The other day, I came upon this passage from Alice McDermott’s 1992 novel At Weddings and Wakes: “The air at her back felt damp, although when she moved closer to the window she realized it was only the unaccustomed coolness. When had summer become fall?” It’s not yet fall, and, sitting in my un-air-conditioned apartment, it’s certainly not yet cool. Still, upon reading these sentences, I felt a shiver go through me. When had June become August? Where had my summer gone?
Like most of my summers, this one largely went into books. With no teaching or commuting, with the Celtics bowing out in late May and the Red Sox frittering away much of the season, I caught up on some older novels (Robert Stone’s A Hall of Mirrors is a masterpiece; Ward Just’s Forgetfulness was a bit of a disappointment) as well as some newer poetry (Saskia Hamilton’s forthcoming All Souls is excellent).
Here are some notes from a summer’s worth of reading.
Much of my July was spent rereading John McPhee: the don of American nonfiction, the GOAT of the New Yorker profile, the writer whose enthusiasms—for tennis and lacrosse, oranges and the Pine Barrens—are contagious. In high school, earth science was my least favorite subject. I didn’t get plate tectonics; I was uninterested in meteorology; the flame in my Bunsen burner turned purple when it was supposed to be green. Yet, in adulthood, I’ve read, and loved, McPhee’s geological history of North America, Annals of the Former World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $29, 720 pp.): four books’ worth of material on rocks, glaciers, fault lines, and deep time. In it, we meet the Princeton geology professor Kenneth Deffeyes, “a big man with a tenured waistline.” We spend time in Wyoming and the Midwest. We learn about igneous and metamorphic petrology, Precambrian pebbles, and Silurian rock. There’s a humility to McPhee’s writing, a sense that what matters isn’t him but his subject, and he makes you believe that what interests him would interest you, too, if only you’d look with as much patience and creativity as he does.
In Draft No. 4, McPhee remembers his editor at the New Yorker, Robert Bingham, complaining when he described a subject as having a “sincere” mustache. In response, McPhee doubled down and became, as he puts it, the magazine’s “nonfiction mustache specialist.” Here are some mustache descriptions I noted over the summer. From Annals of the Former World: “His mustache was an airfoil with a fineness ratio that must have impressed the Wright brothers.” From Heirs of General Practice: “His mustache seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.” From The Ransom of Russian Art: “With his grand odobene mustache, he had everything but the tusks.” In the first, a mustache is a feat of engineering. In the second, it’s revelatory of character and profession. In the third, it’s the occasion to use, or learn, a new word. (“Odobene” means walrus-like.) At ninety-two, McPhee remains a treasure.
Reading so much McPhee primed me for Jonathan Slaght’s Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl (Picador, $18, 368 pp.). The book has a positively McPhee-like premise: Slaght’s search for, and PhD research on, the rare Blakiston’s fish owl in the remote region of Russia bordering the Sea of Japan. Slaght meets outrageous characters, including a hermit named Anatoily who, upon Slaght’s first night spent in his cabin, asks if gnomes tickled his feet while he slept. The fish owl is itself a memorable, if only fleetingly glimpsed, creature. Huge, strangely anthropomorphic, the birds look, Slaght writes, “like one of Jim Hensen’s darker creations…a goblin bird with mottled brown feathers puffed out, back hunched, and ear tufts erect and menacing.” Too many pages are devoted to fieldwork: Slaght’s attempts to trap and track the elusive birds; his many journeys through, and occasional strandings within, the Russian winterscape. A friend of mine summarized John McPhee’s genius like this: he learns everything about a subject and then only gives you the interesting bits. That’s true, and it’s a challenge for academics to recognize when research, so important to them, might lose the reader. But McPhee also can make details interesting because he’s a first-rate stylist. Slaght’s writing is solid but unspectacular. Our response to any single book is often shaped by context: not just the setting in which we’re reading but the other books we’ve recently read. Pity the writer who comes right after McPhee.