Five Novels So Cold You'll Forget the Heat

I don't care if it's the heat or the humidity, this is unbearable. If you're stuck in Washington this summer and don't have access to a pool, maybe a fantasy setting can help. Here are five novels -- of wildly divergent quality and tone -- that describe places so frigid that you'll almost be grateful for the District's sauna-like atmosphere. Almost.

1. Kim Stanley Robinson, "Fifty Degrees Below" (2005).
In the second installment of Robinson's trilogy of environmental doom, we learn that Al Gore was right, but it's too late! Global warming has stalled the Gulf Stream, first causing massive floods and then plunging the world into a brutal winter that just might finish off mankind. Washington is in a deep freeze, but some diligent scientists think they have a last-ditch solution.

2. Wayne Johnston, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" (1999).
This epic novel describes the life of Newfoundland's first premier, Joe Smallwood, from humble beginnings through near-death adventures to the halls of power. Hilarious snippets from the fictional "Condensed History of Newfoundland" add humor to this icebound story. I've been dying to visit ever since I read it.

3. Annie Proulx, "The Shipping News" (1993).
Early in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a misfit loses his sick parents, his dull job and his humiliating wife. Distraught and aimless, he moves to Newfoundland and, against all odds, manages to cobble together the loving family he never had. Still the best book Proulx has written.

4. Per Petterson, "Out Stealing Horses" (2007).
In this quiet, brooding novel, an old widower moves into a remote cabin in snowy Norway. He expects to be spend his time alone in the cold, but he meets a neighbor who reminds him of a traumatic day, many decades ago, when they decided to steal some horses.

5. Claire Davis, "Winter Range" (2000).
When the Montana winter gets so fierce that it starts killing off a poor rancher's cattle, the sheriff
steps in to put the animals out of their misery. But the well-meaning lawman doesn't realize he's stirred up a long-seething resentment that puts his wife in grave danger.

Before I pass out from the heat, let me know if you can think of some other cool titles.

-- Ron Charles

By Jen Chaney |  July 30, 2008; 5:00 PM ET Ron Charles
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Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer or Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, mnountaineering books that are chilling in more ways than one. (www.baltimoresun.readstreet)

Posted by: Dave | July 30, 2008 5:39 PM

A true-life story, not a novel: Swimming to Antarctica. I had sympathetic goose bumps reading about Lynne Cox's adventures swimming the English Channel, the Bering Strait, Lake Baikal, and finally, 1 mile in 32 degree water to Antarctica. In nothing but a bathing suit and goggles. Brrrr!

Posted by: Wilmington, DE | July 30, 2008 5:43 PM

add this year's printz award winning The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean-a hearing impaired teen's trip to the south pole

Posted by: lisa | July 30, 2008 5:56 PM

Sorry I went outside the lines by recommending the mountaineering non-fiction. For a novel, I'd suggest My Antonia by Willa Cather, for its portrayal of a deadly winter. (www.baltiumoresun/readstreet)

Posted by: Dave | July 30, 2008 6:15 PM

Frost, by Bernhard.

Posted by: Matt | July 30, 2008 6:39 PM

An oldie but a goodie is "Ice Station Zebra" by Alistair MacLean.

Posted by: Alex Blackwell | July 30, 2008 7:35 PM

Smilla's Sense of Snow. One of the greatest novels of the past 50 years...

Posted by: Steve | July 30, 2008 8:25 PM

Smilla's Sense of Snow. I forget the author's name, but it's about a woman unraveling a mystery that leads to the glaciers on Greenland.

Posted by: cdm | July 30, 2008 10:03 PM

Rosamunde Pilcher's Winter Solstice

Posted by: Suzanne | July 30, 2008 10:07 PM

" A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch," which I read in Atlanta in summer, pre AC. Still gave me chills.

Posted by: albert stone | July 30, 2008 10:39 PM

Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness"

Posted by: sci fi | July 30, 2008 11:39 PM

"Ice" by Anna Kavan is cold in more ways than just the suggestion of the title. It is mysterious, devious, difficult, and worth reading. One of the great novels of winter is Ursula Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness," which culminates in a tramp for life across the planet, Winter. And for a deep chill of the soul as well as the body, Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" will suffice.

