Into Thin Air

I just finished Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer last night. It was the first book I have finished since I took on the 1,000 Book List task and it was a phenomenal book to start with.

I was recommended the book by a dear friend of mine who had also pointed me in the direction of Into the Wild, my opinion of which she said would be a good indicator of how I would enjoy Into Thin Air. Since I really enjoyed the fire-side story style Krakauer used in Wild, with all of his side stories and round about explanations, and the outdoors/adventure theme I decided that I would tackle Air as well.

Similar to Wild, the outcome of Air is already known to the reader at the beginning of the book. In fact, Into Thin Air begins with Krakauer telling the reader about the outcome of the 1996 Everest expedition just in case you weren’t already familiar with it. While I think the beginning of the story would be much more gripping if you didn’t already know the end, that is not why Krakauer decided to write the book at all. Krakauer speaks plainly to the fact that he told the story and wrote the book not for the entertainment of the readers but because he felt like he had to. There is a big difference between telling a story to entertain and telling a story because you feel compelled to. Krakauer absolutely felt compelled to, so much so that he braved the fire of his fellow climbers and their families who were uncomfortable with the story being published.

Krakauer’s dedication to telling the story as accurately and bias-free as possible is pretty remarkable. It would have been quite easy for him to half-ass the research or give up on those who were initially hesitant to be interviewed. Additionally, Krakauer makes it clear throughout the book that while he took great lengths to provide the most accurate details of the expedition the story inevitably has his own opinions laced into it. The official title of the book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, makes this clear before you even put the first wrinkle in the binding. This being said, I thought that Krakauer did a very good job of being upfront about what was opinion and what was fact. For the most part, this was seen in the way some of the characters were portrayed throughout the book. Krakauer made it clear who he had connected with and befriended on the mountain as well as those people who he had very little interaction with. I did not think he let his personal relationships with any of the characters affected his telling of the story. If anything Krakauer downplayed his relationships with people and for the most part described his relationship with the person merely another adjective that went along with what their career was or the family life they had. While I understand and Krakauer admits to it that the story is far from completely subjective, at no point did I think, “He is going easy/being tough on *insert character here* because he does/doesn’t like them.”

The actual story in and of itself is extremely depressing. Since Krakauer gives up the end before the book even starts, I am not worried about spoilers here. Into Thin Air is the story of Rob Hall’s 1996 expedition to summit Everest. Eight clients (including Krakauer) were on the trip as well as several guides and Sherpas. The expedition shared the mountain with several other ventures, most notably a Mountain Madness expedition lead by Scott Fischer, an IMAX expedition whose ventures (although mostly unrelated to Krakauer’s team except in the most dire of situations) were recorded and put to film in Everest, a South African team, a Taiwanese team, and several others.

The beginning of the Air is mostly about how Krakauer came to be on the expedition in the first place as well as his relationship with climbing as a hobby, then as a lifestyle, then as a force that he simply could not completely rid his life of. He also takes time to tell the reader how his personal thoughts on summiting Everest morphed through the years. The upshot of all of this is a slow read that takes a long time to explain that Krakauer was a journalist who was hired by Outside magazine to write an article about the commercialization of Everest. That is to say, Krakauer was going to go on a commercial (defined as a for-profit venture) expedition to Everest so he could write an article about the pros and cons of this development, which is a heated debate in the climbing world. At first Krakauer said that he was not going to summit but as the time got closer and his enthusiasm took hold he admits that it was always his intention to summit.

The middle part of the book is also a relatively slow read about the team’s time at Everest Base Camp and their acclimation climbs. Being completely ignorant of anything related to climbing past what I learned from my afternoon classes at Rock Quest when I was in elementary school, reading about this entire process was very interesting to me. I had no idea that it would take that long, that climbers would ascend and descend several times as opposed to just a constant, gradual ascent, or that there was actually a massive sanitation/trash problem due to the said commercialization of Everest. Really fascinating stuff but it did go slow. Even though I am used to character-overloaded books such as Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, I found myself going back to the expedition reference pages to keep everyone straight. I think a big reason for this is that Krakauer was not trying to develop these people as characters. Into Thin Air is not a novel and Krakauer merely reports the known actions and behaviors of the people he was on the mountain with. His opinion is laced throughout, of course, but other then that the characters are not developed to a point where the reader can become attached to them.

