Archive for the 'Adventure/Travel' Category

An old Shelves favorite – coming to a theater near you

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Way back in 2007, my book club read In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. Loved the book (I’m a big fan of real-life adventures) but it was a poor choice for the book club. There wasn’t much to debate, really – whales are big, starvation is bad – and we were all in agreement that it was a great story, quite well-written. Maybe that’s why I’m having trouble imagining it as a movie, but apparently Ron Howard doesn’t have that problem. And hey – watching Chris Hemsworth is not exactly suffering, so I’m willing to give it a try. It’s always interesting to compare the book in your head to the images on the screen. Sometimes, it’s disappointing but sometimes they get it right. I’m looking forward to seeing what they’ve done with this one.

Review: Jungleland by Christopher S. Stewart

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Jungleland-Stewart-Christopher-9780061802546I was of two minds about Christopher Stewart’s Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, a WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure. First of all, I love a good adventure book. Traipsing through the jungle looking for a lost city, with a plan based only on rumors and some numbers carved into an old walking stick? Love it! That’s my idea of a great read. There is plenty of adventure and mystery surrounding Theodore Morde’s trek into the Honduran jungle, looking for Cuidad Blanca, the White City. Morde is a fascinating character — a stowaway at 19 on a ship to Germany; 10 years spent sailing around the world, working as a bellboy, a cook, whatever work he could find on tramps and freighters; writing about the foreign ports he visited:

“He wrote about confidence men in Paris,; a dead man being burned on a pyre in Bombay; cockfighting in Siam. In Nias, a remote island off the western coast of Sumatra, he lived with a tribe of headhunters. He was surprised to find stone houses and paved roads in such a distant place, which made him start to ponder the early seeds of civilization…”

He fought in the Spanish Civil War and was probably a government spy, working on a complicated plan to overthrow Hitler. Eventually, like a lot of adventurers, he met a bad end, but not in a far-off jungle. Much closer to home.

There is every indication that he knew the exact location of the White City, but he kept it a secret, giving only hints, vague indications and false information. What was so compelling about this site that he did not want to share it with the rest of the world? Was it greed or something more sinister?

It’s a fascinating story. I can completely understand why Stewart got so caught up in it that he felt compelled to head off into the jungle himself. But that’s where my opinion splinters. I remember throwing Into the Wild across the room because I was so angry with Christopher McCandless, heading out into the Alaskan wilderness almost completely unprepared and breaking the hearts of his friends and family. Stewart isn’t quite as stupid as McCandless, but he’s no intrepid explorer:

“You don’t even know how to camp!” she said.

True: I’m not a backpacker or a trekker or even much of a hiker. I have a bad back. I have lived in New York City for more than fifteen years, so the idea of going to the rain forest might as well have meant heading off to Mars.

Stewart has a wife and a young daughter who is worried about her daddy getting lonely in the jungle and being eaten up by wild animals. I know he was trying to set a mood, sharing the conversations with his daughter, but they made me angry. How dare he deprive that little girl of her father because he got a wild hair up his ass about seeing the jungle!

At least Stewart had the sense to get good help. He had some excellent sources of information and he had a real-life Indiana Jones for a guide, a man named Chris Begley. They took sensible precautions and tried to be careful, but it was crazy dangerous and at so many junctures, it could have turned deadly. I can’t say that Stewart didn’t have respect for the jungle he was heading into, but he really had no idea just how bad it would be. This book could have had a very different ending.

All in all, it’s still a very good read, and other readers may not have my reaction. There is plenty of adventure and a terrific mystery to unravel, great fun if you like that sort of thing (which I do). It was fun to spend a little time on Google Earth, looking at pictures of the jungle.

My copy of Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, a WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff

Monday, October 14th, 2013

frozen in timeKnowing what this book was about, I wasn’t expecting a happy ending. What surprised me was how often I was moved to tears by the sheer bravery and strength of the men in this novel. What kind of inner strength does it take to go out into what will likely be deadly conditions, risking your own life, to rescue a man you’ve never met? The “very unofficial” motto of the Coast Guard is, according to author Mitchell Zuckoff, “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” Over and over these heroes prove that they are undeterred by the dangers, even when they know that motto to be true.

Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II is the story of a series of plane crashes over Greenland in 1942. The US had military bases on Greenland, protecting both the strategic location of the island as well as important natural resources there, but the conditions were so rugged that the men serving there were constantly in danger.

“But as soon as American planes began flying over Greenland, they began crashing into Greenland. Three B-17s ditched on the very first day of flights, in June 1942.”

The subject of the novel is a US cargo plane that crashed on a routine flight over the Greenland ice cap in November, 1942. Dozens of men were involved in the search and rescue attempts. A B-17 bomber, en route to combat duty overseas, pitched in to help with nine men aboard. The rescue plane also crashed on the ice; all nine men survived the crash, only to endure more than 140 days, shivering in the tail section of their plane in sleet, snow, and temperatures that routinely reached -40F. Not all of them made it back to safety, but the survivors were able to tell their story.

“Thirteen days had passed since their crash, five since they’d been spotted from the air. They were weak, wet, freezing, and out of food. They knew they’d never survive a trek back to the plane, and they saw no point in trying. They doubted they’d live through even one more night of 40-below-zero cold. Desperate, with nothing to lose, Goodlet thought they should try again to light their parkas. If it didn’t work and the coats were ruined, death by hypothermia would come mercifully sooner.”

Greenland is basically a glacier, so there is not only snow and frigid temperatures, there are high winds, polar bears, bottomless crevasses and the ever-shifting ice to contend with. Humans weren’t made for these conditions, and I was stunned, reading the hardships these men endured. Finding them was the first hurdle, but once rescuers located what was left of the plane, they had to figure out a way to get to the men. Landing on the ice was almost impossible, due to the swirling wind and the danger of sending the whole plane tumbling into a crevasse. Traveling overland was just as difficult, if not moreso. When planes could fly over, they dropped supplies – everything from toilet paper, dry socks and sleeping bags to ham sandwiches, letters from home and bottles of scotch. The survivors battled deadly frostbite, depression, and the special sort of psychosis that comes with months trapped in an icy grave with little hope for rescue – but they battled it, and they survived.

This is also the story of The Duck – the Grumman Duck, a Coast Guard rescue plane aboard the US Coast Guard cutter Northland. The two men who piloted that plane are the only Coast Guard war dead who have not been brought home to rest. They are legends in Coast Guard history, and an inspiration to Lou Sapienza, a modern-day hero who is determined to bring home those men who perished, and to make sure that the Grumman Duck doesn’t fall into the hands of unscrupulous dealers or private collectors. The modern tale of the 2012 expedition to locate and recover the plane and the pilots is also told here – the struggle to enlist the aid of the US Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in providing funding and equipment for the expedition, as well as the dangers inherent in the mission itself.

Zuckoff is precise in his telling of the story, painstakingly researched and doing his best to avoid inventing conversations and details. He tells their life stories, their nicknames, their foibles, in a way that makes you feel like you are among old friends, which makes their struggles even more poignant. He is deeply entrenched in this story, offering up his credit card to help fund the 2012 expedition, even agreeing to put up his house as collateral! His sly wit surfaces time after time, catching me unawares and making me laugh:

“The young Texan knew that he’d fallen through an ice bridge covering a hidden crevasse. He also knew that being swallowed by a crevasse is like being swallowed by a whale: after a brief, exhilarating rush, it rarely ends well.”

His respect for these men shines through. I was moved to tears on several occasions, and even though I knew, at least in part, how the story would end, I was really rooting for these men.

This is a terrific book, and I highly recommend it for those folks who like a good adventure story. I like reading about adventures in the Arctic, even though I am not a cold-weather fan, and I have already picked up Zuckoff’s previous book, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War IIto warm me up after my cold-weather reading. I’ll be passing my copy along to some friends who I know will really enjoy it.

My copy of Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II was a review copy, provided free of charge. For more about Mitchell Zuckoff, check out his website.


