As the Thornton family emerges from the cellar in the wake of the tropical storm that hits near the beginning of Richard Hughes’s classic novel A High Wind in Jamaica, they discover that nearly everything they own, including their house and its contents, has been reduced to splinters. “It seemed not credible that all this had been done by a current of air,” the narrator observes. If there is a better description of the feeling of hollow bewilderment with which we confront the devastation of a hurricane, we don’t know it. But then, nearly everything about big hurricanes strains credulity, from the eerily bright and sunny days that so often precede them to the weird, unceasing wind that penetrates the crannies of your house and ultimately the darkest corners of your imagination.
So this weekend, if you’re stuck at home because of bad weather brought on by Hurricane Irene (or God forbid, stuck in an evacuation shelter) may we recommend that you while away the time with a book, and preferably one that involves a hurricane. Because this we do know for sure: nothing beats reading about disasters when you’re in the middle of one, if only since the people in the best disaster books always have it worse than you do. Schadenfreude is as good a reason to read a book as any—and better than a lot.
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
The 1991 storm that took the lives of all aboard the Andrea Gail was legendary before Junger got to it. He just made it immortal. This is nonfiction narrative writing at its best.
Typhoon by Joseph Conrad
Sure, he could find the moral or ethical dilemma in a bowline or a sheepshank, but Conrad was a seaman before he was a novelist, and his descriptions of life on the water are unmatched. In this novella, he describes a South Seas steamer, the Nan Shan, surviving a storm and does it so well you’ll swear the pages are wet. A bonus: the best name for a ship’s commander ever: Capt. MacWhirr.
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
First comes an earthquake, then a tropical storm sweeps across the Thornton family’s Caribbean island. It all winds up with the children aboard a pirate ship, but if you think you know how books about kids and pirates always turn out, think again. You’ll lose sleep to finish this and go to bed completely happy.
Isaac’s StormBy Erik Larson
It would be interesting to make a list of all the storms that someone has labeled Storm of the Century, but you’d have to go a long way to beat the 1900 hurricane that caused the Galveston flood, almost destroyed that city, and left 6,000-12,000 dead in its wake. Telling the tale largely from the point of view of Isaac Cline, a U.S. Weather Bureau official, Larson is at his nimble best as a storyteller.
The author of the Travis McGee mysteries wrote a lot of great pulp novels before he invented his bestselling detective. One of them formed the basis for the movie starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, where Mitchum plays devilish ex-con Max Cady (yes, remade by Scorsese with De Niro, and it’s a movie with a few good moments, but if you want to see pure evil burn right through the screen, you’ll have to go with Mitchum, abetted by one of Bernard Herrmann’s best scores), and yes, there’s a hurricane in it, too. Condominium is a much later MacDonald, a sort of bid to outdo Michener with a big novel about feckless developers on Florida’s Gulf Coast and the whirlwind they reap for building on the sand. The characters are cardboard, but MacDonald’s descriptions of a hurricane are as good as they come.
Robinson Crusoeby Daniel Defoe
Crusoe’s adventures kick off with a hurricane that shipwrecks him somewhere off the coast of South America. It’s a memorable storm, created by an author who probably never saw one (he never saw the plague attack London either but that didn’t slow him down a whit when it came to writing about it). But as storm aftermaths go, this one pretty well retires the prize.
Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938by R.A. Scotti
This storm swept across seven Northeastern states and left 682 people dead in its wake. Scotti, a novelist, knows how to knit a narrative together that assembles the testimony of dozens of survivors, some of them famous, such as Katharine Hepburn, and some of them otherwise lost to time, like the man who watches as both his children are swept away before him.
Consider this the biography of an ocean. There’s much more to it than storm stories, but there are more than enough of those, the Atlantic being, well, not very pacific.
Lunatic Windby William Price Fox
The fictional parts of this novel recreating the experience of surviving 1989’s Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina are not great, but Fox’s descriptions of the storm itself are wonderful. His reputation as a humorous writer has always obscured just how beautifully he writes, but here it’s plain for all to see. And the setup is equally canny: a couple of kids who travel toward the storm to experience it firsthand. This brand of idiocy is far more common in storm areas than you might think, and Price gets a nod just for documenting an especially perverse corner of storm lore.