The last part of the book is where things speed up and shit hits the proverbial fan. At this point we have been along for Krakauer’s team’s acclimation climbs, gone through camp drama, and dealt with various physical and mental health issues. Finally, we are going to summit Everest! It is May 10, 1996. Krakauer writes a lot of foreshadowing into the beginning of the climb and talks about how there had been signs all along that something would go wrong. As the team moves higher and higher up the mountain, things get steadily worse and uncomfortable for them. But Everest is almost more of a mental conquest then it is a physical one so they push on. The summit day accounts for at least a quarter of the book and that is because this is when everything goes wrong. You know how you joke when it seems like, “Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong?” Well, everything that could have gone wrong really did go wrong on this day and it just so happened that they were over five miles above sea level.

While each of the events that lead to the disaster by themselves seem inconsequential, together they proved to be an incredibly unfortunate mix. Guides not wearing oxygen, oxygen being used too quickly or not effectively, time tables being pushed back, climber’s physical condition being underestimated, weather signs being ignored, a general “only out for myself” attitude between teams and teammates. All of these are just a few of the things that Krakauer talks about being factors that lead to 8 people (5 of whom were associated with Krakauer and his team) dying on the mountain that day after the climbers got stuck in a blizzard. I found myself surprisingly attached to the outcome at this point, despite the lack of character development and knowing how things would end. I also had to put the book down for a few minutes when it got to the part about the other teams doing everything they could to assist in the emergency.

While I was vaguely aware of the events surrounding the 1996 Everest season, Into Thin Air was by far the most details I had ever received on it. Consequently, I was also aware of the major controversy over Krakauer’s account of what happened and portrayal of certain individuals who were involved. I found this out in the lengthy post script that has been added by Krakauer addressing these arguments and, for what it is worth, I find that Krakauer did a very good job of consistently qualifying his account through acknowledgment that this was his own recollection and research, that oxygen deprivation and exhaustion makes it hard for anyone to think clearly at those heights, and by never claiming that without a doubt he knows exactly what happened that day and why. So while it was interesting to get a little insight to why people do not agree with Krakauer, I personally never thought he ever attacked anyone or made claims that he did not subsequently back up.

NOTE TO READERS: I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT CLIMBING OR EVEREST OR WHAT HAPPENED ON MAY 10, 1996. Anything that I have said in this post is my interpretation of another individual’s interpretation of what happened on the mountain that day. Please, for the love of whatever God you believe in, do NOT call my mother terrible things or try to argue with me about what happened on Everest that day. Because not only will Becky find you and call you by your full name (trust me it is terrifying) but I will ignore you and you will look like an idiot because (unless this blog gets REALLY popular in the next day or so) I know for a fact that you weren’t on Everest that day either and therefore have no grounds to argue with me anyways.

1,000 Book List

As a goal on my Life List, I have taken upon my person the challenge of reading 1,000 books. Here I will keep track of my progress on this daunting task.

I will do my best to include reviews on the books as I complete them but I might be too busy reading my next book to do that. You understand.

Also, I am only including books that have finished reading recently. That is to say, the plethora of books that I have read in the past two decades will for the most part not be included in this list. Unless I re-read them of course, which is completely possible. I solemnly swear that I will not mass read Dr. Suess or Give a Moose a _______ books to pad my reading stats, either. *crosses fingers and laughs maniacally*

1,000 Book List

  1. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (January 2014)
  2. The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkein (January 2014)
  3. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (December 2013)
  4. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (December 2013)
  5. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (Summer 2013)
  6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Fall 2013)
  7. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Fall 2013)
  8. Modoc by Ralph Helfer (Fall 2013)
  9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Fall 2013)

The Poisonwood Bible

Many of you who I have spoken with about favorite books and authors know that Barbara Kingsolver’s works are second to none. The Poisonwood Bible only solidified my love for Kingsolver and actually caused me to go out and plunder Half Priced Books for (almost) all of her books.

*Warning: minor spoilers ahead*

The Poisonwood Bible is about the Price family who travels to Africa so their father can take over a mission deep in the Congo. The village they are based in, Kilanga, serves as the setting for the majority of the book and is where the Prices explode out of their cliche “American-dream” mold into five unique, deep characters. Nathan, the Price family patriarch and Baptist minister who is the reason for the relocation to the Congo, is hellbent on converting all of Africa over to God-fearing Christians one remote village at a time. His wife (Orleanna) and his four daughters (Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May) are all dragged from Georgia to the Belgium Congo for Nathan’s mission. The book is told through the point of view of the five women with each chapter of the story alternating between characters. I really like the way Kingsolver did this because it allows the reader to see how different characters were affected by the same events. The one frustrating part is that sometimes the character you really want to know the point of view of on a certain part of the book is the one Kingsolver doesn’t give you.

