Author: priscilla

#10BooksofSummer: Womp Womp

10 booksWell, okay, so back in June I joined Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer, except that I only signed up to read ten books. Here was my list, which indicates also what I actually read:

Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell (read)
Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead (read)
My Antonia, Willa Cather (read)
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (read)
Mind of Winter, Laura Kasischke
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer (read)
After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman
Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff
Black Water Rising, Attica Locke (DNF)
Dirty Love: Stories, Andre Dubus III
False Mermaid, Erin Hart (This was my replacement for Black Water Rising)

So yes, you’re seeing that right. I read five books from the list. In addition to those, though, I also read Phillip Meyer’s The Son and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Both of those are longer works and took some time to get through but were both absolutely wonderful in their own respective ways. So seven books. And only one review, for Annihilation. That’s a shame because even if I didn’t read a lot this summer, I read several other amazing books the aforementioned Annihilation, My Brilliant Friend, and My Antonia. The biggest disappointments for me? Well, I didn’t love Astonish Me the way I thought I would. While I loved everything about the world of dance and I enjoyed Shipstead’s writing, it just fell a bit flat for me. Joan was two-dimensional, Jacob starts off interesting but becomes a cliché (maybe the point, but it felt like it was handled clumsily), the more interesting characters are offstage for much of the book, and the whole thing sort of turned into a Lifetime movie there at the end.

The other disappointment? I was surprised to find I couldn’t get into After I’m Gone or False Mermaid. Typically in summer I love to read these lighter books, especially mysteries, but this year I just felt bored. That said, I didn’t get through Cleopatra, either.  I wanted something bigger, something denser, but I also wanted fiction. I kept trying to force myself into the books on my list, and finally I just gave up.

I probably read less this summer than I have in many, many years—maybe ever. Work was steadily busy, and I’ve been very committed about going to the gym, but somehow I just felt like I had less time in general. I think we all feel that way occasionally, but I need to do a better job of getting in some quality reading time (as in, not only before bed, where I am often so sleepy as I read that the next day I have to go back a few pages and re-read them).

And so there we have it. #10BooksofSummer fail. Womp womp. How about you? Was your summer reading better than mine? I hope so!

My #10BooksofSummer Update; or, I Resent Most of the Leftovers

10 booksIn the interest of fun and making an ever-so-slight dent in my TBR, I joined Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge back in June (although I must remind everyone that I am only reading 10 books because I have become the world’s slowest reader). Below is the current list, updated to show what I’ve read so far:

Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell (read)
Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
My Antonia, Willa Cather (read)
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (read)
Mind of Winter, Laura Kasischke
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer (read)
After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman
Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff
Black Water Rising, Attica Locke (DNF)
Dirty Love: Stories, Andre Dubus III
False Mermaid, Erin Hart

So in five weeks I’ve finished four books and abandoned one, Black Water Rising, at the 22 percent mark. I had high expectations for this one, but in all honesty the writing is clunky (with little tics of dialect like, “If he was gon’ do this, he was gon’ do it big.” and that’s the narrative, not dialog even. Ugh.), and the main character is a tired cliché (example: he’s older than his wife, and he’s reticent, and she suffers his silences because of what he’s been through in his life, but they are about to have a baby so she’s getting ready to give him an ultimatum and yadda yadda). I was interested in this novel because of the Civil Rights/racism perspective, and maybe I’ll pick it up again later, but a clunky freshman book is a clunky freshman book and I just didn’t have the patience. I’ve heard so many good things about her second one, The Cutting Season, so I think I’ll move on to that when I’m ready to pick another Locke. Ha. Not intentional. I replaced it with Erin Hart’s False Mermaid, the third in her Nora Gavin series. (You can read my thoughts about the first two in the series here and here.)

