Please recommend some extraordinary, elegiac, darkly funny, or otherwise wintry books.
January 27, 2005 2:40 PM   Subscribe

Melancholy fiction for a dark season: here in the Northeast U.S. we're in the midst of a particularly miserable January. I'm looking for some contemporary fiction that echoes the bleakness of the weather. What extraordinary books have you curled up with recently that are elegiac, darkly funny or otherwise wintry in tone?
posted by killdevil to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I enjoyed David Masiel's 2182 kHz quite a bit. It's definitely as frigid a tale of the Arctic wastes as you're likely to find, and if its scope is less than epic, well, that is our generation, isn't it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:43 PM on January 27, 2005


Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin.
posted by mookieproof at 2:46 PM on January 27, 2005


I've really enjoyed the spookiness of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about an odd family of people who live in that weird house in the hill and how they got there. Perfect shut-in reading.
posted by jessamyn at 2:53 PM on January 27, 2005


Drowning Ruth.
posted by Specklet at 2:53 PM on January 27, 2005


Howard Norman: The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard.
posted by gac at 2:58 PM on January 27, 2005


Not to go all ultra vires, but this will not make you more depressed?
posted by ParisParamus at 3:02 PM on January 27, 2005


Also Norman's The Northern Lights, which I forgot earlier even though I'm looking right at it on the bookshelf.
posted by gac at 3:06 PM on January 27, 2005


The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

It's not fiction, but Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer reads like a novel and it's got very wintry themes.
posted by SisterHavana at 3:07 PM on January 27, 2005


The Secret History (and a big pot of chicken soup) gave me a wonderful respite on a sick wintry weekend.

On preview, SisterHavan beat me to it!
posted by occhiblu at 3:08 PM on January 27, 2005


Definitely you want to read Camus' The Fall. Or Gogol's The Overcoat. They are amazing and total classics of depressing, wintry literature.

My favorite quote from that Amazon page of Camus reviews: "This is the Camus novel I least like. It has a bleakness about it." Hahahahahahaha! (Don't listen to him, by the way, it's an amazing [and short, very readable] novel.)
posted by josh at 3:08 PM on January 27, 2005


Oh, also, and I've recommended this book on AskMe like a dozen times--but Austerlitz, or anything else by W. G. Sebald--one of the best writers of the last quarter-century.
posted by josh at 3:11 PM on January 27, 2005


I second the Shirley Jackson recommendation. It's a shame that she's mainly remembered because "The Lottery" is featured in middle-school reading lists - her other work is equally haunting and excellent. The Haunting of Hill House is another great one of hers.

You might also try Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. These books always remind me of winter.
posted by vorfeed at 3:11 PM on January 27, 2005


An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller (Bantam 1982)

"Two years after receiving her doctorate in philosophy, Alice Koller still did not know what she wanted to do with her life. She fled to Nantucket, and there, with a German Sheperd puppy as her sole companion, for three winter months she walked the beaches, trying to make sense of her life."
posted by ericb at 3:17 PM on January 27, 2005


Russell Banks, Affliction

David Gates, Jernigan

Madison Smartt Bell, The Year of Silence
posted by googly at 3:21 PM on January 27, 2005


Canetti's Auto-da-fe comes to mind.
posted by kickingtheground at 3:24 PM on January 27, 2005


The Shipping News.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:25 PM on January 27, 2005


The Dead School by Patrick McCabe.
posted by mlis at 3:26 PM on January 27, 2005


Moominland Midwinter. Seriously.
posted by Otis at 3:31 PM on January 27, 2005


The Winter Zoo by John Beckman. Takes place in Poland but oh so WINTRY and COLD and GOOD!

And I second David Gates's Jernigan.
posted by xmutex at 3:47 PM on January 27, 2005


For wintry, grey, and generally Pacific Northwest misery, David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars would seem particularly on the mark.
posted by fionab at 3:51 PM on January 27, 2005


Break out the Kafka, get under the covers, and shiver.

