Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac won the Man Booker Prize in 1984. Hmmm. The other novels on the short list that year included J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun and Peter Carey's Flaubert's Parrot (both of which I'd have chosen over Hotel du Lac), as well as novels that I've not yet read by Anita Desai, David Lodge and Penelope Lively. I didn't dislike this book, but I'd be fascinated to hear why the judges loved it so.  

The protagonist, Edith Hope, is the British author of romance novels, which she pens under a pseudonym. Early on, we get the sense that she has retreated to the classic Swiss hotel to escape some sort of scandal.  Not long after that, she begins a letter to her married lover. (As it turns out, these two things are not connected.)  Meanwhile, her intention to spend her days writing is disrupted by the attentions of her fellow guests, most of whom have their own tortuous romantic histories.  The writing, however, suits the tone of the hotel---"stolid and dignified".
The Hotel du Lac (Famille Huber) was a stolid and dignified building, a house of repute, a traditional establishment. used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism...
...And of course it was an excellent hotel. And its situation on the lake was agreeable. The climate was not brilliant, but in comparison with other, similar, resorts, it was equable.
Yes, that's it -- I would describe this novel as agreeable, not brilliant, equable. I don't normally seek out reviews of books on Goodreads, much less quote them here, but this one was too good to pass up. Its author, Paul Bryant, gave Hotel du Lac two stars out of five. His synopsis is a gem.
A very slow, mournful novel set in an end-of-season hotel which may -- just may -- be a metaphor or sumpin. Everything happens in slowmo -- walks, meals, coffee, tea, cakes, clothes (pages of those), more walks, mothers, daughters, gloomy memories, walks, talks, a small dog, gauntness, autumnal colours, pallor, crepuscularity, more damned walks, more wretched meals, the god damned dog again, more clothes, and on p 143 this:
"my patience with this little comedy is wearing a bit thin".

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

This is one of those elegantly, intricately crafted novels with plot threads that intersect across great spans of time and place. Nao is a Japanese teen-ager with a troubled family life who sets out to learn about the history of her great, great grandmother, a Buddhist nun. On an island off the coast of Washington state, a novelist, Ruth, finds a small but intriguing collection of Japanese memorabilia that's washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, perhaps a remnant of the 2011 tsunami. Ruth and Nao set off on almost compulsive quests to unravel their respective mysteries on either side of the Pacific.

Nao lives with her idealistic but impractical father, who tries desperately to his his depression and lack of business acumen, and her mother, who is slowly, quietly, going mad.
Mom was almost never at home at the time. She was into her jellyfish phase, and she used to spend all day at the invertebrate tank in the city aquarium, where she would sit, clutching her old Gucci handbag, watching kurage through the glass. I know this because she took me there once. It was the only thing that relaxed her. She had read somewhere that watching kurage was beneficial to your health because it reduces stress levels, only the problem was that a lot of other housewives had read the same article, so it was always crowded in front of the tank, and the aquarium had to set out folding chairs, and you had to get there really early in order to get a good spot, all of which was very stressful. Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure she was having a nervous breakdown at the time, but I remember how pale and beautiful she looked with her delicate profile against the watery blue tank, and her bloodshot eyes following the drift of the pink and yellow jellyfish as they floated by like pulsing pastel-colored moons, trailing their long tentacles behind them.
Nao's father's professional decline was triggered by his conscience, which kicked in, most inconveniently, when he took an IT job in the Silicon Valley and was assigned to a defense-related project.  His pacifist nature did not mesh with the company's mission or vision, either one.
He sat perfectly still, studying his hands in his lap. "I know it is a stupid idea to design a weapon that will refuse to kill," he said."But maybe I could make the killing not so much fun."
(He was sacked shortly thereafter, and the family returned to Japan in disgrace.)  Meanwhile, Ruth is trying to decode some artefacts in the lunchbox that seemed to have belonged to a kamikaze pilot...

A glorious, quirky collection of history, philosophy and metaphysics, A Tale for the Time Being deserves attentive reading and re-reading, and I owe it both.

