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Road Reads

Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page P02

BOOK: "Life on the Ice," by Roff Smith (National Geographic, $16)

TARGET AUDIENCE: People who love winter, particularly at a distance.

How you regard Antarctica depends on your attitude: "Empty the way nothing else in this world is empty," or "Two inches of powder, two miles of base." An Australian journalist, Smith is properly awed by the icy continent, but that hardly makes him tongue-tied. In clear, evocative prose, he makes us feel the "razor winds" and hear the foreboding silence.

Smith takes us to the South Pole, up Erebus (he peers into an active volcano that "can throw lava bombs the size of a sofa") and among the clownish penguins and ill-tempered seals. But his best descriptions are of the people: the McMurdo base bureaucrats who would be at home in any Washington wonkery; the South Pole's "Polies" (the "hillbillies" of Antarctica); the 300-Degree Club members, who run naked from a 200-degree sauna into the minus-100-degree outdoors.

True, in Smith's sketches of the international community there, Americans often come off as dedicated but arrogant. But he's got a real gift for description: After two chapters you'll start to feel chilly; after five you'll be able to see your breath.

-- Jerry V. Haines

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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