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!

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

The holiday gift guide continues! Here’s one for the history buff in your life. Or the reluctant reader. Or the pot head who rails on and on about states rights vs federal authority.

the-gettysburg-address-a-graphic-adaptation-mcconnell-hennesseyHennessy, Jonathan. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. Illus. Aaron McConnell. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Hennessy and McConnell use the innovative and fast-moving format of the graphic novel mode to tell the story behind the Gettysburg Address, what prompted it, what it changed, and why it mattered to America and the world.

Critique: The cover of this book claims to retell this moment of history through Lincoln’s words. I was immediately drawn in because Lincoln is one of the most eloquent writers e.v.e.r. I assumed from that cover claim that the graphic novel would rely only on Lincoln’s writings. It turns out that is not the case, but the book hardly suffers as a result. Hennessy’s script is excellently composed and draws on a ton of primary sources. The writing is clear, even when dealing with ideologically or philosophically tough stuff. And combined with McConnell’s excellent artwork, each page is densely loaded. But the arc is compelling, engaging, and hard to put down.

The book opens like a movie with a series of live action scenes: a family returns to the war carnage on the front lawn of their home. Cut to: President Lincoln receiving word of the outcome of battle at Gettysburg. Then the narrative steps back and an omniscient narrator takes over. Acting like the voice-over in a film, this narrator begins to explain what is going on. The imagery takes on more of a mix-and-match composition. Sometimes a page might have as many as 9 panels, and each one is treated like an individual block of information, rather than one piece in a sequence of actions (which is what you usually get in graphic novels). Often the panels are briefly footnoted, informing the reader who or what is being depicted. Senator So-and-So from Tennessee 1865 or Governor Whatshisname from Maine 1848 or the Such-and-Such building.

But overall, the artwork works hard to embody the principles under discussion in the text. For instance, as the text presents the two founding ideologies of the nature of government in America, the artwork depicts the busts of the two historical figures alive and debating their sides from atop their marble, museum columns. At other times, the imagery is a little tougher to follow. For example, when the text shares a quote from a then-famous newspaper, the picture gives readers a drawing of the newspaper building or printing house with a word bubble popping out of a window to contain the quote. Or to represent the idea of sovereignty, the artist has Lincoln holding a shiny white ball with a modern power on/off button (such as the one you see on your computer). At first glance, it seems as if Lincoln is holding the precursor to Apple’s iPod. (Judging by the look on his face, he clearly wishes it were less literally “appled” and more pocket-friendly.)

Structurally, the book takes what I call the rabbit hole approach. It establishes the “present” moment: the political climate, the historical context, what happened at Gettysburg and why Lincoln needed to make a speech there. Then, it dips down the rabbit hole of time and moves backwards, to that “four score and seven years ago” when the Founding Fathers were first conceptualizing a new form of democratic governance. Then it dips further down, or shifts further back, and back again, and back again, going all the way back to the conditions of North American continent post-dinosaurs. Then it walks the reader forwards again getting all the way to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Hugely effective, efficient, and easy to follow. Given all the recent conflict between communities and policing authorities, this book made for a sobering, yet illuminating read for the mature and leveled way it navigated issues like abuses of power, authority over the masses, and more!

Whether you have kids tapping into this era of American history, or you’d like a refresher, this book is well worth nabbing off the shelf! (And if you read it now, you’ll be able to look super-knowledgeable in all your patriotic 4th of July conversations coming up!)

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.

Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs

Gearing up to see Al Gore’s return in An Inconvenient Sequel? Be sure to add some good mental trail mix to your rucksack.

Childs, Craig. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Future of Earth. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Craig Childs travels around the world to showcase the impacts of climate change — those we can readily observe, as well as those more hidden in surprising chain reactions. Childs’ work won the Orion Award, presented only to those outstanding books which deepen a reader’s connection to the natural world. Childs is also the author of previous award-winning and thought-provoking books including The Animal Dialogues, Finders Keepers, and House of Rain.

Critique: With his usual devil-may-care penchant for bedlam, Childs takes readers — and anyone else crazy enough to tag along — to every deadly brink he can find on the planet which may (or may not) chart the course of our demise. He rafts an uncharted Himalayan river…with his stepdad…during flood season. He traverses the base of a glacier…while it is calving…at unprecedented speeds. He monitors the stormy, hostile waters around the Bering Straight…under gale-force winds hurtling stone-hard rain…with his mother.

From Greenland’s white water deserts to Mexico’s sandy no-man’s (and no-waters) lands; from Hawaiian lava flows to Iowan corn vistas, Childs presents a dazzling tour of destruction. Over and over, he covers the planet’s 4.6 billion years of cyclical renewl and collapse. Digestion and regurgitation of landmasses and species. He points out the research suggesting what we are going through now is perfectly normal…and yet perfectly exacerbated by our mode of modern life.

Sure, the earth will most likely survive any severe turnover — life always finds a way. But we homo sapiens might not be so lucky. We may have already triggered irreparable sequences; destructive dominoes already litter our path. Or do they? Only time will tell.

I’m not just being coy about the end of this book as a way of tempting you to read it. I am reflecting Child’s even greater penchant for sharing more tough questions than easy answers. Which is wise, considering how few complex issues are ever cut and dry. Not every debate has a right or wrong side. Sometimes both sides’ positions stink equally. In this case, Childs holds us accountable to answer the toughest questions. What will we do in the face of global demise — wait and see if we’re really boned, or act in every way possible to avert calamity?

We know what plays better at the movie theater when the clock on the nuclear bomb ticks down its final seconds before detonation. Rarely does the hero just sit and wait.

Because this is a critique and not a review, I am obligated to point out that this book’s greatest feature is also its most tragic flaw. It stems from a stylistic habit I share with Craig Childs, and thus, I comment with deepest respect and sympathy. Every page, every paragraph, is loaded with stunning similes and metaphors to evoke the settings.

Back in February, I had the distinct pleasure and privilege of meeting Craig Childs several times during his week-long visit in town. Apocalyptic Planet was the common reading experience for the college freshmen (and the wider community). Often, he noted the goal of his writing was to bring readers out of their easy chairs and into the wilds, out on the trails where most cannot follow. To that end, he leaned heavily on figurative language. However, the text held so many of these descriptive gems, they eventually dulled into common minerals. I lost sight and sense of the place, or else lost the scope and stakes of the environmental issue under scrutiny. As a result, the pacing slackened and my desire to keep reading waned (the very thing my writing advisers and mentors always warned me about).

Perhaps if the earth generally benefits from gobbling up its most precious places, then Craig and I might also benefit from wiping away our more darling descriptions.