Book Review – Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

4 stars. In winter 1959, nine Russian hikers, mostly college students, died at Holatchahl Mountain in the Urals under mysterious circumstances. The experienced group, led by Igor Dyatlov, was attempting a demanding winter ascent of Otorten to become Grade III hikers, a meaningful certification of ability. On the night of February 1, the seven male and two female hikers all fled from their shelter into sub-zero temperatures. A search party located the tent, finding that it had been sliced open from the inside. Their bodies were scattered several hundred meters or more from the tent. They were almost all lightly dressed, lacking the proper footwear and gear to survive in such a climate. The official inquest showed that six died from hypothermia and three from chest and/or skull fractures. Some radiation was found on the clothing of two victims. The investigation was unable to determine what made them flee their tent, citing an “unknown compelling force” as the cause of the incident.

With the mysterious circumstances, the deaths captured popular attention. Many theories have been proposed, from the unlikely (avalanches, Soviet missile tests) to the crackpot (yeti). The internet abounds with sites about the Dyatlov Pass mystery, yet provides few answers.

Film producer Donnie Eichar found himself caught up in the Dyatlov obsession, taking two trips to Russia and doing phenomenal amounts of interviews and research. Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is his story of his research efforts and his reconstruction of the group’s travels and death, and the subsequent investigation. He paces that recounting with a chronicle of his trips to Russia and research in formerly secret Soviet files. His prose has a compulsive readability to it, and he gives lucid detail without being overwhelming. Best of all, his narrative of the nine unlucky hikers (and their tenth member, who was forced to turn back for medical issues) paints them as vibrant, intelligent, and energetic people who are worth knowing and caring about.

The volume is enriched by lots of pictures, both from the expedition itself and from the investigation.

While I don’t believe that the term “spoiler” applies to investigative nonfiction, if you do not wish to know the author’s conclusion, please go no further in my review.

Eichar makes a solid refutation of several of the pet internet theories regarding the hikers, including governmental conspiracy, avalanche, military weapons testing, and attack by the indigenous Mansi. He gives no credence to far-afield theories such as aliens or the supernatural. What he does arrive at is a theory of sub-audible sound waves called infrasound causing fear that motivates the hikers’ flight from their tent.

Eichar’s theory of infrasound-induced panic attacks requires me to accept three separate assertions:

1) The flow of wind over the domed summit of Holatchahl created a Kármán vortex street around the tent.
2) The Kármán vortex street created an infrasound event that was felt by the group members.
3) The infrasound event caused such panic in nine different people that they fled their shelter.

Eichar makes an informal case (based on the casual observation of site pictures by an NOAA scientist who is an expert in the field) that the first is possible, though I would have liked to have seen more rigorous analysis such as calculating the Reynolds number range of the site and using that to determine wind velocity that would generate the Kármán vortex street, the expected vortex velocity, vortex frequency, etc. (Math and science, YAY!) The second is certainly plausible, based on information that the author presents and a quick glance at the internet for verification.

The third assertion feels the least plausible. Eichar cites a 2003 infrasound study by UK researchers that found 22% of those exposed to an infrasound wave reported anxiety, chest pressure, nervousness, etc. He purports that the Israelis use an infrasound technique that creates nausea and dizziness to assist with crowd dispersal. However, it’s a great leap of faith to go from a feeling of unease or nausea to nine people fleeing in abject terror without a moment’s preparation for the environmental conditions. The author did not cite, and nor was I able to locate, any research indicating that complete irrational panic can be induced by infrasound. Given that Eichar explicitly describes the vortices around the tent as mini-tornadoes, I’d think there would be some evidence of people reacting with panic to infrasound generated by tornadoes, but I was unable to locate any.

Given that the group was entirely composed of experienced hikers with lots of previous exposure to hostile mountain environments, I find it highly unlikely that they all broke from reality so completely as to exit the tent without even donning shoes. It simply doesn’t seem sufficient explanation that these competent hikers went into such total and absolute panic as to flee from the tent like they did.

