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About a Mountain Hardcover – February 8, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this circuitous, stylish investigation, D'Agata (Halls of Fame) uses the federal government's highly controversial (and recently rejected) proposal to entomb the U.S.'s nuclear waste located in Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, as his way into a spiraling and subtle examination of the modern city, suicide, linguistics, Edvard Munch's The Scream, ecological and psychic degradation, and the gulf between information and knowledge. Acting as a counterpoint to Yucca is the story of a teenager named Levi who leapt to his death off Las Vegas' Stratosphere Motel. It is testament to D'Agata skillful organization of the book, broken into Who, What, When, Where, and Why, and his use of a rapid sequences of montages—Levi's suicide is spliced with Orwellian Congressional debates on the stability of Yucca Mountain—that readers will be pleasurably (and perhaps necessarily) disoriented but never distracted from the themes knitting together the ostensibly unrelated voices of Native American activists, politicians, geologists, Levi's parents, D'Agata's own mother, and a host of zany Las Vegans. A sublime reading experience, aesthetically rewarding and marked by moral courage and humility. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

An innovative essayist (Halls of Fame, 2001) and dynamic anthologist, (The Lost Origins of the Essay, 2009), D’Agata brings his syncopated, collaged, and devastatingly deadpan style to a finely calibrated and nervy inquiry into civic follies. When his mother moves to Las Vegas, D’Agata becomes curious about the collision of science, politics, and corruption behind the ludicrous federal plan to transport deadly nuclear waste cross-country to unstable, porous Yucca Mountain. While trying to collect the outrageous facts about this doomed project, he also gathers troubling information about Nevada’s atomic-bomb test sites and Las Vegas’ dwindling water supply and its standing as the nation’s suicide capital. Shifting between a young man’s leap to his death from the Stratosphere Hotel and the absurd effort to design signage to warn future earthlings away from the proposed radioactive mountain, he sheds light on myriad delusions, scams, and lies. D’Agata’s distinctive narrative rhythms, melancholy wit, and keen perception of the social facade and the toxic darkness it conceals make for an acid test, and a ballad about the endless enigmas of humankind. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (February 8, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393068188
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393068184
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,099,955 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By J. A. Walsh VINE VOICE on 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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified 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.
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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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