Reader’s Notebook, 8/3/17

Walking the Himalayas – Levison Wood.
I didn’t know anything about Levison Wood before I saw this book at the library. I didn’t know he is fairly famous for his on-foot treks, which have been turned both into multiple books and TV shows. I just liked the idea this book is based upon: him walking the length of the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to the Bhutan-Tibet border.

Now, this walk was not all at altitude. He wasn’t traipsing along the tops of the highest mountains in the world, although he did spend plenty of time going up-and-down peaks. He also spent an equal amount of time crossing dusty plains, packed Indian cities, and in saturated tropical jungles. Along the way he is led by a Nepalese guide who helped him stay safe during political violence there in 2001, meets with the Dalai Lama, and survives a frightening car accident that puts his trip on hold for nearly a month while his broken arm and shoulder heal.

I really liked the pacing of Wood’s writing. He’s not sharing every detail of every day on the trail. He hits the high points, shares a general overview of the moments in-between, and generally keeps the pace pretty brisk.


I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid
This has been on my To Read list for some time. I attempted to check it out a couple times but all the copies were out at my library, so it had slipped a bit down the list. But, recently, I came across more praise for it on Twitter and made an effort to find it.

This is a slim and quick read; I knocked it out in just a few hours. In addition to slim and quick, I can rattle off a long list of other adjectives to describe it. Odd. Wacky. Suspenseful. Unsettling. Infuriating. Disturbing. Confusing. Dark. Twisted. Nearly brilliant.

The book unfolds as an internal monologue by a young woman who is traveling with her new boyfriend to have dinner with his parents at their country home. She runs through the details of their meeting, the early days of their relationship, what attracts her to him, what things about him bother her. Her thoughts are interrupted by their brief bits of conversation, or interactions with others, which are always far from normal. She also shares information about a strange series of phone calls she’s been getting. The unknown caller keeps leaving very odd messages for her, which have spooked her.

All this is set upon the bedrock of the statement, “I’m thinking of ending things,” that she shares to being the book. For all the positives in the relationship, she is ultimately dissatisfied and seeks a way out. As with the gun that is placed on the set in act one, the book spends just over 200 pages careening toward the payoff for this line.

The core story is layered with occasional interludes of dialog from an unknown group of people who are discussing what appears to be the suicide of a coworker or neighbor.

I think the best way to describe the book is just by looking at the list of adjectives I shared above. Those are the feelings I bounced through as I read it. There is a slowness to the beginning, when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. There are moments where the book gets too cute: a two-page stretch where the same sentence is repeated over-and-over for example. There are stretches where I was yelling, “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING HERE?” to myself, as the characters made utterly baffling choices. And I’m not sure the ending, which explains away a major structural issue with the story, completely convinced me.

As with movies like Memento and The Usual Suspects, that ending creates the urge to immediately flip back to the beginning and start reading it again, looking for the clues you missed along the way and trying to put them together in the proper order so that the ending makes sense. Overall, I think the genius of Reid’s writing wins out over the areas that are troublesome. But just barely. I’m still not certain it all works, or that the parts that lead up to the final moments actually fit together as Reid hoped them to. If this book was twice as long and had the same issues, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it. But its length makes dealing with those flaws tolerable.