Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for July, 2013

Irons in the Fire

Posted by nliakos on July 12, 2013

by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1997)

The first (eponymous) piece in this collection has McPhee following a brand inspector around Nevada. What is a brand inspector, you wonder? Have you forgotten your cowboy stories? Brand inspectors inspect the registered brands (and earmarks) on cattle, with the aim to reduce cattle rustling, which is apparently alive and well in the (formerly?) Wild West.  This is a technique McPhee often uses. To learn about something, he attaches himself to someone who does it for a living (see previous post, Brigade de Cuisine and The Pinball Philosophy). It personalizes the sometimes arcane topics of his essays. In this case, the whole idea of raising cattle for meat is repellent to me, and the treatment of the cows and calves by ranchers and rustlers alike is cold-blooded and cruel, but the brand inspector’s lifestyle and special abilities (to recognize brands McPhee cannot even see and to read the story of the theft of calves from the ground, for example) were fascinating to learn about.

Release describes how a blind writer’s life is transformed by early text-to-speech software.

In Virgin Forest is about a small tract of natural forest in New Jersey. It compares virgin and managed forests: the former are “messy.” It reminded me of the woods in Seneca Creek State Park, near my house. Except when a tree blocks a trail, fallen trees are left to decompose where they fall. It does look messy, but this little essay deepened my appreciation for the messiness.

The Gravel Page is about forensic geology, the art of using geological matter (rocks, dirt, sand, pebbles, gravel) to solve a crime. Interesting stuff, although I find I can’t get the gory details of the torture of Enrique Camarena Salazar, the D.E.A. agent who was kidnapped, tortured and killed by drug lords in Mexico in 1985, out of my mind. McPhee also details how forensic geologists solved the murder of Ad Coors (of the brewery family) and recounts the fascinating story, unknown to me, about how Japan sent 9,000 bombs via paper balloons across the Pacific to bomb America during World War II. Some of them made it, and one of them actually killed six people (five children and a minister’s wife). Forensic geologists figured out where the balloons were being launched.

I remember reading Duty of Care before; it’s about tires, their persistence in nature after they are no longer useful, some of the places where they are collected in astonishing quantities, and some of the ways people have come up with to recycle them. A tire pond, tire fires, mosquitoes and more. McPhee writes, :You don’t have to stare long at that pile before the thought occurs to you that those tires were once driven by the Friends of the Earth. They are not just the used tires of bureaucrats, ballplayers, and litter-strewing rock-deafened ninja-teen-aged nerds. They are everybody’s tires. They are Environmental Defense Fund tires, Rainforest Action Network tires, Wilderness Society tires…. No one is innocent of scrapping those tires.”

Rinard at Manheim is unusual in that it is almost entirely in the first person of someone other than the writer: Rinard, a friend of McPhee’s who deals in “exotic” automobiles (the kind normal people do not aspire to). McPhee’s own cryptic notes and explanations are interspersed among Rinard’s monologue, in square brackets and italic type. Rinard names no less than three cars which are “the ultimate exotic”: the Lamborghini Countach, the Testarossa, and the Porsche 928 S4. Sometimes McPhee’s comments contrast starkly with Rinard’s. Rinard says, “E-Type Jaguar…. Generally voted the most beautiful car ever designed.” McPhee adds, [In front view, a cross between a cat and a chipmunk.] The essay is only five pages long, which is about right for me on this topic.

Travels of the Rock, the last essay in the collection, is geological in nature again. The Rock is Plymouth Rock, never walked upon by the Pilgrims, much smaller than we assume it to be, broken in pieces and scattered around the country in dust and chips and chunks but somehow revered, although widely misunderstood. A docent there reported to McPhee some of the questions she has been asked by tourists:

  • “How did he get all those animals on that boat?”
  • “Where are the Niña and the Pinta?”
  • “Why doesn’t the rock say 1492?” (It says 1620.)
  • “Where is the sword?”

