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About a Mountain
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The critical reviews I have read of D'Agata's About a Mountain have been substantially the same: this is a book that shows incredible breadth of perception and seemingly bottomless insight on human nature, all in a really well-written essay, BUT...where are we going in the end? NYT was also critical of some of the artistic liberties that D'Agata took with the facts. I share the former concerns and was less troubled by the latter.

In fact, for me the biggest criticism is that the book was almost too virtoustic on D'Agata's part. Early on, I felt that I was reading a transformative piece of nonfiction literature. D'Agata sets out on a very promising path, writing a piece of really compelling nature/environmental literature that is only enhanced by his ability to make the point without descending into pedanticism, as so much of today's advocacy lit does.

Unfortunately, the tenuous threads that connect D'Agata's observations and meanderings to the Yucca Mountain story in the beginning only fray as the narrative progresses. He leaves behind the bar room and the environmental advocates that he joins to watch the CSPAN debate over the mountatin's fate, and the tangents and associations that his mind makes are never quite as persuasive. Of course, a piece of literature need not be convincing or argumentative at all to be enjoyable and here is to what Phillip Nobile called "intellectual skywriting." Still, the beauty of a piece achieves full flower when it delivers both on its intended persuasion and artistry.

Without a doubt, there are moments where the reader is awed by D'Agata's skill. For example, describing a rag-tag Potemkin parade commemorating Vegas' founding, D'Agata recounts "An Elvis showed up briefly. Turned out he was lost." That is the kind of simple, declarative sentence that shows both the brilliance and the restraint that is necessary to trust yourself and your reader to understand and appreciate context and subtlety.

Unfortunately, there are fewer of these moments as the book progresses. And, when they come, they are too much like the moments when a basketball player passes up the open man to perform his own high-flying dunk. "He pulled the left sock on his left foot up," D'Agata later recounts, in one of the more heavily constructed retellings of an interview. Is this to imply that he might have had a right sock on his left foot? Or, is it merely redundant and gilded and trite?

In this way, the artist was too often allowed to fully indulge himself, and I wish someone had reined him in. There are other examples and they grated on me more as the book wore on (including D'Agata's tendency to string sentences along by taxing "and" to within an inch of its life, as if to prove that it is possible and acceptable to write scores of words without punctuation as long the sentence can still diagram properly).

Sometimes, an artist's best work is better constrained. Four stars for the author, two stars for the editor, three stars for the book.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
It's about a mountain. It's about Las Vegas. It's about language change and nuclear waste and semiotics and traffic patterns and Senator Harry Reid and disaster preparedness. It's about living in a new town and Mayor Oscar Goodman and Edvard Munch's The Scream and building demolition and bringing water to the desert.

It's about a boy. A 17-year-old boy who jumps off the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

It's not easy to pin down what About a Mountain is about, despite the name. It moves quickly and covers a lot of ground. It never drags and I found that I was interested in everything author John D'Agata had to say.

His explanation of the Yucca Mountain controversy was the most enlightening I have read, making a complicated political football perfectly understandable. The proposed nuclear waste site is about 90 miles from Las Vegas. The problem of storing nuclear waste safely is difficult, maybe impossible. In addition, transporting all the country's nuclear waste, a massive amount, probably by truck, would hold its own set of dangers.

But even if your eyes glaze over at the prospect of Yucca mountain, you might be interested to learn about the culture of building demolition as spectator sport in Las Vegas, and the special complications of imploding a tall building like the 1,149 foot high Stratosphere. You might be fascinated to learn about the Boneyard, the dusty lot in Las Vegas where historic and not so historic neon signs are stored. Or about the remnants of the early days of Las Vegas that are being revealed as Lake Mead, the city's major source of water, drops to lower and lower levels.

And then there's the boy (the title evokes that of Nick Hornby's book About a Boy), whose suicide D'Agata can't get out of his mind.

Social commentary, literary nonfiction, or Las Vegas memoir? In addition to not being able to pin down what it's about, I can't pigeonhole it into any one category. I don't even know whether it's a short book or a long essay. Never mind, it's a quick read that's fascinating now matter what you call it.

Las Vegas: The Social Production of an All-American City

Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century

Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2012
Format: Paperback
Creative Nonfiction is not journalism. That's the first lesson of this book. The author in fact despises the term creative nonfiction, instead championing the "essay", invoking Montaigne's "essai", meaning `an attempt or trial' to route the journey of consciousness throughout a narrative.