The evidence available is sufficient to support these conclusions:

-The hikers felt immediate mortal danger from remaining in the tent even for such a short time as would be needed to put on boots, gloves, etc.
-The group all evacuated the tent at once, as shown by the fact that another exit was made by slicing through the wall to facilitate the quick egress.
-The evacuation from the tent was directed and purposeful; all members of the party proceeded in the same direction rather than scattering in a panic.
-The purpose of the evacuation was not simply to be out of the tent. They continued to some distance from the tent, to the extent that some sustained injuries from falling into an unseen ravine that was quite a distance away.

What would make them flee from their tent under such conditions? Here’s my theory, which seems at least as credible as the infrasound theory:

The group is mostly settled in their tent for the evening, sheltered from the howling winds and bitter conditions. Someone–likely Thibeaux-Brignolles or Zolotariov, as they were in appropriate clothing for the elements–heads outside to answer the call of nature, or check the weather, or make sure the tent is secure. The bitter wind blows the snow across the slope above the tent. By limited light, the hiker outside catches sight of the roiling snow moving toward the tent. The worst case scenario instantly comes to mind, and believing they are soon to be swept away, the hiker yells, “AVALANCHE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!” The party flees pell-mell downslope, becoming disoriented and separated. Dubinina, Kolevatov, and Thibeaux-Brignolles fall into the ravine, suffering traumatic injuries. By the time the panicked flight ends, they have covered so much ground and become so disoriented that returning to the safety of the tent is impossible given the conditions. Careful, reasoned study that an avalanche was highly unlikely in the terrain, as well as confidence in the skills of seasoned leaders such as Dyatlov and Zolotariov, could not match the split-second, terror-fueled belief that they were about to be buried under tons of snow.

Regardless of my skepticism about the author’s “Untold True Story”, Eichar’s book is a great read that balances the spooky facts of the incident with a narrative that makes the reader care about the Dyatlov group hikers and feel their deaths keenly. Dead Mountain isn’t a book that I will soon forget, and is well worth a read.

How to Write a Useless Amazon Review

Reviews on Amazon are dangerously close to containing a smidgen of helpful information amidst the trolls, paid reviews, and the opinions of those who should never be left without supervision. To keep this from happening, I’m offering a list of ways you can keep your Amazon review from contributing to this rash of usefulness!

  1. Write a superficial review that generalizes your feelings about the item, offering no detail whatsoever:
    “So yeah I read it and it bit the big one. No one should read this book”
    This is called an opinion, not a review. The purpose of a review is persuasion–to convince a potential customer to purchase an item, or move along to greener pastures. Two sentences conveying dislike says more about the reviewer than the product.  Extra points for the puerile imagery, as well.
  2. Review the product based on customer experience:
    “I’m sure the actual product is fine, but instead of the explicitly described item “Osprey Ultralight Mapwrap” I was instead sent the “Osprey MapWrap Stow-on-the-Go™ Map Carrier”, for which I have absolutely no use. WTH.

    Returning.”

  3. Make the review about the reviewer instead of the product:
    “I was really excited to see Lindsey Sterling in concert, I think she is an awesome musician. My boyfriend bought tickets a month ago for the Madison show for tonight June fourth. However, when we got there, there was not any concert or any signs letting us know why. We found out that she had changed it to the Monday before from The Comedy club we got the tickets from, and even though he got his money back it doesn’t make me feel any better. So me and my boyfriend took time and money to see her and didn’t get to.”
    The reviewer’s life story doesn’t make for terribly interesting reading.  The review is retaliatory in nature rather than having anything to do with the product being reviewed. Whining is what Twitter is for, not Amazon!
  4. Purchase a product in complete ignorance of what it is, then complain that it isn’t what you expect:
    “I WANT MY MONEY BACK! This is a comic book and it’s awful! Don’t buy this ” book” ! Trust me…not worth it.”
    This was on a review of a graphic novel in Neil Gaiman’s excellent Sandman series. One might wonder why on earth the person purchased the item in the first place.  “Ooh, this looks interesting!  I’m going to buy it RIGHT NOW without reading ANY MORE about this item!”  (And the funniest part of the whole thing is that the reviewer wants us to trust them, when they’ve self-admitted their own total ignorance.)
  5. Don’t use the product, but review it anyway:
    “A great map that I intend to use this coming Summer while at a conference in Bar Harbor, ME next Acadia NP. I use the Rocky Mtn. NP map last Summer and it was great!”
    I am glad the reviewer had a previous good experience with another product by the same company, but nothing about this review inspires confidence that the reviewer is in a position to make a sound judgment about whether this item a good product or not.
  6. Ramble about something related to Amazon rather than the item:
    “You’ve just made a year subscription worth nothing. I do amazon prime for the free shipping, and VoD, but, an add-on sub-script? Get bent. This is the worst comedy to be berated by you.”
    I can just picture the reviewer thinking, “Here I make my stand against all that I dislike about Amazon Prime! With this product review, I shall change the world!”

