The Push by Tommy Caldwell

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In this memoir, doubt dances with glorious vistas where success, aspiration, and limits all fight for a grip on the same dime-thin ledge.

Caldwell, Tommy. The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2017. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, memoir

Summary: Caldwell’s memoir chaperones readers up treacherous escarpments and deep into the human psyche. Doubt dances with glorious vistas where success, aspiration, and limits all fight for a grip on the same dime-thin ledge.

Critique: As bullet points, Caldwell’s life story is remarkable and riveting. The young climbing phenomenon who is taken hostage by terrorists; who loses is confidence to searing self-doubt; who continues climbing and redefining the sport even after he loses an index finger in a freak DIY home carpentry project…

Expanded into entire paragraphs, the story is about as claggy as an under-whipped Genoise sponge. I suspect a faulty combination of ingredients may be the culprit. Each chapter either begins with or is punctuated with italicized vignettes. These short scenes combine succinct sentences and punchy verbs to land the reader smack-dab in the middle of a climb or dire situation. The memories encapsulated in these scenes are rich and poignant. The writing is gripping. All too soon, however, these vignettes break off and yield to “the text.”

The text comprises dense paragraphs flooded with long, wordy sentences. Perhaps not ironically, each paragraph resembles a sheer cliff…a Dawn Wall built not from granite, but instead, from daunting exposition.

Why grunt through the pages when you could just jaunt through those zesty, refreshing sloped, slanted sections? In other words, why eat the claggy cake when you could just lick off the fantastic frosting?

With a new movie featuring Caldwell’s amazing feats, perhaps now is a prime time to reassemble the ingredients and convert the mountainous memoir into a graphic novel.

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The Everest Disaster Trilogy Challenge

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.)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (with a look at structure)

wild-cheryl-strayedStrayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York: Vintage Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: memoir (specifically, one of those young-woman-in-crisis-goes-a’-traveling memoirs)

Summary: This book is Eat, Pray, Love meets A Walk in the Woods.

Despite a mostly impoverished, sometimes rough childhood, Cheryl grew up generally loved by everyone but herself. Soon after her mother dies suddenly from aggressive cancer, Cheryl’s life falls apart. She grows estranged from her siblings and stepfather, she cheats repeatedly on her beloved husband, and she slides into a corrosive affair with drugs. A chance purchase in a hardware store leads her to the Pacific Crest Trail, which she decides to hike from summer to fall. Never mind she has zero experience hiking or backpacking. Never mind that her pack weighs more than several NFL linebackers. Never mind that her boots are too small. Never mind she has no knowledge of wilderness survival — hell, she can barely survive everyday life. Cheryl becomes obsessed with the trail and her conviction that it will lead her back to the pure soul she used to be.

Critique: Readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s riveting spiritual-emotional rise from a suicidal life-crisis into a Zen Master Cinderella will derive similar inspiration from Strayed’s memoir. And what Strayed lacks in Bill Bryson’s rib-tickling wit, she makes up for in devil-may-care hubris for the potential dangers of a hike that challenges even the most poised outdoorsmen. And unlike Gilbert or Bryson, the final third of Strayed’s memoir deserves oodles of praise simply because it holds true to its promise. That is, she sticks to the appointed finish line.

Readers will find Strayed’s writing at its best when delving into the grimiest, dirtiest, most loathsome moments of a life gone wrong. She accurately maps out the seemingly innocuous events that contribute to disastrous decisions, but her tender perspective is likely to invoke empathy from the most judgmental cynics.

Writers and writing students will find much to harvest from the cunning structure of the memoir, which follows the “lowercase e” format. Rather than start at some chronological beginning and work a linear path forward, Strayed opens her narrative roughly near the middle, when a minor freak accident — a prank played by the gods — causes her to lose her hiking boots in the middle of nowhere. Strayed ushers the reader a tad forward, giving the overall context of her situation (the fact that she has set out to hike hundreds of miles of high mountain terrain alone, as well as her desired destination) before wrapping backwards into the past, just like the little e.

Strayed is certainly not unique among memoir and travel writers when it comes to deploying the little e thanks, in large part, to all the how-to-nonfiction craft books pointing at John McPhee’s famous little e essay, “Travels in Georgia.” Where Strayed stands out is in her ability to construct the swelling arc of that little e. Like the ancient winds that carved out Moab’s stone bone bridges, Strayed crafts a breathtaking climax whose singular wonderment hinges not on the escalation, but on the inevitable collapse, the inescapable catastrophe.

By the time readers sense the narrative bending back around to the “all is lost” beat of the beginning, they are all but foaming for the descent into disaster. They’re hankering for calamity is practically manic. This is not to say readers are heartless and cruel — far from it. Readers clamor for the this down-dog roller coaster moment because the arc of the little e has provided sufficient evidence to suggest the hapless narrator might just survive the very worst of hiking nightmares. They cannot wait to see the worst bring out the best.

In short, the structure forms an architectural framework for hope.

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