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Irons in the Fire

4.08  ·  Rating Details  ·  425 Ratings  ·  36 Reviews
This acclaimed collection of essays begins with the title essay and a trip to Nevada, where, in the company of a brand inspector, John McPhee discovers that cattle rustling is not just history.
Paperback, 224 pages
Published April 30th 1998 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published April 1st 1997)
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Jan 17, 2016 Darwin8u rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
"McPhee has a marvelous knack for finding the universal in the particular."
- Publishers Weekly


A nice collection of essays that originally appeared in the New Yorker (most of McPhee's writings can be traced back to the New Yorker):

1. Irons in the Fire (December 20, 1993) - About cattle rustling in Nevada.
2. Release (September 28, 1987) - About Robert Russell, a blind professor at Franklin and Marshall College,in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
3. In Virgin Forest (July 6, 1987) - About Hutcheson Memoria
Nov 17, 2008 Eric_W rated it it was amazing
Al Lehman In a land where a common saying is that no one eats his own beef, the Nevada brand inspector becomes crucial to civilization. Without one, There'd be a lot of dead bodies." Rustling in the 1990's is still an occupational hazard where ranches are measured in tens of thousands of acres. John McPhee, a favorite writer of mine, has recently published a new collection of essays entitled, Irons in the Fire. The title essay is his investigation of brands and their history. The brand inspector ...more
You know those profiles they have in papers and magazines where they ask the subject what he always has in his refrigerator or what people would be surprised to know about him? Eventually they get around to asking what three people he would like to have dinner with. Well, no one has asked me that, but I think right after Diane Lane I would invite John McPhee.

McPhee has an insatiable, eclectic curiosity. He collects people and tells stories, all with awe and humor. In Irons in the Fire, I learned
Mar 19, 2010 Tulara rated it it was amazing
I absolutely love reading John McPhee's books of essays. Now, don't freak out - his essays are so interesting and revealing that you learn a lot in the process of enjoying a good read. The essay on the Brand Inspector in Nevada was brilliant - I didn't know they still did that, but when calves are worth thousands of dollars and they are in a wide-open deserted area, they tend to disappear - the Inspector that McPhee rode with has 3700 brands memorized and can see them on the cows. The story abou ...more
May 22, 2015 Jim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays, nonfiction
This is a book of essays by John McPhee published in 1997, but which originally appeared in The New Yorker, where I probably read all of them at one time or another during the last twenty years. Irons in the Fire is clearly a part of the author's geology period. The pieces admired the most were "The Gravel Page" about identifying the source of gravels and soils that were involved in murder cases investigated by FBI geologists and "Travels of the Rock," which could easily have been called "Travai ...more
Jan 28, 2015 Kris rated it really liked it
I had only read longform books (hope I am using that phrase correctly!) by McPhee before this, and I had loved his detailed and often humorous look at things and people we often overlook. He is just so good at showing the humanity and complexity of his subjects, and this book of essays followed suit. I wouldn't say there was a real common thread among the pieces, aside from McPhee's style, but there were common elements among some of the stories, like crime fighting methods that never show up in ...more
Terry Heller
Jan 12, 2015 Terry Heller rated it liked it
There are few writers whose sentences I enjoy reading more than John McPhee's. Most of those sentences have been published in The New Yorker magazine. Reading book-length McPhee was a little bit different. He's still great at taking an obscure subject (here, modern-day cattle wrangling) and making it interesting. At the same time, McPhee has been around for so long, and his style so widely imitated, that I'm sure that his books do not seem as fresh today as they did when they were first publishe ...more
Apr 26, 2009 Ed rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who has a shred of curiosity about the world around them
Recommended to Ed by: Bill Jones
This is my first McPhee book. It will not be the last.

It's not often that a book of essays would be placed in the "Couldn't Put It Down" category but this volume qualifies.

