three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
By: 
John McPhee
user_rating: 
0

A-Uncommon CarriersThere’s Point A and there’s Point B. Most of us live somewhere in between, at least as far as America’s transportation system is concerned. Whether carrying Maine lobsters to the Palm restaurant in Denver or sloshing WD-40 in the back of a big rig down a precipitous mountain grade, the uncommon carriers of John McPhee’s latest collection of essays are a tentacular network of ships, trucks, and trains that do the heavy lifting so we don’t have to. And sometimes, as McPhee makes clear in his exploration of a UPS shipping facility that he compares to the "Great Mosque of Córdoba," the journey is just as interesting as the destination.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $24. ISBN: 0374280398

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"He has chosen a fascinating, important subject—how America works, each and every day, in ways we take for granted and should not. He has allowed that subject to speak for itself, through its people and places, continually finding magic in the ordinary." Robert Braile

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[Uncommon Carriers contains] fine reporting and expert vignettes percolating in just about every paragraph. … At times, McPhee’s unusual travelogue morphs into an oxymoron: a freight thriller." Erik Spanberg

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Is God in the details or in the structure? McPhee is a polytheist; the particulars are his meat … and the story’s arrangement his potatoes. He is a civilizing writer, plainspoken as canvas sneakers, his essays seasoned like two-year-old firewood, burning steady, clean and bright." Peter Lewis

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"John McPhee makes his living telling stories you didn’t think you were interested in. He gets by with it on the strength of a friendly sense of humor and a talent for explaining complex situations." Bob Simmons

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There’s just enough flavor from true characters … to balance out any dry, technical patches. And even if McPhee gives in to his more wonky instincts, there’s enough interesting trivia to keep the most technophobic reader going." Traver Kauffman

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 2.5 of 5 Stars
"He’s not satisfied with three examples when 30 will do; he makes his point and then taps it home over and over." Robert Philpot

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 2 of 5 Stars
"With this collection, a nagging question arises: Is McPhee trying to reach greater truths, or feeding some kind of gnarling, fact-hungry monster that is chewing on his leg? Story lines—essential to narrative journalism—are mostly absent." Stephen J. Lyons

Critical Summary

Princeton University professor and essay writer John McPhee has a knack for spinning dull-sounding subjects into narrative gold. Innocuously titled tomes like the Pulitzer Prize–winning Annals of the Former World yield magnificent tales, baroque with exceptional details that make the curious giddy. The seven essays included in his 27th book (many first published in the New Yorker) offer a rich portrait of the sundry methods and people that get things from there to here, from canoe (Thoreau’s travel up the Concord in 1839) to 18-wheel tanker trunk. That McPhee’s theme is not overtly deeper bothered a few reviewers, as did the excessive detail. Yet at the end of the road, there’s no better tour guide to these often overlooked engines of American commerce.