I also read about 25 percent (ah, ebooks) of Philipp Meyer’s The Son. I can’t remember why I started reading it, but wow it’s good. And violent. And good. I’ve been wanting to read this for so long because it’s set in the part of Texas where I was born and lived as a child, and also because I love Westerns. I’m a city person, I hate guns, I can’t stand Rick Perry (or Ted Cruz, that fake Texan), I drive an electric car, and so on, but my fascination with the Western U.S. (especially the Southwest) is strong. They probably did something to me in the hospital when I was born.

So yes, I have been cheating on my 10 books, but I have decided to get back on track and set aside The Son and read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra. I guess I could go on reading The Son, but something weird is happening with me this summer. All I want to do is read nonfiction. But if I had chosen all nonfiction it would have been more like the #3BooksofSummer challenge, because I read nonfiction so. very. slowly.  I tried to start both After I’m Gone and Mind of Winter because I thought I could get through them quickly, but they just weren’t holding my attention and I am starting to resent the remaining books on my list (except Cleopatra). Does this only happen to me?

I’ll also be working on a post about My Brilliant Friend and My Antonía (yes, together…they have some remarkable similarities). At least I’ve loved everything I finished, so here’s hoping that this most recent tweak helps continue the trend. Happy reading to all of you out there!

Books I Didn’t Really Need (But Bought Anyway)

For today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to list ten books that recently came into our possession. I wish I could say I shopped for books with a plan or a list, but I’m pretty random when it comes to buying. Either I’ll see something on sale, or I’ll just see something from my wishlist mentioned and decide I have to have it NOW.

When I was making this list, I noticed something interesting (to me, anyway): this list includes no advanced readers’ copies (ARCs). Last year, ARCs would have been more than 50 percent of my list, but after getting behind on reviews last year (and watching my own TBR backlist grow), I decided to stop requesting them. While it was fun to get early access to books by some of my favorite authors (Tana French, Donna Tartt, Kate Atkinson, to name a few), I also started to notice that more and more people were gaining access, which meant that any review really entered the noise on pub day. Back in Ye Olde Book Blogging Times (or even in 2009 when I started this blog), ARCs were somewhat rarer, so only a couple of bloggers would have early reviews. The rest of us were reading from a wide range of books instead of just the latest and greatest, and I’ll be honest: it was more fun for me to discover books that way, and maybe that’s why I’m having more fun this year with my TBR.

Here are my ten most recent purchases:

Possession, A.S. Byatt. I’ve been meaning to pick this up ever since I read The Children’s Book back in 2010. I’ve been in the mood for longer, dense books, but they don’t always make for good blogger habits, especially for someone like me who reads one book at a time. And look at that cover! So pretty!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles. Another one I’ve been meaning to get to since 2010, when I read The Magus and The Collector, both of which I enjoyed thoroughly.

The French Lieutenant's Woman
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. The final book from Haruf, one of my favorite writers, and the last installment of the series that began with Plainsong.

Our Souls at Night
Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Bibliography, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was a huge fan of the Little House books as a girl, so when I heard about this annotated autobiography I knew I had to have it. It’s a beautiful book and I’m sure it will be fascinating, but it’s hella big. I definitely won’t be reading it in bed.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography
A Dual Inheritance, Joanna Hershon. Let’s see, part campus novel, part friendship epic, preppies lounging on the cover…just had my name all over it.

A Dual Inheritance
Wonderland, Stacey D’Erasmo. In general I don’t think there are enough novels about musicians, but most certainly there aren’t enough about female musicians. This was all over Best Books lists in 2014.

Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead. I loved Seating Arrangements, I love ballet, I was crazy about Mikhail Baryshnikov growing up, so…what, did you want more?

Astonish Me
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. So many people have been talking about this trilogy, and the first book was on sale so I thought, why not? I’ve already read it and should have a review later this week, but here’s a sneak peek: This novel is Cat’s Eye meets Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, set in post-WWII Naples, and it’s beautiful. (Haven’t read Cat’s Eye or Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Then why are you still reading this post? Go find copies and read them!)

