McPhee begins his adventure riding with Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of an 18-wheeler hauling nearly 30 tons of highly toxic chemicals from North Carolina to Washington. He continues his journey on a towboat pushing over 1,000 feet of barge up the narrow channel of the Illinois River. He rounds out his account crawling through Nebraska, Kansas, and the Powder River Basin of Wyoming in massive coal trains. Along the way, he tells the stories of the people he meets and the places he visits. McPhee's sense of humor, incisive observations, and historical asides make for a highly entertaining journey across America.
©2006 John McPhee; (P)2006 Recorded Books LLC
"As always, McPhee's eye for idiosyncratic detail keeps the stories (some of which have appeared in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly) lively and frequently moves them in interesting directions." (Publishers Weekly)
As always, John McPhee writes an entertaining book about something you never thought to think about but will find fascinating in his words. The author as narrator also adds a great deal to make this book personal. I hope he keeps writing forever!
A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.
McPhee is one of my favorites. I think his strongest form is the long-essay and I love his collections that are thematic. 'Uncommon Carriers' delivered exactly what I wanted with a bunch of surprises. Like always, McPhee is able to mix together great characters, fantastic observations, and a real sense of space and place and tell a story that illuminates some place or time that you have probably driven past without noticing a hundred times before.
McPhee has a a geologist's curiosity and patience (and a poet's pen) that allows him to spend an inordinate amount of time with a story to get that one detail that turns a good essay about boats into a fantastic essay about the craft of work, the beauty of place, the magnificence of the ordinary. The magic of McPhee isn't just that he writes new journalism almost better than anyone else on the planet, it is that he does more of it than almost anyone else. Up McPhee's other sleeve is his ability to make you want to follow him on his explorations. He isn't going to chase down your interests (rock stars, movies, money). Instead, McPhee is going to carefully let you follow him down his rabbit holes and help you onto his hobby-horses.
I would also be remiss if I didn't include a part of one of my favorite paragraphs. A barge McPhee is on, is flashed by a woman on a pleasure boat on the Missouri river. Here is McPhee's response:
...She has golden hair. She has the sort of body you go to see in marble. She holds her poise without retreat. In her ample presentation there is a defiance of gravity. There is no angle of repose. She is a siren and these are her songs. She is Henry Moore's "Oval with Points".
Narrated by the author. His narration is slow and somewhat quirky, but I came to like it.
My favorite chapters were:
"A Fleet of One" and "A Fleet of One - II" about a guy who owns a chemical tanker.
"Tight-Assed River" about small boats that push strings of barges ("longer than the Titanic") up and down the Illinois River
"Out in the Sort" about the travels of live lobsters sold by a Nova Scotia company, Clearwater Seafoods (which may make you not want to eat lobster at Asian buffets any more) and the sorting facility at the UPS Worldport facility in Louisville, KY
"Coal Train" about 19,000 ton coal-laden trains more than a mile long and the Union Pacific engineers, conductors, and dispatchers who get them where they're going (the dispatchers sometimes quit the job and go into air traffic controlling, because it is easier).
There are also chapters about a ship-handling course that uses scale models, and a canoe trip; those are good too but they didn't fascinate me.
Say something about Yusef. Uh...he was a great horn player?
His story in last week's New Yorker about his penchant for collecting errant golf balls prompted me to start relistening to this. We had originally listed on a cross country drive so the story of the chemical tanker was perfect. Then, in Wyoming, the BNSF coal train segment was playing as we drove quite close to Powder River where the coal conveyor belt starts. It is a (dryly) FUNNY book (his narration makes it more so) with just the right amount of his personal bias built into the lush descriptions of all these folks who MOVE things.
This is one of the few books I leave on my phone permanently.
McPhee's style can inject life into anything. He has a knack for digging into a subject, going granular about it, and coming out the other side of a topic with a perspective that fascinates.
The way he connects humanity with ground, the way he links history with the now.
Riverboat towboat scenes
Yes, but it's also worth doing a chapter at a time while commuting or trying to drift off to sleep at night.
It's cool that the author narrated it; he has solid narration skills, though the sound mixing team might have done a better job of redacting ongoing continuous clicks and pops that sound like dentures clacking. It takes some getting used to.
The down to earth first person experiences made this very entertaining and informative to listen to. My spouse is into transportation and usually doesn't listen to these stories but this one really got his attention and he said it was right on target.
I thought the first person narritve was the best thing about this story. The author immersed himself in the world of all kinds of transportation.
I think the description of the issues trains have was my favorite. I won't describe it since I would spoil it for the reader.
I rarely listen to a book in one sitting. I think this is one that lends itself well to listening in sessions since the different sections are about different types of transportation.
I'd suggest listening with someone interested in transportation but not necessarily so interested in reading or listening so it can draw the person in!
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