Sunday, May 31, 2009

X-Posts on New Yorker Fiction

I've posted reviews on Emdashes of a fair amount of recent fiction from The New Yorker that I've been forgetting to cross-post here. So tonight, I'm making up for it. Here's reviews of:

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John McPhee on the Ambivalent Glories of Using a D9 Cat

From John McPhee's Coming into the Country, pp. 235-239. Ed and Stanley Gelvin are Alaskans who are panning for gold circa 1974:

They had a little Ranger -- a diminutive tractor, like a Cub Cadet -- which they had used to like purpose when they built a cabin on the Charley River years before. Ed cut the Ranger in half. They flew it to the mountains, and he welded it back together. The backhoe before long followed, and when it was at last reassembled they scooped into the center of a stream. Bedrock was eight feet down. Even at six, they panned the colors they had hoped to see.

They had intended to spend the whole of the following season ranging with the backhoe around the claims they had made, trying out pieces of seven miles of streams, but early results were so encouraging that they sharply foreshortened the tests. To put it conservatively, a pay streak appeared to be there, and what was needed now -- since the backhoe was just a fifty-seven-hundred-pound shovel -- was a means of moving gravel in a major way. The Caterpillar Tractor Company produces the eponymous Cat in seven sizes -- styled D3, D4, and so on to D9. Most gold miners use something less than the largest, but the Gelvins -- forming a partnership with two friends in Fairbanks -- decided to go all the way. The supreme Cat, twenty-seven feet long, eleven feet high, with a blade of fourteen feet, could sweep forty yards of gravel before it -- possibly a hundred dollars a shove. Ed Gelvin went to Los Angeles to shop for a used D9.

With his partners in Fairbanks putting up the money in return for a half interest in the claims, he paid forty-seven thousand five hundred dollars for a ten-year-old machine -- D9, Series G. In the fleets of general contractors, it had spent its lifetime ripping raw California land, making freeways, and preparing building sites on beaches and deserts. Who, watching it there -- clanking, dozing, wheezing, roaring, grunting like Pete the Pig -- could ever in farthest-fetched imaginings have guessed where it would go? It went to Seattle by train, and by barge to Whittier in Prince William Sound. There the Alaska Railroad picked it up and took it to Fairbanks, where, in early April, a lowboy hauled it up the dirt road north. Forty miles from Central, the haul stopped -- blocked by the still unbroken winter snows. The road had been smothered since October. Ed Gelvin, who was observing from the air, landed on the road and with Stanley put the blade on the Cat. The weather in a general way was warming. Snow was melting. Ice was beginning to rot. If the D9 was going to move up frozen stream beds and climb into the mountains, it had to keep going now. If the road was closed, the Cat would open it.

When Stanley Gelvin was a small boy and did his elementary-school work by correspondence from the kitchen table in Central, he was from time to time required to draw a picture. When the choice of subject was his to make, he always drew a Cat. He operated one before he drove anything else. Now, with a Cat all around him, he knew where things were. He sensed like an athlete the rhythm of the parts -- the tilt cylinders, the blade-lift arms. A good Cat skinner is a Cat mechanic, and from the torque converter to the sun-and-planet gears, he knew what was making the moves. 'I know what's inside the thing -- everything -- and what makes it work. My father knows how the stuff goes together, too. If the thing needs work, we do it.'

The snow-obscured road leading on toward Central was -- even at its best, in summer -- a tortuous trail. In several high places, it traversed the flanks of mountains as a fifteen-foot shelf with no rail of any kind and a precipitous plunge on the outboard side. On the last of these mountain passes, twenty miles from home, Stanley encountered drifts that were thirty feet deep. To keep going, he had to bite into the snow, doze some to the brink, send it avalanching down, then turn and bite some more -- all the while feeling for the road, feeling with his corner bits (the low tips of the blade) for the buried edge where the road stopped and the plunge began. A D9 is in some ways the most difficult Cat to operate. 'You've got so much iron in front of you can't see what you're doing.' It is also his favorite size, because it is so big it does not bounce around. This one weighed a hundred and ten thousand pounds. Its balance point was ten feet back of the blade. Repeatedly Stanley moved the blade eight feet over the edge. He knew where it was. If he had gone off the mountain, he would have raised one fantastic cloud of snow. Instead, he trimly dismantled the prodigious drifts and dozed on down to Central.

