Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance by Mariana Gosnell

 

An amazing and comprehensive book on a fascinating, often overlooked substance

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This is, hands down, one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read.

Some time ago, I became interested in how ice was harvested, transported and stored in the years before the advent of electricity. I couldn’t find much on the topic and so filed it away unresolved. Recently, I stumbled upon Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, by Mariana Gosnell and wondered if it would answer my questions. It did, and so much more.

Gosnell is a tremendous writer who tackles the surprisingly complex subject of ice with amazing depth of knowledge, a broad scope and an approachable style that makes a long book (the hardback lists 576 pages) zip by. From how ice forms to how it behaves in extreme environments, from under the ice caps of Earth to inside craters at the poles of Mercury, from kitchen refrigerators to turn-of-the-century ice houses (finally, I get it!), from ice breakers to ice trucks, from icy noctilucent clouds to snowflakes, from speed skaters to skiers, from polar bears to penguins, this book should not be missed.

The one tiny complaint I have is that the descriptive, haunting scene of an ice truck crashing through an ostensibly frozen Siberian lake, and the colleagues of the doomed driver standing around the edge of the hole watching the headlights sink slowly out of sight in the inky water, will stick with me. In fact, I read most of this book on a trip to Lapland in northern Finland to see the aurora borealis (mission accomplished). Lapland knows a little something about ice, especially in the winter when the temps hover below zero and sunlight only lasts a few hours. We decided to take a dog sled ride. It was -30 F and as the dogs set out across the frozen lake, we hit a puddle of water (no doubt thawed by thin ice below us and warm currents circulating near the surface from trapped heat). As we splashed through the unexpected water, I had a horrific, gut-sick feeling that we were going through, never to be heard from again. The dogs didn’t seem to even notice, just kept trundling along.

Short of possibly giving you icy nightmares, I found this book to be extremely enjoyable and informative. Even if you aren’t interested in ice now, you will be by the time you finish this book. Don’t miss it.

—Clark Hays