Silk Parachute [NOOK Book]



The brief, brilliant essay “Silk Parachute,” which first appeared in The New Yorker a decade ago, has become John McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing. In the nine other pieces here— highly varied in length and theme—McPhee ranges with his characteristic humor and intensity through lacrosse, long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird ...

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Silk Parachute

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The brief, brilliant essay “Silk Parachute,” which first appeared in The New Yorker a decade ago, has become John McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing. In the nine other pieces here— highly varied in length and theme—McPhee ranges with his characteristic humor and intensity through lacrosse, long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe “on the chalk” from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France. Some of the pieces are wholly personal. In luminous recollections of his early years, for example, he goes on outings with his mother, deliberately overturns canoes in a learning process at a summer camp, and germinates a future book while riding on a jump seat to away games as a basketball player. But each piece—on whatever theme—contains somewhere a personal aspect in which McPhee suggests why he was attracted to write about the subject, and each opens like a silk parachute, lofted skyward and suddenly blossoming with color and form.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

New Yorker essayist John McPhee is known for his prodigious output, but Silk Parachute is his first book in almost four years. It is also quite arguably the most personal this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever crafted. The collection of essays takes it title from a decade-old article that has become McPhee's most anthologized piece. Like that reverie on a miraculous sky toy, the book floats lightly and gracefully from topic to topic; from the English seacoast and a Dutch valley to lacrosse, the U.S. Open, and strange food served abroad. Editor's recommendation. A portable enchantment; now in paperback.

Elizabeth Royte
Readers hungry for details—how [McPhee] developed his voice, his sensibility, his "inn-terr-esst"—will gobble up these essays. Readers who shrug, "Eh?" may simply enjoy the scope of McPhee's intellectual curiosity and his great gnashing of words…I will take McPhee any day, on any subject. If it must be lacrosse, or golf, so be it. Most readers won't mind the occasional phrase gone precious—such indulgences only set the spare, move-me-to-tears passages into higher relief. In the age of blogging and tweeting, of writers' near-constant self-promotion, McPhee is an imperative counterweight, a paragon of both sense and civility.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The world’s complex mechanisms beguile us in this scintillating collection of essays, many from the New Yorker. McPhee is fascinated by all manner of intricate and subtle processes. His topic might be the slow geological forces that produced the chalk formations underlying the landscape of northwestern Europe or the stolid wine-making procedures of the French vineyards atop them. It might be the lightning-fast maneuvers in the sport of lacrosse or the evangelizing social networks that are spreading it across the continent. It might be the splashy tricks he and his friends performed with their canoes at summer camp, or the finicky machinery of his daughter’s box camera, its long exposures rendering all moving objects invisible. It might be the New Yorker’s mighty fact-checking juggernaut churning out answers to the most obscure questions, or the oddly shaped mental gears that processed editor William Shawn’s legendary food phobias, or the wondrous workings of a toy silk parachute. However arcane the subject, McPhee wraps it in nicely wrought narrative and piquant characters, as when a random outing with his granddaughter sparks a discourse on theories of mass extinction. The result is a narrative that is wryly humorous, raptly observant, luxuriating in idle curiosity. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
Ten gem-quality bemusements from New Yorker veteran McPhee (Uncommon Carriers, 2007, etc.). Here the author is at his most personal, far from the cool remove that has characterized so much of his superb, voluminous output. As usual, these journalistic pieces are not assignments. McPhee examines things he finds intriguing: canoeing, basketball, lacrosse, boats, schooling and magazine writing. The stories-most of them amplified articles from the New Yorker-showcase a writer obviously enjoying himself, whether watching his grandson mucking about in the Thames estuary, where a bilge-spewing ship resembles "a floating cadaver of ulcerated rust," or detailing the work of "champagne riddling," during which "a plug as soft and repulsive as phlegm" is removed from the settling bubbly. Each subject comes with plenty of entertaining material, but also plays on the surface with an appealing glee. McPhee pays a return to golf, a sport he had abandoned many years before when he "envisioned [it] as a psychological Sing Sing in which I was an inmate," and he writes with a high degree of candor and affection about working for the New Yorker-how an article came to pass, the ins and outs of the magazine's vaunted fact-checking department, telephone conversations with William Shawn and even times when the magazine rejected his pieces. Who'd have thought? Throughout, we feel a felicitous warmth of McPhee at work as he shares his stories. Reading these vignettes is like finding the bean in the Twelfth Night cake-each is a surprising, rewarding delight. Author appearances in New York, Princeton, N.J., Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, Washington, D.C.
From the Publisher
“We marvel at the pains [McPhee] takes with structure, approaching his subject from oblique angles, slowly building tension, sometimes seeming to wander, but always propelling his narratives forward . . . In the age of blogging and tweeting, of writers’ near-constant self-promotion, McPhee is an imperative counterweight, a paragon of both sense and civility.” —Elizabeth Royte, The New York Times Book Review

“Reading McPhee’s lucid descriptions of [lacrosse], with its lightning pace and nuanced skill levels, one wonders why Americans spend so much time watching football . . . We’re fortunate McPhee has written as much—and as well—as he has. For readers who have always wanted a more personal glimpse, Silk Parachute should be floating your way.” —Tim McNulty, The Seattle Times

“How long the McPhee tradition will endure is anyone’s guess. But for now we have Silk Parachute, a testament to a kind of literary journalism that will, with any luck, have both its standards and its standard-bearer around for years to come.” —Danny Heitman, The Christian Science Monitor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429985819
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 437,879
  • File size: 224 KB

