No Shortcuts to the Top

I feel about extreme mountain climbing the way I feel about the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. It’s fascinating as a spectator, but there’s no way I’m climbing into that steel cage with a bucket of chum.

One of my favorite books is Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” an account of a disastrous 1996 Everest expedition. When I was browsing through an airport bookstore and saw that Ed Viesturs had been on Everest at the same time, I bought this to hear a different side of the story.

No Shortcuts to the Top” is Viesturs’ memoir about climbing all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. It’s an incredible (and incredibly dangerous) feat which has been equaled by fewer than 20 other people.

I haven’t read a lot of memoirs, so maybe this is standard fare. But he came across as kind of a jerk in some places, like when he dishes about a booty call with a French climber. Dude, don’t kiss and tell, particularly when the woman was killed while climbing and can’t contradict you.

There was also a passive-aggressive section about calling his wife on a satellite phone while in the Himalayas. She was six months pregnant with their second child, and he didn’t call her for four days while on Annapurna, the deadliest mountain on earth.

A sat phone can be a blessing, but it’s also a pain. Paula and I never had an explicit agreement about how often I should call. But sometimes she expected that I would call more often than I did. When I’m on a mountain, I need to be focused, in the moment. There are times when the last thing I want to think is, Oh, I’ve got to make a call back to the States. Yet once you have a family and kids, the importance of staying connected increases.

Some people might have thought Paula was being unreasonable, but I took full blame for not calling. It’s just my nature. When other people get upset, I feel as if it’s my fault.

Jerk. “Some people might have though Paula was being unreasonable…” I hope she writes her own book someday.

But aside from those moments of douchery, it was an informative and interesting book. I still prefer “Into Thin Air” because of Krakauer’s journalistic style of writing. I don’t think that memoirs are my thing.

The lasting impression I’ll take away from this book is the same one I take away from Shark Week: Those guys are crazy. In the acknowledgments, Viesturs names nine friends who have died while climbing. Nine. I’m staying at sea level, thank you very much.

Verdict: 6.5 out of 10. It gets an extra half point because it has a very thorough index, which I think is an absolute must for non-fiction books.

I’ve been a horribly inconsistent blogger, so in penance I’ll admit something embarrassing. I spent my evening listening to Kenny G’s Christmas album while my dad taught me how to dance the foxtrot. Beat that! The only possibly way it could have been dorkier is if I’d been wearing a spangled Christmas sweater.

I was watching the TV movie Frosty Returns (look, I have only basic cable, my options are limited) on CBS when a little cartoon girl uttered a sentence that really struck me. It was a command from which no good can come: “Put this on and get in the box.”

Being a fast reader definitely has its advantages. But a big disadvantage is that I run through books like crazy, and to be honest, I can’t afford the bookstore tab.

I’m on vacation right now, and since Monday night I’ve read the following books, in order:

Garnethill, by Denise Mina Denise Mina’s “Garnethill“ isn’t just dark. It’s a black hole that sucks you in and consumes you.

I’ve gone on record saying that I don’t like movies and books that deal extensively with mental illness. For the most part, I think that this is still true; I have no intention of running off to buy “The Bell Jar.” But even though a hefty percentage of this book takes place in a psychiatric hospital and the heroine is forever teetering on the brink of a complete breakdown, I found it really enthralling.

“Garnethill” is the first of a trilogy of books (”Garnethill,” “Exile” and “Resolution“) set in Glasgow. The heroine, Maureen O’Donnell, is a young alcoholic who is mere months out of a psychiatric hospital and is dealing with the aftermath of childhood abuse at the hands of her father. One morning after another bender, she awakes to find her married psychologist boyfriend slaughtered in her apartment. In her efforts to clear herself, she uncovers a series of abuses against mentally ill women in the same hospital in which she herself was confined. More murder and mayhem ensues.

I know, right? The very description makes you want to slit your wrists to get it over with, doesn’t it?

Well, I can’t really explain it, but even though it’s an incredibly dark series, it never gets bogged down beneath the giant weight of its own pathos. I mean, the most sympathetic member of her family is her drug-dealing brother Liam – that should be almost cartoonishly pathetic. Maureen is barely able to cling to the remnants of her own sanity, and her actions consistently made me say, “Oh Maureen, what in God’s name are you doing?” But she does cling on, and her actions are believable given her circumstances.

If you do read “Garnethill,” I’d highly suggest reading the entire trilogy. Even though it seems kind of impossible, “Resolution” does resolve all the plot threads in a satisfying and really unexpected way.

Verdict: 8 out of 10 for the whole trilogy. It won a bunch of literary prizes, and it’s not hard to see why.

Omigod, will everyone who’s not me go see the stupid Bee Movie already? Because Jerry Seinfeld needs to stop hawking his A Bug’s Life ripoff on every channel on which my remote control lands. Dave Foley will forever and always be funnier than you, Jerry!