Book Review – The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail

One star. To make it through their physically and mentally demanding PCT thru-hike, author Dan White and his girlfriend Allison shared a soundtrack of songs. I too found myself with a mental soundtrack while reading The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail: “I can change, I can change!” “What if you remain a sandy little butthole?” from South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, in honor of Dan’s overbearing selfishness, total lack of decency to his trail companion, and utter refusal to display a modicum of common sense on the trail.

First, to hit the good points: White’s descriptions of trail life are intriguing. His account of the walk from Mexico to Canada is lucid and readable. He neither romanticizes nor overstates the total challenge of his thru-hike. Nor does he shy away from painting himself in a negative light as he makes repeated mistakes and ignores pretty much every bit of rational advice–in fact, I went so far as to wonder why on earth anyone would ever pen such an unflattering picture of themselves.

Unfortunately, the author is an utter and complete nimrod when it comes to how he treats other people, most especially Allison. He consistently values his satisfaction, goals, and judgment over hers, to the detriment of their hike and relationship. For example, in the Mojave Desert stretch, he unilaterally decides to lighten his pack of some of the water load, dumping quite a bit without telling her, and then concealing as long as he can before fessing up that they face a long, dry march towards questionable water sources. Overrun with thirst, he takes a bite out of a prickly pear cactus, and then whines while Allison tweezes thorns out of his tongue. He pushes her over and over to perform beyond her knee pain. Later, when both of them get sick, any concern for her well-being is merely an afterthought.

Even worse, when a real-world commitment requires Allison to be off the trail for a week, he whines and moans the whole time about how it’s going to cost them their goal of reaching Canada. The one non-text item reproduced in the book is an image of the churlish and petulant screed he scrawled about how the time off trail was interfering with his obsession with reaching the Canadian border that looked and sounded like it was written by a foul-mouthed thirteen year old with poor impulse control whining that he wasn’t getting his way. (Perhaps he wanted the reader to see the string of sad faces he drew on the right side of the text?)

Allison discovers that her knee pain is due to rheumatoid arthritis. Despite her begging, he can’t be bothered to even read a brief pamphlet about her condition, much less muster any kindness or sympathy–it’s all about how her arthritis interferes with his dream.

The only real description we get of Allison is that she’s blonde, a feminist, and he lusts after her more and more as she gets more tanned and toned from the rigors of trail life. We find out very little more about her; I posit that the author himself never bothered to find out any further detail about her.

All I can say is that Allison must be a saint to endure what she did… to paraphrase Silent Bob, there’s a million fine looking women in the world, but they don’t all tweeze cactus thorns out of your fool tongue when you’re stupid.

It’s not just Allison either. He treats the other hikers he encounters with derision, such as referring to them as unflattering names. In one extreme case, he forces them to make a 5 AM start to avoid hiking with someone that he doesn’t like because he thought the guy was boring and downcast when they met while eating dinner the night before. When he gets off the trail, he recounts a pathetic string of neurotic dead-ends that quashed any trace of sympathy I might have had for him.

