Saturday, September 17, 2011

Summer Reading

Into Thin Air (6/5)
The Naked Mountain (7/8)
K2: Life and Death (4/5)
The Aleph (8/9)
Eiger Dreams (5/6)
Mother Night (7/9)
Touching the Void (7/8)
The Lacuna (8/8)
Thin Air (6/7)
Desert Solitaire (6/5)
The Gnostic Gospels (5/7)
Annapurna (5/6)
The Courage to Be (7/10)
Enduring Patagonia (6/7)
The Beckoning Silence (7/8)
The Sunset Limited (9/10)
Northern Lights (6/8)
The Dynamics of Faith (7/9)

Ratings explained (style/thought)
1 - unendurable
2 - bad
3 - unpleasant
4 - boring
5 - interesting
6 - entertaining
7 - good
8 - excellent
9 - genius
10 - perfection

Books that might score lower were not finished, and thus cannot be honestly and accurately rated

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer
A frank and casual account of the Everest disaster of 1996, told from the first person as a member of one of the guided expeditions. If not for the explanatory anecdotes on mountaineering in general and the history of Everest in particular that seem to be standard fair in popular climbing books, the story would make an excellent Shakespearian tragedy. As it is, Krakauer wisely refuses to take the story beyond the evidence and leaves the conclusions to the reader; which is fine if said reader is familiar with and appreciative of mountaineering, if not the conclusion most people seem to have drawn is “what idiots, why do people do this shit? Here’s a list of ways it can be made safe.” There is no way to make mountaineering safe, climbing mountains is about pushing boundaries, it’s never going to be something everyone can do, it’s never going to be free from peril. Without the element of danger it would just be hiking. It is not that nothing can be done to prevent further deaths, it is that nothing should be done. Climbing, especially in the Himalayas, should be seen like becoming a policeman or joining the military – you are going out to meet something that might very well kill you. This is an accepted risk, when climbers die, whether from exposure, altitude sickness, avalanche or some other mishap, no one should be surprised, no one should look for solutions, no one should question the whole endeavor.
To quote myself -
“All life is a risk, of death and much else. And death the risk of life; they are not opposites – life and death. Death implies life and life implies death, without each other each is meaningless…”

The Naked Mountain - Reinhold Messner
Reinhold Messner is, was (he is now retired at age 66), the greatest mountaineer I have ever heard of. His story is so much deeper than that of most of the climbers I’ve read about. He climbs with such passion, such wholeness of spirit; this was one of the greatest men of his generation.
The difference between Messner and Viesturs is the essence of the difference between the American and the German ways of thought.

K2: Life and Death on the World’s Deadliest Mountain - Ed Viesturs w/ David Roberts
Ed Viesturs is one of the greatest living climbers. Emphasis not the word ‘greatest’ but on the word ‘living,’ he has quite simply outlived most of his superiors. As a former RMI guide, he represents a very specific take-no-chances American approach to mountaineering. Personally I more admire his humanity than his climbing ethic. Contrary to what one might expect, most of the world’s best climbers, more often then not European or Americans indoctrinated in the French Chamonix scene, are egotistical and ultra-competitive. Men who stoop to help another climber only with the most intense disgust and have nothing but disdain for their inferiors. Viesturs is different, he repeatedly set aside his own summit ambitions to do what he felt was right, and professes a lack of understanding of climbers who behave differently. He is not willing to give his life for a mountain, and so, in my view, he cannot be a truly great mountaineer, but he is a great human being regardless.

