As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection reader’s advisory service goes where it may. In this column, the quest for Everest leads me down a winding path.
Rideout, Tanis. Above All Things. Amy Einhorn:Putnam. 2013. 400p. 9780399160585. $26.95. F
George Mallory famously said he wanted to climb Everest because it was there. In her debut novel, Rideout turns one of the last epic adventure stories of the golden age of exploration into a meditation on its physical and psychological costs. Rideout points out that Ruth—Mallory’s wife—and Clare, Berry, and John, their young children, were also “there.” Juxtaposing the month-long attempt at climbing Everest with Ruth’s 24-hour wait for Mallory’s return, Rideout creates an immediate and visceral account of the climb detailing the excruciating steps for establishing base camps up the face of the mountain; how the men battled the ice and wind; the sudden yet cumulative failures of the human body; and the sheer trauma of an unknowable fate. With graceful prose, Rideout unveils the histories of Mallory, Ruth, and Sandy Irving, Mallory’s climbing partner, with a leisurely but ultimately climactic pacing, creating an intimate, haunting, and luminous novel that is at once an adventure, a love story, and an interrogation.
Michaels, Lisa. Grand Ambition. W.W. Norton. 2002. 288p. 9780393322958. pap. $13.95. F
In 1928 Glen and Bessie Hyde set out to run the Colorado River, an adventure only a handful of people had completed at that point and an undertaking still fraught with danger and excitement. Bessie would be the first woman to run the rapids. In a handmade boat they set off, experiencing smooth travels for the opening days. But when there was no word from the couple, Glen’s father, Reith, began a search and rescue mission. Chapters written from Reith’s perspective—offering his thoughts and memories of Bessie—deliver a literary travelogue, a study of a marriage, and an adventure story that pairs well with Rideout’s immersive novel. Stressing the character of the adventurer and the quiet intimacy of marriage, Rideout and Michaels deftly blend the facts of their respective subjects within their fictional frames. Readers who know the outcome will expect the pages to hold different endings.
McLain, Paula. Paris Wife. Ballantine Bks. 2012. 352p. 9780345521316. pap. $15. F
McLain’s fictional account of the real-life marriage between Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway shares a similar pacing, attention to detail, and intimacy among characters as Rideout’s description of Ruth and Mallory’s marriage. Although Richardson was older than Hemingway, he still managed to sweep her off her feet. McLain presents Richardson’s observant and strong voice in a new light. Vividly set in Paris and the other epicenters of Hemingway’s early years, the novel paints a vibrant portrait of the couple. McLain brings forth all the expected cameos—Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein—and inevitably, Pauline, the woman who ultimately came between the couple. McLain traces the allegiance of a woman whose husband had other things on his mind and other alliances to pursue.
Smith, Alexis. Glaciers. Tin House Bks. 2012. 112p. ISBN 9781935639206. pap. $10.95.
Rideout’s novel is particularly effective in how it aligns a single day in Ruth’s life with Mallory’s great endeavor. Fans who appreciate a writer who plays with time and weaves in and out of different stories and moments may also enjoy Smith’s new work. This novel traces one day in the life of Isabel, a young woman living in Portland, as she arrives for work at the library, shops for a dress at a vintage store, and thinks about the party she will attend that night. Interspersed throughout the day are her reflections on her childhood, her collection of postcards, and her thoughts and conversations with Spoke, a war vet who also works in the library and whom Isabel has longed after for some time. In lyrical, prose, Smith nimbly fills in the past history of Isabel and Spoke, delicately dancing around their abrupt courtship, and muses on themes of yearning and loss. Smith’s aborted love story of longing is a tiny gem.
Lansing, Alfred. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Basic Bks. 2004. 288p. 9780786706211. pap. $14.95.
Rideout’s novel is likely to stir a desire to read adventures. While Shackleton’s voyage to cross the Antarctic overland is not the same kind of adventure as climbing Everest, both men shared the same ambition to physically overcome the impossible. Despite facing certain death, Shackleton was unwilling to accept this fate and set off on an epic quest to save his men—enduring harrowing obstacles on his long trek to find help. Lansing’s account of the ordeal is astounding. Rich in detail, exhausting and thrilling in description, this book brings the ice, cold, and danger of Shackleton’s adventure to pulse-pounding life. Readers looking for additional adventures can be pointed to such works as Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and to collections such as The Armchair Mountaineer edited by David Reuther and John Thorn (see Robert Graves’s “Climbing with Mallory” in particular).
