Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The secret life of James

For those who haven't realized by now, mountain climbing tends to send me into Walter Mitty style fantasies. I know full and well that I will never summit an 8000+ meter mountain, but books about doing so, even the ones about the disasters that happen on them, makes me imagine what it would be like to do so.

With that in mind, I picked up Buried in the Sky by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan, which discusses the 2008 disaster above Camp 4 on K2. However, unlike some of the other books on the subject, written by survivors, this one is much more focused on the High Altitude Porters ("sherpas") that took people up and tried to get them down. Which is unusual, since one gets the impression from this book and others that the porters are generally considered pack mules and barely worthy of getting a picture taken of them at the summit.

So, for some background, K2 (aka Chhogori), lies on the Pakistan/China border and is the second highest mountain on Earth. Unlike Everest, the weather patterns aren't that predictable, making summit attempts more of a crapshoot than some of the other mountains. The two porters we get the most involved with (Chhiring and Pasang) share similar backgrounds, coming from really remote villages in Nepal and coming to Kathmandu to make money to support their families.

What came as a great surprise to me was how much detail the first half or so of the book spends on going into sherpa culture and the legends around the mountains themselves, in terms of Buddhist gods inhabiting them. (Everest's Goddess is one of fortune. K2's is one of blood sacrifice.) Sherpa is actually a clan/caste name that gets applied to any porter, although the clan Sherpas tend to look down at any other class that's trying to be a porter. (Like the Bhotse. But they all look down on the Muslim porters from Pakistan.)

Anyway, we eventually get to the climb. We hear about base camp, and how most of the porters look with disdain on the cairn to the fallen at the bottom, since it imprisons the souls of the dead instead of letting them fly free. We get the impression that most of them tend to look at the foreigners as decadent, although the money lets them overlook the worst of their sins.

They get about a 3 day window to climb and summit the mountain between storms. As such, the teams trying to ascend at the same time join forces and porters to lay ropes Problem being the one porter who can actually speak enough languages to communicate effectively with everyone gets sick at Camp 2 with a bad bacterial infection. Since he's also the only one on the mountain who's ever summited the mountain, this is also a very bad thing.

Most of the problems become well defined on summit day, as all groups try to get up past Camp 4 and through the Bottleneck traverse, which is prone to avalanches and is narrow enough that passage is single file, making the pace that of the slowest climber. The biggest issues to crop up are that the porters still functioning are used to Everest, where rope is used all the way up. K2 usually only gets ropes through the bad parts. As such, they run out of rope, and have to keep going back for more to get people up. Which further slows down the progress. With a turnaround time of 2PM, the first person to summit (who was free climbing ahead of almost everyone else) tops out at 3:30 PM. Which gets the rest of the summiters up there near dusk. Making for dangerous conditions climbing down in darkness. Particularly when the seracs above the Bottleneck start to calve, burying the ropes. Given they're in the "Death Zone", this gives people the choice of trying to bivouac in fatal conditions or trying to climb down in dangerous conditions.

11 people die from falling, avalanches, and exposure. One Porter, Karim, we get supposition on his fate, since no one';s particularly sure where he was, since he wondered off. There are a few photos taken from lower down the mountain that seem to suggest him in one place, but given high altitude tends to inspire hallucinations and most of the radio communication was static by this point....

We also learn of what it's like to suffocate under the snow and how best to survive if buried in one. Not that it helps, the climbers who get buried don't make it down.

It seems in the aftermath that everyone blamed everyone else for the disasters, but eventually things resolved themselves as best as could be expected. And Chhiring and Pasang lived with the consequences as best as they could and still climb the mountains.

It's ugly in several parts, but honestly, the background information presented on the folks who live in the area and the mythology that surrounds the mountains more than makes up for the nightmares of being buried in a glacier.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Well, that was cheerful

There are a few comparisons I'd make with Felice Picano's Like People in History, but "The Gay Gone with the Wind" as Edmund White blurbs on the cover isn't one of them. Actually, the two things that kept coming to mind as I read it were Stephen King's IT and a mid-90's movie, It's My Party. 

Having not read this before, I guess I stumbled across one of those "loved by more than a few people" books. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy the journey, I did, but I also spent more than a few passages either wanting to reach into the prose and give a character a "Get Over It!" Cher slap or rolling my eyes and saying "Oh, get her!" I realize some of this is due to being closer in age to our narrator's boyfriend in 1991 than the narrator himself, but....

Anyway, People is told mostly in flashbacks, framed by events transpiring in New York City in 1991. Our Narrator, Roger Sansarc, an author, professor, and several other titles, is taking his much younger boyfriend Wally to Roger's cousin Alistair Dodge's birthday party somewhere off Central Park West. Alistair lives with a boyfriend everyone refers to as the White Woman. As it turns out, Roger's birthday gift for his cousin is a bottle of sleeping pills to assist his AIDS ravaged cousin die. From there, Wally and Roger head out to an ACT UP rally involving chaining AIDS patients to Gracely Mansion to protest the mayor not releasing funds to help the plague ridden victims of the city. Wally an Roger fight on the way there, because Wally thinks it's wrong for Roger to help his cousin kill himself. Roger agrees to go back to Alistair's after the protest to stop him, but instead gets arrested after helping drop a large banner off the mansion's roof. He eventually gets out of holding that evening, and finds a very angry Wally, who thinks Roger planned everything that lead to his arrest. That eventually gets settled, and the two reconcile before they gat back to Alistair's early in the morning. Where Alistair has taken the pills, leading to Roger riding in the ambulance with Alistair and deciding on saving Alistair would best be served by letting him die or making sure he recovers.

