Nancy Lord on Bill Streever’s “Cold”

What brilliant marketing–to publish a book that celebrates cold, in the middle of a hot summer. In those parts of the world where people actually vacation (as in relax with a book) in summer, as opposed to Alaska where we do the opposite during our all-too-brief go-for-it season, what could be more pleasurable than reading about animals that freeze into icy lumps, the search for absolute zero (460 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), death by hypothermia, and piloerection (look it up.) Outsiders have clearly taken to Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, the new (first) book by Anchorage’s Bill Streever. The book has already won a raft of great reviews including not one but two in the New York Times, one of which graced the cover of its Sunday book review section. See this one and this one, too.

I’m jealous, of course. Not just at the book’s success, which is well-deserved, but at the very idea of it. As a reader I was completely absorbed in all the stories of Arctic and Antarctic adventurers, deadly blizzards, refrigeration inventors, animal and plant adaptations, the ice ages that have come and gone—loving every detail about the workings of bird feathers and migrations, how some crazy guy rode way high in a gas balloon to look at snowflakes, and the cold’s influence on Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein. As a writer I was paying attention to the “how” of it. How did this writer put together such a wealth of material and make it so fascinating?

In his acknowledgments section (the first thing I read in any book) Streever says he was inspired in his approach by Robert Twigger’s The Extinction Club, a book I don’t know but now would like to—credited with being part of the “new nature writing” that combines musing and wit with the story, in Twigger’s case, of a species of deer facing extinction. Cold reminds me, as well, of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky’s very anecdotal (including recipes) narrative that convinces even the most fish-adverse reader that that species and everything it’s touched are the most interesting things ever heard of. Cold has this same effect on me—the science, history, personal history, musing, quotations, all of it racing me through what amounts to, practically, a history of the world.

Structurally, Cold is arranged in chapters corresponding to months of a year, with the author located within those months—whether he’s on the North Slope looking for polar bear dens, swimming in the pool at Chena Hot Springs, or sitting in a Boston traffic jam and thinking about the end of our ice age. The narrative takes off from these focal points, in a kind of organic growth where one idea leads to the next. Everything’s loosely–sometimes very loosely–connected to cold-related topics, and the whole is always in motion, returning to certain images (like the “pet” caterpillars he placed in his freezer and hoped to revive), never repeating but, instead, circling outward into greater explorations.

But it’s not just content and structure that make Streever’s book so terrific. It’s the quality of that thing we call “voice,” the way he speaks to readers—friendly, informed, curious and passionate himself about all things cold, funny. He’s astonishingly skilled at synthesizing what he’s read, experienced, and knows into prose that’s clear, lively, even poetic. He breaks down scientific concepts into stories and explanations that are readily understood by us English majors, and he does this without distorting or oversimplifying the science or by talking down to readers.

If all scientists could only write so well, we might have a scientifically literate citizenry. And, boy, could we use that. Writers who are not scientists might also learn something from this book about how to approach and present science.

This is one book where readers will not want to overlook the extensive “notes” in the back. Streever not only cites his sources there but elaborates on them and on the subjects they address, fascinating esoterica all.

Quibbles? As much as I love this book, there are two things I found a little curious. Streever brings to life all sorts of historical personages, but he’s oddly reticent about naming any of the living. In describing his own adventures, he refers to “companions,” leaving them nameless and faceless. Even when he’s interviewing other scientists, they’re referred to as, for example, “the Russian.” (This appears to be Vladimir Romanovsky, the permafrost expert at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, oft-quoted in the media.) I’m all for protecting the identities of people who, for one reason or another, don’t want to be identified in a book, but the contrast here between the living and the dead just seemed odd to me.

My second minor protest has to do with Streever’s handling of the global warming/climate change issue. He doesn’t avoid it; it underlies the whole concept of the book, the celebration of cold and the awareness that there’s less of it as the earth warms. I just wish Streever had connected the dots more. He’s clearly concerned, and the final chapter goes the farthest to be explicit about the dangers of permafrost thaw and the loss of sea ice. He explicitly blames the Industrial Revolution and the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. But he also quotes several deniers—those who want to believe global warming has nothing to do with human activities—without challenging them. He finds “good news” in the fact that the planet isn’t warming evenly and that a change in ocean currents may make Europe “pleasantly frigid.”

Who is this Bill Streever? I don’t know him, and he seems to have caught other Alaskan writers by surprise, as in where has this amazing writer been hiding? If you Google around, you’ll find he works for BP (that’s the Beyond Petroleum oil company) on the North Slope. Nothing I’ve read or heard suggests that he’s anything but an honest biologist, one who has previously worked for universities and governments, authored many papers, and volunteered for worthy causes. I don’t believe anything about his present day-job compromises this book. We can surely use more of his kind–scientists who can write, not just readably, but beautifully, and who present the world as they know it with such thoughtfulness and delight.

Check out the book’s website. There’s some great stuff there, including a short video of Streever building a snow cave.

3 thoughts on “Nancy Lord on Bill Streever’s “Cold””

  1. Wonderful to get yet another good report on this book. I'm hoping it's in stock in Anchorage now, as I'm anxious to read it.

  2. Thanks for the review, Nancy. I had not paid any attention at all to this book, but now I must put it on the long list of books that I one day hope to get to.

    I sent you an email last week. Did you receive it?

  3. Comments from Michael E., received by email and printed here with his permission:

    "I read Streever's book before any of the rave reviews in the NYT appeared and had already formed my own, less favorable opinion. I was really surprised at most everybody else's response to it. (I think, though not comparable at all, of recent Alaska nonfiction books that made it "big," Mirand Weiss' is by far the more accomplished one.)

    For starters, Cold's structure of 12 chapters according to the month of the year is a conceit, trying to give form to what really is a mess. (The entire work reminds me more of blogging than of finely crafted writing.) The connections between individual thoughts / chapters / anecdotes are extremely tenuous, and much of the material is only very tangentially related to the book's theme. The individual parts appear as mere summaries (often rather superficial ones) of primary sources, and the original parts less than original (in the sense of captivating): many of his "adventures" do not only not take place in cold places but hardly qualify as adventures — and therefore I found the subtitle misleading. As for originality of concept, Mariana Gosnell (in: Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance) did it before, and did a much better job of it.

    My summary would be: worth reading as a survey of the topic, for the facts; hard to stomach from a writer's perspective. If this indeed represents the best / most entertaining of science writing, what about the books of Mary Roach, E.O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and others?"

    Fascinating discourse. Now I'm even more eager to have a look at this book…

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