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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I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

While we tend to chuck microbes into a general “yuck” pile of germs in need of disinfecting, truth is, only a slim minority of species are harmful. The rest are not just beneficial, but essential to the ebb and flow of life on this planet. For instance, how did life evolve into multi-cellular, diverse creatures like birds, bugs, hippos, and humans? Because two kinds of microbes teamed up to make finding food and gene replication more successful. In other words, life as we know it would not exist without these critters.

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acclaimed science writer, Ed Yong shares the latest research spewing out from studies on the tiniest creatures in the universe. As it turns out, small is by no means insignificant. Microbes—also known as germs—influence everything from global weather, our DNA, and even our choices and thoughts! Get ready for a real invasion of the body snatchers!

(Hint: This book makes for an excellent companion text to John Green’s latest YA knock-out, Turtles All the Way Down!)

Critique: Microbes are multitudinous, both in your body and throughout the planet. Every millimeter of every tooth in your mouth houses an entirely unique population of microbes designed to do something useful in your mouth. Same goes for every millimeter of your gums! Don’t forget your fingers, toes, armpits, and genital regions. But microbial significance goes way beyond teeth and testicles! Animals need the chemical byproducts of microbes—called odors, pheromones, and scents—to communicate, navigate, and survive.

Also, it may interest you to know that the human DNA chain does not contain all the instructions we need to shape our bodies to maturity. We borrow instructions from the DNA of microbes in our environment. In other words, your basic DNA is programmed to provide you with intestines, but it is not programmed with instructions for how those tubes ought to bend and fold in order to fit inside your body. Those directions come from a particular microbe. Plenty of other organisms copy this tactic because it is a smart, efficient way to reliably funnel genes over many generations.

Oh, oh! Budding research suggests that where you decide to live or places you yearn to travel or the foods you crave or the partners you attract may all be the result of your microbes spurring you to go out get new kinds of microbes. This theory has some scary implications; first and foremost, that who you think you are may be an illusion. You are not a single identity, but a composite of trillions—an inner horde of bugs that sometimes choruses in unison.

Yong may not have Rebecca Skloot’s ability to weave live action scenes through hunks of exposition (indeed, he loses as many of these threads as he begins), but his descriptions of complex scientific concepts and microbial functions are so engaging and accessible, the reader won’t actually want those woven scenes getting in the way. The best indicator of how good this book is lies in how I geeked out for weeks after I read it. Cocktail party small talk, trips to a public restroom, inviting friends over for dinner, geshundeiting a sneezing stranger, work meetings, waiting in line at the post office—heck, even this blog post—became one more opportunity to share yet another fascinating tidbit of mind-blowing microbial information.

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Warning: this book may induce wild dancing and self-acceptance!

Andreae, Giles. Giraffes Can’t Dance. Illus. Guy Parker-Rees. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Gerald the giraffe wants to be like all the other animals and join the jungle dance, but his long legs make him too clumsy.

Critique: The illustrations are bright, colorful, and energetic. Parker-Rees makes the difficult seem easy by depicting a giraffe in graceful pirouettes, assertive disco spears, and acrobatic back flips!

Caution to parents or librarians reading this book aloud: the rhythm of Andreae’s rhyming text is likely to spur dancing.

Thematically, the text seems spot on, imparting to readers that you can’t dance to the beat of other creature’s drums. The best tune is the one already inside you. In other words, the real you is already inside and all you have to do is let it out.

I doubt Thich Nhat Hahn could argue with that!

Happy With Me by Leo Timmers

A comic strip artist employs a clever visual tactic to establish the perfect bedtime reading pace.

Timmers, Leo. Happy with Me. Los Angeles, CA: Smallfellow Press, 2002. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A wistful boy spends his bedtime fantasizing about being other animals. Elephants, penguins, octopi—each creature leads readers off on whimsical and silly adventures as the boy weighs the pros and cons of each transformation. Being big vs squashing everything. Swimming lots vs icy waters. Multitasking vs tangled arms.

Critique: Although the text is not written to rhyme, Timmers employs plenty of alliteration and consonance. As a result, the texture is soft, delicate, tender—perfect for bedtime reading.

The Belgian comic strip artist also employs a unique visual strategy, placing a small picture snippet beneath the text. This circle captures some small tidbit of the illustration on the neighboring page. It functions much like a periscope or porthole—a little window providing a limited view. Readers are invited to linger on each spread, spending extra moments locating exactly what the “periscope” sees. What a perfect pace for sleepy time storytelling!

Best of all, Timmers concludes his story with a very clever, very evocative image of the boy setting off to face a new day and a trail of feathers spilling from his pajamas. Readers rest easy knowing, at their core, they really are whatever they long to be.

Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

This book invites the imagination to scoop more out of the world building.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. Spoon. Illus. Scott Magoon. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young spoon wishes he could do some of the cool tasks other utensils tackle. Cut bread like knives. Lasso spaghetti like forks. Tweeze sushi like chopsticks. Meanwhile, all the other utensils admire little Spoon and all the amazing meals he dives into!

Critique: Magoon’s illustrations are straightforward in their approach to anthropomorphizing kitchen utensils. Step one: draw a utensil. Step two: draw lines for arms, hands, legs, feet, and faces. Luckily, the world building is much more creative. Particularly giggle-worthy is the full spread depicting Spoon’s entire family—sooo many spoons cleverly assembled, representing diversity in age, gender, and culture!

Rosenthal’s text is likewise straightforward as it ladles out Spoon’s experiences. What struck me most was how Spoon never gets the scoop on how the entire utensil community admires him as much as he does them. In some ways, that is an important life lesson. Be happy with what you are regardless of whether or not other beings approve or disapprove (…unless you are a budding Jeffrey Dahmer or a Bernie Madoff…).

When Spoon’s existential distress keeps him up at night, his loving parents invite him to bed to…er…spoon. Which, when you consider from a world building point of view is kinda weird. Imagine having your son Wilber come to bed to, well, wilber with you.

Ultimately, the story seems to have sprung exclusively from that one spread: a distressed spoon spoons other spoons! awwww! Usually, stories are constructed so the end justifies the means, but this one attempts to the work the equation in the opposite direction. The resulting narrative feels a tad measured, maybe even strained, but not well rounded.