February Reading Recap

It’s already March 4! I fell behind on my blogging last month; however, I did stick to my reading goal (exciting stuff, I know).

My February selections were:

  • Fiction – Human Acts by Han Kang
  • Nonfiction – Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene
  • Book from the Past – The Story of My Boyhood and Youth – by John Muir
  • Other Format or Genre – Death of a Maid: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery – M. C. Beaton

Brief Reviews:

Image result for human acts han kangHuman Acts by South Korean author Han Kang is a novel of the Gwangju Uprising (Wikipedia).  In 1980, South Korean troops clashed with civilians protesting the government of Chun Doo-hwan. Although exact figures are disputed, some estimates put the death toll over 600, while over 3,500 were injured in the violence. Many of the casualties were young university students.

The novel is told through the perspectives of multiple characters who witnessed or took part in the uprising. Some chapters are written in the second person, which I found interesting. The tone of the writing is deceptively quiet in contrast to the violence of the content. I found myself wishing the title was Inhuman Acts, but maybe that’s the point, as the following quote from the book illustrates. In this scene, one of the witnesses is being interviewed by a professor for a book:

I heard a story about one of the Korean army platoons that fought in Vietnam. How they forced the women, children, and elderly of one particular village into the main hall, and then burned it to the ground. Some of those who came to slaughter us did so with the memory of those previous times, when committing such actions in wartime had won them a handsome reward. It happened in Gwangju just as it did on Jeju Island, in Kwantung and Nanjing, in Bosnia, and all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World, with such a uniform brutality it’s as though it is imprinted in our genetic code.

I never let myself forget that every single person I meet is a member of this human race. And that includes you, professor, listening to this testimony. As it includes myself.” – Han Kang, Human Acts, page 97.

This was the first book I’ve read by a Korean author, and I enjoyed the experience of learning a little bit about South Korea’s history, a topic on which I’m largely ignorant. I spent some time on Wikipedia researching the events portrayed in the book, and that helped alot with giving the story context and helping me understand it better. (I received a copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.com in exchange for an honest review).

Image result for midnight in siberiaMidnight In Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia is David Greene’s account of a trip he took on the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Not knowing much about Russia beyond what I read in the news and books, or see in films and games, it was interesting to get a closer perspective on the lives of everyday people across this vast and intriguing country. The author is a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, of which I am a frequent listener, and so it perhaps natural that the book had a journalistic tone and style. The book was interesting, although I did skim over some parts. It did not inspire me to travel to Russia.

Image result for john muirThe Story of My Boyhood and Youth is John Muir’s account of his early years growing up on his Scottish immigrant family’s Wisconsin farm, and was my favorite book this month. It’s relatively short (about 140 pages), and full of Muir’s beautiful prose and descriptions. After finishing it, I was astonished to discover that no major motion picture has yet been adapted from this story – it seems like it is ready-made for the big screen. Some of the highlights include the many formidable tasks his father expected him to complete on the farm, such as digging a 90 foot well through sandstone by hand with a chisel and hammer, and the many wonderful contraptions Muir invented, such as a clock that could light a fire in the stove. Muir’s deep passion for learning and for nature, and his empathy with living creatures is endearing and inspiring. I would recommend Muir’s writings to anyone who enjoys nature, but you do have to adapt to the somewhat old-timey language and slow pace. Reading a bit of it aloud in a slow, meditative way can help you get a feel for the language. If you do, you will enjoy Muir’s quiet humor, descriptive prowess, and charming storytelling.

 

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Review: Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar

San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013

ISBN 9781452112749

Subjects: Dyatlov Pass Incident; Russia; Ural Mountains Region; Hiking; Mountaineering accidents; Travel

Summary: Dead Mountain recounts the 1959 tragedy known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Nine young people from the Ural Polytechnic Institute (now the Ural State Technical University) trekked deep into the Siberian wilderness in the hopes of earning a prestigious hiking certification. Their goal was Otorten Mountain. The day before they were to make their ascent, they camped on the slope of Holatchahl (Kholat Syakyl), or Dead Mountain. That night, an unknown force drove all nine hikers from their tent in subzero temperatures without their shoes. There were no survivors. What happened that night remains a mystery, but theories, both wild and mundane, proliferate. In this book, Donnie Eichar offers his own theory and also details how he arrived at his conclusions. Impressively, this process involved traveling to Dyatlov Pass himself, as well as speaking with the only living survivor of the trip — Yuri Yudin — who would have been the tenth member of the group, but was forced by ill health to turn back before the fatal incident.

Evaluation: Eichar presents the story as a gripping narrative and offers a thorough exploration of a puzzling and chilling mystery that has fascinated people around the world for over fifty years. Most importantly, he doesn’t lose sight of the human story of nine young hikers who met a tragic end one freezing night in the Russian wilderness. The many black and white photos included in the book, as well as the author’s descriptions, gives the reader a very endearing and real-seeming sense of what the hikers were like as individuals and as a group. Eichar offers his own theory concerning the incident at the end of the book, which is based on the premise that a natural phenomenon led to the hikers’ deaths. He lists many of the most prominent other theories and offers his reasoning on why he does not find them feasible. He expresses his own belief in his theory, but while the reader can decide how satisfying an explanation it is, ultimately the mystery remains unexplained.

Other thoughts: I vaguely knew the story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident from a horror movie I saw a few years ago (Devil’s Pass, 2013), as well as the video game “Kholat” (IMGN.PRO, 2015). However, I recently fell in love with the Astonishing Legends podcast, and their 2-part series on Dyatlov Pass is excellent. They mention this book in their coverage of the topic, and I enjoyed those episodes so much I decided to read it. I would highly recommend checking out the Astonishing Legends page for the Dyatlov episodes, as well as listening to the podcasts, for anyone interested in seeing more documentation about the incident, as well as more in-depth coverage of the “fringier” theories: http://www.astonishinglegends.com/portfolio/ep023-dyatlov-pass-part-1/