BY RICHARD DERUS (ExpendableMudge)
This year most of us are experiencing unusually hot summers. Sadly, these “unusually” hot temperatures are going to become usual, according to a large majority of scientists across many disciplines. All of us here are avid readers, so we’re familiar with the concept of escape reading. We need to escape this borning reality real bad! What better way than to slink into a fairy tale, a comic strip, a thriller, so long as it’s set in the icy freezing cold?
I live on the boardwalk next to the beach on Long Island. The North Atlantic is never particularly warm to my Gulf of Mexico-trained bones, which is a good thing to me. I watch folks hauling all sorts of sun-avoidance gear to a perfectly sunny spot, where they slather on sunscreen, dig through the ice chest for a cold Diet Coke, and belly-flop on a tacky beach towel, open their beach reads in the bright sunshine, and scooch under the umbrella for a nap. Brightly colored chick-lit, wispy flowery romantic pastels, the occasional red-daubed thriller — all are well represented in the cover art of these about-to-be greasy throwaway tomes. Most of them will be consumed while beached and, assuming they don’t fall victim to the tide, end up in the Little Free Libraries that dot the beach entrances.
Why, I’ve always wondered, don’t these UV absorbers read something more like what they’re drinking? A little brain chill to go with the brain freeze? Permaybehaps a list will help! These are five great choices for the avoidance of this sweltering summer’s record high temperatures, whether tree book or eBook. I myownself recommend tree books for the beach as Kindles and Kobos and Nooks don’t like sand, but I’ve seen many an eReader both come and go seemingly unharmed (mostly those sealed in freezer bags). I hope these suggestions will spark a few other ideas for icy escapes. Leave them in the comments, please, I’m shvitzing over here.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a charming tale of the power of longing to create material results in the world. Like any good fairy tale, the story starts with the pain and regret of a deed undone — In this case the conception and birth of a child — that is causing the characters to drift apart. Their moment of abandon in the first snowstorm of an Alaskan fall leads them to create a snow-child, all unknowingly imbuing the snow with their longing for parenthood and fulfillment.
Be careful what you wish for. There is no such thing as an unmitigated blessing, and there is no certainty in asking the Powers That Be for a boon. It takes a costly lesson (or two or two hundred thousand) to teach us fool mortals this. By the end of The Snow Child, the lessons learned are chilling. Perfect for a day at the beach, or two, or three. At nigh on 400 pages, it’s not a mere afternoon’s pleasure, but a pleasure it is. You’ll never think “it’s snowing” in quite the same blithe way again.
The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie is a classic-era mystery by one of the world’s most praised and revered mystery writers. First published in 1931, it was a stand-alone tale (No Poirot and his little grey cells! No Marple and her knitting!) of crimes thought buried rising up from their unmarked graves to feed, zombie-like, on the perpetrators in the present day. Sadly, the whole world they inhabit gets to suffer along with the perpetrators; after all, crime doesn’t pay so much as it pays back. The setting of a snowbound country house with bored, wealthy guests is chilly enough. When the pieces of the criminal puzzle start coming apart (or together, depending on your perspective), the emotional chills go from the fridge to the freezer.
What an awful place to live in England is… If it isn’t snowing or raining or blowing it’s misty. And if the sun does shine it’s so cold that you can’t feel your fingers or toes.
By the time you’ve finished this modest (288 pages) paperback, you’re unlikely to feel your fingers for a few hours. Though in this case it will be from gripping the darn thing so tight in sheer desperation to see why anyone would kill the victim, shifting to a desperate need to know what took someone so long to kill the bastard.
The Day After Tomorrow by Whitley Strieber should ring the movie mavens’ dinner bell, seeing as it was made from this early example of cli-fic (climate-change fiction) into a Dennis Quaid vehicle back in the Aughties. A noisy climatologist gets to shout “I toldja so!” while New York City slips from sweltering to snowbound as Mother Earth finally flicks humanity aside like a dog does his fleas. Considering how much faster we now know the ice sheets are melting than was commonly thought in the Aughties, it’s another case of chilly-meets-chilling when you’re baking on the beach towel, dripping Hawaiian Tropic onto the 272 pages of your used paperback, contemplating just how much more likely this scenario seems than it did in 2004. For used it must be, as the book is out of print. That’s good news for the cheapskates among us (me!), since there’s no reason to pay more than $4 for it… and that’s only if you’re too busy/lazy to go shop the used book store and simply order one from Amazon. There are scads.
Ice Hunt by James Rollins is another of the cli-fic thrillers that started to trickle onto bookstore shelves in the Aughties. Rollins might not capture subtleties of human nature or nuances of atmosphere like Henry James or Marcel Proust, but there is not one soul I’ve ever seen peering intently through her sunglasses at Within a Budding Grove or Washington Square. Rollins is a beach-read writer, and does a damn fine job of work in this tale of Arctic derring-do. Ice Station Grendel holds horrifying, grim secrets that were left behind (more like fled from!) by the Soviet creators of the super-secret base, which are detected by stalwart Yankees from Alaska researching how to keep the world from drowning in ice-melt. Will the Noble Americans save the world from the lingering threats of evil old (and very, very cold) Russia? Take the 656-page mass-market paperback tour! It’s guaranteed to chill your core.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg isn’t cli-fic, but it is very cold, nonetheless. Smilla is a native Greenlander living in Denmark, where her father was from. Her life in her mother’s world has taught Smilla a thing or two about snow and the stories it tells, as well as about the European world’s insular refusal to see anyone not like themselves as valuable, real people. (Not like that’s timely or anything… and the book’s 25 years old.) Smilla involves herself in solving the murder of a young Greenlander living in Denmark, since no one there seems all that interested in doing it for her. Her determination not to let this expendable little life go unaccounted for raises many hackles, pokes many sleeping dogs, and never so much as sniffs above-freezing air. An ideal and deeply engrossing leisure read. Even if it’s a re-read for you, a second trip through the complexities of Smilla’s colonial Danish milieu won’t come amiss. Many details snap into focus on a second read on these 480 pages. At $16, the trade paperback is a wee smidge pricey for exposure to sand and suntan lotion, but there was a mass-market paperback that left behind a good million or so copies to be had for pennies. As always, the less energetic shoppers can contact Amazon and spend $4 for a decent copy that won’t be painful to watch float away in the foam, should that nap coincide with an incoming tide.
RICHARD DERUS (ExpendableMudge) is a biblioholic, a tsundoku carrier, and a passionate reader. From underneath his tottering towers of unread tomes, he writes obsessively about his darlings at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud, where many otherwise unknown books are praised, panned, or poked fun at; The Oak Wheel, where he blogs enthusiastically about short story collections; The Small Press Book Review; Shelf Inflicted (where he was a founding blogger); and Lambda Literary.