Unexplained Laughter

unexplained laughterI’ve read several of Alice Thomas Ellis’s books now, and I always leave them thinking how good they are, but also how unsettling. Her books are comedies of manners, but they are also severe considerations of morals and conscience, through the lens of Catholic justice. She is extremely funny and even whimsical, but her wit can be so trenchant that an unsuspecting reader can have her fingers bitten to the bone. She is no stranger to terrible grief, nor to whistling past the graveyard, sometimes in the same sentence. And through each book is woven a thread of what I might call matter-of-fact otherworldliness — strange things happening, or possibly not happening, just out of the reader’s vision.

In Unexplained Laughter, Ellis repeats a successful formula: she puts an extremely ill-assorted group of people together in a small place and watches their discomfort (and sometimes their outright mischief) grow and flourish. In this case, sophisticated journalist Lydia has beat a retreat to rural Wales in order to recover from the latest in a depressing series of bad romances. She brings along a companion, Betty, “the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes,” an action she regrets almost as soon as they arrive; the two have deliciously ironic dialogues as their different temperaments clash.

Their only social life consists of people from the neighboring farm: dour Hywel; his fearful wife Elizabeth; the doctor with whom Elizabeth is having an affair, and Beuno, who is studying to be a priest. They have walks, picnics, a dull dinner — all in marked contrast to Lydia’s vibrant life in the city — but the conversations are something else again. Instead of the banal talk Lydia expects, she discusses God and love, good and evil, conscience and betrayal. (She dubs Satan “Stan,” dropping one of the As, in order to make him feel a little less threatening.) Beuno is “one of us,” she thinks, but it is she who changes.

At intervals, when she’s alone, Lydia hears laughter — laughter only she can hear. This, we gradually come to understand, is the laughter of Angharad, a mute, deformed “free spirit” (or demon), Hywel’s younger sister, who roams the woods and hillsides, eavesdropping on conversations, bound to the land but free in a different way. This eerie echo of Lydia’s own spiritual state adds an unreliable note to the novel. Does Angharad even exist? Who, or what, is she? As Lydia learns more about the real world, the natural world, the human spirit, who can she thank for her revelations?

This is Alice Thomas Ellis: unsettling. She leaves you wondering what exactly happened, what is the truth, and whether it matters. She doesn’t care whether you believe in spirits, or selkies, or fairies — it’s not the point. Instead, she wants you to take the unexplained laughter for what it’s worth, and see what you make of it. I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone; it can be a bit biting, a bit curmudgeonly, a bit knotty and ambiguous. But I think she’s very good indeed, and I look forward to reading a lot more of her work.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

A Fix Like This

a fix like thisI’m slowly reading through the mysteries of K.C. Constantine, an author I stumbled across because his most recent (possibly last?) mystery, Grievance (2000), was recommended by Michael Dirda. I started at the beginning of the series, and was surprised at how good they were. Now I fear I won’t have any language left to describe them, because they just keep getting better.

In A Fix Like This, Mario Balzic, chief of police in blue-collar Rocksburg, PA, is investigating the stabbing of Fat Manny Manditti, known bagman for a local Italian heavyweight. (“Mafia” is too big a term for Rocksburg, but you could think in that direction: head of the Italian community, numbers games, raking in illicit money without paying a lot of taxes, that kind of thing.) Balzic is worried that Manny’s big brother Tullio is going to seek revenge for the stabbing, no matter what Dom Muscotti tells him, and as usual, Balzic’s good sense doesn’t lead him wrong.

At the same time, Balzic is dealing with something that at first appears to be a side issue. He goes to a priest to get some advice on the leaders of the Italian community, and the priest himself is reeling from a huge shock: another priest, his dear friend, has been running a numbers scam in order to pay the mortgage on his church and help out some little old ladies who weren’t well-off financially. The scene in which the priest pours out his rage and grief is crackling with emotion, as well as the culture that says the emotion shouldn’t be shared. The dialogue in these books reminds me of nothing so much as Clyde Edgerton (though Edgerton writes about the South and Constantine writes about Pennsylvania): he really understands how to write the language of being human, and how that language can be shaped by class and race. The solution to the mystery  — though it’s good — seems less important in comparison.

