Friday, May 20, 2016

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth, by James M. Tabor

Why did I ever pick up this book?  I have no particular interest in caving nor, I would have thought,
Beginning the descent into the Krubera cave,
Abkhazia, Georgia
in reading about caving. Yet here we are -- I rushed to finish other chores so I could curl up somewhere with Blind Descent. I shared it with a friend, and he too sat down in his shop at the end of his workday and read late into the night. Coincidentally, we are planning a trip to Georgia in the spring of 2017, but dropping into the Krubera cave in Abkhazia -- now acknowledged as the world's deepest cave -- won't be on our itinerary. We're both content to have read about it.  We'll toast the cavers with some good Georgian wine. They are remarkable men and women.

Tabor tells the story of the men and women who were in a race to reach the deepest point on earth. If you like reading stories of mountaineering, you'll love this book. If you're afraid of the dark or claustrophobic, it will give you an especial thrill. If you think your sport, whatever it might be, is risky, descending into "supercaves" will make it seem mundane. Who does this sort of lunatic thing?  And why? Blind Descent will introduce you to them.

Tabor gathered reams of information from interviews and exchanges with the two expedition leaders. American Bill Stone led several expeditions into the Cheve cave system in Mexico; Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk led as many into the Krubera cave in Georgia. Their personalities are as riveting as their caving exploits.
Caves invite juxtapositions of opposites: light and dark, surface and subterranean, safety and terror. Alexander Klimchouk and Bill Stone are both in their fifties, but otherwise they are about as different as men can be, fitting nicely into that list of opposites. Klimchouk is short and slight. Stone is towering and muscular. Klimchouk is quiet, self-effacing, and avuncular. Stone is bold, brash, and commanding. Klimchouk has been happily married to the same woman for decades. Stone divorced in 1992 and has since had a series of relationships with strong, attractive, accomplished outdoorswomen. He is currently engaged to the cave explorer Vickie Siegel, with plans to marry in May 2010. They are alike, however, in two key ways: both are scientists and explorers in the classic tradition of Magellan, Amundsen, and Armstrong, willing to risk everything, including their lives ...
Limited by the seasons (winter rains flooded the caves), the two men led several years of expeditions into the caves. Some years met a dead end; others found "going" passages -- some wider than others -- that went. And went, and went. Always, though, is the thought that these cavers are very far below the earth's surface, and for every centimeter that they dig, scramble and dive, they have to turn around and go back through the same obstacles.
The 2004 expedition produced more frustration than discovery. After others declared the Aguacate cave (possibly connected to Cheve) dead-ended, Andi Hunter fought through this squeeze and discovered a new route. It paid off in Aguacate with the discovery of more than a mile of largely horizontal tunnels leading toward the presumed junction zone with Cheve. This expedition encountered more tight spaces than giant vertical drops, which prevailed in 2003. Squeezes present their own unique hazards. Sometimes the only way to rescue irretrievably stuck cavers is to break bones. 
Do you think climbing the world's 8,000-footers is dangerous? Of course it is, but the risks don't quite match up to those of descending 8,000 feet below the earth's surface. Mt. Everest (and other mountains of its ilk) are still littered with the corpses of mountaineers who have died there. Bill Stone's crew faced the decision of what to do when one of their team mates fell to his death in Cheve. Just as serious, and perhaps even more so, is the prospect of rescuing a caver who is seriously injured.
Supercaves present more hazards than any other extreme exploration environment. Just descending into and climbing out of them is exorbitantly dangerous. Recovering a body, dead or alive, from deep within any cave is even worse, increasing that danger by an order of magnitude. The same year Chris Yeager died, a caver named Emily Davis Mobley broke her leg only four hours and several hundred vertical feet from the entrance of a New Mexico cave called Lechuguilla—big but far less hazardous than Cheve. It took more than one hundred rescuers four days to bring her to the surface. One expert estimated that every hour of healthy-caver descent time equaled a day of ascent in rescue mode in Lechuguilla, which was noted for, as cave explorers put it, “extreme verticality.” “Extreme verticality” describes perfectly the part of Cheve through which Yeager’s body would have to be hauled. From its entrance, the cave drops like a steep staircase almost 3,000 vertical feet, over a total travel distance of 2.2 miles, before it begins to level off somewhat. It is not one smooth, continuous drop. Those 3,000 feet include innumerable features and formations, with the odd level stretch, but Cheve’s main thrust here is down. One giant shaft alone is 500 feet deep. Like rock climbers, cavers call such vertical drops “pitches.” There are also shorter pitches—many of them, in fact—as well as waterfalls, crawl spaces, walking passages, lakes, huge boulder fields, and many more formations, unique and almost impossible to describe except with a camera. 
If you want to read about Scott's and Amundsen's race to the South Pole, read Evan S. Connell's The White Lantern. I can't imagine a better book about the race to the center of the earth than this one.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I've been a loyal admirer of Donna Tartt since I read her debut novel, The Secret History. I love that she is a Mississippian, a smoker and drinker, a stylish woman, a recluse who writes her books in longhand.

