Reader’s Journal: The Pursuit of Cool

The Pursuit of CoolI don’t know how I came across Robb Skidmore’s self-published novel The Pursuit of Cool, but all I had to do was read the description and I knew I had to read it:

A novel that uniquely captures the 1980s, The Pursuit of Cool tells the story of Lance Rally and his turbulent college years. He faces pressure to live up to his super-achieving family and is fueled by grandiose ambition. He wants to become a success but is easily distracted and obsessed with pop culture. He also has a deeply romantic nature and though inept he is sincere and falls in love quickly…This coming-of-age journey is a funny and emotional ride through album covers, dance techniques, all-nighter revelations, and corporate internships gone bad. The story comes alive with music and movies which give Lance solace as he questions his beliefs and his heart gets crushed. He tries to capture that illusive quality, that magic of youth, the essence that is ‘cool.’

In 1986, Lance Rally leaves his Washington, D.C. area home, bound for the fictional Langford College on the outskirts of Atlanta. His grandfather, father, and older brother all attended Harvard, but Lance’s grades weren’t quite up to Ivy League standards, so he’s headed to a second-tier school to study economics in the hopes of getting into a really good business school after college. But here’s the thing: Lance doesn’t really understand economics, and the famous professor who runs the department (and whom everyone suggests Lance pursue as a mentor) is a crank whose opaque lectures Lance struggles to understand. So Lance begins to float…He befriends a punk rocker from California named Ian LaCoss, who’s majoring and drama and introduces him to, well, punk rock, and a squirrely genius named Charles Boyd. He eventually begins to date a popular dancer who is majoring in psychology, and he struggles (and often fails) to comprehend her subtle hints and moods. He gets a summer internship with a high-powered consulting firm. A few other things happen, but because he’s more of a dreamer than anything, Lance drifts through the rest of his time, and the reader drifts with him.

If that sounds dull, it isn’t. In fact, it’s charming. Skidmore is confident storyteller who clearly cares about Lance, who is compelling and endearing in his confusion. Lance is an all around genuinely nice guy, a good kid. He’s a dreamer. He loves to read. He loves movies. He can spend hours and hours listening to music. He’s observant and slightly obsessive when it comes to going over situations (usually involving his girlfriend Lynn) in his head. He’s constantly trying to figure out how to be. He’s picked the wrong major, but he can’t bring himself to change it for fear of disappointing his father. And besides, he has no idea what he wants to do until the very last page of the book (the very last day of college, incidentally), when everything becomes abundantly clear to him.

It’s highly possible I enjoyed this book because I identified with Lance in many ways. Although I didn’t have any family legacy to live up to, I had talked a big game all through senior year of high school about how I was going to New York to become a playwright. When I wasn’t accepted by the two schools in New York where I actually managed to complete applications for by the deadline, I decided to start college closer to home and transfer after my first year. Five years and five majors later (drama, communications, back to drama, fashion merchandising, and finally English literature) I graduated from that same university. Like Lance, I was a distracted romantic who wasn’t sure where I fit in, who was likely to spend way more time reading novels, listening to music (or going to see bands, my favorite college pastime), or obsessing over friendships and guys than I ever spent studying. It took me two-and-a-half years to settle into a major and apply myself, and another four years until one of my best friends really helped me clue into the same realization Lance has at the end of The Pursuit of Cool.

Another reason I probably identified with this book so much was the time: Lance goes to college in 1986, and I went to college in 1987. My guess is that Robb Skidmore went to college around this same time, because he gets so many things about the time spot-on, especially the music, while managing to avoid so many Eighties cliches. If you like campus novels, if you’re interested in the 1980s, or if you just like a well-told coming-of-age story, I recommend The Pursuit of Cool.

And because music plays such an important part in The Pursuit of Cool, I decided to make a playlist. Instead of adding songs from the book (the playlist would be at least three hours long and range from Led Zeppelin to The Clash to The Pixies), I decided to put together my own “greatest hits” that I loved in college. It’s hardly comprehensive, and to stop myself from going on and on, I picked twenty songs (listen on Spotify or YouTube).

What were your favorite songs from college and/or the 80s? Better to share music than tragic fashion! Happy reading!

Reader’s Journal: Our Endless Numbered Days

Our Endless Numbered DaysWhat am I going to tell you about Claire Fuller’s beautiful, heartbreaking debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for most prestigious first-time novelists? My first five-star read of 2015, it feels like one of those books that defies reviewing. It’s deep. It’s haunting. It’s pretty. It’s enraging. All these things.