If you’re a mystery fan, I really recommend tracking these down. The most amazing things are hiding in unexpected places.


Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 2 Comments


OreoFran Ross’s novel Oreo is the most adventurous and original of the five books I’ve read for the Tournament of Books. Originally published in 1974, it never found much of an audience. Reissued last year, it feels entirely new.

Oreo is the story of Christine Schwartz, the daughter of a black mother and Jewish father.

Christine was no ordinary child. She was born with a caul, which her first lusty cries rent in eight. Aside from her precocity at mirror writing, she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry. When told at an early age that she would one day have to seek out her father to learn the secret of her birth, she said, “I am going to find that motherfucker.” In her view, the last word was merely le mot juste.

Her nickname, Oreo, comes from a mishearing of the word Oriole, which came to her maternal grandmother in a dream.

Oreo’s story is a wacky updating of the story of Theseus. Like Theseus, Oreo goes on a quest to find an absent father. Her father left her a series of clues to the secret of her birth—as well as a “sword and sandals” her mother has hidden under a rock that Oreo needed to lift. But after remembering that the rock was a “tsedrayt place to put them,” her mother has her pry up a floor board to find a mezuzah and a pair of bed socks. Oreo follows the clues to New York, where she foils robbers and takes revenge on the cruel. She moves through the world with confidence, responding to every challenge with wit and resourcefulness. Oreo is never brought down by her circumstances. She adopts whatever attitude and linguistic code is needed for the moment.

The story, with its relationship to the Theseus myth, is clever enough, but what really sets this book apart is the way the story is told. Ross fills the narrative with all sorts of word play, ethnic gags, and crass jokes. I tend to be a little tone-deaf to humor in books, but I found Oreo funny. Sometimes it goes over-the-top in its outrageousness—an incest joke is tossed out matter-of-factly, “midgets” are shown eating dog biscuits, and I can’t even begin to explain how Oreo gets the better of a New York pimp in Ross’s version of the Cercyon story. There’s something so cheerful about the telling of these tales that it’s hard to get offended at them. I didn’t get the sense that Ross was trying to make fun of anyone. She riffs on stereotypes without making them into insults.

I think that riffing on stereotypes gets at the larger purpose of the book. Oreo, with her many identities, has power that gets her through the world. But it doesn’t feel like she’s meant to be a person who is “beyond race.” Instead, she embodies many races and many identities, each one distinct and part of who she is. These identities give her strength. Ignoring who she is and where she comes from would weaken her. And so, this kooky story becomes a celebration of all identities.

Posted in Fiction | 15 Comments

The Sympathizer

Sympathizer.jpgI first became aware of this debut novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen when Jenn recommended it in the comments of my review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Manwhich Nguyen has acknowledged as an influence. Like Ellison’s narrator, the narrator of The Sympathizer drifts from world to world, trying on different identities. He’s a South Vietnamese captain, a North Vietnamese spy, a filmmaker’s advisor, a driver, a soldier, and a prisoner. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds,” the unnamed narrator writes in the opening of the book.

The book is his confession, written to a North Vietnamese commandant. He’s telling the story he believes his confessor wants to hear, but it’s not a story of a True Believer in the great cause. It’s the story of a man caught between worlds, born to a French father and Vietnamese mother, he’s never belonged. His two closest friends, are loyal to two different sides in the Vietnam War, and so he overtly claims loyalty to the South for his friend Bon while secretly taking orders from his friend Man from the North.

