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Non-Fiction

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

March 6, 2020

“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” — Chris McCandless

Christopher Johnson McCandless is a gifted and talented young man who has a good life set up before him and never wanted anything else— until he does. When he decides he wants to “live off the land for a bit,” he graduates from college with honors, and he hops in his battered, yellow Datsun and makes his way across the country from Atlanta to California (with his car breaking down in Arizona.) Then he heads straight up to “The Last Frontier” in Alaska where his decomposed body is found four months later by a group of moose hunters inside of an old, abandoned bus.

How did he survive hitchhiking across America? What drove him to do what he did? In Into The Wild author Jon Krakauer reports this unique adventure in third person, narrating McCandless’s journey while using his personal journal, where he wrote in during his trek, to make a story out of McCandless’s life. Krakaueralso throws in stories from his own life that connect with what Chris was feeling. Along the way, he includes interviews with the different people who accidentally got in the way of McCandless’s cross- country trek while going on with everyday business.

The plot isn’t that fast paced, but at the same time it’s informational and interesting to get a glimpse of how successful McCandless was before he went into the wild. Krakauer explains where his journey took him and how many good people he met along the way, who cared for him and tried to convince him to call his parents and not run away once they found what kind of person he was underneath that hair and dirty clothes.

I loved how Krakauer carefully pieced this story together using McCandless’s journal and the many interviews that Krakauer did to properly make McCandless’s true story come to life on paper and on television and be heard by millions of people who wondered what happened to the young man who ran away from home and a good life to live his own life on the road.

Krakauer has published many other non-fiction books, some that I have not read yet but one I have. It’s just as good as this one and is called Into Thin Air. It certainly changed my perspective on the sport of mountain climbing (especially on Everest) and how fast weather can change from good to bad.

I rated Into The Wild a ten out of ten for its amazing diction and storytelling. This book is a must-read for any person who likes the outdoors, and I am positive that this book will give readers some insight and advice for living out in the wild.

Jack

Anchor Books, 207 pages


What If? by Randall Munroe

March 3, 2020

From what height would you have to drop a steak for it to be cooked when it hit the ground?
How high can a human throw something?
How much force power does Yoda have?
What would happen if you opened up a drain hole in the bottom of the Marianas Trench?
Is it possible to make a downward firing machine gun jetpack? 

In his book, What If?, Randall Munroe answers all these questions and many more.  The questions themselves are hilarious and absurd, but he answers them in real scientific ways that will leave you laughing.  The Collection of short essays is made even funnier by the picture on the front; it is a T-Rex escaping from a construction crane that attempts to lift him into the sarlac pit— you know, the giant squid that lives in a hole in Star Wars?

One aspect that I liked that Munroe included was that he explained how he got his answers. An example is, “What would happen if you made a periodic table out of cube shaped bricks, where each brick was made from the corresponding element?”  In his answer, Munroe describes exactly what would happen to the reader if they stacked all the elements as they are in the table. For example:
You could stack the first two rows without much trouble.
The third row would burn you with fire.
The fourth row would kill you with toxic smoke.
The fifth row would do all that stuff PLUS give you a mild dose of radiation.
The sixth would explode violently, destroying the building in a cloud of radioactive, poisonous fire and dust.
Do not make the seventh row.  

The seventh would be a nuclear bomb with extra radioactivity and would instantly turn you and the rest of the table into plasma. Told you not to make it!!

Another feature I liked was that Munroe drew stick figures, and he put his own spin on them.  Often he could make the reader laugh just by the drawings and speech bubbles.

Each chapter poses one question, so the reader can space them out and read for a long time and savor them, or spend only five minutes.  Also, the reader can take time to notice the speech bubbles, which I thought were the most hilarious of all the parts of What If.  Randall Munroe has written many other books, including How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real World Problems, Thing Explainer, Xkcd comics, and many more. 

Overall, this book was a fast read and a good book for people who prefer or like a mix of humor, science, and funny visuals.  I rated it a ten out of ten, and I like how Munroe chooses a mix of a few sane questions and mostly really absurd questions from random people around the world. 

Andreas

Mariner, 400 pages


Eager by Ben Goldfarb

Beavers are basically natural chainsaws— ecological engineers capable of building structures that can change whole landscapes. But beavers can do more than just that. Worried about water pollution? They can tackle that. Alarmed about climate change? Go to a beaver. Sacred about salmon runs, erosion, and wildfires? Leave it to the beavers.

This is where the book Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb takes the stage. No other books like it exist. It is the only volume that combines humor, ecology, biology, and history. It sums up all of the topics into one giant “neatly written essay with a spine” giving a lot of information, and at the same time all while keeping the tone light and humorous and giving the centuries-old credit to beavers that they deserve. 

This book does not have much of a plot, so one would think: how does Goldfarb keep the reader interested? Well, he effectively adds a good amount of humor to the book, keeping the tone lively and bright. Sometimes the hilarity is subtle, but it always pops up at the end of a chapter, drawing the reader into the next chapter.