The title refers to the opening essay which is focused on Brand Investigators, in an open range section of Nevada, whose job is to stop and/or catch cattle rustlers.

I'm very familiar with ranching as my wife's family have been ranching in Montana for over 100 years. I was not, however, familiar with this kind of open range ra
Jul 11, 2014 Mesembryanthemum rated it really liked it
Seven short (and not so short) pieces:
- Irons in the Fire (branding inspector) - 3*
- Release (blind prof & early reading software) - 4*
- In Virgin Forest (sole remaining stand in NJ) - 3*
- The Gravel Page (forensic geology) - 5*
- Duty of Care (used tires) - 3*
- Rinard at Manheim (exotic car auction) - 2*
- Travels of the Rock (Plymouth Rock) - 3*
Jennifer Conner
Aug 03, 2015 Jennifer Conner rated it really liked it
John McPhee is hands-down, one of the best narrative writers out there. Most writers are either good at plots or good at characters, He writes equally well about the issues and the characters involved. He draws interesting connections between places, people, and events in a way I've never experienced. And oh, by the way, he writes all non-fiction! This book boasts a variety of his essays but my favorite are the ones on forensic geology (not surprisingly, his passion).
Oct 15, 2012 Matt added it
An excellent account of the state of contemporary cattle rustling and what efforts are undertaken to stop it; a thorough and thoroughly readable investigation of the cultural and geological history of Plymouth rock; McPhee even steps into thriller territory in "The Gravel Page," which expands on a note from (if I remember right) Basin and Range about the debt geologists honor to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes--here McPhee details the efforts of forensic geologists who can solve m ...more
Judy Hamer
Oct 26, 2015 Judy Hamer rated it it was ok
I didn't think I was interested in brands inspectors. Then I drove through western Nebraska and saw the notice signs along the interstate.
Some of the dry facts were entertaining. I felt a need for more connections between each short story.
Collection of Nonfiction pieces- including one on brand inspecting in Nevada (cattle brands)- rocks and forensic geology- and Plymouth Rock. McPhee is obviously heavy into geology. I had to glaze over the sections where he got technical about the rocks. It was a foreign language to me. This was a nice collection. I've read a couple other things of McPhee's in other collections- and I remember being BORED to DEATH. This wasn't like that. He made it interesting enough where the highly technical se ...more
May 27, 2016 Karen rated it really liked it
Interesting and technical writing about a variety of topics, including cattle rustling in modern times, virgin forest in NJ, forensic geology, and Plymouth Rock. I had to skim past some of the more technical stuff, but still enjoyed it.
Jun 10, 2011 Vicky rated it liked it
As I think I have mentioned before, John McPhee is one of my all time favorite authors. I have certainly gained most of my appreciation of the geology of the Western United States from his geology trilogy beginning with "Basin and Range". I gave this 3 stars only because I have liked some of his other books better, but again his breadth of interest and curiosity in subjects from a Nevada branding inspector to the repair of Plymouth Rock (and where it came from-the pilgrims landed where they left ...more
Oct 30, 2012 Debra rated it liked it
Interesting essays about jobs I never knew existing such as the Nevada Brand Inspector -- and it isn't about making sure the state of Nevada is always presented in the best possible ways (the way I think of brand). People really do have interesting jobs -- like forensic geology -- that I never knew was a career. I liked learning about things other people do that I know nothing about.

