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A nice collection of essays that originally appeared in the New Yorker (most of McPhee's writings can be traced back to the New Yorker):
1. 'Irons in the Fire' (December 20, 1993) - About cattle rustling in Nevada.
2. 'Release' (September 28, 1987) - About Robert Russell, a blind professor at Franklin and Marshall College,in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
3. 'In Virgin Forest' (July 6, 1987) - About Hutcheson Memorial Forest in Franklin Township, New Jersey.
4. 'The Gravel Page' (January 29, 1996) - About geological forensics.
5. 'Duty of Care' (Jun 28, 1993) - About recycling tires.
6. 'Rinard at Manheim' (Dec 4, 1989) - About the Manheim Exotic Auction in Pennsylvania
7. 'Travels of the Rock' (Dec 4, 1989) - About Plymouth Rock and its re-mortaring.
There are several FANTASTIC pieces and several pieces of mortar holding it together. Not his best collection, but I have yet to regret reading a McPhee book and this is no exception. Essays to not miss: 'Irons in the Fire', 'In Virgin Forest', 'The Gravel Page', 'Duty of Care', 'Travels of the Rock'. I think my favorite of the whole book were 'Irons in the Fire' and 'The Gravel Page'. Amazing pieces.
'Irons in the Fire' explores the ranchers, the Brand Inspectors, the rustlers, and the cattle land of Nevada. These are cowboys. These are the hard-core libertarian Mormons that produced Cliven Bundy and his ilk. These are the mountains and deserts where Utah, Nevada, and Arizona all meet. This essays was poignant for me because one of the characters/rustlers/ropers/breaker of horses in the essay (Wayne Lee) was a direct descendent of John D. Lee. John D. Lee was an adopted son of Brigham Young who was later shot for his direct role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
John D. Lee was also the husband of my 5th Great-Grandmother (Abigail Schaeffer Woolsey Lee), and my 5th Great-Grandfather's (Joseph Henry Woolsey) two sisters (Rachel Woolsey and Agatha Woolsey). No direct blood, but a helluva lot of history and stories. If you want to figure out why this section of Nevada and Utah produce such fundamentally hard people, McPhee's essay is as good a place as any to start.
'The Gravel Page' was originally three linked essays in the New Yorker: 'The Gravel Page', 'Balloons of War', and 'Death of an Agent'. This is where McPhee is amazing. You put McPhee in a room or a car with the right person, start having him talk to them about Geology, Ecology, Arts & Crafts, or Sports and something magical happens with the narrative. These are the stories McPhee was born to write.
The Gravel Page presents three different facets of forensic geology. The first essay focuses on the investigation of A. Coors murder using geology. The second essays explores how early scientists from the Geological Survey were able to establish where the balloons that Japan was drifting over America came from. The final story details how forensic geologists at the FBI were able to track down where a DEA agent was killed and buried in Mexico using geology. His love of the subject and the characters AND place enables McPhee to weave a story that transports the reader around the world, while having on McPhee's every sentence.
Anyway, seek them out. Look them up. Buy them. Read them. Read them again.
17 of 21 people found this review helpful
Not enough has changed in the last 20 years to render this book outdated.
The first story (of the Cattle Brand Inspector) was so good I wondered how he was going to follow that up with anything as interesting, and he did - I found myself listened for hours (I can listen to audiobooks at work and while commuting, a total of 13 1/2 hours a day) without realizing I was still listening, for whatever that's worth (meaning I wasn't falling asleep as with, say, a molecular biology lecture).
After listening to the piece on how corrupt Mexico is (or was 20 years ago, but I see no reason to assume that the situation is any better today, and I have a Mexican immigrant at work to talk to) in the face of their drug culture, I thought, "Trump can't build that wall fast enough, if only to send a message that they have not been good neighbors (if not that they are an utterly screwed-up country)".
The Mobile Farmer's Market in Manhattan piece was a pleasant digression (which turned into a full-blown piece).
The others were engaging, though I can't recall them off the top of my head (I'd need some kind of stimulus/reminder to bring it all back)... (cheating...) ah yes - the Forensic Geologist story (you can see why that was hard to remember) was good enough to stand alone - a lot of history went with it.