When I finished The Goldfinch, I lay back and thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I had read The Great Gatsby both in high school and again in college, but only when I read it in my late 40s as part of a book group did I really see it clearly and objectively. I absolutely revelled in the elegance of Fitzgerald's style, reading and re-reading passages, silently and aloud, just marvelling at his choice of words. I also sat back and recognised that the plot is deeply flawed.

I wouldn't say that the plot of The Goldfinch is so flawed (critics were divided on this point -- it triggered a love-hate response amongst reviewers), but it didn't hold my attention as tenaciously as The Secret History. At 775 pages, give or take, there's a lot to love or hate, let's put it that way.

13 year-old Theo Decker is in trouble, and before his mother goes with him to school for a parent-teacher conference, they duck together into the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art. As his mother stands immersed in "The Goldfinch," a miniature masterpiece by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, Theo watches a girl of his own age with an older man, presumably her grandfather. This passage gorgeously illustrates Tartt's gift for inner monologue.  She also captures the relentless people-watching proclivities of writers, painters, photographers and Theo.
The grandfather had drifted away, a few paintings over; but she was loitering a few steps behind, the girl, and kept casting glances back at my mother and me. Beautiful skin: milky white, arms like carved marble. Definitely she looked athletic, though too pale to be a tennis player; maybe she was a ballerina or a gymnast or even a high diver, practicing late in shadowy indoor pools, echoes and refractions, dark tile. Plunging with arched chest and pointed toes to the bottom of the pool, a silent pow, shiny black swimsuit, bubbles foaming and streaming off her small, tense frame. Why did I obsess over people like this? Was it normal to fixate on strangers in this particular vivid, fevered way? I didn't think so. It was impossible to imagine some random passer-by on the street forming quite such an interest in me. And yet it was the main reason I'd gone in those houses with Tom: I was fascinated by strangers, wanted to know what food they ate and what dishes they ate it from, what movies they watched and what music they listened to, wanted to look under their beds and in their secret drawers and night tables and inside the pockets of their coats. Often I saw interesting-looking people on the street and thought about them restlessly for days, imagining their lives, making up stories about them on the subway or the crosstown bus. Years had passed, and I still hadn't stopped thinking about the dark-haired children in Catholic school uniforms -- brother and sister -- I'd seen in Grand Central, literally trying to pull their father out the door of a seedy bar by the sleeves of his suit jacket. Nor had I forgotten the frail, gypsyish girl in a wheelchair out in front of the Carlyle Hotel, talking breathlessly in Italian to the fluffy dog in her lap, while a sharp character in sunglasses (father? bodyguard?) stood behind her chair, apparently conducting some sort of business deal on his phone. For years, I'd turned those strangers over in my mind, wondering who they were and what their lives were like, and I knew I would go home and wonder about this girl and her grandfather the same way. The old man had money; you could tell from how he was dressed. Why was it just the two of them? Where were they from? Maybe they were part of some big old complicated New York family -- music people, academics, one of those artsy West Side families that you saw up around Columbia or at Lincoln Center matinees. Or, maybe -- homely, civilized old creature that he was -- maybe he wasn't her grandfather at all. Maybe he was a music teacher, and she was the flute prodigy he had discovered in some small town and brought to play at Carnegie Hall. "Theo?" my mother said...
After his mother is killed in a mysterious explosion in the museum (a bomb? we're never sure), Theo turns up at the Park Avenue apartment of his friend Andy Barbour. Of all the literary portrayals of the rich, beautiful and utterly dysfunctional of upper-crust New York, this one ranks up there with Edith Wharton.
