The Everest Disaster Trilogy Challenge

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Read these three books, my friend gushed, and you’ll experience a gummy, disorienting waltz with truth, memory, and trauma.

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. Jon Krakauer, Narr. New York: Random House Audio, 2007. CD.

Genre: nonfiction memoir

Summary: Krakauer documents his experiences during the Mount Everest disaster in 1996 when 8 climbers died in a horrendous blizzard. He traces the many conflicting motives and oversights which may have contributed to deadly mistakes.

Critique: Recently, a good friend challenged me to read what she calls the “Mount Everest Disaster Trilogy.” Three survivors’ accounts—Krakauer being one—of what happened or failed to happen on the mountain during a significant storm that claimed over a dozen lives. The three accounts overlap as often as they contradict. The experience of reading all three, my friend assured me, was a gummy, disorienting waltz with truth, memory, and trauma.

Because my friend is the Cookie Monster when it comes to nonfiction, I accepted the challenge with all due gravitas.

“RoadTrip” (CC BY 2.0)

With a couple hundred miles between me and my winter holiday destination, I picked up the audio book edition of Krakauer’s famous (some say infamous) memoir read by the author himself. The controversies surrounding his memoir were and are many. Did Krakauer skew the narrative, effectively  tilting more blame on the excursion guides, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer—two of the world’s best who also died in the blizzard—only to overshadow his potential cowardice? Should he have come out with a magazine article and a memoir so swiftly on the heels of the tragedy? Was this insensitive to grieving families? Was he even in a fit state of mind to recount the events? To his credit, Krakauer acknowledges each of these pressure points and does his best to relieve them. Also to his credit, he did not rely solely on his own memory. He conducted interviews with other survivors and the memoir includes testimonies that totally upend his own recollections.

After listening to the first disc, I was stupefied by the structural design or chaos the writer had chosen. The narrative jumped…no, it ricocheted between Krakauer’s setup and backstory (his youth spent climbing, how a travel magazine hired him to ascend the mountain with a guided expedition) and historical background on the first attempts to top Everest in the early 1900s.

By trade, nonfiction writers are daring and innovative with structure. How could they not when the genre’s granddaddy, John McPhee, structured his writings around everything from lowercase letters to tennis courts or the Monopoly board? But Krakauer’s construct was verging on pure genius. So disorienting! Surely he was trying to give readers the felt experience of high altitude sickness and its reality-bending deliriums.

As the CD carousel switched to disc 2, I reached for the pause button. No way was it safe to drug my attention while driving!

Then, I saw it: my car’s audio player was set to shuffle! Krakauer’s structure was not deliberately disordered or artfully rearranged. As it turned out, his structure was nothing out of the ordinary—a straightforward progression through times and places and events.

Actually, Krakauer’s style included a rather obtrusive, rather clockwork habit: every time he introduced a new “cast member,” he paused the unfolding events on Everest so that a minutely detailed account of that person’s life up to that moment could be shared. Among writers, this longwinded setup is known as the “info dump,” and it is generally discouraged in fiction and nonfiction because it pulls the reader away from the main attraction. Of course, plenty of writers skillfully employ these tangents to create tension and knot up the suspense. No doubt Krakauer aimed for that very effect.

While I cannot report his aim hit the mark for me, I can say it approached the bull’s eye whenever I switched on the shuffle button.

Next up in the Mount Everest Disaster Trilogy: The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers. Boukreev was employed with one of the expedition guides on Everest. His ability to scale the mountain’s 29,000+ feet was practically unmatched, often ascending without an oxygen tank. Krakauer accused Boukreev of negligence in 1996 because he went without oxygen while guiding clients to the top. The alleged result: when the storm hit, Boukreev was in no condition to help anyone. Not surprisingly, Boukreev’s book rebuts this depiction.

Beck Weathers was one of the paying climbers being guided to Everest’s summit. No less than three times, he was literally left for dead. Each time, he managed to slog his way out of danger or recover just enough from severe hypothermia and frostbite. To be sure, while listening to Krakauer explain his and others’ decisions to leave Weathers behind I often cried, “Foul!” Selfish cowardice colored the reasons in neon strokes. Yet, Weathers’ memoir reportedly spends little time finger-pointing and more time exploring life’s true value, especially in the wake of second, third, and fourth chances.

 

(Featured image “Everest” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

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Eating Stone by Ellen Meloy

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MelloyE_eatingstoneThis author is really for e.v.e.r.y.o.n.e on your holiday shopping list. Warning: you will become the heroine dealer of literature. Friends will stalk you, shaky, half-dressed, begging, “Got any more of that?”

Meloy, Ellen. Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Meloy spends a full season tracking the big horn sheep of the Southwest. The task is not easy. The animals are going extinct and can hide faster than dissipating smoke. She observes them while observing mankind’s tragic disconnect from nature and all things wild–the wildness outside and the wildness within the soul.

Critique: Meloy’s writing is powerful. Her imagery will intoxicate the reader. To see the world through her eyes is to see a fantasy land. In her prose, the desert is sexy, curvaceous, hot and heaving. Unassuming frost-covered bushes are silvery birdcages. And the big horns are everything from ghosts to popping toast!

