Saturday, August 02, 2008

Two short books

I recently finished reading two books that had been on my list for a while - The Light in the Piazza and Into Thin Air.

The Light in the Piazza is by Elizabeth Spencer, a Mississippi writer. (Spencer has a great Web site, by the way. You can check it out by clicking here.) I'd been meaning to read it ever since the Broadway show based on this short novella won so many Tony Awards a few years back. Plus, when I read Joyce Carol Oates' When Madeline Was Young (which I thought was pretty good), she noted that she'd been inspired by Spencer's short work about a woman and her daughter traveling abroad.

The novella tells the story of Margaret Johnson, an attractive, wealthy American traveling in Italy with her beautiful daughter Clara. Due to an unfortunate childhood accident, Clara (now 26), has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. During their stay in Florence, Clara meets Fabriccio, a handsome young Italian man. Fabriccio immediately begins courting the young woman despite Margaret's protests.

Soon, Margaret finds herself meeting the boy's family, who are clearly interested in making a match between their son and the beautiful young American girl. At first, Margaret tries to tell the family about Clara's condition (which has gone unnoticed by anyone thus far, due to the language barrier). However, as the courtship continues, Margaret begins to allow herself to dream of Clara's wedding, her life in Italy, etc.

People have, apparently, often compared this book to the work of Henry James. Having not read James in a loooong time, the only real comparison that strikes me is that James also wrote of Americans traveling abroad in Europe, feeling somehow "outside" of the entrenched customs and way of life there, feeling as though their "Americanism" was their defining trait among Europe's social strata.

Regardless, Spencer's book is beautiful, thoughtful, and interesting to read. She plumbs the depths of Margaret Johnson without malice, showing the reader Margaret's hopes for Clara, but also her dreams for herself (long forgotten since Clara's time-consuming condition came about). Still attractive and vibrant, Margaret wonders how Clara's absence will change her relationship with her husband, etc.

Clara herself if presented as more of a pretty blank page; Spencer does not attempt to unravel her mind (such as it is) to us, but she does emphasize Clara's fondness for Fabriccio and her willingness/desire to marry him.

This is a short, worthwhile read. As I've mentioned before, New Stage Theatre in Jackson will produce The Light in the Piazza this season. Don't miss it!

Ok, next I read Into Thin Air. Yikes. This is a true account of a fatal expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1996. Jon Krakauer, a journalist and hobby mountaineer, went with a group of climbers on their quest for the summit in order to document the effort for an American publication. Due to bad weather, some poor choices, and competition between summit guide companies, four of the five teammates in his climbing group never made it back down the mountain. The book seems to be a way for Krakauer to purge some of the demons that have plagued him since Everest, but also a tangible way to factually account for how disaster struck the expedition. Krakauer takes great pains throughout the book to honor the memory of those climbers who perished during the descent.

I learned so much from this book. I never understood how risky climbing such a high peak was - the freezing cold, the unbelievably thin air, the tiny ridges which must be navigated, the crazy interdependence you must share with the other climbers on the mountain. Without bottled oxygen, most climbers would never make it to the top and back. The incredible lack of oxygen at high altitudes causes swelling in the brain, leads to fluid seepage into the lungs, etc. Combined with the freezing cold and the probability of bad weather, it's a miracle that anyone makes it up the mountain and back down in reasonably good health. The more I read this book, the more I understood how truly crazy you have to be to undertake climbing Everest.

I also found the commercialization of climbing Everest utterly mesmerizing. Experienced guides can charge clients $70,000 a pop to guide them to the summit, and competition among guides for business is cutthroat. So, in some cases, you may see guides who are taking risks to get clients to the summit because they've anted up the money AND because guides want a high success rate of getting clients to the top. (A success rate they can later emphasize in order to drum up new business.) This would all be capitalism as usual, of course, if getting to the top of the mountain wasn't such a risk of life and limb. Krakauer mentions on more than one occasion that one could frequently see corpses on one's way up (or down) the mountain, a sad fact of how dangerous the endeavor can be.

Although this book isn't a pleasure to read, the story is gripping and true. Krakauer goes to great pains to demonstrate the veracity of his account, with footnotes and a lengthy response to those who have criticized his documentation of events. At heart, the man is a journalist, and he fact-checks via exhaustive interviews with other climbers on the mountain and cites from interviews individuals have granted to other outlets to bolster his account.

I found it a fascinating tale of one of the deadliest seasons the mountain has ever seen. Not to be missed.

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