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey wrote this collection of essays during and about the three seasons he spent as a lone park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah, in the southwestern US. The book earned 7th place in the list of NatGeo Extreme Classics: The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time, which I think odd, as I find it neither extreme nor particularly adventurous. I much prefer the blurb that describes Abbey as "our very own desert father, a hermit loading up on silence and austerity and the radical beauty of empty places." I've done some trekking in the desert southwest, so his paeans to the landscape and its inhabitants all resonate with me. Nature is sacred, no matter the topology, but there is something about the vastness of the Utah sky that gives this area the feeling of an endless cathedral. And Abbey was an ideal man to safeguard it for three seasons.    
Other considerations come to mind. Arches National Monument is meant to be among other things a sanctuary for wildlife -- for all forms of wildlife. It is my duty as a park ranger to protect, preserve and defend all living things within the park boundaries, making no exceptions. Even if this were not the case I have personal convictions to uphold. Ideals, you might say. I prefer not to kill animals. I'm a humanist; I'd rather kill a man than a snake.
Much of the text consists of Abbey's philosophical and spiritual ruminations, often sitting at a makeshift picnic table with a beer at dusk. I wish more people would go into the back of beyond and acquire his understanding of the interrelationships between all species (and stay there until they do so.)
All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.
Abbey is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a curmudgeon, and his prickly humour suits me just fine.
I check the garbage can for trapped chipmunks, pick up a few bottle caps, and inspect the "sanitary facilities," where all appears to be in good order: roll of paper, can of lime, black widow spiders dangling in their usual strategic corners. On the inside of the door someone has written a cautionary note: "Attention: Watch out for rattlesnakes, coral snakes, whip snakes, vinegaroons, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, mites, black widows, cone-nosed kissing bugs, solpugids, tarantulas, horned toads, Gila monsters, red ants, fire ants, Jerusalem crickets, chinch bugs and Giant Hairy Desert Scorpions before being seated."
Desert Solitaire was first published in 1968.  Abbey harrumphed about the decision to allow cars into national parks. Occasionally I see articles about federal agencies allowing the roundup and culling of wild horses and burros in national parks, or other forms of intrusion that would send Abbey right into his grave if he hadn't gone there on his own in 1989. Sacrilege, all of it.
No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs --anything -- but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly. 
I suppose some might compare being stuck alone in the middle of the Utah desert as a form of solitary confinement, from which madness must ensue. Abbey makes clear that the absence of confinement is the saving grace, allowing him to reap the benefits of his solitary retreat.
But how, you might ask, does living outdoors on the terrace enable me to escape that other form of isolation, the solitary confinement of the mind? For there are the bad moments, or were, especially at the beginning of my life here, when I would sit down at the table for supper inside the housetrailer and discover with a sudden shock that I was alone. There was nobody, nobody at all, on the other side of the table. Alone-ness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society. By society I do not mean the roar of city streets or the cultured and cultural talk of the schoolmen (reach for your revolver!) or human life in general. I mean the society of a friend or friends or a good, friendly woman. Strange as it might seem, I found that eating my supper out back made a difference. Inside the trailer, surrounded by the artifacture of America, I was reminded insistently of all that I had, for a season, left behind; the plywood walls and the dusty venetian blinds and the light bulbs and the smell of butane made me think of Albuquerque. But taking my meal outside by the burning juniper in the fireplace with more desert and mountains than I could explore in a lifetime open to view, I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind. By taking off my shoes and digging my toes in the sand I made contact with that larger world -- an exhilarating feeling which leads to equanimity. Certainly I was still by myself, so to speak -- there were no other people around and there still are none -- but in the midst of such a grand tableau it was impossible to give full and serious consideration to Albuquerque. All that is human melted with the sky and faded out beyond the mountains and I felt, as I feel -- is it a paradox? -- that a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself. 

