Tag Archives: non-fiction
“Lost in the Valley of Death – A Story of Obsession and Danger in the Himalayas” by Harley Rustad
When I started reading this book, my son asked, “Is Rustad as good as Krakauer”? That’s setting the bar very high. Comparison with Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about the death of Christopher McCandless in Alaska, is inevitable. Justin Shetler travelled to India seeking adventure and “enlightenment”. He disappeared.
Shetler was a man of extremes. He was sexually abused as a child and again as a teenager, and received only minimal help in dealing with the terrible trauma of these experiences. I think his risk taking, use of hallucinogens and extreme physical training reflect the profound need for safety and escape from emotional pain.
“Trauma” is much discussed recently. “Trauma informed therapy” is offered by various mental health professionals.
I think the bottom-line message of Lost in the Valley of Death is that SOME THINGS CAN’T BE FIXED. I feel terribly sad for both Shetler and his grieving family and friends.
Rustad is very good. I’ll have to look at other his books before I’ll decide if he matches Krakauer.
“This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals” by Erica Buist
At first, this book, with its dancing skeletons on the cover, didn’t impress me. The author discussed a loss she had suffered, mentioning that Americans don’t grant a bereaved person much respect or attention when the person being mourned falls outside of a few clear categories – immediate family being the most prominent.
Then Ms. Buist, able to work without going into an office, departed on a world tour to check out death festivals and practices in various cultures. I didn’t feel particularly responsive to what she wrote about Mexico and Nepal.
But back in the USA, she stumbled onto transhumanism, of which I had been wholly unaware! I missed it! OMG. (I don’t like missing things.) Transhumanists, according to Ms. Buist, believe that we can and should develop technology that will permit us to live forever as CYBORGS. Just keep replacing your organic parts (including your brain) with well-designed machinery, and you can live forever.
Transhumanists consider it weak to “accept” death. They detest the contemporary American “death positivity” movement, which seeks to overcome the taboo against talking about death and encourages people to plan for their final days. Ms. Buist analyzes these movements in terms of both gender and socioeconomic status (relative privilege), and it gets VERY interesting. Why are most tranhumanists male and many “death positive” spokespeople female? (Did she miss Atul Gawande?) She also analyzes the Mexican Santa Muerte movement, which translates roughly to “Holy Death”, symbolized by a female death figure to whom one can pray for a delay in leaving this life. (Okay, I missed this, too. And it is somehow related to narcotics trafficking.) Both the Mexican government and the Roman Catholic church disapprove of Santa Muerte, going so far as to destroy shrines. I’m pretty sure this hasn’t gotten to New Jersey.
Will Erica Buist tackle the controversial “medical aid in dying” movement? I’m only on page 139 of 296. Six more countries to go! I definitely plan to keep reading.
“The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot” and “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” by Robert MacFarlane
These books came to my attention when I read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (see review dated March 25, 2021).
The Old Ways is about walking, and about paths. MacFarlane sees walking as a relationship. You walk the path, and THE PATH WALKS YOU! You make the path deeper, clearer. In turn, the path stimulates your imagination, teaches you, connects you to landscape and history. The locations described in this book are in England, Scotland and “abroad”. My personal walks (especially during Covid) seem so very tame compared to those described by MacFarlane! My part of South Jersey is rectilinearly grided with roads laid down when farms were sold. See my poem “Pandemic Winter” (February 7, 2021). Why do I walk on roads, rather than paths? Ownership is one reason. Additionally, there are ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes.
My rambles are more interesting on my bike. There are winding roads (not all paved), and more features to look at. Crop fields, tree farms, a corn maze, houses from modest to MacMansion, people and their pets. And birds!
Underland is similar, but about geographic features under the earth. It’s organized into three parts, titled Seeing (Britain), Hiding (Europe) and Haunting (The North).
