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[Book Reviews] Things that were not as they seemed

Wed, 2015-05-20 00:21
It's not often you get to read a biography by a person who found the subject's body, but "The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2" is exactly that. While more than a little morbid, it does give the author particular insight into the life of her subject, early American mountaineer Dudley Wolfe. This highly sympathetic portrayal is an easy read, challenging much of the previous collected statements about the American 1939 K2 expedition and how things fell apart there. I was surprised at how much it had in common with stories of Himalayan expeditions gone south fifty years later; the problems discussed were more medical and teamwork issues than equipment failure or poor luck with the weather. While the effects of high altitude are what they are (and were little known at the time, as expeditioners were expected to "power through" altitude sickness and frostbite), the teamwork and leadership failures of the expedition are really stark, leading to the deaths of four members, including Dudley Wolfe. Sobering. Four failures of leadership out of five.

I loved Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni's "The Palace of Illusions"! I'd previously enjoyed her "Mistress of Spices", and this lyrical dive into mythological retellings was even better. Divakaruni does a brilliant job of writing flawed but sympathetic characters who leap off the page; her Panchaali is determined if not always wise, impassioned and searching for understanding in a way that's easy to relate to. Modern readers will probably empathize with her chafing at the restricted boundaries of her world, and with her later defiant choices to have a life more to her liking in the ways she found open to her. Krishna was one of my favorite other characters, but he's hard not to love. I also felt a lot of sympathy for Bheem the kind-hearted. Excellent worldbuilding, including relevant concepts from the source mythos without "as you know, Dave" overexplaining to the reader, and an ending that felt mostly satisfying while still being properly a little irritating. Recommended to fans of Greek theater, epic fantasy, alternate history, Indian literature, and lush prose. Five fire-born heroines out of five, and the pick of this batch.

Conversely, I really *wanted* to like Lynn Coady's "Hellgoing". Having read a previous short story of hers, I had high hopes for this volume, particularly since it was so award-winning. Unfortunately, I hated it. It's a series of small dioramas of despairing people who don't understand the world or each other, with no resolution. Coady has some marvelous turns of phrase, but the outstanding trait of her characterization is that everyone is hopeless, unsympathetic, petty, and lost. They move, but they don't end up anywhere. That's just not a world I want to read about. Two Godot-waiters out of five.

I was initially really intrigued by Baron-Cohen's The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty" (it was last month's selection for my cognitive science book club), and I've read a bunch of neurology, but sadly this one really fell short of my hopes for it. I've read the studies that it references tying borderline to early childhood abuse, but I think he's just wrong in his attempts to construct a similar narrative for psychopathy. (I'm not a professional neuroscientist, but my layperson's reading of the literature doesn't seem to support his construction there.) And his overarching thesis just kind of fell apart at that point for me. I'm not sure you're going to get a deep treatment of the autism spectrum as sort of a couple chapters side note in a book on empathy, but I felt he really didn't do justice to the connection he was attempting to make there. I do agree that there's interesting findings in how ordinary people bring themselves to dehumanize others and be terrible, and that genetics and environment both have roles, but that's such a set of bland statements that nearly everyone is going to agree with that. Zimbardo's "The Lucifer Effect" was more thorough, if more disturbing. Two big skims out of five.

"Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade" was a difficult read at times, but I'm glad I read it. (Isn't that one definition of a classic?) The book ties together a whole lot of history, starting in 1909 and ending in 1993. Steward's life spans growing up in rural America in the twenties to the Parisian literary scene of the thirties, his mentorship by Gertrude Stein and his friendship with Alice B. Toklas, the changing sense of what it was to be a gay man as America entered McCarthyism and conflated homosexuality with Communism, his extraordinarily systematic cataloguing of every sexual encounter in his long life, the great insight that that provided the Kinsey Institute, his drift and then severance from his teaching career into his tattooing career, and his interactions with many people who formed the basis of alternate communities still around today. International Mr. Leather. The Janus Society. The Hell's Angels during their most notorious era. Gay policemen organizations in San Francisco. The author must have done a monumental amount of work to recover the source files from Steward's estate, and to tell his story accurately, and my hat is certainly off to him for that epic job well done. There's a lot of history that I learned or added to my knowledge of by reading this book, and for that I'd recommend it to most people. But some of the sections about Steward's demiconsensual masochism are likely to be challenging for readers who don't share that wiring, so I wouldn't recommend it to my conservative relatives who would be horrified by those sections. Overall, it's a solid contribution to histories of the twentieth century and the experience of gay men of the time; four difficult questions out of five.

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