In 1976, when she is eight years old, Peggy Hamilton is taken from her London home by her father, James. Up until that time she has lived a relatively normal life as the only child of two somewhat eccentric parents, her aforementioned father James, who does not work but instead obsesses about the end of the world, and her mother, Ute Bischoff, a famous German concert pianist. Peggy goes to school. She has a best friend named Becky. She is attached to her BBC recording of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and even at the age of eight still sometimes relies on her doll Phyllis for company. She loves Ute, but her mother is also larger than life, and is not willing to share that most vital part of her–the piano–with Peggy. Her father belongs to the North London Retreaters, a group of men who gather to drink (heavily) and discuss the best ways to survive the end of days, whether from nuclear apocalypse or some natural disaster. James seems to take things seriously, going so far as to build a shelter underneath their house and outfit it with food and supplies, putting Peggy through regular drills (of which Ute wants no part) where she has only minutes to pack her rucksack and report to the shelter, where at the end of the drill her father inspects the items she has chosen to bring along.

Things seem normal enough. Like any eight-year-old child, Peggy is both fascinated and confused by her parents and their friends. She stays up late to spy on their parties, to listen to the long arguments the men maintain over the best survivalist techniques. She senses a strain between her father and Ute, but through everything she maintains her version of normal, until Ute leaves to go on a two-week concert tour. During those weeks Peggy begins to spend more time outside her normal routine and camping out with her father in the garden. She tells the school her mother has died. More time passes and still Ute does not return. And then Peggy awakens one morning to her father’s sharp whistle. He tells her to pack her things. It’s time to go. He’s promised her a holiday.

He takes her across the Channel and deep into the continent. They are going to a place called “die Hütte,” a place Peggy heard her father and his friends (especially one in particular, named Oliver Hannington) discussing during their late nights. She imagines the place to be something from a fairytale. She is wrong, but not long after they arrive there, her father tells her the world has ended, and that they are the only people left in the world, and nothing exists beyond what he calls the “Great Divide,” referring to the world on the other side of the mountains that surround their valley.

We hear the story directly from seventeen-year-old Peggy, who alternates between her time in die Hütte with her father and present day London where she is back in Ute’s house. In their exile, Peggy and her father struggle to survive. In the woods, they become not Peggy and James, but Papa and Punzel. They have not brought enough food; they have not brought the right supplies; and die Hutte is not equipped as promised. The threat of freezing or starving to death is always an issue. Yet Peggy offers her audience many, many moments of great beauty and grace, such as when Papa teaches her to play the piano with the one book of sheet music he has taken from home, Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella.” He builds her a wooden piano and she learns to sing the notes. She makes up a narrative to guide her through the music:

When I played, my father would sometimes sing the bass line while I was the bell, or the bird; one of us sang the treble clef with the other joining in on the high notes to create the chords. By page six, the bird was joined by a cat, and the fluttering became more desperate. The bird circled higher and higher, trying to escape the open maw that followed its flurries at the window. When the bird tired and swooped too low, the cat jumped, feathers were lost, and I despaired for the creature. In the final refrain, as if sounding an alarm call, the bird began to fight back. The animal I had taken for a sparrow or wren became a fiercer creature, showing its talons and curved beak so that fur flew as well as the feathers.

While Peggy/Punzel loves her father, and while she comes to love things about the woods and she begins to forget her old life, she always has a real sense of danger. And while much of the danger is very real–she is afraid of water, for example, and cannot swim–she knows something else is off kilter. But she has only her Papa to rely upon, and so she makes what life she can.

It wasn’t until well after I had finished Our Endless Numbered Days that I began to associate it with another beautiful, yet also tragic and disturbing book, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb. In both books, a man abducts a girl (because yes, even though James is Peggy’s father, what he does is abduction, stealing her away from her life and other family) for incredibly complex reasons of his own and takes her away to a solitary place, where he feels in control, not just of the girl but of something bigger: life, maybe. And like David Lamb, Peggy is an unreliable narrator, not just because she is a child, but because she is in a sense broken forever by being taken away. No doubt about it, what happens to Peggy is clear-cut child abuse. For me, this was the most difficult thing about the book. I had very little empathy for James (although I did have a strange empathy for David Lamb, but I wonder if I would have had the story been told from the girl’s point of view). Aside from the abduction, even in real life, I have no patience for survivalist types. While so many readers (and movie fans) found Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild tragic and romantic—promising young man yearns for more authentic way of life, so gives up all worldly possessions and hits the open road—I saw someone who was quite possibly mentally ill and breaking down. That’s also what the reader sees in James/Papa, no matter how Peggy presents him. And while he cares for as best he can, he is also prone to mood swings, and we know always what he has done to her—and to Ute.