Ratking, by Michael Dibdin

I typically try to read series of books in order, whether or not they're sequential, but with Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, I goofed, reading #8, And Then You Die, first. Dibdin is a British writer, but after teaching in Perugia for some years, he published the first mystery featuring Detective Aurelio Zen, Ratking, in 1988. It won the Gold Dagger Award for the Best Crime Novel of the year.

In this novel, Zen has run afoul of his superiors in Rome, and he is sent off to Perugia to work on a kidnapping case:  An elderly tycoon has been kidnapped. The problem? His adult children, each more outrageously dysfunctional than the other, seem little interested in retrieving their father. The father's secretary likens the situation to a "ratking"---a group of rats whose tails get hopelessly entangled. Needless to say, it rarely ends well.

Dibdin always makes sure his detective is well-fed, and the meals always have a sacramental ring to them. In this book, Zen's favourite restauranteur rants about the modern culinary blasphemy.
Ottavio outlined in pained tones his opinion that people were not eating enough these days. All they ever thought about was their figures, a selfish, short-sighted view contributing directly to the impoverishment of restaurateurs and the downfall of civilization as we know it. What the Goths, the Huns and the Turks had failed to do was now being achieved by a conspiracy of dietitians who were bringing the country to its knees with all this talk of cholesterols, calories and the evils of salt. Where were we getting to? Such were his general grievances.
I like a well-written, cleverly crafted detective story just fine, but Dibdin's lexicon is a bonus. Although 'wannabe' has earned its place in the dictionary, it's handy to have a more classic synonym on hand.
Like most police drivers, Luigi Palottino clearly considered himself a Formula One contender manqué...
Sad, dismal, dreary all get the point across, but nothing says morbidly depressing like lugubrious.
...the Miletti property, a lugubrious baroque monstrosity...
When he's finally managed to unsnarl the rats' tails in this case, he returns home to Rome to find that his long-time, live-in American girlfriend is returning to the United States. Like those of so many literary detectives, Zen's love life is a bit of a shambles.
"The thing is, I'm going home, Aurelio." But you are at home, he thought. Then he realized what she meant.
"For a holiday?"
She shook her head.
"You're joking," he said. She walked over to the glass jars where she kept rice and pulses, pulled out an envelope tucked under one and handed it to him.
"Whether you travel for business or pleasure, MONDITURIST!" it read. "Our business is to make travelling a pleasure!" Inside there was an airline ticket to New York in her name.
"I decided one night last week. For some reason I had woken up and then I couldn't get back to sleep. I just lay there and thought about this and that. And it suddenly struck me how foreign I feel here, and what that was doing to me." She paused, biting one fingernail. "People who have been exiles too long seem to end up as either zombies or vampires. I don't want that to happen to me."
I read that passage and wondered how long his girlfriend had lived in Italy when she made that statement. How long will I have been exiled in southeast Asia before I begin to feel the same? Some days I think I already have.  

Friday, October 7, 2016

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies is the second volume in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall, the first volume, and this book won it in 2012, making her one of only four writers to win the prize twice. (The others were J. M. Coetzee, Peter Carey and J. G. Farrell.)

