When Hot Is Part of the Plot

Last week, “inspired” by the frigid weather in much of the U.S., I wrote about literature that’s filled with cold and snow. Well, it’s summer in Australia and various other parts of the world, and some locales rarely get chilly, so I’ll follow up with a post about fiction featuring the hot and humid.

Heat can be a key factor in literature, whether the works are set before or after our planet’s scary scourge of climate change. High temperatures invigorate some characters and sap the energy of others, make for lush landscapes or a barren desert, and so on.

Speaking of desert, the first novel I’ll mention has to be…Desert. That J.M.G. Le Clezio book takes place mostly in Morocco, and the temperature is important and palpable — especially in comparison with the France-set scenes in later chapters.

Among many other excellent novels with milieus in the warmer countries of Africa are Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters, Buchi Emecheta’s Second-Class Citizen, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.

Novels that unfold in Southern Europe? They include Miguel de Cervantes’ Spain-set Don Quixote, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Sicily-set The Leopard, Elsa Morante’s Rome-set History, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ partly Greece-set Middlesex. And it’s rather scorching when a certain volcanic eruption buries Pompeii in Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked.

The Caribbean or other warm islands? Jean Rhys’ Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea and Alexandre Dumas’ Georges, to name two.

It’s interesting when a novel takes characters (and readers) from colder to warmer climes — as in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That (U.S. to a tropical island), David Lodge’s Paradise News (England to Hawaii), and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (U.S. to Central America). In the first two books, those toastier places are a big relief — even life-changing — for the characters. In the third book, disaster results.

Things are more mixed when the Price family move from the U.S. to Africa in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. (The Prices were not exactly cold in their home state of Georgia.) The obnoxious missionary dad makes things miserable in Africa, but the wife and four daughters he drags along eventually find some positives in their lives.

Speaking of the U.S., there are plenty of novels set in the Southeast, New Orleans, the Southwest, Southern California, etc. They include Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, William Faulkner’s Light in August, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Amanda Moores’ Grail Nights (whose author is the wife of frequent commenter here jhNY), Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy (in which there’s also much of Mexico), James Michener’s Texas, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, among many others.

And there’s of course the warm climes in lots of Latin America literature — the subject of its own blog post this past September.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which includes a Russian literature sub-theme! — is here.

Frigid Fiction

Much of the U.S. last week experienced record cold temperatures — including a painful 8 degrees Fahrenheit in my town as I wrote this blog post. At least that single-digit number had the silver lining of being 443 degrees short of the burn threshold of books, according to Ray Bradbury.

Of course, the bitter weather made me think of novels in which characters face low temperatures rather than the heat that consumed books in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And I’m aware of having penned a somewhat similar piece about wintry literature five years ago for The Huffington Post (which treated its bloggers and commenters…coldly), but this piece has lots of new material and was written from scratch.

Among other literary attributes, cold weather and its often-accompanying dose of snow help create drama — with sheer survival sometimes at stake. Wintry fiction also makes us lament that the non-affluent are affected more by the elements than the rich. And for those reading cold-filled novels in warm homes or warm climes, it’s all vicarious — we’re not the ones freezing.

Russian novels are obviously among the first books that come to mind when thinking of fictional works with bone-chilling scenes in some or all their pages. These novels include, among many others, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (just ask Napoleon), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — with the second and fourth of those books set in Siberian prison camps.

Then there are Scandinavian novels (a number of them mysteries) with teeth-chattering locales — for instance, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor.

And Canadian literature has plenty of shivering scenarios in novels ranging from Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In to Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Is Dead (Jewish guy among the Eskimos!), to cite just two examples.

But authors from many other countries have obviously also tackled the cold — including Jack London in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, Herman Melville in Pierre, Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome, Willa Cather in My Antonia, Erich Maria Remarque in Spark of Life, L.M. Montgomery in The Blue Castle, Rita Mae Brown in Rubyfruit Jungle, Donna Tartt in The Secret History, Fannie Flagg in A Redbird Christmas, Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake, Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Maria Semple in Where’d You Go, Bernadette (which actually takes its characters to Antarctica), Joyce Carol Oates in Solstice, Alistair MacLean in Where Eagles Dare, Stephen King in The Shining, Lee Child in the Jack Reacher novel 61 Hours, and Andy Weir in The Martian.

Short stories with cold and snow? Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” (freezing was never so tragically poignant), James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” London’s “To Build a Fire,” etc.!

What are your favorite fictional works with wintry elements?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — guest-written by my cat 🙂 — is here.