Ian Frazier’s “Hogs Wild” showcases the New Yorker contributor’s versatility as a writer — as a historian, a muckraker or a cultural critic. Frazier reads at 7 p.m. Friday, June 24, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
‘Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces’
by Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 375 pp., $26
In “Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces,” Frazier is in chameleon mode. He’s a science writer. No, wait, he’s a New York City historian — or a muckraker, or a cultural critic.
His essays range from whimsical to wisecracking to withering. The shortest of them — probably “Talk of the Town” items for The New Yorker — sometimes feel disposable. But the longer ones, where he really digs in, feel indispensable.
The author of “Hogs Wild” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, June 24, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
On the light side, there’s “Dearly Disconnected,” about the disappearance of pay phones in the cellphone era, and “The March of the Strandbeests,” about the wind-propelled walking sculptures of Dutch inventor Theo Jansen. (“Strandbeests” in Dutch means “beach animals,” and watching their inanimate frames come to life, Frazier says, is “like seeing a haystack do the Macarena.”)
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Elsewhere, Frazier is an environmental writer sounding alarms. “The Toll: Sandy and the Future” looks at the damage Superstorm Sandy inflicted on New York and what it portends. “Standing in a soggy no-man’s-forest near a beach, with … shreds of plastic bags in the branches, and a dirty snow of Styrofoam crumbs on the ground,” he writes, “I saw the landscape of a hot new world to come.”
“Fish Out of Water,” about the Asian carp invasion of the Mississippi River Basin, has its comic side, since the fish leap high in the air and slimily bash into anything they meet, including boaters. But they’re an ecological nightmare, driving out native species. Their threat to the Great Lakes is serious.
New York’s social ills — hunger, homelessness, the opioid epidemic — figure largely in the book, and Frazier will go anywhere in the city and talk to anyone he meets to bring his story home.
He also points toward possible solutions. “Form and Fungus” looks at efforts to create a mushroom-derived, biodegradable replacement for Styrofoam. Frazier takes you through the molecular manipulations involved (“high school chemistry, don’t fail me now,” he gasps) and delivers an exhilarating tale of eco-minded technological innovation.
His love of language is another attraction of the book. Case in point: “The Unsettling Legacy of General Shrapnel,” about British artillery officer Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), who came up with the idea of packing conventional cannonballs with far more damaging mortar shells. The result was known as “Shrapnel’s shell,” and even after it was superseded by more deadly weapons, the word “shrapnel” stuck, meaning metal fragments sent flying by bombs, projectiles or mines.
Why did it stick? Because it’s “a miracle of onomatopoeia,”Frazier says. If Gen. Shrapnel had been a Mr. Jones, it would be a different story.
Frazier has a fanciful turn of mind — the title essay speculates why red-leaning states have such high feral-hog populations — but a deeply informative bent as well.
Want to know how to distinguish between a meteorite and man-made space junk? Wonder what makes OxyContin so much more dangerous than the oxycodone from which it’s derived?
Read “Hogs Wild,” and you won’t just be entertained. You’ll feel smarter.