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Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of Americaby Mark Svenvold
Synopses & Reviews
Following a rowdy band of storm chasers during tornado season, a writer delves deep into our fascination with catastrophic weather.
Tornadoes maintain a primal hold on our collective imagination. But for a select band of scientists and weather enthusiasts, tornadoes are more than just fodder for Hollywood disaster films-they're an obsession. These "storm chasers" descend each spring on America's heartland to await an up-close view of nature's most violent forces. In Big Weather, Mark Svenvold puts us in the seat right next to these mavericks.
With a one-legged Ahab-like veteran chaser named Matt Biddle as his guide, Svenvold spends countless hours of "extreme waiting" and encounters several violent tornadoes, including one that destroys a small town in Kansas. Along the way he witnesses the circus that storm chasing has become and meets a motley cast of characters no novelist could ever dream up. Featured players include a North Carolina stock-car racer attempting to drive into a tornado and a trio of coeds hell-bent on a career in broadcast meteorology. During his three-month, 4,000-mile pursuit of cataclysmic storms, Svenvold also drops in on the weather media giants-AccuWeather and the Weather Channel-to explore the lucrative side of our cultural fixation on stormy skies.
With its riveting combination of devastating tornadoes, uniquely American eccentrics, and catastrophe commerce, Big Weather delivers both thrills and adventure. But it also digs deeper to offer an insightful and wryly observed portrait of a region of our nation and a vision of the weather fanatic that lives in all of us.
"In this beguiling study of meteorology and its discontents, Svenvold, a poet and author of Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw, spends the month of May in the colorful caravan of tornado chasers as they pore over weather data in strip-mall parking lots, drive thousands of miles through the Oklahoma-Nebraska corridor searching for thunderheads and agonize over which of the many storm clouds darkening the horizon to pursue. It's a classic American mixture of high-tech fetishism and barnstorming entertainment, populated by sober meteorologists with the latest forecasting gadgetry and jargon, an IMAX filmmaker hoping to drive his tanklike 'Tornado Intercept Vehicle' into the whirlwind and local weathercasters who stage each tornado watch as a 'low-tech reality show the size of central Kansas.' The author situates it in the cult of 'catastrophilia,' a 'commodified version of the... sublime' visible in everything from 'torn porn' videos to the Weather Channel's marketing of weather as consumer accouterment. Svenvold's usually engaging chronicle of 'extreme waiting' for funnel clouds occasionally lapses into extreme writing ('Here was the anti-storm, weather as non-weather,' he broods during an unwelcome bout of clear skies), and his impulse to suck up all information in his path sometimes leads to digressions. But his wry, supple prose vividly captures a heartland made up of the awe-inspiring and the absurd. Agent, Sarah Chalfant." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"What Tony Horwitz did for Confederate re-enactors, poet Svenvold does for storm chasers....[F]ascinating. Svenvold even makes the topic of catastrophe insurance engaging. At turns wacky, macho and whimsical. A literary version of Twister." Kirkus Reviews
"[Svenvold's] approach, his way of digging under the surface to explore the dreams and motivations of these unusual men and women, takes the book out of its niche and puts it right up there beside such best-selling narrative nonfiction as Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm...and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Svenvold clearly paid his dues in Tornado Alley . . . Wherever he touches down, he informs and amuses, and marvels not only at the weather, but also at the stranger side of Middle America." --National Geographic
Why do some people chase the kind of storms that would send most people running for their lives? Why does devastating weather maintain a primal hold on our collective imagination?
With Matt Biddle, an Ahab-like veteran storm chaser, as his guide, Mark Svenvold draws a portrait of a culture enamored by extremes during a 6,000-mile journey through the heartland. Along the way, he encounters an assortment of eccentric characters, including a duo named the Twister Sisters and an IMAX filmmaker who drives an armor-plated truck. And they're all after one thing.
At the heart of the excitement are the awe-inspiring events themselves--a tornado that levels a small Nebraska town, wild twisters that spin cars into the air and, in the case of unlucky Donald Staley, destroy three of his homes in succession.
An entertaining narrative brimming with stylish prose, Big Weather is a wryly observed meditation on the weather and the subculture of catastrophilia, the culture and commerce of catastrophic weather.
Following an eccentric band of storm chasers during tornado season, a writer delves deep into our fascination with catastrophic weather
Why do some people chase the kind of storms that would send most people running for their lives? Why is it that devastating weather-and tornadoes in particular-maintain a primal hold on our collective imagination? How to account for the spectacular success of a company like the Weather Channel-not just a show, but an entire cable network with 86 million regular viewers, hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, and one abiding subject, the passing clouds?
With his guide Matt Biddle, an Ahab-like veteran storm chaser, Mark Svenvold draws a portrait of a culture enamored by extremes during a 6,000-mile journey through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. Along the way, the author encounters an assortment of characters out of a Fellini film: A duo named The Twister Sisters, from St. Cloud, Minnesota; a crowd-pleasing trio from CUPP (California University of Pennsylvania-at Pittsburgh); a team of chaser-scientists who have partnered with an IMAX film-maker from Los Angeles with an armor-plated truck; and a stock car racer from North Carolina whose goal is to drive through a tornado.
At the heart of the excitement are the awe-inspiring events themselves-a tornado that levels a small Nebraska town and the look back at the central Oklahoma tornado outbreak that included the single-most destructive tornado in US history. Similar weather disasters occur each spring in a kind of reverse lottery that has spawned a subculture of catastrophilia. Want to know what a tornado actually sounds like as it blows over or through your house? Big Weather answers this while also tracing the ways the sublime, in the classic sense, still has a profound claim upon our imagination.
Big Weather is a wryly observed meditation upon the weather as block-buster event that explores, with an ironic touch, our paradoxical relationship to the biggest story of our age-global warming-and the fate of the earth.
About the Author
Mark Svenvold's first book of nonfiction, Elmer McCurdy: The Misadventures in Life and Afterlife of an American Outlaw, was a Book Sense 76 pick. Poet in residence at Fordham University, Svenvold has won The Nation's "Discovery" Award for poetry. He lives in New York City with his wife, the novelist Martha McPhee, and two children, Livia and Jasper.
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