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Big Weather

by Mark Svenvold
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
  • Publishing date: 02/05/2006
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780805080148
  • ISBN: 0805080147


?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.

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 and has been optioned in partnership with producer Richard Gladstein (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction). 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.
In Big Weather, Mark Svenvold offers a sharp and engaging portrait of a culture enamored by nature's extremes. With Matt Biddle, an Ahab-like veteran storm chaser as his guide, the author makes a 6,000-mile journey through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. Along the way, Svenvold 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 filmmaker from Los Angeles who drives 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 a look back at the central Oklahoma tornado outbreak that included the single-most destructive tornado in U.S. history. Similar weather disasters occur each spring in a kind of reverse lottery that has spawned a subculture of catastrophilia. What does a tornado actually sound like? Big Weather describes this in some detail, while also exploring how the sublime, in the classic sense, still has a profound claim upon our imagination.  Big Weather is meditation upon weather as a marketable celebrity?and what this phenomenon says about us.
"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
"A richly entertaining, densely written portrait of the circus-like, tornado-chasing culture . . . Svenvold is a gifted writer, his intelligence jumps out of every page."?Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Svenvold blends the voices of Hunter S. Thompson and Dave Barry . . . The storm-chasing stuff will pop your eyes wide open."?St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"A meticulously researched, well-written narrative. Big Weather is much more than an entertaining look at characters from the midway, a cast Svenvold clearly enjoys observing . . . it takes a serious look at a bigger picture."?The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Welcome to the world of 'storm chasers' and 'weather dweebs' . . . Be prepared to learn their language. Be prepared to be awed by what they see. Be prepared to be thrilled by Svenvold's funny, elegant descriptions of both the storms and this strange species."?Los Angeles Times

"Svenvold is a gifted storyteller; he displays a wide knowledge of classical and general literature in an easy-going fashion powered with vivid anecdotes."?New Scientist (London)
"Svenvold's sharply focused and intrepid reporting pays off in tornado descriptions that lift you up by the scruff of the neck. Backlit with flashes of oncoming apocalypse, Big Weather is an engrossing, exciting, and important book."?Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains and On the Rez
"What Tony Horwitz did for Confederate re-enactors, poet Svenvold does for storm chasers. Svenvold got interested in tornados when, during a trip to Oklahoma (the state whose 'unofficial breakfast [is] a cigarette stubbed out in a doughnut') the New Yorker experienced one himself. The twister caught his attention, and in this entertaining and fast-paced work of narrative journalism, Svenvold takes readers into the curious subculture of storm chasing . . . He offers a surprisingly serious and interesting discussion of why so few houses in Oklahoma have basements, and gives a leavening recognition of how much damage big weather can cause. His critiques of the Weather Channel?they've pussy-footed around with global warming, their female meteorologists look like porn stars, and they seem to pander to a voyeuristic interest in weather disasters?are fascinating. Svenvold even makes the topic of catastrophe insurance engaging. At turns wacky, macho and whimsical."?Kirkus Reviews
"Svenvold is poet-in-residence at Fordham University, and his poetic pedigree is evident on every page of this exploration of the strange, seductive lure of catastrophic weather: 'Air is water's ghost, flowing, like water, through its seasons.' Svenvold tagged along with one veteran storm chaser, Matt Biddle, in 2004, but this isn't merely a biography of Biddle. It's a look at the world in which he lives, a world filled with scientists and mavericks and hucksters. For some, chasing tornadoes is a career; for others, like stock-car-racer Steve Green (who saw a business opportunity in driving headlong into a tornado), it offers a chance to make a buck. For others, like Biddle, it's an obsession. If you're a fan of movies about extreme weather (such as 1995's Twister, which has a decidedly mixed reputation in storm-chasing circles), you'll definitely want to give this book a read. But its appeal is not limited to those with a hankering for climatological disaster: the author'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, a book to which Svenvold devotes two pages of admiring praise, and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air."?Booklist (starred review)
"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' . . . His wry, supple prose vividly captures a heartland made up of the awe-inspiring and the absurd."?Publishers Weekly

