MY NOVELS & TRANSLATIONS
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THE McPHEE SISTERS
The familiar idea that strong female role models create strong women is given fresh treatment in the essays and photographs featured in Girls. Three sisters, novelists Jenny and Martha McPhee and photographer Laura McPhee, believe that girls can become powerful role models for each other. The McPhees spent two years traveling across America to create this chronicle of unforgettable young women. As they explain, “We wanted to look at ordinary girls and record both visually and verbally the extraordinary things that girls do and the drives and desires that lead them to do those things.” The girls they interviewed and photographed are surprising, whip smart, funny, and inspiring – hardly “ordinary.” Among them: Alvina Begay, a cross-country runner living on an Arizona Navajo reservation; Stephanie Formas, a 12-year-old Dallas stock market investor; Jena Malone, a formerly homeless actress whose family once lived in a car; Mina Blyly-Strauss, an orthodox Jew and video artist with tinted blue hair; and Kara-Lee Alexander, a 16-year-old in Maine who fishes for lobster and tuna in her spare time. Also included are stories and photos describing the women of the McPhee family.
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An Elegant Woman
Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.
A profound meditation on memory, history, and legacy, An Elegant Woman follows one woman over the course of the 20th century, taking the reader from a drought-stricken farm in Montana to a yellow Victorian in Maine; from the halls of a psychiatric hospital in London to a wedding gown fitting at Bergdorf Goodman; from a house in small town Ohio to a family reunion at a sweltering New Jersey pig roast. Framed by Isadora’s efforts to retell her grandmother’s journey—and understand her own—the novel is an evocative exploration of the stories we tell ourselves, and what we leave out.
In this Pygmalion tale of a novelist turned bond trader, Martha McPhee brings to life the greed and riotous wealth of New York during the heady days of the second gilded age. India Palmer, living the cash-strapped existence of the writer, is visiting wealthy friends in Maine when a yellow biplane swoops down from the clear blue sky to bring a stranger into her life, one who will change everything. The stranger is Win Johns, a swaggering and intellectually bored trader of mortgage-backed securities. Charmed by India’s intelligence, humor, and inquisitive nature—and aware of her near-desperate financial situation—Win poses a proposition: “Give me eighteen months and I’ll make you a world-class bond trader.” Shedding her artist’s life with surprising ease, India embarks on a raucous ride to the top of the income chain, leveraging herself with crumbling real estate, never once looking back . . . Or does she? With a light-handed irony that is by turns as measured as Claire Messud’s and as biting as Tom Wolfe’s, Martha McPhee tells the classic American story of people reinventing themselves, unaware of the price they must pay for their transformation.
Beth and Cesare meet in Greece, she an American dreamer and he an Italian heir. Their love affair begins in the warmth and brilliance of the Aegean Sea. As their passion spans time and continents, their lives are forever entangled–their love a dizzying, exquisite story of culture, and the bonds we cannot break.
Charismatic therapist Anton Furey is dying, and the tribe he heads–his five children, his wife’s three, and their uniting child, Alice–has returned to Chardin, the farm where they grew up and played out Anton’s vision of communal living. They had been famous for being the new American blended family, their utopian lifestyle chronicled by film crews and reporters. But as Anton grows weaker, the hurts and betrayels of those years boil to the surface, and the children find themselves reliving their knotty intimacies as they struggle to make their peace with Anton–and themselves. With shimmering prose and an acutely observant eye, McPhee had created a portrait of a family that explores the limits, and obligations, of love.
Bright Angel Time
The time is the early 1970s. Eight-year-old Kate and her sisters adopt a life on the road when their divorced mother falls in love with someone new. Introduced to a lifestyle marked by strange freedom, the girls fall into a way of living that is vastly different from the one they knew with their geologist father. And it is with him, amid the beauty of his beloved Grand Canyon, that adult distractions and carelessness finally threaten to explode and ruin Kate’s life. Rich in character, imagery, and humor, and providing a vivid picture of a decade when values and morels were turned upside down, Bright Angel Time is that rarity, a brilliant and moving novel from an authentic talent.