The bulk of the novel takes place in the latter years of the War and the period immediately after, when the narrator has escaped to America with the general he ostensibly serves. He sends coded messages back to Man by way of Man’s aunt in Paris. But for most of the book, there’s not much to report on. He spends time in the Philippines as an advisor to a film director he refers to as The Auteur as he films a movie about Vietnam called The HamletThere, he’s able to get Vietnamese people cast as extras in the film, but it doesn’t offer them much of an actual voice. (Ngyuen cites several books about Apocalypse Now in his acknowledgments.)

The narrator claims loyalty to Communism, but he rarely talks about his ideals or why he holds to them. I wondered if the claim of loyalty is for the sake of the confession. Perhaps, though, his loyalty is more about his friend Man that any political convictions. Very few of the narrator’s choices seem to be about political conviction. He does what he’s told—whether it’s to take a particular job or shoot a particular person. If he breaks orders, it’s to look out for a person he feels loyal to. When he shares his own views, it’s usually filtered in some way, in a letter to Man’s aunt or merely as part of the confession that the novel itself is supposed to be.

This technique serves to keep the reader at a distance, and, thus, as interested as I was by the story, I failed to ever feel strongly about the narrator and his plight. I was never quite sure what he himself felt. The distancing is, however, a necessary part of the novel, and a narrative with a strong political  stance would provide a different and not necessarily better experience. And it’s not as if the narrator lacks personality. His voice isn’t as strong as that of the narrator of The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel that has a lot in common with this one, but it’s not bland either. There are even moments of humor, as when he describes the questioning of a possible spy for the Viet Cong:

He spent a week in the interrogation center being beaten black and blue, as well as red and yellow. By the end, our men were convinced that he was not a VC operative. The proof was incontrovertible, arriving in the form of a sizable bribe the man’s wife brought to the crapulent major. I guess I was mistaken, he said cheerfully, handing me an envelope with me share, It was equivalent to a year’s salary, which, to put it into perspective, was actually not enough to live on for a year. Refusing the money would have aroused suspicion, so I took it. I was tempted to use it for charitable activity, namely the support of beautiful young women hampered by poverty.

This is the fourth book that I’ve read that will be featured in the 2016 Tournament of Books. It’s probably my favorite so far, but that’s only because two of the books are A Little Life and Satin Island, neither of which I liked at all. I liked Ann Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread more as I reflected on it, so we’ll see if further though affects my assessment of this book. Both are very well-done. But neither are books I’d consider absolutely near-perfect reads. Neither is entirely original nor absorbing. I’m not excited to root for either one. I’ll be reading Oreo by Fran Ross next. Perhaps it will be the one.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

Elementals: Stories of Ice and Fire

elementalsThis book of short stories by A.S. Byatt has been on my TBR list for almost six years. Byatt is a favorite author of mine, and I’ve read most of her novels and short stories now. But each time I thought of reading this book, something else came first: The Children’s Book, for one, and Ragnarok, for another. As those books do, the short stories in Elementals mix fantasy and reality, myth and truth, strange beasts and very human beings.

As the title suggests, the stories are all linked by their settings: extreme heat or cold. The first, “Crocodile Tears,” tells the story of a woman whose husband dies suddenly of a massive heart attack. Instead of staying to see to his affairs, to bury him, and to mourn him, she leaves on the instant, with no destination in mind, and eventually finds herself in the southern French town of Nîmes, in the scorching heat of summer. The story traces her journey back to herself, finding her tethers again, in that crocodile-haunted city.

Several of the stories edge into the fantastic. “A Lamia in the Cévennes” gives us Bernard, an artist living in the south of France, who finds a lamia (a snake-daemon who will turn into a seductive woman if you kiss her — you remember Keats) in his gorgeous swimming pool. Bernard isn’t interested in women, he’s interested in colors:

Against the green hump the blue sky was one blue, and against the bald stone another, even when for a brief few hours it was uniformly blue overhead, that rich blue, that cobalt, deep-washed blue of the South, which fought all the blues of the pool, all the green-tinged, duck-egg-tinged blues of the shifting water.