My Brilliant Friend

Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff. This has been on my wishlist since its pub day, and I swear I added it because I heard an interview with Schiff on Fresh Air but I cannot find a link to it. Maybe it was all a dream. Anyway, I’ve been in a non-fiction mood lately, even though I continue to read novels because it’s faster for the blog (and faster is a relative term here…ahem). It’s a conundrum, but at some point I’ll have to say so what and read this one. (An aside: I bought this through Google Books because I had some credit. Their reader seems to be okay, I think. Anyone have thoughts on this versus the Kindle/Kindle App?)

Cleopatra: A Life

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. Another Google Books credit purchase, this novel just sounds like a fun escape. I have so little time to read and even less time to play games these days, so maybe I can get my fix reading a book about other people playing games. Certainly I understand that need to escape reality now and again (says the former Undead Priest. For the Horde!).

Ready Player One

Do you buy books based on a list or plan, or do you buy according to mood or occasion?

Strange Things Are Afoot in Area X

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)I have never read anything quite like Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy.

A psychologist, a linguist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist all walk into a bar. Okay, not a bar, but a place called Area X, beyond the border of civilization, where thirty years before, something bad happened. Okay, scrap the linguist, because she never even actually makes an appearance. So.

Let’s start over: A psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist–all women, by the way–walk into Area X, a place beyond the border of civilization, where thirty years before, a bad thing (or bad things) happened. Area X is completely uninhabited by humans (um, kinda), occupied only by flora and fauna. What signs of human life remain are being slowly reclaimed by nature (or something resembling nature), with the exceptions of a lighthouse and a 60-foot cement circular platform that the the expedition stumbles across on their fourth day. I should also add that at dusk and on through the night, there’s a mysterious moaning that seems to come from….everywhere.

At the north edge of the platform, there are stairs leading down into darkness. The psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor call this place “the tunnel.” The biologist, who also happens to be the first-person narrator of this account, calls it “the tower”:

At first, I only saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building.

Their expedition, sponsored by the Southern Reach (also known as Control), is the twelfth expedition into Area X. The first three were such failures (more bad things: “We knew that the members of the second expedition to Area X had committed suicide by gunshot and members of the third had shot each other.”) that for a time the expeditions were abandoned altogether. But Control has a need to understand what is happening in Area X, as the border is slowly encroaching on civilization. All of the expeditions continue to be failures of a sort, with members dying, drifting off, or returning home without warning only to die of disease not long after.

Or so we’re being told. For the biologist is almost completely unreliable, which we begin to understand right from the beginning:

The reasons I had volunteered were very separate from my qualifications for the expedition. I believe I qualified because I specialized in transitional environments, and this particular location transitioned several times, meaning it was home to a complexity of ecosystems.

Notice how she makes the distinction between why is she is qualified to go and why she actually goes, which we only learn slowly, through bits and pieces. She is almost coy:

I understood why no one lived in Area X now, that it was pristine because of that reason, but I kept un-remembering it. I had decided instead to make beleive that it was simply a protected wildlife refuge, and we were hikers who happened to be scientists.

Not forgetting, but “un-remembering.” As it turns out, what she is trying to “un-remember” has everything to do with why she has actually embarked upon the expedition. But there are more sinister reasons for her unreliability. For one thing, she realizes that she was probably hypnotized or otherwise mentally compromised during her training for the expedition. For another, when she finally enters the tunnel/tower, something happens to her there that affects her perception (or really, her experience) of reality.

Because of course they go into the tunnel/tower. How could they not? And of course they find something:

At about shoulder height, perhaps five feet high, clinging to the inner wall of the tower, I saw what I first took to be dimly sparkling green vines progressing down into the darkness. I had the sudden absurd memory of the floral wallpaper treatment that had lined the bathroom of my house when I had shared it with my husband. Then, as I stared, the “vines” resolved further, and I saw that they were words, in cursive, the letters raised about six inches off the wall.

In as calm a voice I could manage, aware of the importance of that moment, I read from the beginning, aloud: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…”
Then the darkness took it.
“Words? Words?” the anthropologist said.
Yes, words.
“What are they made of?” the surveyor asked. Did they need to be made of anything?