To the pads of the track Ed Gelvin welded ice grousers. They would keep the Cat from sliding. They were small pieces of steel, protruding like hyphens from the tracks. Ed and Stanley had built a steel slick plate and a steel sluice box, and Ed had rearranged them as a huge loaded sled -- eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long: I-beams, H-beams, three-sixteenths-inch plate. He had made a thousand-gallon fuel tank. It was full and on the sled. Here and there, he slipped in snowshoes, gold pans, a two-hundred-amp generator, a welding tank and torch. Finally, he secured to the top of the load a plywood wanigan -- that is, a small hut, with three bunks, propane, and a cupboard full of food. The rig, composed, weighed about twelve tons. When it was hooked to the D9, Stanley left for the mountains.

He crossed low terrain at first. His mother rode with him. His father hovered in the air. Then he changed passengers, taking on a friend named Gary Powers, and they began to move up Woodchopper Creek. His altitude at the start was nine hundred feet. The highest point on the trip was well above four thousand. They travelled five days, fourteen hours a day. There was plenty of wind. The highest temperature they experienced was zero. They stopped to cut their way through trees with a chain saw (fearing to doze them because the wanigan might be crushed). The Cat fell twice through rotting ice. With no difficulty, it climbed out of the water. There was some luck in the conditions, but not much. With less ice in Woodchopper Canyon, Stanley might have been stopped. But successive overflows on the creek had built the ice thickness in places to thirty feet. Nearing the head of Woodchopper, he moved the Cat slowly up a steep slope of ice, slid back, crept again, slid back, and thought for a while he wouldn't make it. Without the grousers, the big rig would have been stopped, but they held just enough, and gradually he crawled out of the head of the creek -- only to move into snow so deep the D9's steel tracks spun out. Stanley thought it wise to stop for the night. For one thing, all this was happening in a blizzard. Next day, the sky was clear, the air colder, and Stanley moved on a contour, through the deep snow until he found an uphill route. Steadily, he climbed ridges, sometimes in little snow, sometimes in seven-foot drifts. At one point, the going was so steep that he disengaged the sled and tried first to clear a trail. 'I knew that ridge was too steep to go over, because it was almost vertical. So I went around to the right. Without them ice grousers, the machine would have slid sideways and straight to the bottom as if it was on skates. Gary was scared to death. I went real slow now, and slipped some, and then went down to a dead crawl. I had it idled as low as it would go. I went on half a mile or so. When I saw it was possible, I went back for the sled.'

Landing on skis, his father would fly him out, and the D9 would sit idle in the mountains until summer. Meanwhile, there was one last ridge to cross. 'One side was sheer, and the other had deep snow and was very steep. It must have been forty-five degrees. A guy could have maybe gone around one side -- if you'd left the wanigan, dug the snow, and plowed a road. But I didn't want to make a horrible-looking mess. I moved slowly up. The track did spin a bit. I couldn't go straight up. It was too steep. I couldn't go sideways too well. I couldn't go back, because I had the sled. I'd have been afraid to back down. You can cut a road into the side of a mountain if you want to with a Cat like that, but I just inched up the thing, and over. I didn't want to dig up the country.'