So instead of kissing her, he asks her to pose for a portrait. The lamia gets more and more impatient, waiting to seduce Bernard; Bernard only wants to paint the beautiful colors of the snakeskin. How Bernard and the lamia both get their way is wryly funny and satisfying to read.

I had two favorite stories. The first was “Cold,” which is a straight-up fairy tale, a story about an ice princess who marries a prince from the burning desert. Byatt describes the princess’s understanding of herself as an icewoman in a warm culture, and her independence from the family that doesn’t understand her. Then come the courtship and love of a man from far away, and her desperate bid for survival in a scorching country under a glaring sun. (Blown glass is ironically their only art: it resembles frozen water, but is made of sand and fire.) Can the lovers find a way to be together, or will the ice princess melt into formlessness and nothing?

My other favorite was “Jael,” a very short story revolving around the Biblical tale of Jael and Sisera.

Now I think about it, it’s a story about the breaking of all the primitive laws of hospitality, and kindness, laws we learn even from fairy-stories. Jael was not Sisera’s enemy; she enticed him in, and gratuitously betrayed him.

The story, about another gratuitous betrayal that may or may not have happened and spread itself through the narrator’s entire life, is tightly-knit, complex, and unexpected. It rewards re-reading, and that’s possible because it is so short.

I am very fond of Byatt’s short stories in general. I think The Little Black Book of Stories is my favorite collection of hers, but this one was wonderful: a feast of fire and ice, color and story.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 3 Comments

The Picture of Dorian Gray

picture of dorian grayOscar Wilde is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years. Of course, I know a lot about his work just because I’m culturally literate, but I’ve never actually read anything he’s written, with the exception of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” And The Picture of Dorian Gray is just the same. The premise is something I knew, and indeed that almost everyone must know: a man makes a terrible bargain, that his portrait will grow old, and will show all the wickedness and corruption of his soul, while he himself stays young and pristine.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I was somewhat surprised to find that The Picture of Dorian Gray is very much a book of ideas. Dorian makes his pact with the portrait very early on, as a complete naif, a young man who has no experience of the world. When he makes his fantastic wish, he is in a sort of frenzy of terror and jealousy, believing that physical youth and beauty are the one real good. From here, he is led from innocence to experience by his wicked old friend Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry does two things to help blacken Dorian’s white-and-gold adolescent soul (though he would never admit responsibility) : he talks a great deal about his philosophy of pleasure (i.e. that pleasure is the only thing really worth pursuing in life, whereas seriousness and sorrow should be avoided), and he gives Dorian a book.

The first part, about a philosophy of pleasure, is not apparently the most dangerous. While there are long passages about beauty, pleasure, and a kind of decadence early in the book, there are also quite a few people who can listen to Lord Henry talk without being led into mortal sin. The book, however, like many another in literature, is the sweet poison that leads Dorian into a spiral of evil. It seems to be an homage to J.K Huysman’s A rebours, a very odd and dreamy French Symbolist novel about a man trying out one rather nasty experiment with decadence after another. Dorian is fascinated, and a long central part of Dorian Gray reflects A rebours, with Dorian’s own similar experiments on his way down the spiral. These experiments lead to far worse: drugs, exploitation, cruelty, and on and on. The end of the novel is fairly predictable in its way: the bottom of the spiral reached, and then scraped.

This is a strange hybrid of a book, really. In some ways it’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: fantasy or science fiction. In other ways, it’s philosophy: decadence and aestheticism and a weird kind of naturalism as Wilde talks about the importance of heredity. In still other ways, it’s Oscar Wilde writing dialogue, as he does in his plays: there’s an entire chapter that’s nothing but Lord Henry and a woman trading barbs about marriage. Here we find epigrams like “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” and “Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed,” and “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” It is witty, and sometimes it is wise.

