Day 445: Annals of the Former World: Crossing the Craton

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the final short book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee examines the craton, the flat land that lies in the central Midwest of the continental United States. If you have read my reviews of the other books, you might remember that McPhee wrote each one about a separate geologic area near I-80, along which he traveled with different geologists telling the story of the formation of the country. Each of those four books was published separately, but Crossing the Craton was added when the complete volume was published, perhaps for completeness. (I think it was published separately at a later time.)

Because there are few outcroppings in the Midwest, little can be seen of the rock underlying this area, a thin veneer over the basement rock that comprises 90% of geologic time.  McPhee explains that until very recently this basement, or Precambrian, rock was neglected in geology texts. Because Precambrian rock by definition has no carbon in it from living things, carbon dating was not available. Nothing was known about the rock.  For a long time it was thought to have been there since the creation of the earth, but that idea has been found to be incorrect.

Just in the last 40 years or so, new kinds of dating methods and other technological advances have allowed geologists more insight into what is going on beneath the surface in these older rocks. Gravity maps have revealed a huge tectonic rift, for example, that runs from eastern Nebraska through Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and under Lake Superior, where it joins one rift shooting north into Canada and another running right through Michigan. This three-pronged rift is similar to the one that runs down the Red Sea to meet the rift in the Gulf of Aden and the East African Rift, only that one is much younger.

In this book McPhee explains how the Canadian Shield and the central portion of North America were mostly likely created. He also looks at recent technologies such as zircon dating and aeromagnetic mapping, and speculates on the discoveries about the basement rock that could emerge in the future.

Although this is the shortest book in the volume, more the length of an essay, its emphasis on technology makes the subject matter of lesser interest to me than that of the previous books.

Day 159: The Art of Fielding

Cover for The Art of FieldingI’m not a sports fan, and I don’t really understand why some people view baseball skills as art. This next statement may be heresy to some people, but I also did not enjoy reading Moby Dick. What do these two things have in common? The Art of Fielding, a contemporary literary novel by Chad Harbach. The book would seem to not be a good fit for me. Nevertheless, I was curious about where the plot was leading. I found the book very readable, littered with Melville references though it may be.

The Art of Fielding follows the course of a few important characters. Henry Skrimshander just wants to play baseball but has no particular ambitions until he is spotted in a game by Mike Schwartz, the team captain for the Harpooners baseball team from Westish College in Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Mike recruits him and devotes himself to training Henry to be a great shortstop, to the neglect of his own academic career. Soon, Henry is on the way to breaking a record for no errors held by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez, the author of The Art of Fielding, a zenlike opus on baseball that Henry has carefully studied.

Henry’s college roommate is Owen Dunne, a brilliant student and baseball player who is also gay. He becomes involved in an affair that will have far-reaching consequences.

The college president Guert Affenlight is happy because his daughter Pella has left her husband and returned home. Affenlight is a Melville scholar, and Westish College adopted a Herman Melville motif at his suggestion because Melville made a lecture stop at the college long ago.

Pella, a difficult and rebellious woman, abandoned a promising college career to drop out of the last few months of high school and run off with an architect she met at a lecture. Guert and Pella have been estranged ever since. Both of them want to make amends but are not quite sure how.

Everything seems to be working out for everyone until Henry makes his first error in years, a disastrous throw. The characters are forced to reassess their own views of their lives.

Harbach is a careful writer who occasionally uses brilliant imagery. At heart, though, the novel is rather slight and shallow. It was 2011’s Big Book and critics raved about it, but those giving it a second look seem to be a little more critical. I enjoyed The Art of Fielding, but my enjoyment was mild.