And let me interrupt this sort of plot synopsis to say that when I saw the words (the writing on the wall, that is), I was seriously worried that later on in the book we’d get pages of italicized gobbledygook to try and decipher. Lame. Luckily, Vandermeer is too good of a writer, and too in control of his story, to let that happen. And so there we are, in the tunnel, mysterious words made out of some organic material, and the four of them will surface again, but of course not all of them will survive.

And I am saying “of course” a lot because many elements of this novel are conventional, maybe even cliché. But you know how they say that having a strict routine can actually give you more freedom to do the things you want to do? That’s sort of how Vandermeer works some of these traditional science-fiction/thriller conventions or tropes in Annihilation, by using them quite skillfully to leave space in our brains for everything else that’s going to happen, which feels like a lot and nothing at the same time.

In fact, while I was reading Annihilation, I started thinking about that Procol Harum song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Although the band has been pretty straightforward in sharing the song’s origins, people have continued to debate about what the lyrics mean, or whether they mean anything at all. Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics to that 1967 hit, said, “I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ that was the start, and I knew it was a song. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit in. I was trying to conjure a mood…With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene.”

Mood is everything in Annihilation, although it is not without a very one-foot-in-front-of-the-other plot. Vandermeer gives us a lot of material to think about, seems to sprinkle a lot of clues as the biologist reveals more to us about who she is (or thinks she is), why she is in Area X and not with her husband, and what she uncovers for her own part on the expedition. The thing is, all of this could mean something (and given that there are two more books, I’m sure some or much of it does), or it could not mean anything at all, so unreliable is our narrator (or is she?):

It may be clear by now that I am not always good at telling people things they feel they ought to have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details about the brightness. My reason for this is, again, the hope that any reader’s initial opinion in judging my objectivity might not be influenced by these details. I have tried to compensate by revealing more personal information than I would otherwise, in part because of its relevance to the nature of Area X.

Most certainly, atmosphere is everything in this novel, and Area X itself becomes a character, a formidable one. But after finishing the book, I still wonder what we’re dealing with here: human versus nature? Mind versus reality? Sanity versus madness? Big Brother versus the average nobody? I realize all I probably have to do is read the next two books and a couple of interviews with the author and all my questions will be answered. The thing is, Annihilation in some ways is perfect all by itself. I want to know what happens, but had this been a stand-alone novel, I would not feel disappointed. The not-knowing somehow feels natural, necessary.

I read Annihilation very quickly, mostly because I never wanted to put it down; that said, it’s scary. It’s a cross between the best of Stephen King and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, with a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House thrown in. You know you shouldn’t go into the room, but you must go into the room. But not only can Vandermeer tell a gripping tale—he can also write the most lovely sentences:

The black sky, free of clouds, framed by the tall narrow lines formed by pine trees, reflected the full immensity of the heavens. No borders, no artificial light to obscure the thousands of glinting pinpricks. I could see everything. As a child, I had stared up at the night sky and searched for shooting stars like everyone else. As an adult, sitting on the roof of my cottage near the bay, and later, haunting the empty lot, I looked not for shooting stars but for fixed ones, and I would try to imagine what kind of life lived in those celestial tidal pools so far from us.

I can’t decide if I want to go on with the trilogy, for once because I am afraid of having the whole thing spoiled. Have any of you read all three books? Should I keep on? Am I reading too much into it all? Perhaps it’s just like the biologist says:

A religious or spiritual person, someone who believed in angels or demons, might see it differently, Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people. I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning.
I am aware that all of this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate, useless. If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Top Ten Tuesday: Probably Will, Probably Won’t (Read These Hyped Books)

This week’s Tuesday Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, asks us to list ten hyped books we’ve never read. Honestly, this list could be a long one, mainly because over the years I’ve been very susceptible to the suggestions of other enthusiastic bloggers. I’ve grown less so, as everyone now seems to be reading the same things in time for getting reviews out on pub days. But there are 392 books on my current wishlist, so I don’t think I need to worry much about adding more.

