A Mid-Winter’s Reading List
I live in Honolulu, where it occasionally dips below 80 degrees in the wintertime. Unless I’m traveling, I have to experience seasons vicariously by reading Icelandic noir and the kind of nonfiction in which the narrator inevitably loses either his fingers or his nose to the cold.
But it occurs to me that if you are already living through an actual winter, you may not need a reading list that features more of the same. That would be like poking you in the eye with a stick. So with you in mind, I’ve put together a tropical reading list. These are books set in Florida and Cuba, in jungles, on the South Pacific, and in Africa. If anyone loses a limb in these pages, it won’t be because of frostbite. There’s both fiction and nonfiction here, and if you ration your supplies carefully, the books on this reading list might see you through to the spring.
- Dead Low Tide, by John D. MacDonald
If you’ve never read anything by MacDonald, this standalone thriller is a good place to start for this reading list. It’s like opening a time capsule that was buried under a Florida subdivision in 1953. There are wooden cabin cruisers and bungalow motels and loose women driving fast convertibles from one rum bar to the next. It’s also the only novel I’ve ever read where someone gets killed with a fishing lure.
- World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane
This is the third and best of Lehane’s novels about the gangster Joe Coughlin, but if you haven’t read the others, don’t worry. You can pick this one up first and then go back. Set in Florida and Cuba in the midst of World War II, this novel stands out in every possible way. The ending stuck with me for months.
- Islands in the Stream, by Ernest Hemingway
Set on Bimini and in Cuba and told in three acts, this was the first of Hemingway’s posthumous novels. Like most of Hemingway’s best work, it is by turns hilarious and gut-wrenching. Be warned, though, that after reading it you may be tempted to drink Heineken with your breakfast.
- Cuba Libre, by Elmore Leonard
Back in the 1950s, Elmore Leonard was writing westerns such as Last Stand at Saber River and Law at Randado. Starting in the 1970s and right up to his death in 2013, Leonard created a formidable pile of crime novels. But in 1998, he wrote Cuba Libre, which neatly fit the two genres together. Ben Tyler is an American cowboy and outlaw who gets talked into running horses to Cuba. He steps off the boat just in time to get himself mixed up in the Spanish-American War. As with any Elmore Leonard novel, you might come for the plot, but you’ll stay for the dialogue.
- The Lost City of Z, by David Grann
You know those articles that remind you why you’ve paid thousands of dollars over the years to subscribe to The New Yorker? David Grann wrote a lot of them. The Lost City of Z is Grann at his best, and in book length. Set in the Amazon, it follows expeditions in the 1920s and the present day. Get your machete and your bug spray.
- Kon Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl
If you just set aside the insane anthropological theory that Heyerdahl was trying to prove when he and five buddies set out across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft, like Tom Sawyer but with Norwegians, this is one of the greatest adventure stories of the twentieth century. It’s got everything an armchair adventurer could want, from headhunters and poison darts to shark attacks. Put on your best smoking jacket and read this one in your trophy room.
- The Bounty, by Caroline Alexander
Caroline Alexander is my go-to author for disastrous expeditions and perilous sea voyages (see The Endurance and The Worst Journey in the World). The Bounty is as riveting as The Caine Mutiny, but it’s true.
- Hotel Honolulu, by Paul Theroux
Theroux has written entire shelves of books that would fit on this list, from The Mosquito Coast to The Happy Isles of Oceania, but this one should be required reading for anyone thinking of visiting Hawaii. Is it a collection of short stories? Is it a novel? Is it a series of thinly veiled, laugh-out-loud takedowns of people I probably know? I’ve read it four times, and I’m still trying to decide.
- The Constant Gardener, by John le Carré
There’s a feeling you get when you’re in the hands of a true professional—when your pilot had 25 years in the Air Force, or your surgeon once operated on the Queen of England, or when you pick up a novel by John le Carré. He knows his subject matter, and he writes as well as Graham Greene. In The Constant Gardener, which begins and ends in Kenya, he’s at his very best.
- West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
In what has to be the single most valuable cover blurb of all time, Ernest Hemingway wrote that Beryl Markham “can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.” It wasn’t hyperbole, though it doesn’t hurt that Markham has a remarkable story to tell in this memoir—you probably only need one finger to count the number of female bush pilots flying in Africa in the 1930s.
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