River Of No Return
The idea of the American wilderness has long captivated artists fascinated by the ways in which its unspoiled natural beauty embodies the nation’s identity. This beautifully produced volume celebrates the unsurpassed splendor of a fabled region, while also presenting the environmental complexities of managing a vast landscape in which the needs of ranchers, biologists, miners, tourists, and locals seek a finely delineated balance.
Photographer Laura McPhee follows in the tradition of 19th-century artistic approaches toward the sublime, relying on a large-format view camera to capture images of exquisite color, clarity, and definition. In images spanning all seasons, McPhee depicts the magnificence and history of the Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho. Her subject matter includes the region’s spectacular mountain ranges, rivers, and ranchlands; its immense spaces and natural resources; the effects of mining and devastating wildfires; and the human stories of those who live and work there. Featured texts set McPhee’s photographs in the context of the work of American predecessors including Frederick Sommer and J.B. Jackson, and discuss her working methods and experiences photographing the evolving landscape.
No Ordinary Land
For more than ten years Virginia Beahan and Laura McPhee have traveled the world–from Iceland to Costa Rica, Sri Lanka to New York –exploring the ways people interact with the landscapes in which they live. In Costa Rica, for example, healing waters are enshrined in frescoed concrete; in a Hawaiian garden, mangoes and oranges are protected against the cold in brown paper bag jackets; in Iceland, children play in hot springs created by the runoff of a power plant; in Las Vegas, an artificial volcano erupts on cue. Each of Beahan and McPhee’s extraordinary images captures a point of collision between natural and constructed worlds. In 1987, Laura McPhee and Virginia Beahan began their photographic work together using a large-format camera. Introduction by Rebecca Solnit. Afterword John McPhee.
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Bernini and the Bell Towers
In 1638, the great artist-architect Gianlorenzo Bernini began one of the most ambitious architectural projects of his career: to design and construct massive twin bell towers atop St. Peter’s basilica at the Vatican. But the project failed spectacularly. Bernini’s reputation was permanently tarnished, and the scandal of the bell towers sparked a controversy that persists to this day. What happened? Who was responsible? How did events unfold in this dramatic episode of architectural history?This engaging and beautifully illustrated book tells the complete story of the bell towers for the first time. Presenting a wealth of new visual and documentary evidence, Sarah McPhee reconstructs the entire affair, the architectural and political milieu, the evolution of the designs, and the varying influences of all those involved in the project. McPhee examines the multiple constraints under which Bernini worked, including the ambitions of the pope, the criticisms of rival architects, the financial and political constraints of the building committee, the monumental history of the basilica, and the geology of the site. She reinterprets Bernini’s role as architect and shows convincingly that the failure of the bell tower was not Bernini’s own. Instead, it was the failure of the institution of the Vatican, driven by liturgical and political imperatives, that doomed the project despite the architect’s heroic efforts.
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An American Voter: My Love Affair with Presidential Politics
Sullivan’s debut is a surprisingly suspenseful memoir of her months as an advance person for the Iowa caucus in the 2000 presidential primary campaign of Bill Bradley. The suspense is not in the outcome of the Gore-Bradley face-off, but in whether Sullivan’s political idealism can survive the compromises, inanities and media cynicism in short, the commercialization of the American political process. Sullivan, a 1995 Yale graduate who now teaches at the Bronx School of Law, Government and Justice, joins the Bradley campaign believing he offers a more honest, issue-oriented approach to public policy. But her past indicates no abiding interest in politics, and her commitment to the campaign represents a belated and poignantly drawn personal search for meaning after her father died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. She describes with wit and insight her initiation into political campaigning, the tedium of finding the perfect location for a photo op, the perceived importance of details such as the shape and size of a podium. The youthful political consultants (who routinely change allegiances) are particularly sharply drawn. Sullivan eloquently criticizes the media for reporting storylines rather than candidate positions. Despite the pressure of the campaign, Bradley generally retains his luster, especially in comparison with Gore, who is depicted as primarily a political animal. Readers will like Sullivan and find encouragement in the fact that while her firsthand look at politics makes her flinch, she concludes that participation in the electoral process is worthwhile.
Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams
The notion of dreaming one’s way to greater mental health may seem irresistible; the catch here is that hard work is involved. McPhee, a former staffer at the Cedars-Sinai Sleep Disorders Center in Los Angeles, asserts that lucid dreams, i.e., ones in which the dreamer is actually conscious of dreaming, provide access to the unconscious mind and thus to fuller knowledge of the whole self, which can lead to happiness and self-esteem. Achieving lucid dreaming, however, is no simple feat. Techniques for remembering one’s dreams and for using their incongruities and distortions as cues to conscious observation are detailed. The task then becomes to integrate the conscious and the unconscious, again no simple, short-term task. Beginning with a review of sleep research (e.g., everyone dreams about 100 minutes a night and, yes, in color), McPhee blends science (psychoanalytic and neurological) and somewhat academic self-help to yield pop psychology on a challenging level.
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Ask the Dream Doctor
How many times have you awakened from an emotional dream convinced of its significance yet baffled by its practical meaning in your everyday life? In this remarkable book, dream doctor Charles Lambert McPhee, founder of the celebrated website askthedreamdoctor.com, helps you unlock the hidden meaning in your dreams and transform your waking life. Drawing on hundreds of thousands of dreams sent to his website, he provides expert interpretations based on years of expertise and experience. Alphabetized for easy reference, filled with more than 160 real-life dreams from people around the world, Ask the Dream Doctor will help you unravel many common dream symbols.
In this beguiling study of meteorology and its discontents, Svenvold, a poet and author of Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw, spends the month of May in the colorful caravan of tornado chasers as they pore over weather data in strip-mall parking lots, drive thousands of miles through the Oklahoma-Nebraska corridor searching for thunderheads and agonize over which of the many storm clouds darkening the horizon to pursue. It’s a classic American mixture of high-tech fetishism and barnstorming entertainment, populated by sober meteorologists with the latest forecasting gadgetry and jargon, an IMAX filmmaker hoping to drive his tanklike “Tornado Intercept Vehicle” into the whirlwind and local weathercasters who stage each tornado watch as a “low-tech reality show the size of central Kansas.” The author situates it in the cult of “catastrophilia,” a “commodified version of the… sublime” visible in everything from “torn porn” videos to the Weather Channel’s marketing of weather as consumer accouterment. Svenvold’s usually engaging chronicle of “extreme waiting” for funnel clouds occasionally lapses into extreme writing (“Here was the anti-storm, weather as non-weather,” he broods during an unwelcome bout of clear skies), and his impulse to suck up all information in his path sometimes leads to digressions. But his wry, supple prose vividly captures a heartland made up of the awe-inspiring and the absurd.
“Soul Data is rarely compounded—of wit and music, surface elegance and intellectual depth, quirk and quandary. Its sensual intelligence is on high alert, and the sheer unsheerness of its language—all its densities and textures—is a linguiphiliacal delight. Unmistakeably American (the poetry’s occasions and its cadences alike serve for signature) it has the jinx-meister’s humors about it. There’s a dark streak, too, an eye for the natural indifferences that border the spotlit human heats. A fine rhetorical savvy, in a mind inclined to the chillier depths: among poetic gifts these days it’s an uncommon conjunction, a gift of mysteries, like the sight (across a night pond’s surface) of bright-blue shooting star: one hopes the other humans get to see it.”—Heather McHugh
Empire Burlesque begins with a romp through the Journals of Lewis and Clark and ends with cameo appearances by Ambrose Bierce, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound (in drag), Andy Warhol, and even King Kong. Mark Svenvold was inspired to this approach, which he describes as that of a “clown lost in the Library of Babel,” by the letters of Jules Laforgue, who believed clowns had achieved true wisdom. With this collection the author shares Ezra Poundian-inflected poems that are funny, that are as serious as they come, and that realign the personal with the historical.
Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw
Carnival sideshows, train robbers and mummies all have an inevitable draw. But in this thoughtful account of one iconic American outlaw, journalist and poet Svenvold uses these topics to examine a deeper issue: the origin of American entertainment obsessions. With a languorous storyteller’s flair, Svenvold thoroughly teases out the story of Elmer McCurdy, a “screw-up and ne’er-do-well bandit bungler who had accidentally achieved fame long after death.” McCurdy’s “pathetic, nine-month crime spree” of attempted train robberies-long after the end of the great era of train robbers-opens this well-drawn story, which focuses more on McCurdy’s afterlife, when his mummified body was passed from traveling circus to wax museum to its final resting place, a graveyard in Oklahoma, where the body of the outlaw, who had become larger than life, was ultimately transformed into a “site, a locus, a mirror of the fantasy life of an American public.” The account becomes a meditation on fame and death and our nostalgia for the romantic myth of the American West. Svenvold pays homage to and expands on his predecessors’ work-Richard Basgall’s The Career of Elmer McCurdy, Deceased and a BBC documentary-offering rich treatments on everything from circus life to care of cadavers. While he may not be the first to offer the facts of this wonderfully bizarre story, Svenvold’s evocative treatment will lure in anyone looking for a well-spun tale.
The Patch is the seventh collection of essays by the nonfiction master. It is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Sporting Scene,” consists of pieces on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse—from fly casting for chain pickerel in fall in New Hampshire to walking the linksland of St. Andrews at an Open Championship. Part 2, called “An Album Quilt,” is a montage of fragments of varying length from pieces done across the years that have never appeared in book form—occasional pieces, memorial pieces, reflections, reminiscences, and short items in various magazines including The New Yorker. They range from a visit to the Hershey chocolate factory to encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, Joan Baez, and Mount Denali.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
Draft No. 4 is a master class on the writer’s craft. In a series of playful, expertly wrought essays, John McPhee shares insights he has gathered over his career and has refined while teaching at Princeton University, where he has nurtured some of the most esteemed writers of recent decades. McPhee offers definitive guidance in the decisions regarding arrangement, diction, and tone that shape nonfiction pieces, and he presents extracts from his work, subjecting them to wry scrutiny. In one essay, he considers the delicate art of getting sources to tell you what they might not otherwise reveal. In another, he discusses how to use flashback to place a bear encounter in a travel narrative while observing that “readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.” The result is a vivid depiction of the writing process, from reporting to drafting to revising—and revising, and revising.
The brief, brilliant essay “Silk Parachute,” which first appeared in The New Yorker a decade ago, has become John McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing. In the nine other pieces here—highly varied in length and theme—McPhee ranges with his characteristic humor and intensity through lacrosse, long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe “on the chalk” from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France. Some of the pieces are wholly personal. In luminous recollections of his early years, for example, he goes on outings with his mother, deliberately overturns canoes in a learning process at a summer camp, and germinates a future book while riding on a jump seat to away games as a basketball player. But each piece—on whatever theme—contains somewhere a personal aspect in which McPhee suggests why he was attracted to write about the subject, and each opens like a silk parachute, lofted skyward and suddenly blossoming with color and form.
What John McPhee’s books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, at his adventurous best, he is out and about with people who work in freight transportation.
Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the “tight-assed” Illinois River on a “towboat” pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being “a good deal longer than the Titanic.” And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John, in a homemade skiff in 1839.
The American Shad: Selections from the Founding Fish (Limited Edition)
John McPhee is a shad fisherman. He waits all year for the short spring season when American shad — Alosa sapidissima — leave the ocean and run up rivers to spawn. He has a catch-and-eat philosophy. After all, their name means “most savory.