This is a provocative stance to say the least. His elastic perspective regarding this paradigm is manifested in the titles of About a Mountain's chapters: starting with the journalistic staples of "Who, What, How, Where and When" and concluding with a trifecta that outlaws objectivity entirely: "Why, Why, Why." The idea behind this move (from the apparently objective opening of the book to its utterly subjective final chapters) is beautifully articulated when he writes, "It is clear that if I point to something seeming like significance, there is the possibility that nothing real is there. Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information. Sometimes our wisdom, too, in pursuit of what's called knowledge."

There is a hefty price to pay for maintaining the beloved boundary, and the artificial security, between objectivity and subjectivity, where intellectual vertigo and uncomfortable doubt become casualties in the name of conventional tradition. Yet D'Agata's perspicacious observation is further reflected in the portrayal of back-door politicians and sneaky scientists who pursue the option of confronting the reality of Yucca Mountain's inevitable failure with endless double-speak in an attempt to stuff Yucca Mountain into a knowable and workable solution, thus totally ignoring their "wisdom". Despite the nearly infinite data on Yucca Mountain, "a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world," D'Agata writes, it remains a place "unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know."
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2011
Format: Paperback
American culture has rarely emphasized harmony with nature; that's a relatively recent notion, dwarfed by many decades of attempting to form nature to our wills. The habitation of Las Vegas, and subsequent development of every square inch of it, even with its notable lack of water, is just one such example. However, in his most recent book-length essay, John D'Agata enlists it as the perfect backdrop for a skillfully layered story about the cost of American hubris.

One of his primary metaphors is the injection of thousands of tons of nuclear waste into a mountain less than 100 miles from downtown Las Vegas. This rightful property of the Shoshone Tribe was taken by government force, and despite incredible risks to public safety, an ill-considered plan to store highly toxic materials in a leaky vessel in all-too-close proximity to Sin City slid through Congress in 1982.

But D'Agata's lens is far wider-angle than no-nuke polemics. Instead he points us toward greater themes: the casualties of human hubris and how it fares when pitted against the tides of nature. Regardless of the magnitude of will or scope of desire, impermanence continues to hold sway over our existence. Despite the author's biases, often expressed with the deepest of deadpan, he ultimately offers a sense of wonder as to why we create the tableaux we do. D'Agata seems to understand that black and white is hard to come by in the grey shades of human landscape. And that the truth of our existence lies in the tension between rampant self-interest and a quest to understand vaster but ultimately unknowable truths.

The author is at his sharpest when describing the surreality of Las Vegas and its denizens--easy marks, certainly, but executed with a sharp-eyed wryness that relishes quotidian detail.

Stylistically, the novel utilizes a series of jump cuts slammed directly against each other to create a collage of rapid movement--the kind humans full of hubris generally use as they shove Indians off their land and nuclear waste into mountainsides.

One of the book's most fascinating segments describes the dubious attempts of a panel of experts assigned by the US government to create a sign warning generations 10,000 years hence of the dangers tucked inside Yucca Mountain. After realizing that all currently spoken languages will be virtually wiped out, they decide to search for a display of emotion that may be universally understood for millennia to come. One panelist suggests filling Yucca's basin "with a mournful constant cry," via playing music in minor tones. Ultimately, part of the solution consists of "a small engraved image in the apex of each stone that reproduces the anguished face from Edvard Munch's The Scream."

D'Agata deftly juxtaposes this reportage with far more personal stories: that of the family tragedies that inspired Munch's painting, his own stint as a volunteer at a Las Vegas suicide hotline, and a boy who jumps to his death from the Stratosphere Hotel. While he never specifically connects the dots, these stories share an organic bond with the more political material. Not only is it a writerly feat to be able to pull this off and sustain coherence, it's also refreshing to be allowed to draw our own conclusions.

Human actions opposing the natural life of the planet always generate fallout, whether in a literal, nuclear sense or in creating a platform from which humans can tumble--sometimes willingly. And incursion into the natural world creates a tension in even the most well intended of us, as D'Agata illustrates with an interesting tangent about meeting Edward Abbey's son. Apparently Abbey Sr., for all his environmentalism, came with his own set of personally unsustainable practices. D'Agata excels at revealing such inconvenient facets of our rarely cut-and-dried world. And then asking us to make sense of the seas of contradiction.
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on March 2, 2013
Format: Paperback
About a Mountain documents D'Agata's attempt, while temporarily living in Las Vegas, to reckon with two forbidding bodies of fact: those surrounding the U.S. government plan to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, and those surrounding the suicide of sixteen-year-old Levi Presley. The latter, as I have mentioned, is the topic of the essay reproduced in Lifespan, and reviewers suggest that D'Agata's approach to the facts in that piece is the result of laziness or immorality. Even a cursory inspection of About a Mountain gives the lie to this position.

