day’s sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. For ten months, the ice-moored Endurance drifted northwest before it was finally crushed between two ice floes. With no options left, Shackleton and a skeleton crew attempted a near-impossible journey over 850 miles of the South Atlantic’s heaviest seas to the closest outpost of civilization. Their survival, and the survival of the men they left behind, depended on their small lifeboat successfully finding the island of South Georgia-a tiny dot of land in a vast and hostile ocean. In Endurance, the definitive account of Ernest Shackleton’s fateful trip, Alfred Lansing brilliantly narrates the harrowing and miraculous voyage that has defined heroism for the modern age.
Hyperboreal by Joan Naviyuk Kane
Hyperboreal originates from diasporas. It attempts to make sense of change and to prepare for cultural, climate, and political turns that are sure to continue. The poems originate from the hope that our lives may be enriched by the expression of and reflection on the cultural strengths inherent to indigenous culture. It concerns King Island, the ancestral home of the author’s family until the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs forcibly and permanently relocated its residents. The poems work towards the assembly of an identity, both collective and singular, that is capable of looking forward from the recollection and impact of an entire community’s relocation to distant and arbitrary urban centers. Through language, Hyperboreal grants forum to issues of displacement, lack of access to traditional lands and resources and loss of family that King Island people—and all Inuit—are contending with.
Overwinter by Ratika Kapur
The most important man in Ketaki’s life—her maternal aunt Neera’s husband—falls into a coma after a near-drowning incident. Brought face to face with the threat of losing someone deeply loved, someone who has been more than a surrogate parent to her since her mother’s passing, Ketaki continues to swing between the solely sexual and altogether platonic relationships she has had with men, all the while battling to bring down the wall of her aunt’s reserve. The silence between niece and aunt calcifies, only to be broken when Ketaki’s father visits from New York and shares with her a long-festering family secret.
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld
Three years ago, Madison Culver disappeared when her family was choosing a Christmas tree in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest. Desperate to find their beloved daughter, certain someone took her, the Culvers turn to Naomi, a private investigator with an uncanny talent for locating the lost and missing. Naomi’s methodical search takes her deep into the icy, mysterious forest in the Pacific Northwest, and into her own fragmented past. She understands children like Madison because once upon a time, she was a lost girl, too. As Naomi relentlessly pursues and slowly uncovers the truth behind Madison’s disappearance, shards of a dark dream pierce the defenses that have protected her, reminding her of a terrible loss she feels but cannot remember. If she finds Madison, will Naomi ultimately unlock the secrets of her own life? Told in the alternating voices of Naomi and a deeply imaginative child, The Child Finder is a breathtaking, exquisitely rendered literary page-turner about redemption, the line between reality and memories and dreams, and the human capacity to survive.
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
Quoyle, a third-rate newspaper hack, is wrenched violently out of his workaday life when his two-timing wife meets her just desserts. An aunt convinces Quoyle and his two emotionally disturbed daughters to return with her to the starkly beautiful coastal landscape of their ancestral home in Newfoundland. Here, on desolate Quoyle’s Point, in a house empty except for a few mementos of the family’s unsavory past, the battered members of three generations try to cobble up new lives. In this harsh place of cruel storms and chronic unemployment, Quoyle finds a job reporting the shipping news for the local weekly, the Gammy Bird (a paper that specializes in sexual-abuse stories and grisly photos of car accidents). As the long winter closes its jaws of ice, each of the Quoyles confronts private demons, and reels from catastrophe to minor triumph.
The Earth is Not Flat by Katharine Coles
In 2010, poet Katharine Coles sailed across the Drake Passage to spend a month at a tiny Antarctic science station under the auspices of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. The Earth Is Not Flat, the collection of poems written out of her adventure, invokes the vast land- and seascapes as well as the fauna—penguins, seals, whales, and scientists—she encountered along the way. Addressing not only the present reality of human habitation in Antarctica but also a rich history peopled by figures like Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen, the poems bring Coles’s much-praised intelligence, passion, and humor to bear on subjects ranging from writing a grant proposal for scientists to heavy seas to the addictive potential of joy. Along the way, she continues her passionate meditation on reality and our place in it, using as her vehicles both the natural world and the human-created worlds of art, history, and science.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to stake his claim in New Zealand’s booming gold rush. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: a wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous cache of gold has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.
2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who also happens to be an aspiring jazz singer. Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, she doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth-grade teacher Sarina Greene is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush. And across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever. Together, Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night.
The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
Set in a time of great social upheaval, warfare, and terrorism, and against a stark, lawless Siberia at the end of the Russian Revolution, The People’s Act of Love portrays the fragile coexistence of a beautiful, independent mother raising her son alone, a megalomaniac Czech captain and his restless regiment, and a mystical separatist Christian sect. When a mysterious, charismatic stranger trudges into their snowy village with a frighteningly outlandish story to tell, its balance is shaken to the core.
Pym by Mat Johnson
Recently canned professor of American literature Chris Jaynes has just made a startling discovery: the manuscript of a crude slave narrative that confirms the reality of Edgar Allan Poe’s strange and only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Determined to seek out Tsalal, the remote island of pure and utter blackness that Poe describes, Jaynes convenes an all-black crew of six to follow Pym’s trail to the South Pole, armed with little but the firsthand account from which Poe derived his seafaring tale, a bag of bones, and a stash of Little Debbie snack cakes. Thus begins an epic journey by an unlikely band of adventurers under the permafrost of Antarctica, beneath the surface of American history, and behind one of literature’s great mysteries.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart—he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone—but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees. This little girl, who calls herself Faina, seems to be a child of the woods. She hunts with a red fox at her side, skims lightly across the snow, and somehow survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness. As Jack and Mabel struggle to understand this child who could have stepped from the pages of a fairy tale, they come to love her as their own daughter. But in this beautiful violent place things are rarely as they appear, and what they eventually learn about Faina will transform all of them.