Quill & Quire

Risking Adventure: Mountaineering Journeys Around the World: Book Review


In spite of what Haberl claims in his introduction, Risking Adventure does not explore what motivates people to climb mountains. It chronicles the camaraderie that comes from climbing together. It also chronicles difficulties and hardship on climbs. It travels to Africa, South America, and Alaska and introduces characters like the ballsy Czech at Kilimanjaro and the Peruvian helicopter pilots. But it does not, as Haberl says, “explore the notion that risk and adventure need to be part of our lives.” It is a diary of exotic trips rendered in flat prose, peppered with dazzling photographs. It does not explore. It testifies.

As the first Canadian to climb K2, Haberl’s authority on climbing must be trusted. His skill is matched by his love for fellow climbers, especially his friend who died after also successfully climbing K2. It’s a pity therefore that Haberl’s prose makes for dull reading and that the main idea behind the book is thoroughly skirted. To ask, “Why climb mountains,” is like asking, “Why do humans put themselves in jeopardy?” It’s a difficult question to explore, but one Haberl is potentially in a position to answer. He has, as he says, been asked it many times. And we can imagine that when he’s hanging off a 2,000-foot mountain face by his fingertips, and night descends and ice jams belay lines, he must feel the will to live firing inside him like a dragon smoked out of her cave. But his literal-minded storytelling turns this delicate moment into a timed and dated weather report: “At midnight we were still on the rock. We were tired. I was nervous.”

Sprinkled into this are literal transcriptions of conversations: “Gosh it’s a long way down, Rob. Yeah. It sure is, Jim. Can we make it? I don’t know, what do you think? Yes we can. That’s what I like about you, your positive attitude. Thanks, I like your positive attitude, too.”

After almost having lost his footing, or else a limb, and if not a limb then a dear friend, exhausted and disoriented but triumphant and intoxicated by the danger overcome, Haberl will only say, “Gosh that was scary.”

Haberl’s writing does injustice to his adventures but his pictures make them vivid. Like those in National Geographic, the photos make for a spontaneous sense of what the snow tasted like, what the pack felt like, what kind of effort it took to climb with altitude sickness, and so on. When the real Haberl shines through, as he does intermittently in the prose, the reader gets a chance to appreciate how dedicated and talented a climber Haberl is, and how spectacular the risks he takes are. Too bad for us that the question of “Why climb?” is not truly explored or, at least, that the mountains explored have not truly been captured in words.

Sleeping Weather: Book Review


Leon Stone, Cary Fagan’s leading man in Sleeping Weather, is a Toronto character who’s spent some time in Kingston penetentiary and who urgently wants an explanation for his childhood. Fagan gives him lots of emotional snarls to untangle: a daughter he’d clearly die for, a forgiving marriage (which he feels undeserving of), a business that eerily mimics his father’s, and a new neighbour named Vasily who reminds Leon (reluctantly) of himself. As Leon moves through his daily joys and trials, the contrast between his adult satisfaction in marriage and his devastation as a son grows starker.

Fagan’s expressive details create a strong sense of people and place. The reader really feels familiar with his Toronto. And from his base of accurate and compressed language, Fagan can risk making simple parallels between Leon’s troubles and those of other characters. In fact, he makes many, many parallels, which form a net of plot around Leon, his family, and his past. For instance, when Leon grudgingly befriends Vasily (the neo-father figure), his wife suddenly befriends a difficult patient who reminds her of her mother. Leon’s father bet on horses; Leon carves wild-eyed rocking horses. Leon’s workshop is in his basement; Vasily drinks himself to death in his basement next door. Fagan weaves Leon’s troubles into each scene, spreading the idea of neglect, conflict, and struggle for resolution over the narrative like a heavy mist.

In spite of this, Sleeping Weather is an uneven book. Exciting events happen with too little build-up. Others occur with too much, and the intended jolt falls flat. Characters like Vasily come across as overly symbolic; he seems more of an idea at Fagan’s fingertips than a truly broken man. There also seems to be a punch line to the book as the reader waits to learn what drove Leon to jail, then caused his housebound condition in Toronto. When the reason is revealed, it doesn’t seem new, or particularly compelling. This is disappointing in a book set so pleasingly in historical and contemporary Toronto featuring characters who have such nifty biographies.

Princess at the Window: A New Gender Morality


If you watch TV or read the popular press, you probably know more about the rebellion against feminism than you do about feminism itself. Nay-sayers to the women’s movement have been popular since Camille Paglia, queen of provocation, cleared the way in 1990. Most of these books that promise to throw a wrench in the works of social change, including Toronto Star columnist Donna Laframboise’s The Princess at the Window, are being issued by big houses (Kate Fillion’s recent and much-excerpted Lip Service from HarperCollins; Katie Roiphe’s Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism from Little, Brown; Wendy Dennis’s Hot and Bothered: Sex and Love in the 90s from Key Porter) perhaps because they promise high sales due to their controversy. These books are quintessential pop-psychology, café talk dressed up as exposé and inquiry, the sort of stuff pop-culture loves. Their writing masquerades as intelligent rumination on the nature of things (in this case feminism) for those of us who don’t have the time or attention spans to read the real thing.

I agree with Laframboise’s summaries of the strife and discomfort within women’s groups. Internal politics suck, and women, like anyone else, get sidetracked from their good intentions by squabbles and power-grabs. But groups by their very nature demand conformity, and conformity always brings on rebellion and disillusion. Also, as Laframboise says, men are not inherently evil. She would like to re-entrench everyone in the moderate, mature castle of gender issues, not simply women’s issues. But while Laframboise argues, my mind wanders to a dear law student I know, a serial monologist. He, who could articulate his thoughts well and support them with evidence from reports, statistics, and whatever else was at hand, managed more to alienate than to convince me. His point, it seemed, was the argument itself, not my involvement in conversation.

Perhaps the similarity between Laframboise and my friend is tone. Although she provokes real thought in some chapters, she is always exasperated and yelling; possibly she worries that the rabble of card-carrying feminists will stifle her message. As well, she begins paragraphs with variations on, “don’t get me wrong, I’m as feminist as anyone, but….”; “rape is very serious but…” etc.; paragraphs that barely begin to acknowledge what feminism has done and why it is important before they’re cut short and brought back to the agenda: berating mainstream feminism. And Laframboise, like Fillion, approaches feminism as if it were a monolith that’s compromising our government and laws, and the safety of the general public, without ever defining what she takes to be mainstream feminism and why. Laframboise, who has a master’s in Women’s Studies and years, she says, of advocacy experience, has turned her back on the establishment; she’s handed in her membership card and the onus is on her to justify her position. She does not. And when her defensive tone meets her unwillingness to acknowledge the positive side of feminism, Princess at the Window becomes tiring. Even Paglia writes in a cooler, more palatable style.