Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mountain mama

Northwesterners call Mt. Rainier "The Mountain".  At 14,410 feet, it's the tallest mountain in Washington State and the entire Cascade range.

When The Mountain is "out", as Northwesterners also say on clear sunny days when it's visible, this is what it looks like from my neighborhood in Seattle (photo credit: a University of Washington site):
Rainier is a regional icon (it's on the state's license plate).  It's also a dormant stratovolcano, considered one of the most dangerous in the world. 
But it's such a beautiful and awe-inspiring volcano!
This is what it looks like from one of the trails near the Mount Rainier National Park Visitors Center:
I love, love, love mountain meadows! The wildflowers are so amazing.

(There was a mama deer! With her two fawns! How much more picturesque could it get? Photo credits for the rest of this post: me)
This is what it looks like when you get a little further from the tourist center:
It's still a hefty hike, even on the paved pathways.   
I finally saw a marmot in the wild!
This is what The Mountain looks like when you reach Muir Snowfield:
(Do NOT google anything like "deaths Rainier Muir snowfield" in the days before you set out to hike it. Otherwise you might be tempted to run out and buy a ton of emergency equipment at REI. *cough* )

Muir Snowfield is 2.2 miles long and has an elevation gain of 2800 feet.
This is how steep the slope is: 
It was brutal. I was worried about altitude and dehydration, so I stopped often. (Also, I huffed and puffed nonstop.)
But the view was amazing! 
The Tatoosh Mountains, which I've only ever seen in winter, were beautiful. Beyond them, both Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens were visible - it's as if three tall mountains in the Cascade range get to say "Hello!" to each other every sunny day.
And this is what Mt. Rainier looks like at the almost-top!
We made it to Camp Muir! I'm so proud of myself and my two friends - we weren't sure if we could make it, but we did!
10,188 feet is the highest I've ever been (not counting airplanes, obviously).

4600 feet in elevation gain is the most I've ever hiked.

Personal records FTW!

Then we glissaded down the snowfield. So amazingly fun!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Daring an opposite to every danger

The first book in the Graceling trilogy was mostly captivating but really slow towards the end (the characters wander in the mountains for months). The second book, Fire, was the opposite: it took me a while to get into it (more wandering across rugged terrain), but the last half had court intrigues that made slogging through the first half worth it. Bitterblue, the last book, ties together the stories from the first two. But even better, it didn't bore me for any part.

Though each book can stand alone and the reader doesn't need to read them together or in order, they do fit together nicely. Fire is the prequel to Graceling, taking place decades before in a faraway kingdom where beautifully-hued "monsters" mesmerize their victims. Bitterblue picks up 9 years after Graceling, when a child queen comes of age and faces the difficult task of healing a kingdom scarred by her sadistic, psychopathic father's reign of cruelty.

One cool theme throughout the trilogy (besides strong-willed young female protagonists) was the idea that women can defend themselves and that happily-ever-after romances are the stuff of unrealistic fairy tales. In these books, the heroines don't want marriage or a traditional gendered relationship, and they are jarringly realistic about sex and love and time. Nothing wraps up neatly, whether it's the fate of a local uprising or the future of a budding friendship.

Bitterblue left me wanting more stories from this intricate, nuanced world. But alas! As a trilogy, though, it was epically satisfying.

All the difference

The Road was one of the most bleak and depressing books I've read in a very long time.

A nameless father and a nameless son journey across a post-apocalyptic America after an unnamed catastrophe that has wiped out most life on earth. They trudge through ashes of a burned-out world, scrounging for non-perishable food items hidden in ghost towns, running away from cannibals, stepping over long-mummified bodies of fellow citizens along the way.

Amid the despair, their love for each other and their barely-alive hope that they will encounter other "good guys" are manifest in evolving but timeless ways.

Still, it's an incredibly gloomy portrait of how kindness survives. Half of the hopelessness and helplessness comes from not knowing what the characters don't know themselves: the how and the why of what happened to the world.

McCarthy's writing style mimics the barren wasteland he has created: there are no quotation marks, few proper nouns, few apostrophes. Sentences and dialogues are short.

I might need to go watch The Care Bears for a while. But in the meantime, this poem that I've always liked by Walter d la Mare might serve as a good transition from McCarthy's despairingly desolate scenes:

The Listeners
Walter de la Mare 

'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ'd the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean'd over and look'd into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex'd and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr'd and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starr'd and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:--
'Tell them I came, and no one answer'd,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The silence surging softly backward has always been a particularly poignant image.

OK, time for Care Bears.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Nonna, nonna

As I'm making my way through the books of children's author Sharon Creech, I'm finding that they're hit or miss with me.

While I absolutely LOVED Walk Two Moons and Love That Dog / Hate That Cat and thought they were near genius, I didn't exactly love The Castle Corona. It's a quasi-fairy tale story about two peasant siblings and three royal siblings. It was pretty predictable and lacked the depth that some of Creech's other books model.

Granny Torrelli Makes Soup was better. It was definitely a cute story, about two friends who grow up next door to each other but then as adolescence hits and new neighbors arrive, they find themselves floating apart. It was predictable and unresolved in that way that young adult books sometimes are ("It'll all be OK. Things change, but your family loves you.").

Both books were really short, good for zippy summer night reading.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore

I don't remember how Bel Canto came to my attention, but I'm incredibly glad it made its way onto my reading list. Like the opera masterpieces that frame the characters and the storyline, the book is an exquisite work of art, beautifully and skillfully written.

The tale unfolds at a dinner party with an array of important individuals: a famous opera singer, politicians, priests, ambassadors, businessmen from all over the world ... and the terrorist generals and child soldiers that intrude and hold them all hostage.

Amid the chaos and power struggles, Patchett's narration floats like an aria from person to person, past to future. The book is a fascinating and lyrical portrait of human behavior in all its uncomplicated intricacies. Friendships, romantic relationships, and transactional alliances are all played out on a grand scale. (In real life, the reader knows these scenarios are highly unlikely. But this is an opera. It's comedy, tragedy, love, hate, and pathos blended into one.)

Though the ending was hinted at throughout the book, the epilogue seemed completely out of place. The role of nostalgia in survival is important, but the last few pages only make sense on a metaphorical level rather than a tangible human one.

Still, Bel Canto was categorically, utterly amazing.