I decided to divide my list into books I’ll probably get to eventually and ones I’ll probably never, ever read:

Probably Will
(Full disclosure: I own four out of five of these, so that weighs heavily in the factoring for reading at some point.)
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. So many people love this book, and I actually own a copy, so just for those reasons alone I feel like I should read it. If one book exists in the literary fiction blogosphere that feels like a “must read,” this is the one.
The Passage, Justin Cronin. I’ve started this book a few times and then got distracted by something else, but it seems entertaining enough. I guess vampires have had their moment in the sun (get it?), but this still seems like it would be a highly entertaining novel. Whether I’ll read the trilogy…well, doubtful.
The Magicians, Lev Grossman. Because campus novel. Also a trilogy. We’ll see.
Neil Gaiman. Yes, I realize Neil Gaiman is not a book, but an author. I’ve come to terms with the idea that I should read something by him at some point, because he’s blurbed and influenced so many other books/authors I’ve enjoyed. Also, I think if you spend too long in the book blogosphere without reading something by Gaiman, they shut down your site.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. When everyone was talking about this one, I went ahead and bought it even though I was doing a TBR challenge, during which I read her earlier novel The Lola Quartet. I’m glad I read that earlier novel because she’s a good writer and so I expect good things, but to tell the truth I am sick of hearing about this book.

Probably Won’t
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. The People in the Trees was one of the best books (with one of the most despicable characters) I’ve read in a long time. I was excited to hear she had a new book coming out so soon after that one, but then three reviewers (Teresa at Shelf Love, Jenny at Reading the End, and Lydia Kiesling at The Millions) I respect basically said, “No, don’t do it.” I’m listening.
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho. Isn’t this like the literary equivalent of The Secret? Meh, even if it isn’t, whatever.
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green. Okay, hang on. I really, really like and respect John Green. I’ve been out of school a long time, and I still watch Crash Course. I follow him on Twitter and Facebook. But the truth is this book’s premise just never sounded interesting to me, and then once Shailene Woodley got involved it was all downhill from there.
Room, Emma Donoghue. I tried to read this. I didn’t get past page five. I didn’t buy any of it. Sorrynotsorry.
Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon. Nothing against it really except a time commitment. I know this one is well loved. But maybe I’ll watch the show. Will it make sense if I haven’t read the books?

I have a bonus question for you! Tell me a hyped book you read but wished you hadn’t wasted your precious time reading…Mine’s The Help.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Reads of 2015 (So Far)

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us to list our ten favorite books of 2015 so far. Right at the beginning of April I went into a terrible reading slump that was only broken temporarily by re-reading Keith Lee Morris’s The Dart League King and then reading Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. The result? I’ve read only 17 books so far this year. I think that’s a record low.

Nominating top ten favorites from such a short list feels weird, so I picked out five:

Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

And see, I already feel bad about leaving off The Lola Quartet, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, and both of the Sarah Vowell books I’ve read. But if I had read more, certainly some of those would fall off the list.

Which brings me to this: If I’m being honest, I’d also have to say that I haven’t been a good reader lately, and there’s evidence. For one, my “review” of Skippy Dies, which was all just holycowIloveditbutnotsurewhykthanksbye. Oh gosh if that wouldn’t convince you to read it I don’t know what will! I also have a post about Seating Arrangements that I wrote months ago and kept meaning to put up–but when I looked over it it last week, thinking I might post it, I was sort of happy I never did. It was just a whole lot of yammering about preppies and New England and again ohIlovedititwassogood!

