Saturday, March 3, 2012

Because It's There

There's something special about reading a book in which the characters are experiencing nature's worst, getting frostbitten, being bitten by malarial mosquitoes, falling down mountains.  The nice part, for the reader, is the fact that he or she is usually sitting in a warm room, in a comfortable chair, usually with a hot or cold drink at the ready.  I really enjoyed reading Into The Silence:  The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis.  It's not really an ideal book -- it's far too long, goes into almost exasperating detail, and the author tends to repeat himself a lot -- but for a reader who craves vicarious adventure, it is irresistible.  The lengthy backstory, while unnecessary, does give the reader a great deal of insight in the motives and behavior of the climbers who so disastrously attacked Mt. Everest in the early 1920's.  Davis spends a great deal of time and detail on the Great War experience (or lack thereof) of the climbers. It's patently obvious that this had a massive impact on each one; he does not spare his reader on the bitterness and futility of the British soldier's experience.  I found it interesting, but it can be safely skipped by a reader who wants to cut to the chase -- the three attempts on Everest.

Through ignorance, stupidity, pride, and sheer klutziness, the expeditions are not successful.  The death toll was significant in today's reckoning (at that point in time, deaths of natives were not quite as important -- an avalanche that cost seven Sherpas their lives was reported at the time as, "all whites are safe"); several members of the expedition who should not have been fit for travel at all died en route or on the way home.  Mallory and Irvine, in their third assault on the summit, disappeared.  Mallory's body was found in 1999.

If you're going to attempt the above, it's a good idea to read Into Thin Air at the same time.  By Jon Krakauer, it tells the story of the 1996 Mt. Everest climbing season, which ended in the deaths of eight climbers.  It's a good companion to the Davis book, as is this Youtube video which addresses the mystery of whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the summit.

The next selection I read this week I absolutely could not put down, and it's been a while since I could say that about a book.  The Mirage seems to be a typical alternate history-type book with a political agenda, but turns out to be more like a fantasy novel.  By Matt Ruff, this book sucks the reader into a world in which 9/11 never happened, and the world is completely different.  I'll admit that when I first began reading, I assumed that the author had a political message, but that's not the case.  I can't say much about the book, because so much of what makes it gripping is its unexpectedness, but I found it very satisfying indeed.