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The Founding Fish
John McPhee is a shad fisherman. He waits all year for the short spring season when American shad — Alosa sapidissima — leave the ocean and run up rivers to spawn. He has a catch-and-eat philosophy. After all, their name means “most savory.
Annals of the Former World
The Pulitzer Prize-winning view of the continent, across the fortieth parallel and down through 4.6 billion years
Twenty years ago, when John McPhee began his journeys back and forth across the United States, he planned to describe a cross section of North America at about the fortieth parallel and, in the process, come to an understanding not only of the science but of the style of the geologists he traveled with. The structure of the book never changed, but its breadth caused him to complete it in stages, under the overall title Annals of the Former World.
Like the terrain it covers, Annals of the Former World tells a multilayered tale, and the reader may choose one of many paths through it. As clearly and succinctly written as it is profoundly informed, this is our finest popular survey of geology and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction.
The Second John McPhee Reader
This second volume of The John McPhee Reader includes material from his eleven books published since 1975, including Coming into the Country, Looking for a Ship, The Control of Nature, and the four books on geology that comprise Annals of the Former World.
The Ransom of Russian Art
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, American professor Norton Dodge forayed on his own in the Soviet Union, bought the work of underground “unofficial” artists, and brought it out himself or arranged to have it shipped illegally to the United States. John McPhee investigates Dodge’s clandestine activities in the service of dissident Soviet art, his motives for his work, and the fates of several of the artists whose lives he touched. The Ransom of Russian Art is a suspenseful, chilling, and fascinating report on a covert operation like no other.
Looking for a Ship
This is an extraordinary tale of life aboard what may be one of the last American merchant ships. As the story begins, Andy Chase, who holds a license as a second mate is looking for a ship. In less than ten years, the United States Merchant Marine has shrunk from more than two thousand ships to fewer than four hundred, and Chase faces the scarcity of jobs from which all American merchant mariners have been suffering.
With John McPhee along, Chase finds a job as a second mate aboard the S.S. Stella Lykes, captained by the extraordinary Paul McHenry Washburn. The journey takes them on a forty-two day run down the Pacific coast of South America, with stops to unload and pick up freight at such ports as Cartagena, Valparaiso, Balboa, Lima, and Guayaquil—an area notorious for pirates. As the crew make their ocean voyage, they tell sea stories of other runs and other ships, tales of disaster, stupidity, greed, generosity, and courage. Through the journey itself and the tales told emerge the history and character of a fascinating calling.
The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature is John McPhee’s bestselling account of places where people are locked in combat with nature. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strageties and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking is his depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those attempting to wrest control from her – stubborn, sometimes foolhardy, more often ingenious, and always arresting characters.
Beginning with a fascinating introduction by McPhee on how he started writing about the West, this book is a topically arranged collection dealing with the geology and ecology of the western United States. It includes selections from McPhee’s Rising from the Plains, Basin and Range, and Encounters with the Archdruid. The accompanying photographs, most of natural scenery, are excellent, but their captions are sometimes too spare. One also longs for photographs of the major protagonists, described so well by McPhee, and for perhaps a map or two. Overall, an attractive, nicely done work. Joseph Hannibal, Cleveland Museum of Natural History
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Heirs of General Practice
Heirs of General Practice is a frieze of glimpses of young doctors with patients of every age—about a dozen physicians in all, who belong to the new medical specialty called family practice. They are people who have addressed themselves to a need for a unifying generalism in a world that has become greatly subdivided by specialization, physicians who work with the “unquantifiable idea that a doctor who treats your grandmother, your father, your niece, and your daughter will be more adroit in treating you.”
These young men and women are seen in their examining rooms in various rural communities in Maine, but Maine is only the example. Their medical objectives, their successes, the professional obstacles they do and do not overcome are representative of any place family practitioners are working. While essential medical background is provided, McPhee’s masterful approach to a trend significant to all of us is replete with affecting, and often amusing, stories about both doctors and their charges.
