It’s unbelievable that Touching the Void and Into Thin Air are simultaneously recommended as exemplars of the mountaineering genre. Both relate to cli...moreIt’s unbelievable that Touching the Void and Into Thin Air are simultaneously recommended as exemplars of the mountaineering genre. Both relate to climbing and survival in a completely different manner; Simpson’s literary abilities fall dramatically short of Krakauer’s masterful storytelling. The two books are alike insofar as they recount mountain survival and climbing, but diverge dramatically in overall quality and presentation. Where Krakauer engages, Simpson simply tells: his recollections are deadened by his writing, which generally edges into clinical reportage.
Technical jargon peppers the entire volume, and is an entry barrier to understanding many of the book’s events: I relied on YouTube and Google to figure out different equipment and techniques used by the climbers. Without even a rudimentary knowledge of technical climbing, the average reader won’t understand (or be able to picture) many situations in the novel. More energy could have – indeed, should have – been devoted to explaining some of the techniques and background of the climb; the glossary included at the end of the book is insufficient and spare.
One of the most disappointing parts of the book, for me, was Simpson’s failure to further explore the personal impact of his experience. In the final quarter of Touching the Void, he refers repeatedly to "the voice," a kind of cosmic sotto voce that crashes through his delirium on the mountainside and guides his actions. This occurrence is one recalled by many survivors, including Shackleton during the Antarctic expedition (detailed in South and elsewhere): a transcendent, didactic presence that keeps the individual moving forward towards survival. The depersonalization and derealization during a traumatic, life-threatening situation creates a space for personal reflection and even change.
Simpson is a mediocre storyteller, which is (especially given the subject matter) a tremendous disservice: his survival is one of the most incredible ever told, yet he fails to find a meaningful way to recount it. The writing is poorly paced and dull: it lacks depth, the sentences are repetitive and drone ever onwards. He is one of the too-common writers that, while cranking out thousands of words, manages to say very little – until the final chapters, where he rushes through his arrival at camp and subsequent hospital stay.
In many ways, Touching the Void is only half a book: Simpson’s story doesn't ‘stop’ when he makes it back to camp, though it’s where the writing ends. The recovery and return to mountaineering, his personal development in the ensuing months and years, would be fascinating to learn about – and (dammit) Simpson barely delves into it. (less)
Let’s get this out of the way: inevitably, the comparison is drawn to Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his parents’ experience in the Holoca...moreLet’s get this out of the way: inevitably, the comparison is drawn to Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his parents’ experience in the Holocaust and the ensuing familial dynamics. There is room in memoir, literature, and narrative for multiple works about the Holocaust; Katin’s We Are On Our Own occupies a unique niche. They are both distinct pieces of art, and overlap in only the most general manner.
Katin’s storytelling is spare: 115 pages of illustration contain fewer than five pages of text. Minimal verbal provisions are given to guide the reader through the experience. Where Maus is a post-modern novel, We Are On Our Own is minimalist poetry.
Illustrations portraying the present-day are in color, while recollections are in black and white. The artistry is vibrant and expressive, far more impressionist than I was expecting. It is a testament to Katin’s talent and vision that the nuance and power of her mother’s experience (and her own) can be conveyed so effectively.
Katin’s father is at war, Miriam – in her infancy – and her mother escape Budapest, Hungary during the Nazi occupation and rising anti-Semitism. Relying on the kindness of strangers, they make their way (on forged documents and new identities) to a remote farm, exchanging labor for accommodations.
Katin successfully portrays the complexity of the war’s effects on civilians, opting to avoid the demonizing and canonizing of different sides. Her neighbor in Budapest embraces a casual anti-Semitism, lamenting the failure of the Nazis’ to eliminate the Jews from Hungary. She alludes to her mothers’ relationship with a Nazi officer, a man who brought candy and finery, in exchange for safety. We, as readers, witness the shift between the Nazi occupiers and coming Russian forces, and the resultant change in attitudes among civilians.
Finally, and what is most interesting to me, is how Katin approaches religion during the war and the ‘silence of God.’ Miriam struggles with faith, identifying her father’s atheism as her inheritance. Like other Jews of her age and station, she inhabits the space between Jewish culture and Jewish theology; she acknowledges the capacity for Judaism to lend itself to quiet agnosticism while identifying with its tradition. (less)
I have no background in poetry, and Wislawa Szymborska's Here was the first collection I've ever read. Despite being the work of a Nobel Prize Winner,...moreI have no background in poetry, and Wislawa Szymborska's Here was the first collection I've ever read. Despite being the work of a Nobel Prize Winner, the poems were accessible and eminently readable. The poems have left me thinking -- and wanting to re-read each, more carefully and considerately.
Poetry is a genre that, in the most hubristic years of my misspent youth, I had no interest in -- and then, my lack of knowledge gave way to discomfort at an entire genre about which I knew nothing. It's a murky literary area I've had no business exploring; too vast, too different, and my god, what an effort to limp through a few lines of text (that may or may not be coherent, anyway).