As with Wolf Hall, some prior knowledge of Henry VIII and his court is very helpful if not prerequisite to fully appreciate the book. This volume tells the story of Cromwell's work to rid the King of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, who has become not only a political albatross round his royal neck but has also failed to bear him a male heir to the throne. I love the way Mantel reveals that Henry's already got his eye on Anne's successor (Jane Seymour) via a whispered conversation between Cromwell and Ambassador Chapuys, formerly a confidante of Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife.
Light dawns in the ambassador's eye. "Ahh." He lets out a long breath. He grasps, in that single moment, why Henry has forced him to make a public reverence to a queen whom he no longer wants. Henry is tenacious of his will, he is stubborn. Now he has carried his point: his second marriage has been acknowledged. Now, if he likes, he can let it go. Chapuys draws his garments together, as if he feels a draught from the future. He whispers, "Must I really dine with her brother?"
"Oh yes. You will find him a charming host. After all," he raises a hand to hide his smile, "has he not just enjoyed a triumph? He and his whole family?"
Chapuys huddles closer."I am shocked to see her. I have not seen her so close. She looks like a thin old woman. Was that Mistress Seymour, in the halcyon sleeves? She is very plain. What does Henry see in her?"
"He thinks she's stupid. He finds it restful." 
Jane Rochford is also unhappily married, but to Anne Boleyn's brother, George. When Cromwell is sniffing around for a reason to get rid of the Queen, he finds a very willing accomplice in Lady Rochford, who is conveniently serving as one of Anne's ladies-in-waiting. For her part, Lady Rochford sees the chance to kill two birds with one stone, and she avows that Anne and George have an incestuous relationship.  Her options are, after all, given her station in life, rather limited.
For what can a woman like Jane Rochford do when circumstances are against her? A widow well-provided can cut a figure in the world. A merchant's wife can with diligence and prudence take business matters into her hands, and squirrel away a store of gold. A labouring woman ill-used by a husband can enlist robust friends, who will stand outside her house all night and bang pans, till the unshaven churl tips out in his shirt to chase them off, and they pull up his shirt and mock his member. But a young married gentlewoman has no way to help herself. She has no more power than a donkey; all she can hope for is a master who spares the whip.
Cromwell doesn't stop there. He arrests a court musician and three other courtiers. In all, five men were tried and ultimately executed, although evidence suggests that all were framed. Cromwell, however, was clever enough to choose men who had the appearance of impropriety.
He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.
As the years pass, and the byzantine plots in Henry's court never cease, Cromwell finally shows some signs of strain. He's growing weary, or perhaps just hard.
He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

This is one of those books that someone recommends passionately, with italics and exclamation marks, "You have to read this!" Then you do read it, struggle for days or months with the book hangover and wish you could think of something more articulate to tell your other friends, but it's no use. "You have to read this!"

The book's title feels like a bad joke, because the characters are colossal, but not because they are extraordinary. Their lives are monumental because Hanya Yanagihara has written them that way. She has drawn them with the miniscule detail that a Flemish painter lavishes on intricate lace collars and cuffs. She has explored their everyday heroism and their private mortifications. I feel that I know these fictional characters better than I know my own siblings (which of course says something about my own family dynamics, but you get the point.)  Some clever soul designed tote bags bearing the names of the four main characters and probably sold them at book signings and what-not. I have no doubt one could walk around in a great many places with this tote bag and have strangers running up and exclaiming, "Omigod, was that not an amazing book?"

Some critics have compared A Little Life to Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children or Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Yes, it's a story of college friends and what becomes of them after graduation, but the superficial similarity ends there. (That's not to denigrate either of the two latter books; I admired them both.)