This book needs a trigger warning. “Don’t read if you suffer from claustrophobia.” Regrettably, I’m in that category, having unexpectedly freaked out during a medical procedure. I stopped reading “Underland” in the second Chapter, upset by a detailed description of the death of Neil Moss in 1958. Exploring Peak Cavern (Derbyshire) with friends, Moss stumbled and became wedged in a narrow passage. Every available type of rescue expertise was deployed, but he died. His father decided against efforts to recover his body, because of risk. It remains, entombed. I DON’T NEED THIS IN MY HEAD. A glance at other chapters of “Underland” convinced me to set the book aside. Too much confined space.
MacFarlane wrote other books and I look forward to sampling them. He’s a thoughtful writer. I’m curious about The Gifts of Reading and The Lost Spells.
“My Six Convicts” by Donald Powell Wilson (1951)
This is another book I remember from my early teen years. It has a subtitle: A Psychologist’s Three Years in Fort Leavenworth. I remember very little… I learned of the brutality of the criminal justice system. And one of the convicts was able to enter a trance and cause the symbols of the zodiac to appear on his body. What do you suppose THAT was about??
Donald Powell Wilson is easy to track thanks to Kirkus Reviews, which explains how Wilson came to work at Leavenworth and his relationship to the six prisoners of the title. Wilson was doing narcotics research for the US Public Health Service. The prisoners served as his assistants. The unnamed Kirkus reviewer describes the book as “…dramatic, exciting, frequently moving…”
And then … there’s the movie! Film noir, according to Wikipedia. It’s described as being “true to the spirit of the book”, but with comedic and dramatic elements added.
Strange that two of the earliest books I remember reading were made into films!
“The Brothers – the Road to an American Tragedy” by Masha Gessen
I remember where I was when I heard that the Boston Marathon had been bombed on April 15, 2013. I was at work, where somebody always had a radio on. I felt surprise and sadness. Sadness because the Boston Marathon was so wholesome, so much fun for the Boston, so positive and exciting. I attended a few years previous, staying with my sister in Natick MA, a block from the marathon course. I cheered and waved and enjoyed myself, thinking “I should do this every year!”
I have not returned.
This documentary book is detailed and well organized. I didn’t read it completely, but I’m glad to know I can refer to it when I wish.
I also glanced at Gessen’s book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. More careful documentation. Finally, Gessen published Surviving Autocracy in June of 2020. I hope I don’t need it.
“Down from the Mountain – The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear” by Bryce Andrews
One reviewer described this book as “feral”. No. Far from it. It’s thoughtful and highly nuanced. Andrews describes his interactions with nature very carefully. His relationship to nature is based both on study and practical personal experience.
Mission Valley, Montana, is a place where mountainous wilderness and farmland intersect. Andrews works for People and Carnivores, a conservation organization with the goal “keep people safe and carnivores wild”.
“Millie” is a mature female grizzly bear with two female cubs. Andrews writes about one summer, when he begins a project to try to keep bears out of a cornfield. Grizzlies aren’t really carnivores – they are decidedly omnivorous and opportunistic. When human change the landscape, they take full advantage of new food sources. Grizzlies spend a third of each year in hibernation, so their drive to EAT is strong, especially during the Fall.
Millie came to Andrews attention because she was illegally shot and did not die. Her injuries became infected. She became weak and unable to care for her immature cubs. Captured by authorities and judged to be untreatable, she was euthanized. Her cubs, doing poorly on their own, were captured. After long and complicated negotiations, they were finally moved to a distant zoo which was willing to accept responsibility for their long-term welfare.
What’s the point here? This is a book about human responsibility. It’s also a book about wilderness. What was here before humans arrived? What has changed as humans migrated and our numbers skyrocketed?
This was Andrews’ second book. Click here to read my review of his earlier book, Badluck Way, in which he describes his earlier ranching experience. Both these books are wonderful, and will be enjoyed by anyone who values wilderness.
“Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” by David Zucchino
I should read this book. While a close friend was reading it, he disappeared into somber gloom. It’s bad news, fully documented, and way too close to home.
