Silk Parachute by John McPhee
John McPhee is 80 years old, has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1965 and has written 28 books. Mr. McPhee has written about Arthur Ashe, Bill Bradley, oranges, Alaska, human-powered flight, a cattle-brands inspector and several books on geology. While factual in nature, his work has the power to draw the reader into the world of each essay’s topic like a good novel.
Reading any McPhee book is a joy but Silk Parachute is something new for him. His beautiful craftsmanship, highly detailed description and ability to turn what, at first glance, would seem mundane into a can't-put-it-down page-turner are all here. But in one significant way, it's different. He writes about himself.
The titular first essay is about his mother and things she did for him when he was young that formed his life -- taking him to the theater and the observation deck at LaGuardia to watch the DC3s land and the gift of a toy silk parachute that "always returned safely to earth". In three-and-a-half pages he calls up scores of images that leave you overflowing with admiration for this now 99-year-old woman.
The rest of the book takes you on a journey through nine more essays. Fifty pages for some, 2 or 3 pages for others. In his past writings, he's often chosen geology as a topic, and here we learn about the massive chalk formation that on one end makes the White Cliffs of Dover and the other the soils of the French Wine Country ("Season on the Chalk"). Others include a treatise on the little known game of lacrosse ("Spin Right and Shoot Left"),his high school basketball coach ("Warming the Jump Seat"), odd things he's eaten ("My Life List"). One I particularly enjoyed ("Checkpoints") is about the fact-checkers he's worked with at The New Yorker.
If you have been a John McPhee reader for a while, this is a must-read book for you. If you are new to his writing, this would be a great place to start. And I don't think it will be your last.
About the Author
Richard Henderson is weekend supervisor at the Waldo Branch and has been with the Kansas City Public Library for two and a half years. He has a BFA from Memphis College of Art and has done just about everything for work. He is a big fan of life-long learning and just loves to read.