Davis, Wade. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. Vintage. 2012. 688p. 9780375708152. pap. $16.95.
Readers who want to know more about Mallory and his attempts at Everest have a great body of work to explore. A fine place to begin is this massive book detailing Mallory’s life and times. Wade’s work reads as an expanded encyclopedia to what Rideout’s novel draws upon. There are sections about the war (which Rideout uses thematically throughout her novel) and sections about each climb and the motivations of the men involved, but most of all, Davis offers a sense of Mallory’s era. For those wanting to read more about Mallory, Sandy, and Everest, consider Mallory’s Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Mallory, Francis Younghusband’s The Epic of Mount Everest, Peter and Leni Gillman’s The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory, Jochen Hemmleb’s, Larry A. Johnson’s, and Eric R. Simonson’s Ghosts of Everest: The Search for Mallory & Irvine, David Breashears’s and Audrey Salkeld’s The Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory, Conrad Anker’s and David Robert’s The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest, Reinhold Messner’s The Second Death of George Mallory, and Everest: Summit of Achievement by the Royal Geographical Society.
Coffey, Maria. Where the Mountain Casts Its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure. St. Martin’s. 2005. 256p. 9780312339012. pap. $16.99.
Those who finish Rideout’s book and find themselves somewhat agreeing with the parents of both Mallory and Irvine—that the cost of going is not worth the price others will have to pay—will find much more to consider in Coffey’s wrenching adventure accounts and psychological inquiries. Gathering stories of disasters and the reflections of those who are left behind to worry and mourn, Coffey confronts the answer Mallory gave about his desire to climb Everest, stripping the glamor from the desire to risk and achieve. She is unfortunately in a great position to do so, having lost her lover to Everest. Coffey brilliantly balances a love for climbing and the reverberations of the endeavor into a compelling picture.
The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest. 94 min. Anthony Geffen. Altitude Films. 2010. DVD UPC 829567075128. $19.99.
In 1999 the American climber Conrad Anker discovered Mallory’s body on Everest. Anker found Mallory almost wholly preserved with most of his belongings, except the photo of Ruth he had sworn to leave at the summit. Haunted by the possibility that Mallory completed the climb before he died, Anker and a team of experts returned to Everest to trace Mallory’s steps and see if an ascent was possible. Particularly effective are the segments in which Anker dresses and climbs in the same kind of gear available in 1924, showing how difficult it was for Mallory, who didn’t have the benefit of better gear. Also of interest, given Rideout’s descriptions of the lassitude of altitude sickness, are the scenes of modern-day climbers overcome by altitude. Adding to the power of the film is the brilliant use of archival footage, showing Everest as it was when climbers first encountered it. Narrated by Liam Neeson and featuring the voices of Ralph Fiennes as Mallory, Natasha Richardson as Ruth, and Hugh Dancy as Sandy, this is a stunning and wonderful film that manages to be at once an adventure, a biography, and a forensic expedition.
Everest: The Death Zone. 60 min. David Breashears. PBS. 1998. DVD UPC 783421287495. $19.95.
Taking a scientific approach, a team filmed by NOVA sets off to study the effects of climbing Everest on the mind and body. By comparing mental and physical tests taken at sea level and then again as the climbers progress to the summit, viewers get a clear view of the ways the mind becomes confused, and how the body begins to consume itself as the air thins and oxygen is denied. As expected with NOVA, the emphasis is on the science, but the film also includes enough footage of the climb itself to please adrenaline fans. Particularly haunting is when the climbers pass dead bodies on their way up the mountain. The human remains littered across Everest become even more disturbing when one of the climbers on the team becomes seriously ill and is saved only because there is a team of doctors on call and an experienced climber by his side. Once the climb is over, the scientists review their findings, pointing out the ways in which the mind and body fail. This is a compelling look at Everest and the toll climbing takes on the body and the mountain alike.