Having been alive in the 1990s, I have seen dozens of Seinfeld episodes. Indeed, if you’re watching television at 6 p.m., you are pretty much limited to the choice between two Jerrys: Seinfeld and Springer. (Well, if you’re like me and too cheap to spring for more than the most basic of cable.)

Sure, it made me laugh at times. But on the whole, I found Seinfeld almost aggressively unfunny, for more or less the same reason I can’t stand Everybody Loves Raymond: The joke is basically that these are self-involved people being horrible to one another. If I wanted more of that, I’d just go back to high school.

Anyway, in spite of the syndication and endless repetitions of his show, my beef with Jerry Seinfeld had been settled, or at least lay dormant. Until, that is, the PR shock-and-awe campaign to promote his new movie took over my TV set. I’m trying to be reasonable and not be miffed that he made an appearance on 30 Rock. He’s allowed to guest star on things. I guess.

But oh how it pained me to see my John Stewart fawning over Jerry on The Daily Show Thursday.

The Oxford MurdersOkay, I didn’t like this one. But I think that part of the failing is mine, not the book’s.

The Oxford Murders” was originally written in Spanish, and I’m ashamed to say that I could not get past that. The entire time I was reading it I kept thinking, “That’s kind of a strange way to phrase that. Was that Martinez or the translator Sonia Soto?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read translated books before – I can’t exactly read “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” in its original Czech. (Side note on T.U.L.O.B.: What was with the bowler hat?) I don’t know why I couldn’t let it drop this time.

But even aside from that, “The Oxford Murders” won’t get a permanent place on my over-stressed bookcase. At 197 pages, it’s a short mystery. The unnamed narrator (pretentious!) is an Argentinian graduate student in mathematics studying for a year at Oxford University. His landlady ends up dead in the first of what appears to be a string of murders based on the beliefs of an ancient mathematical society. Unnamed Narrator works with one of his personal heroes, a famous Oxford logician, to try to anticipate the next murder in the series.

Okay, it sounds a little bit DaVinci-Code. What can I say, there was a 2-for-3 book sale at Barnes & Noble. However, instead of being brain candy, it kept whipping out passages like this:

My hypothesis is that it is profoundly linked to the aesthetic that has been promulgated down the ages and has been, essentially, unchanging. There is no Kantian forcing, but an aesthetic of simplicity and elegance which also guides the formulation of conjectures; mathematicians believe that the beauty of a theorem requires certain divine proportions between the simplicity of the axioms at the starting point, and the simplicity of the thesis at the point of arrival. The awkward, tricky part has always been the path between the two – the proof. And as long as that aesthetic is maintained there is no reason for undecidable propositions to appear “naturally.”

The eventual solution to this mystery was not cool enough to justify making me read 197 pages of this.

Verdict: 4 out of 10. Much like with Dan Brown, I enjoyed a few of the researched tidbits about ancient math brotherhoods, but that was about it.

Okay, I have to stop watching the History Channel. How’d I spend my night last night? Why, watching a documentary about different ways the End of the World As We Know It could happen. And it got me thinking apocalyptic thoughts. I was still thinking apocalyptic thoughts when my mom called. 

When I was little, we’d always have a place to meet up if we got separated. We live in different states now, so in my highly paranoid state of mind, I thought that we should have a plan in case civilization collapsed and we couldn’t communicate with each other.

“Mom, if there’s ever a nation-wide catastrophic event and we don’t have a way to get in touch with each other, just stay where you are. I’ll make my way back home to Illinois.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I just thought we should have a plan.”

“A plan for what?”

“Like, if an electromagnetic pulse wiped out all our electronics and the country descended into chaos.”

“What?”

“Well, we couldn’t use our cell phones to call each other, and our laptops would be fried. Maybe all car batteries too. So it would be hard to find each other.”

“Oh honey, I’d come find you!” my mom says reassuringly.

“No, see! That’s why we need the plan!”

My mom was on her way to a book club meeting when I called her on the phone. They were discussing “The History of Love” that night, and Mom confessed that she hadn’t gotten through more than the first half.

“Well, that’s no problem,” I said. “Just be the first person to speak up when they ask what everyone thought of the book. Take something from the beginning of the book that you actually read. From then on, you’re golden. You can sit back and nod thoughtfully for the rest of the hour.”

“And that works?”

“Please, I did it all the time in high school. It’s how I got through all my English classes.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t tell me things like that.”

  • That One Band (Our debut CD would be “One-Hit Wonders” and our 2nd CD would be “Letdown.” I came up with this in high school.)
  • Fuzzy Little Bunnies
  • Gravity Always Wins (This would be my Radiohead-tribute band.)
  • We Value Your Patronage
  • Dammit, Man!
  • Frogland Ambassadors
  • Dimestore Ninjas (Partial credit for this one goes to my work friend Rob.)
  • The Regretables

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