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Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America (Owl/John MacRae Books) Paperback – May 2, 2006

2.9 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this beguiling study of meteorology and its discontents, Svenvold, a poet and author of Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw, spends the month of May in the colorful caravan of tornado chasers as they pore over weather data in strip-mall parking lots, drive thousands of miles through the Oklahoma-Nebraska corridor searching for thunderheads and agonize over which of the many storm clouds darkening the horizon to pursue. It's a classic American mixture of high-tech fetishism and barnstorming entertainment, populated by sober meteorologists with the latest forecasting gadgetry and jargon, an IMAX filmmaker hoping to drive his tanklike "Tornado Intercept Vehicle" into the whirlwind and local weathercasters who stage each tornado watch as a "low-tech reality show the size of central Kansas." The author situates it in the cult of "catastrophilia," a "commodified version of the... sublime" visible in everything from "torn porn" videos to the Weather Channel's marketing of weather as consumer accouterment. Svenvold's usually engaging chronicle of "extreme waiting" for funnel clouds occasionally lapses into extreme writing ("Here was the anti-storm, weather as non-weather," he broods during an unwelcome bout of clear skies), and his impulse to suck up all information in his path sometimes leads to digressions. But his wry, supple prose vividly captures a heartland made up of the awe-inspiring and the absurd. Agent, Sarah Chalfant. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Svenvold is poet-in-residence at Fordham University, and his poetic pedigree is evident on every page of this exploration of the strange, seductive lure of catastrophic weather: "Air is water's ghost, flowing, like water, through its seasons." Svenvold tagged along with one veteran storm chaser, Matt Biddle, in 2004, but this isn't merely a biography of Biddle. It's a look at the world in which he lives, a world filled with scientists and mavericks and hucksters. For some, chasing tornadoes is a career; for others, like stock-car-racer Steve Green (who saw a business opportunity in driving headlong into a tornado), it offers a chance to make a buck. For others, like Biddle, it's an obsession. If you're a fan of movies about extreme weather (such as 1995's Twister, which has a decidedly mixed reputation in storm-chasing circles), you'll definitely want to give this book a read. But its appeal is not limited to those with a hankering for climatological disaster: the author's approach, his way of digging under the surface to explore the dreams and motivations of these unusual men and women, takes the book out of its niche and puts it right up there beside such best-selling narrative nonfiction as Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm (1997), a book to which Svenvold devotes two pages of admiring praise, and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997). David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Owl/John MacRae Books
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Reprint edition (May 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805080147
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805080148
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,563,525 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm not involved in storm chasing, other than watching it on television and now, thanks to some of the names that Mark Svenvold mentions in his book, on their web sites.

There's an interesting story that Svenvold writes on in the book, the one where a storm chaser from Texas and a companion have a tornado form atop them, or at least very, very close to the vehicle that they were travelling in. Anyway, I went to the fellow's website, and sure enough, there was a video of the chase that Svenvold wrote of. In his account, Svenvold states that the female passenger was near-hysterical. But, when watching the video, the one that Svenvold gets his story from, you get the idea that she was less hysterical than merely quite excited -- and from there, the story takes a different tone than the one the way that it was written.

At any rate, there are some good descriptions of those that are involved with storm chasing. The good thing is that in this modern age, you can back check the author and see the other side of the story on the internet. From there, draw your own conclusions. Read the book, then hit Google.

I could have done without the preaching that this book does, and would enjoy reading another book about this subject by an author like Sebastian Junger or perhaps Jon Krakhauer. While Svenvold at times elicits their tones and narratives, he fails at their keen analysis and ability to keep asides relevant to the point at hand.
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Format: Paperback
I don't know why it's taken me so long to get around to doing this, but here goes. I wrote Big Weather and am bemused but not surprised by the intellectually dishonest review by Charles Doswell III, who, as a university professor, should know better than to start with an attack ad hominem, the lowest form of argument--he calls me a carpet-bagger. Things don't improve from there. It's not a review. It's a psuedo-review, a personal attack posing as a review, which is just one of the reasons why it's dishonest.

I wrote Big Weather because I was curious about why, as a culture, we seem so fascinated by catastrophic weather. I wanted to know why it was that a company like The Weather Channel could exist in the first place. I was following a line of thought first developed in 1962 by Daniel Boorstin, in his book The Image: A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America, in which Boorstin warns about a great menace that was emerging then in American culture. He used that word, "menace," and the menace wasn't poverty or war or class division, or anything like that. It was, as he called it, "unreality." The problem of "unreality" in our culture. He identified three areas in culture that are not prone to advertising or political manipulation--the first was crime reporting, the second was sports, and the third was the weather. The weather has become for us a base-line measure for what's real. You can create a company like The Weather Channel, which spins the weather to a fare-the-well, but if a storm decides to wipe the Weather Channel off the earth, there's nothing anyone can do about it.
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Format: Hardcover
Big Weather is a lot about weather and a little about weather, all at the same time. How come? Because Mark Svenvold can describe physical phenomena in prose approaching poetry, and the topic allows him to introduce the reader to multiple other venues.
The title attracts those of us who need to deal with weather. I fly light airplanes and taught weather as a major chapter in aviation ground school class curricula. Even so, tornadoes are a fish pilots do not swim with. We race the other way, like herring trying to fly when the whales arrive to corral them with air bubbles. So on a daily basis, pilots need to know more about, for example, the Current Icing Potential on the ADDS Web, or the convective SIGMETS, which describe the wide range of turbulence generators.
But whatever makes you open Big Weather, you will find, in the first paragraph of page one, the rich ability of a poet to describe the factual in impressionistic ways.
A few pages later, you will meet Matt Biddle, his hero.
And it keeps getting better. Want to know about Chaos? Svenvold will tell you about Lorenz, and then you can read James Gleick.
His mention of Heisenberg might remind you that Werner was once asked if he had any questions for God. He responded "Yes, I will ask him to explain relativity and turbulence, and I think he will be able to explain relativity".
Or, when Svenvold brings up Pliny the Elder, describing a vortex, you can pick up John Mc Phee's "Control of Nature" and read how Pliny dropped dead when Vesuvius erupted under his nose.
Think tornadoes are all violence? Svenvold will connect you with their sublime elements, and with Dionysius Longinus, sublime's first champion.
Science, art, science, literature, science, psychology, geography, history, philosophy. On and on it goes.
Elmer Mc Curdy is another good yarn. Get that too.
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Format: Paperback
Svenvold spent months hanging out in Norman, home of much of the nation's weather facilities and research institutes. His careful writing style captured what it is like to have a bust day or a successful day. He chased with chasers who are well known in the tornado research community.

He successfully captured the characters and how they are driven to see and measure tornadoes and tornadic storms. I know, at the time, I was very much a member of that community. It is an inside look at what happens not only in Norman, but what happens every spring on the Great Plains.

This is my favorite book on the subject, an outsider who became an insider, accepted by all. Why this book never really caught on is a mystery to me, because he eloquently presents the characters and events without sensationalizing them. If you like Tornadoes, or are interested in them at all, buy this book.
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