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  • Author of Big Weather Responds to Charles Doswell
    From Amazon

    I don't know why it's taken me so long to get around to doing this, but here goes. I wrote Big Weather and am bemused but not surprised by the intellectually dishonest review by Charles Doswell III, who, as a university professor, should know better than to start with an attack ad hominem, the lowest form of argument--he calls me a carpet-bagger. Things don't improve from there. It's not a review. It's a psuedo-review, a personal attack posing as a review, which is just one of the reasons why it's dishonest. I wrote Big Weather because I was curious about why, as a culture, we seem so fascinated by catastrophic weather. I wanted to know why it was that a company like The Weather Channel could exist in the first place. I was following a line of thought first developed in 1962 by Daniel Boorstin, in his book The Image: A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America, in which Boorstin warns about a great menace that was emerging then in American culture. He used that word, "menace," and the menace wasn't poverty or war or class division, or anything like that. It was, as he called it, "unreality." The problem of "unreality" in our culture. He identified three areas in culture that are not prone to advertising or political manipulation--the first was crime reporting, the second was sports, and the third was the weather. The weather has become for us a base-line measure for what's real. You can create a company like The Weather Channel, which spins the weather to a fare-the-well, but if a storm decides to wipe the Weather Channel off the earth, there's nothing anyone can do about it. It's the unreal that gives us so much trouble, that seems to be something it isn't, that seems to be spontaneous but turns out to have been orchestrated for other reasons, much like Charles Doswell's "review," for instance. My point is this: I wrote Big Weather because I was pursuing a line of intellectual and artistic thought that meant something important to me, personally, and seemed to touch many other people as well, not just those who were drawn, like me to the center of the United States to witness large storms. I found it strange that we seemed so fixated by catastrophic weather, on the one hand, but couldn't seem to get off the dime about climate change (this was in 2004). I know weather isn't the same thing as climate, but global warming seemed to be just about the biggest big weather story of them all. I had to address it at some point and to address the campaign of mis-information about global warming that was waged so successfully by the Bush Administration. Doing that really seemed to annoy some reviewers of this book. Wow. Struck a nerve, did I? The truth, of course, came out soon after the publication of my book, that Bush administration political appointees, many with no scientific credentials, doctored or edited scientific reports, slowed down research, and created a smoke screen in the debate about global warming. The book also was and is an inquiry into how the sublime, the terrifying disorienting force of nature, in this case, attracts us, still speaks to us, from across the centuries. I was, also, interested in reporting a debased kind of sublime as well--a commodified sublime which I called "catastrophilia." Anyway, I hope you can see that my motives were good. And if it sounds too bookish and brainy, well, I filled Big Weather with enough chasing and other forms of malarkey to keep me amused, at any rate, and I hope you as well. Four years later, I'm still very, very proud of this book and, aside from a few silly mistakes that inevitably escape one's best effort to be as accurate as possible, I stand by everything that I say in it. The field of severe storm weather is filled with wonderful and fascinating people, but it's not big enough, it seems, to allow me and Charles Doswell's ego to coexist. Now we're getting closer to the truth, I suspect. Too bad his psuedo-review is the first thing you see when you inquire into Big Weather. Try reading the actual book. I'm not saying this because it's going to make me any money. It won't. The book's long out of print. But you can still get it and read it, either in the library or through a used book store on Amazon, or elsewhere. Give it a try. There's plenty to keep you engaged, but if you're looking only for entertainment without reflection, then I'll be the first to suggest that you try another book instead. Mark Svenvold

  • Big Weather, Big Disappointment
    From Amazon

    I am fortunate in that I did not actually spend money on this book. I do not know about the poetic aspects of the book, but I do know that the author treated many of the people in this book insultingly. I skipped around a bit thinking that perhaps only the beginning would be colored by condescension but remained disappointed. If you want a good book that exposes the relationships between big weather and the people who live through it read F5 by Mark Levine. If you want a good book about big weather read any book other than the one this review is about.

