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.

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.

 

 

 

Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson

Nothing beats a good feel-good novel.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 210 pages.
Read from February 11, 2018 to February 19, 2018.

You know what? Nothing beats a good feel-good novel. Especially one that knows how to make you laugh, smile and cry at the time.

Craig Davidson had hit rock bottom with his writing career. His efforts and a once promising start had fizzled away into nothing. With the bills racking up Craig was looking for anything to help him get by which, is hard to do when you have jumped around with small jobs here and there while pursuing writing, that is until he stumbled upon a school bus driving position. No experience required. Perfect. Little did Craig know that this job was going to offer him so much more than just a paycheque. Craig’s first gig is driving a short bus for special needs children, a position that many drivers often turned away. Dealing with kids can be trying at the best of times but having to work with kids who have needs that are harder to understand or deal with is often a whole other story and requires a special and attentive sort of care. Craig wasn’t sure what he was getting himself into but he was willing to try. With his unique brand of humour, Craig quickly charms the kids on his bus, learns their routines and personalities, and quickly falls in love with the job and his unique bunch of rowdy kids. It would be a year that would shape his life and perspectives going forward.

giphy (2)Craig has the gift of humour and has finessed his writing style well. The book is entertaining, highly readable and massively relatable for anyone who has pursued writing or who just has your average-Joe type persona, which is most of us! Craig is intimate making you feel like you really get to know him and each of the kids on his bus. The book also offers valuable insights into the difficult lives that many people with special needs and their families have to deal with and the courage that it comes with. Craig learned that his own failures were nothing compared to what these kids had overcome and with how able they were at dealing with difficulties that he could never have even dreamed of.

While I enjoyed the true story portion of this book I did not enjoy the random chapters of Craig’s unpublished YA dystopian novel in which the characters were inspired by the kids on his bus.  It’s a nice sentiment but I found it very jarring and when it first came up I had no idea what I was reading or how it pertained to Craig’s main story at first.  If I were an editor I would have eliminated those portions completely and then maybe made a reference to it at the end.

Now does this book “open your eyes“? To an extent, yes. It is an important reflection on how disabled people are treated in our current society and just how challenging it can be. Do I think that this theme was the main attraction of this book? No. Did I love reading it? Oh yes. This is a great read and I have already recommended it to a few of my friends. Does it deserve to win Canada Reads? My current opinion is no but we will see what the other contenders bring to the table. Onward!