From the Archives: Summer Reading 2015 – Cool Reads
Greg Waldmann, Editor-in-Chief
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
By Eric Newby
Like your average resident of New England, my relationship with the seasons is fickle, even schizophrenic. Halfway through Winter I crave the Spring, in late Spring I hope for Summer, and when the humid heat of August reduces me to a pathetic state, swimming torpidly through the air, I yearn for the coolness of Fall. It’s an oddly calibrated thing, though: I don’t think about Spring in the Fall, or vice versa. But the extremes of Summer and Winter are more inviting of comparison, and in the long sweep of a book that contrast can be a relief and a pleasure.
Few books encompass these extremes more relentlessly than Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, a hapless man’s account of a month spent clumping through the mountains and valleys of Northeast Afghanistan. The backstory is that Newby, a part-time writer toiling in the clothing industry, roped his friend Hugh Carless, a diplomat, into a hiking expedition to the remote province of Nuristan in order to climb Mir Samir, a snow-capped monolith nearly 20,000 feet tall. They had a small budget, scant knowledge of local culture, and no climbing experience. Here are the makings of tragedy on the order of that described by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air. But Newby is also British, so the book he made of his suffering is quite funny.
It’s obvious from the start that Newby and Carless will never summit the mountain; the fun is in seeing how far they get, and how much discomfort their own incompetence brings upon them. They took horses with them, for instance, but that was a mistake because, according to Newby, “being nervous of horses, I emanate a smell of death when close to them so that, sniffing it, they take fright themselves and attempt to destroy me.” They trudge through sweltering valleys and frigid, windswept mountain passes, embarrassing themselves in front of the locals, nursing frequent, self-inflicted injuries, and enduring almost constant bowel trouble. (Newby, perhaps also because he’s British, handles this delicately.) Even shelter is chimerical. One night,
we huddled in our sleeping-bags at the bottom of a dried-out watercourse. It seemed to offer some protection from the wind, which howled about us, but in the morning we woke to find ourselves buried under twin mounds of sand like dead prospectors. But for the time being I was cured: sixteen sulphaguanadine tablets in sixteen hours had done it.
Newby is awake to the beauty of his surroundings, though, and he writes with enough elegance to convey it; A Short Walk is a strange admixture of jokes and wonderment – perhaps that explains its enduring popularity – and of hot and cold. One day they encounter a scorched valley, which was like “a place of mirage. At times the river was so insubstantial that it tapered into nothingness, sometimes it became a lake, shivering like a jelly between earth and sky,” while later, on a mountain, in the cold, their bodies shivered and “breath smoked in the moonlight.”
Carless and Newby eventually find the mountain and hilarity ensues: “we put on our crampons. Apart from the day in Milan when I had bought them in a hurry, it was the first time I had worn crampons. I didn’t dare ask Hugh whether he had, but I noticed that his too were new.” They botch their first reconnaissance sweep, and on the way down Newby grows lightheaded and carefree, “what the Americans call euphoria, a state of mind not consonant with my present responsibilities.” A second attempt brings them surprisingly close to the top, but of course they’ve left too late in the day, and their injuries make a third attempt impossible.
They decide to return home but the journey out of Afghanistan is no better: they grow sick again and a careless porter submerges their equipment in a glacial lake. Newby and Carless finally emerge, battered and exhausted, in the lower Panjshir Valley (where forty years later Ahmed Shah Massoud would lead the Northern Alliance against the Taliban), only to be insulted by a comically macho fellow Brit for using air mattresses. If, like me, the summer sometimes has you feeling sorry for yourself, I can’t think of a more pleasing book to put in your hand. It is a mischievous pleasure, but salutary.
John Cotter, Executive Editor
By Adalbert Stifter
I didn’t grow up in a remote Austrian village, warmed by hearth fires while the snow whirled outside, dark shapes of mountains blocking the stars around me. But reading Rock Crystal, a perfect 1845 novella by Mitteleuropa’s Adelbert Stifter, I feel as though I’ve been lost in those mountains and emerged the better, and the warmer.
The setting is Gschaid in the middle 19th century (though time doesn’t really matter here). We’re told of a small mountain village separated from the closest neighboring town by a relatively low range of peaks between two higher ones. Along the road through those low mountains (a ‘col’ it’s named here – same root as ‘collar’) occasionally pass a pair of children on the way to visit their grandmother on the other side. The children enjoy these visits but they’re as necessary to their grandmother as air. (“Mothers may love their children and tenderly long for them when they are absent,” Stifter tells us, correctly, “but a grandmother’s longing for her grandchildren amounts almost to a morbid craving.”)
