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The Founding Fish Hardcover – October 13, 2002

4.3 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his newest (after Annals), McPhee leads readers out to the river-pole and lures in hand-to angle for American shad. McPhee knows where the fish are running, so to speak, and he opens with a tall tale about his long vigil with a giant roe shad on the line. Night falls, a crowd gathers on a nearby bridge to watch and still the fish refuses to roll over; however embellished, it's a comic story. He then probes the natural history of the shad, known as Alosa sapidissima and traces the fish's storied place in American history and economics. The shad manages to turn up, at least in legend, at George Washington's camp at Valley Forge; it waylaid Confederate General Pickett in the defense of Richmond and hastened the end of the Civil War; it even played a minor role in John Wilkes Booth's murder of Lincoln. McPhee consults specialists like a fish behaviorist, an anatomist of fishes and a zooarcheologist who studies 18th-century trash pits to see whether Washington indeed ate shad at Mount Vernon. The author studies under a master shad dart maker and in an appendix gives recipes, too. McPhee reaffirms his stature as a bold American original. His prose is rugged, straightforward and unassuming, and can be just as witty. This book sings like anglers' lines cast on the water. It runs with the wisdom of ocean-going shad.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Alosa sapidissima, the American shad, is considered an early teleost one of the most primitive fish, hence the title. As in his other award-winning works, McPhee (Annals of the Former World) writes with an engaging style that keeps the reader turning page after page. Here he ruminates on the fish's role in nature and American history it was a founding fish in more ways than one. McPhee waxes poetically about fishing in the Delaware River, making shad darts (excerpted in The New Yorker), and cooking shad and shad roe. He handles common anthropomorphic writing tendencies with flair and wit: "[the shad] can't be said to be cocky, of course, but he suggests cockiness and pretension." Although this shad is native to the Atlantic coast and naturalized on the Pacific coast, the book may be of more interest to readers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, where place names in the book will more likely be recognized. Still, there are a lot of McPhee fans out there, so it is recommended for large public library collections and where his books circulate well. Mary J. Nickum, Lakewood, CO
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (October 13, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374104441
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374104443
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1.2 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #693,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
John McPhee has written numerous pieces for _The New Yorker_ and over a score of books on such subjects as oranges, canoes, and geology. His wide range of interests now centers on an object of personal obsession; in _The Founding Fish_ (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) he tells us about his own passion for fishing for shad. As you might expect, he can't help but tell us a lot more, about history, ecology, and human oddities. If you don't know about shad, and even if you don't know about fishing, and don't care to know about it, you won't feel alienated away from these pages, which contain McPhee's fine prose and wry humor. (For instance, he is surprised to find a snake in his net: "I lack the sense of companionship that some people seem to have with snakes.") Shad is worth knowing about, it turns out, and so is McPhee, who has seldom put himself as a character in his own books.
Of course, there is much advice about fishing for shad, which seem to be a particularly elusive fish. McPhee quotes extensively from his fishing diaries, and starts his book with a funny description of an epic battle with a shad on the Delaware River starts. McPhee has seventy feet of six-pound test line "suddenly pulled by a great deal more than the current." The battle goes on for pages and pages, eventually ending in the netting of a 4 3/4 pound shad. A fighting fish, to be sure. Or a clumsy angler. Shad is not an endangered species, but of course they have been affected by the humans changing their waters. Beside the problem of pollution, there are thousands of dams on rivers that used to present only milder natural obstacles for the returning fish. Some of the dams are, surprisingly, coming down, and McPhee takes us to a dam-removing ceremony.
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Format: Hardcover
John McPhee, "a registered curmudgeon", was fishing for shad on the Delaware River one afternoon when he felt a tug. Nearly three hours later, amidst a serious debate over what was on the end of the line, a concerned wife's inquiry forwarded by a policeman, and cheers from interested spectators, McPhee pulled from the river a 4 - 3/4 pound roe shad. Clearly not a record-setter, nor an exotic species - the debate suggested bass, sturgeon and even tarpon. What prompted McPhee to relate this event in opening a lengthy account of what, to some, remains a mediocre animal? Surely, John McPhee, who has written of continental movement and extended vistas, must have a compelling reason to deal with such a mundane topic.
McPhee's reputation as a writer should need no introduction. However, if you are unacquainted with his work, you can start here with confidence. He deftly presents a melange of scientific information, "folk wisdom", history and personal experience. As with his work on geology, he entices researchers, fishermen, guides and legislators to provide him their views, which he relates with sympathy and clarity. Throughout this narrative, his own experiences are told with wit and compassion. Fishermen are great whingers, but McPhee brings a new level of sensitivity to his personal accounts. He knows there's a god when a nearby fisherman nets six fish while his hook remains empty - only a god could permit such arbitrary antics in nature.
The research and folk tales centre on a particular form of fish. Anadromous ["running up"] fish, among which salmon are the most famous, can move from an ocean environment up fresh water streams to spawn. This talent requires bizarre body chemistry, bearing immense costs.
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Format: Hardcover
"It has not been long since the Florida peninsula was under water. Covered with sand, it is a limestone platform - like the Bahamas platform, the Yucatan platform. Now that it is up in the air, its topography and drainage patterns are somewhat bizarre. For example, it has an east-west divide and a north-south divide. The shorter one crosses the peninsula at the latitude of Tampa Bay. The longer divide, running down the axis of the peninsula, is known locally as the Ridge. Its high domains - the Apennines of Florida - rise to an altitude of two hundred and forty feet. For a hundred miles, oranges grow on the Ridge in a broad continuous ribbon."
If one had, by some fiat, to restrict all of John McPhee's writing to one paragraph, this excerpt from THE FOUNDING FISH would be a good representative example, something of a core sample of years of excellent prose. The reference to the Florida orange crop in the last sentence neatly encapsulates ORANGES, McPhee's epic 1967 writing on the classical, biological, economic and social history of oranges, written in that startlingly crisp and literate prose that is his hallmark. The discussion of Floridian geology is evocative of his masterpiece, ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD, a four-volume exploration of geology and the plate tectonics revolution that won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1999. McPhee has written the authoritative texts on a dizzying array of topics, as varied as Alaska (COMING INTO THE COUNTRY), the merchant marine (LOOKING FOR A SHIP), and Bill Bradley (A SENSE OF WHERE YOU ARE).
THE FOUNDING FISH continues in this tradition. It is the definitive work on the American shad. There are, therefore, only two groups of readers who will be delighted by it; those who have heard of the American shad, and those who have not.
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