Review: The Mistress of Abha by William Newton

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

In The Mistress of Abha by William Newton, Ivor Willoughby goes searching for the father he barely knew.  A British soldier stationed in Arabia, Ivor met his father, Robert, on only 2 occasions and for only a handful of days in total, but Robert was a legend in their household and beyond.  Ivor is determined, from a very young age, to go to Arabia for himself and see the land that so enthralled his father.  His father’s legend, the story of Ullobi, is not at all what he imagined.  It’s much, much more.

The Mistress of Abha is a dense story, full of detail and description — everything from the type of car Robert Willoughby drove when he was seducing the young ladies of Oxfordshire to the sounds and smells of the Arabian markets that Ivor explores, looking for someone with the information he seeks.  If you’re someone who likes to get right to the heart of the story, get right to the action, pass this by; you’ll just be frustrated.  The first third of the book is spent setting up Ivor’s trip to Arabia: his father’s courtship of his mother, his childhood, his education.  Then the story changes, as Ivor meets Etza, a former slave who may hold the key to his father’s whereabouts.

Ivor starts out in true British style, believing he will go to Arabia (as an officer in the Royal Navy’s Locust Bureau, a job that allows him a great deal of freedom of movement), ask a few questions and easily track down his missing father.  After all, his father is a legend — all the officers who spoke of him said so!  The reality is very different.  The Arabia he visits can’t help but be a a bit disappointing, after his years of dreams and fantasies.  Robert may be a legend in the British Army, but he is not as well-known to the locals as Ivor hoped.  He much follow a much more circuitous path to track down the story, which eventually leads him to Etza and the story of Na’ema.

The book is full of wonderful detail, but it’s not a travelogue and it might not be the Middle East as we would recognize it today.  It is still under British influence, but as full of complex and twisting politics as it is today.  Ivor is an idealistic young man from a wealthy family with a job that affords him a great deal of leisure.  He travels across Arabia, occasionally making a few notes on some locusts, but mostly engrossed in his search.  He is set upon by marauders, captured, injured, feasted and treated as an honored guest, so it is never a boring trip, for Ivor or his readers.

My copy of The Mistress of Abha was provided by the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.

Review: The Survivor’s Club by Ben Sherwood

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

True or False:
1. The safest seats on an airplane are at the back.
2. If you fall into a frozen lake, you have only 3 minutes to escape the water.
3. In prisoner-of-war camps in Vietnam, optimists lived longer than anyone else.

Who lives and who dies in a crisis? Do you have what it takes to be one of the passengers who walks out of the jungle after a plane crash or who keeps their cool and remembers how to work a compass when you get lost in the woods? And if you don’t (or can’t) can you learn? There are lots of books on survival tips and I have read more than a few of them. The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life by Ben Sherwood takes familiar territory and still turns it into a very interesting read.

I love books on survival. Doesn’t matter whether they are fiction or non-fiction: travel/adventure books about explorers deep in the wild, post-apocalyptic stories about the survivors of great disaster, non-fiction accounts of great rescues. I’ve read more than one book that claims to tell me how I can survive the zombie apocalypse, or on an ice-bound ship in the Anarctic, or in the deepest jungles of unexplored continents. Reality check: those are probably things I will never face — at least, I hope not. But I fly a lot. A LOT. Usually 2 or 3 trips per month for work (6 separate flights last month). So when a book says it can give me tips on how to survive an plane crash, I’m turning to that section first. I love exit row seats and nothing is going to come between me and that escape slide.

Sherwood’s tips are generally pretty good. That stuff about the safest seats being in the back of the plane? I think the airlines came up with that to sell bad seats. The best rule of thumb: sit on an aisle within 5 rows of the exit. That’s doable in most cases. Count the rows between you and the exit, so you can find your way out, even if it’s dark and smoky and chaotic. Don’t drink before you fly and don’t sleep during take-off and landing — all easy enough advice to follow. One of the keys to survival is being aware of your situation, knowing where you are and what’s going on around you. If taking a minute to count the rows and checking under my seat for the life vest will help, I can do that.

I have to say that I disagree with him about paying attention to the safety announcements. Watching the flight attendant may be polite, but I already know how to buckle my seat belt. I know that in the event of an emergency, aisle path lighting will guide me to the nearest exit, which may be behind me. I know that even though my mask may not fully inflate, oxygen will still be flowing. But that’s just my opinion.

