Short Takes

‘Buried in the Sky,’ ‘Gilded Age,’ ‘Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies they Told You’

BURIED IN THE SKY: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day

By Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan

Norton, 385 pp., illustratedm $26.95

In the summer of 2008, 11 climbers died on K2, the peak known as “The Savage Mountain.” Straddling Pakistan and China, K2 isn’t as tall as Everest, but its wicked weather and stark verticality make it much more dangerous; as Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan write in their gripping, intense book about the tragic ascent, K2’s “difficulty resisted commercialization,” attracting more experienced adventurers than the crowd who attempt Everest. Among the Nepali mountaineering community, known as sherpas (whether they belonged to the Sherpa ethnic group or not), K2 holds a mystical status that Everest lacks — and they can make more money there helping foreign climbers make the summit.


“Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer’s account of a disasterous 1996 Everest ascent, was a huge success, and “Buried in the Sky” will satisfy anyone who loved that book. Zuckerman and Padoan distinguish themselves by the depth of their research, especially into the lives and culture of the Nepali and Pakistani climbers and high-altitude workers — and their relationship with the American, European, and Korean teams that paid their salaries, a troubling transaction at times. “He had paid us some money,” one sherpa said regarding a potentially fatal request from an employer, “so we acted as though he owned our lives.”

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As the doomed expedition sets out, the international and multilingual group would suffer perilous communication lapses from what the authors call a “cultural crevasse,” between rich and poor, East and West, Muslim and Buddhist, and Pakistani and Nepali. More than skill or courage, K2 tested people’s humanity that day; it feels right to learn that the authors are donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to a fund for the dead sherpa’s children.


By Claire McMillan

Simon and Schuster, 244 pp., $25

Eleanor Hart, she of effortless beauty and boundless sex appeal — as well as a track record of substance abuse and poor romantic choices — has just returned to her native Cleveland from New York seeking a second act. A 30-something divorcee, Ellie wouldn’t seem out of place in most modern fiction, but in the retro-fabulous world sketched in Claire McMillan’s “Gilded Age,” she’s a loose cannon, a threat to all marriages, a social disaster waiting to happen. If this updated homage to Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” is at times ludicrous or puzzling (do people really still turn at each dinner course, speaking with those on their right over soup, their left over meat?), it’s also great fun, an over-the-top social farce, like “Gossip Girl” for grown people.


Ellie could never be quite as sympathetic as Wharton’s Lily Bart — one of the truly heartbreaking characters in American fiction — but readers will root for her to triumph over upper-crust Cleveland’s prudery.


By Agustín Fuentes

University of California, 274 pp., illustrated, $27.50

Everyone knows that men and women are fundamentally distinct in how they think and feel; that civilization is just a thin shell holding back a flood of violent, primitive human impulses; that black, white, and Asian people — no matter how equal in the eyes of the law — are biologically distinct groups, right?

Wrong, says anthropologist Agustín Fuentes; these are commonly-held myths based on “misinformation, partial truths, and a large dose of ignorance,” which are dangerous not merely because they represent lazy thinking but also because they influence how we interact with, and even see, each other.


Where these myths come from, and how to bust them, is the basis of this lively, thoughtful book. Fuentes declares himself on neither side of the debate – “it is a mistake to think that our biology exists without our cultural experience and that our cultural selves are not constantly entangled with our biology.” Instead he’s firmly on team logic. To prove that race as biology is fiction, he marshals evidence from blood science, immunology, and genetics; to argue for its relevance as a factor in social and political inequality, he cites not only economic but also medical statistics (high blood pressure among African Americans, he notes, may stem from stress — it’s not shared by Caribbean blacks). The real problem in imagining that our lives are inevitable, either hard-wired by DNA or created by God, is that it “ignores the complexity of human biology, psychology, history, and society.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at