April 30, 2013

Book 11: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
Jon Krakauer

Though the 1996 Everest disaster is over a decade in the past, Jon Krakauer's memoir about his experiences on the mountain that spring should continue to fascinate modern audiences. There is, after all, something inherently timeless about the world's tallest mountain, and Krakauer's observations about the nature and effects of Everest's increasing commercialization seem ever more poignant now that the mountain's popularity among amateurs is at an all-time high (and growing). His account is accessible to the average reader with no climbing experience, and he does an exceptionally good job setting the scene, describing the mountain and providing crucial context for the ways in which the events of May 1996 led to eight deaths in a mere two days. Ever the journalist, Krakauer admits the biases inherent in his own account (he was, after all, suffering from the affects of altitude sickness), and accepts responsibility for earlier inaccuracies in his story regarding the death of Andy Hall. Though Krakauer is critical of particular individuals, he is careful to hedge his bets in what appears to be a genuine attempt to be fair while relaying his own opinion. The story itself is gripping from start to finish and Krakauer's skill in describing high-altitude climbing to the uninitiated might have (ironically) contributed to the romanticization of Everest, despite the fact that his account is largely centered on the inherit perils of attempting the mountain.. This accessibility, combined with compelling (if occasionally overly reverent) portraits of the primary and secondary players, make the book come alive; it is anything but dry and retains an air of suspense despite describing events that are now fairly well documented. The well-written Into Thin Air offers captivating insights into the world of high-altitude climbing and presents a valuable first-person insight into the nature of life and disaster on the world's tallest mountain.

Grade: A

April 20, 2013

Book 10: Beat the Reaper

Beat the Reaper
Josh Bazell

At its heart, I believe, this is a novel that tries to be many things at once: a biting satire, a fast-paced Mafia story, a bit of a thriller. What's remarkable is that, to a large extent, Bazell manages to pull it off. The satirical tone is established immediately by the protagonist's highly sarcastic, matter-of-fact voice, which remains consistent throughout the novel and lends an air of believability to a succession of wild events. Not insignificant is the narration's contribution to the book's considerable humor- though dark, most jokes land successfully due to their dry delivery. The book has a serviceable plot that interacts well with character-building flashbacks and consistently builds suspense, though the climactic scene contains one of the most utterly gruesome acts I've ever come across in books, movies, or other media. Hide the children, because not only is the idea itself utterly shocking (yet strangely appropriate within the book's very dark context), it is described with enough detail for readers to picture it properly. It may turn some readers off, but I'll be damned if the crucial image doesn't stick with me for years to come. Bazell must be applauded here for his originality, both in premise and in specifics, but the secondary players fall too often into stereotypical roles. In this day and age, even the sarcasm can seem a bit run of the mill, though that is hardly Bazell's fault. All told, Beat the Reaper is a thoroughly enjoyable trip into the mind of a completely jaded ex-hitman, told effectively through a unique and compelling voice.

Grade: A-