I sing Angela Carter's praises a lot, but that's because The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is so good, and it has lots of wintry fairy-tale action. Jane Eyre's pretty chilly. And it's nice to see Shirley Jackson getting some praise.
posted by melissa may at 4:01 PM on January 27, 2005


i second Gormenghast, and will throw in Independent People by Laxness, and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, which struck me as very fall/winter.
posted by amberglow at 4:01 PM on January 27, 2005


And, of course, Shakespeare's Winter's Tale.
posted by Polonius at 4:32 PM on January 27, 2005


Where the Sea Used to Be by Rick Bass, and I second The Secret History and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. A good non-fiction choice might be Sea Room by Adam Nicolson.
posted by rushmc at 4:37 PM on January 27, 2005


You can't go wrong with the Russians! Russians know cold weather.

Just want a tidbit? Read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch.

Want a heftier bit? War and Peace is a great story. Most people complain about the names-- you might want to keep a cheat sheet handy.

Too intimidating? Try Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:59 PM on January 27, 2005


Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie. I love this book. Depending on my mood, I find it either very funny or very sad...

Two of my other favorite books have been mentioned - We Have Always Lived In The Castle, and The Year of Silence. Neither seems especially "wintry" to me, however.

Also, If Morning Ever Comes, by Anne Tyler
posted by JeffL at 5:03 PM on January 27, 2005


Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Darker than the inside of a cow...
posted by airgirl at 5:28 PM on January 27, 2005


I'd go for Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov; Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From (short stories, most of them as beautiful and heartbreaking as the stories' climates are cold and uninviting); T.C. Boyle's After The Plague (again, short stories, the first of which concerns Alaskan womens' attempts to snare husbands from the assembled crowds of wannabe speed-date men); Nineteen Seventy Four by David Peace – an odd, existential crime novel set in rural Yorkshire in the mid 1970s; Alan Warner's Morvern Callar; Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov; In The Memory Of The Forest, by Charles T Powers, a slow-burning Polish-set murder investigation, where even the truth is under a blanket of snow; The Smiling School For Calvinists, by Bill Duncan – one of my favourite books, another set of loosely-themed short stories, all set on the north east coast of Scotland, and written in dialect, which at first is a little tricky (even for me, and I come from the area), but which rapidly becomes second nature, and if you want prose that is stark and wintry, you could do far worse than something which echoes, in text form, the craggy outposts of north-eastern Scotland.
posted by Len at 5:50 PM on January 27, 2005


American Gods was pretty wintery.
posted by alan at 6:03 PM on January 27, 2005


Austerlitz, or anything else by W. G. Sebald--one of the best writers of the last quarter-century.

I agree, absolutely -- Austerlitz is the best book I've read in a long, long time.
posted by ori at 6:10 PM on January 27, 2005


Ian McEwan, Atonement -- even though it starts out in the summer, it definitely takes on a gloomy, wintry air.

Sandor Marai, Embers. Ah, I loves me some decline of the Autro-Hungarian empire, I do!
posted by scody at 6:12 PM on January 27, 2005


Seconding Melissa May on Kafka. Heck, it's in the first paragraph of The Castle: “It was late in the evening when K. arrived. The village was deep in snow. The Castle hill was hidden, veiled in mist and darkness, nor was there even a glimmer of light to show that a castle was there.” Hope you're not prone to SAD
posted by letourneau at 6:13 PM on January 27, 2005


A few that I've read, and many, many that I haven't. Thanks for all the suggestions (and keep them coming)! Now I'll have some stories to keep me company in front of that battery of full-spectrum fluorescents.
posted by killdevil at 6:18 PM on January 27, 2005


Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Darker than the inside of a cow...

Seconded. Also, grosser and more interesting than the inside of a cow. Not necessarily seasonal, though.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:24 PM on January 27, 2005


I third Jernigan, and suggest Gates' Preston Falls as well. And also in a different vein Iain Banks' A Song Of Stone.
posted by nicwolff at 7:56 PM on January 27, 2005


Sebald's Austerlitz is great, but if you are in the mood for true frigidity and bleakness, his Rings of Saturn is the sure winner.
Also, consider The Leopard by di Lampudesa--a great classic which is also inflected with a sort of historical melancholy you might find appealing.
And in the vein of slightly recherche suggestions, perhaps Niels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen would be appropriate; any book that ends with And then finally he died the death--the difficult death can't be all bad...
Also: The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy. A novelization of the life of Wittgenstein.
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. One of the most underrated books (at least in the Anglosphere) of the last few years.
posted by Chrischris at 8:13 PM on January 27, 2005


