14 Books to Read, Come Hell or High Water

Part two of our H₂0 series—opening the literary floodgates

Jan Truter/Flickr
Jan Truter/Flickr

This far into summer, we’re used to the daily afternoon rain showers that beat down for a while, vanishing just in time for cocktails. It’s no fun getting wet, but read the following from the safety of your armchair. There’s water, water everywhere.

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard


It’s 2145 and London is a tropical lagoon-filled paradise. Solar radiation has melted the icecaps, flooding and heating the world simultaneously. Nature is taking back what is rightfully hers, even when it comes to the human psyche—how rational can one be when it’s permanently too hot to think?

River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny by Jeffrey Tayler


The Lena River flows from southern Siberia northward for almost 3,000 miles until it drains into the Arctic Ocean. Jeffrey Tayler floats down it on an inflatable raft with an irascible Soviet army veteran for a guide, retracing the journey the Cossacks made under Ivan the Terrible in the 17th century. Freezing water, floods, hungry bears, and a mere six weeks of “summer” prove that this was no luxury cruise. But then there’s also the solace of such extreme isolation, especially as the surging river carries them through deep gorges under the midnight sun.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain


Even if you haven’t cracked it open since junior year of high school, you know the story of Huck and Jim rafting down the roiling Mississippi River, seeking adventure and escape. Read this classic again and after the “rumbling, grumbling, tumbling” storm, be sure to heed the man with the “ghastly” face that the pair finds in a flooded house floating downstream. If you’re in the mood for a more recent Mississippi journey, try Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory, which opens with a flooded paean to Huck’s river.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad


The gentle lapping of the tide lulls Marlow into recounting his adventures as a steamboat captain for an ivory trading company. From the mouth of the Thames, we plunge into the heart of Africa, where the horrors of meeting the mysterious Kurtz begin to unfold. The intensity of the story and Conrad’s prose are all the more astounding given that English was his third language.

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan


Chapter 1 begins with a deep grave—Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood”—and the rest of the story digs even further into the saturated soil of a 1940s Mississippi Delta farm, where a young mother and two war-ravaged brothers struggle against racism and inescapable secrets.

Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Natasha Trethewey


Pulitzer prize–winning poet Natasha Trethewey combines poetry, photography, personal letters, journalism and memoir, as she deftly veers between ruin and rebuilding, memory and action in the five years since Katrina.

Mink River by Brian Doyle


Doyle, who died from brain cancer this past May, was known for his lilting, lyrical prose. Here it runs and rambles through the interlaced stories of an Oregon town on the drizzly North Coast. There’s rain, mud, a thinking river, and a philosophizing crow. Read The Plover for more maritime adventures and dip into Doyle’s 172 “Epiphanies” columns which ran on our website from 2013–16.

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald


Basements might flood, but houses don’t often sink entirely. In Fitzgerald’s Booker prize–winning novel, though, it’s a daily concern for the eccentric homeowners living, floating really, on houseboats moored alongside the Thames. Perhaps because Fitzgerald herself lived for years on such a boat, her eccentric characters bob through their own unmoorings in charming but unvarnished British fashion.

“The Hetch Hetchy Valley” by John Muir


“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread.” Heard that before? It’s one of the many aphorisms in Muir’s essay decrying the state of California’s decision to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley—as beautiful as nearby Yosemite Valley—to provide clean alpine water for San Francisco. A century later, you can hike around the reservoir and imagine what rock wonders lie below the surface. If you’re itching for more Muir, find a modified version of this denouncement in his book The Yosemite.

The Epic of Gilgamesh


Written on 12 incomplete clay tablets 4,000 years ago, this epic tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his wild friend Enkidu as they battle for power, glory, and knowledge in ancient Mesopotamia. The new English translation by Stephen Mitchell reads as smoothly as a novel, easily introducing the reader into this masterpiece of pre-diluvian literature.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston


Allegedly, this masterpiece took Hurston seven weeks to write. Set in the Deep South, the story follows Janie Crawford as she wades through a life of power and love, and a hurricane that leaves behind a flood of fatal consequences.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh


Between the eastern coast of India and southern Bangladesh lie the Sundarbans, thousands of tiny islands and mangrove forests that lace the region where the Ganges debouches into the Bay of Bengal. Tidal floods constantly threaten those who live in this domain of the tiger, including the unlikely trio in Ghosh’s novel, who are thrown into a world of political and ecological turmoil.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett


Cynthia Barnett shows the same enthusiasm for rain as the defensive weather-lover in the beginning of Proust’s Swann’s Way: “As if there could be anything more interesting!” From the history of mackintoshes all the way back to the deluge that filled the world’s oceans four billion years ago, Barnett showers the reader with facts, figures, and a zeal for the little droplets we take for granted.

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo


This is certainly a different sort of flood, but with similarly destructive effects. When a 50-foot-tall steel tank collapsed, 2.3 million gallons of molasses descended upon metropolitan Boston at a speed of 35 miles per hour, killing 21 people and leaving the area a sticky swamp for months. Molasses seeped into every notch and crack and on hot days for years afterward there remained a treacly miasma to remind every urban nostril of the unexpected disaster.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Our Editors include Sudip Bose, Bruce Falconer, Stephanie Bastek, Jayne Ross, and Ellie Eberlee.


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