TagMixing It Up Challenge

Book notes: coming of age in Texas… and a history of sweets

Tom Wright, What Dies in Summer (2012)

Tom Wright’s debut novel chronicles one summer in the life of Jim Bonham, who lives in Texas with his grandmother (having been estranged from his mother and her current partner, and his father having passed away), and has frequent visions of a dead girl standing by his bed. At the start of the novel, Jim finds his cousinL.A.(Lee Ann)  sitting, shaking on the porch; she becomes part of his and Gram’s household, and what happened to her will be revealed over the coming months. That summer will also see the two teenagers discover a dead body (the girl of Jim’s visions), and Jim learning more about life and himself.

It’s in the latter aspect that What Dies in Summer shines brightest for me. Jim draws a distinction between being intelligent and smart, and comments that L.A. is much smarter than he. We see evidence of this near the beginning, when L.A. verbally outmanoeuvres a stranger who tries to trap her and Jim, when the latter would clearly never have been able to think like that. However, despite his lack of street-wisdom, and despite the fact that L.A. remains largely a closed book to him, Jim does grow and learn through his encounters with both dark and light aspects of life; Wright creates some beautifully judged passages depicting this. Jim’s narration also has a nicely unpolished quality, which really makes it feel like a voice that belongs to its character (something I do like to see in a first-person narrative). All in all, I’d say that Tom Wright is an author to keep an eye on, and What Dies in Summer certainly a debut worth checking out.

Tim Richardson, Sweets: a History of Temptation (2002)

Regular readers of this blog may know I’m partial to a bit of quirky social or cultural history; so much the better if, like Joe Moran’s On Roads, it can reach a little deeper than its immediate subject. Sweets is not on the same level as Moran’s book – perhaps inevitably, given that its subject matter is rather frivolous – but it is fun and interesting.

Tim Richardson takes a broadly chronological approach, with brief asides to focus on particular kinds of sweet. I find the book’s account of the early history of sweets a little dry in places, a little too heavy on detail; more engaging and lively are the anecdotes and insights on contemporary sweets – though the chapter on nineteenth-century confectioners and their ‘benevolent tyranny’ is fascinating. But Richardson’s enthusiasm is apparent throughout; and his closing whistle-stop tour of the world’s sweet cultures leaves me curious to know what some of the products he mentions taste like.

This book fulfils the Cookery, Food and Wine category of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

Joe Simpson, Touching the Void (1988)

A million books were given away across the UK on World Book Night last week, and I got one of them at my local branch of Waterstones. I tend to think that the ideal book for World Book Night is something that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of reading, but that looks interesting once you start to consider it – a gentle nudge away from your comfort zone, in other words.

That’s just the sort of book I received in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s account of his and Simon Yates’s 1985 expedition to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It’s what happened on the descent which makes the story so famous: Simpson broke his leg, and, whilst being lowered down the mountainside by Yates, got stuck in mid-air. With Simpson unable to move up or down, and Yates losing his grip, Yates decided he had to cut the rope joining the two of them. Simpson fell into a crevasse, but nevertheless beat the odds and made it back to camp, alive.

Touching the Void begins prosaically enough:

I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a peculiar anonymity about being in tents. (p. 15)

That tent will, naturally, assume vital importance later on; in a neat mirroring, the familiar light inside the tent at the beginning becomes an alien sight when Simpson is approaching it from the outside, in desperation, towards the end. This is one of several examples in the book of the same thing taking on different qualities at different times – the mountain scenery is by turns hostile and welcoming, for instance.

The passage I’ve quoted there also contains the first of Simpson’s observations about the peculiarities of climbing. I’ve never been up a mountain myself (though I have done my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and so have some experience of outdoor activity), so perhaps I didn’t connect personally with the descriptions of climbing as I might otherwise have; but this exchange did strike a chord:

‘What shall it be then?’ Simon held up two foil bags. ‘Moussaka or Turkey Supreme?’
‘Who gives a toss! They’re both disgusting!’
‘Good choice. We’ll have the Turkey.’
Two brews of passion fruit and a few prunes later we settled back for sleep. (p. 39)

It’s the odd combination of foods and flavours which brings home the reality of having to eat what you’ve got, and of eating for energy rather than taste – a sense of how one’s priorities change on a mountain. We also see the kind of mentality that may be needed: Simpson tells the story at one point of how, on a previous expedition, Yates saw two unfamiliar climbers fall to their deaths from the same mountain he was climbing; when he returned to camp, says Simpson, Yates ‘had sat numb’, turning the incident over and over in his mind; but, the next day, ‘he was his normal self again: an experience absorbed, shelved in his memory, understood and accepted, and left at that’ (p. 64). The capacity to put even the worst experiences behind you can, this suggests, be useful – even vital – to mountaineers.

Yates’s capacity to do just this is tested to its limit when he’s faced with cutting the rope; as Simpson shows (in passages written from Yates’s viewpoint), this was both an impossible choice and, really, no choice at all. As he’s making his own way down the mountain, assuming (quite reasonably) that Simpson is dead, Yates veers back and forth over the question of how to describe what happened, whether to feel guilt or resignation. Simpson creates a fine portrait of an extreme moral dilemma.

But it’s Simpson’s account of his time alone and injured on the mountain which live most vividly in my memory. The description of his plummeting into the crevasse, then lying there in the dark, is horrifying; and we feel Simpson’s pain and frustration (as far as that’s possible, of course) at every slow step of his journey down. It makes his survival seem all the more remarkable.

This edition of Touching the Void includes a section written in 2003, after the making of the film version. As part of this, Simpson describes how he returned to Siula Grande and played himself in reconstructions of the incident. This seems so strange, I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, nor find the words to describe how I responded to reading about it. Simpson himself closes the book reflecting on how his life has changed in such unexpected ways:

Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in? I’ll never know (p. 215).

So, Touching the Void ends with a question we might all have cause to consider at some point – and it has opened a window on an extraordinary human experience. A fine book for World Book Night.

This book fulfils the Travel category (though ‘travel writing’ seems an inadequate way to describe Touching the Void!) of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

Joining the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012

I came across this challenge at the Musings of a Bookshop Girl blog, and thought I’d join in. The idea is to read books of diifferent types, with a view to pushing the boundaries of one’s reading. Sounds fun. There are sixteen categories altogether, but I’m going for ten. They are:

1. Classics – Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

2. Biography – People Who Say Goodbye by P.Y. Betts

3. Cookery, Food and Wine – Sweets by Tim Richardson

4. History

5. Romance

6. Travel – Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

7. Poetry and Drama

8. Journalism and Humour

9. Science and Natural History

10. Social Sciences and Philosophy

I have no set plans for which books I’ll read, or when (the Mixing It Up Challenge lasts all year), but I do want 2012 to be an interesting reading year.

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