Oh man, Niels Lyhne is an AMAZING book! I hadn't thought about it, but it really is the perfect book for this. Consider it extremely seconded.
posted by josh at 11:01 PM on January 27, 2005


The Melancholy of Resistance, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, is a fine literary novel with a bleakly wintry setting.
posted by misteraitch at 2:03 AM on January 28, 2005


Our lady of the forest by David Guterson is set in a rainy forest in Washington state. I think it gets the mood just right, and as a bonus is quite funny (in a bleak way). So it might even cheer you up a bit.
posted by handee at 2:32 AM on January 28, 2005


The Ice Shirt and The Rifles by William T. Vollman. Both are must read books and very very cold.
posted by sic at 4:40 AM on January 28, 2005


Vollmann (two "n"s at the end!)
posted by sic at 4:43 AM on January 28, 2005


There's a good chance you've read it, but... Wuthering Heights.
posted by Clay201 at 4:50 AM on January 28, 2005


Less bleak, but definitely wintry (and Russian, of course you need Russians!) is "The Captain's Daughter" by Pushkin. A masterpiece of short story writing.
posted by NekulturnY at 6:14 AM on January 28, 2005


Glad to see several people beat me to suggesting David Gates. He deserves to get rich from writing. Another author who did not get rich from writing, but whose writing certainly is "elegiac, darkly funny or otherwise wintry in tone," is Richard Yates. Bleak as all getout, but leaves me breathless.
posted by scratch at 7:44 AM on January 28, 2005


Actually I think The Emigrants might be better for Sebald. It's the first book of his I read, anyway, and the last line of the first story ("naq fb gurl ner rire ergheavat gb hf, gur qrnq") is pretty damn bleak.

I'd also recommend J. L. Carr's A Month in the Country (takes place in the summer, but isn't in the least summery), Henri Alain-Fournier's The Wanderer, and John Crowley's Little, Big.

Possibly also: Sandor Marai's Embers (on preview I see it's already been mentioned). Probably some Hardy.

And of course you should read Joyce's "The Dead".
posted by kenko at 7:46 AM on January 28, 2005


The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. One of the most underrated books (at least in the Anglosphere) of the last few years.

Man, could that guy write!
posted by rushmc at 8:14 AM on January 28, 2005


Another Shirley Jackson fan here. The Sundial is one of her lesser-read novels. A group of bizarre people living in an old gothic mansion and awaiting the end of the world. I don't remember it being very cold, but I do remember them burning all the books in the fireplace.

Our Lady of the Forest is one of the drippiest books mentioned above. Drippy both in nose and rain. Also one of the best.

One of my favorite novels, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is about a near penniless writer and his family living in a castle with no heat. Cassandra and her sister Rose spend a great deal of their time trying to get warm and find food. A comical, slight book for romantic anglophiles.

And back to the Russians. Ayn Rand's We the Living is another great book about trying to find food and stay warm. Don't let the author's reputation put you off-- this is her autobiographical novel and it is both straight forward and short. I think of it as the nitty-gritty version of Dr, Zhivago
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:30 AM on January 28, 2005


Heartily seconding the recommendations for Moominland Midwinter* and Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and you might also like his other book A Soldier of the Great War. Also,Smilla's Sense of Snow is pretty good and definitely wintry.

* this blows my mind; nobody, but nobody American except me has ever heard of the Moomins until now - and I think they should be required reading for everyone on the planet - I even have a Tove Jansen drawing tattooed on my back.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:36 AM on January 28, 2005


Norwegian Wood, Murakami.
posted by callmejay at 10:10 AM on January 28, 2005


SLoG, I just read it for the first time, and I really liked I Capture the Castle, so consider that my second. (Although if we're going for slight, romantic British comedy I have to vote for winter escapist fiction with The Enchanted April.)

Back on topic: if you're going to go Russian, don't forget the sadly underread Isaac Babel. If winter and war and fear are on your mind, you'll find him particularly satisfying.
posted by melissa may at 1:58 PM on January 28, 2005


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