In the meantime, we look in on Alistair and Roger's relationship, starting first in 1954, when young Alistair comes to Suburban New York while his parents are fighting over custody. Alistair makes short work of taking over Roger's circle of friends.

In 1961, Roger visits Alistair in California (LA), ostensibly to lessen his depression. Alistair has become some kind of junior real estate magnate, working through his mom and her current boyfriend. Alistair hangs out with the surfers, most of whom seem to be what today would be considered casually bisexual. Alistair is also schtupping the landscaper, which eventually gets found out, leading to said landscaper getting deported.

We next check in with Roger in 1969, as he rather druggedly makes his way north to a certain concert in upstate New York along with a girl he thinks can be his first. Let's see, the girl joins a commune, Alistair, who's at Woodstock, gets Roger hooked up with a fictional bassist from a British band, who ends up becoming Roger's lover briefly. Roger falls out of love with the bassist, falling in with a revolutionary working against the war in Vietnam. Roger goes before the draft board under the influence of codeine from oral surgery, passes out, and figures out Alistair had helped the revolutionary set Roger up as part of a protest against the draft.

And on to 1974 San Francisco, where Roger is running an upscale bookstore that his cousin Alistair is trying to set up an art gallery in. Roger eventually meets Matthew Longuidice, a former Navy man who's been serving in Vietnam. Matt has a bad leg, but he and Roger are in love. Alistair marries a woman and moves to Europe.

1979 finds Roger working for a NYC magazine and weekending in the Pines on Fire Island where Matt is more or less living all summer. Matt has become a rather famous model for Drummer. Alistair sails in from Europe, in the process of divorcing his wife. Roger is dealing with more than a little jealousy over Matt's flirtations, even though the relationship is presented as being open; it's kind of implied that the rule seems to be once with one person is ok, twice with the same person is verboten. Matt's obviously jealous of Roger as well, and Alistair stirs the pot all summer before making his final moves at the Jungle Red party. Which ends with Roger having a one night fling with Alistair's brother in law and Matt leaving with Alistair for Europe.

And in 1985, we find Roger still in New York, this time helping produce a play he wrote about gay history, ending at Stonewall. Alistair is back in town; they run into each other at a supporting character's memorial. (This gets really painful, as only one person tells the truth about Calvin. It gets mentioned later that, true to history, Calvin's cause of death is listed as Herpes, not AIDS. Since no one died of AIDS. If you were really good, it was "liver cancer".) Over dinner with Alistair, an old acquaintance informs Roger that not only is Matt back in town, but he's in the hospital. Roger gos to visit, and he and Matt reconnect over Matt's eventual deathbed. Matt asks Roger to get his parents to come see him, which is heartbreaking. Matt's parents love him dearly and are very proud of him, which is a damn sight better than many people in the era got. Matt's mother tells Roger of Matt's love of a children's book retelling of Patroclus and Achilles, and how she still relates that story to hiw she and her husband held on to Matt's (now amputated) leg after he was born as her parents tried to take him away. As happened all too often, Matt dies and Roger is listed as next of kin. When he collects Matt's belongings, he finds some of the last poems Matt wrote for him, and we find that the two of them still loved each other.

While I had a few issues, as mentioned above, by the end I was attached to the characters and better understood why Roger makes his eventual decision. I also spent much of the book in tears, since much of the last part covers my era of coming out. The Fire Island chapter is filled with Disco earworms.

It's a good read, and one that the younguns who don't know any of the history might benefit from. Or for those of us who are older, serve as a reminder of who we are and where we came from.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

This is how your write a villain

Reading Benedict Jacka's Bound (the latest in his Alex Verus series), is a good reminder of what got me sucked in to his writing in the first place. Great pacing and a real mystery as to what's actually going on. By the end, we get an idea of how many books he's been plotting a few of the twists through.

Bound covers roughly 10 months of of Alex's life after being made Morden's second at the end of the last book. Needless to say, it hasn't improved his popularity with Britain's Light Council. While this does get Alex back into the Keepers, they're not exactly bending over backwards to help him.

In the meantime, both Morden and Richard Drakh, Alex's former Master, have him running around on both Council business as well as some personal business that doesn't make much sense until the end. On top of that, Arachne sends Alex and Anne and Luna and Varium off on a secondary quest to find a dreamstone, an item that might help Alex reach Deleo and maybe help defeat Drakh.

Which leads to the foursome taking over a Shadow Realm of their own after a bit of an adventure with a really angry hammadryad.

Towards the end, with Verus and Anne tapped to break into council chambers (or so they think), we finally get a tantalizing peek at what's been going on behind the scenes for a few books now.

Drakh's plot so far reminds me a bit of a traditional trickster, someone who's several steps ahead of all the other players, and much better at arranging pieces on the board.

Given it will likely be a year before the next volume, I can only hope time passes quickly.