Rising from the Plains
Rising from the Plains is John McPhee’s third book on geology and geologists. Following Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain, it continues to present a cross section of North America along the fortieth parallel—a series gathering under the overall title Annals of the Former World.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents is a collection of eight pieces that range from Alaska to New Jersey, describing, for example, the arrival of telephones in a small village near the Arctic Circle and the arrival of wild bears in considerable numbers in New Jersey, swarming in from the Poconos in search of a better life (“Riding the Boom Extension,” “A Textbook Place for Bears”).
In “North of the C.P. Line” the author introduces his friend John McPhee, a bush-pilot fish-and-game warden in northern Maine, who is also a writer. The two men met after the flying warden wrote to The New Yorker complaining that someone was using his name. Maine also is the milieu of “Heirs of General Practice,” McPhee’s highly acclaimed report—virtually a book in itself—on the new medical specialty called family practice. Much of it takes place in the examining rooms of a dozen young physicans in various rural communities, where they are seen in the context of their work with a great many patients of all ages.
Two relatively short pieces revisit the subjects of earlier McPhee books. “Ice Pond” demonstrates anew the innovative genius of the physicist Theodore B. Taylor, who developed a way of making and using with impressive results in the conservation of the electrical energy. “Open Man” describes a summer day in New Jersey in the company of Senator Bill Bradley.
In “Minihydro,” various small-scale entrepreneurs in New York State set up turbines at nineteenth-century mill sites and sell electricity to power companies. A nice little country waterfall can earn as much as two hundred dollars a year for someone with such a turbine. And, “Under the Snow,” McPhee Goes back into black bear’sdens in Pensylvania in winter, where he becomes intoxicated with affection for some five-pound cubs. They remind him of his daughters.
La Place de la Concorde Suisse
La Place de la Concorde Suisse is John McPhee’s rich, journalistic study of the Swiss Army’s role in Swiss society. The Swiss Army is so quietly efficient at the art of war that the Isrealis carefully patterned their own military on the Swiss model.
In Suspect Terrain
From the outwash plains of Brooklyn to Indiana’s drifted diamonds and gold In Suspect Terrain is a narrative of the earth, told in four sections of equal length, each in a different way reflecting the three others—a biography; a set piece about a fragment of Appalachian landscape in illuminating counterpoint to the human history there; a modern collision of ideas about the origins of the mountain range; and, in contrast, a century-old collision of ideas about the existence of the Ice Age. The central figure is Anita Harris, an internationally celebrated geologist who went into her profession to get out of a Brooklyn ghetto. The unifying theme is plate tectonics—here concentrating on the acceptance that all aspects of the theory do not universally enjoy. As such, In Suspect Terrain is a report from the rough spots at the front edge of a science.
Basin and Range
The first of John McPhee’s works in his series on geology and geologists, Basin and Range is a book of journeys through ancient terrains, always in juxtaposition with travels in the modern world—a history of vanished landscapes, enhanced by the histories of people who bring them to light. The title refers to the physiographic province of the United States that reaches from eastern Utah to eastern California, a silent world of austere beauty, of hundreds of discrete high mountain ranges that are green with junipers and often white with snow. The terrain becomes the setting for a lyrical evocation of the science of geology, with important digressions into the plate-tectonics revolution and the history of the geologic time scale.
Giving Good Weight
“You people come into the market—the Greenmarket, in the open air under the down pouring sun—and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your stringbeans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are—people of the city—and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with you as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales.” So opens the title piece in this collection of John McPhee’s classic essays, grouped here with four others, including “Brigade de Cuisine,” a profile of an artistic and extraordinary chef; “The Keel of Lake Dickey,” in which a journey down the whitewater of a wild river ends in the shadow of a huge projected dam; a report on plans for the construction of nuclear power plants that would float in the ocean; and a pinball shoot-out between two prizewinning journalists.
Coming into the Country
Coming into the Country is an unforgettable account of Alaska and Alaskans. It is a rich tapestry of vivid characters, observed landscapes, and descriptive narrative, in three principal segments that deal, respectively, with a total wilderness, with urban Alaska, and with life in the remoteness of the bush.