Posted by: Tom Dillingham | July 30, 2008 11:45 PM

How about the midwest's Christmas chill of death, deception and debacle in the noir novel, "The Ice Harvest," by Scott Phillips?

Posted by: Jon Lauderbaugh | July 31, 2008 12:22 AM

Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter" is one of my favorite wintertime reads.

Posted by: Jennifer | July 31, 2008 8:27 AM

My otherwise stalwart immune system stumbled in the winter of 1995. First the flu, then a strep infection. Could not get off the counch, could not get warm. I wrapped in blankets and read what was in reach, like Polar Star and The Shipping News. I don't know why all the books within reach had chilly settings but they did. It took two months to stop shivering. I now restrict the reading of books with icy environments, like Into Thin Air, to the heat of summer.

Posted by: An aging lit major | July 31, 2008 10:06 AM

I absolutely agree with the inclusion of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," although I can't attest to the other books listed here.

Actually, didn't "'Salem's Lot" take place during the winter? Maybe I just imagined it -- the book certainly chilled me.

Posted by: KLeewrite | July 31, 2008 10:34 AM

A Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin is best read in the heat of summer. Similarly, Willa cather's death comes for the Archbishop should be read in the middle of the winter.

Posted by: katnap | July 31, 2008 1:17 PM

Almost every first snowfall, I read "Snowbound," John Greenleaf Whittier's masterful poem, with such great lines as these:
"All day the gusty north-wind bore
The loosening drift its breath before;
Low circling round its southern zone,
The sun through dazzling snow-mist shone."
So as a lover of the cold and hater of the heat, maybe I should read this in the summer instead....

Posted by: ev small | July 31, 2008 3:02 PM

Imagine being in an old sailing ship, frozen in the Arctic pack ice for the winter, and you have the bone-chilling scenario for "The Voyage of the Narwahl" by Andrea Barrett. Another chilling experience (although it's not fiction) is "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" by Alfred Lansing. In 1914 the Shackleton expedition to Anarctica became icebound and set out on foot -- and survived to tell the tale.

Posted by: ShirleyS | July 31, 2008 3:24 PM

Of course, if you want to go the "If you think this heat and humdity is bad, you should check out..." route, read "All the King's Men," which takes place in Louisiana, on the Gulf Coast. You can feel that sticky humidity as you read. And you think Washington is bad...

Posted by: KLeewrite | July 31, 2008 3:49 PM

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken has some good snow scenes, and is a very exciting and "chilling" read-aloud for middle schoolers.

I think reading The Thorn Birds would make anyone happy to be in DC. in the summer. Even those of us who lack central air have screens on our windows.

Posted by: Elaine | July 31, 2008 9:07 PM

"The Call of the Wild." Actually, pretty much anything by Jack London. There's one story I remember reading about 20 years ago about a man who freezes to death, but I can't remember the title.

Posted by: KLeewrite | July 31, 2008 9:43 PM

The Jack London short story KLeewrite refers to is "To Build A Fire". Definitely a chilling read for a hot summer day. It will make you head outside and say "Thank goodness its warm!"

Posted by: Patricia Reed | August 2, 2008 9:18 AM

Where the Sea Used to Be by Rick Bass has some exceptional winter moments. Magical and hard all at once. Covers all the seasons as well as any living writer. Coffins in the tress...

Posted by: Anonymous | August 2, 2008 11:14 AM

Jim Krusoe's iceland has some great iceland. Not always of the freezing kind, but it's such a great book that it deserves mention.

But if I want to get the feel of winter, in a good way, I read Robert Frost, esp Desert Places, Afterflakes, and of course Stopping By Woods....

And Wallace Stevens' "To The Roaring Wind" always chills me to the bone.

Posted by: mark tarallo | August 4, 2008 1:35 AM

Tolstoy's Master and Man.

I can't imagine a colder read than that!

Posted by: Debbie K. | August 7, 2008 4:27 PM

Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith. Akady Renko on a Russian fishing trawler. So cold the vodka actually freezes.

Posted by: Celia | August 20, 2008 4:02 PM

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