Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

“It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages.
Read from June 29, 2018 to July 4, 2018.

Is weird that this novel made me interested in trying climbing? I suppose as an endurance runner there is a weird thrill that comes with the ultimate challenge and fighting through pain and exhaustion. It sounds crazy for many people but it is a rare exhilaration and achievement that can’t be replicated.

I knew little about the 1996 disaster on Everest as I was a child when it happened but this book does its best at giving an honest account of the event. No one will really know with exact precision what happened that day but Krakauer is effective with his research and recollection and in being as genuine as possible, making it easy for the reader to believe his version of events.

In May of 1996 a group of strangers set out to climb Mount Everest on a guided expedition, Krakauer among them with the intention of writing an article he was commissioned to do for Outside magazine on the commercialization of climbing Everest. During this time, climbing Everest had started to become a popular accomplishment for people who had money. With a great guide, the premise was that anyone could climb Everest which demeaned the accomplishment for many seasoned climbers.

“Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable.”

After a gruelling few days of acclimatization to high-altitudes, a few groups set out for the summit but a storm was brewing and it resulted in some groups having to make the ascent back through the brutal storm. Not everyone makes it back alive. Eight people died in that blizzard which contributed the deadliest seasons Everest had ever seen prior the avalanche in 2014.

Functioning at high altitudes with limited oxygen does hard things to a person. Your brain does not function as well and your body is only fueling what it has to in order to survive. If you ever wondered why your guts struggle after being on an airplane for an extended amount of time, just imagine what it’s like trying to scale Everest at those same altitudes.  Add in intense physical exhaustion and cold, along with impaired brain function, it’s a wonder that people make it back at all from these types of excursions. Some people have better genes, like the Sherpas, that are more capable of functioning at higher altitudes but most never know how they will handle this type of extreme situation. Especially when it comes to life or death.

Krakauer has a fuzzy memory about the last time he saw one of his teammates on the descent from Everest as it ended up being the last time he was seen alive. It is a memory that continues to haunt Krakauer as he has tried to clarify and make sense of those final moments for himself and for the family members of his lost teammate. The version of this book includes an additional commentary on a book that was released to counter Krakauer’s. Anatoli Boukreev, a guide on the expedition, found fault with how Krakauer portrayed him and certain events so he published his own book titled, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.  A feud between the two men continued until Boukreev’s untimely death on another climbing expedition in which Krakauer gracefully and respectfully comments on as well.

Krakauer is a talented and humble writer. I cannot imagine the pain of living through such a traumatic ordeal and being able to write about with such grace.  His story is gripping and reels you into the niche world of climbing. Krakauer makes you feel like you are right there on Everest with him as he battles to keep his mind, emotions and body in check. Krakauer was criticized for a variety of things following the aftermath of the event and somehow managed to keep his cool. This book offers an extremely unique perspective not found in many other narratives, especially for a non-fiction, so I would highly recommend this book to fellow-thrill seekers, athletes or just those looking for an adventurous and inciteful read.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 328 pages.
Read from May 17th, 2018 to May 28th, 2018.

Why don’t I read more true crime novels? It is a question that I never thought to ask myself until now and even I don’t really have the answer to. I adore watching crime documentaries and programs so why not books? Michelle actually said it best:

“I love reading true crime, but I’ve always been aware of the fact that, as a reader, I am actively choosing to be a consumer of someone else’s tragedy. So like any responsible consumer, I try to be careful in the choices I make. I read only the best: writers who are dogged, insightful, and humane.”

This book became an overnight sensation as the author, Michelle NcNamara, passed away before completing it. In life, Michelle was married to Patton Oswalt, a famous comedian. Michelle’s abrupt and unexpected death hit Patton very hard. He decided to finish his wife’s obsession and life’s work with the help of a few others with the remaining data that Michelle had left.

If you had not heard of the Golden State Killer before the publication of this book, I am sure that you have now as this book has brought to light a cold case that has (had) evaded authorities for decades. The Golden State Killer paralyzed Northern Californa in the 70s and 80s by committing a suspected 50 rapes. He had a routine of breaking into peoples homes where they are supposed to feel safe and was not deterred if the woman’s partner was present, in fact, that seemed to become his preference later on. The Golden State Killer got his nickname, coined by the author later on, when he took his crimes to the southern part of the state and committed 12 spine-chilling rapes and murders.

Michelle became obsessed with tracking down the Golden State Killer. She interviewed and befriended detectives that had worked the case previously and scrupulously reviewed all previous evidence with the use of modern technology and the wonders of the internet.