Readers of McPhee’s earlier books will not be unprepared for his surprising shifts of scene and ordering of events, brilliantly combined into an organic whole. In the course of this volume we are made acquainted with the lore and techniques of placer mining, the habits and legends of the barren-ground grizzly, the outlook of a young Athapaskan chief, and tales of the fortitude of settlers—ordinary people compelled by extraordinary dreams. Coming into the Country unites a vast region of America with one of America’s notable literary craftsmen, singularly qualified to do justice to the scale and grandeur of the design.
The John McPhee Reader
The John McPhee Reader, first published in 1976, is comprised of selections from the author’s first twelve books. In 1965, John McPhee published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are; a decade later, he had published eleven others. His fertility, his precision and grace as a stylist, his wit and uncanny brilliance in choosing subject matter, his crack storytelling skills have made him into one of our best writers: a journalist whom L.E. Sissman ranked with Liebling and Mencken, who Geoffrey Wolff said “is bringing his work to levels that have no measurable limit,” who has been called “a master craftsman” so many times that it is pointless to number them.
The Survival of the Bark Canoe
n Greenville, New Hampshire, a small town in the southern part of the state, Henri Vaillancourt makes birch-bark canoes in the same manner and with the same tools that the Indians used. The Survival of the Bark Canoeis the story of this ancient craft and of a 150-mile trip through the Maine woods in those graceful survivors of a prehistoric technology. It is a book squarely in the tradition of one written by the first tourist in these woods, Henry David Thoreau, whose The Maine Woods recounts similar journeys in similar vessel. As McPhee describes the expedition he made with Vaillancourt, he also traces the evolution of the bark canoe, from its beginnings through the development of the huge canoes used by the fur traders of the Canadian North Woods, where the bark canoe played the key role in opening up the wilderness. He discusses as well the differing types of bark canoes, whose construction varied from tribe to tribe, according to custom and available materials. In a style as pure and as effortless as the waters of Maine and the glide of a canoe, John McPhee has written one of his most fascinating books, one in which his talents as a journalist are on brilliant display.
Pieces of the Frame
Pieces of the Frame is a gathering of memorable writings by one of the greatest journalists and storytellers of our time. They take the reader from the backwoods roads of Georgia, to the high altitude of Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico; from the social decay of Atlantic City, to Scotland, where a pilgrimage for art’s sake leads to a surprising encounter with history on a hilltop with a view of a fifth of the entire country. McPhee’s writing is more than informative; these are stories, artful and full of character, that make compelling reading. They play with and against one another, so that Pieces of the Frame is distinguished as much by its unity as by its variety. Subjects familiar to McPhee’s readers—sports, Scotland, conservation—are treated here with intimacy and a sense of the writer at work.
The Curve of Binding Energy
Theodore B. Taylor was among the most ingenious engineers of the nuclear age. He created the most powerful and the smallest nuclear weapons of his time (his masterpiece, the Davy Crockett, weighed in at a svelte 50 pounds) and also spearheaded efforts to create a nuclear-powered spacecraft. But in his later years, Taylor became increasingly concerned that compact and powerful bombs could be easily built not just by nations employing experts such as himself, but by single individuals with modest technical ability and perseverance. McPhee tours American nuclear installations with Taylor, and we are treated to a grim, eye-opening account of just how close we are to witnessing terrorist attacks using homemade nuclear weaponry. The Curve of Binding Energy is compelling writing about an urgently important topic.
The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed
This is the fascinating story of the dream of a completely new aircraft, a hybrid of the plane and the rigid airship – huge, wingless, moving slowly through the lower sky. John McPhee chronicles the perhaps unfathomable perseverance of the aircraft’s successive progenitors.
Encounters with the Archdruid
The narratives in this book are of journeys made in three wildernesses – on a coastal island, in a Western mountain range, and on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The four men portrayed here have different relationships to their environment, and they encounter each other on mountain trails, in forests and rapids, sometimes with reserve, sometimes with friendliness, sometimes fighting hard across a philosophical divide.
