The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory, by Peter and Leni Gillman (Mountaineers, $28). Judge this book by its cover: The photograph by painter Duncan Grant of George Mallory sitting naked on a table suggests—like this biography—that one of the first mountaineers to attempt Everest was more than just a stock hero. In May 1999, Mallory's body was discovered high on the mountain on which he and Sandy Irvine disappeared in 1924. Now British journalists Peter and Leni Gillman have rediscovered Mallory's life: his years as a young hottie lusted after by the Bloomsbury set (who discovered Mallory's "beautiful good looks" while he was at Cambridge); his commitment as a schoolteacher to reforming the rigid British educational system (in which he taught the poet Robert Graves); his catlike gift for climbing; and his anguish at leaving behind his family for long expeditions. Much has been written about Mallory's mysterious end, but this graceful, meticulous biography should revive appreciation for his achievement as a philosopher of mountaineering, the man who wrote of one Alpine summit,"Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves." No less eloquent are the poignant letters Mallory wrote to his wife, Ruth, from Everest, detailing his growing reluctance to return to the mountain. His last letter to his eight-year-old daughter, Clare, was written a few days before his death and signed, "Ever your loving and sometimes your greedy Daddy." Mallory was greedy—in the best possible way: hoping, as a friend wrote, "for the spirit of man to exercise itself as freely and fearlessly and joyously as a climber on a hill."
Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by Patrick Tierney (Norton, $28). Tierney, an activist for Latin American indigenous peoples and author of the 1989 book The Highest Altar: The Story of Human Sacrifice, spent a decade compiling this wide-ranging indictment of the treatment of the Amazon's famed Yanomami Indians. As Tierney tells it, the seminomadic Yanomami have been victimized for decades by unscrupulous U.S. government scientists, Western journalists, and anthropologists like Napoleon Chagnon, the American author of the influential 1968 study Yanomamö: The Fierce People, in which he argued that the tribe's warlike tendencies centered around sexual competition. Tierney uses Chagnon's own words to suggest that the anthropologist himself brought instability to the region, encouraging the Yanomami to compete for goods and to stage feasts for his films. Tierney also describes how Chagnon cooperated with Atomic Energy Commission scientists in the 1960s, carrying out unethical blood tests on the Yanomami for use in radiation studies. But Tierney's accusations are so varied and sweeping that they raise questions about his objectivity. He excitedly charges that a NOVA/BBC film crew staged scenes and inadvertently introduced malaria while working on a 1996 documentary, and he repeats stories accusing one anthropologist of seducing Yanomami boys, without offering adequate documentation. Tierney amasses a great many disturbing anecdotes, but one wishes that a cooler head had evaluated them.
Midnight Sun, by Elwood Reid (Doubleday, $24). Somebody wake up Marlon Brando: It's time for another remake of Heart of Darkness, based on this novel set in the trackless Alaskan backcountry, with Jack and Burke, two itinerant, tough-talking carpenters heading up the Yukon to rescue a maiden from mosquitoes, blackflies, and—oh, yes—a millennial cult run by a whacked-out guru turned truly paranoid after being mauled by a bear. Jack, a young Conradian naïf brooding about his manhood, lets his grizzled, trigger-happy friend Burke con him into searching for a girl mixed up with Nunn, the hideously disfigured mentor of a group of ex-cons, abused women, and former junkies. But Burke turns out to be a calculating desperado hunting the gold that the cult workers have been digging from a local cave. And Nunn, too, is angling more for nuggets than for gnostic truth. The author, a current darling of the manly literary fiction scene, lays on the symbolism with a trowel, but he does have a Chandleresque talent for capturing losers: One crummy Fairbanks bar is rendered as "a blighted dick farm of terminal liver beaters." The novel's a grimly fun read.
The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la, by Todd Balf (Crown, $24). In 1998, a team of expert whitewater kayakers, funded by the National Geographic Society, journeyed to southeastern Tibet to attempt the first descent of the Tsangpo River. With its deepest gorges still unexplored, solving the riddle of the Tsangpo remains one of the last great grails of big-water paddlers. The team, led by Wick Walker, a retired decorated Green Beret, and including world-renowned kayakers Tom and Jamie McEwan, seemed poised to prevail. But they arrived during record rainfall and, in a controversial decision, put in on a swollen river considered—even at its tamest—among the world's most dangerous. The ill-fated expedition ended abruptly when 41-year-old Doug Gordon, a former teammate of Jamie's with a wife and two small boys, disappeared after his boat was sucked into the river's main current. After a long and unsuccessful attempt to find him, the remaining members hiked out on treacherous cliffside game trails. Journalist Todd Balf's publisher is touting The Last River as "the first great adventure book of the new century." But while it effectively scoops the official account by Walker, due in January from National Geographic Adventure Press, it's hardly great. The writing is marred by clichés; the storytelling, by an author who wasn't along for the ride, fails to overcome a distant, as-told-to quality. And Balf's hyperbolic dude-speak (Gordon was "jacked to be in the Himalaya," "there was something about the Tsangpo that bit everybody hard") soon palls. —CAROLINE FRASER
FROM OUR PAGES
The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, by Miles Harvey (Random House, $25). Our former books columnist spent four years on the trail of map thief Gilbert Bland, filling in the terra incognita of a curious obsession.