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“It took me a week to finish the first sentence.  In the remaining month, I wrote 280 pages.  What made beginning so difficult, and the remainder so seemingly automatic, was imagination – the initial problem, and ultimate liberation, of imagining.” – Jonathan Safran Foer

As a story, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated has gone through several incarnations.  It began as a short story in the New Yorker.  Foer then expanded the story to a full length novel, which was one of the most well received books of 2002.  Reviews raved, calling Foer a “wunderkind” and the “best young novelist around.”  The book was called “a work of genius” and “brilliant.”  Finally, the story was turned into a movie by actor-turned-director/screenwriter Liev Schreiber who had first been exposed to it in its New Yorker incarnation.  For the film, Schreiber decided to adapt the short story from the New Yorker, so a huge section of the novel is not reflected in the movie.

“Rather than aligning itself with either ‘how things were’ or ‘how things could have been,’ the novel measures the difference between the two, and by doing so attempts to reflect a kind of experiential (rather than historical or journalistic) truth.  Novels don’t strive to get to the bottom of things, but to express what it’s like never to be able to.”  – Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated was inspired by Foer’s own trip to the Ukraine, with only a photograph in hand, in search of the woman, Augustine, who supposedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis.  The story is told by two separate narrators.  One is the Foer character  and the second is Alex, Foer’s Ukrainian translator.  Alex, aided by his handy thesaurus, writes and speaks a unique brand of English.  A heavy reliance on synonyms lends itself to some fun language choices.  While not an original literary technique, the book’s use of language is clever and playful, sometimes leading to a more truthful telling than a conventional use of the language would lead us to.

“I was just adapting the short story and the narrative structure I had chosen, given the limitations of budget and scope, was really just the idea of a road trip – so I have taken out huge sections of the novel which was the parallel chronological history.” – Liev Schreiber, Director and Screenwriter of Everything is Illuminated

The film version of Everything Is Illuminated was released three years after the book.  The directorial and screenwriting debut of actor Liev Schreiber, the film was massacred upon its release and time has done little to add value to it.  Elijah Wood portrays Foer (and I am sorry to say not very well).  Wood almost completely disappears behind his oversized glasses and timid characterization.  Eugene Hutz is more successful in playing the translator, Alex.  Better known as the leader of the band Gogol Bordello (who do make a cameo appearance in one scene), he is fine but his mismanagement of the English language is less fun and clever than it is in the novel; they come off more as mistakes than unintended poetry.

The film does not shy away from its literary roots.  Like the novel, the film opens with Alex writing a letter to Foer.  The film is broken up into “chapters” which we see being written out.  All of Alex’s voice-overs in the film also use the language of his letters in the book.  In the film, Foer’s journey is strictly a quest to answer the following question: “Who is Augustine?”  The Foer of the movie is a collector.  Taking that idea to its most literal place, Foer actually puts every family relic into a protective ziploc bag.  Through this collection, Foer believes he’ll be better able to discover his own identity.  But while the novel, love it or hate it, has a consistent tone, the film always feels like it is searching for its place.  There is no magic in the film.  And although there are some beautiful images courtesy of DP Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), the film is just a series of events that never come together.  Everything is too spelled out, including what feels like a slapped on klezmer soundtrack.  It was all just too straightforward.

about a trip taken by a young American Jew (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) who is looking for Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis in the Ukraine.
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I have been a fan of this film diaries project since I read it upon its 1998 release, having been a big fan Richard Grant’s performances in two Bruce Robinson films (Withnail & I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising) as well as his smaller roles in films like The Player, LA Story, and Dracula to the schlock fests of Warlock and Hudson Hawk. I most enjoyed this book the first time I read it, as it seems to lose some of its luster upon subsequent reads (I had forgotten Grant’s excessive use of ALL CAPS).  However, I would still recommend this to anyone who is a Richard Grant fan or enjoys the backstage tales of Hollywood.  He has a great knack for capturing other Hollywood characters in all their glory, while never shying away from self-deprecation.  Here are some highlights (with the chapter heading included so you have an idea which project it is about):

