Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air is the story of an ill-fated trip up Mount Everest; I had to read an article about the 11 May 1996 disaster for my management class, and this book is another telling of the article, written by one of the members of the expedition, Jon Krakauer.

The main point of the book is that the commercialization of Everest was eventually going to lead to a disaster, and in 1996 it happened.  People have been paying upwards of $65,000 to be led up to the top of Everest, and the guides had been taking any “reasonably fit” people and assured them that they would be able to reach the top.  This arrogance, on both the part of the guide and client, helped lead to the disaster.  Rob Hall, the leader of the group of which Krakauer was a part, knew that some day there would be a disaster on the mountain; he thought that his skill, however, would allow him to bring the people back alive.

The arrogance of the clients, too, lead to the disaster.  Doug Hansen, one of the clients, had tried to reach the top of Everest before, and couldn’t bear failing a second time.  He pushed on even though others knew that he probably should not attempt the summit; his larynx had frozen lower on the mountain, and while he was able to recover, he probably should have been sent down at that point.  Rob Hall, the guide, felt bad that Hansen had failed the year before, and wanted him to be able to reach the summit this time.

The commercialization of Everest has also had environmental impacts.  Thousands of oxygen tanks litter the ground at Camp IV; groups have tried to help clean by offering a price for each empty oxygen tank brought  back down.  The sheer number of people tramping up the slope has had an impact as well, especially on the lower parts of the mountain where the ecosystem is very fragile.  High up on the mountain, there is really no ecosystem to speak of.

Rereading/rewatching

Unlike a lot of people, I often rewatch tv shows that I’ve seen before and reread old books that I’ve read many times before.  I have friends who, once they’ve seen an episode of a show or have read a book, they never want to go back to it.  They’ll want to watch something else instead of rewatch something they’ve already seen.  Now, a lot of the time, thats because the tv show that they are thinking about rewatching isn’t very good and its just popped up on some syndicated channel.

But right now I’m going through rewatching The West Wing and rereading Questionable Content.  I’ve watched/read the entire run of both of these things at least once, and now I’m doing it again.  With QC, it at least makes a little bit of sense; the webcomic is still ongoing and so its sometimes helpful to get reacquainted with the backstory.  I probably didn’t need to start all the way at the beginning, though.  With The West Wing, however, I’m just rewatching it because its really good.

The list of books that I reread on a regular basis isn’t very long: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein; Foundation, by Isaac Asimov; Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson.  Those are the main three, I guess, although I’m sure there are others that I’m forgetting right now, since I haven’t reread them in too long.  And all three of them are due for a rereading.  So I think I’ll just have to go put them in my Goodreads queue.

The Bell Jar

We’ll take up where we left off, Ether,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream”
A bad dream.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, is one of those novels that I had always heard was so depressing and that the only people who read it are people filled with self loathing or dramatic theater types. But thats not really the point of the book. In the end, it is a book about a young woman struggling with depression in a world that does not understand that depression truly is an illness and not a mood that can be easily cured. That stigma about mental illnesses still exists today and it most certainly did in the early 1960s, when this book was written.

I think that the most interesting part of this book is the interactions that Esther Greenwood, the main character and stand in for Plath, has with the people around her. Her mother, in particular, cannot understand how her seemingly normal daughter became this way. Esther’s mother believes that Esther is inconveniencing her, and that if only she can get the right treatment it will all be like it never happened. To Esther’s mother, it is Esther’s fault that she became depressed and when she is cured she can be accepted back into society again. Even still today, many think of people with mental illnesses as weaker, as if by sheer force of will you can prevent a mental illness from happening.

Esther’s first doctor, even though he is a psychiatrist, also seems to doubt the true depths of a mental illness. He abuses his position of authority, ordering electroconvulsive therapy after only one in person session; not only was it not called for at that early stage, but it was administered poorly. He never gained her trust and she never gained his. This doctor, like her mother, seems to think that if he can just shake her hard enough, she will come out of this mood and realize that she has a good life. Esther’s second doctor, however, talks with Esther about her course of treatment, gains Esther’s trust, and when it is medically appropriate to do so, administers electronconvulsive therapy with Esther’s approval. Esther does not think that she is making progress in the hospital, but learns to trust that Dr. Nolan knows what she is doing.

Lost Girls

Our life becomes like our pornography

Lost Girls, a graphic novel by Alan Moore, is pornography. This is the key feature in analyzing this book. It cannot be understood properly if you are trying to understand it as a graphic novel, or a regular novel, or anything else besides pornography. It may look like a graphic novel or a comic book, and it does indeed take that format. But merely because it has the format of a graphic novel does not mean it should be evaluated as a graphic novel.

All of that said, Alan Moore uses the pornography in Lost Girls as a reductio ad absurdum on issues of sexuality in our culture. He takes common views on sexuality and takes them to the extreme. The parts of this work that I enjoyed the most were the ones that took place at the Hotel Himmelgarten, and not the flash back stories that put a pornographic twist on the stories of Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, and Wendy from Peter Pan. It takes place in the buildup to World War I; one of the secondary characters, Rolf, is called up into the war after the death of Archduke Fran Ferdinand.

The book chronicles the sexual evolution of these three fairy tale women, mainly through a sexual retelling of their stories. Each of the stories, however, are told with sexual violence as the primary moving force. Alice is corrupted through drugs and sex; Wendy and Dorothy both experience incest. However, when they are at the Hotel, with each other, they are in a safe place of sexual freedom, where they are free to explore their every desire.

In the end however, the women each go their own separate ways, the hotel is destroyed by soldiers, and Rolf is killed on the battlefield. The violence that each woman had experienced in their lives had come back to find them through the war. The escape from reality, the safe place from all of the violence that the women had created at the Hotel Himmelgarten is gone. This world seems like it could have been the world of Watchmen, 70 years earlier, and told from the female perspective. It is a story, told at the extremes, of three women dealing with violence in their lives.

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a book about the nature of violence in America. It tells the story of a family, the Clutters, who were murdered by two former inmates of Fort Levenworth, in Kansas. To me, the two most interesting parts are the buildup to the murders and the trial and appeal process.

The buildup to the murders show two different kinds of lives in America: the lives of a rich, rural family and the lives of two paroled ex-convicts. The Clutters had may have seemed like the all-American family, and in a way I guess they were. The farther was a strict but compassionate businessman. The son as somewhat of a loner, good with his hands. The daughter, beloved by all but told by her father to break off her relationship with her Catholic boyfriend. The mother with some sort of mental illness, perhaps a kind of depression, going off to various mental hospitals. This book could have been rewritten as a study in mental illness, focusing on the mother and the two criminals, especially Perry. The personal life of the criminals is a story of poverty: one criminal, Dick, had a fairly normal childhood, if poor; the other, Perry had both a poor and abusive childhood. Both seem to be trying to improve their station, but the means by which the think to do this is through robbing a rich farmer.

The trial and appeals process delved more deeply into the theme of mental illness. In Kansas at the time, the test for whether or not an insanity defense could be used was called the M’Naughten Rule. This rule stated that if the defendant could distinguish right from wrong, no matter how else their mental illness affected them, they were legally sane and could be tried normally. However, Capote mainly uses this as a way to talk about the law; I wish he would have used it to delve more into the nature of mental illness and America.

It does seem like this book tries to concentrate on too many elements, and is too bound by the exact timeline of how things happened. The backstory, the childhood of the criminals is only revealed when the police are told this backstory. This leads to a 20 page interlude right after the criminals had been captured, which could have been well put elsewhere.  Overall, however, I liked this book.