Wednesday, January 8, 2020

SNOW :: Giles Whittell

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

When Giles Whittell's mother read him Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, it made an instant, indelible impression, like "air conditioning in book form" for an eight-year-old in the thick of a Nigerian summer. As an adult, Whittell's fixation gave rise to Snow, a comprehensive look at the science behind, impact of and somewhat surprisingly vast cultural influence of flakes. "Snow irrigates. It gives skiers something to slide on. It covers mountains... like thick icing. It is the only thing on Earth that brings quiet to New York City, and it makes curlicues out of molasses."

From this soul-felt introduction, U.K. journalist Whittell shovels into heady science, including the mystery of snow's formation. "We can edit genes and create membranes a single atom thick, but we still don't know how snowflakes grow." Not that we aren't trying. Machines at Caltech create "the world's most perfect artificial snowflakes" for study. Who knew dust was a key? But why always six sides? The complex answer lies in angles, atoms, molecules and temperature.

Further evidence of the extraordinary nature of snow follows in chapters about snow's impact on the natural world (how polar bears came to be), culture (star of the most courageous stunt in cinema history) and transport (for survival and for chasing Olympic medals). Snow isn't all fun and games; it's big business, and a marker of seasons that some take for granted. Although our relationship with snow is "complicated and expensive," we must pay attention lest snow's retreat become irreversible.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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