Another feature Goldfarb added effectively into this book–to keep the reader interested– is he spaces out information that is alike (not the same, but alike) evenly. For example, there are two or three parts about beaver deceivers, which he does not clump together into one giant chapter. He separates them into two or three chapters and describes all the differences in detail. The reason that this makes the book more interesting is because he gives the readers a chance to actually see the differences between all the different companies’ solutions and products.

The last trademark that I thought that Goldfarb effectively used in this book was the diversity of topics that he chose to describe beavers. One of the most interesting was history. The reason that this was interesting is because one would think that beavers are quite a modern animal, but actually the first beavers appeared over 201 million years ago ( they looked nothing like the beavers we know today). Now that’s an interesting fact. Another topic that Goldfarb incorporates is ecology. He states how beavers improve water quality, help stop climate change, improve salmon runs, and halt wildfires (all in like…. five different chapters).  Goldfarb has not written any other books. However, he is a journalist and has written many articles for a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers. I would rate this book a ten out of ten and would recommend this book to anybody who likes history, comedy, biology, ecology, and/or nonfiction books. This is a book not to be missed by anyone, nonfiction or fiction readers alike. Eager is so engaging that it will bring readers who favor different genres together. 

Marcus

Chelsea Green Publishing, 304 pages


The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

February 29, 2020

In 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight decides to venture off from his home in Massachusetts and live as a hermit in the woods of Maine. He does not bring food, so he has to steal from other cabins around his hidden tent to survive. During this time, he has only one human encounter in the woods—with a hiker, and that is just to say hello. Otherwise, Christopher has been in the woods for twenty-seven years without having to leave, until now.

In The Stranger in the Woods, journalist Michael Finkel tells the story of the last true hermit, and how he survived in the woods without death, or being officially found out for twenty-seven years of living in the wilderness.

This non-fiction piece is written effectively in first person, showing how Finkel found the amazing Maine hermit and the challenges of interviewing a socially awkward criminal. The true-story masterpiece is also well written when Finkel focuses on explaining the life of Knight and how he knew his life’s purpose at the age of twenty.

Finkel describes the living conditions of Christopher Knight perfectly: what he ate, how he got it, where he lived, quiet hiding spots that only he knew about, what he brought into the woods and how he made his supplies effective in his challenge of staying alive, and the exciting adventure that came with his time in hiding.

Finkel also describes why Knight ventured off into the woods and abandoned lots of his belongings in doing so, including his own loved ones. All of this proves why this story will keep readers turning the pages forcing them not to put this exciting tale down, which makes for a very fast-paced book.

Another element that made this book effective was how it changed my views about people in general—for the better. I couldn’t understand why someone would venture off into the woods, knowing that their only relationship with anything was the wilderness. After reading this book I found the true meaning of why hermits live the way they do.

I have learned through this book that I should be less judgmental if someone like Christopher Knight thinks outside the box and goes out and does something new and unique. Now I know that there is always a meaning behind every human’s actions. In Knight’s case, it was to get away from the problems of humanity, which after reading this story, made a lot of sense. This book will forever change the reader’s perspective. It explains how rejecting society for a large amount of time affects a person.

Another book by Michael Finkel is True Story: Murder, Memoir, and Mea Culpa, which was made into a 2015 film. Michael Finkel also worked for National Geographic, Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair.

If readers like gripping true stories and the challenges of effective reporting, while wanting to try something new and read a ten out of ten story, then this amazing book is made for them. This piece of non-fiction will forever change their thoughts on hermits and possibly people from their everyday life, and the brilliant ideas hidden within them.

Owen

KNOPF, 203 pages


Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

February 2, 2018

Using up precious ticks of the clock, none of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing nigh. None of them suspected that by the end of the long day every minute would matter.

It’s spring on Mt Everest in 1996, and multiple teams are preparing for the long ascent to the top of the world. Little do they know, weak snow layers and building monsoons may cause the mountain’s deadliest season ever. As Jon Krakauer’s team, led by Rob Hall, plods up the mountain, they must encounter some of the most vicious weather on the planet, while fighting for their lives. Soon it is apparent that the six different teams need rescue— it’s a matter of life and death in the fight to get down alive. Time is running out for the brave team.

Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction masterpiece captures the harrowing tale of the perils at high altitude; this roller coaster ride sucks you in until you have finished. Krakauer used strong first and third person narratives, accompanied by strong diction and a journalistic style of writing that brought me right into the story and really portrayed the action. The perspectives swapped depending on whether Krakauer was experiencing it himself or explaining how certain things came to be. I loved how he interviewed many sources to bring in multiple perspectives on how events really took place. It was interesting to try to puzzle out how so many people made multiple mistakes leading to one of the most horrific mountain disasters of all time. Readers follow Krakauer the whole time, so it feels almost like accompanying Krakauer and interviewing people while discovering more and more about how they came to Everest and what they planed to do, which I thought was creative on Krakauer’s part.

