Like several of the author’s books, this particular volume is a collection of somewhat disparate essays of different lengths and content. All of them are testament to the way that McPhee writes, which is itself a worthwhile element. In many ways, McPhee is a writer’s writer, someone whose thinking process and the way he goes about writing are of worth to others in helping to encourage their own creative processes. All kinds of experiences can be the triggers for the sorts of personal essays at which McPhee excels, including the simple joys of childhood, the experience of riding on a jump seat as a basketball player, or travels that prompt interesting questions about how it was possible for the Dutch to fool the Nazis about tunnels in chalk mines that were familiar even to Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon). McPhee appears here as someone who takes what he sees and what he experiences as the raw material for investigations into areas of life, and if he is someone who has had a lot more interesting experiences than most people, it is what he makes of the raw materials of his life that informs so much of his writings and that makes them so useful for others.
This particular short volume of about 200 pages contains ten essays. The first, “Silk Parachute,” is apparently the most anthologized of McPhee’s writings, and it refers to his own memories of his mother and of his own childhood. “Season On The Chalk” shows the author examining chalk around Europe from the cliffs of Dover to the mines of the Dutch that were famous even in the early 19th century. “Swimming With Canoes” shows the author as a teenager deliberately swamping canoes and swimming with them, developing such a skill in dealing with tips that he does not panic in the water. “Warming The Jump Seat” shows the author germinating the idea for a book about his experiences in a prep school from his experience riding with his coach in the jumpseat of a car. “Spin Right And Shoot Left” gives a detailed explanation of the author’s experience in lacrosse as a player and as an observer of the play and history of the game. “Under The Cloth” gives the author’s entertaining thoughts and observations in long-exposure photography. “My Life List” is a collection of odd foods that the author has tried, along with stories about how it was that he ate bee spit. “Checkpoints” is an essay I have read in another collection that reflects on the process of error checking, full of humorous anecdotes about the obscure Illinois Rivers that one can find in the United States. “Rip Van Golfer” reflects on the travails of one year’s US Open where golfers were more than usually battered by a difficult course in difficult conditions. And the last essay, “Nowheres,” gives a humorous comparison between the geology of New Jersey and Tennessee.
Does one need an excuse to read McPhee’s writings? Almost any excuse will do–these essays are full of generosity of spirit, genuine curiosity into memory, the perspectives of others, and the reality of life and existence. The author shows himself humane in looking at a stern old coach and in examining the aspects of racism that led to Iroquois (and other tribes) being prevented from playing in the elite levels of a game that they themselves had created. The author shows considerable generosity of spirit in giving praise to others for helping him become successful, and shows a love of telling funny stories from his own experiences and travels. And it is easy to feel like a better person for having enjoyed the author’s gentle wit and expansive curiosity and generosity of spirit. One can feel from these pages that the author is someone one would like to talk to, listen to, and someone who would be a fair writer and interviewer, and all of that no doubt has helped the author write about so many people and so many situations, because other people feel the same way, being amused by his quirks even as they are pleased by his talented writing.