Plymouth Rock did not wait for the Pilgrims to land forever. Itself a traveler, it made its way to Plymouth Bay from (probably) the Atlantica Terrane, a largely undeformed piece of continent possibly originating in Africa: hence, Travels of the Rock.

It annoys me that I can’t find anywhere (in the book or on the web) the original publication date of any of these essays, which were certainly all published in The New Yorker, but probably not all in 1997.

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Giving Good Weight

Posted by nliakos on July 4, 2013

by John McPhee (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979)

I’m on summer break, yet I haven’t posted in over a month! Wherefore, you may ask? Haven’t you read anything in a month? Well, yes, I have, but I haven’t finished anything, except for a “medical thriller” I read on the plane to Paris (and finished up a few days after we got there), the title of which I can’t even remember. I bought a magazine in Strasbourg for the flight home (Cerveau et Psycho–which, interestingly, has several articles that cite Dan Ariely’s research), and I have been reading that. But I had borrowed four early John McPhee collections from McKeldin Library over spring break and hadn’t gotten around to reading them. (Faculty can keep books out for a long time–about a year!) I finally started reading the first one, and as I spent a lot of time in the hospital this week with my sister, who broke her kneecap and needed surgery, I finally had time to read. While she was sleeping, I was reading. And I finished the book yesterday.

This particular collection includes four long pieces and one shorter one, all published in The New Yorker between 1975 and 1979. I think I read the title piece a long time ago, but I reread it. The others were new to me.

Giving Good Weight is about farmers’ markets, in particular the Greenmarket in New York City. McPhee not only interviewed the vendors; he became one of them, selling vegetables for Hodgson Farms of Newburgh, New York. With his usual flair for dialogue, McPhee recounts whole conversations, which I can never figure out how he remembers; he takes notes but does not record conversations.  His descriptions bring the Greenmarket alive in the reader’s mind. You can see (and almost taste) the fruits and vegetables, see and hear the people as you read. Farmers’ markets are perhaps more common today than they were in the seventies; having shopped at a few, I can now better appreciate the essay.

The Atlantic Generating Station tells how Public Service Electric & Gas Company in New Jersey (the same company we bought our power from when I was growing up in Hackensack, New Jersey) conceived the idea of building a floating nuclear power station in the ocean off the Jersey coast. The power station was never built, but McPhee takes us through the long and expensive process of planning, designing, locating, and modeling what might have been. It was fascinating.

The Pinball Philosophy is a ten-page profile of J. Anthony Lukas, a writer and pinball champion. In these few pages, McPhee brings Lukas to life, and the reader becomes privy to a world he or she would otherwise never know.

The Keel of Lake Dickey is vintage McPhee, canoeing the St. John River in Maine with seven friends and imagining the lake that will drown the wild river when the planned Dickey-Lincoln Dam is built. McPhee is not a rabid environmentalist, at least not in his writing, which tends to be pretty even-handed, but reading this, I felt regret for the loss of such a beautiful river in order to generate only 1% of Maine’s power. Thus I was pleased to find this article, which explains that the project was never completed (or even begun).

The final piece in the collection is Brigade de Cuisine, a wonderful portrait of a chef whom the reader knows only as “Otto” (not his real name), who with his wife Anne (her real name, but not the one she is known by), owned an unusual (unnamed) restaurant “in the region of New York City.” This self-effacing man did not want himself or his restaurant to be recognizable to the readers of The New Yorker! Imagine that. McPhee spent over a year watching, asking questions, taking notes, and eating the food this one-man brigade de cuisine produced; the result is this beautiful essay about a dying breed, a chef who does literally everything in his kitchen (except the desserts, which his wife makes)–he has no kitchen staff!  From shopping to preparing every last item on his ever-changing menu, “Otto” does it all, working fifteen-hour days. Like so many of McPhee’s human subjects, “Otto” is unique. Or is it just that in this writer’s hands, everyone becomes a fascinating subject?

For another take on the first and last essays in the collection, see Jonathan Taylor’s blogpost. For an update on “Otto” and his restaurant, read the comments.

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