Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Reviews: John McPhee's 'Annals' & Robert Massie's 'Catherine The Great'

I inhale 50 or so books a year, or at the rate of about one a week, but in the case of John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of the geology of America's 40th parallel, it has taken me 10 years.

Ten years ago was when Amazon was selling "More Books. More Music. More Fun." and nothing else, and that is what it said on the Amazon book marker wedged between pages 198 and 1999 when I rediscovered Annals at the bottom of a box of books the other day.

I had purchased Annals in the first place because McPhee is one of a small number of journalists who writes exquisitely and with a literary bent about every subject he touches, which have ranged from the Merchant Marine to freight trains to oranges. And truth be known, I had done horribly in geology, which was my college science requirement. I wanted to assuage my guilt and tip my hat to my long-suffering parents, who were by then deceased but would have appreciated that maybe their share of my tuition wasn't entirely for naught.

Some 460 pages later, I finished Annals and unlike the first 198, it didn't feel like my head was about to explode as I waded through a Devonian sea of geological nomenclature. I will chalk this up to being older, wiser, more patient and totally enraptured by McPhee's ability to effortless mix into a single sentence a half dozen ideas, with powerful visuals to boot.

Annals is McPhee's account of traveling back and forth across the U.S. on Interstate 80, which roughly parallels to 40th parallel, often in the company of geologists who open the world beneath and beside the highway for he and the reader.

It was only about the time I was getting Ds in geology that a cadre of renegade geologists rolled a grenade into the geology tent in the form of finally proving that plate tectonics, a long-disputed theory of sliding and colliding slabs of crust that has sent the continents hither and thither for hundreds of millions of years, was spot on. All of a sudden, everything geologic made sense, or sort of did, and McPhee uses this as a framework for a series of New Yorker articles that begat Annals.

From the Palisades overlooking the George Washington Bridge to the Golden Gate, McPhee writes about the geology we only catch glimpses of from a speeding automobile, although a transcontinental flight reveals much more. He pretty much skips Missouri and Nebraska (b-o-r-i-n-g) and pauses long in Wyoming, which one of my two favorite parts of Annals. This is because I have traveled extensively around that state and his guide is David Love, an eminent U.S. Geological Survey geologist who was born in a remote quarter of Wyoming.

Love was raised by a rough-and-tumble Scotsman and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wellesley College who came out West to teach in a one-room, all-grades schoolhouse for students who lived on scattered ranches over a 500 square mile area. The deprivations that he and his family suffered were extreme: Winters so cold , snows so deep and winds so fierce that sheep would get blown off of cliffs, but childhood was one big education and no more so than the geology in his midst.

McPhee tells us that the crazy quilt geology of Wyoming produces geologists like Love who have seen a lot of rocks -- and Love had lived and breathed them on foot, horseback and by truck before embarking to Yale where he got a PhD -- and "a four dimensional gift for fitting them together and arriving at the substance of their story -- a scenarist and lithographer of what geologists like to call the Big Picture."

My other favorite part of Annals is the section on Delaware Water Gap, the magnificent geologic formation bisected by Interstate 80 on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border a stone's throw from my mountain home.

"It's a real schlemazel," geologist Anita Harris cracks wise as she and McPhee examine geologic formations at a road cut along the interstate near the Gap that help explain the formation of the Appalachians, plate tectonics and continental glaciation.

"Not by accident is geology called geology," Harris explains, "It's named for Gaea, the daughter of Chaos."

The rocks are often chaotic, but as one reviewer noted, the study of them is not in McPhee's presentation. Oh, and Annals also includes 25 landform maps.

She sat on the throne of Peter the Great and ruled the largest empire on earth. She was intelligent, well read, had a quick wit and was a shrewd judge of character, was open minded but the power of life and death. She was Catherine II of Russia, better known to history as Catherine the Great.

And she is the well-studied subject of Robert Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, which is a current bestseller that I read in less than a week.

Massie, now 82, has spent almost half a century studying czarist Russia and as Nicholas and Alexandra and his other biographies, has the canny ability of writing like a novelist even when dealing with the historical minutiae that is a necessary part of all good bios.

Unlike the Romanovs, Catherine the Great lucked into become empress of the largest country on earth. She was a minor German princess who caught the eye of Russia's childless empress, Elizabeth. Long story short, Catherine wed Elizabeth's sickly and strange nephew, Peter, who would become her successor. The marriage was never consummated and after six disastrous months on the throne, Peter was ousted by his wife.

Catherine's reign lasted 36 years and was spectacularly successful save for her inability to abolish serfdom. She walked with commoners in the parks on her estates, rewrote Russia's legal code, won a few wars, had a peerless intellectual energy, assembled the greatest art collection of the era, which she hung in the Hermitage, and ruthlessly dealt with everyone who tried to undermine her absolute power.

Massie also reveals that Catherine had 12 lovers and she bore children with three of them.

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