Withnail & I:

Two pages into the script and an ache has developed in my gonads – I am both laughing out loud and agonized by the fact that the Withnail part is such a corker that not in a billion bank holidays will they ever seriously consider me . . . Never before or since have I read something that conveys what goes on in my head so accurately. (pg. 11)

Henry and June:

His [Kevin Spacey] rage is mercifully waylaid by Batman‘s shortcomings, which he delineates with the precision of a neuro-critic, and which diverts me from my chestful of mucus and makes me laugh.  Which spurs him on to even greater heights.  I recognize this syndrome all too acutely and wonder whether having a brontosaurus-sized moan is common to every human or whether it is a particular specialty of actors. (pgs. 85 – 86)

LA Stories:

They [Steve Martin and Victoria Tennant] mutually conclude that I am missing that cranial ‘organ’ which censors ‘thought’ before it hurtles out of my mouth.  No doubt confirming my RELENTLESS-ness.  On a GOOD day, this comes out as comedy, but on others turns me into a fucking five-act TRAGEDY. (pg. 110)

Hudson Hawk:

‘HI, HONEEEEE.’  She [Sandra Bernhard] has an instantly discernible trademark sigh, which insinuates itself through her speech and loping walk as if everything is slightly exhausting and demanding, and that whatever she is doing now is somehow keeping her from something she would rather do.  Whether it be hair rollers, mascara, the freeway, photo sessions, Reagan, Haiti, Madonna-questions, global warming, it’s all a bit too much to handle.  All of which makes her funny. (pg. 139)

The Player:

The collective salaries normally demanded by the stars who have agreed to do a day or two on this film would budget at around $110 million.  Why do they do it for ‘nothing’?  For LOVE? For Bob [Altman], which is one and the same thing. (pg. 215)

Dracula:

The pleasure of working with [Tom] Waits.  Like jazz riffing.  No vanity.  No ego on show.  Just lets it go. (pg. 241)

The Age of Innocence:

Dinner with three other English thesps.  The reason for us imports playing locals is that Marty [Scorsese] says it is easier for English actors to play this kind of Class and Society strata than it is to find American actors who would have to act it . . . The characters in Wharton’s novel are mostly Anglophiles anyway.  Plus, English actors are that much cheaper to hire than their American equivalents.  This cynical assertion is quipped between Alec McCowen, Jonathan Pryce, Stuart Wilson and myself.  All of us are here on the same minimal movie wage – for Marty! (pg. 263)

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“There’s a guy who wants to do a biography of me, and I can’t think of anything worse than raking through all those miserable years and having them in print, even if it’s done right.” – Bruce Robinson – director, writer, and actor

Q: How many studio executives does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Does it have to be a lightbulb?

– Popular Hollywood cliché that Robinson described as a truthful cliché

As editor Alistair Owen writes in the Smoking In Bed introduction, “This is not a biography.  It is an edited transcript of roughly thirty hours of interviews, complete with the inevitable omissions, repetitions, contradictions and highly subjective opinions . . . .”  Bruce Robinson covers the ups and downs of his career as a writer, director, and actor.  He started his film career as an actor, portraying Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. We follow Robinson’s trajectory from actor to writer (he wrote The Killing Fields, for example) to writer/director (he wrote and directed Withnail & I, which would become a modern classic) to the 1992 disaster that was Jennifer 8 (Robinson’s last directing credit, at least until the long-delayed adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary gets released, hopefully this year).  In the years that followed Jennifer 8, Robinson wrote some scripts for money, wrote a biographical novel (The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman), co-authored a children’s book with his wife Sophie Windham, and smoked, drank and read a lot.  And it is all very entertaining as relayed in the conversations between Robinson and Owen.  Writers will find the book especially entertaining, as Robinson spends a lot of the book discussing the writing process and his wrangling with not only the studios, producers, actors, and directors but also himself.  Below you will find some highlights from Smoking in Bed that focus on one of my Netflix Instant selections:  Withnail & I.

