10 Big Novels to Read by the Fire: A Winter Reading List

If you're lucky enough to live in a climate that affords the comfort of four seasons, you know there will be a point in the coming months when it’ll be too damn cold to go outside. While winter is great for a lot of things — skiing and snowboarding trips, flannel and woolen socks, hanging out fireside with a glass of expensive whiskey — the risk of cabin fever commonly runs high. One of the best antidotes to stir-craziness has always been the epic novel; reading one provides an absorbing, immersive experience that, more often than not, makes time feel insignificant. To offset the effects of winter blues during those days when you're trapped indoors, here are some lengthy books that are sure to help you make it to spring. 

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon)
Nothing says winter quite like Russian novelists. While Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are the more obvious go-tos, writing about the human condition with enough bleakness to make anyone down an entire bottle of vodka and adopt the despairing temperament of a Siberian prisoner, it’s Ludmila Ulitskaya who deserves your utmost attention this season. A revered literary presence in her native Russia (as well as a former scientist and the current director of Moscow’s Hebrew Repertory Theater), Ulitskaya’s newest — her fourteenth work of fiction — is truly grand in scope. It’s the story of three boyhood friends who grow up in 1950s Moscow and inherit a post-war world where Stalin may be dead, but secret police forces, censorship, disappearances, and resulting acts of artistic dissent and rebellion are far from over. An immense novel about a country shattered by its own volatile history, and the fight to maintain one’s identity — and decades-long friendships — amidst ongoing political agitation. 

A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Ekin Oklap)
There are some writers worth dropping everything for, and Orhan Pamuk is certifiably one of them. A Strangeness in My Mind will not only resonate with readers familiar with Pamuk's work, but is also the perfect introduction to all the masterful storytelling tricks the Nobel Prize winner has up his sleeve: it follows a young Anatolian street vendor named Mevlut as he moves to Istanbul, becomes enchanted by the city, accidentally marries the sister of the woman he’s in love with, and learns what it means to grow old in a place that grows alongside you. Mevlut's story playfully unspools through the mouths of various interjecting voices, and one of the sheer joys of Pamuk's newest is his decision to, once again, make Istanbul every bit a character as the human characters themselves.


A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Marlon James recently won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and with good reason: A Brief History of Seven Killings is a beautiful, sprawling, and brutal book, spanning several crime-ridden decades and placing its readers at the epicenter of a multinational narrative woven by the voices of drug dealers, CIA agents, hired guns, and even, at times, ghosts. Featuring an ensemble of over 75 characters and traversing the mean streets and slums of Kingston, Jamaica, and New York City, this is a novel as unrelenting in its poetry as it is in its portrayal of violence and the co-existence between the living and the dead. Earlier this year, HBO announced plans to produce a TV series based on A Brief History of Seven Killings; one can only hope it’s as ingenious and satisfying as its literary counterpart. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
At once one of the most devastating and gratifying books of the year, A Little Life is Hanya Yanagihara’s exploration of how we come to define ourselves when we are constantly negotiating internalized traumas and personal tragedies. It's a remarkable character study, following four college friends as they move to New York City and experience varying levels of success. It deftly charts the pitfalls and high points of adult male friendship, the nuances of childhood, and the searing nature of memory, and it will haunt you in ways few novels can.

The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts
In 2003, Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts's debut novel inspired by his real-life 1980 escape from Pentridge Prison in Australia and the subsequent years he spent hiding out in India, entered the literary canon as one of the great new adventures to mark the beginning of the 21st century. Now, a little over a decade later, Roberts has written a sequel to rival its predecessor in breadth: at nearly a thousand pages, The Mountain Shadow continues two years after Shantaram left off, with escaped convict Lin navigating an increasingly violent Bombay underworld, and simultaneously coping with the loss of both his mentor and soul mate. While Roberts retired from the public eye last year, fans can rejoice — he still plans to write another sequel and a prequel to Shantaram, to fully round out his proposed quartet. And as if the book itself couldn’t get more epic: Zola Books has published a special author's edition of The Mountain Shadow in e-book format, which features over 100 pages of additional content, including scenes that didn’t make the final edit and a whopping four versions of the first chapter.      

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons
What if Sherlock Holmes had high-tailed it to America and spent his Great Hiatus investigating crimes with renowned novelist Henry James? And what if this had been prompted by Holmes’s crude discovery, through his infamous system of ratiocination, that he was merely a fictional literary character? Dan Simmons’s latest is a fun and brilliant collision of genres, fusing together the mystery, thriller, and historical novel and injecting this mash-up with a healthy dose of metafiction. During their exploits, Holmes and James (a stand-in, of course, for Watson) meet a host of real and fictional characters, including Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, and fellow detective Hercule Poirot, and because The Fifth Heart moves at the same lightning pace as Holmes’s exuberant mind, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better recent novel to spend a weekend with fireside, book in one hand, pipe in the other.

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos
Before his death in 2013, Pulitzer Prize winner Oscar Hijuelos spent years researching the 37-year friendship between Mark Twain and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The result is this grand, historically rich novel, which faithfully captures the spirit of both men by illuminating their adventuresome and intellectual bond. Published posthumously, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise is a fine endnote for the esteemed Hijuelos, whose entire bibliography — that include multiple books that explore the Cuban immigrant experience — is worth reading.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Those familiar with Garth Risk Hallberg's literary criticism know he’s no stranger to dense and ambitious texts. With his debut novel, Hallberg (mostly known for his work at the eminent literary website The Millions) is at the top of his game: It’s a galloping ode to New York City in the 1970s and beyond, mixing an eclectic cast of characters that includes a journalist, young punks, and wealthy heirs, and having them swirl around jarring events, beginning with a shooting in Central Park and ending with the Big Apple’s infamous blackout of 1977. City on Fire thrums to the tune of a soundtrack that includes Patti Smith, and is every bit as electric and seductive as the underground musicians that grace its 900-plus pages. 

Underworld by Don DeLillo
With his seventeenth novel, Zero K, due out next spring, it feels like the perfect moment to visit — or revisit — Don DeLillo's postmodern tome of American upheaval in the latter half of the 20th century. Published in 1997 to wide critical acclaim, Underworld explores nuclear devastation, the disintegration of marriage, and cultural and personal repression, taking its cues mostly from the perspective of a waste-management executive named Nick Shay. It's a novel with plenty of meat on its bones, tackling Western idealism with DeLillo's signature wit and cynicism, and though the term Great American Novel is so often bandied about, this is one of those books that earns those stripes tenfold.   

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Because of its gruff and cruel nature, winter is the best time to knock some harrowing classics off your to-read list. While Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, and James Joyce are all good bets, there's something about Herman Melville that evokes the right amount of frigidity and fury of the season. Moby-Dick, arguably Melville's most famous work, is its own blizzard of heavy-hitting themes — man vs. nature, good vs. evil, class consciousness, psychological obsession — and because it’s about as lengthy as a whale itself, you’ll have no problem settling down with it while a snowstorm rages outside. Read (or reread) this one before you go see In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard's new film adaptation of the book behind the story that inspired Melville; you'll be glad for the context.