Yet this is still Peggy’s story, and she must be allowed to tell it in her own way. We will never really know what she endured in the woods. It’s the beauty of Fuller’s writing that makes this book so difficult to put down. This novel is so remarkable for a debut, and the author was 47 when it was published, which just goes to show that not every talented, promising writer is under 25 (or 30). And on that note, let’s have some music.

Reader’s Journal: Brilliance

Brilliance (Brilliance Saga, #1)I’m not going to lie to you. I bought Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance because I heard that Gillian Flynn liked it a couple of years ago. And even after hearing that Gillian Flynn recommended it, I didn’t buy it right away. I waited until it was $1.99 on Kindle and thought, “Might as well.” It took me more than two years to get around to reading it, even with people heaping praise on it left and right. And now here I am, ready to heap praise.

Nick Cooper is an agent in the Equitable Services division of the Department of Analysis and Response. Beginning in 1980, large groups of children with abnormally high intelligence were born, a trend that continued to increase over the following decades. At first thought to be a benefit, these brilliants begin to manipulate systems created by normal people, who start to see them as threat. After a brilliant takes over the stock market and causes global financial systems to collapse, the divide between normal people and abnorms, as the brilliants become known, begins to grow.

Defending national security, Cooper hunts abnorms for Equitable Services. The thing is, Cooper himself an abnorm. A series of deadly events cause him to go underground to hunt the abnorm terrorist the agency believes is behind a series of escalating attacks, but in the process, Cooper learns some difficult truths about the abnorm movement that make him call into question just who the good guys are and where his loyalties really lay.

I don’t know what it was about this book, but I could not put it down. At first, it bothered me because while Sakey is a solid writer, he also uses some tired techniques and tropes that typically irritate me enough to put a book down. For example, why do so many thriller writers use characters’ full names, even after they’ve been introduced multiple times, or even been referred to by a single name in a preceding sentence or paragraph? Example:

He went looking for Valerie West—there’d been no need to snap at her that way, especially when it sounded like she had something—and found the whole team together and frenetic…Luisa Abrahams leaned over her shoulder, talking fast into the phone. Bobby Quinn, bulky with a vest, was checking the load on his weapon.

This is on page 106, people. The reader has already been introduced to these characters a dozen times. Just a couple of pages before, they were simply “Valerie” and “Luisa.”

And then there are the sections in italics, to show that Nick Cooper (see what I did there?) is talking to himself. This isn’t terrible, but Sakey often starts these sections mid-sentence, like so:

About six foot, long hair, and a black t-shirt, a shotgun in his hand, the barrel swinging and—

Shotguns are bad news; the wide spread of buckshot cuts down your edge.

But the holes in the door were small, fist-size.

He’s firing double- or even triple-ought shells. Call it six nine-millimeter pellets in each. Incredibly lethal, but intended for tactical operations, which means a full choke in the barrel for precision. The lead will only spread about eighteen inches over fifty yards.

And he’s not even ten feet away.

—his finger tightening on the trigger, and Cooper stepped sideways ten inches as a blast of fire bloomed from the barrel  of the shotgun and the metal shards hurtled through the space he had been standing in.

A little annoying, but as the pages fly by (and they do fly, for the pacing is absolutely spot-on) you get used to it. The only other thing was that when it comes to sex, it’s like Sakey turns into a sixteen-year-old boy writing a letter to Penthouse. For example, he actually uses the phrase “he rode her.” No joke. So just…yeah.

But purple prose and annoying tics aside, Brilliance really is a hell of a story. I should mention that Sakey doesn’t make Cooper go through all this alone—he gives him an abnorm counterpoint, a woman named Shannon, and Sakey creates just the right chemistry between these two characters: they compete, they bicker, they joke, and while they don’t completely trust each other, they need each other. And so even though he can seem silly and sexist, I give Sakey credit for creating Shannon, because she’s likable and strong in her own right, and Cooper really does admire her.

So I’m a little all over the place and not heaping quite as much praise as I thought, but really, trust me: If you’re looking for a page-turner (and a trilogy, because this is book one) and you like thrillers and/or dystopian fiction, you cannot go wrong with Brilliance. I give it four solid stars.

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.