Each Christmas Eve young Conrad and even younger Sanna make this journey in the morning, are fed and petted and loaded with presents when they arrive, only to find find themselves shooed out the door again in little time so their worried grandmother can be sure they return to their parents in Gschaid before the gloaming and the dark.
On the Christmas Rock Crystal relates Conrad and Sanna’s journey home is bewildered by a sudden snowfall, of the kind that hardly comes to such a valley in a hundred years.
As far as they could see in the dusk, glimmering snow lay on everything, separate tiny facets scintillating curiously here and there as if, after absorbing the light all day, they were now reflecting it again.
The story has the structure of a fairy tale but there is no magic – except in the way a stroke of good luck always seems a little magical – the world is our world, and clearly observed. As W.H. Auden writes in his introduction to the 1945 translation, “To bring off, as Stifter does, a story of this kind, with it’s breathtaking risks of appealing banalities, is a great feat.” Excessive sentimentality is also elided somehow and we feel as uncynical and struck with awe as the children themselves, when coming on wall after wall of solid ice, a living glacier, most beautiful when most dangerous, we wonder and shiver alongside them:
There were great slabs lying, covered with snow but on the edges glassy green ice showed; there were mounds of what looked like pushed-up foam, the sides dull but with inward glimmers as if crystals and splinters of precious stones had been jumbled together … All these irregular shapes had been driven into each other or upright, and stood out in the form of roofs or eaves; and overlying or overlapping them were great white cat’s paws of snow.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor
As the summer months unfold their favors of warmth and sunlight, it takes a bit of effort to remember that for a few intense, formative years in Europe, those same warming weeks were once a time of dread: it was in the summer that the ice in the sea-ways melted, and it was in the summer that the Vikings swept down out of the chilly North in their longboats to burn and pillage, first restricting their raids to northern Europe but eventually spreading their dragon-sails all the way to Byzantium. They fought with a ferocity most civilized lands had long forgotten possible, and where they settled they spread the rich lore and mythology of their homelands, profoundly – and sometimes inadvertently – changing their victim lands in the process. The Vikings and the Viking threat gave rise to new kinds of civic defense systems, standing navies, and even the names of a few days of the week (not to mention a very lucrative Marvel Comics superhero). The Viking era eventually ended, but the world’s fascination with the Vikings themselves has never so much as flickered, let alone waned – they star in everything from video games to movies to a surprise-success TV show on the History Channel, and every publishing season brings forth a big new crop of books about them. Two of the best of the current bunch are:
Line acknowledges right at the start of his book that the world hasn’t exactly experienced a shortage of books about Vikings, but he maintains that his own is covering some new ground with some new emphases. Such claims are almost lampoonishly optimistic, but his book is intensely enjoyable anyway. He concentrates on the way Vikings – and, once they got over their initial shock and organized, their victims – actually went about the business of making war. Line covers all the major Viking theaters of operation and analyzes all their major campaigns and opponents, always careful to ground his work on reliable research. And he’s a lively narrator at every stage, working plenty of details from the Heimskringla and the tales of Snorri Sturluson into his story to give it color and punch. The summer is still young, but this will almost certainly be the best general-overview of the Viking phenomenon to appear before our own season of snow and ice closes in.
Of course, the main element of the first impression Vikings made on the monks, farmsteaders, and town burghers they encountered when they sailed from their icy homes was their ferocity. These raiders were men who seemed born and bred for hand-to-hand combat – as strong and capable as the warriors they were fighting, yes, but also eerily fearless. In his cerebral and fascinating new book, Price examines the cultural causes of that fearlessness and centers on the religion of the Norsemen, which told not only of an afterlife of constant fighting but also of a Last Battle in which the gods themselves would fight and lose, engulfing all of creation in Ragnarok, the end of everything, the great spasm before the cycle of life and death began again. Price studies accounts of Viking funerals and burial customs in an attempt to get inside their world-view about life and death, and the result is a book that’s fantastically gripping, almost a First Contact manual with an alien species.
