Read this colorful journalism and you will never view an 18-wheeler, freight train or UPS truck in quite the same way.

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UNCOMMON CARRIERS

McPhee (The Founding Fish, 2002, etc.) rides the rails, sits shotgun in a tanker truck and climbs aboard a river towboat as he investigates the ways in which the staples of modern life travel from one place to another.

The seven chapters here, large portions of which have appeared in the New Yorker, for which the author is a staff writer, and the Atlantic Monthly, contain the trademark McPhee touches—unstinting attention to revealing details, a wry sense of humor and a way of rendering prosaic subjects fascinating. He really shines when he finds a character to match his interest in the mechanical, and truck driver Don Ainsworth, a central figure throughout two chapters, plays the perfect foil. As Ainsworth pilots his polished-chrome, 80,000-pounds-when-loaded chemical tanker truck across the country, McPhee reveals the driver’s obsession with the Wall Street Journal, his collection of boots made from the skins of exotic animals such as water buffaloes and caimans and the technical skill it takes to steer his leviathan-sized vehicle clear of inattentive drivers and overeager cops (“four-wheelers” and “bears,” in the driver’s lingo). Elsewhere, the author hitches a ride on a coal train a mile-and-a-half long, attends a school in France where tanker-ship captains practice tricky maneuvers on a pond in scale-sized model ships and rides along as a towboat pushes a thousand-foot-long line of barges up the Illinois River. McPhee portrays the main UPS sorting center in Louisville as an enormous Rube Goldberg contraption in which the workers inside, many of them college students slogging through night shifts to pay tuition, appear tiny in the shadow of the behemoth that roars all around them. In the one chapter that drags somewhat—perhaps because the central character is long-deceased—McPhee canoes the Concord and Merrimack Rivers along the route taken by Henry David Thoreau in 1839.

Read this colorful journalism and you will never view an 18-wheeler, freight train or UPS truck in quite the same way.

Pub Date: June 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-374-28039-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2006

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD

A LIFETIME OF RECORDINGS

Noted jazz and pop record producer Thiele offers a chatty autobiography. Aided by record-business colleague Golden, Thiele traces his career from his start as a ``pubescent, novice jazz record producer'' in the 1940s through the '50s, when he headed Coral, Dot, and Roulette Records, and the '60s, when he worked for ABC and ran the famous Impulse! jazz label. At Coral, Thiele championed the work of ``hillbilly'' singer Buddy Holly, although the only sessions he produced with Holly were marred by saccharine strings. The producer specialized in more mainstream popsters like the irrepressibly perky Teresa Brewer (who later became his fourth wife) and the bubble-machine muzak-meister Lawrence Welk. At Dot, Thiele was instrumental in recording Jack Kerouac's famous beat- generation ramblings to jazz accompaniment (recordings that Dot's president found ``pornographic''), while also overseeing a steady stream of pop hits. He then moved to the Mafia-controlled Roulette label, where he observed the ``silk-suited, pinky-ringed'' entourage who frequented the label's offices. Incredibly, however, Thiele remembers the famously hard-nosed Morris Levy, who ran the label and was eventually convicted of extortion, as ``one of the kindest, most warm-hearted, and classiest music men I have ever known.'' At ABC/Impulse!, Thiele oversaw the classic recordings of John Coltrane, although he is the first to admit that Coltrane essentially produced his own sessions. Like many producers of the day, Thiele participated in the ownership of publishing rights to some of the songs he recorded; he makes no apology for this practice, which he calls ``entirely appropriate and without any ethical conflicts.'' A pleasant, if not exactly riveting, memoir that will be of most interest to those with a thirst for cocktail-hour stories of the record biz. (25 halftones, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 1995

ISBN: 0-19-508629-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1995

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