The writing style could be much better and I felt very confused at times by the way some sentences were put toget
Sep 11, 2013 Glen rated it really liked it
This is a short and likeable collection of essays that, for the most part, have very little in common. The two exceptions are "The Gravel Page" and "Travels of the Rock", which focus on the uses of geology in forensic science and historiography. There is an interesting essay about the potentials of using old, discarded tires as an energy resource, and the environmental price to be paid for not doing so. The eponymous essay has to do with cattle rustling and brand inspection in contemporary Nevad ...more
Jul 06, 2009 Carin rated it really liked it
Well, I did thoroughly enjoy the essays, however, after pondering for 2 days I can't find anything that brings these essays together. No common thread. I think McPhee's essay collections are stronger when they share a theme. But they are of course, as always, truly fascinating. I liked the title essay best on cattle rustling, and I'd like to see the Japanese hot-air-balloon bombings get a little more attention in schools since that's such a wild thing that happened and almost no one knows anythi ...more
Apr 08, 2015 Incandragon rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio, 2006
4.5 ... the essay on sand is worth the price of the book, alone. The rest are somewhat to extremely interesting.
Oct 01, 2014 Bob rated it really liked it
An eclectic collection of essays by a very talented writer. I don't think this is he best but enjoyed the read.
Nov 21, 2015 Michael rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, literature
This collection of essays submitted to the New Yorker magazine demonstrate McPhee's superb writing artistry. A very dry humor pervades the collection which are structured as a story writer would craft an old story. Impeccable and very informative.

Irons In The Fire - cattle rustling in Utah
Release - the computer tools of a blind professor
In Virgin Forest - an extant virgin forest in New Jersey
The Gravel Page - amazing forensic geology stories
Duty Of Care - recycling of tires in America
Jun 12, 2015 Tycoon rated it liked it
More stories about cattle rustlers please!
Todd Martin
Irons in the Fire is a short collection of essays on topics ranging from cattle rustling, to tire recycling, geological forensics, and the Plymouth Rock. The essays are interesting enough, but there is something about McPhee’s writing style that rubs me the wrong way. I don’t know if it’s the extreme dryness or the disjointed manner in which he shifts between topics, but ... I just can’t get into his books without thinking that there’s something else I’d rather be doing.
This collection of essays doesn't hang together as well as Uncommon Carriers. Nelson Runger's narration is too perky.

However, three of the seven essays are really interesting: "The Gravel Page," about geological forensics; "Burden of Care," about the disposal and recycling of used tires; and "Irons in the Fire," about brand inspectors and cattle rustling.
James Blatter
Mar 25, 2011 James Blatter rated it it was amazing
John McPhee does things that are seemingly impossible with words he makes you care about small things like grains of sand, becoming silt, becoming an alluvial fan. This collection is the perfect introduction to his incredible writing and art. Showing the common every day life of a Nevada Cattle Brand Inspector and making this as compelling as a Michael Conelly suspense novel. McPhee is an unrecognized American master
Nov 02, 2007 Joe rated it it was amazing
excellent essays. largely forensic geology, solving murders using clues like where the sand on the body came from, etc. an crazy section on the japanese practice during WWII of sending hydrogen balloon with fire bombs blindly across the pacific to randomly destroy places in the US -- we caught them by pinpointing the type of sand to a particular spot in japan, and bombing that! brilliantly researched and engagingly spun.
Apr 23, 2012 Rachel rated it it was amazing
Love John McPhee, as usual. The title essay was really good, as was the one about forensic geology... well, they were all good! I do realize though that maybe I like him so much because I'm a geologist, and for people who aren't as familiar with some of his terminology, the fact that he frequently throws out phrases like "Cretaceous paleogeography" without defining them could get annoying...
Aug 17, 2014 Jayhawk rated it it was amazing
I am just really taken with these McPhee stories. Thanks Shelly Pain!
Dec 04, 2011 Aaron rated it really liked it
Shelves: americana
I bout this for my father for his birthday lo 15 years or so ago. He never read it, but he always told me to "out irons in the fire." The irons in this book are about cattle branding. But as usual McPhee does a wonderful job of telling uniquely American stories from cattle branding to tire shredding.
Aug 18, 2013 Nicki rated it liked it
Some of the essays in here were quite fascinating - I had no idea that cattle rustlers still exist in modern-day America! I also enjoyed the essays about geology and geography and how they are used in many different professions that you'd never expect. A good, informative read.
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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. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
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