The Aleph and Other Stories - Jorge Luis Borges
These stories have a very peculiar tinge: calm, metaphysical, and deep beyond all that I can see. I get the distinct impression that my reading is only glossing their surface. Borges is not as heartbreaking and beautiful as Vonnegut nor as vividly unique as McCarthy, but there is a sense of the eternal in his stories that I can only compare to Tolkien. He appears to write not from gut-wrenching need but from quiet inspiration, the kind one is more used to finding in pre-modern literature, before everyone started writing about themselves. Borges has a mastery, a self-assurance that I have encountered in few other writers.
Notable stories are the somewhat Lovecraftian The Immortals, The House of Asterion, and my personal favorite, Deutsches Requiem.
The paragraphs above were written referring only to The Aleph, the other stories are composed of the prose from two collections, The Maker and Museum. Both of which are far more personal, succinct, and in some cases lighthearted than The Aleph; in effect, directly contradicting my previous analysis. He does write about himself, not like Vonnegut or Alexie write about themselves but in a more purposeful way. He does not he does not hide himself like McCarthy or the epic poets of Greece and Rome but neither he limited by his own experience. In other words, Borges can write about himself, but he can also write about other things.

Eiger Dreams - Jon Krakauer
Krakauer writes about his climbing in the Alps and the Alaska ranges and other people’s climbing in the Himalayas, Karakoram and Arizona. It is not difficult to understand why he gave up climbing to be a full-time writer, he seems to spend most of his own climbs absolutely terrified, just trying to think a good enough reason to leave. Either he just wasn’t cut out for it or everyone else is scared too and just lies about it, given his skill level, he put up new routes on some of the most intense peaks in Alaska and Patagonia, I’m leaning toward the latter.
In his article on the 1986 K2 disaster(s), in which something like one out of every five people who attempted the peak was killed, he voices a subtle criticism of Messner and the alpine style of climbing. Although he does not blame Messner for the man’s followers he does express some doubts about how feasible the style is for anyone less skilled. Siege style climbing is definitely safer in some ways than Alpine style, but I believe its purity outweighs its risks. Literally going to a summit is a meaningless accomplishment. Given enough money a person could pay to be carried to the peak of just about any mountain in the world, but this would not mean that he or she had climbed that mountain. Likewise, if all of the technical work, route-finding, camp construction and stocking, rope fixing, etcetera, is being done by paid guides and the climber is being virtually escorted up the mountain – this is not climbing any more than being carried on the back of another climber. Because is essence, that’s what it is; standard guided climbs, of the type that are common on Rainier, Denali and Everest, effectively carry their clients, or rather everything but the client’s body that is necessary for the climb, up the mountain. This is no longer alpinism, this is tourism.
Obviously I am not the only one who feels this way and is somewhat below the skill level of Reinhold Messner, Jerzy Kukuczka, Peter Habeler or Hermann Buhl; and this leads to problems. In the lesser ranges, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, the Alps, one becomes accustomed to a sort of self-sufficiency and the idea of a guided expedition to the Himalayas or Karakoram becomes distasteful. Yet the demands of these peaks are so much greater than that of the lesser ranges that unless one is among the greatest alpinists in the world, siege tactics is the only feasible option. This is not to say that Krakauer truly disparages the alpine style. As he points out, the year of 1986 was especially bad for little discernible reason, skilled climbers were killed in freak accidents at the base of the mountain and after a South Korean expedition had fixed ropes people continued to die descending.
As a whole I found this collection more depressing than any of the mountaineering books I have read to date. There is a constant sense of defeat or of meaningless victory. Krakauer fails on the Eiger and Denali, gets his climb in Chamonix called “banal” by a local, and finally succeeds on Devil’s Thumb only to make a point of how empty his triumph was, how after this climb that was supposed to change his life he returned to his menial job in Boulder. His story of Denali did, however, provide me with a new favorite quotation -
“It's sort of like having fun, only different”