The story gets off to a slow start (or maybe it is just the fact I always take forever to really get into a book) but as soon as I got a feel for the personalities of the characters I was in hook, line, and sinker. My favorite character by far was Adah. Her and Leah are twins and the connection the two of them have along with the transformation she goes through was the best subplot of the book. Of all the characters, Nathan is the most mysterious. The reader finds out precious little about how he is feeling about his mission and the backstory that made him the person he is during this time.

While the time in the Congo is interesting, I think that it is actually the last part of the book is the best. I felt as if I had been in Kilanga with the Prices and seen the girls grow up and mature in such a unique environment so to see how each of them responded once they had left was very important to the story. It completes the characters, so to speak. Kingsolver could very easily have stopped the book once the Prices were out of the Congo but she kept going and let the story come full circle. For one storyline in particular, this was extremely important. Although the way that storyline ended left something to be desired for me (kinda cheesy) it is kind of nice to have a feel good ending to a story.

The six Prices go through just about the entire book of stereotypical family feuding. The big twist is that all those feuds take place with the 1960’s Congo as the background. This setting solidifies Kingsolver as a great historical fiction writer as The Lacuna is written excellently during the Cold War. I confess that I did not know much of anything about the political events that happened in the Congo during that time so I had to use the handy-dandy Google search to understand the historical significance of some of the characters. I have always been a history buff so it was nice to learn about a new event and the context that Kingsolver’s characters gave to the historical events made it all the more interesting.

In all, I would highly recommend The Poisonwood Bible for anyone who enjoys a historical fiction written from a multiple first person point of view. Not only does Kingsolver do an excellent job of making the characters complex but the setting of the Belgium Congo made the story all the more interesting. From Kilanga to Atlanta and many places in between, Kingsolver’s settings are just as dynamic as the characters.

Let me know if you choose to pick up any of Kingsolver’s works, I would love to discuss them with you!

Modoc

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As I mentioned in some of my more recent posts, I have recently become addicted to reading. While Modoc was not the book that kick started this new passion, it is the one that I finished last so I want to write about it while it is fresh.

I picked up Modoc by Ralph Helfer in the bargain section of Barnes & Noble (seriously, check it out) knowing nothing absolutely nothing about the book or the author. I had no recommendations to pick it up and quite honestly the only reason why it caught my eye is because there is a picture of a massive elephant on the cover. It was a safe assumption that the book would therefore deal with Elephantidae in some sort of fashion. Due to my love for animals and the fact it was a very cheap pick-up, I decided to add Modoc to my growing library.

Modoc is an easy read. Helfer does not incorporate unnecessarily immense locutions nor is the book particularly long. I slacked a bit while reading and it took me about two weeks but I could have easily finished it in a weekend dedicated to its incredible story.

Modoc gets its name from the elephant whose story it tells, which Helfer claims to be the closest thing to the truth he could muster based on first hand accounts and research. It begins on the day that two babies are born. The first, Bram, to a German circus trainer and his wife, and Modoc, to an elephant named Emma. Bram and Modoc would go on to be best friends for the entirety of their lives. Their adventures would take them across the world from Germany to India to the United States and through many trials and triumphs. I won’t include any spoilers because I know there are people who get quite upset about these things, but the events that these two go through really are amazing.

What I loved about Modoc so much was how Helfer expressed Bram’s view on God, nature, and happiness. I identified very closely with this ‘natural view’ of God, as many of my most spiritual moments have come during times I spent considerable amount of time out in nature. The idea that animals are beings with emotions, from love to rage, that should be treated as equals was also a concept I keep. Between these two themes, I caught myself multiple times thinking, “Yes! Someone else gets it, too!”

Whether it was Helfer’s writing or my general soft spot for animal stories, I found myself very attached to Bram and Modoc as they fought against the things in life that would separate them. By the time I got to the last quarter of the book, I was unable to put it down. The ending, while sad, was a much happier ending than I had expected given how these animal stories tend to go (I’m looking at you, Old Yeller and Marley & Me and Where the Red Ferm Grows… GOD THERE ARE SO MANY). Even if the book were to have ended in the awful ways of the aforementioned animal stories, there is something uplifting about these stories that portray the intense emotional bond that can exist between animal and human.

I don’t feel like I have read enough books to put them on a scale, but I would recommend Modoc as a relatively easy, fast paced read that won’t demand a huge time commitment from the reader but still gives them an emotionally charged, captivating story.

If you get a chance to read Modoc, please let me know what your thoughts are!

All my love.