The seasons nonfiction books brim with human drama
The seasons nonfiction books brim with human drama
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (Random House, $33.95). Since childhood,
Jon Krakauer had wanted to climb Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the world. So last year, when Outside magazine proposed that the journalist and avid climber write about the proliferation of guided tours to the top of the world, he jumped at the chance. But the assignment turned deadly when a sudden, severe storm trapped fellow climbers on the summit, killing nine people. Plagued with survivor’s guilt, Krakauer wrote the book, he says, “as an act of catharsis.” The result is a gripping and heartbreaking adventure tale.
The Seattle-based author, 42, attributes the disaster on the summit to bad weather, lack of oxygen, poor judgment and the competitiveness of the guides. But what keeps the reader captivated more
than anything is the raw intensity of man versus nature, and the knowledge that many others will trudge past the frozen bodies left behind as they attempt to conquer the peak.
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky (Knopf, $27.95). For centuries, the Atlantic cod, a homely but voracious bottom feeder, made men wealthy, dominated the diets of many Europeans and, occasionally, triggered wars between nations. In his concise, well-written and stylishly illustrated book, New York-based journalist Kurlansky traces the rise and fall of the cod fishery. He speculates that bountiful supplies of the fish for their sustenance allowed renegade Vikings to reach Newfoundland around the year 1000, and argues that Basque fishermen got rich harvesting cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for decades before John Cabot’s arrival in 1497. Well into the 20th century, cod fishing remained a risky, technologically primitive business. But with the advent of ever-larger trawlers, which catch the fish by dragging huge nets along the ocean bottom, the cod was driven to the brink of extinction. Kurlansky’s depiction of Canadian mismanagement of this resource is a sad tale, and his prognosis for the future grim. ‘Whatever steps are taken,” he concludes, “one of the greatest ob-
stades to restoring cod stocks off Newfoundland is an almost pathological collective denial of what has happened.”
The Wisdom of the Body by
Sherwin B. Nuland (Random House, $35). Nuland’s celebration of human biology is not for the fainthearted: in the first chapter, he describes in gory detail emergency surgery performed on a woman whose life was imperilled by a rare abdominal aneurism. Later, the surgeon and medical historian, who teaches at Yale University, describes precisely how surgeons go about removing the heart from a living man and installing a donor’s in its place. In his best-selling 1994 book, How We Die, Nuland chronicled the end of life. Here he marvels at life itself. He is filled with wonder at the intricacy of the body’s systems (which he delineates at sometimes daunting length), and by humanity. The author does not see the hand of God in all of this. “The human spirit,” he suggests, is simply “something we have created from the fabric of our human body.” Vodka, Tears, and Lenin’s Angel: A Journalist on the Road in the Former Soviet Union by Jennifer Gould (Knopf Canada, $31.95). Gould was a reporter in the most interesting place in the world in the first half of the 1990s —Russia. What’s more, she is a fine journalist with an unending supply of detail flowing from her keyboard. A Toronto native with some Russian family background, Gould was attracted by the historic changes under way. What she found was a world of gangsters, shady expatriate businessmen, warring ethnic groups and, of course, many suffering Russians. She writes with shocked sympathy about the homeless, the street kids and others who have become victims of Russia’s ruthless new economy. She also vividly captures the characters of the young gangster-capitalists and foreign carpetbaggers she meets. And there is a reprise of her most famous article, a 1995 Playboy interview with extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in which she records him trying to get her and her female translator to have group sex with his bodyguards while he watches. Gould’s book delivers the feel and smell and chaotic heart of the new Russia as few others have.
American Visions by Robert Hughes (Random House, $90). Based on a BBC-2/Time Warner television series, this hefty volume—subtitled The Epic History of Art in America—is a brilliant sweep through more than three centuries of painting, sculpture, furniture-making and architecture. Hughes, who has been Time’s art critic for more than 25 years, serves up intriguing anecdotes from the lives of hundreds of artists, along with incisive, witty commentary on their works. And, with dazzling clarity, the Australian-born writer illuminates the connections between such diverse creations as a New Mexican mission chapel, a Puritan chest and an Andy Warhol painting. In the introduction to his richly illustrated book, Hughes asks, “What can we say about Americans from the things and images they have made?” Not justfor art lovers, American Visions provides some surprising answers.
Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India by Gita Mehta (Doubleday, $31.95). When it comes to India, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a democracy in August, Mehta is in an enviable position. The author, who is in her 50s, was born in Delhi and still spends about a third of each year in her native country, dividing the rest of her time between London and New York City. That peripatetic life enables her to bring an outsider’s viewpoint to bear on India’s baffling contradictions, and to see and appreciate its quirks, customs and history as only a native can. Mehta, the author of three previous novels, uses that dual perspective to good effect in her book of essays, Snakes and Ladders.
The title, after the children’s game she claims originated in India, is her apt metaphor for the country’s progress over the past half-century. From ragpickers foraging through a Delhi dump to the glamorous stars of “Bollywood,” the Bombaybased movie industry, Mehta captures a country in flux with humor and insight, and retains a lucid eye for its vast wonders.
Byron: Hie Flawed Angel by Phyllis Grosskurth (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, $39.95). In the words of a contemporary, the English poet Lord Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” But in Torontonian Grosskurth’s excellent, empathetic biography, the writer and womanizer of legend is also utterly fascinating. Drawing on new
archival sources, Grosskurth evokes a weak-willed Byron who drifted into his 1815 marriage with a young heiress partly because he craved a respectable haven from the rumors that he was having an affair with his own half-sister, Augusta (the rumors were true). A rivetting story of an artist whose genius for poetry was counterbalanced by the mess he made of his life.
Deadly Seas: Hie Duel between the St Croix and the U305 in the Battle of the Atlantic by David J. Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig (Random House, $34.95). It has been 52 years since the Second World War ended, but the stories keep coming. Deadly Seas takes a novel approach—literally. Historians Bercuson of the University of Calgary and German navy specialist Herwig have written what they
call a docudrama. Complete with a cast of characters and reconstructed dialogue, it tells the story of a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer and its nemesis, a German U-boat. Focusing closely on the two ships and their commanders, the book convincingly captures the frustrations, horrors—and rare pleasures—of Atlantic warfare. Painstaking research is evident in its depictions of life aboard the two vastly different vessels, but the boilerplate dialogue displays more expertise in the historical record than in dramatic storytelling.
Slow Dance: A Story of Stroke, Love and Disability by Bonnie Sherr Klein (Knopf, $29.95). On Aug. 3, 1987, during a vacation in Vermont, Klein began to take ill. Within the next few weeks, the life of the accomplished, Montreal-based National Film Board director, then 46, changed irrevocably as a result of two strokes—the second of which left her almost completely paralyzed, unable to walk, talk and, for a time, even breathe. Klein’s book, co-authored by Vancouver writer Persimmon Blackbridge, is a gritty, passionate and ultimately uplifting account of her illness and recovery. Klein, now living in Vancouver, writes that life “is sweet and full and precious in a way I had never known before.”
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