Not that I think I need to write deeply about every book I read, but looking back at older posts and thinking about my current situation, I realized I have fallen into some very general bad habits when it comes to reading. I don’t take notes anymore. I don’t highlight passages or mark pages. And clearly what’s worse is that I am reading mindlessly. I’m enjoying things in the minute without really thinking about why. I suppose this sort of “love the one you’re with” approach to reading is okay once in a while. But that’s not why I got into this whole blogging thing. I got into it to talk about books. Not even to “review” them or assign them arbitrary star ratings. That definitely isn’t why I read. I read because I am interested in writing, and I like to talk about writing, and to talk about how the books I read fit into life, reading or otherwise. So if I can make a half-year resolution, it’s to be a better reader—not necessarily to read more, but more deeply than I have been.

Reader’s Journal: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterI’m not exactly a risk-taker. In fact, I’m what might be described as “indoorsy.” The most daunting thing I face daily is trying not to trip on the stairs while carrying food and drink up to my office. Given this, you might be surprised at my interest in a book like Into Thin Air.

Well, truth be told, I really wasn’t all that interested. I mainly bought it for two reasons: it was on sale, and I wanted my mother to stop nagging me about reading it already. (Don’t feel sorry for her and think that now she has nothing to nag me about. She has plenty of other things, including calling her, making one of the eleventy-million recipes she sends me, reading Wolf Hall, and wearing just a tad more mascara because it wouldn’t kill me…but I digress.) Into Thin Air is Mom’s go-to book when she can’t seem to find anything else she wants to read. The fact that a book about a terrible, real-life tragedy during a mountaineering expedition is a “go-to” book in my mother’s mind is another post entirely.

If you’re one of my hundreds of Twitter followers—I can say that now, because as I write this I am officially up to 204 followers and yes I am willingly counting you in the mix, Nissan-Dialer, whoever (whatever) you are—then you know all about the tragic events in my own life these last few weeks. But maybe you don’t so I’ll fill you in: I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, making some pretty nice (for me) progress and happy to be out of a months-long slump at last, when I hit page 439. Page 439 is the end of Section 4 in that book. So I flipped past the “Section 5” page and a pretty print of some flower drawing and found myself mid-sentence on page 471. My copy was a rather nice hard-bound edition, by the way. For several minutes I just flipped the pages back and forth, as though that simple motion might somehow cause the missing pages to appear and apologize for taking a break. The pages clearly had not been removed from the book–it was a printing error. (But what about Into Thin Air, right? Can’t I just tell this story when—nay, IF—I review The Signature of All Things? No. But I promise if I review that book I won’t tell this story again, okay? Happy?)

And so, as I am obviously some kind of Twitter power-user which is why I have so many people interested in what I have to say, I decided to tweet Viking Books and give them what for. And anyway long story short they were really nice and sent me a new hard-cover copy just like the old one except with all the pages and I have since finished that book BUT.

Obviously I had to have something to read while I waited for said book to arrive. Now I don’t know about you but I can’t start a novel while I am reading a novel, unless I am intentionally abandoning the first novel for the second. Besides that, I haven’t been having the best luck with fiction lately, but we can talk about that another time. I scrolled through my Kindle app to see what looked good, and there it was, my mother’s go-to, Into Thin Air, and I thought, why not?

Into Thin Air was published in 1997, and it recounts Jon Krakauer’s experience of following a guided expedition to the top of Mount Everest. Krakauer joined the expedition as a journalist, planning to write a piece about guided expeditions for Outside magazine. Krakauer visited Everest from April through May 1996, and the following September he did eventually go on to publish a 17,000-word story about the tragic events that occurred there. After receiving some criticism about the piece, and wanting to explore more deeply the events of that expedition–and his part in those events–he decided to write the book that would become Into Thin Air.

The most critical decision Krakauer made took place before he ever even left Seattle for Everest. Outside magazine initially invited him to travel to Everest in 1995 and park at the base camp to interview the climbers about their experiences. But Krakauer had a past with mountaineering. He saw what might be his only opportunity to summit the greatest mountain of them all, something he had dreamed of since childhood. He convinced the magazine to give him a year to train so that he could join an expedition and go all the way to the top.