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Joan Acocella on the Crusades

Joan Acocella, in her usual incisive and entertaining manner, reviewed two books on the Crusades in the December 13, 2004 issue of The New Yorker. She liked both, but she had one reservation:

[Thomas] Asbridge praises the "inspired and audacious" tactics of the leaders of the First Crusade, their "military genius"; [Jonathan] Phillips roots for the men of the Fourth Crusade as, with their boats swaying beneath them and with scores of Greek bowmen firing at them, they climb their ladders and jump out onto the walls of Constantinople. Later, the authors bemoan the slaughter, but what did they think the audacious tactics were for? There is a curious amorality here. It may be endemic to military history. (What an exciting battle! Oops, what a lot of dead people!)

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Transit of Hardship

In the 18th-century, scientists were trying to measure the passage of Venus across the Sun. If correctly measured from multiple places on Earth, one could then work out the distance to the Sun and other planets. However, these "transits of Venus" only happen "in pairs eight years apart, but then are absent for a century or more." So when the first of a pair of such transits came around in 1761, scientists from all over the world set off to take measurements.

Many suffered disasters of various kinds, but among the unluckiest of these observers was a Frenchman named Guillaume Le Gentil:

Le Gentil set off from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on the day of the transit -- just about the worst place to be since steady measurements were impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next ransit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his instruments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but, just as Venus began to pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.

Stoically, Le Gentil packed up his instruments and set off for the nearest port, but en route he contracted dysentery and was laid up for nearly a year. Still weakened, he finally made it onto a ship. It was nearly wrecked in a hurricane off the African coast. When at last he reached home, eleven and a half years after setting off, and having achieved nothing, he discovered that his relatives had had him declared dead in his absence and had enthusiastically plundered his estate.
--from pp. 54-55 of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

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Marie Curie Took Her Work Home with Her

For a long time it was assumed that anything so miraculously energetic as radioactivity must be beneficial. For years, manufacturers of toothpaste and laxatives put radioactive thorium in their products ... Radioactivity wasn't banned in consumer products until 1938. By this time it was much too late for Madame Curie, who died of leukemia in 1934. Radiation, in fact, is so pernicious and long lasting that even now her papers from the 1890s -- even her cookbooks -- are too dangerous to handle. Her lab books are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to see them must don protective clothing.
--from A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, p. 111.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Leslie Thomas' Last Detective and Napoleon's Unmentionable

In the following excerpt, "Dangerous" Davies, a police detective, interviews a doctor with an interesting collection:

Around the walls were showcases containing items of human anatomy. Davies could see a library through another door with an encased skeleton grinning at nothing. There were other skulls, bones and nameless things in jars. The death mask of a bald man occupied another container. 'Unusual room,' mentioned Davies, accepting the doctor's Scotch.

'An unusual facet of dockland development,' smiled Kinlock. 'It's not all fancy former warehouses.' He was a small Scot with ginger eyebrows. 'It's been a fine opportunity to gather interesting specimens from medical history. I'm adding to it all the time. The death mask is of Mikhail Bakunin, the father of modern anarchy, one of only twelve made. One day, I would love to buy Napoleon's testicle.'

'That,' agreed Davies vaguely, 'would be worth having.'

--from Leslie Thomas' Dangerous in Love: a Dangerous Davies Novel [1987], p. 101.

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Robert B. Parker on the Big "Aha"

In the following section, the first-person narrator is Spenser, a private detective, who is interviewing the madam of a high-end prostitution ring.


"Who else?"

"He never said, but he was quite odd [...]"

"Tall and slim? Chewed gum?"


I said, "Aha."


"Yeah, like Aha I see a connection, or Aha I have discovered a clue. It's detective talk."

[...] She sipped some more Campari. I drank some Heineken. "Among my enterprises," she said, "is a film business. This gentleman had apparently seen Donna in one of our films and wanted the master print."

"Aha, aha!" I said. "Corporate diversification." The waiter came for our order. When he was gone, I said, "Start from the beginning. When did you meet Donna, what did she do for you, what kind of film was she in, tell me all."

"Very well, if you promise not to keep saying Aha."

--Robert B. Parker, Mortal Stakes (1975), pp. 146-147.

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