“That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter’s playroom. For the most part I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person. Teeth brushed. Pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I’d retreat to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that fifteen-inch-wide hatch of endless possibilities…”

This book, at least the sections that were written by Michelle herself, are about her journey and obsession to track down this horrible murderer and rapist. Michelle’s intrigue into crime came from an incident that happened in her own hometown and from there Michelle fell in love with true crime. Michelle talks about how strange it is to be obsessed with something so morbid and to try and escape the fear and hate that it creates when dealing with such horrific acts caused by a man.

“I love my husband. I hate men.”

The sections of the book that Michelle wrote are intimate, gripping and full of the talent and passion that she truly possessed. Had she been able to complete this book on her own I have no doubt that its literary merit along with its exquisitely detailed research would have landed Michelle an award. However, because she passed before finishing this book the story feels unfinished and disjointed. Incomplete. But perhaps it is best left that way.

Michelle’s efforts with this book helped bring new light to the Golden State Killer case and shortly after the book was published, Joeseph DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes.

“The Daily Beast was the first to report that DeAngelo was the suspect arrested after an interview with journalist Billy Jensen, who worked with researchers on a book about the crimes, I’ll Be Gone in the DarkThe book was written by Michelle McNamara, who died before it was published. It was finished by Jensen, researcher Paul Haynes, and McNamara’s husband, the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt.” – The Daily Beast – April 25, 2017

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Joeseph DeAngelo in court in Sacramento. Image credit The LA Times: https://lat.ms/2tvWy5I.

Michelle was using online ancestry websites to help try and find a DNA match. The police authorities were also using this method but not in the way you might think. They were using the websites the same way you or I would use them as they did not additional or special access to the databases. Companies who own these ancestry-type websites claim privacy laws won’t allow police to access their data for investigative purposes. Police authorities were able to connect Joseph DeAngelo to the case through the DNA of a relative on one of these ancestry websites.  Begging the question, should police have access to these types of DNA and ancestry websites for active investigations?

While I am disappointed with how unfinished this novel feels I am still glad to have read it as I am sure it will go down in true crime history. For those that are considering reading it, approach the book with the understanding that this is not the perfect novel that Michelle would have envisioned but appreciate the pieces of her that she left within in the novel and her admirable efforts to help track down and imprison this abominable killer.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

“The General will now enter the room.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 368 pages.
Read from December 12, 2017 to December 15, 2017.

Who isn’t curious about North Korea? It is a strange and secretive country with an eccentric, peculiar, and potentially very dangerous leader that shuts out the world. How much of the North Korean propaganda is true? Are the people there truly sheltered and do they suffer? If you believe this defector and author of this memoir it will only make you hungry for more information on this fascinating country.

Jang Jin-Sung, a pseudonym for a North Korean man who was a famous and well-respected poet and government official. His life was much easier than many of his other friends and family due to his high ranking status. He was special as he was allowed into the small inner circle of people who got to meet their “Dear Leader” in person due to how well received his poetry was. Jin-Sung worked within The United Front Department (UFD) which is “responsible for inter-Korean espionage, policy-making and diplomacy” and in Jin-Sung’s job he was responsible for writing poetry and praise for North Korea under the facade of the praise coming from other countries, like South Korea. In order to do that, he was allowed to read South Korean newspapers and writings in order to keep with the style and approach of the writers there. The work was dangerous and highly controlled as with new ideas comes the idea that the North Korean regime is lesser. However, Jin-Sung began to question his “Dear Leader” after meeting him in person and after following a trail of dangerous thoughts and actions it eventually made him realise that he needed to defect or risk his life and potentially his whole family’s.

“I was restless with yearning to write realist poetry based on what I saw, and not loyalist poetry based on what we were all told to see.”

The harrowing description that Jin-Sung leaves an impoverished stifled and scared nation of people is hard to read. His escape is tragic and reads like a terrifying thriller that you are too afraid to look away from. I was completely engrossed in the story and was left hungry for more by the end. Books like this and others like them have come under scrutiny for their authenticity or have left many wondering how much was embellished for the sake of publications. It is almost easier to NOT believe that North Korea is a terrible as this book makes it sound as it is hard to fathom that so many people are living in such an oppressed and psychologically inhumane way. If this novel is as true as the author claims, it makes me thankful that my life is my own, that I have food in my belly, and that I express myself how I see fit.

“One reason why North Korea is unable to pursue reform and open itself more to the world is that this would risk exposing core dogmas of the state as mere fabrications.”

Whether you want to believe all, some or none of what is in this book you can’t deny the books high readability and enjoyability. In fact, this book made my top five favourite non-fiction reads of 2017 I enjoyed it so much. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, espionage, North Korea or memoirs. I can assure you that Jin-Sung’s story is not one you are likely to forget.