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Uncommon Carriers Paperback – April 3, 2007

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (April 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865477396
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865477391
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.3 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,695 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–McPhee charms readers with an insiders 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Uncommon Carriers -- a book by John McPhee.
Like all of McPhee's books, it is a work of non-fiction journalism.
Bruce Piscitello
It was informative, interesting, and a very entertaining read.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

82 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Leonard Fleisig VINE VOICE on June 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote that "to do common things perfectly is far better worth our endeavor than to do uncommon things respectably." The focus of John McPhee's excellent new book, Uncommon Carriers, is on people who do uncommon things remarkably well.

On my first, nervous day in the ocean shipping industry (an industry that carries most of the world's cargo in international trade) my boss took me to a run down diner in lower Manhattan. We sat at the counter and the waiter came up to us with a fish in his hand. "You have to have the fish. Look at this. The boss picked it out at the market this morning. You have to have this." After he walked away my boss told me that in our business I was going to be entrusted with other people's cargo. He said that as long as I treated that cargo, and my job, like that waiter treated that fish, I'd eventually learn how to do my job the right way. I could have quit then and there because I've probably never had a better lesson about how to do a job right than I got at that lunch. "Uncommon Carriers" is about a group of people who transport other people's cargo as if it were "their fish". It is a fascinating look at the people and methods by which we get food on our tables, heat in our furnaces and clothes on our back.

I've admired McPhee since I read his wonderful overview of life in the liner shipping industry, "Looking for a Ship". He has a way of taking complicated processes or procedures that are little known to the general public and writing about them in a way that the general public, and even I, can understand. When it comes to describing the people who operate these machines, McPhee doesn't get in the way of the voice of his protagonists. He lets their natural eloquence come through.
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"The most beautiful truck on earth-Don Ainsworth's present sapphire-drawn convexing elongate stainless steel mirror- get s smidgen over six miles to the gallon. As its sole owner, he not only counts it calories with respect to it gross weight but with regard to the differing fuel structures of the states it traverses. It is much better to take Idaho fuel than phony-assed Oregon fuel. The Idaho fuel includes all the taxes. The Oregon fuel did not. Oregon feints with an attractive price at the pump, but then shoots an uppercut into the ton-mileage." In "Uncommon Carriers" we come to know Don Ainsworth, the intelligent, fastidious owner-driver of a meticulously kept 18-wheeler. And, we are privy to all of his first hand knowledge about trucking and life in general.

John McPhee rides from Atlanta to Washington state with Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, five-axle, and eighteen wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmets. John McPhee's writing carries us along in the seat with Don and John, and I have a new hero now, Don Ainsworth. A trucker worth his weight in gold, and like Reader's Digest's old series, "a most unforgettable character". This book is "a grown-up version of every young boy's and girl's, I might add, fantasy life,"

This is John McPhee's 28th novel. What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. He attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By James D. DeWitt VINE VOICE on July 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
John McPhee is a national treasure. Through 28 books, he has brought participatory journalism to high art, bringing us stories of interesting people doing interesting things. This time, he takes a series of essays first published in New Yorker magazine, all addressing aspects of transportation of cargo, and presents them in "Uncommon Carriers."

McPhee includes stories on trucking hazardous material, barging on the Illinois River, a school for oil tanker captains and the coals trains carrying coal from Wyoming the southeastern coal-fired power plants. As always, McPhee makes it fascinating. Partly, it's because he finds such fascinating characters. Trucker Don Ainsworth, for example. Partly, it's because he finds such fascinating tidbits. Rabbis who assure kosher truck transport, for example. But mostly it's because he finds and tells of fascinating subjects. Ranging from 1.3 mile long coal trains to 1,100 foot long strings of barges pushed up the narrow Illinois River, you have to ask how he finds out about this stuff.

Would-be writers could do worse then study a McPhee paragraph, or analyze the organization of subjects across an essay. McPhee's skills include the ability to make it all seem effortless. When you consider the welter of detail he brings to each subject, without ever overwhelming the reader, your respect for his skills will grow. And I admit to a certain envy about how much fun McPhee gets to have.

The book includes a tangentially related essay; McPhee and his son-in-law retrace the path of Henry David Thoreau and his brother in 1839 up an abandoned commercial waterway. The abandoned locks and channels of the canal system on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers speak to another time and another definition of commerce.
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More 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. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1969), The Crofter and the Laird (1969), Levels of the Game (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1972), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science.

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