It's hot, hot, hot, way too damned hot. What to do? Unless you have the funds for a winter visit to the southern hemisphere, you'll have a hard time finding anywhere to cool off — Montreal is in the 90s on the day I'm writing this, for crying out loud. Here's an idea for getting relief from the blistering hot, sweaty, clothes-sticking weather: Read some books that take place in cold weather — bone-chilling novels and icy nonfiction tales that should get you back, at least temporarily, on the road to cool. Here are our suggestions for seriously chilling out.
The Endurance by Caroline Alexander. The book that launched the revival of interest in the polar exploration era, this is a capsule version of the famed, and still unbelievable, 1914 Antarctic expedition led by British explorer Ernest Shackelton. It also includes breathtaking photography of the stranded ship and crew by fellow crewmember Frank Hurley. This great, perhaps the greatest ever, true adventure story, complete with photos, will have you reaching for a blanket.
Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. This gripping, literate thriller takes place largely in Denmark and Greenland. Smilla Jaspersen, whose childhood in Greenland gave her the ability to detect more in a snowstorm than you or I can see on a clear day, uses her talent, and formidable brain, to find out what really happened to a little boy who fell from the roof of her apartment building.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. One of the finest works of narrative nonfiction ever written, this is the story of climbers on Mt. Everest who were caught in an unexpected storm in May 1996. The author was one of the climbers, and he delivers a tale that would be fascinating if it only detailed the ins and outs of mountain-climber tourism, or the history of Everest expeditions. The storm, and its deadly consequences — and Krakauer's storytelling talent — turn the book into a modern masterpiece.
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. A massive tome that could last you the rest of Summer, Winter's Tale is, well, wonderful but hard to describe. Set in New York's Belle Epoque, it's a love story that then veers into a fantasy of the entire city captured by Winter. It's about love and justice and God and everything else — and, more to our point here, its overwhelming winter setting makes it like sticking your head in a giant freezer.
Icy Clutches by Aaron Elkins. Part of the Gideon Oliver crime novel series about a forensic anthropologist, this novel takes Oliver and his wife to Glacier Bay, Alaska, where they run into an Elder Barbie type wearing heavy makeup and going around shooting moose ... oops, wrong Alaska story. Actually, the pair is asked to investigate after the remains of three victims of an avalanche, 30 years earlier, emerge from the foot of a glacier. Elkins is pretty good with atmospherics, so you'll probably be shivering as much as the book's characters.
Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith. Several of Smith's intense mysteries, such as Gorky Park, take place in the Soviet Union or present-day Russia and Ukraine, so bundle up and follow his favorite protagonist, investigator Arkady Renko, as he looks into the odd death of one of Russia's new generation of billionaires. The novel largely takes place in the "dead zone" around the site of the Chernobyl disaster, and involves more levels of official deception and violence than you can shake a bottle of Stoli at. And cold? Hey, it's the former Soviet Union — cold in many ways, not all of them meteorological.
The Day The Earth Froze by Gerald Hatch. Mass market sci-fi from 1963, this book isn't exactly, or even close to, literature; plus, it may be hard to find. But if getting away from the outside heat, or even mere thoughts of it, is what you're after, this book is practically guaranteed to do the trick. Not a bad story — actually, a very good story, albeit with characters that could, um, use some help — Hatch's novel reads almost like a camp take on early-'60s America.
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich. A startling, lyrical nonfiction work about a place and a people most people know nothing about: the Inuits of Greenland. This is thrilling, vulnerable writing, alive with the land, its people, and their rich, spirit-filled arctic culture. Ehrlich intersperses her own digressions and comments, but "the real heroes," as she calls them, are the polar Inuit whose joy and spirituality and self-reliance are a serious eye-opener for all of us in the smug, self-satisfied West.