When [David] Puttnam asked me to do The Killing Fields the studio did not want an unknown, untried writer on a big project like that.  They didn’t want me.  They wanted William Goldman, or somebody.  I shall be eternally grateful to Puttnam for holding out for me and saying, “No, I think this bloke can do it.”  But had he not, had he acquiesced to the studio, I may never have had anything done even now . . . Without The Killing Fields, naturally I’d never have got a shot at Withnail. (pg 30-31)

The two most potent characters that I’ve ever heard as a writer, one was Withnail – he was just going in my head like Tchaikovsky: “Take this music out of my brain” – and one was Robert Oppenheimer, talking all day at me.  And Groves.  I could hear him clear as day. (pg 92 – Oppenheimer and General Groves were the main characters of the Robinson scripted Fat Man and Little Boy)

They [Robinson’s roommates] filtered away through 1968 and into 1969, until there was just Viv and I left, which was the genesis of Withnail, this intense two years that he and I spent together. (pg 99)

Withnail is basically me and Viv, an amalgamation of the two, but I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and a notepad writing down what Viv said.  I just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very pungent sense of humor, and wrote the character. (pg 104)

So if my memory is right and the book was written in the winter of 1969/70 – and I’ve got to think that’s right – it was seventeen years later that it got made into a film.  That’s what’s so bizarre about it: it’s thirty-one years old and it’s still playing.  By accident rather than design it has a timeless quality that all writers love to have built into their work. (pg 107)

When you’re directing a film you’ve got 75 to 150 people standing around you . . . As a writer you’re totally on your own.  There’s you, the ashtray and a piece of paper. (pg 115)

What is the point of Withnail?  It’s not a political film, it’s a film to get people laughing for a hundred-plus minutes.  That’s all I care about. (pg 123)

Withnail and Penman are the only things I feel I’ve totally controlled as an artist, and I’m happy with those because they’re mine.  I really believe that’s my stuff. (pg 228)

And a few Hunter S. Thompson-esque previews in anticipation of The Rum Diary…

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas I liked very much when I first read it.  It’s very dated now.  Withnail does have elements of Fear and Loathing; it’s not dissimilar.  Two blokes taking off to go somewhere and then coming back.  That’s the plot of his book and that’s the plot of mine. (pg 132)

On the Ralph Steadman drawing for the Withnail & I poster…

It’s a brilliant picture.  The brilliance of the picture, to me, is the Marwood character, who’s just standing there knowing that it’s pointless even moving . . . He’s magnificent, Ralph, in the inventive league of Goya and J.J. Grandville.  Some people are confused by his drawing, but I happen to think he’s a genius.  He totally captured that sense of what it was like in Albert Street in 1968: moaning and spewing and standing. (pg 133)

 

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Q&A

“My book is in a genre of its own.  It has the pace of thriller, yet it has a social commentary which you will find in literary work.  It’s a perfect marriage of both.” – Vikas Swarup, author of Q & A

“I have been arrested.  For winning a quiz show.” – opening lines of Q & A

Q & A was the debut novel by career Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, who has said  “I am a professional diplomat.  I am an accidental writer.”  The book was adapted into the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (directed by Danny Boyle, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy).  The film was both a critical and commercial success (more on this and the many liberties taken with the book in the future posting on the film), giving the novel a second life as a tie-in with the film.  The novel’s story is a universally recognizable underdog success story.

“It all started with a report I read in some newspaper about children living in slums using mobile phones and the Internet.  It was quite a revelation.  It showed that old class barriers were melting away and anyone can achieve anything.” – Vikas Swarup

The book is the story of 18-year-old Ram Mohammad Thomas (he has a Hindu, Muslim, and Christian name because he’s an orphan and thus his parents’ heritage is unknown).  Ram appears on an Indian spin-off version of the UK game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and ends up the unlikely winner of a billion Rupees by answering all the questions correctly.  The show’s producers were not prepared for a winner.  Ram is taken into custody by the police and told to explain how he cheated on the show.  The story unfolds as Ram tells his lawyer his tale, explaining how an uneducated, orphan, slum boy could know all the answers to the game.  All of his life experiences have led him to this point.  By the end of the book, we know Ram’s life story, from his birth to the present.  The book operates on two strands: Ram’s life story (told in a non-linear fashion) and Ram’s appearance on the show.  Each chapter of the book is based around a question from the show and the life experience that taught Ram the answer.  Each chapter is a short story in and of itself – but what ties the stories together is the quiz show format and Ram’s life experience that, at that moment, translates into the right answer answer.

