The Ice Balloon
By the end of the 19th century, hundreds of adventurers had attempted to reach the North Pole. Only one—the Swedish aeronaut S.A. Andrée—attempted to do so in a massive varnished-silk balloon filled with hydrogen. Andrée and his two basketmates (a 47-year-old meteorologist and a 23-year-old physicist) ascended from the Svalbard Archipelago on July 11, 1897, and were never seen again—that is, until a boatload of geologists and seal hunters found human remains, diaries, and undeveloped film on an uninhabited island halfway to the Pole more than 30 years later. Historians still don’t know for sure how the men died, but Wilkinson’s thoughtful, lyrical tale contextualizes Andrée’s willingness to face the unknown.
The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials
Little Lyra Belacqua, a dirty-nosed semi-orphan who scampers around an alternate England with her magical familiar, finds herself in several precarious situations in the frozen North: at a secret laboratory where children are subjected to soul-shattering experiments, in a war between panserbjørn (sentient, armored polar bears), and in her uncle’s remote laboratory, where he’s trying to gain access to other worlds. It’s a sensationally wintry start to one of the best fantasy trilogies of the past several decades. Readers finding it for the first time are in luck: Pullman just released The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, the first book in a planned trilogy which takes place prior to The Golden Compass.
Iceland’s sole Nobel laureate is best known in the United States for Independent People, a 1930s novel that chronicles the life of an impoverished farmer, Bjartur, and his family. Bjartur is in some ways as brutal as the weather in the Arctic Circle: he’s stubborn, self-interested, and determined to survive the relentless bleakness of his situation without complaint. It sounds awfully grim, but it’s also comic, as Annie Dillard wrote in The New York Times: “Independent People is as funny as Beckett—and for the same reason: ‘The soul refuses to give up the struggle.’” Bjartur has an unforgettable response to his miserable sons’ shivering: “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry.” Suck it, Old Man Winter.
Good Morning, Midnight
At the apparent end of the world, a young astronaut returns from an historic voyage to Jupiter only to realize home might no longer be waiting for her. At the same time, an elderly astronomer finds that in staying behind when his Arctic research station is abandoned, he could be alone for good. Sully, the astronaut, is forgetting how to be human as she hurtles through heatless space; Augie, the astronomer, is forging a symbiotic relationship with Iris, a mysterious young girl who appears at the station. Sully’s and Augie’s environments are unquestionably extreme, but they also pulse with unexpected warmth. In this post-apocalyptic adventure, the absence of almost everything demonstrates how very essential a few things are.
This Cold Heaven
Poet and essayist Gretel Ehrlich has an unusual reason for heading north to Greenland, where she’s spent seven seasons (and where 24-hour darkness reigns for months on end): since being struck by lightning in 1991, she says she feels euphoric above 76 degrees latitude. Her fondness for her stark surroundings is clear in her descriptions of the landscape (“the Arctic’s continuously shifting planes of light and dark were like knives thrown in a drawer”), and of the explorers who went before her. Those who seek to scrape out an existence in Greenland are superior to her countrymen in America, Ehrlich writes, a place “where greed supplants regeneration, litigation supplants intimacy, and envy supplants aspiration.”
As a massive, three-day blizzard approaches and isolates the eastern Turkish border town of Kars (“Kar,” by the way, is “snow” in Turkish), the poet Ka arrives, on assignment as a journalist, to investigate a wave of suicides among schoolgirls forced to remove their head scarves—and to visit the beautiful Ipek, a divorcée who lives in the Snow Palace Hotel. His love for Ipek inspires him to start writing poetry again, and sure enough, the first is “Snow.” Ka becomes convinced that “the spiritual course of every person who had ever lived” can be mapped out on the axes of a snowflake, and that just as seemingly random factors give each identical-seeming particle a unique crystalline shape, factors like memory, imagination, and logic make each of us the person we are.
Into Thin Air
In May 1996, journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer was on assignment with a team on Mount Everest when an unexpected blizzard enveloped the peak and killed four of his teammates, including his guide. In his 1997 investigative memoir, Krakauer attempts to explain what precipitated that horrible sequence of events. He also holds himself and some of his companions—as well as the reckless commercialization that had overtaken Everest in recent years—to blame for the tragedy. “The Everest climb had rocked my life to its core, and it became desperately important for me to record the events in complete detail, unconstrained by a limited number of column inches,” Krakauer writes. “[Into Thin Air] is the fruit of that compulsion.”
There’s a time and place for breezy beach reads, but let’s be honest: we flipped past that part of the calendar at least three months ago, and summer-vacation escapism isn’t nearly as appealing when frigid winds are howling at the window. Let heart-stirring tales of bold polar explorers fortify you before your next meal with extended family (hey, at least you’re not eating rotten seal meat on an ice floe). Welcome the darkest part of the year with a science journalist’s gusto. If necessary, imagine yourself on an armored polar bear. These reads will schuss you through the winter.
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