Into Thin Air

Greetings from Darjeeling, India! In a perfect world, there would be no clouds and I’d be able to see four peaks, including Mount Everest, from an observation point a couple of hours away. Unfortunately, I’m high up in the mountains during monsoon season and there are clouds everywhere — a few times a day, I’m even walking right through them. Oh, well…I still can’t complain! I get to drink locally grown Darjeeling tea whenever I want.

Book cover: Into Thin Air by Jon KrakauerIn spring of 1996, Jon Krakauer joined Rob Hall’s Adventure Consultants, one of the commercial outfitters taking amateur climbers up to Mount Everest. Krakauer is a skilled climber who had always dreamed of climbing Everest, and he wanted to write a feature on commercial expeditions to Everest for Outside magazine. Such companies were still a relatively new and controversial concept at the time. But for those companies trying to entice new customers to pay upwards of $65,000 for the experience, getting featured in Outside was a publicity boon.

Rob Hall was a respected climber with an excellent track record of getting people up and down Everest safely; even other teams looked up to him. That year, after seeing the financial possibilities, many new commercial outfitters set up shop on Everest. Many of those groups tried to summit Everest on May 10, 1996 when the weather window looked best, and Hall’s team was no exception. After a brutal storm, the weather cleared and Hall’s team, Krakauer included, set out to summit Everest under ideal conditions. Many of them made it to the summit, Krakauer included, but a surprise storm rushed in when most of the oxygen-deprived climbers were making their way back down. Several people on the team, including Hall, perished. So did sherpas, guides, and climbers from other expeditions. It was the deadliest event on Everest to date.

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Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

Greetings from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia! I’m on vacation! I read this book in preparation for my trip, and although we’ll only be here until tomorrow afternoon, my friend and I have been sightseeing all day with a guide and have talked about some of the things in this book (namely, Emperor Selassie). My friend and I are already regretting not making the Ethiopian part of the trip longer. Oh well. Today’s author, Maaza Mengiste, was born in Addis Ababa; she now lives in New York. This is her first novel.

Book cover: Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza MengisteBeneath the Lion’s Gaze is set in Addis Ababa at the start of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. There are rumblings of discontent throughout the country and a war to the north with Eritrea. Life is getting harder, people in rural areas are starving, and curfews are in effect. Students are speaking out against Emperor Haile Selassie, who in turn is brutally tamping down on their protests. The Marxist Derg, at first with the support of students, is doing its best to overthrow the government and the class system.

Amidst all this strife is a doctor named Hailu who is still reeling from his wife’s recent death. His eldest son, Yonas, and his family live with Hailu; Yonas lives a very cautious life and spends much of his time praying for the violence to end. The youngest son, Dawit, lives with the family as well, though he’s rarely home. He’s a student who is eager to join in the fight against the government’s injustice, though Yonas constantly sneers that Dawit has no idea what he’s talking about. Dawit’s subversive movements aren’t just dangerous to him; any little slip-up can put the entire family at risk.

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Quickies: 10% HumanWit

Book cover: 10% Human by Alanna Collen10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness by Alanna Collen

Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
Format: ARC
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher

What it is: Microbes make up 90% of our bodies and help keep us healthy. However, with the twentieth century diet, we’ve also seen a rise in twentieth century diseases. Collen, a biologist, conveys some of the latest research charting the roles microbes may play in common modern health issues.

Why I read it: I was interested in learning more about microbiomes.

What I thought: Collen does an excellent job of conveying a lot of information in an accessible and engaging way. The book is fascinating and kind of scary; the chapters that center around autism and childbirth are particularly alarming. That said, she also takes a common sense approach in the advice she gives should you decide to try to mend your own microbiome. And the coolest project I heard about? You can DNA sequence your poop to get a picture of what your gut bacteria looks like. Is it TMI to say I’m all about that idea?

Book cover: Wit by Margaret EdsonWit by Margaret Edson

Publisher/Year: Faber & Faber, 1999
Format: Paperback
Pages: 85
Source: Library

What it is: A Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an esteemed poetry professor, Dr. Vivian Bearing, who is dying of ovarian cancer. Feared and revered by her students, she’s known for coldly holding everyone to the highest standards. She agrees to brutal experimental treatments to fight her Stage IV cancer, and as she becomes the subject at the teaching hospital, she’s left to reflect on her own past interactions with people.

Why I read it: I saw the HBO adaptation several years ago and have always wanted to read the original play.

What I thought: Even though I already knew what would happen, this was still an emotionally brutal book for me. I think it hit me even more since I was also listening to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air at the time; the two books have closely related subject matter. Vivian’s reflections and regrets in the way she related to people are poignant; there are parallels in the way she treated her students and the way her doctors are now treating her. As her end draws near, she has to confront many of her values and ideas about the purpose of her life. It’s devastating.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Book cover: The Lonely City by Olivia LaingIn her mid-thirties, Olivia Laing moved from England to New York City for a relationship, only for the romance to fizzle out shortly after her arrival. Heartbroken and alone in a city of millions of people, she sunk into the realm of intense loneliness that most people try desperately to avoid. Drawing from these experiences, Laing examines the concept of loneliness by focusing on the lives of several artists who themselves were shaped by experiences of profound loneliness and otherness. The end result is a fascinating hodgepodge of memoir, biology, art history, art theory, psychology, and the occasional foray into technology ethics.

There’s a difference between lonely and alone, and some of the artists frequently walked that line. Some were visibly different from their peers while others were painfully shy for a number of reasons. Some had experienced sexual violence and/or suffered from mental illness. Some, like Andy Warhol — née, Andrej Warhola — struggled with multiple insecurities. Born to Slovakian immigrants in 1928, Warhol stuttered, was anxious, and later suffered from skin problems. It is no wonder, then, that he took comfort in being behind a camera and in control of everything.

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When the Moon is Low

Book cover: When the Moon is Low by Nadia HashimiFereiba is dealt a cruel twist of fate at birth: her mother dies in labor, and although her father eventually remarries, Fereiba is never truly welcomed by her stepmother. It’s a bit of a Cinderella situation; her stepsisters are doted on and sent to school while Fereiba is kept at home and taught to serve. It’s only by her sheer force of will that moves up in the world, and then her fortunes truly turn when she meets the love of her life, Mahmoud, a man who treats her as his equal and whose family respects her.

While their family lives a comfortable middle-class life in Kabul, trouble is brewing in other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban is rising to power and people are fleeing the country in droves. Fereiba and Mahmoud don’t realize the error of staying until it’s too late, and their lives change drastically once the Taliban reaches Kabul and imposes their new fundamentalist regime. With two children and another baby on the way, they make plans to flee, but as a government employee, Mahmoud is targeted and murdered by the Taliban. Now, it’s up to Fereiba to escape and get her children safely to London. They manage to stay together part of the way but end up being separated in Greece; at that point, her oldest son must figure out how to get to London on his own.

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