“It’s a success for India and the story of India.” – Vikas Swarup

Not all agree.  Famed Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie has been a vocal critic of both Q & A and Slumdog Millionaire: “The movie piles impossibility on impossibility.”  He continued, “The problem with this adaptation begins with the work being adapted.”  And Rushdie is not alone in his distaste for the book and film.

“What business did a penniless waiter have participating in a brain quiz?  The brain is not an organ we are authorized to use.” – Q & A

“A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.” – Q & A

Despite some negative commentary, the book has now been translated into more than 40 languages and has received many awards.  Q & A, like Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Booker Prize winning novel,  The White Tiger, shows us that stories of heroes making it out of the Indian slums are popular with critics and audiences alike.  Pushed onto the best seller list when the film was released, Q & A is a perfect example of what can happen to a book when it is adapted into a successful film.

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“People overestimate the law.  They figure that once they’re on you, you can’t do anything.  But that’s not true.  It’s not that they’re so great at what they do, it’s just that the criminals can be lazy at what they do.  And if a criminal makes one mistake, he’s gone.  Most criminals don’t put enough effort into not being caught.” – Brutal by Kevin Weeks (co-authored by Phyllis Karas)

A quick recap: James “Whitey” Bulger was a South Boston crime boss who has been linked to the killings of at least nineteen people and who has been on the run from federal charges since 1995 (since he disappeared he was outed as a FBI informant).  For a full list of Boston Globe articles on the many aspects of Whitey’s story, see this special on-line section  called The Search for Whitey Bulger.  Whitey’s notoriety extended beyond Boston.  For example, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, although an adaptation of the Hong Kong film  Infernal Affairs, was set in Boston, allowing screenwriter William Monahan to use aspects of Bulger’s story for the Frank Costello character played by Jack Nicholson.  And then there was the Showtime show Brotherhood (which was originally titled Southie).  Although based in Providence, R.I., the show’s premise bears more than a slight resemblance to the story of Whitey and his politician brother William Bulger.  As far as I remember, Whitey does not feature into Good Hill Hunting, but I would need to revisit the film to be sure.

In addition to Hollywood’s love of the criminals of Southie, there have been more than a few books on the subject as well.  There are at least three books by Boston reporters who covered the Bulger story over the years.  In addition, Phyllis Karas  co-authored two Bulger mob books that took a more “insider” approach.  She first worked with Edward MacKenzie Jr. on Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Irish Mob (2003).  Later she published Brutal (2006) with gangster Kevin Weeks.  While many have questioned MacKenzie’s role in the Bulger organization (including Weeks who said MacKenzie was “not involved with us at all”), Weeks’ position as an insider and tough in the Bulger organization has never been in question.

Brutal is brutally straightforward.  Essentially, it is a laundry-list of people met and crimes committed.  The book’s style is all in its bluntness.  We follow Weeks from his childhood in South Boston to his years as Whitey’s fearless and loyal compatriot to his arrest to his deal with the Feds (Weeks’ position on flipping – “You can’t rat on a rat”).  Weeks goes into great detail about some events, but glosses over others.  He perpetuates Whitey’s image as a Robin Hood-like figure; keeping crime and hard drugs out of the neighborhood.  And when Whitey was violent, it was just business.