Sherwood has done his research. I loved the descriptions of US Marine Corps Survival School that he attended. Surviving the SWIMMER (Shallow Water Initial Memory Mechanical Exit Release trainer) and the SWET (hallow Water Egress Trainer) – basically, big dunking machines designed to teach pilots how to get out of their helicopters during unscheduled water landings. I would love to try out the FAA’s workshop on surviving plane crashes. He talked with people who collect body odor (“What Does Fear Smell Like?”), doctors who study the science of luck (“Why Good Things Always Happen to the Same People”), even a researcher who thinks that people with initials that spell negative things (“Are Your Initials Killing You?). The author’s initials are BS — that must have been fun on the playground. I don’t know that I have a lot of faith in all of that science (my initials? really?), but I have no doubt that there are a lot of things that impact your chances for survival. The Survivor’s Club covers luck, faith, attitude, adversity and the will to live.

There’s even an opportunity to learn more about your own survival skills. Log in to the SurvivorProfiler and take the Survivor IQ test. The test breaks down profiles into several broad categories. (I’m a Thinker, not a Fighter or a Believer.) Of course, no one ever really knows how they will react in a crisis; Sherwood talks about his own experiences and how he measured up. But it always helps to be prepared. If you’ve thought ahead of time about what might happen and how you should react, you’ve got a better chance of making the right decision when it’s crunch time. And since you will (hopefully) never experience jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, why not read about it in the safety of your living room?

The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life is an interesting, engaging read, full of real-life stories and tales of survival and adversity. It’s a good mix of tips, true stories and hope — I always find stories about people who have survived to be full of hope.

By the way — the answers to my first 3 questions? All false. The safest seats are near the exits, you can survive a surprisingly long time in cold water and, sadly, the optimists were the first to go.

My copy of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Lifeb by Ben Sherwood was provided by the LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s program.

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Review: Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

pirate_latitudesMichael Crichton told the kind of stories that grabbed us as readers and that drew us to the big screen. Pirate Latitudes, unpublished at the time of his death in 2008, is just that sort of story — a big, exciting tale of a handsome pirate, a woman scorned, impossible odds and a fortune in gold. You can almost imagine it unfolding on the big screen as you read it; at the same time, there is a wealth of detail you’ll only get from the book. It is meticulously researched, full of detail about the ships, the men who sailed them, and the intricacies of pirate society.

Captain Charles Hunter is a handsome fellow, a privateer of some reknown in Port Royal, a small English colony in Jamaica. The story begins in 1665, when a bit of gossip from a convict woman, sent to Jamaica ostensibly as a potential bride for one of the sailors or merchants crowding the colony, reveals an amazing opportunity: a Spanish treasure galleon is hiding in the port of Mantanceros. The port is impossible to reach, the Spanish captain guarding it is the most ruthless and sadistic man to serve the Spanish king, but Captain Hunter has a plan. It’s a daring and dangerous plan, but if they succeed, it means a fortune in gold for the Captain and his crew.

Captain Hunter assembles an interesting band of sailors, men with particular talents. Whether they are noted for their keen eyesight, their ability to handle the rudder or their skill with explosives, each has a part to play. And there are also political angles to the story — after all, piracy is highly illegal and punishable by death. They will not only have to execute the most intricate and hazardous plan in privateering history, they will have to be sure that it does not in any way look like the work of pirates.

The book was a sort of Ocean’s 11 for pirates. The intricate plan, the cast of characters, the subplots and subterfuge — and that in no way lessened my enjoyment of the story. I read the bulk of it in one sitting, and a lovely afternoon it made. The story gets started quickly, the characters are engaging and there is enough suspense to keep the pages turning at a brisk pace. I didn’t know until I finished the book that there are already plans to make it into a movie (Steven Spielberg has signed on to direct), but I can easily imagine it. (I would love to see Tilda Swinton as Lazue, and I have a few suggestions for Captain Hunter as well.)