  • Poetic prose, wide ranging topics
    From Amazon

    Big Weather is a lot about weather and a little about weather, all at the same time. How come? Because Mark Svenvold can describe physical phenomena in prose approaching poetry, and the topic allows him to introduce the reader to multiple other venues. The title attracts those of us who need to deal with weather. I fly light airplanes and taught weather as a major chapter in aviation ground school class curricula. Even so, tornadoes are a fish pilots do not swim with. We race the other way, like herring trying to fly when the whales arrive to corral them with air bubbles. So on a daily basis, pilots need to know more about, for example, the Current Icing Potential on the ADDS Web, or the convective SIGMETS, which describe the wide range of turbulence generators. But whatever makes you open Big Weather, you will find, in the first paragraph of page one, the rich ability of a poet to describe the factual in impressionistic ways. A few pages later, you will meet Matt Biddle, his hero. And it keeps getting better. Want to know about Chaos? Svenvold will tell you about Lorenz, and then you can read James Gleick. His mention of Heisenberg might remind you that Werner was once asked if he had any questions for God. He responded "Yes, I will ask him to explain relativity and turbulence, and I think he will be able to explain relativity". Or, when Svenvold brings up Pliny the Elder, describing a vortex, you can pick up John Mc Phee's "Control of Nature" and read how Pliny dropped dead when Vesuvius erupted under his nose. Think tornadoes are all violence? Svenvold will connect you with their sublime elements, and with Dionysius Longinus, sublime's first champion. Science, art, science, literature, science, psychology, geography, history, philosophy. On and on it goes. Elmer Mc Curdy is another good yarn. Get that too.

  • Fascinating topic, ho-hum execution
    From Amazon

    In "Big Weather," Mark Svenvold recalls the time he spent in 2004 tagging along with veteran storm chaser Matt Biddle. The book is meant to be about storm chaser culture and associated elements, but uneven storytelling mars what would otherwise be a very cool book. Svenvold is a poet-in-residence at Fordham University, and it shows. In some cases (such as Chapter 4: Catastrophilia), it shows a little too much. When Svenvold is talking about being on a chase, or the people who are part of and/or affected by chase culture, he's great. When he tries to get flowery, it bogs down the book. I'm sure there was a point to Chapter 4; I just wish he had gotten to it sooner, with a clear path to it. And that's the overall problem with "Big Weather." For a topic that is, at its essence, unpredictable, crazy, and hold-your-breath heart stopping, he doesn't always convey that. I know that there's a lot of waiting associated with chasing, but Svenvold made storm chasing seem downright dreamy. I think the book would have been better if he had stuck with the journalistic, straight-to-the-point style he used when describing different chase events. I don't agree with other reviewers that say he is anti-Christian, anti-Bush, or anti-other chasers. I think he was just trying to be objective while observing the people who not only live in Tornado Alley, but are also residents of the Bible Belt. Perhaps the book would have been less offensive if he had been more objective, but I don't think that's his style. One place where I did think he was offensive (or at least borderline) was his constant referral to the people in the chasing industry as "geeks" or "dorks." I wasn't sure if that was an in-joke he was repeating or if he was being purposely derogatory. I think, in a way, this was meant to be Svenvold's "expose" type book, just like recent bestsellers "The Nanny Diaries" or "The Devil Wears Prada," except, of course, he didn't try to gloss his experiences by hiding them in fiction. It might have been a more interesting read if he did. Overall, it's worth checking it out from the library. But there are better memoirs out there that are worth savoring and keeping.

  • Supposed to be About WEATHER
    From Amazon

    Big Weather? WRONG!!!! This guy covers philosophy, map making,religion, his philosophical ideas to the point of nausea, old world history, pages & pages about Mary MacLane, oh yeah, and almost as an afterthought there are some pages about weather & chasing. But still laced with his philosophy. NOT a book for anyone except maybe self styled "intellectuals"

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