Friday, May 29, 2015


The person who recommended these books is an acquaintance. He is a good friend of my husband, but I’ve met him only a handful of times. From what I can glean of the life he lives on Facebook, he enjoys the finer things in life. His liquor cabinet rivals that of licensed bars. When he goes to concerts or sporting events, he gets the good seats. When he cooks, it is gourmet. He is the only person I have ever met who keeps a babysitter on a handsome retainer so that he always has first pick of date nights. So, I find it fascinating that he recommended two books about the worst possible conditions in which people can live. 

#36 – Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
Recommended by: JM

Now I believe they will leave me alone

This was one of a handful of books on the list of which I was completely unaware. I had heard neither the title nor author. Even the back cover gave away very little. The story unfolds in two parts. The first, in modern day, is the tale of a man confined to a wheelchair who spends all of his time trying to understand the history of his grandparents.  The other tale is that of his grandparents, early settlers in the American West. I know absolutely nothing about that time or place. My choice of historical fiction always involves a queen getting her head chopped off, so the mining towns of California, Colorado, and Idaho in the late 1800s were a complete mystery to me. Would I really be interested in a story about a cultured artist who married a strong, silent mining engineer and tried to carve out a life for themselves and their children out of hope, grit, and sheer determination?

As it turns out, that answer was yes. I found their life fascinating and incredibly difficult. They lived in shacks in remote locations for years on end. They did not have an epic love story – she thought she married beneath her and he agreed. She wrote novels, he barely spoke. They spent years apart and neither seemed to mind all that much. Yet, for all of that, you couldn’t help but root for the two of them to make it.

Which is why the last few chapters of the book are so frustrating. Throughout the book, you are aware that the two lovers do live a long life together, eventually settling down to raise their children and grandchildren. Throughout the book, you learn about Susan Burling and her husband Oliver Ward through letters and other chapters told through her point of view. However, just when the story reaches its apex and everything comes to a thunderous head, the author pulls back and tells it all in fragments, in theories and possibilities, as told by the wheelchair-bound grandson. I felt cheated. I spent 500 pages reading about the everyday lives of these people in great detail, yet at turning point, the moment that changed everything, we get barely a glance. Even worse, the aftermath is ignored almost entirely and we fast forward several decades to a denouement that is rushed and almost ridiculous. I would have much preferred to skip a few chapters in the middle to get a few more chapters at the end. This was the literary equivalent of sitting down to a well-set table, enjoying drinks, apps, pasta, and veg, and just when you are about to enjoy the meat, the waiter rushes over, hands you a little index card with a few choice adjectives about how well the meat would have tasted, gives you a mint, and rushes you out the door. Where’s the beef? Where is the rest of the story? UGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!

#37 – Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer
Recommended by: JM

Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently into the vastness of Tibet.

This book has been on my shelf for years, but for whatever reason, I never read it. I’m so glad I finally did, but dear God and his baby lord Jesus, what the hell is wrong with some people?
I always thought mountain climbing was a slow, meditative, solidary thing. You put one foot in front of the other, step after step, until you reached the top. Once there, you are a clear mind and body, maybe a wee bit tired, but absolutely exhilarated at your accomplishment.

Um. No. Not even close.  

It takes a team of people, weeks of prep, and the only thing you are thinking once you get to the top, if you are able to think at all, is how hard it is going to be to get back down. You are forced to make life and death decisions about where to step and how far to travel on one-third your normal oxygen supply – so you are basically punch drunk and stupid. Most people can’t walk a straight line on a flat surface while drunk. On Everest, you have to climb up and down a knife’s edge with the equivalent mental capacities of a college kid on his first pub crawl. It is colder than you could ever imagine, you haven’t eaten or slept properly in days, and you are practically blind due to solar radiation and ice crystallization. Your feet are raw, any part of you that is exposed is probably frostbitten, and there is a bunch of people you may or may know, of varying abilities and personalities, some hindering, some helping, with you every step of the way.

That is what climbing Everest is like. And people do this for fun! FUN! Back in 1996, when this book was written, it cost $65,000 to join a team to climb to the top. Most people never reach it. This team did, but of the six that reached the summit, only two made it out alive. Those bodies were left up on that mountain forever. This story is about the brutal and harrowing weeks that led up to the events that left so many dead, and the actions, reactions, and the small turns on the wheels of fate that caused it all to happen. With summer upon us, it is the absolutely perfect beach read. Your idyllic hot, sandy, blue setting will so contract that of the books that it will seem as if you are reading about a different planet. 

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