The story is well-suited to the big screen, but what you shouldn’t miss in the book is the attention to detail, the research that Crichton undertook to write it. The story is full of detail: about the operation of the Port Royal colony, about the navigation and operation of the various sailing vessels, about the codes and conventions of pirate society. The characters may be entirely fictional, but every detail of their ship, the Cassandra, rings true. Stories of the sailors’ superstitions, of the way the shares were determined and distributed, about treatment of the men on board were all fascinating and added tremendously to the story. There were no glaring errors or anachronisms to pull me out of the story. It painted a vivid picture of its little slice of history.

Pirate Latitudes, Michael Crichton’s final, complete work, was published in November 2008. There is also an untitled and unfinished techno-thriller, the sequel to Next, a novel about genetic research, that is scheduled for publication in 2010. The movie version of Pirate Latitudes is in development and tentatively scheduled for release in 2011. His previous books include The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Jurassic Park, Sphere, The Great Train Robbery, Congo, The Lost World and Prey. He also wrote 4 non-fiction books, 10 novels under various pseudonyms, as well as numerous screenplays.

My copy of Pirate Latitudes was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Green Eyes in the Amazon by P.J. Fischer

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Green Eyes in the Amazon is a very timely book — almost too timely. Fundamentalist religious groups are conspiring to control society and stifle scientific advances by any means necessary, including violence. It is set in a hazy but not-too-distant future. No more cellphones and SUVs, now we all have vidcoms and autopiloted cars. Central America is a Dead Zone, university professors and students have to swear loyalty oaths and religion is on the rise. In this contentious climate, a brilliant young biologist may have ushered in the next step in human evolution — but what will the religious zealots do to stop him?

There are a lot of interesting topics in Green Eyes – human evolution, the expansion of science, the influence of religion, medical and scientific ethics. It promises so much, but really doesn’t deliver. This may be a case of a book biting off more than it can chew.

The story is an interesting one: brilliant young biologist Steven Sumpter has distilled all the “mysterious, complex processes of life” into a series of algorithms. (Exactly what religious conservatives have always been afraid science would do.) He has used these algorithms in conjunction with some amazing quantum computer programming, to create a child, a whole new species of human. Steven is on the run from the authorities who accuse him of violating the Mutant Laws and hiding from religious extremists who want to be sure this child is never born. As the world lurches towards an all-out war between religion and science, Steven’s creation may represent reason’s only chance.

Steven receives some help from the military and spends most of the book hiding out in the Dead Zone. He is accompanied by his father, Dennis; former colleague, Benny; and Eli, his lover, his colleague, and the woman about to give birth to his greatest creation. They have to deal with the difficulties of surviving in the wilderness, avoiding the sort of thugs and villians that would make their home in the Dead Zone, while caring for a pregnant woman. Eventually, Steven and Julia will be called upon to try and prevent the end of the Enlightenment, as religious forces gain strength and show a frightening willingness to use mayhem and violence to increase their authority.

Unfortunately, I found the book rather shallow. There is a lot of discussion about what to do with this child, Julia, what she really is, but the discussion can be summed up as “she’s a new species and we must treat her with respect.” The question, at least for me, isn’t always can we do something, but should we do it. The shoulds are never addressed here. Julia is useful, she may save our world from a new Dark Age, and that’s all that’s important. Eli was also a biologist, but she doesn’t seem to think or speak like a scientist. She is completely taken over by her maternal instincts. I would have been more interested in her if she had more than just this dimension.

There is a lot going on in the story that is not fleshed out. For example, I am not sure how far in the future we are really talking. Steven’s father, Dennis, has a very cool car that will do 100+ miles an hour on autopilot, complete with evasion mode. Steven is able to synthesize a variety of human growth hormones from a small computer set-up he hauled into the Amazon with them. But the university Steven attends seems no different from any college today. I can’t tell if the story is set 20 years or 50 years or 150 years in the future. Steven is tried and convicted of violating the Mutant Laws, but I never knew for sure just what that entailed. There is a great deal of talk about war involving the military, the scientists and the religious extremists, but no real detail on what this war will entail. The description involves a lot of casualties, but what caused them? Did we bomb the churches? Did the extremists start burning libraries and librarians? If the government is getting more religious and more conservative, why does the military seem to be on the side of the scientists?