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut
Technically this is a re-read, but as my first reading was in a heavy Vonnegut phase two winters ago and I remembered next to nothing from any of the books I read, it was akin to a first reading.
Mother Night is a novel almost on par with Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, and Galapagos. I say almost because, although it has all the elements of Vonnegut’s genius – nonlinear plot arranged for effect, very sympathetic protagonists, and unmatched insight into the human condition, it suffers from a major flaw. It is not a characterization issue, a plot hole, or a thematic concern, but rather a flaw in Vonnegut’s basic understanding of the second world war. The Nazis were not insane, they did not have missing teeth in their gears (however fascinating that metaphor is, it explains the way we all, not just Nazis, choose what to belief, claiming that one has never purposefully filed down a tooth is shear arrogance), they cannot be dismissed so easily. Vonnegut has a thing for pitiful characters, the Nazis were not, by and large, pitiful. They were fearfully competent, they knew exactly what they wanted and they pursued as few others have. They were modern and medieval and full of vengeful justice, their only mistake was to target the wrong people. If not for Hitler’s anti-semitism and general neurosis they might still be around and respected. All this to say that Vonnegut, generally a master of difficult conclusions, appears to have taken an easy way out. And that bothers me, because Mother Night truly is a phenomenal novel.

Touching the Void - Joe Simpson
This is one of the most gut wrenching stories I have read. The film is also excellent, one of the few to really capture the spirit of climbing. I also appreciate its flat refusal cast blame.
Here is the gist: Joe Simpson and Simon Yates are two British climbers with lots of experience in the Alps, they hear from another excellent British climber, Alan Rouse, who was soon to die on K2, about the west face of Siula Grande, the last unclimbed face of its kind in the Andes. Simpson and Yates set off for South America to climb it. After much travail they make it to the summit but on the decent Joe falls and breaks his leg. With no remaining food or water and very little equipment left Yates begins to lower Simpson down the face, belaying him unanchored from a seat dug in the snow. Wanting to reach the glacier at the bottom of the face as quickly as possible they continue to lower into the night, not knowing that a 100+ ft ice cliff lies in their path. Simpson is lowered off the cliff but is unable to communicate this to Yates, who must only deduce the situation from the fact that Simpson is unable to get his weight off the rope. On the verge of being pulled down the mountain, Yates cuts the rope and Simpson falls into a crevasse as the base of the cliff. Wracked by feat and guilt, Yates descends the remainder of the face and returns to their base camp, on the way seeing the crevasse and assuming, reasonably enough, that Simpson is dead. Yates and another traveler they had recruited to watch their camp hang around for three days, resting and regaining their strength for the hike out. In the middle of the night before they are to leave camp Simpson crawls out of the moraine. Without food or water and with a badly broken leg he had survived the fall into the crevasse, realized he would be unable to climb out, lowered himself further in, found another way out, and crawled across miles of glacier and boulder-fields, all the while knowing that by the time he reached the camp Yates would likely have departed.
And there lies the debate, upon returning to England Yates faced intense criticism for his actions, while Simpson now has a career as a motivational speaker. Both continued to climb and have written several books.
There are two ways of looking at it, and it has to do with how you see climbing teams. Some claim that Yates’ cutting of the rope was an unpardonable sin. The rope is the lifeline between climbers, to sever that, even to save one’s own life, is a violation of trust and the entire mountaineering ethic. When I clip into a rope I don’t do so thinking, ‘well, if he falls I’ll just unclip really quickly,’ this would violate the entire theory of roped climbing. What Yates did is unheard of, I’ve never heard another story like it, climbers regularly fall to their deaths while climbing solo or in unroped teams but if you rope up the assumption is that you are committing your life to the team. The question then is, did the situation on Siula Grande involve extenuating circumstances? Simpson writes that the moment he was injured and Yates saw it, they were no longer a team, and he fully expected to be given some bullshit about going for help and to be left in a snow cave. The psychological dynamic here is very interesting, Simpson never asked for help, he wanted to, he tried to think of some way he could convince Yates to help him, but the whole climb the two seemed to have been suffering from a strange antagonism. Yates had repeatedly lead the hardest pitches and had shown contempt for Simpson’s weakness, both physical and psychological - several times Simpson froze up when crossing dangerous terrain. Despite all this, despite never having been asked, the whole lowering, snow-seat-belay, idea has been Yates’, and by the time he lowered Simpson over a cliff their partnership seemed to have been mended. Then he cut the rope. He was about to be pulled of the mountain, he had no way of communicating with Simpson, of knowing the size of the cliff, for all he knew, if he fell both of them would die. But he had put himself on that rope, he had committed himself to their team. He had been under no obligation to do so, there is no precedent for what Simpson and Yates attempted, much larger and better equipped teams have failed to get an injured climber of a mountain. In retrospect, the issue is very clear, hanging on the rope, unable to climb up, Simpson would have died from exposure within hours even if Yates had been able to hold him, if Yates had fallen his momentum would have carried him past the crevasse, resulting in a deadly impact, but possibly giving Simpson an anchor by which to extricate himself. Any way one examines it, the only way for both of them to survive was for Yates to cut the rope, but he had no way of knowing this, in his mind he was sending Simpson to his death - he admits this readily. The effect then, is that in a moment of self-preservation Yates accidently saved not only himself but Simpson as well. Perhaps this is a case of the honorable action being very different from the intelligent action, or, like certain Japanese climbers have claimed, there is no morality on the mountain. Self-preservation is one’s only duty. But I will stick with my previous analysis, given his knowledge and how he had voluntarily committed to a rope team, Yates’ action was a violation of the mountaineering ethic; a very understandable violation, and one that unexpectedly turned out well, but a violation regardless. His defenders ask incredulously, ‘what, should he have allowed himself to be pulled off the mountain?’ - yes, he didn’t have to rope himself to an injured, incapacitated climber, but he did, and having done that it was his duty to honor that commitment. Ultimately he was unwilling to die for that honor.
Note: I am not pleased with this conclusion, I want to believe, as Simpson does, as I did before writing this, that Yates’ action were correct. I want the catharsis of knowing that right was done and things turned out for the best. But this is the conclusion I reached and I will not put what feels right over what I rationally know.

