Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

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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2 Responses to “Giving Good Weight”

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  2. nliakos said

    To Weight Watchers Dieting: Thank you, I think, but really I did not understand what you wrote.

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