JB is a painter, the son of Haitian immigrants who had thrived in the US; he struggles with his ethnic background just as he struggles to accept his own success when it comes.
He liked to pretend he was one of them, but he knew he was not. Sometimes there would be Haitians on the train, and he---his hearing, suddenly wolflike, distinguishing from the murmur around him the slurpy, singy sound of their Creole---would find himself looking toward them, to the two men with round faces like his father's, or to the two women with soft snubbed noses like his mother's. He always hoped that he might be presented with a completely organic reason to speak to them---maybe they'd be arguing about directions somewhere, and he might be able to insert himself and provide the answer---but there never was. Sometimes they would let their eyes scan across the seats, still talking to each other, and he would tense, ready his face to smile, but they never seemed to recognize him as one of their own. Which he wasn't, of course. Even he knew he had more in common with Asian Henry Young, with Malcolm, with Willem, or even with Jude, than he had with them. Just look at him: at Court Square he disembarked and walked the three blocks to the former bottle factory where he now shared studio space with three other people. Did real Haitians have studio space? Would it even occur to real Haitians to leave their large rent-free apartment, where they could have theoretically carved out their own corner to paint and doodle, only to get on a subway and travel half an hour (think how much work could be accomplished in those thirty minutes!) to a sunny dirty space? No, of course not. To conceive of such a luxury, you needed an American mind.
Compared to the other three, JB had enjoyed a comfortable, even lavish childhood, which, he notes, has left him relatively jaded.
He had been to Paris with his mother in junior high, and again with his class in high school, and between his sophomore and junior years of college, but it wasn't until he had seen Jude's and Willem's faces that he was able to most vividly realize not just the beauty of the city but its promise of enchantments. He envied this in them, this ability they had (though he realized that in Jude's case at least, it was a reward for a long and punitive childhood) to still be awestruck, the faith they maintained that life, adulthood, would keep presenting them with astonishing experiences, that their marvelous years were not behind them. 
Jude, arguably the story's central character, is a walking wound, both physically and emotionally. When he pairs up with a man who proves to be an abuser, the author gives us an uncomfortably sharp look at the dynamic that draws them together.
There is a sort of symmetry to his pairing with Caleb that makes sense: they are the damaged and the damager, the sliding heap of garbage and the jackal sniffing through it. They exist only to themselves---he has met no one in Caleb's life, and he has not introduced Caleb to anyone in his.
In a letter to Harold and Julia, the friends who adopted Jude as an adult, Willem discusses the challenge of coping with Jude's Janus-like personality---self-loathing on one hand, and a competent, successful lawyer and beloved friend on the other.
Equally difficult was my (and your) attempts to get him to abandon certain ideas about himself: about how he looked, and what he deserved, and what he was worth, and who he was. I have still never met anyone as neatly or severely bifurcated as he: someone who could be so utterly confident in some realms and so utterly despondent in others.
Beneath his tailored suits, Jude's limbs bear the marks of razor blades; he compulsively self-harms. His friends try as gently as possible to help him. They ask him to hand over the razor blades; they beg him to promise to call them when the compulsion strikes. They ask him why he does it at all.
"Jude," I said, "why do you do this to yourself?" For a long time, he was quiet, and I was quiet too. I listened to the sea.
Finally, he said, "A few reasons."
"Like what?"
"Sometimes it's because I feel so awful, or ashamed, and I need to make physical what I feel," he began, and glanced at me before looking down again. "And sometimes it's because I feel so many things and I need to feel nothing at all---it helps clear them away. And sometimes it's because I feel happy, and I have to remind myself that I shouldn't."
In his relationship with Harold (his adoptive father and former law school professor) and Julia, Jude sees the workings of a loving, healthy, strong relationship. Much as they nurture him, they also present the image of something that seems purely unattainable.
He is always reminded of a visit to Harold and Julia's he'd made years ago, when he had come down with a terrible cold and had wound up spending most of the weekend on the living-room sofa, wrapped in a blanket and sliding in and out of sleep. That Saturday evening, they had watched a movie together, and at one point, Harold and Julia had begun talking about the Truro house's kitchen renovation. He half dozed, listening to their quiet talk, which had been so dull that he couldn't follow any of the details but had also filled him with a great sense of peace: it had seemed to him the ideal expression of an adult relationship, to have someone with whom you could discuss the mechanics of a shared existence.
Willem, who becomes a successful actor, becomes Jude's confidante and then lover over time. It's through him that we learn much of Jude's history. Willem reflects on couples, especially those who live with each other's psychic injuries.
As you got older, you realized that the qualities you valued in the people you slept with or dated weren't necessarily the ones you wanted to live with, or be with, or plod through your days with. If you were smart, and if you were lucky, you learned this and accepted this. You figured out what was most important to you and you looked for it, and you learned to be realistic. They all chose differently: Roman had chosen beauty, sweetness, pliability; Malcolm, he thought, had chosen reliability, and competence (Sophie was intimidatingly efficient), and aesthetic compatibility. And he? He had chosen friendship. Conversation. Kindness. Intelligence. When he was in his thirties, he had looked at certain people's relationships and asked the question that had (and continued to) fuel countless dinner-party conversations: What's going on there? Now, though, as an almost-forty-eight-year-old, he saw people's relationships as reflections of their keenest yet most inarticulable desires, their hopes and insecurities taking shape physically, in the form of another person. Now he looked at couples---in restaurants, on the street, at parties---and wondered: Why are you together? What did you identify as essential to you? What's missing in you that you want someone else to provide? He now viewed a successful relationship as one in which both people had recognized the best of what the other person had to offer and had chosen to value it as well.
I suppose some might suggest that this novel is unremittingly bleak, but I would disagree. Hanyagihara has done exactly what Willem mentioned:  recognized the best of what her characters have to offer (amidst their scars) and chosen to value it.  