Of all the stories recounted in Brutal, the one that seemed to get the most attention involved Boston Herald reporter Howie Carr, whom Weeks characterized as a cowardly “piece of shit reporter.”  It certainly seemed to be what most interested Ed Bradley in his 60 Minutes feature on Weeks, following the publication of Brutal.  In the book, Weeks tells of how he had Carr in the cross-hairs of his rifle scope, ready to shoot, except that Carr came out of his house with his young daughter.  In an interview for the 60 Minutes story, Carr dismissed Weeks’ claim, saying “It doesn’t seem like Kevin would have the stones to do it.”  Did I mention that Carr also has a book to sell?  It’s called The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century.

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“He saw himself as the Charles Dickens of crime in Boston instead of a crime writer.  He just understood the human condition and he understood it most vividly in the language and actions among low lives.” – Elmore Leonard on George V. Higgins, author of the book The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“With The Friends of Eddie Coyle, he’s given us the most penetrating glimpse yet into what seems the world of crime – a world of stale beer smells and pale unnourishing winter sun, and pale unnourished little men who do what they have to do to get along.” – Joe McGuinniss’ 1972 New York Times book review

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was published in 1971.  Two years later it was made into a movie that would become the granddad of the Boston crime movie and a stark counterpoint to other gangster fare of the period, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (based on the book by Mario Puzo).   The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), is an  unsentimental story of Eddie Coyle, a small-time criminal.  There is no blood in the film, and very little violence–and, only one (failed) car chase which takes place in a parking lot, which is surprising  in a film from the director of Bullitt.  It does not glamorize crime or criminals; instead we see them as real people.  The book and the film both work off of an almost drab realism–we’re just being told a story.  One of the film’s most famous qualities is its location filming (filming never occurred in a studio).  Boston is one of the stars of this ensemble film.

“What I can’t get over is that so good a first novel was written by the fuzz.” – Norman Mailer on The Friends of Eddie Coyle

“The characters are telling you the story.  I’m not telling you the story, they’re going to do it.  If I do it right, you will get the whole story.” – George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was Higgins’ first published novel.  At the time of its publication, Higgins was an assistant US attorney.  At the time, Boston was being torn apart by the gang wars.  As an assistant US attorney, Higgins had unique insight into that world and was able to translate it onto the page.  The story is written the way people talk–the dialogue is all realistic.  In fact, most dialogue in the film was taken directly from the book.  The book (and film) tells us the story through dialogue.  And not just Eddie’s; we are treated to multiple narratives.  This is a character driven story, similar to what one sees in the work of Elmore Leonard (who is a Higgins fan).  The plot seems to come from characters, as opposed to characters existing simply to fill-out the plot.  Over time, Higgins’ characters have achieved iconic cult status.  For example, Quintin Tarantino’s adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch changed the title character’s name from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown (the name of the gun runner in The Friends of Eddie Coyle).

“I was impressed by his book largely because I think that work like his is necessary for people to understand something about the humors of the criminal mentality.  I know a little something about the criminal mentality.” – Robert Mitchum on Higgins and The Friends of Eddie Coyle

At the center of the film is Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Eddie Coyle.  Mitchum is one of those actors who does more with less.  This marked the resurgence of Mitchum’s career from the former A-list leading man to an everyman who could be embraced by the new Hollywood of the 1970’s (Mitchum followed Eddie Coyle with The Yakuza and two turns as Phillip Marlowe).  While preparing for his role as Eddie Coyle, Mitchum supposedly hung around with James “Whitey”  Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang.  Mitchum did not act alone, however, as Eddie Coyle gives us a great ensemble cast.  The film is populated with characters actors, including Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, Steven Keats, Joe Santos, and Alex Rocco (who is reported to have been a low level Boston gangster before heading to Los Angeles to become an actor – he is best known for his portrayal of Moe Green in The Godfather).

Recently, the film world has been overrun with Boston crime dramas.  Most recently, we’ve had The Town. And not long before that, there was The Departed and Mystic River.  But it is impossible to talk about about Boston crime dramas without recognizing their roots.  The Friends of Eddie Coyle laid the ground for all the Boston crime dramas to come.  And there have been many, and undoubtedly there will be many more.  But no film serves up more reality than Eddie Coyle.