The Crofter and the Laird
When John McPhee returned to the island of his ancestors—Colonsay, twenty-five miles west of the Scottish mainland—a hundred and thirty-eight people were living there. About eighty of these, crofters and farmers, had familial histories of unbroken residence on the island for two or three hundred years; the rest, including the English laird who owned Colonsay, were “incomers.” Donald McNeill, the crofter of the title, was working out his existence in this last domain of the feudal system; the laird, the fourth Baron Strathcona, lived in Bath, appeared on Colonsay mainly in the summer, and accepted with nonchalance the fact that he was the least popular man on the island he owned. While comparing crofter and laird, McPhee gives readers a deep and rich portrait of the terrain, the history, the legends, and the people of this fragment of the Hebrides.
Levels of the Game
This account of a tennis match played by Arthur Ashe against Clark Graebner at Forest Hills in 1968 begins with the ball rising into the air for the initial serve and ends with the final point. McPhee provides a brilliant, stroke-by-stroke description while examining the backgrounds and attitudes which have molded the players’ games.
The Pine Barrens
Most people think of New Jersey as a suburban-industrial corridor that runs between New York and Philadelphia. Yet in the low center of the state is a near wilderness, larger than most national parks, which has been known since the seventeenth century as the Pine Barrens.
The term refers to the predominant trees in the vast forests that cover the area and to the quality of the soils below, which are too sandy and acid to be good for farming. On all sides, however, developments of one kind or another have gradually moved in, so that now the central and integral forest is reduced to about a thousand square miles. Although New Jersey has the heaviest population density of any state, huge segments of the Pine Barrens remain uninhabited. The few people who dwell in the region, the “Pineys,” are little known and often misunderstood. Here McPhee uses his uncanny skills as a journalist to explore the history of the region and describe the people—and their distinctive folklore—who call it home.
A classic of reportage, Oranges was first conceived as a short magazine article about oranges and orange juice, but the author kept encountering so much irresistible information that he eventually found that he had in fact written a book. It contains sketches of orange growers, orange botanists, orange pickers, orange packers, early settlers on Florida’s Indian River, the first orange barons, modern concentrate makers, and a fascinating profile of Ben Hill Griffin of Frostproof, Florida who may be the last of the individual orange barons. McPhee’s astonishing book has an almost narrative progression, is immensely readable, and is frequently amusing. Louis XIV hung tapestries of oranges in the halls of Versailles, because oranges and orange trees were the symbols of his nature and his reign. This book, in a sense, is a tapestry of oranges, too—with elements in it that range from the great orangeries of European monarchs to a custom of people in the modern Caribbean who split oranges and clean floors with them, one half in each hand.
Starting in 1902 at a country school that had an enrollment of fourteen, Frank Boyden built an academy that has long since taken its place on a level with Andover and Exeter. Boyden, who died in 1972, was the school’s headmaster for sixty-six years. John McPhee portrays a remarkable man “at the near end of a skein of magnanimous despots who…created enduring schools through their own individual energies, maintained them under their own absolute rule, and left them forever imprinted with their own personalities.” More than simply a portrait of the Headmaster of Deerfield Academy, it is a revealing look at the nature of private school education in America.
A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton
When John McPhee met Bill Bradley, both were at the beginning of their careers. A Sense of Where You Are, McPhee’s first book, is about Bradley when he was the best basketball player Princeton had ever seen. McPhee delineates for the reader the training and techniques that made Bradley the extraordinary athlete he was, and this part of the book is a blueprint of superlative basketball. But athletic prowess alone would not explain Bradley’s magnetism, which is in the quality of the man himself—his self-discipline, his rationality, and his sense of responsibility. Here is a portrait of Bradley as he was in college, before his time with the New York Knicks and his election to the U.S. Senate—a story that suggests the abundant beginnings of his professional careers in sport and politics.