All in all, the story left me wanting. I wanted to know more about Steven’s world, more about the world of Helen and Alphonse, our window into the religious forces at work, I wanted to know more about Steven’s singing rabbits, about Toid — the virtual world he used for developing his theories — and the original Julia, a computer program that gained sentience and had to be destroyed. I wanted to know what the government and the military were up to while Steven and Eli were hiding out in the Dead Zone. It felt incomplete and unfinished. I think it’s good when an author leaves you wanting more, but this wasn’t the way to go about it.

My copy of Green Eyes in the Amazon was provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Friday, September 25th, 2009

I love a good adventure novel! Exploring the Arctic, searching for the source of the Nile, exploring the Amazon basin, all from the comfort of your local library. Most of us will never in our lives go anywhere that is truly unexplored, but I have great respect for the men (and occasionally women) who were unafraid of the unknown. In The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, author David Grann presents not only a great tale of adventure but also a great mystery: what happened to Colonel Percy Fawcett?

Colonel Percy Fawcett was an amateur archaeologist and adventurer who spent the early years of the 20th century exploring South American jungles. He was known for his policy of non-violence when it came to the natives; while other explorers were escorted by troops of well-armed soldiers, Fawcett traveled with a small party, brought gifts for the tribes they met, and resolved to never fire a shot. He was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones. His career ended in mystery — in 1925, accompanied by his son, Jack, and a small party of explorers, Fawcett disappeared into the Amazon in search of the lost city of Z (which may have been code for El Dorado, the City of Gold. Dozens of expeditions were launched to try and determine what happened to Fawcett and his companions. No hard evidence was ever found.

Over the years he spent exploring in the Amazon, Fawcett became convinced that there was evidence of advanced civilizations in the jungle. Although the prevailing opinion was that the natives of the area were backwards and mentally inferior to Europeans, Fawcett was impressed with the way the indigenous people were able to build societies, albeit small ones, and find food and clothing in an area most referred to as The Green Hell. He spent years researching the reports of early explorers, and in 1925, he headed off on his final expedition.

David Grann was ill equipped to go searching in the Amazon:

Let me be clear: I am not an explorer or an adventurer. I don’t climb mountains or hunt. I don’t even like to camp. I stand less than five feet nine inches tall and am nearly forty years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair. I suffer from keratoconus — a degenerative eye condition that makes it hard for me to see at night. I have a terrible sense of direction and tend to forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn.

His original plan was to head to the Amazon with a couple of pairs of shorts, his sneakers and a Swiss army knife. But Grann gets caught up in the Fawcett mystery that has captivated explorers for nearly a century. The staff at the Royal Geographic Society is accustomed to dealing with “Fawcett lunatics”, who want to read his papers and follow in his footsteps, even though Fawcett explicitly requested that no rescue mission be attempted. (That was part ego; he figured that if he couldn’t find his way out, no one could.) Estimates are that more than 100 people have perished in their attempts to solve the mystery of what became of Fawcett’s band of explorers.

The Lost City of Z is both the story of Fawcett’s expedition and Grann’s obsession with it. There’s some history, a little archaeology, and plenty of adventure. It’s a terrific story about a larger-than-life character who inspired great writers and touched millions of newspaper readers with the stories of his adventures. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Fawcett is that his final chapter remains a mystery.

My copy of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon was an Advanced Reader Copy; get your copy at

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why by Laurence Gonzales

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

I have written before about my love of travel and adventure books. Often, these are more accurately about misadventure – an expedition gone wrong, a plane crash, a shipwreck. Some people live, some die. Why did Robert Falcon Scott lose every member of his expedition, while Edmund Shackleton brought all of his crewmembers – including a stowaway – home safely? Why do experienced climbers die on “beginner” mountains while four-year-olds, lost in the woods, are found unharmed? Deep Survival attempts to answer some of those questions by looking at what goes into making someone a survivor.

