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Uncommon Carriers


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About the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


Adult/High School-McPhee charms readers with an insider's look at various forms of freight carriers, including trucks, trains, and ocean tankers. He describes his personal experiences of traveling with a handful of people who transport bulk cargo. A self-proclaimed "four wheeler with a tendency to ignore stop signs," he identifies the exceptional talents and quirky personality of each driver, seaman, and conductor and wonders at the expertise of these unknown mavens. The captain of the SS Stella Lykes can parallel park a 700-foot ship in a 750-foot space without assistance. Pilot Mel Adams maneuvers a fully loaded tugboat four times longer than the river is wide, with as little as 10 feet of clearance where the river turns. Dan Ainsworth, chemical tanker driver, factors the weight of his fuel, the distance between truck stops, and the weight of his load to avoid exceeding the limit at weigh stations. A pleasure to read, each of the seven chapters is an adventure waiting to be taken individually or collectively. Students will learn of the danger, the technology, and the precision required to bring coal to heat peoples' houses, goods to their grocery stores, and imports to their harbors.-Brigeen Radoicich, Fresno County Office of Education, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

McPhee's 28th book (after The Founding Fish) is a grown-up version of every young boy's fantasy life, as the peripatetic writer gets to ride in the passenger seat in an 18-wheel truck, tag along on a barge ride up the Illinois River and climb into the cabin of a Union Pacific coal train that's over a mile long. He even gets to be the one-man crew on a 20-ton scale model of an ocean tanker in a French pond where ship pilots go for advanced training. 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. One chapter that starts out in a Nova Scotia lobster farm winds up in Louisville, Ky., where McPhee is quickly beguiled by the enormous UPS sorting facility. In a more intimate piece, he takes a canoe and retraces Thoreau's path along New England rivers, noting the modern urban sprawl as well as the wildlife. "There are two places in the world-home and everywhere else," the towboat captain tells McPhee, "and everywhere else is the same." But McPhee always uncovers the little differences that give every place its unique tale. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

McPhee sums up eight years of riding around with people who haul freight in vehicles ranging from 18-wheelers to towboats. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

"To read the studious John McPhee in this sensationalist age, when so many other literary journalists are shrieking from some self-aggrandizing edge, is to be reminded of what the genre should be--artfully reported stories that illuminate who we are." --Robert Braile, The Boston Globe

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