Meet the Author

John McPhee

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), and Uncommon Carriers (2007). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Silk Parachute
When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur. It is extremely difficult to single out one or two, impossible to remember any that exemplify the whole.
It has been alleged that when I was in college she heard that I had stayed up all night playing poker and wrote me a letter that used the word “shame” forty-two times. I do not recall this.
I do not recall being pulled out of my college room and into the church next door.
It has been alleged that on December 24, 1936, when I was five years old, she sent me to my room at or close to 7 P.M. for using four-letter words while trimming the Christmas tree. I do not recall that.
The assertion is absolutely false that when I came home from high school with an A-minus she demanded an explanation for the minus.
It has been alleged that she spoiled me with protectionism, because I was the youngest child and therefore the most vulnerable to attack from overhead—an assertion that I cannot confirm or confute, except to say that facts don’t lie.
We lived only a few blocks from the elementary school and I routinely ate lunch at home. It is reported that the following dialogue and ensuing action occurred on January 22, 1941:
“Eat your sandwich.”
“I don’t want to eat my sandwich.”
“I made that sandwich, and you are going to eat it, Mister Man. You filled yourself up on penny candy on the way home, and now you’re not hungry.”
“I’m late. I have to go. I’ll eat the sandwich on the way back to school.”
Allegedly, I went up the street with the sandwich in my hand and buried it in a snowbank in front of Dr. Wright’s house. My mother, holding back the curtain in the window of the side door, was watching. She came out in the bitter cold, wearing only a light dress, ran to the snowbank, dug out the sandwich, chased me up Nassau Street, and rammed the sandwich down my throat, snow and all. I do not recall any detail of that story. I believe it to be a total fabrication.
There was the case of the missing Cracker Jack at Lindel’s corner store. Flimsy evidence pointed to Mrs. McPhee’s smallest child. It has been averred that she laid the guilt on with the following words: “ ‘Like mother like son’ is a saying so true, the world will judge largely of mother by you.” It has been asserted that she immediately repeated that proverb three times, and also recited it on other occasions too numerous to count. I have absolutely no recollection of her saying that about the Cracker Jack or any other controlled substance.
We have now covered everything even faintly unsavory that has been reported about this person in ninety-nine years, and even those items are a collection of rumors, half-truths, prevarications, false allegations, inaccuracies, innuendos, and canards.
This is the mother who—when Alfred Knopf wrote her twenty-two-year-old son a letter saying, “The readers’ reports in the case of your manuscript would not be very helpful, and I think might discourage you completely”—said, “Don’t listen to Alfred Knopf. Who does Alfred Knopf think he is, anyway? Someone should go in there and k-nock his block off.” To the best of my recollection, that is what she said.
I also recall her taking me, on or about March 8, my birthday, to the theatre in New York every year, beginning in childhood. I remember those journeys as if they were today. I remember “A Connecticut Yankee.” Wednesday, March 8, 1944. Evidently, my father had written for the tickets, because she and I sat in the last row of the second balcony. Mother knew what to do about that. She gave me for my birthday an elegant spyglass, sufficient in power to bring the Connecticut Yankee back from Vermont. I sat there watching the play through my telescope, drawing as many guffaws from the surrounding audience as the comedy on the stage.
On one of those theatre days—when I was eleven or twelve—I asked her if we could start for the city early and go out to LaGuardia Field to see the comings and goings of airplanes. The temperature was well below the freeze point and the March winds were so blustery that the wind-chill factor was forty below zero. Or seemed to be. My mother figured out how to take the subway to a stop in Jackson Heights and a bus from there—a feat I am unable to duplicate to this day. At LaGuardia, she accompanied me to the observation deck and stood there in the icy wind for at least an hour, maybe two, while I, spellbound, watched the DC-3s coming in on final, their wings flapping in the gusts. When we at last left the observation deck, we went downstairs into the terminal, where she bought me what appeared to be a black rubber ball but on closer inspection was a pair of hollow hemispheres hinged on one side and folded together. They contained a silk parachute. Opposite the hinge, each hemisphere had a small nib. A piece of string wrapped round and round the two nibs kept the ball closed. If you threw it high into the air, the string unwound and the parachute blossomed. If you sent it up with a tennis racquet, you could put it into the clouds. Not until the development of the multi-megabyte hard disk would the world ever know such a fabulous toy. Folded just so, the parachute never failed. Always, it floated back to you—silkily, beautifully—to start over and float back again. Even if you abused it, whacked it really hard—gracefully, lightly, it floated back to you.
Excerpted from Silk Parachute by John McPhee.
Copyright © 2010 by John McPhee.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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Table of Contents

Silk Parachute 1

Season on the Chalk 7

Swimming With Canoes 43

Warming the Jump Seat 49

Spin Right and Shoot Left 57

Under the Cloth 119

My Life List 139

Checkpoints 165

Rip Van Golfer 197

Nowheres 223

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 17, 2010

    It doesn't get much better than this

    If you haven't read any of McPhee's writing before, just dip into this. See if you can figure out why you're utterly fascinated by topics that you'd never imagined you would want to read a word about.

    If you have, this is a charmingly variegated and personal collection, not to be missed.

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  • Posted April 8, 2010

    There are always Nuggets with McPhee

    I always enjoy McPhee's writing because of its depth and clarity. He does not use literary gimmicks - always crystal clear. The stories in Silk Parachute jump across a wide variety of subject matter - from lacrosse to large-format cameras to the chalky substrates near the English Channel and so-on. While I enjoy the intellectual stroll through environs not in my normal repertoire, it seemed that some of these stories delved too deep and/or became somewhat repetitive/brow-beating in detail.
    Yet... I recommend this book because McPhee's writing continues to delight with its easy and precise descriptiveness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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