The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver
Another re-read. Every bit as good as Poisonwood Bible, but much more subtle. As the title implies, it deals with gaps - the most important part of a story is the part you don’t know. There is a feeling of great nostalgia that goes along with reading a book the covered the entirety of a man’s life; you feel like you know him, like he is your friend. And now that he’s gone you miss him. You miss the boy diving in the caves of Isla Pixol and pining after Trotsky’s secretary, having his journals inspected by Senora Rivera, you feel as if his childhood is somehow connected to your own. I don’t know whether the sparkling brightness of childhood is in Kingsolver’s writing or my mind, whether it is on the page on imposed by my mind. Harrison Shepherd’s life as a young man was far from happy, he was often desperate and always lonely. But by then end it all seems to come together.

Thin Air - Greg Child
A mountaineering book without all that was beginning to annoy me about mountaineering books - their journalistic fascination with defeat and tragedy and their poorly written determination to pad their author’s stories with those of all that came before. With Messner’s The Naked Mountain it was necessary to understand a member of his own expedition, with Viestur’s Life and Death, one wondered what he was doing writing about these events at all. Child’s book consists of three expeditions to peaks one does not ordinarily read about: Shivling, Lopsang Spire (and Broad Peak), and Gasherbrum IV, all (except Broad Peak) under 8000 meters and more technical than the standard routes on any of the top fourteen. Child’s writing is effective, without the peculiarities of Messner but with far more polish and expertise than many climber’s memoirs.