About a Mountain is as fact-laden as any John McPhee book, but where McPhee works to clarify domains of fact generally understood only by experts, D'Agata focuses on the insufficiency of facts as vehicles for understanding contemporary reality. He draws our attention to the conflicts and gaps in expert opinion and to the terminal slipperiness of the facts relating to some of civilization's most pressing issues. In the case of Yucca Mountain, there are actual facts that might inform government plans for the storage site: namely, scientists agree that the toxicity of nuclear waste will take one million or more years to recede. But because there could be no credible plan for the site utilizing such a time frame, the applicable federal agencies recommended that a figure of 10,000 years be used. There is no scientific justification for this figure.

So the technical data authorized at the highest levels of government, on the basis of which laws affecting Nevada's current residents and its countless millions of future residents are being made, are fictional. And even on this fictional time frame of 10,000 years, the idea that the site can be secured is laughable, since there is little chance of communicating with humans across such an expanse of time. "What we're dealing with here," an expert on nuclear waste told D'Agata, "is an exercise in planning for a nuclear catastrophe that is fundamentally rhetorical. It's theatrical security, because the preparations that are being made by the Department of Energy have no real chance of succeeding. They satisfy the public, however, because they're a symbol of control."

Our willingness, as a culture, to be satisfied with symbols of control is not limited to matters so large we can barely conceive of them. It translates into an unwillingness to assess uncomfortable matters more generally, including some that we might actually control, such as the extraordinarily high rate of suicide in Las Vegas. As D'Agata attempts to understand why Levi Presley threw himself from a shabby high-rise casino hotel, he learns that municipal and other local authorities actively work to obscure the fact that approximately 300 people kill themselves in the city annually, and he finds that correlations between cultural factors and suicide are poorly understood even by those who claim to be experts on the subject. His own attempt to understand Presley's suicide leads him to inconclusive but suggestive assessments of cultural factors, some of which wind up being false insights that he identifies as such.

Even though reviewers, for example, claim to be thunderstruck that D'Agata might wrongly peg the time it took Presley to fall from the Stratosphere Hotel at nine seconds, the mistake is part of the book's unfolding. D'Agata enlarges on that "fact," relayed to him by credible sources, with a weave of historical, mythological, and sociological significance, only to find out, at the conclusion of his research, that Levi Presley actually fell for eight seconds. D'Agata's book openly presents not accomplished factual knowledge but an attempt at understanding. By copping to his mistakes and factual liberties, both in the text of the book and in a lengthy appendix, he is quite clearly broadening the harmonics of his argument about the limits of fact.

D'Agata ends About a Mountain with a virtuosic re-creation, in a single unbroken paragraph, of Levi Presley's last hours. Various authoritative sources--coroner's report, the boy's parents and Tae Kwon Do teacher--supply different facts about those last hours, and this only enhances the poignancy of the depiction. The closing pages of the book represent a leap into uncertainty, an attempt to bridge the gaps between facts with other forms of understanding. This is what art alone can do, D'Agata suggests.

No matter how many facts we collect, no matter how much due diligence we conduct, we will fail to understand much of what is most vital to us. Indeed, a reliance on fact may distort understanding as often as not, and we may be more complicit in the distortion than we want to admit. Government-approved facts about Yucca Mountain encourage folly on the grandest imaginable scale; facts about suicide compiled by experts madly contradict one another. Those we elect or appoint to act on our behalf decide that we, the general public, want comfort rather than truth. So they give us facts.
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on November 16, 2012
Format: Paperback
On its surface, this book is a study of what went wrong with the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project in Nevada, but as the author gets sucked deeper and deeper into that study, he pulls us inevitably with him into an exuberant meditation on science, politics, and the nature of truth itself. It's a mix of journalism, memoir, fiction, and cultural studies that achieves a beautiful blend of passion and skepticism.
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on October 26, 2011
Format: Paperback
The Yucca Mountain situation is yet another example of the stupidity and shortsightedness of politicians and policy-makers. Thankfully the project was recently cancelled. Although the subject is interesting, I'm annoyed by D'Agata's writing style, which is very mannered and pseudo-poetic in a faux naive way, kind of like Josephine Hart writing investigative journalism.
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Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Quite a feat of virtuosity, D'Agata managed to capture disparate parts of Las Vegas like in gossamer prose and instill a wonder for the city that is at once mysterious and haunting.
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on October 19, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Everyone should read this book in order to understand the unintended consequences of our actions (particularly related to nuclear energy). An engaging and fascinating story that really gets you thinking.
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on February 24, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Excellent writing and purchased as a gift for a friend who asked about it. He too enjoyed reading it and told me so.
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