Monday, August 10, 2009

Bill Streever's "Cold"

Bill Streever is a biologist who lives and works in Alaska. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, and reported the following:
From page 99 of Cold: “During the Little Ice Age, the cod fishery in Iceland failed as certain fish moved south to warmer water.” But the page also mentions birds, the red fox, the brown bear, the tiger, the Norse abandonment of Greenland, and the polar explorers De Long, Greely, Peary, Cook, Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton.

So, does page 99 capture the essence of Cold? Yes and no. It hints at the book’s diversity and its density. It aligns with Mary Roach’s description in the New York Times Book Review, which describes Cold as “a love song to science and scientists, to Earth and everything that lives on and flies over and tunnels under it.” And it wraps around to previous passages and foreshadows passages to come, displaying one mechanism that allows Cold to barrage readers with information while avoiding the full frontal attack of a textbook.

On the other hand, page 99 misses the first person nature of Cold. Alternating sections of Cold begin in the first person, pulling readers into a frigid setting. From page 169: “It is February twentieth and forty-one below in Fairbanks.” It is largely these first person passages that led another New York Times reviewer, Dwight Gardner, to write, “Streever’s prose does what E.L. Doctorow said good writing is supposed to do, which is to evoke sensation in the reader—‘not the fact that it is raining but the feeling of being rained upon.’”

Here is one way to apply the page 99 test: Could a lazy reviewer, reading only page 99, write a decent review? For Cold, I think the answer can only be no. Sorry Ford Madox Ford, but to appreciate Cold, one has to read all 243 pages and all twelve chapters. But on the upside, one can skim the thirty-four pages of notes and, to save time, the index can be skipped in its entirety.
Read an excerpt from Cold, and learn more about the book and author at Bill Streever's website.

--Marshal Zeringue