Sam Sacks, Founding Editor
The Birthday Boys
By Beryl Bainbridge
Carroll and Graf
The late Dame Beryl Bainbridge, who wrote fiction about the Crimean War, the Titanic, and the young Adolf Hitler, was attracted to catastrophe, and with her 1991 novel The Birthday Boys she may have found her perfect subject. The book is about Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s notorious Terra Nova Expedition, his attempt to lead the world’s first journey to the South Pole. It commenced in 1910 and concluded two years later in the most unceremonious way possible. First Scott was pipped to the post by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who planted his flag about a month before the beleaguered British explorer arrived. On the return trip, Scott and his party of four other men died of frostbite.
Bainbridge tells the story from the perspectives of these five doomed men. Though they come from different backgrounds and social stations, their narrations are united by their gruffness and lack of sentimentality, a preservation of British phlegm during even the most terrifying setbacks. “I won’t dwell on what happened on the way,” Scott says,
sufficient to say the dogs fell into a crevasse and we nearly lost the lot. They were twisting on their traces for nearly an hour or more, and some undoubtedly suffered internal injuries. Even while they dangled, howling in agony, they still continued to bite and tear at one another. Such uncivilized behavior went some way towards dulling compassion for their plight.
But even Scott can’t keep his stiff upper lip in the face of the mounting crises, many of which, Bainbridge suggests, were the result of his own hardheadedness. Due in part to his distaste for the uncivil behavior of sledge dogs, he insisted on bringing ponies to do much of the hauling. The animals, who were miserably unsuited for Antarctic winters, met their own grisly ends—one indelible scene shows them falling through the broken sea ice and becoming entrees for a pod of killer whales.
Of course the most implacable antagonist in The Birthday Boys is the setting. Bainbridge revels in the chance to evoke this alien, inhospitable world of wind and cold and glacial mountains and ice that is “not really blue at all,” as one of the men recounts, “but shot through with spangled points of rosy light so dazzling that it made me crinkle up my eyes as though I had something to smile about.” If you’re tempted to complain about the heat or the glare of sunlight on the beach this summer, Bainbridge’s superb novel may have a way of putting those annoyances in perspective.
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor
By Mary Balogh
Dell Publishing Co.
It was a long, hard winter in my part of the world: it was easier to dream of sunshine, daiquiris, and palm trees than to imagine ever again wishing for snow. But as summer closes in and sultry temperatures return, building a snowman doesn’t sound like the worst activity in the world, especially if it could be done in the company of someone as irresistibly attractive as Lucius Marshall, Viscount Sinclair, hero of Mary Balogh’s Regency romance Simply Unforgettable. When school music teacher Frances Allard finds herself stranded with the handsome Viscount at a roadside inn during a terrible snowstorm, it seems at first that they have little in common beyond the discomfort and inconvenience of their situation. Proximity works its magic, though, and the next thing they know they are having fun (and snowball fights) and falling more than a little bit in love. As fast as things heat up, though, they cool off again when the roads clear and everyone goes back to real life. Of course it all works out in the end — Simply Unforgettable is a romance, after all, so a Happy Ever After is mandatory. But finding out exactly how will make for a perfectly pleasant afternoon of reading by the pool.
By Charlotte Brontë
Of course, literal snow isn’t the only kind that can have a chilling effect on the imagination. In Charlotte Brontë’s brilliant, bleak, twisty novel Villette, it’s the heroine herself, aptly named Lucy Snowe, who keeps things frosty. “I, Lucy Snowe, was calm,” she remarks, watching someone else’s emotional display with characteristically judgmental reserve. But is Lucy as cold as she claims to be? Her independent spirit is well served by her excessive self-control: a rarity in Victorian fiction, she’s a single working woman, a role that takes poise and determination to sustain. But like her literary cousin Jane Eyre, Lucy has a passionate inner life and defends herself fiercely when provoked — by her irritating co-worker, Monsieur Paul, for instance, who persists in seeing cool Lucy as someone fiery and dangerous. But Lucy’s warmest feelings are for Dr. John, to whom (sadly) she is a “being inoffensive as a shadow.” Villette powerfully conveys the ruinous effects of unrequited love, and makes us hope that Lucy’s poor frozen heart will eventually thaw into happiness. The novel is every bit as gripping and moving as Brontë’s better-known masterpiece, and in many ways more innovative. Just don’t read it aboard ship: it’s bound to make you worry about a wreck.