Solid, richly researched history of polar exploration, not as dazzling as Pierre Berton's recent Arctic Grail (p. 1111), but more ambitious in that Maxtone-Graham (The Only Way to Cross; Liners to the Sun) covers the conquest of both the Arctic and Antarctica. ""Polar explorers were the astronauts of their day,"" writes Maxtone-Graham, suggesting the obsessiveness, valor, and high adventure that marked the heyday of polar exploration (roughly 1820-1920). This peculiar field attracted oddballs from the start, and Maxtone-Graham's most memorable passages examine little-known but extraordinary trailblazers of the mid-1800's--such as Elisha Kent Kane, the first US polar explorer, who adopted Eskimo survival techniques and liked to dine on puppies and rats (""arctic deer,"" he called them). Disasters abound: from the American-based Greeley and De Long expeditions to the British Scott tragedy, the record turns black with tales of cannibalism, starvation, scurvy, and murder. The Poles surrendered their secrets reluctantly, after persistent probings by men of immense courage and stubbornness--Nansen, Andree, Peary, Cook, Shackleton, Wilson, Amundsen--all of whose stories Maxtone-Graham retells with great flair for drama but no new revelations. Peary and Cook, every polar historian's litmus test, receive standard (and probably well-earned) judgments: Cook was a fraud, Peary a monomaniac whose claims remain in limbo. In sum: a handy, reliable history of one of humanity's stranger enterprises.