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Five Winter Reads

Summer reading lists get all the attention, but with the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder you’ll need something to crack open fireside, that cozy Afghan wrapped around your legs, the warmth of your hot toddy working your bloodstream like a magician working a Vegas showroom.

Here, Five Winter Reads

Image“The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol

In truth, Gogol’s immortal short story, which positions the popular 19th century Russian lit trope “the little man” in the face a coldhearted, crushing bureaucratic system, is most effective with a certain level of Russian studies under the belt. But don’t that dissuade you. Set against the cold of a St. Petersburg winter this story stands up on its own as an enchanting and imaginative rendering of the human condition. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said: “We all came out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’.” Or was it his nose?

194808“To Build a Fire” by Jack London

This quick, highly anthologized tale of an ill-fated man and his dog inching through the Yukon’s treacherous terrain really puts the cold season in perspective. London’s details of the determination of a man at odds with a harsh (−75 °F) winter’s day—“holding the flame of the matches [seventy sulfur matches] clumsily to the bark that would not light readily because his own burning hands were in the way, absorbing most of the flame”—should take some of the discomfort out of scraping off the car windshield in the morning.

001265“Snow” by Ann Beattie

Winter plays a polyphonous tune. Snow-heavy pine boughs wait to spring into a white flurry of aerial action, while accumulations of salt and dirt climb up the soles of shoes and rust the wheel wells of cars. In Beattie’s “Snow” the lovers’ contrasting memories of a winter spent together in the country reflect their ultimate incompatibility. The story appears in her 1986 collection Where You’ll Find Me, which contains many of the same soft-shiver-in-the-back-of-the-neck type of stories. Overall, a fine collection to thumb through as this year tic-tocs into the next.

canada-hc-cCanada by Richard Ford

“First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed.” Want to keep reading? Of course you do. For a more winter-length read, clocking in at 432 pages, give the Pulitzer Prize-winning, living legend Richard Ford’s latest novel a go. Oh, and reading those first lines over again is normal. In fact, reading most of the lines in the book a few times is normal, according to Andre Dubus III.


Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

And if you’re looking to escape the wintery climes altogether, you can always go the snowbird-reader route. Hiaasen’s brand of farcical crime fiction entertains, transporting readers to a world of skinks, sand, salt water, sunshine, and general human weirdness. Despite the sweeping cast of screwball characters, the character to mind the most in this novel is southern Florida itself. Hiaasen, ever the satirist, loves his home, but his vexations with the lifestyles and politics that pollute its civic and natural environments number high.

What books are on your winter reading list and why?

Links & Resources

“The Overcoat” and the hilariously absurd “The Nose” can be picked up in The Overcoat and Other Stories.

If you’re interested in delving into the cultural framework from which early Russian writers wrote (might be a good wintertime undertaking), see “A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900” by D.S. Mirsky.

A somewhat recent Carl Hiaasen interview worth reading.

Join the Discussion

  • I’ll add Charles Baxter’s story “Winter Journey” to this list as a nightcap. In the midst of the narrative our poor protagonist, who is drunk and headed out into the night, runs over a dog in his car–though he doesn’t hit it. It is a small dog, “about the size of an enlarged rat,” Baxter writes. Looking back, the narrator says, “The dog stands motionless, watching Harrelson’s car as Harrelson watches the dog, tire tracks imprinted on either side of it in the snow. ‘Run over,’ Harrelson says aloud, ‘but not run down.’

    How winter sometimes makes us feel in Michigan. This story is a great one. It’s in the newest book, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. Highly recommend the whole collection. Thanks, Brandon!

  • Rosalie Morales Kearns

    I’m a huge fan of Gogol. Winter weather is practically a character in Solzhenitsyn’s novels; I’m thinking specifically of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but also, as I recall, Cancer Ward and The First Circle. And the mysteries of Steve Hamilton (set in MIchigan) and Stan Jones (Alaska) give a vivid sense of characters dealing with the cold.

  • Celeste

    I love these! And how about “Powder” by Tobias Wolff?

  • Celeste

    Oh, and I’ll add another, one of my very favorite stories of all time, “Ralph the Duck,” by Frederick Busch, which concludes with a lifesaving mission down a snowy mountainside.

  • Lee

    Don’t forget “Hunters in the Snow,” a classic short story by Tobias Wolff.

  • Lee Thomas

    Agatha Christie’s “Three Blind Mice” – maybe it’s NYC this past week, but the snowbound and cut off from civilization vibe of the story feels very timely. Minus the trapped-with-a-homicidal-maniac bit, of course.

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