Gonzales has lived a fascinating life and has ample experience to bring to this subject, but this isn’t a book about survival techniques. You won’t find tips on how to navigate by the stars, how to find water in the desert or keep warm in a blizzard. You will learn how we create emotional bookmarks, how we create mental maps that guide us, even when we don’t realize it. You’ll learn the importance of Positive Mental Attitude, even if the experts can’t tell you exactly what comprises that attitude. These things are actually far more important, because they are lessons that you can apply to your everyday life.

The accident stories are enlightening – it’s obvious that we don’t always take “the wilderness” very seriously. He talks with John Gray, the only guide licensed to take backpackers into Glacier National Park:

People set off from their Winnebagos in the vast Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot, a place where it can snow 12 inches in August. They walk with their kids and their cameras right out along the Continental Divide for the beautiful views. “They’re just clueless when they start,” he said to me. “They don’t even realize that being in the mountains you have to be prepared. A ton of people take off up there without proper equipment and it rapidly becomes a life-threatening situation. This year at Granite Park Chalet we gave away every garbage bag we had to people who had come up without proper clothes and were hypothermic. We could warm them up, but the garbage bag was the only thing we could give them for the walk back down.”

We tend to treat the great outdoors like an amusement park. There are national park horror stories about people want to have their kid’s picture taken with a bear or on the back of a moose. Even Gonzales talks about leaving a ski lodge, planning on a short nature walk, and nearly getting caught in a 2-day ice storm because they didn’t turn back when the weather got suddenly threatening. He relates a conversation with a lifeguard on a beach in Hawaii, where he was planning to dive right in and enjoy the surf: turns out, he was walking through a particularly dangerous area, and the lifeguard explained how he could have easily ended up shredded on the nearby lava rocks. Obviously, the first steps to surviving are knowing where you are and where you’re going and paying attention to the world around you.

I’ve already recommended this book to colleagues at work. In fact, it immediately occurred to me that you could easily turn these ideas into useful suggestions at the office; the same ideas can also apply to your personal life. We create an emotional bookmark when something goes well – that feeling of elation and excitement when you close a big sale or kiss a new lover isn’t all that different from the feeling of riding a monster wave or reaching the summit of mountain. But sometimes we try to recreate that feeling, we follow that mental map, even though our current terrain is very different. Instead of adjusting our map to reality, we push blindly forward, trying to make reality fit our map, with tragic consequences.

Even without the pop psychology slant on it, the book is full of interesting stories about how people manage to survive in the most difficult circumstances. It’s the story behind the stories, and it’s certain to inform my reading of other adventure literature. You can order Deep Survival on

Have you been lost in the wilderness or have a survival story of your own?

The White Mary by Kira Salak

Monday, July 7th, 2008

I have always been a fan of travel and adventure books, both fiction and non-fiction, which is what drew me to Kira Salak’s book, The White Mary. Although the book is a work of fiction, she drew on her long experience as a travel journalist to present a story full of detail and vibrant description. It is immediately apparent that the author hasn’t just watched a National Geographic Special on Papua New Guinea, she has actually been through that jungle. It adds tremendously to the story.

Marika is a travel journalist who has been to some of the most violent and dangerous places on the planet. She lost her father when she was very young; he was executed in Czechoslovakia as a spy. She lost her mother to mental illness – more gradual, but no less painful. She has risked her life countless times in her need to tell a story. That need and that lifestyle have kept her separated from other people. Separation is comfortable for her, since so many important people in her life have left her.

Her current project is the biography of one of her heroes, the man who inspired her to become a journalist, Robert Lewis. While reviewing some background materials, she finds a letter from a missionary who claims to have seen Lewis recently, in Papua New Guinea. Fleeing problems in her personal life, Marika heads for PNG, looking for her own Holy Grail.

There are a few things that bother me in this book. Marika is a bit of a superwoman – no matter what the jungle throws at her, she keeps on going. Seb, her boyfriend back in Boston, is too good to be true. He’s handsome, rich, single, understanding…absolutely perfect. Her native guide, Tobo, is also too good to be true, never deserting her, even when she’s obviously a little nuts.

Still, this is a great tale of adventure, a story about finding yourself, a story about the futility of running from your problems.

My copy of The White Mary was an Advance Reader Copy. You can preorder your copy here.