The Totem Pole

by Paul Pritchard

(Mountaineers Books, $22.95) CLIMBING DISASTERS are all the rage in publishing, but you can't blame that on Jon Krakauer—or

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Book Shorts

The Totem Pole

by Paul Pritchard

(Mountaineers Books, $22.95) CLIMBING DISASTERS are all the rage in publishing, but you can't blame that on Jon Krakauer—or Paul Pritchard, an accomplished British alpinist and award-winning writer before his horrific 1998 accident, which is the subject of this slim, affecting book. It's both a disaster tale and a recovery story, begun as a hospital journal, ending as a rumination on risk. Pritchard and his girlfriend are experienced climbers on a round-the-world tour when they visit Tasmania to tackle the Totem Pole, a slender coastal "sea stack," or detached pillar, that rises 200 feet from the waves. Seeking to make the second free ascent (relying only on feet and hands for traction, but protected by a rope), they're mucking about in the tidal swells when Pritchard is suddenly smacked on his unhelmeted head by a TV set-sized rock. Ouch. The man sustained a 5-by-10 centimeter hole in his cranium. Most people wouldn't survive the massive skull fracture, blood loss, and brain injury, but Pritchard owes his life to his girlfriend and other quick-thinking rescuers. Of course, that's really where his story begins. What climbers call "an epic"—or, while under way, "a cluster-fuck"—means an arduous survival experience when everything possible goes wrong on a route, and getting down takes forever. For Pritchard, his epic is not the climb itself but the partial recovery from profound cerebral trauma and right-side hemiplegia that leaves him initially unable to walk, speak, or care for himself. In Hobart, and later back home in Wales, he unselfpityingly recalls his incremental progress toward a new kind of functioning—and a new perspective on his previously climbing-centered life. Pritchard's hindsight puts his desire to scale the Tote in a different light. "Whenever I was involved in a climbing project I was completely obsessed," he writes, "so selfish" that he ignored his girlfriend's reservations about his goal. Later, he reflects how his mishap "might be seen as subconsciously, subliminally self-inflicted. I had become bored with a pretty extreme lifestyle." In our age of overhyped extreme sports, his analysis rings true. Particularly here in the Northwest, where climbers are routinely injured and killed, where avalanches and foolhardiness claim the lives of skiers and snowboarders, there's a kind of ill-informed, fatalistic bravado about risk. "When your number's up, your number's up"—it's denial, and the unwillingness to imagine anything less than a quick, clean death. The drama for readers—mountaineers particularly—is whether Pritchard will ever recover sufficiently to climb again. But that's not the point, as Pritchard himself gradually realizes. As he tells, the experience provided "a psychic kick in the backside" that has him questioning which he loved more—the dangers and difficulties of the sport, or simply being out among "my beloved hills." —Brian Miller By a Thread

poems by Molly Tenenbaum

(Van West, $14) VAN WEST & COMPANY, a publisher of fine books and broadsheets recently established in Ballard, has just released its first trade book, Seattle poet Molly Tenenbaum's By a Thread. Two years ago Tenenbaum's chapbook Blue Willow delighted readers with its lyrical meditations on ordinary subjects like eating breakfast, browsing books, buying produce, and making tea. In Tenenbaum's first full-length collection, the musical fluency of her language still works a liberating magic as she awakens us to everyday surprises and comforts. Tenenbaum notices "a spark when it cools black/and lands, a dot of dark"; she imagines that barnacles "curled in their salty houses" under the sun must feel a rising tide to be "like a cool basement/on a hot day"; she convinces us that "The World Is the Shape of a Cat." The subtle jolts and sharp edges in many of these poems lend a bracing quality to the poet's characteristic effusions of appositives and sibilants, though the diction is often too precious—Tenenbaum gravitates to choices like "twinkle," "nestle," "tucked," "snug," "caboodle," even "cavortle." I wanted more passages like the book's fine creepy bit on slug anatomy, and I missed Blue Willow's troubling astringencies, broken appliances, and brassy hungers. But the poet's apparent intention in her new book is not, as in earlier work, to ground its pleasures in loss or loneliness. By a Thread is a praise-song of gratitude for a full life, which many readers will find inspiring. Tenenbaum's exuberant, accessible poems about nature and domesticity are well orchestrated in this beautiful first volume from Seattle's new poetry press. —Judy Lightfoot