The writing is good, and the story itself is interesting. What makes this book grossly obnoxious is the insipid behavior of the author. Dan White proves in The Cactus Eaters that an accomplishment like completing the Pacific Crest Trail is not enough to keep one from being a sandy little butthole.

Book Review – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

3 stars. For a book about “murder! prophets! sex! revelations! polygamy! exodus!”, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith manages to be somewhat, well, boring and pedantic. That’s especially a disappointment when it comes from a writer with Jon Krakauer’s talent for utterly engrossing prose, even when I’m not as committed to the people he portrays (Into the Wild) or the axe he has to grind (Where Men Win Glory) as he is.

Under the Banner of Heaven is the tale of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica by two of her brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty, purportedly acting on a divine revelation that they must be killed. Krakauer intertwines the brothers’ history of fundamentalism–with a strong fixation on the concept of polygamous plural marriage–with an account of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from Joseph Smith’s revelation of The Book of Mormon to modern day. This history centers around plural marriage, with occasional detours to less-than-proud moments in Mormon history such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the possibility that some of the expedition members of John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Grand Canyon died at the hands of Mormons.

The real problem with this book is that the lack of focus caused me to disconnect from the narrative and people. The Lafferty brothers feel like caricatures, and so little time is spent on Brenda that there’s no emotional resonance to her horrific murder. This would have been a much stronger book had it told the story of Brenda and her murderers than if it had tried to tell the story of a whole religion. Out of the book’s 26 chapters, 18 of them are devoted to Mormon history or an exploration of splinter fundamentalists groups, polygamist communities, and events such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping that are only tenuously connected to the Lafferty murders.

Krakauer writes people and reconstructs events well; witness the vibrancy with which he gave the story of Pat Tillman’s life and the bulldog tenacity with which he explores the life and death of Chris McCandless. He’s not a terribly engaging writer of history, though, giving seemingly endless lists of names, places, and happenings without bringing them to life. I feel that this book was a tedious lecture rather than an enlightening read. He attempted to highlight the lurid, extreme, and violent of the fringes of the Mormon church, combine it with the horrible acts of the Lafferty brothers, and somehow turn it into an indictment of mainstream Mormonism and religion in general. For what it’s worth, I do think he did a good job of impartially recounting events; it’s simply that an argument from the specific to the general doesn’t work because it’s logically fallacious.

Krakauer’s inability to choose whether to tell about the dirty laundry of the Mormon church or the story of Brenda Lafferty’s murder and the poisonous religious fundamentalism of her killers makes Under the Banner of Heaven a strictly pedestrian effort.

Book Review – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

2.5 stars, which in no way does justice to the strength of the theme and my love for the characters, nor shows my bitter disappointment at a transparently derivative story that values nostalgia over narrative.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is likely the most loved story published in my lifetime. The heartfelt characters, gripping story, deeply imaginative world, and enduring themes resonate deeply with me and millions of other readers. I am an unabashed fan; it is a series that I treasure and will re-read over and over.

The screenplay Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins literally where the absolutely perfect final words of The Deathly Hallows fade away, with young Albus Severus Potter departing Platform 9 3/4 for his first year at Hogwarts. He quickly befriends Scorpius Malfoy, and the two find themselves entangled in conflict both of legacy and of their own making.

The chief error of The Cursed Child is that it looks backward rather than forward. Far too many passages are simply alternate versions of what we have seen before. Rather than inventing new conflict, story lines, and settings, this play gloms on to The Goblet of Fire and never lets go–which means, sadly, that it is never able to breathe as its own entity.

Returning characters do not seem to be grown versions of the ones we love, either seeming contrary to their past or never moving beyond it. Harry is rather unlikable and authoritarian; Hermione seems only focused on her current duties; Ginny is barely noticeable. Ron’s earnest oafishness was one of many endearing qualities of a brave and loyal boy, but as we see him in this play, he is simply a caricature providing merely comic relief. Even when he does the right thing–join his friends to face peril–he does it with a flippancy that would have been unworthy of his school-age character and is far less endearing as an adult. And the weirdly flirty cameo by Moaning Myrtle? Very out of place.

