A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
I am nearly finished with the individual portions of' Annals of the Former World' ('Basin and Range' ☑, 'In Suspect Terrain' ☑, 'Assembling California' ☑). All I have left is to read the section 'Crossing the Craton' (a sixty page addition to his 40th parallel/I-80 project that filled in the blank in the map and allowed the publishers of 'Annals of the Former World' some additional McPhee text not found in the four main books/sections previously published to incentivize McPhee's fans to fork out the addtional $35 in 1998 to get the whole brilliant McPhee mess).
I read/listened to these books a little out of order over a little over the last year. I started off well with 'Basin & Range', 'In Suspect Terrain', but then jumped to 'Assembling California' since a couple of weeks ago I was going to be driving through California and figured it would be nice to have some geology of the geography I was going to be driving through next to me.
While I was a little disappointed with 'Assembling California', I loved 'Rising from the Plains'. I don't know if it was a return to my roots (Wyoming and Snake River and Mormon Country), or the fact that this book seemed just to excite McPhee more. You could tell he loved the Loves (David Love: Yale educated geologist, cowboy; John Love: David's father, mirthful Scot rancher/cowboy, nephew of John Muir; Ethel Waxham Love: David's mother, teacher, writer). He threads this family's golden personality and history with the geology and geography of Wyoming.
These books are dangerous and should not be given to children. I am keeping them locked up with my William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, etc. If my son or daughter (no field geology sexist me) were to discover these McPhee books too young (s)he might just grow up to be a passionate field geologist. Reading this as I near my 40s, McPhee almost makes me want to take up a hammer, hop on a horse and ride into the mountains.
I give it four stars, simply because 'Coming into the Country' still exists for me as a slightly better book, but I think the combined energy of all of the 'Annals' is definitely amazing. I've grown to appreciate the narrative skills of Nelson Runger, although he went back and forth calling the Uinta Mountains at times the [WINtas) and at other times properly the (YOU-IN-tas). Anyway, a minor issue, but not overly distracting.
What I absolutely love about McPhee's nonfiction is his ability to write about place, people and ideas with both beautiful prose and amazing intimacy. My favorite parts are where McPhee weaves place and people, or people and ideas together and establishes the grand metaphor for his book. McPhee picks up pieces of conversation, and stray facts, from these amazing geologists and their satelites that might get missed by most other writers, but manages to find, keep and eventually place these nuggets into his book (written over 20 years) in a way that works to support his big themes.
Seriously, this book is one of my favorite nonfiction works of all time. You can see the mark McPhee left on his students' writing if you've ever read Robert Wright, Richard Preston or New Yorker editor David Remnick. Some consider (McPhee would flunk me for such vague, nonattributable writing I'm sure) McPhee to be the godfather of New New Journalism, but he is much more than that. IMHO, he is the godfather on modern nonfiction writing, period.
That being said, this is the last of the series, and the weakest piece of the book (and also the weakest piece of geology). So, if you are new to McPhee, or interested in listening to 'Annals of the Former World', this is the soft and permeable end. Start wtih 'Basin and Range' >next> 'In Suspect Terrain' >next> 'Rising from the Plains' >next> 'Assembling California' >next>'Crossing the Craton'.
Just beware Audible lists 'Crossing the Craton' as book 4, but it is really Book 5 because for whatever reason Book 4 ('Assembling California') has "separated" from main body of "Annals of the Former World'. California geology writing is just as mysterious as California's people and geology, I guess.
A gifted narrator, Ian Frazier for me seems to occupy a genetic/literary lovechild space somewhere between Bill Bryson (mother: Midwestern appetites) and John McPhee (father: New Yorker affectations). Like Frazier, I too have been drawn to Russia. I remember traveling to Moscow and St. Petersburg shortly after the wall came down (and before the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis). There is something magnetic (both attractive and repellant) about the people, the culture, the geography, that sucks a certain type/flux of person in.
Both a travelogue and an historical review of Siberia, 'Travels in Siberia' never once disappoints. Frazier hits all the major markers about Siberia: its size, the cold, its history, language, food, the cold, gulags, the cold, transportation, hot women, resources, food, language, hot women, the cold, politics, people, the cold, and hot women. Seriously, the women in Siberia are apparently really hot.
Other things I enjoyed while reading this: 1) All the books referenced by Ian Frazier (check out the selected bibliography. Some books just have a sexy bibliography). There is now a whole slew of Siberian exploration books, Russian novels, and Decembrist history that I want/need to read. 2) Frazier's simple, spare drawings were perfect for this book. 3) The dynamic arc created by this book being written over the last 15+ years. It reminded me of certain Impressionist paintings done at different times of the same exact scene. The colors, light, and shapes shift because of shifts in time and season. The same is true of Frazier's book. You exit the book with a significantly different view of Siberia from which you entered it. That large and desolate country changed in 15 years, certainly, but more than that Frazier changed by both his experiences in and his experiences THRU Siberia.
Now that Pussy Riot* have been released from their own stint in a Siberian penal colony, the book seems like a perfectly timed pre-read for the Olympics. While Sochi is more Caucasus/Black Sea than Siberia, it is still Russia in the way it seems focused on the repressed, totalitarian, corrupting cold. Gays are to stay away. Stray dogs are being round up and shot. Pussy Riot is freed to garner some PR goodwill (yeah, good luck with that Putinbaby). It all seems like some 21st century match-up of Siberian protesters (gays and Pussy Riot) vs the modern Russian Tsar (Putin, obviously). I'm waiting for a whole new set of protesters gearing up for their slow train ride to a Penal Colony. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
* I should disclose that I am really attracted to Pussy Riot. Not that "ooh they are solo pretty" attracted way, but in that singular way you (Yes, you faithful reader) are attracted to people with a sharp purpose, excess energy, the ability to capture a moment perfectly, and a willingness to go badasshard against institutions as big and strong as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian totalitarian state. Pussy Riot did everything the Decembrists did, but they did it in heels and backwards. Plus they have the name Pussy Riot, which is kinda silly, but still also makes my tongue swell, and eyes dart back and forth (looking for Mom) when I say it out loud.