Picks and Pans Review: In Suspect Terrain

updated 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

by John McPhee

The pattern for a McPhee book (this is his 16th) has become familiar. Take a subject (in this case geology) and an expert (Anita Harris); go on expeditions with the expert and do a meticulous job of research and reporting. Harris is so scholarly she can say that human beings "rank with bats, starlings and Pleistocene sloths as the great mess makers of the world." After a visit to Brooklyn, where Harris was born, they range out from Manhattan with Harris as guide, explaining what lies under the surface and how the great glaciers that once spilled across the U.S. left their legacies of stones and lakes. There is a vast amount of information here about temperatures and how the earth made its oil. There are also two tedious digressions by McPhee about a Dutchman who loved an Indian maiden and about William Penn's understanding with the Indians. At one point Harris says, "Science is not a detached, impersonal thing. People will be influenced as much by someone who is a spellbinder as by someone with a good, logical story." Harris, unfortunately, is logical but not much of a storyteller. And McPhee's spellbinding skills, which worked so well in such books as The Curve of Binding Energy and Giving Good Weight, fail him this time. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $12.95)

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