Molly Tenenbaum reads at 7:30pm on Thursday, March 9, at Open Books. Second Opinions: Stories of Intuition and Choice in the Changing World of Medicine

by Jerome Groopman, MD

(Viking, $24.95) HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL faculty member Dr. Jerome Groopman considers a branch of "alternative" medicine in Second Opinions—as in the seeking out of alternatives to an initial diagnosis and its treatment. Consisting of real-life cases that range from unfortunate HMO misdiagnoses to confounding medical enigmas, Groopman recounts his role as the sought-after second fiddle in a series of riveting stories that we can be sure will end up in some form or other on ER. The good doctor thrives when offered the opportunity to investigate a case-closed ailment, and his scientific smarts coalesce with his profound concern for people who, in the face of life-threatening illness, must ultimately decide their own course of treatment. From the near death of his infant son to an elderly patient's refusal to consider anyone else's regimen than his longtime family doctor, Groopman unravels each person's symptoms like pieces of a larger puzzle not yet solved. He tells the ailing elderly gentleman, "I'll do my very best to pay attention to every detail, to care for you without making a mistake. But I repeat: I cannot give you a guarantee." The second opinion is the greatest, most anguishing challenge these patients face throughout their varying ordeals: whether to get one or not, and whether to actually go forward if it conflicts with what was originally suggested. Groopman involves the reader in this harrowing course of doctor-patient interaction and addresses the fear of failure that is always near. —Emily Baillargeon Russin So I Am Glad

by A.L. Kennedy

(Knopf, $23) IN A.L. KENNEDY'S new novel, Jennifer Wilson is a troubled young woman sharing a house in Glasgow with two roommates. She has recently ended a relationship in which she enjoyed inflicting pain on her partner. Jennifer's odd sexual proclivities can be directly attributed to the fact that as a child her parents forced her to watch them having sex. A new roommate appears at Jennifer's house; he's first known as Martin. As Jennifer gets to know this very confused man, it becomes clear that he is not Martin at all, but rather Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, brought back to life over 300 years after his death. Jennifer falls in love with him, and together they try to navigate the tricky terrain of intimacy. The unlikely premise of Kennedy's book draws the reader into a place where nothing can be taken for granted. Those who prefer more straightforward narratives may be put off by Kennedy's prose style, a type of magical realism that reveals characters in glimpses and small details. Although this is not a typical romantic story, for the patient reader it shows us a world where "hope is tyrannical," a world where even the emotionally shipwrecked can find love. —Susan Moore Denning Filthy

by Ted Jouflas

(Fantagraphics Books, $9.95) IMAGINE THAT T.S. ELIOT took a mega-hit of acid and it kicked in just as he wrote the opening couplet of "Prufrock." Imagine that the trip lasted a year, during which our poet spent his time reading the Star and Enquirer and watching the secrets of the universe reveal themselves in a filthy toilet bowl. Imagine that he locked into writing twisted and sometimes sprung couplets, and started drawing like a gifted psychotic, and learned from his Surrealist contemporaries to make dense, dark collages. Imagine that he tied all three together in an ingenious, improbable, lavishly scornful, and giddily scatological spew of a book: Howl plus Naked Lunch done in pictures and doggerel. You'd have something like Ted Jouflas' Filthy, the sequel to his equally ferocious "graphic novel" Scary. It begins on a Prufrockian note—"Oh, will you come to meet me there?"—but soon dives into very different territory: "I'm filthy and I creepy crawl, a spider on your boudoir wall. My web is spun, it catches flies, it also catches people's lies. . . . when one gains enormous wealth/You elevate above the filth/That writhes and twitches on the street/Like maggots on a piece of meat." The pictures do not provide decorous distraction from this theme. Jouflas, let it be disclosed, used to do illustrations for this paper, which reappear as panels in Filthy. The marvel is that they fit seamlessly with the other images, the fearlessly sprung verse, the monster spider lurking in the sewer at the center of the world, the death of Princess Diana, and all the other elements of this grotesquely funny psycho-stew. Maybe Filthy is a deeply felt and fiercely moral jeremiad against all that's vile and venal about our media-saturated decadence. Or maybe it's just a breathless 72-page riff on what Conrad's Kurtz summed up in a word: "The horror." But once you're in this gutter, you can't stop turning the pages, just to see if Jouflas can pull it off. Filth never felt so right. —Eric Scigliano

 
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