There -- by the baby grand, and a flower arrangement the size of a packing case -- stood Mrs. Barbour in a floor-sweeping housecoat, pouring coffee into cups on a silver tray. As she turned to greet us, I could feel the social workers taking in the apartment, and her. Mrs. Barbour was from a society family with an old Dutch name, so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood. She was a masterpiece of composure; nothing ever ruffled her or made her upset, and though she was not beautiful her calmness had the magnetic pull of beauty -- a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room. Like a fashion drawing come to life, she turned heads wherever she went, gliding along obliviously without appearing to notice the turbulence she created in her wake; her eyes were spaced far apart, her ears were small, high-set, and very close to her head, and her body was long-waisted and thin, like an elegant weasel's. (Andy had these features as well, but in ungainly proportions, without her slinky ermine grace.) 
In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo also manages to connect with the elderly owner of an antique shop, Hobie, whose former partner, Welty, had been killed in the museum as he wandered through the gallery with the young girl. Besides being a brilliant portrait of Mrs. DeFrees, I love this passage for what it says about Welty and his skill. The important thing was finding the right object for each customer -- ironic when you consider what Theo gets up to when he takes over the shop, and also when you consider the role of the miniature, "The Goldfinch," in his own emotional life.
"It's so fitting if you knew Welty," said Hobie's great friend Mrs. DeFrees, a dealer in nineteenth-century watercolors who for all her stiff clothes and strong perfumes was a hugger and a cuddler, with the old-ladyish habit of liking to hold your arm or pat your hand as she talked. "Because, my dear, Welty was an agoramaniac. Loved people, you know, loved the marketplace. The to and the fro of it. Deals, goods, conversation, exchange. It was that eeny bit of Cairo from his boyhood, I always said he would have been perfectly happy padding around in slippers and showing carpets in the souk. He had the antiquaire's gift, you know -- he knew what belonged with whom. Someone would come in the shop never intending to buy a thing, ducking in out of the rain maybe, and he'd offer them a cup of tea and they'd end up having a dining room table shipped to Des Moines. Or a student would wander in to admire, and he'd bring out just the little inexpensive print. Everyone was happy, do you know. He knew everybody wasn't in the position to come in and buy some big important piece -- it was all about matchmaking, finding the right home."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the adult Theo does a fair amount of self-medication. As someone who has limited tolerance for time spent in NYC society, I feel his pain.
Only one or two pills a week, to get me through the very worst of the socializing, and only when I really really needed them. In lieu of the pharms I'd been drinking too much and that really wasn't working for me; with opiates I was relaxed, I was tolerant, I was up for anything, I could stand pleasantly for hours in unbearable situations listening to any old tiresome or ridiculous bullshit without wanting to go outside and shoot myself in the head.
My dear and astute friend Rose once said that she wanted to live a life with a narrative, or something to that effect. Don't we all? I thought but then realised that many of us couldn't care less. It all comes down, I suppose, to what the narrative turns out to be. And what happens when you realise that the narrative has turned out to be untrue? Can you stop yourself unravelling?
How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and valuable and worthy-of-living person, on the basis of my secret uptown? Yet I had. The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. And it was awful to learn, by having it so suddenly vanish from under me, that all my adult life I'd been privately sustained by that great, hidden, savage joy: the conviction that my whole life was balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow it apart.
If her publication frequency to date -- a novel a decade -- holds true, I've got another eight years or so to go back and read Ms. Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend before her next one appears. Two things to look forward to.