Jan 6, 2010

Cold by Bill Streever

Cold by Bill Steever

Cold is one of the most interesting non-fiction books I have ever read, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to explain why properly. I'm not even sure how to classify it: it's a science book, yes. But it's also a natural history; a social history of Arctic exploration; a book about our relationship not only with cold weather and cold places but with our idea of them; an environmental plea; and a personal account of one man's passion for cold and all the natural wonders that surround it.

I learned so much from this book. If I began to list some of the facts I learned they might seem a bit random, but Cold doesn't feel random at all. The book is divided into twelve chapters, each named after a month, and it follows the cycle of the seasons. Bill Streever, a biologist from Alaska, uses an approach that includes a mix of personal reflections and research. But this works better than it sounds, and better than in any book of this kind I've read before.

Usually the problem I have with books that mix facts with memoir-ish sections is that the latter fail to capture my interest. But I was as interested in Streever's thoughts on his surroundings as I was in hibernation, migration, the signs of hypothermia, ice ages and glaciers, Arctic foxes, the "Children's Blizzard" of 1888, the Little Ice Age in Europe, or the tragic endings of several early 20th century expeditions to the North and South Poles. It certainly helps that Bill Steever is a fantastic writer: not only does he travel to all sorts of interesting places, but he truly manages to make them come alive for the reader. And his passion for his topic is so contagious that it will hardly leave anyone indifferent. It's all so fascinating I couldn't put Cold down. I normally read non-fiction at a much slower pace than I do fiction, but I devoured this book in only a few days.

Though my definition of "cold" probably doesn't even include the kind of temperatures Streever deals with in Alaska, I love cold weather. There's something about it that makes the world seem more vibrant; that makes me feel alive in a way warm days never do. There's nothing I love better than cold, crisp winter mornings when I can hear the frost cracking under my feet. Cold does not romanticize this kind of weather at all - the descriptions of the consequences of frostbite or hypothermia and of the suffering and discomfort Arctic explores endured are pretty horrifying - but it does capture the kind of awe it can inspire.

Cold ends on a sad note: at first Streever focuses on natural wonders, but by the end of the book he writes about our environmental impact; about how so much of what he loves is likely to disappear in the near future. His tone is... not quite one of resignation, but certainly one of quiet sadness, which makes his point all the more convincing. This closure doesn't feel heavy-handed, but honest and necessary. Cold wouldn't be as powerful a book without it.

Other Opinions:
Page 247 (Thank you so much for the recommendation, Gavin!)



  1. This sounds beautiful. I can never explain properly why it is that I love cold weather but really, really dislike warm weather. Something about breathing cold air is so life-affirming.

    This is going on my list.

  2. Although not my usual fare, this sounds absolutely great! Of course, since it's 2 degrees here (and that is Fahrenheit!) with a -14 wind chill, I don't really need to read about Cold right now!!

    Great review!!

  3. Sounds very interesting... and appropriate for the weather at the moment, too!

  4. I seem to have an attraction to books that involve snow, ice and cold. I want to read them all whilst watching the snow falling outside my window. I would definitely want to read this, as it sounds wonderful.

  5. Quick note to Vivienne - you should read Smilla's Sense of Snow. You almost have to bundle up just to read the thing, plus it is a great crime thriller!

    Ana, I think you did a great job of explaining the book. I am captivated by the cover. I always say I prefer fiction, but if a non-fiction is written as well as this sounds, I'm there.

  6. Other than juvenile nonfiction, I've not found any nonfiction that works for me outside of memoirs yet. And even memoirs I can only take so much of.

  7. Okay, so I think I told you about my devious plan--buying this for Rich. But now I'm thinking I might need to ditch the underhandedness and just buy it for myself. After all, if I buy it for him, I feel like I have to at least let him read it first...and what if I just can't wait?!!

  8. Gavin's review made me want to read this too, and now your review has pushed me over the edge! :p

  9. Sounds like a good book- and perfect for the weather right now (cold enough almost for snow again, here). As I was reading your review I kept thinking of Icebound, a book set in Antarctica- now that's cold! I'm adding this one to my TBR right now!

  10. Sounds really good! I live in a hot country, and cold weather holds a special charm for me. I can lose myself in the snow between the pages even though there is a warm wind blowing outside.

  11. So yeah, I'm going to read this later on in the year when it stops being bloody freezing out. (Bloody freezing = lows in the twenties and teens. Aah, the South.) I think a book about cold would be nicest in the summertime. :)

  12. I don't like cold weather at all, so I've been whining a lot lately. (It's not supposed to be this cold in the South.) The book does sound fascinating and well written, though.

  13. This sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the review!

  14. I'm reading this now and I'm loving every page of it. I couldn't agree more with everything you've said here. Though my favorite season is fall, I'm a big fan of winter. Great review as usual Nymeth!

  15. Oh this sounds wonderful!!! I see what you mean now about you having a long gushing post about cold weather :p This is definitely going on my wishlist. I need to read more nonfic this year and this certainly sounds like the kind of nonfic I need to be reading!

  16. It's so fascinating to me what authors can write about and make super-interesting. Especially with non-fiction! There is so much to say on seemingly bland and innocuous or just completely random topics. For instance, my next read is about taxidermy :-)

  17. This sounds so awesome! I'm cold just reading your review...

  18. Sounds like an important book to read!

  19. Although not a book I might usually gravitate towards, this sounds like I would really like it. I actually don't like the cold unless I am "visiting" it. I'm a California girl all the way (sad to say).

  20. From your description, this book reminds me a bit of Summer World by Bernd Heinrich. If you haven't read that one yet, I highly recommend it to you. It's a really fascinating and rich book. We actually have a few relatives who live in Alaska, and I would love to visit there and see it for myself, it sounds unbearably beautiful by all accounts. I am off to look up more about this book...it sounds like an incredible book. Great review!

