Monday, August 5, 2013

Anything goes

Like many readers, I was introduced to John McPhee via The New Yorker. A true Renaissance person, McPhee is entranced by the world around him and attempts to understand it by researching and writing. His essays are funny, insightful, chock full of information and never dull. I've never read them in book format, and chose to consume this audiobook, Irons in the Fire, in occasional doses, which worked perfectly.

There are seven pieces here, un-united by any theme that I could detect, although I do enjoy the idea of the various irons in McPhee's fire.  Forensic geology ("The Gravel Page") aside cattle brand inspectors ("Irons in the Fire") aside Plymouth Rock ("Travels of the Rock") aside tire recycling ("Duty of Care") aside first-growth forest in New Jersey ("In Virgin Forest") aside a computer that takes dictation for a blind writer ("Release") aside exotic car auctions ("Rinard at Mannheim").  Just a glimpse into the active (and still writing) mind of John McPhee.  All were fascinating, but that is just the beauty that is McPhee -- he can take any subject and delve in in such a way that you want to absorb all that he discovers and shares.

The forensic geology piece was fascinating, its depiction of the CSI of dirt rivaled that from the television program leading to the solving of several murders including the 1960 kidnapping-gone-wrong of the heir to the Coors Brewing Company. I also liked the story of the cattle brand inspectors in Nevada.  My favorite is the Plymouth Rock essay, which McPhee traces from its origins (did William Bradford et al really step on it as they exited the Mayflower?) to a 1990s repair job bid on for a dollar by a local stonemason.  It's the perfect McPhee mix of whimsy and fact -- recognizing that the facts of Plymouth Rock shouldn't stand in the way of the story of the Rock and why that story was concocted and remains important. I felt like I was reading about a saint's fingerbone preserved in some out-of-the-way Italian church.

Narrating nonfiction can be tricky -- should a narrator read emotional context into a collection of facts or read with a neutrality that affords a slight distance from the text?  Nelson Runger (pronounced like the rung of a ladder) chooses instead a kind of jolly informativeness that might be a reflection of McPhee himself -- the facts yes, but the facts delivered with a little humor and personal expression.  I didn't object to this, but I wouldn't have wanted to listen to eight straight hours of it as it had an underlying current of bonhomie (isn't this fascinating?) that felt a little faky. Aside from this, Runger's narration is well-paced and pleasant to listen to.

As is often the case when I come across an author I've liked but haven't read in a while, I think about adding something else from him/her to the reading/listening pile. We have a couple of McPhee audiobooks where he reads his own work which might prove worth checking out.

[Plymouth Rock, mostly buried in sand and behind bars, lives at the bottom of that neo-classical structure (designed by McKim, Mead and White) photographed by Raime and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Irons in the Fire by John McPhee
Narrated by Nelson Runger
Recorded Books, 1997.  7:42

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