But I don’t know that it’s such a wonderful book. The characters are very shallow, including Dorian. The long passages about Beauty and Youth and Art are a little preachy, and the parts in which Dorian is getting his thrills by being horrible are more or less nasty for the sake of it. It doesn’t shake out to much as a novel. I’m guessing that it’s been remembered because it was controversial and because it was written by Wilde, rather than because it’s such a gem in itself. That’s okay — I’m not sorry I read it — but I think I’d like to read something else and see where his real genius lies.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Uncategorized | 20 Comments

Masculinity in Breaking Bad

Breaking BadIf you happened to see me in September 2013, you might have had a hard time escaping a conversation about Breaking Bad. I came to the show late, starting it not long before the final half of the final season aired and catching up just in time for the antepenultimate episode “Ozymandias.” I was utterly wrapped up in the world of Walter White’s growing meth empire, not least because I was fascinated and unsettled by Walt himself and his relationship with his wife, Skyler. In my mind, the meth business was almost incidental to that central conflict.

Because Walt seemed to me to be a prime example of an all-too-common and extremely toxic type of masculinity, I was excited to see this essay collection about the show’s approach to masculinity offered in the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. Unfortunately, Masculinity in Breaking Bad was mostly a disappointment.

The collection, edited by Bridget Roussell Cowlishaw, takes an academic approach to the show, analyzing it through, for example, the lens of Foucault or Machiavelli. Sometimes this kind of analysis is compelling, and sometimes it isn’t. As it happens, the book mostly references philosophers and thinkers whose work I don’t know well. That doesn’t have to be a problem if the writers are able to explain these thinkers’ ideas and broaden them out to be of interest to people who don’t find an exploration of their ideas enough on its own. Jeffrey Reid Pettis’s essay “Men in Control” does this well by considering how the characters’ behaviors are guided by their feeling of being in a Foucaultian panopticon, thus leading them to act according to the roles they believe society has set out for them.

Another essay that I liked was Susan Johnson’s “Family Man,” in which Walt is described as someone whose supposedly virtuous acts are all about maintaining his masculinity—or his view of what masculinity is. I particularly liked the way she contrasted Walt to Hank, who seemed on the surface, especially in the first few episodes, to embody the worst sort of masculinity. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that Hank is genuinely interested in others’ well-being in a way that Walt is not. He has all the machismo and all the tenderness.

Walt is the focus of most of the essays, but he is often considered alongside Hank, Gus Fring, Hector Salamanca, Mike Ehrmentrout, and, of course, Jesse Pinkman. Skyler gets a fair bit of attention as well, mostly in a series of odd roundtable discussions about fan reaction to Skyler. Saul Goodman, however, is almost entirely ignored, which I found curious, partly because he’s so different from the other characters and might make an interesting point of contrast. It was especially odd to me that one of the essayists, Ian Dawe, fails to mention him entirely when naming the show’s major characters. Including Mike and Gus but not Saul in that list seems odd. Is it because Saul doesn’t operate the way the other central men do? Would including Saul disrupt his rather compelling thesis about male interest in legacy.

Dawe also offers up the howler that all but one of the show’s major characters are middle-aged men. The exception? Jesse Pinkman. I’m not sure it’s reasonable to justify leaving Lydia and Marie out of a list of main characters, but omitting Skyler sends a very unfortunate signal about which characters matter. I have to wonder, however, if an editor didn’t let Dawe down by not pointing out that he might have meant to say all but one of the male characters are middle-aged. I know an editor let him down by not pointing that out, but the editing in this book makes me more inclined to blame the editor than I, an editor, would normally be willing to do. I try very hard to overlook typos and infelicities in wording when I read. Because my work involves a lot of copyediting, it’s difficult for me to stop editing in my head to Chicago style once I start paying attention at that level. But this book was ridden with so many howlers (Gary Grant, inconsistent italicizing of Breaking Bad) that I couldn’t block them out. I hate being a curmudgeon about this because I know an editor’s work only gets noticed when it fails—and because I know I’m guilty of typos all the time. But I was really distracted by these glitches. Maybe if the essays themselves had been better I wouldn’t have noticed. At least they spelled Skyler correctly throughout.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood

So You Don't Get LostLike a lot of Americans, I’d never heard of Patrick Modiano until he won the Nobel Prize in 2014. Learning that he wrote psychological thrillers, I was immediately curious as to what kind of thriller writing would get a Nobel, so when his latest book turned up on the Tournament of Books long list, I thought I’d give it a try.

