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Life on the Edge: Smithsonian’s Mountaineers

By Marcia Allen
Technical Services and Collections Manager

Dorling Kindersley Publishing has long enjoyed a respected reputation for high quality books, particularly those with beautiful photography and interactive layout.  Each title seems to be an engrossing, all-encompassing tour of its topic, one which treats the reader to a visual feast.   Local readers may well be familiar with the lovely Eyewitness books that so many children love, or the Eyewitness travel books for adults that do so much more than simply describe a destination.
Fairly new to the library is one of the nicest books I have seen in the last year.  Mountaineers, which was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, was written by Ed Douglas and polished by a team of consultants.  I invite you to browse this wonderful book; though you may have little interest in mountaineering, you will be stunned by the audacity and determination of the central characters.
There are excellent references to climbers of ancient times.  In 1991, for example, German hiker Helmut Simon was exploring the Italian-Austrian border with a friend.  To the dismay of the two men, they discovered a skull protruding from a shelf of ice.  They reported what they thought were recent remains of a lost hiker, but further research indicated the man to have lived during the Neolithic Age, some 5000 years earlier.  The man, called “Otzi the Iceman” by scientists, had died as the result of an arrow wound that caused massive internal bleeding.
The Japanese monk Kukai, born in 774, is one of the more unusual climbers mentioned in the book.  He ascended Mount Koya located near Osaka in 818 to begin work on a monastery designed for meditation.  Avid followers brought about a permanent Buddhist refuge that is still in use today.
Albert Frederick Mummery was an avid pioneer of alpinism during the 19th century.  Though dogged by childhood ailments, this determined Englishman climbed the Matterhorn at the age of eighteen and went on to espouse unguided climbing.  He even wrote a seminal memoir about climbing, entitled My Climbs in the Alps of Caucasus.  Like so many other enthusiasts of the sport, he disappeared during a climb, probably the victim of an avalanche.
Another equally famous climber, Charles Houston, is featured in the book.  Houston, a 20th century American physician, was involved with several climbs, among them two tries at scaling K2.  His failed attempts nearly caused his death, but they also brought about a greater good.  Houston wrote a book entitled Going Higher: Oxygen, Man and Mountains, that has been a valuable resource for other climbers, particularly on the subject of altitude sickness.
Women climbers are also prominently featured in this book.  Lucy Walker, for example, was the 19th century daughter of Francis Walker, a British advocate of the adventure of climbing.  Lucy suffered from rheumatism and sought relief from it by joining her father and brother in a trek through the Alps.  Taken by the beauty of her new sport, she went on to become the first woman to scale the Matterhorn.
Lest you think the book omits the most famous of the climbers, rest assured that George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, and Reinhold Messner are not forgotten.  Their stories, along with those of the many other successful , as well as tragic, climbers are highlighted by drawings,  photographs and maps that make each venture a treat for the reader.
Mountaineering gear featured in the book is absolutely fascinating.  The ergonomically designed 20th century crampons that replicate the shape of the foot are now standards for serious climbers.  But 16th century wood and rope boot attachments, designed to steady steps in the snow, are also pictured.  The climbing rope, another vital component of a successful ascent, is also explained.  Hawser ropes from the 17th century, as well as highly specialized ropes from the 21st century, are featured along a timeline that illustrates clever uses by famed explorers.
Beyond hiking up a couple of the Colorado Fourteeners with my family several years ago, I have never climbed a mountain.  Nor do I intend to.  But the breathtaking photographs and thrilling adventures stories will bring me back to this book again and again.  It’s that good.

