Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Notes On Francis Slakey's To The Last Breath: A Memoir Of Going To Extremes

To The Last Breath by Francis Slakey is the first book I finished reading this year. I can only think of one word to describe the experience of thumbing through the 252-page memoir. Beautiful. It was a beautiful experience. Slakey is a storyteller of the highest order. The man has the magic touch when it comes to churning out words to convey a point.

For instance, when talking about body bulk as a liability in mountain climbing, he explained that "Goliaths don't rule the rock, Davids do."

In the blurb in the inside cover of the book, it said that Slakey is a physics professor at Georgetown University. With that said, I was expecting a book filled with chapters brewing with technical jargon and dense writing. The type of content you'll peruse in scientific and academic journals.

Suffice it to say that I was completely wrong. To The Last Breath was easy to read and as I mentioned earlier, Slakey is a fantastic storyteller. As you read through his accounts of his travels and experiences, you'll feel like you are right there with him. Scaling the formidable El Capitan at the Yosemite Valley in California. Interacting with the Masai warriors in Tanzania. Reaching the summit of Mt. Everest. Staring down the barrel of a gun in the jungles of Indonesia. Watching a Sherpa give up and wait to die in the snows of Everest. Climbing the Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Surfing in Arugam Bay. Helping victims of a deadly ambush in Indonesia find justice and closure. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Slakey joins the ranks of the likes of Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and E.O. Wilson. Men of science who have the ability to bridge science and literature to produce a piece of work that people from all walks of life can find entertaining and informative.
Slakey has some funny bones as well. You could say that his brand of comedy is unoriginal because most of the humorous stuff in To The Last Breath are mere accounts of weird and bizarre things he has encountered in his adventures. Be that as it may, we can't discount the fact that Slakey's presentation of the scenes makes them even funnier.

Take for instance the moment Slakey met a Masai warrior named Kilembu in Tanzania. Slakey described the moment as follows: "Kilembu introduces me to the key elements of his world in descending order of importance: two dozen cattle, a few goats, four children, three tiny huts, two wives, a mother." Don't tell me you haven't guffawed at the joke in this.

Then there was Slakey's interaction with yet another man from the Masai tribe. Slakey quizzed the man about modern education being imposed upon young Masai tribe members. The Masai man was telling Slakey: "Let me tell you about one of the best brains in Tanzania. Very brilliant with mathematics. He went to Britain to study aircraft design. He came back, and you know what? We don't design airplanes here." Slakey and the man erupted in laughter as the latter delivers the clincher: "He is useless."

But the most endearing attribute of To The Last Breath is its humanity. Sure, Slakey's adventures in the highest mountains in the planet and his numerous brushes with death are exciting and endlessly entertaining. But these can't beat Slakey's journey from a detached and insensitive person to one with a more open heart and mind. You have to read the book to fully grasp what I'm trying to say here. If there is such a thing as a book with a heart, this would be it.

The face of the El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley. Photo by Greg Jordan via Flickr.
The following quote from Kathleen Norris which appears on a page on the book before the first chapter begins perfectly encapsulates the main thesis of To The Last Breath: "None of us knows what the next change is going to be, what unexpected opportunity is just around the corner, waiting a few months or a few years, to change all the tenor of our lives."