The facing-page texts, with Polish (verso) and English (recto), gave me the opportunity to compare the original and translated versions of the poems. The translations nicely capture the rhythm of the Polish, and -- while far from qualified to make a formal assessment -- did justice to the original works. I read each poem aloud, in both languages, and then tried to make sense of them. Some I had encountered before in the New York Review of Books.
The poems are short, staccato, works, that require focused attention: enough is provided, in a Picasso-ian sense, to make an image, but not enough to make it pretty. To be sure, these poems don't think for you, a major reason I enjoyed them as much as I did. (less)
The Endurance is a short, quickly-paced book about Ernest Shackleton’s failed expedition to cross the Antarctic. The book was originally intended as a...moreThe Endurance is a short, quickly-paced book about Ernest Shackleton’s failed expedition to cross the Antarctic. The book was originally intended as a companion volume to the American Museum of Natural History’s 2011-12 exhibition, but can be read and enjoyed on its own.
The 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, lead and organized by Ernest Shackleton, has captivated scholars and adventurers alike. Even now, a century on, it remains one of the greatest stories of human survival. The journey of the 27-man crew is canonical and especially unusual for its extensive crew documentation: virtually all the members maintained detailed journals, and a filmmaker-photographer accompanied the expedition with the intention of making a documentary. Numerous books have been written about the expedition, including Shackleton’s own South, and Edward Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.
Caroline Alexander is a deft storyteller, efficiently and seamlessly merging excerpts from crew members’ diaries with photographs and independent research. She contextualizes the events of the expedition against the world arena, providing a rudimentary social and political framework upon which to build the story. She had access to sources previously unavailable to other researchers, and skillfully unifies diary entries and independent research. The result is a comprehensive, thoughtful, and thorough recollection of the expedition. With unexpected intimacy, Alexander reconstructs both the physical voyage and the burgeoning relationships between the men. She has an acute sense for the social dynamics on the ship, and is skilled in her candid nuanced portrayals of the individual men.
The story is, too, one of profound individual and shared loss: the destruction of the ship, Endurance, the abandonment of the intended goal, and the elimination of the final shreds of human comfort. In the spare, unforgiving Antarctic landscape, every minute comfort is integral morale – and the loss of any part is devastating. Dogs were brought on the expedition, with the intention of using them for sledging across the ice floes and tundra. After the expedition’s original intent is abandoned, the dogs are no longer needed (and become a burden: consuming valuable resources). Ultimately, the necessary action is to cull the sled dogs: in the crewmen’s journals, this event is detailed as one of the most difficult tasks ever undertaken. Similarly, Harry McNish’s beloved cat, Mrs. Chippy (brought onboard as an unofficial mascot and ship-pet), is also killed: the personal loss suffered never quite heals and alienates McNish from the other crew members.
With these events, especially, the remaining artifice of humanity in the Antarctic is destroyed: the affection and caretaking for the crew’s animals. The elimination of the dogs and cat is one of the most final and damning demonstrations of nature’s detached, dispassionate brutality in the expedition. And yet, it is a testament to the mental and physical fortitude of the men that despite the setbacks, losses, and constant dangers, they remain generally good-humored and civil, publicly and privately. The characteristic English stoicism is present as the men to recount their brief descents in madness and near-annihilation in the elements: diary entries are terse (though often dryly humorous) and even clinical.
The chronology is also notable: Shackleton and his men left in 1914 and were outside radio contact for the majority of World War I. As the War progressed, the public perception of heroism, too, shifted dramatically. At the outset, the individual, affluent English explorers gleaned tremendous public attention and support; the advent of World War I re-defined heroism as military members, serving as a force of benevolence overseas. The wealth and aristocracy that had cultivated Shackleton’s celebrity, then, became another relic of the Romanticized Colonial past – eroded by the wartime effort and displaced by new icons and values.
In many ways, the Shackleton expedition marked the end of the great Romantic period of English exploration (resurrected dramatically, if briefly, by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary in their ascent of Everest). The mechanized destruction of World War I, its revolt against the dreamy, Romantic ambitions of the late 19th century, left little space for the decadence of financed exploration. Alexander notes the difficulty Shackleton had in procuring rescue vessels for his men, in part due to the Great War. The British government provided funding in 1914, but (by 1917) was consumed with the war effort and unable (and unwilling) to devote additional resources the expedition: the PR value of rescuing the men didn't offset the manpower and cost necessary for such action. National attentions were turned elsewhere: to faltering economies, the war effort, post-war reconstruction.
After dispersing from the Falkland Islands , most crew members immediately entered military or civilian service to their respective countries. The book’s final act is devoted to the post-expedition lives of the crewmembers, ranging from abject poverty to business ownership (with one crewmember, not warmly viewed by his cohorts, finding profession as a spy). The eclectic crew, unsurprisingly, went on to equally disparate lives.
As an aside: I made the mistake of reading The Endurance on Kindle: the text is interspersed with photographs (taken by crewmember Frank Hurley), the beauty and detail of which is lost on the Paperwhite’s screen. This is certainly a volume to read in physical form, as the included photographs add tremendously to the work’s depth and emotion. Others have remarked on the impeccable print quality of the physical book, and I strongly recommend seeking it out in lieu of an electronic copy. (less)