Desert Solitaire
Edward Abbey, writing in the 1960s, was one of the men who defined the environmental movement. He lamented not only the bulldozing of the wilderness - clear-cutting, dam building, urban sprawl - but the binding of what little remained into industrial tourist money-making facilities (otherwise known as national parks). Abbey was an excellent writer, an original thinker and a true man of the wilds, but I must question some of his choices. The exploitation of the south-west was inevitable, surrounded on all sides by civilization, by major cities and large populations, the national parks and their stay-on-the-trail, protect man from the environment and the environment from man mentality are the only way to protect those regions while admitting the laws of supply and demand. If Abbey truly believed what he claimed and wanted a life in the wilds he should have gone else-where, Alaska or northern Canada remain largely wilderness, and will stay as such for the foreseeable future due to the natural difficulties of life in the subarctic zones. It is simply too easy to bring water and air-conditioning into the desert, (as opposed to heating the permafrost).
It is sad what has happened to that part of the country, the flooding of Glen Canyon with water of of Arches and others with tourists and their automobiles. I can only console myself with the knowledge that this too shall pass, the Glen Canyon Dam shall someday burst and the river will right itself again, when war comes to the borderlands the tourists will flee not to return and the canyons will be left to the hermits and cacti.
Toward the end of the book he makes a point about the distinction between culture and civilization not unlike that made by Oswald Spengler. Except that Spengler’s distinction is between society and civilization and actually makes sense. Civilization, the civilizing of man from a wild, primal state, is the result of highly developed and stratified culture or society. All the myriad and terrible things that Abbey assigns to “culture” would be much better left to civilization. It is mostly semantics in my case, I like Abbey’s point, I just don’t like the terms he puts to it. Spengler’s argument of course, is much more complex, nuanced, historically validated, and difficult to understand; I doubt Abbey had read The Decline of the West, for all his high-minded self-righteousness he has that particular arrogance I associate with men who lived prior to the 90s - men who think that there is nothing better than to be young, while, male and American. In other words, I seriously doubt Edward Abbey was well versed in German historiographic theory.

The Gnostic Gospels - Elaine Pagels
Gnosticism: most of what I liked about Christianity without most of what I didn’t. This merits further investigation.
Gnosticism was a fascinating phenomenon, ideas that I would associate with pseudo-New Agey liberal Christianity coming from Jews in the second century. God as mother, Wisdom ruling over all, even the creator demiurge God of Israel, Genesis reversed so that the serpent frees man. His Dark Materials is nothing but gnosticism combined with multi-verse theory.
Unfortunately it also has elements of classic Greek philosophical arrogance - only the enlightened few may achieve gnosis and for everyone else there is only the pale, shallow baptism of the body. But it was a movement characterized by diversity, by personal responsibility for ideology and anti-dogmatism, so generalizations of this kind are difficult. They had no canon, so one can only way what some people thought, never what all people thought.
Regarding Pagel’s book specifically, her discussion is well-written and engaging but she covers the movement’s actual beliefs only tangentially, she is much more interested by their conflicts with the orthodox church. The classic historian’s approach: they are valuable not in and of themselves, but because of how they interacted with everything around them. As I tend to take a more literary approach the book left me wanting more.

Annapurna - Maurice Herzog
The best selling mountaineering book ever published recounting one of the great expeditions in history - a group of men, French climbers and Nepalese Sherpas, who reconnoitered and climbed the first 8000 meter peak. Working with fifties era, pre-bottled-oxygen, equipment and grossly inaccurate maps they explored the region, investigated several possible routes and finally climbed the peak. Two members of the expedition, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, reached the summit but returned only with the assistance of their teammates. Both men lost all of their toes and Herzog lost most of his fingers to frostbite, by the time they reached France Herzog’s gangrenous hands had maggots as fat at pencils in them and it was only due to the efforts of their expedition doctor that he survived at all.
Herzog’s story is very different from modern mountaineering literature. The expedition style of the fifties involved a designated leader whom the other members swore to obey under all conditions, even to the point of signing away their rights to publish their own accounts of their experiences. The only modern practices that remotely approach this are the client-guide contracts used on guided climbs, but in those cases their has been an exchange of money and the guide has accepted some degree of responsibility for the well-being of the client. The other members of the French expedition, aside from the doctor and photographer, were volunteers, men just as skilled and experienced as Herzog. This almost militaristic style of climbing has all but disappeared for reasons made very clear by most expedition logs, such endeavors are almost necessarily filled with in-fighting, inter-personal drama and other, to quote Ed Viesturs, “dirty laundry” of which the custom of not airing has long worn out. And so it is a strange disharmony to read in Herzog’s novel, and he did not shy away from calling it that, about how well they all got along, how much respect Herzog had for his teammates, how they were united by their mutual striving toward a common goal, but to know that he is purposefully hiding anything and everything he did not want the public to know, particularly anything that might shed bad light on his leadership.
More recently, other books have been published based on Lachenal and Rebuffat’s journals, and though I have not read them I understand that they challenge Herzog’s rather idilic claims, as well as shedding some light on his pompous attitude.
Annapurna is a book to be taken with more than a few grains of salt, but it is a classic of the mountaineering literature regardless. For no matter how flawed the account, the achievement was truly great.