The first thing to note is that this isn’t a typical thriller. In fact, it’s hardly a thriller at all. Modiano takes a typical thriller premise and turns it into a contemplative story about lost memories and a (perhaps best) forgotten childhood.

The novel’s main character, Jean Daragane, is a writer whose comfortable solitude is interrupted when he gets a call from a man who has found an address book he’d lost. The man, Gilles Ottolini, wishes to return it in person because, as it turns out, he’s been trying to find some information about a man named Guy Tortsel, who’s listed in Daragane’s address book. Daragane remembers nothing about Tortsel, but he gets drawn into the mystery anyway when Ottolini’s girlfriend, Chantal Grippay, presents him with a dossier filled with Ottolini’s research.

Modiano employs a lot of the tropes of noir thrillers. There’s a femme fatale, mysterious meetings, links to a possible gambling ring and a murder, and a world-weary tone. But the trappings never lead to actual thrills. Instead, we see Daragane digging into his own memory, following a thread to someone he lost long ago. The links between this forgotten woman and the murder mentioned in the dossier are never clarified, and Tortsel’s identity, when revealed, is no great revelation. And by the end of the novel, we’re left not with a crime revealed but a child, alone, and even more of a mystery than we started with.

I do not want to give the impression that I consider the lack of thrills a flaw, but I do think I’d have enjoyed this more if I’d not picked it up expecting something in the vein of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. What Modiano does in slowly stripping away the book’s noir trappings is interesting, but it offers different pleasures from an actual thriller. (Not superior pleasures, but different ones.)

One of the novels chief pleasures is its prose, translated from the French by Euan Cameron. The third-person narrative mostly focuses on Daragane’s thoughts, and the meditative style suits the novel’s exploration of memory. Memory, as it turns out, is fraught with pain:

Le Tremblay. Chantal. Square du Graisivaudan. These words had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to being with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane.

The merging of past and present makes the book hard to follow at times—there are flashbacks inside flashbacks as Daragane remembers previous attempts at uncovering the mysteries of his past. But the details of the plot are less important than how it feels for Daragane to remember.

I can’t say that I loved So You Won’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, but it’s the kind of book that sometimes grows on me as I think more about it. It’s a short book, just 155 pages. I get the impression that most of Modiano’s books are short, which makes me very much willing to try him again, with my expectations more in line with what Modiano’s writing is like. If anyone has recommendations, I’d welcome them!

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Slade House

Slade HouseEvery nine years, someone walks through the small black iron door off Slade Alley to find themselves in the garden of Slade House, a house that’s not even visible from the alley. In 1979, it was little Nathan Bishop and his mother Rita, there at the invitation of Lady Grayer, owner of Slade House. The Bishops were never seen again, and Norah Grayer has proven impossible to find. And in 1988, a police detective wanders into that same garden, curious about the mystery. . .

Each chapter in David Mitchell’s Slade House covers another encounter with the mysterious house. I’ve seen it described as a series of short stories, but I experienced it as a novel with an episodic structure, each chapter building on the last at a satisfying pace and with a different voice taking the lead. Aside from the first chapter, none of the chapters stand alone. This book is apparently linked with Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, employing some of the same mythology, but I didn’t feel I was missing any essential knowledge without having read the earlier book. The mystery of Slade House is supposed to be disorienting and weird at first, and the explanations that begin to fill in the narrative are enough. If there’s more to the story, I didn’t need it.

As for the story itself, it’s a lot of fun if you enjoy haunted house stories. It’s not a great masterwork of the genre. It offers little commentary on the human condition or cultural norms. It just offers shudders and thrills, which is no small thing. The ending goes a little over the top, perhaps, but I often find that to be the case with horror stories. To me, the real chills are usually in the set-up, and this book is no exception. I enjoyed reading this overall, and if I ever get around to The Bone Clocks, I’m sure I’ll enjoy seeing the links to this story.