Wolves by Emily Gravett

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wolves_by_GravettNeed a gift for someone on the “naughty” list? No problem. My holiday gift guide excludes no one!

Gravett, Emily. Wolves. New York: Simon & Schuster for Young Readers, 2005. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Rabbit gets a book about wolves from the library. As he reads, he gets more and more engrossed until the story actually manifests a real wolf! Snap-chomp-scarf! Rabbit is gone!

Critique: Received the Kate Greenaway Medal. Bronze runner-up for the Smarties Prize. Shortlists for the Hampshire Illustrated Book Award. This book is fabulously naughty! Rabbit is so cute, so chubby, with ears so long and flopsy! Is it any wonder the wolf turns him into a yummy snack?

Is this book likely to scare the wiz out of young readers? I doubt it. Gravett’s work operates under the premise of “safe danger.” Remember the sizzling thrill when mom or dad would transform into a hulking Frankenstein’s-monster-zombie-beast-thing, chase you, catch you, and “eat” you? That’s safe danger. Basically, this book makes me want to be Emily Gravett when I grow up enough to write picture books. I want to showcase this kind of wicked-fun danger, which is ultimately a show of respect for young readers!

 

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination

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Mad-Scientist-Cvr_091312Black Friday shopping? What could be better than a guide to world domination!? A perfect gift for the evil or ethically shady scientist and/or science fiction fan in your social circles.

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius. John Joseph Adams, Ed. New York: Tor, 2013. MP3.

Genre: Anthology, science fiction

Summary: A collection of 22 positively witty and wicked short stories from a slew of talented authors including Harry Turtledove, Diana Gabaldon, Carrie Vaughn, and Austin Grossman, to name only a few.

Critique: Throughout the collection, stories explore an intriguing hypothetical to its inevitably surprising conclusion.

What if your girlfriend discovers and breaches your your super-secret underground evil genius laboratory? Do you forgive the violation of your private space and adult autonomy (not to mention countless passwords) or do you seal her up and doom her to a cruel atomic death?

What if you are the success coach and motivational speaker to some of the world’s worst bad guys? You know, the really inept ones who just can’t get their evil sh*t together and make a decent headline? Do you suffer under a crummy 15% commission for those rarely successful heists or do you steal every trick of the trade and turn yourself into the Mother of All Things Evil?

Or, what if you’re the personal assistant to a super evil genius who totally neglects to appreciate all that you do while the superhero’s personal assistant gets flowers on her birthday and regular salary increases? Would you sell out your boss and botch his next evil plan to take over the world?

Count on each story to take a fresh approach to modern villainy. Depend upon your heartstrings getting plucked and your thoughtomaton brain to purr with rumination more than once as tough interpersonal and ethical issues are dealt out and duked over. Most especially, expect to laugh out loud a lot!

For best results: read (or listen) to this book in a crowded public place!

What Came from the Stars by Gary D. Schmidt

What-Came-From-The-Stars

In this edition of my holiday gift guide for book geeks and rabid readers, I bring you the perfect book for the young Tolkien fan, the Beowulf-to-be (boy or girl) who loves an epic tale with a teary twist woven in.

Schmidt, Gary. What Came from the Stars. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2013. MP3.

Genre: middle grade speculative fiction

Summary: Tommy Pepper is your average sixth grader dealing with your not-so-average sixth grader stuff. Tommy’s mom died in a car wreck he’s pretty sure he caused. The shock and the grief caused his little sister Patty to stop talking and his dad stopped painting. Now they might lose their house to a beach front condo project. To top it all off, Tommy finds a strange necklace that gives him some amazing powers. Little does he know someone from another planet is tracking the necklace — someone with malicious, deadly intentions.

Critique: Tommy’s story intersperses with the tribulations of Young Waeglim, who lives on a planet in another galaxy far far away. The evil Lord Mondus wants to steal the Art (akin to pure creative magic) of Waeglim’s people, the Valorim. Waeglim forges the Art into a necklace and hurls it out into space, where it eventually crash lands in Tommy Pepper’s lunchbox.

I know I know: all that technically falls under summary, but summarizing this book is complicated. Reading it, however, is NOT!

Tommy’s sections are written in a familiar, contemporary voice (except when the necklace influences Tommy’s perceptions, occasionally causing him to speak the language of the Valorim). Waeglim’s sections, however, are in an old epic saga style à la Beowulf, Njal’s SagaThe Song of Roland, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By mingling these two, very different “lingos,” Gary Schmidt opens up exciting, new literary territory for upper middle grade and younger YA readers! If parents are frothing-at-the-mouth Tolkien fans (and by extension, frothing fans of old Germanic cultures and literature) who desperately want their kids to become frothing Tolkien fans, this is the book to start’em on!

One of the great but unexpected benefits of this approach is how it teaches a younger reader to infer the meanings of unfamiliar words. Orulo. Honora. Resid. Words from another planet that mingle with English and enough contextual clues to allow for interpretation. The reader is continually challenged to participate with the text.

(For the more reluctant readers, I highly recommend the recorded version! Graham Winton is an excellent reader who aptly renders all the drama and nail-biting action out of the epic segments.)