Even some of the best moments are milked for their emotional impact. The scene with Hagrid is a rehash of emotions that is totally unnecessary; we lived through that one before. Perhaps on stage this plays better than on page?

For all of its failings, there is enough magic within The Cursed Child to delight. Albus and Scorpius are fantastic characters, and the whimsy of their madcap adventures is a pleasure to read. The valedictory moments are wonderful, as relations between Harry, Albus, Draco, and Scorpius develop and mature.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was neither allowed to stand on its own nor to be part of the original series of Harry’s tale. While I suspect I would like it far more as a play, I wish this story had been so much more than it is. It is a testament to Rowling’s creation that I did not need another story of Harry, Ron, and Hermione; within the pages of this play was an astounding tale of Albus and Scorpius that was not allowed out.

Book Review – Planetfall

3 stars. Emma Newman’s Planetfall does a lot of things right–interesting world, great characterization, thought-provoking themes–yet wound up only garnering a middling reaction from me, thanks to a muddled ending and too much emphasis on the theme of mental illness.

A group of colonists, bound together by the personal charisma and vision of Lee Suh-Mi, undertook a pilgrimage away from polluted and over-populated Earth, establishing a community at the base of so-called God’s city. The founding of the town was marred by the loss of several colonists. Suh-Mi ascended into the city, where she communes with a higher power, sending yearly messages to the group. Out of the jungle, Suh-Mi’s grandson emerges, threatening the secret that has held the community together.

The greatest problem that I had with this book is that it requires stringing the reader along with a Mysterious Secret Buried in the Past–normally, a pretty effective trope. The first-person narrator, Ren, is one of the two colonists who is privy to this secret, but the author chooses not to reveal it until long after its concealment has crossed the fine line to melodrama. It’s being withheld simply to artificially preserve the suspense. Had this volume been third person, this would have worked much more naturally than the first-person narration allows.

I also never really connected with Ren. I sympathized with her mental illness, but never felt empathy for her–she made her own bed by taking the path of least resistance at virtually every opportunity. The ending further perpetuated my disconnect with Ren. She never grew as a character, just kept doing her best to conceal her mental illness until the deus ex machina (or more accurately, deus ex planta!) ending dissolved all the conflicts to nothingness.

The ending is abstract, non-explanatory, and seemed out of place. I suppose it’s one of those things that the author chose to leave open to the reader’s interpretation, but it didn’t seem to serve a purpose in either storytelling or character development.

Despite all this, Planetfall was still a worthwhile read. Newman’s imaginative colony and the rich cast of personalities worked well, and the science fiction parts of it were realistically created. Perhaps much of my faint praise is due to the unsatisfied feeling I had at the last page; I expected something great and was left with merely good.

Book Review – Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem

4 stars. I picked up Rosalyn Schanzer’s Witches: The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem after a visit to the Salem Witch Museum (interesting, despite being too much dramatic attraction and too little museum for my taste, but that’s another story). This slim, no-frills account factually narrates the 1692 witchcraft hysteria that led to the executions of 20 and the deaths of another 5 in prison. The tone is very straightforward, with no sensationalism whatsoever.

It’s sign of progress that so much of the legal system of the day feels foreign to us: the admissibility of spectral evidence, the fees that the accused had to pay for the “privilege” of being jailed, even if they were found not guilty, and the way the judge ordered a jury that delivered a non-guilty verdict to reconvene and deliberate again (they then returned a guilty verdict). Reading about these abuses of law made my skin crawl!

Schanzer masterfully lays out the events in appropriate detail for young readers, and she wisely lets the themes speak for themselves, especially about judicial corruption, the way property was seized from the accused, and how, in many cases, the accusers benefited from the plight of the accused.

The illustrations accompanying the text are absolutely perfect, done in a period style to convey the feel of black-and-white engravings, with occasional shots of red. Though fairly simply done, there is a depth and resonance to them that makes this book come to life.

A well-done example of how history should be written for young readers, with plenty that adult readers will find appealing as well.