  21. Ana, you always seem to choose the most unique books. I love that this is a non fiction book all about the weather. And your review fascinates me. I'm adding it to my TBR list for sure!

  22. I don't think I could that book during the winter, but it would be great for summer. I'm a Spring/Autumn type of person, cold and hot bother me equally :P

  23. I HATE to be cold...I don't know if I could bear to read this one. Even the cover makes me shiver.

  24. This does sound really interesting! I know little to nothing about the Arctic regions, so maybe this is something I should pick up in order to become more informed. ;p

    I saw a show on NatGeo where this photographer talked about his new book focusing on animals in cold places. He had one interesting story where he was scuba diving in Alaska somewhere (I think) taking photos of a seal, and the seal kept bringing him penguins in an attempt to feed him. The seal essentially thought, or so they think, that he was some helpless predator that could not hunt for itself so she felt as though she needed to help him. It was all just really interesting although scuba diving in freezing water definitely doesn't appeal to me, lolz.

  25. Lena, I know just what you mean :)

    Stephanie: Another thing this book taught me is that 32F is 0 Celsius. That's as cold as it gets here - it's rare for temperatures to be negative during the day. So those temperatures are VERY hard for me to even imagine!

    JoAnn: Yes! It was nice to snuggle by the heater as I read it :P

    Vivienne: Me too! They're just marvellous. Have you read East by Edith Pattou, btw? If not, I highly recommend it :)

    Sandy: *adds Smilla's Sense of Snow to her list too*

    Amanda: Memoirs are actually one of my least favourite forms of non-fiction. I need to be REALLY interested in the writer to like them, basically :P

    Debi: Well, I can't imagine Rich minding if you read it first ;)

    Eva, I think you'll enjoy it!

    Jeane: It's cold enough for snow here too, which is rare! I need to look up Icebound.

    Hazra: I know what you mean. Though it does get cold here in the winter, it almost never gets cold enough for snow. I've only seen it a couple of times and find it fascinating!

    Jenny: I read this the weekend after Christmas, so I was basically wrapped in a blanked and sitting by the heater the whole time :P

    Kathy: I like it when it's cold but *I*'m not cold, if that makes sense :P

    Christy: You're welcome!

    J.S. Peyton: I'm so glad to hear you're enjoying it too :D

    Chris: It is the kind of nonfic you need to be reading!

    Aarti: Well, that sounds nothing if not unusual :P I look forward to hearing about it!

    Rebecca, I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

    Staci: It is, but a fun one too!

    Kathleen: Well, to each their own :P

    Zibilee: I'm definitely adding Summer World to my list - thanks! And Alaska does sound absolutely gorgeous.

    Christina, I hope you enjoy it :D

    Joanne: Well, to be honest my idea of cold doesn't even begin to compare to yours, or Kelly's :P

    Jill: I don't like being cold either, but love it when it's cold and I'm warm :P

    She: That sounds like such a cool show! He actually mentions a region of Japan where women traditionally dive in ice cold waters to fish..WITHOUT special suits or anything. They have a special name (something divers), but I can't remember it. I'd love to read more on that, though!

  26. Sounds like the perfect book to be reading in this awful weather we've been having lately. I usually avoid books like this but Cold sounds kind of interesting!

  27. Nymeth- Your review is wonderful and I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

  28. I had a friend who was going on and on in December about a book she was reading about cold... this must have been it! It sounds exactly like the kind of non-fiction I love, so I'll have to check it out.

  29. Oh this book sounds so good. Although I may have to save it for the summer when we deal with 100+ temps here in Texas :)

  30. I love when non-fiction just grips you! I just read Longitude and thought it was fascinating!

    Oh, and I used to live in Fairbanks, Alaska and traveled all over for basketball. And yeah...it can get C.O.L.D. Schools wouldn't close unless in was -65 or below. One day it hit -64 but we were traveling to Anchorage so we thought it had to be warmer than Fairbanks. Oh those were good times ;)

  31. This sounds absolutely wonderful, and so perfect for this time of year. Heading to the library tomorrow! Have you heard of the Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding? A beautiful novel about one man surviving a winter alone in the Artic. I think you might enjoy it.

    Lovely review, thanks Nymeth.

  32. Fabulous, fabulous review! I hadn't heard of this, but it's on the list now. (Incidentally, some day I will count the number of times I say that in response to one of your reviews!)

    I love a chronological setup in this kind of book; some of my favourite non-fiction, particularly anything to do with the natural world, is set up this way. For whatever reason, my brain really responds to that format.

  33. Oh cool...I'm going to try to read this in July or August.

  34. Sounds like a really good book. I'm very much afraid that I would find it too sad; the loss of polar ecosystems and the impending extinction of wild polar bears is more than enough to make me want to crawl into a bottle of good scotch...

  35. I didn't read all these comments to see if anyone else suggested this, but have you read The Childrens Blizzard by David Laskin? It has images of the blizzard of 1888 that I will never forget. Read it, if you get a chance.

  36. Ladytink: I really enjoyed reading it while it was cold outside. I was warm inside, of course, which made all the difference :P

    Gavin, thank you so much for bringing it to my attention!

    Fyrefly: I think this is definitely your kind of book :)

    Iliana: lol, yeah...you'll want to imagine yourself somewhere cold then :P

    Amanda: He writes quite a bit about Fairbanks. I'd love to visit Alaska someday, even though those temperatures are hard for me to even phantom :P

    Mariel: I haven't, but I'll definitely look for it. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Kiirstin: I love that kind of setup too! And it worked so well here.

    Bybee: A good choice :P

    Rich: I know...it's incredibly depressing :\

    Bonnie: No, but Bill Streever mentions it! I definitely will.


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