When he arrived in Nepal in April 1996, Krakauer joined an expedition led by New Zealander Rob Hall, an experienced mountaineer who owned a company called Adventure Consultants. Including Krakauer, that expedition included ten climbers, seven climbing Sherpas, and three guides (including Rob Hall). There were at least thirteen other expeditions (groups and solo climbers) planning to summit Everest from the Nepalese side at the same time as Krakauer’s group, and two other expeditions summiting from the Tibetan side. And here’s where I should tell you the book includes a “Dramatis Personae” list to rival something out of Tolstoy. I cannot possibly cover what happens to all these people, except to say eight of them died in one day as the result of a freak storm (and some very bad decisions made by many players).

And really, it isn’t so much about events as it is about the telling, the recounting, the wondering, and Krakauer, pardon the obvious metaphor, is an excellent guide. Interwoven with the story of the Adventure Consultants expedition is his own past experience with mountaineering and the difficulties of mountaineering in general, some history of Everest expeditions, some history of key players like Rob Hall and Scott Fischer (lead guide of another expedition), the history of the Sherpas, and so on. I found it to Krakauer’s credit that he avoids making any one person the villain, which could have been easy to do.

That said, he does call into question some decisions that he believes contributed to the tragedy. In some cases, the decision he calls into question is the decision to climb at all, especially given that several of the people on guided expeditions that year were not mountaineers, not in the least. Writing about their first attempt to leave base camp for Camp One, Krakauer says:

“As I loaded my backpack for the morrow, I learned that between the demands of their families and and their high-powered careers, few of my fellow clients had the opportunity to go climbing more than once or twice in the previous year. Although everyone appeared to be in superb physical shape, circumstances had forced them to do the bulk of their training on StairMasters and treadmills rather than on actual peaks. This gave me pause. Physical conditioning is a crucial component of mountaineering, but there are many other equally important elements, none of which can be practiced in a gym.”

But then a bit later:

“But the question of who belongs on Everest and who doesn’t is more complicated than it might first appear. The fact that a climber has paid a large sum of money to join a guided expedition does not, by itself, mean that he or she is unfit to be on the mountain.”

Really, this is one of the biggest questions at the heart of the book, whether people should be shelling out big bucks (when Krakauer went to Everest in 1997, Adventure Consultants was charging $75,000 for the pleasure) and putting their own and other people’s (the Sherpas’ for example) lives in great danger. When Krakauer et. al. start to climb in earnest, he realizes that some people don’t even know how to use their equipment; they cannot figure out how to put the crampons on their boots, for example. Little things like that. Things you’d think you might get the really helpful salespeople at REI to show you in the store when you buy the damn things. (Although, granted, they probably won’t show you how to do it with numb hands and a raging altitude headache.)

If anyone maybe comes off as making some questionable decisions, it’s an assistant guide from Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev, who was killed in an avalanche in 1997, wrote his own account of the tragedy in a book called The Climb. To say that he thought Krakauer got things wrong is an understatement, and Krakauer addresses this in a long epilogue in my edition. To be fair, Krakauer is as hard on himself as he is on any of the other key players that day, but while pointing out that he was not a guide and not responsible for any clients, while Boukreev was.

And I think that’s the right word, tragedy. If there is one thing Into Thin Air does not make me want to do, it’s climb a mountain. And in all honesty, I cannot help thinking, after reading this book, that people who want to climb mountains are just a leeeetle bit nuts, and not just because they expose themselves willingly to such things as extreme cold and going to the bathroom outdoors. Some of these people climb alone (well, with Sherpas to fix their ropes and carry their stuff, so “alone”). Some of these people climb without using supplemental oxygen. Keep in mind that Everest is at 29,029 feet above sea level. That is thin air indeed. Rarified. Um, nuts.

Certainly after reading Into Thin Air, I am interested in reading more of Krakauer’s work, but I’m also interested in reading more about why these crazy people climb mountains. I know, I know. Because they are there. Same reason I read books, which is easier, warmer, and so much safer. And while I don’t think this will be a “go-to” for me, I’m happy I picked it up. You win, Mom. This time.