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.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Reader’s Journal: The Lola Quartet

The Lola QuartetEveryone has been talking about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That book got so much amazing blog coverage over the last few months, I wondered if it was really that good or if everyone was buying into the hype. (I find myself now worrying about this same thing with The Girl on the Train. Has the hive mind taken over?) not that it mattered—because of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I can only read from my stacks, and I don’t have a copy of Station Eleven. (Er, make that didn’t have a copy…I caved and bought it, but I havent’ read it!) I do, however, have a copy of Mandel’s The Lola Quartet that I bought several years ago and hadn’t read yet, so I decided to find out for myself what kind of author Mandel is.

Gavin Sasaki is a 28-year-old journalist living in New York City. He’s broken up with his girlfriend, the newspaper where he works is going digital and laying people off, the shower in his apartment has an ever-worsening leak, and he’s generally come to feel…well, to feel a sort of nothingness. He takes an assignment in Florida, not far from his hometown of Sanderson, covering exotic and dangerous animals that people have released into the wild that threaten the human population. While he’s there, he meets his sister, Eilo, for lunch. Eilo is a real-estate broker who deals in foreclosures. She shows him a picture of a ten-year-old little girl who looks just like Eilo when she was the same age. She also tells him that the girl has sinced vanished, that the lady left the house and took the girl with her and Eilo does not know where they’ve gone.

And so begins the story of The Lola Quartet, which was the name of the jazz band Gavin belonged to in high school, the band that was playing the very last time he saw his girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, on the night of graduation. After Gavin breaches the trust of his editor at the paper, he loses his job. He drifts aimlessly around New York and then finally decides to accept an offer to stay with Eilo in Florida while he gets back on his feet. In Florida, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out what has happened to Anna and the little girl in the photograph, so he decides to track down the other members of the Lola Quartet—one of whom is Anna’s half-sister—to understand what happened.

Although the story primarily feels like Gavin’s, it moves between past and present (1999 and 2009) and characters (the Lola Quartet members Daniel, Jack, and Sasha, and also Anna herself, who was not a member). In the present day, Daniel, the bassist, is a cop. In the past, unbeknownst to Gavin, he was a rival for Anna’s attention and affection. Jack, the pianist, is now a drug addict, the result of a nervous breakdown in college. And Sasha, once a talented drummer and swimmer, who suffers from a serious gambling problem and now works the nightshift at a diner. Gavin visits each of them in turn, and as we hear the stories we begin to piece things together along with Gavin. The missing information is filled in with Anna’s narrative, how she got from graduation night to the hiding place where she is now.

The Lola Quartet isn’t exactly a mystery, but it has a noir feel. All of the characters seem wise and weary beyond their years, which feels appropriate to the tone of the book. All of them remember that graduation night, where the Lola Quartet played its last performance. They were set up in the back of a truck, playing late into the night. All of them remember the small hours of the morning, a singer crooning “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (translated loosely, this means “you are beautiful to me.” You can listen to a popular version of the song by The Andrews Sisters here.) and the lyrics (“You’re really swell, I have to admit you/ Deserve expressions that really fit you/ And so I’ve racked my brain hoping to explain/ All the things that you do to me…”) fit all the longing these characters feel, sometimes for each other, sometimes for music itself, or for cards, or just for some other life. Anna, who is the only person who is not a member of the quartet, and who prefers electronic music (in particular, New Order) to anything else, seems also to be the one character who is most pragmatic, who spends the least time longing and more time doing. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that works quite well.

In some ways, this novel feels infused with music, especially in Jack’s sections, as he’s the only one of the Lola Quartet who decides to pursue music after high school. He goes to college in South Carolina and then meets his roommate, a jazz guitarist who aspires to be greater than Django Reinhardt. At the midpoint of his freshman year, an event occurs that leads him to feel that he’s lost the music, that he doesn’t have what it takes to play piano or maybe even live in the wider world, and begins his decline. The way the story moves amongst characters, from past to present—it feels like a jazz arrangement. I almost want to say, if you enjoy jazz, then the rhythm of The Lola Quartet should please you. You shouldn’t mind the lack of straightforward narrative drive, and instead you’ll enjoy the improvisations, the parts that seem to wander away but then lop full circle to make the narrative tighter than before.

Stylistically, this novel reminded me a lot of The Goldfinch, which I loved. That isn’t to say The Lola Quartet is quite as good, though, and it does have some issues. The only one that really stood out for me is that near the end, a few characters respond to a major event in a way that seems unlikely. I was happy that happened closer to the end because at that point I was ready to declare it a triumph. If I were going to give stars, those reactions would take one away. But overall, I fully enjoyed it. Mandel is a terrific writer, and now I see what all the fuss is about. Now if April 1 would just get here, so I can finally read Station Eleven!