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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Books for Wonderstruck Readers

>Library column printed in The Mercury, December 4, 2011

When kids start reading longer novels, many are captivated by the magical qualities they can experience through the pages of a book. This is not a new phenomenon, considering children’s classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), to name just a couple. Luckily for our kids, children’s book authors continue to combine magical adventures and imaginative plots with skillful writing, creating avid young readers who clamor for more. Here are few titles that might top the list this year:

In Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier, Peter is a blind orphan who works for a cruel master. He has enhanced senses to make up for his loss of sight, which have helped him become a stealthy, skilled thief. One day he steals a mysterious box from a charismatic haberdasher, but the contents of the box are puzzling – just six strange little eggs. When he cracks the eggs open, he finds the yolks are inedible, but they feel powerful to Peter. Finally, in a moment of realization, Peter recognizes the yolks as eyes! “Ever so gently, he slipped the two eyes into his sockets. He blinked. And just like that, Peter Nimble vanished into thin air.” Thus his great adventure begins.

Auxier’s debut novel reminds me a bit of Baum’s Wizard of Oz. Peter picks up some eclectic friends along the way (including a part-cat, part-horse knight, Sir Tode), and these characters help him as much as he helps them. Like Dorothy and her cohorts, they encounter a number of extreme environments, going from a vast ocean with giant fish to an endless desert run by ruthless ravens to the inner walls of a clockwork castle. References to age-old nursery rhymes are scattered throughout, as in the name “Nimble” and a rock shaped like a teapot, giving the book a fairytale quality. If originality is what you crave, you will not be disappointed. Watch the enticing book trailer or read the first chapter on Auxier’s website, thescop.com.

Another fantasy that spins off the fairytale world is Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. The title invites readers to conjure up images of Hansel and Gretel escaping the woods, but the plot is more centered on Hans Christian Andersen’s haunting tale, The Snow Queen. I haven’t finished this novel yet, but I am intrigued by the connections between the stories main character Hazel reads and tells, and the way pieces of these tales come alive in her world that is otherwise grounded in harsh reality. Will Hazel become the heroine needed in her story, like the ones she admires in Narnia and The Golden Compass? Kids who have read a lot will appreciate Hazel’s references throughout to many children’s books, from A Wrinkle in Time to Coraline.

No Passengers Beyond This Point by Gennifer Choldenko is told from alternating viewpoints of three siblings: India, the annoyed fashion-minded teenager; Finn, the responsible worrywart brother; and Mouse, the super intelligent youngest sister. Everything makes sense at the beginning. The children’s mother reveals that their house is going to be taken by the bank, and the children must go live with their uncle. After a bout of turbulence on the plane ride, the story takes a surreal turn. The children exit the aircraft to find they have mysteriously landed in “Falling Bird” instead of Denver. Their taxi is “shocking pink with silky white feathers,” the driver turns out to be a kid with a fake mustache, and it feels as though they are flying through clouds instead of traveling on roads. However strange this seems, the ride is warm and comfy, lulling the children to sleep.

When they wake up, they find that Falling Bird is rather well-prepared for their arrival, greeting them with signs of “We love you, India,” and “Mouse is our favorite.” In fact, everything in Falling Bird seems to be a dream come true for each child. But maybe it’s a little too good. Finn is the first to notice that something is off kilter, and staying in Falling Bird might be a detrimental decision. The question is, how do you leave a place if you don’t know how you go there? A surprising twist at the end kept me thinking about this story long after I finished.

Finally, an excellent new novel-picture book by the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (soon to be released as a movie) is Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. It is not a fantasy per se, but certain coincidences in the plot have a magical edge to them. Twelve-year-old Ben’s life has gone a little haywire since his mother was killed in a car accident and a freaky lightning storm causes him to go totally deaf. Meanwhile, Selznick weaves in a story that takes place 50 years earlier, involving another deaf child, Rose, and her desire to explore New York City. Like Hugo Cabret, this 637-page book is filled with more than 450 pages of black and white sketches that tell much of the story through pictures. Ben’s journey leads him to the American Museum of Natural History, where he stumbles upon a new friend and a place to hide out while he discovers the secrets of his past. Rose emerges, too, with her own masterpiece to share.

Enjoy settling in with a cup of hot cocoa and any of these marvelous adventures to add a little magic to your reading this winter.

Review by Jennifer Adams

Posted in: Children's Dept, Mercury Column

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