For more on The Friends of Eddie Coyle, check out this excellent Film Comment essay by Geoffrey O’Brien (author of The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century).

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“The thought occurred to me that there are many shapes to the thing that separates life from death.  Sometimes it’s obvious . . . other times it’s subtle . . . we go through life ignoring these subtleties because there are a million things we survive every day without recognizing we were ever at risk.  Then we have a close call, and we become acutely aware of what that fraction of an inch or that split second means.” – Between A Rock and A Hard Place

Of all the outdoor activities that Aron Ralston chronicles in his book Between A Rock and A Hard Place, his trip to Blue John Cannon in Utah should have been a walk in the park.  Yes, Canyonlands National Park.  Ralston was in the midst of a goal to do solo climbs of all of Colorado’s  fourteeners (climbs higher than 14,000 feet – a view of one pictured left).  And he was doing them in winter.  There are other climbs and adventures he chronicled which could just have easily ended with his death (a near drowning, starting an avalanche while skiing, and I was especially taken with his description of an encounter he had with a bear in 1997).  This day in the canyons of Utah should have been easy. 

“Over the course of the winter, I learned about the concept of deep play, wherein a person’s recreational pursuits carry a gross imbalance of risk and reward.  Without the potential for any real or perceived external gain – fortune, glory, fame – a person puts himself into scenarios of real risk and consequence purely for internal benefit: fun and enlightenment.” – Between A Rock and A Hard Place

The beginning of the book finds us in spring 2003.  The winter mountaineering season is over.  So on an April 2003 weekend, Ralston decides to do some biking and a little canyoneering.  The events that day were to change Ralston forever.  The accident happens on page 23.  I am guessing that most know the outcome of the book by now (if not from the media blitz Ralston has done in the past around the accident and his book, then from the current feature in theatre’s right now, 127 Hours, which is based on the book).  So, I wondered what would fill the next three hundred pages. 

“There’s a mostly unspoken acknowledgment among the voluntarily impoverished dues-payers of our town [Aspen, CO] that it’s better to be fiscally poor yet rich in experience – living the dream – than to be traditionally wealthy but live separate from one’s passions.” – Between A Rock and A Hard Place

The chapters ping-pong between stories of Ralston’s past and the time he is trapped in the canyon.  What interested me was that Ralston seemed to be continually pushing himself in his treks, an attempt to find meaning for himself and his place in the world.  That is something I am sure we all have done in one way or another.  Not all of us quit our day jobs (he was a mechanical engineer) to work in an outdoor supply store; a choice Ralston made so he could be closer to the mountains he loved.

“Our conversation patterns would start with me telling Rob about a recent adventure, and out of the blue, he would reply with his favorite non sequitur: ‘It’s not what you do, Aron, it’s who you are.’  Derailed from my story, I would spend the next ten minutes questioning Rob as to exactly what he meant by that.  He’d repeat the axiom, and in the end, still not understanding, I would attempt to refute him.  In my view, we define who we are precisely by what we do.  We find identity in action.  If we do nothing, we are nothing . . . perhaps my skewed perspective from the depth of this canyon gives me the oblique angle to reconsider Rob’s comment . . . He deemed me a friend because of who I am – as a person, not as a climber, a skier, an outdoorsman.  My confusion at his assertion had shown how right he was.  I got defensive because I wanted him to respect me for my accomplishments . . . My risk-taking didn’t affect my integrity as a friend.  Huh.  I think I get it now.  Maybe that’s what I’m here to learn?” – Between A Rock and A Hard Place

In a recent interview about the making of the film 127 Hours, Ralston talks about how he was changed by his experience in the canyon those days at the end of April, 2003.  You could consider it an afterwards to the book.

“Getting out of the canyon alive was a rebirth.  My entrapment and amputation cleaved not only my arm but my whole existence into pre-Blue John and post-Blue John eras . . . Perhaps it’s time to close those chapters and remember the enduring lesson of my entrapment: that relationships, not accomplishments, are what’s important in life.”

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