The Courage To Be
About half-way through, I decided this was the best philosophy book I have ever read. I could recount every moment of genius and try to describe why it so perfectly explains what I went through in high school but I won’t. Instead I will paraphrase what I feel is one of his best arguments. In reply to the meaninglessness of the modern world, the existential despair we all feel for which Tillich frequently refers to Sartre’s No Exit, he posits the following. Since consciously created meanings cannot hold up for long we are unable to purposefully imbue our lives with meaning, thus we face a state of emptiness for which there appears to be no answer. Because of the depth of the despair of meaninglessness, no invented meaning can offer escape. But there is a way out - despair is an act of life, and therefore is positive even in its utter negativity. Thus the meaninglessness of the world can be taken into oneself and dealt with. It is almost as if Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” can be replaced with “I despair, therefore I am.”

Enduring Patagonia - Gregory Crouch
Gregory Crouch’s writing is vivid, grandiose and personal. He rarely strays from the story at hand and this story is nearly always his own. Although he frequently lapses into flowery imagery and pretentious allusions he has moments of genius. On the surface, his climbing philosophy is unoriginal. Crouch’s Alpinism is no different from Viesturs’ “summiting is optional, coming home is mandatory” philosophy, adapted for Patagonia; that is, emphasizing lightness over heavy assault. The askewing of siege tactics (coincidently, nearly always by dirt poor climbing bums would couldn’t afford an expedition even if they stooped to so banal an enterprise) has been articulated many, many times before. Reflecting on the book as a whole, I find myself confused as to what kind of person Gregory Crouch really is. A Westpoint graduate who went through ranger school and served as an army officer for several years, including seeing combat in Panama and Desert Storm, before quitting during the post-Gulf War downsizing. A trash-talking jokester who admits to using humor to manage the fear of extreme mountaineering. These do not mesh in my mind with the stylistic flourishes and brushes with mysticism that crop up in his writing. The last chapter of Enduring Patagonia is a fascinating theological take on the theory of mountain climbing - how can this brash, crass man be so articulate and well-read?

The Beckoning Silence - Joe Simpson
If Touching the Void can be considered the description of a young climber, The Beckoning Silence is the equivalent for the aging climber. The stories are vivid, the writing is serious, and the underlying philosophical and psychological dilemmas are very real and very significant. How do we justify a pastime that kills so many of the best of us? Are climbers always responsible for the accidents that befall them, if for no other reason than their choice to climb? Somewhat disappointingly, Simpson does not answer these questions. But neither does he put forward a false or shallow solution. These are issues that plague post-modern mountaineering and will likely continue to do so for some time.

The Sunset Limited - Cormac McCarthy (re-read)
I do not usually have much of any desire to be an actor. I don’t like performance. I don’t like pretending to be things I am not. But I want to play the role of White from this play. Even though I’m not middle aged, professorial, or suicidal.

Northern Lights - Philip Pullman (re-read)
I wish I could have understood this book when I first read it years ago. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is the most thematically deep, philosophically and theologically relevant, creatively ingenious juvenile fiction I have ever read. Every thirteen-year-old should read this.

The Dynamics of Faith - Paul Tillich
Faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, the truth of faith cannot conflict with scientific, historical or philosophical truth as long as each remains what they are - faith, science, history, or philosophy. What Tillich is describing is a faith that is not a way of knowing, not an emotion, not a will to believe. It is a faith I can understand and respect.
Why are all the best thinkers German?

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