In 1898, the democratically elected city government of Wilmington NC was overthrown and at least 60 African Americans were murdered. Hundreds of families were driven out of Wilmington.
One Amazon reviewer described the events as “an atrocity against God.” Other descriptions included “depraved” and “unsettling”.
In human experience, evil sometimes triumphs. White supremacy came out on top. Perhaps I’ll read this when I feel stronger.
“Such a Pretty Girl – A Story of Struggle, Empowerment, and Disability Pride” by Nadina LaSpina – Covid19 #5
New Village Press, 2019, 332 pages, with photos.
I can’t read this book. In my first Covid post (#1, March 25) I wrote about the epidemics that impacted me, starting with polio in 1952.
Nadina LaSpina was born in Italy around the same time as I was born in the US. She survived polio at age 16 months, losing the use of her legs. Her family came to the US when she was thirteen years old, and she participated wholeheartedly in the political battles for disability rights and minority dignity. I’m glad the title of this book doesn’t include the terms “polio” or “paralysis”. The emphasis, rightfully, is on Ms LaSpina’s amazing life and leadership. Her police record (~50 arrests) attests to her willingness to engage in civil disobedience, including participation in Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
Yesterday, during a small Zoom gathering, a dear friend shared her memories of polio, which sickened her brother and forced the family into quarantine. The fear is such a vivid memory.
Now, in the midst of an epidemic that is taking many lives, I focus on daily activities and whatever sources of encouragement I can find. A little web surfing yielded up to date information about Ms LaSpina. She had a full calendar of readings, book signings and discussions planned for this March and April, but all have been cancelled. I like this recent picture. I hope she’s waiting out Covid19 someplace safe and comfortable.
“Here for It – or, how to save your soul in America” by R. Eric Thomas – Covid19 #4
Ballantine Books, 264 pages, 2020. (That’s EARLY 2020, before the pandemic.)
In the text, R. Eric Thomas tells us he wanted this book to be called Casual Nigger but EVERYBODY (editor, agent, who?) went nuts. Hence, the less controversial Here for It. Here for what? Life, actually. Thomas battled depression and struggled mightily to “find himself”. In these essays, he lets us in on his battles, small and large.
The title, of course, is on the cover, and I find the cover image alarming. On a pink background, a “black” man’s hand is tossing confetti. Fine! But the hand is deformed. I know hands. The thumb joint is WAY out of line. Injury? Age? Is it painful? Does Thomas know the hand is damaged? Was the choice intentional? My hands (both, regrettably) are less obviously deformed, but cause pain daily. But I digress…
R E Thomas is funny. Goodness knows, a funny sociopolitical commentator is a real find! He’s a wise guy. Sociologically, he’s “intersectional”, expressing African American, LGBTQ and Christian identities. Here for It is autobiographical. He was born in Baltimore and spent decades in Philadelphia.
I was particularly interested Thomas’s college years at Columbia University and University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus).
Toward the end of the book, in a Chapter entitled “The Past Smelled Terrible”, Thomas waxes both prophetic and patriotic. HOW DID HE KNOW WHAT WAS COMING??
“I can’t help but think constantly about the end of the world…Listen. Here’s my living will, okay? I have no desire to survive the apocalypse…if the post-apocalypse comes about because of a massive plague or something, I have no useful medical or scientific skills…I would like to be Patient 15. Maybe Patient 20. No higher than 50. I don’t want to be Patient Zero, because then everyone would blame me, which is rude…I just want to go early, while they’re still doing nice tributes to the victims on television and I can get my own grave plot.”
WTF? Did Thomas know something? Where is he now? I hope he’s riding out the pandemic someplace comfortable. (I started to say “safe and comfortable”. No place is “safe”.) I grabbed this book from my public library on March 11, just before the big shutdown. I knew enough to grab extra books, maybe a dozen. Good luck, Eric!