I received a review copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 12 Comments

Mountains of the Mind

mountains of the mindFor years, I’ve been a lover of the literature of exploration. I’ve read many books in which men (and some women, but mostly men) hurl themselves at intemperate climates and impossible peaks. In Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane goes about explaining why people do some of these things. What hold do mountains have over us? Why are we so entranced by them, when they are so objectively dangerous — when indeed, hundreds of people die mountaineering each year? How have our perceptions of mountains changed over the years? In what ways do we create mountains in our own image?

Mountains of the Mind is part memoir, part cultural history, and part geology. Macfarlane himself is addicted to mountain-climbing (and it runs in his family: he tells a wonderful story about his grandfather and grandmother, both vigorous mountaineers, who were snowed into a mountain cabin on their honeymoon for three days, “with only a large onion to eat between them.”) His own anecdotes about climbing, often in extremely beautiful and dangerous conditions, make this book vivid and personal — though it would have been fascinating in any case.

Macfarlane makes the geological case that mountains don’t change. Or, no — rather, he makes the case that they change a great deal and all the time, geologically speaking — shooting up from subduction zones, eroding from sharp peaks to softer ones, and grinding into glacial valleys, among other things. But these changes take place over millions and millions of years. In the brief lifespan of a human, mountains look changeless. They are what they are, from one generation to another, and when we encounter them, we encounter their reality: ice, snow, altitude sickness, and often fatal solitude.

But human perceptions change. Macfarlane points out that in the 17th and into the 18th century, mountains were viewed as bleak, dangerous places that no one wanted to climb, excrescences on the landscape. It wasn’t until the advent of the Romantic movement that mountaineering became really popular: the combination of beauty and terror that mountains could provide was the ideal of the sublime (not to mention that brooding Romantic poets look nice on a hill-top.)

Macfarlane also makes the point that the 19th century was the first time that exploration was taking place for the sake of finding new places, rather than for gain. In earlier centuries, it would have been silly to go to a mountaintop merely to conquer it. By the time Amundsen and Scott were racing to the Pole, however, most of the earth had already been mapped. The Victorians eagerly wrote their names on every col, every ridge, and every peak of mountains because they were some of the last blank places left on maps.

One of the heroes of this book is George Mallory, who made three attempts on Everest in the 1920s, and died on that third ill-fated climb. Macfarlane turns his story over and over like a puzzle-box. How could a man with so much at home (a scholarly appointment, plenty of money, friends, a wife he adored, and three children) fall into a deadly love affair with a mountain? What is there about mountains that possesses us? The romance is all one-sided; the mountains are silent.

So what is the value of climbing mountains? “Because they’re there,” to paraphrase Mallory? Macfarlane says that the truest blessing of mountains is that

…they make us ready to credit marvels: whether it is the dark swirls which water makes beneath a plate of ice, or the feel of the soft pelts of moss which form on the lee sides of boulders and trees. Being in the mountains reignites our astonishment at the simplest and most fundamental transactions of the physical world: a snowflake a millionth of an ounce falling on to one’s outstretched palm, water patiently carving a runnel in a face of granite, the apparently motiveless shift of a stone in a scree-filled gully. To put a hand down and feel the ridges and scores in a rock where a glacier has passed tens of thousands of years ago, to hear how a hillside comes alive with moving water after a rainshower, to see late summer light filling mile upon mile of landscape like an inexhaustible liquid – none of these is a trivial experience. Mountains return us to the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence, and they urge us to apply that sense of wonder to our everyday lives.

This book made me ready to credit marvels, too. I saw my local landscape differently after I read it, and I will read my books of exploration differently, too. The cultural history was fascinating, and the geology, and the personality that animated it. Macfarlane is absolutely an author I want to follow.

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