Objects of Our Affection, by Lisa Tracy

The book's full title, Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family's Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time, attracted me, as did the synopsis, which described the efforts of the author and her sister, Jeanne, to cope with a few households full of family possessions after their mother's death.

My own mother died in 2000 (my father had died back in 1986), and I have a conflicting relationships with the objects that I inherited from their household. While I can't trace our family's antiques back to relatives who arrived on the Mayflower or fought heroically in the Revolution, they include some 18th-century gems, some of which have been in our family for a while, some of which my parents bought at auctions here and there.  Regardless, they were in my childhood home, and they hold sentimental value for me as well as intrinsic value as antiques.  Is that enough to justify shipping them from New England to Malaysia to Cambodia? I don't know, but if I sell them, I can't replace them. If I sell them, I have nothing left that ties me to my past, apart from memories. On the other hand, they lost some of their nostalgic power as time passed after my mother's death---once removed from our family home, they grew less numinous somehow. The big, pine sea-captain's trunk looks out of place in Phnom Penh, and the tropical climate is not treating it kindly. It's become incongruous, like the piña colada that hit the spot in the Bahamas but doesn't quite work in Boston.

Tracy captures perfectly our nostalgic clinging. We use our stuff as a means to construct our historical narrative, be it fictional or real.
Yet the ideal that we Americans cherish is some cozy picture-book town---like the Lexington of our childhoods, or some idealized New England village---where everyone knows his neighbors, and where the names on the street signs and in the cemetery are indeed your own. I think that's what makes Thomas Kinkade's paintings so popular. Seems like everyone craves that small-town fantasy, and Kinkade provides it, just as surely as Currier and Ives did in their day. The reality is that most of us have little enough idea of where our great-grandparents are buried and even less chance of ever seeing the place we originally "came from." This is about grief and loss, says Jeanne. As a people, we grieve because we don't get to close the circle. We don't know how so many of our families' stories ended. We move around so much, sometimes we don't even know what happened to our childhood friends, to the houses we lived in, to the people we worked with just ten years ago. As a country, she says, we don't realize that our anxiety and our greed are part of an effort to lay the ghosts to rest.
She also captures the wish to leave things unchanged, as they were before the family members died. We all know stories of siblings whose relationships were permanently rent by estate battles; she points out that it's not easy, even in the best of cases.
The process was nerve-racking, even for two sisters who had for most of our lives functioned as long-distance best friends. Put yourself in our place: You're dividing up treasures garnered over many lifetimes, which are also the essence of your childhood home. But actually, you don't want to divide it at all; you want it to stay exactly where it is. You don't ever want to see it any way other than the way it has always been. And you're doing this with your best friend. Scalpel, please!
When Tracy delved into the history of her family artefacts, my mind started to wander. I wouldn't go so far as to call it name-dropping, but I found that I didn't get the same thrill from her historical connections as she did. I think many of us construct our own histories around the pieces we love, and they're largely personal.
It was Harry, after all, who had fallen while leading the charge at San Juan Hill, but Teddy Roosevelt who had claimed the day and seized the credit. And there was William Maxwell Wood Sr., the uniformed naval officer in the portrait and Daddy's great-grandfather, for whom he was named.
These and other illustrious names lurked in our family's background, as did various heroic deeds that had certainly made headlines at the time---like Harry Egbert's death---but had since receded, most annoyingly, into the vast swamp of history without leaving a trace worth talking about---or trading upon, as we were hoping to do in this auction.
In the end, she seems to agree with me that the decisions are largely sentimental ones, part of a futile search for what is long gone.
Still others have said that it isn't really home we're all looking for but our childhoods; or that home is the place we leave and then spend our whole lives trying to get back to.

Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer

I read this book in June 2016, not long before seeing the film adaptation, Into Thin Air: Death on
Everest, which engendered a certain amount of controversy concerning Krakauer's behaviour on the mountain, which he addresses in the afterword of the book. Regardless of he did (or didn't do), he paints a very realistic first-hand picture of what the mountain is like, and even more, what today's mountaineering industry has become, at least where Mt. Everest is concerned. Think less sport, more business.

To wit, this account includes Sandy Pittman, "a socialite and mountaineer" and whose presence invited criticism from those who feel that climbing Everest has become an endeavour for anyone who can afford it (whether qualified or not) and who hinted that she placed an unreasonable burden on Sherpas, both before and after the avalanche. Krakauer notes...
...her pile of luggage included stacks of press clippings about herself to hand out to the other denizens of Base Camp. Within a few days Sherpa runners began to arrive on a regular basis with packages for Pittman, shipped to Base Camp via DHL Worldwide Express; they included the latest issues of Vogue, Vanity Fair, People, Allure. The Sherpas were fascinated by the lingerie ads and thought the perfume scent-strips were a hoot. 
As for himself, an experienced mountaineer, Krakauer is quick to skewer the perception of mountain-climbers as mere thrill-seekers, adrenaline junkies.
People who don't climb mountains---the great majority of humankind, that is to say---tend to assume that the sport is a reckless, Dionysian pursuit of ever escalating thrills. But the notion that climbers are merely adrenaline junkies chasing a righteous fix is a fallacy, at least in the case of Everest. What I was doing up there had almost nothing in common with bungee jumping or skydiving or riding a motorcycle at 120 miles per hour. Above the comforts of Base Camp, the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other mountain I'd been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace. Of course for some Everesters myriad other, less virtuous motives came into play as well: minor celebrity, career advancement, ego massage, ordinary bragging rights, filthy lucre. But such ignoble enticements were less a factor than many critics might presume. 
Regarding the criticism coming from all directions at the handling of the disaster, Krakauer reminds us that we're Monday-morning-quarterbacking from near sea level.
It can't be stressed strongly enough, moreover, that Hall, Fischer, and the rest of us were forced to make such critical decisions while severely impaired with hypoxia. In pondering how this disaster could have occurred, it is imperative to remember that lucid thought is all but impossible at 29,000 feet. 
To those who look at the business that's developed to guide climbers up Mt. Everest and shake their heads, he offers this point:  Look where Mt. Everest is located, folks.

But guiding Everest is a very loosely regulated business, administered by byzantine Third World bureaucracies spectacularly ill-equipped to assess qualifications of guides or clients.
Moreover, the two nations that control access to the peak---Nepal and China---are staggeringly poor. Desperate for hard currency, the governments of both countries have a vested interest in issuing as many expensive climbing permits as the market will support, and both are unlikely to enact any policies that significantly limit their revenues. 
Finally, in response to those who complain about the disaster of 1996, Krakauer provides some good, solid statistics about Everest's fatality rates.  I would add, who in his right mind would consider summiting the world's highest mountain to be a low-risk effort?
In fact, the murderous outcome of 1996 was in many ways simply business as usual. Although a record number of people died in the spring climbing season on Everest, the 12 fatalities amounted to only 3 percent of the 398 climbers who ascended higher than Base Camp---which is actually slightly below the historical fatality rate of 3.3 percent. Or here's another way to look at it: between 1921 and May 1996, 144 people died and the peak was climbed some 630 times---a ratio of one in four. Last spring, 12 climbers died and 84 reached the summit---a ratio of one in seven. Compared to these historical standards, 1996 was actually a safer-than-average year.
P.S.  Around the same time, I watched the film Meru (2015), about three climbers who made it up India's Mt. Meru---21,000 feet of nearly sheer wall. No sherpas involved, just heart-pounding expertise and courage. My advice:  Read Into Thin Air, but go see Meru.