Five of my favorite John McPhee books:

  • Assembling California
  • Rising From The Plain
  • The Curve of Binding Energy
  • The Survival of the Bark Canoe
  • Looking For A Ship:

“Assembling California” – a drive along highay 80 east and west, in California, looking at the geology, with detours to Cypress and other places with similar rocks, following the life of the local geologist guide. Gold mining history and the Auburn dam, along with Napa, Central Valley agriculture and Donner party are discussed. The end is a very well
written account of the Loma Prieta earthquake, not that I’m likely to forget THAT for a while….

“Rising From the Plain”, the second book in “Annals Of The Former World”, is the best McPhee has written- to date. In part because the geology of Jackson Hole,, Wyoming, is so wierd, in part because the history of the Rockies is even wierder, and in part because the local geologist’s story is so wonderful, and told with large chunks of his mom’s journal. McPhee eventually saw the journal edited and published. Have to read that one myself someday. The mother and father came to Wyomning when it was still a frontier.

“The Curve of Binding Energy” – the professional life of physicist Ted Taylor, who designed some of the smallest and most efficient fizzion bombs in the 1950s. In the 1970s, when the book was written, he’d become concerned about the possibility of nuclear terrorism and describes, from unclassified sources, how the bad guys might process fissile material after stealing it, what kind of bombs could be made and compares them to the early atomic weapons and the projects that manufactured them. Great chemistry, physics and other stories… There’s a great description of the “Orion” nuclear-powered spacecraft that the shuttle in “2001” is named after. This book is a great companion to RIchard Rhode’s “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. Its REALLY scary, although none of the dire scenarios posited have happened yet. But this is what to be afraid of.

“The Survival of the Bark Canoe”. Henri Vallencourt is an American from Maine, of French Canadian descent. He learned to build canoes more or less corrrectly as the northeastern indians did, and working without pencil, paper or much in the way of measuring equipment, carrries on building these rare and staisfying vessels. After meeting
the man and watching him build canoes, he, McPhee and a number of McPhee’s friends go out canoing on a route enjoyed by Thoroeau 150 years earlier. One page of Deliverence jokes. We read this to Benjamin as bedtime reading and he loved it. The superb canoe builder’s home-made beef jerkey is, er, not quite as competent… funny thing, competence… Makes you want to watch Henri build a canoe and buy one from him, then go on a trip…

“Looking For A Ship” – McPhee follows a neighbor who is a Merchant Seaman as he seeks a berth, and then goes aboard and sails with the Lykes Brothers’ ship as it carries containers from NYC to south America and back. The average age of the crew is something like 55, and the captain is a colorful fellow with many stories to tell. Sailing around with a load of containers, “Said to contain…” has some truely bizzare moments- pirates straight out of the jungle pull up in motorized log canoes and come aboard on one South American river, go directly to one container, bust it open, toss stuff down to their boat, and depart… Stories of race-horses riding in other containers, and the Captain’s inability to leave his feet in one place for any lenght of time…

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