When Krakauer writes he often dives off into history, such as how the first people climbed the mountain and how unfairly the Sherpas were and are treated. I personally thought that these short paragraphs were effective because they helped me understand some of the background information when I was reading. If readers knew nothing about mountains or elevation, they could still follow the main plot of the book, all due to the chapters designated for explaining background. Also if there is ever a word in a different language or a mountaineering term, Krakauer uses an indicator and explains the meaning or definition of the term below, therefore making the premise and details of the book completely understandable and easy to follow.

If you have always dreamed of mountains and the world surrounding them, this is a great book for you: it passes on intriguing ideas about how we can learn from mistakes people made before us and cautions readers to always pay attention to nature’s signs. Krakauer’s book is crafted so well that it was a national bestseller that captivated thousands of readers. If you are into suspense, action, and adventure, this is a book for you—especially if you have read other mountain books before. It inspired me in multiple ways, and I hope it will do the same for you.

Sawyer

Anchor Books, 333 pages


Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and John Haise start on what they hope will be a successful moon landing—Apollo 13. As a NASA astronaut, Lovell’s dream has always been to go to the moon, and Apollo 13 is his first chance to do this. Whatever happens on the mission, he is determined to get to the moon, and more importantly, get home to see his family again. He’s at least going to space today.

When Lovell, Swigert and Haise begin their flight, the mission is going as expected with no problems as yet. But fifty-five hours after take-off, at 9:07pm on April 15, 1970, oxygen tank two on Odyssey ruptures, flooding oxygen into space, diverting their path and making a landing on the moon impossible—if they don’t want to become permanent residents. This forces them to make a challenging series of maneuvers in order to get back to Earth safely. This book covers their journey through space, with all hope of reaching the moon lost. Their only goal becomes retuning home.

I loved how Lovell took an event that actually happened in his life and made it suspenseful, like no other author that I’ve read has. When you read this memoir, you get the impression that he wrote this as a work of fiction, but these were real events that he spun with a strong narrative. Lovell also described the emotions of people back home, as if he crafted them himself. In reality, he probably interviewed them before writing the book, especially his family. Lovell described the thoughts of his wife back home perfectly when Aquarius’ oxygen tank explodes. Since most memoirs only describe the writer’s experience, this is a unique and interesting memoirist’s style. Overall, Lovell crafted an effective narrative using both his own experience, and the experiences of others, with an overarching story connecting them.

Lovell also effectively includes background information in the plot by taking readers away from events in the book and giving some technical information, because some events in the book are hard to understand without prior scientific knowledge. He also explains all the previous Apollo flights in the beginning, and explains the logistics of the mission and the modules themselves. Speaking of the modules, there is both a diagram of them and a timeline of the mission in the front cover of the book: helpful for the reader’s clarification.

The theme here is perseverance, because Lovell, Swigert, and Haise never give up. They don’t just lie down and accept their fate; they keep trying to perform every tiny action it takes to get back to Earth and survive the journey. I know firsthand how hard it is to include a strong theme in a memoir, and this book definitely succeeds.

If you decide to read this book, which I strongly recommend that you do, prepare yourself for an exciting true story, where you know that at least the author survives. This takes a little bit of sting out of it, but it doesn’t affect the suspense. There is also a movie, which I have not seen, but I know that it’s well-reviewed. I rate this a ten out of ten, and recommend it to anyone who is comfortable with relatively dense books. Anyone can read this. You don’t even have to understand the science behind it.

Ian

Houghton-Mifflin Co., 378 pages


Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

January 26, 2018

It’s an in-and-out operation to drop in on a Habr Gidr clan leader meeting in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Today’s targets: two of political leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants, another attempt to get closer to revealing Aidid. There are four chalks; each have twelve Rangers. As they surround the perimeter of the block, a Delta team rushes into the building and captures the lieutenants. It should only take an hour.

But it all goes wrong when one Black Hawk helicopter gets shot down, and now one hundred elite soldiers have to rescue those men—and find their way out.

This work of non-fiction, Black Hawk Down, is interesting because author Mark Bowden thought to talk about the fighting techniques of the Somalian men. Most of them were just armed civilians, but there were also members of Aidid’s militia who were better trained. They hid in crowds of woman and children, firing from behind them, making it so that the Rangers would have to shoot innocent people, too. The Somali women would bring the Somali men ammunition and rockets.

I also found it powerful that, as well as interviewing and collecting experiences from the U.S. troops, Bowden interviewed Somali people. Some were even the ones fighting against America. It brings in some different perspective and keeps the narrative from being biased. Readers get a look at the situation from both sides.

Readers will appreciate how the theme Bowden is getting at is clear, especially at the end, and relevant. His message is that when soldiers get into a firefight, and a bunch of their buddies get killed, or wounded they come back home and lots of people don’t know, don’t remember, or don’t care about their experiences. And then they realize all the lives taken, and realize it’s not appreciated. Somebody has to write a book about an unknown firefight, so people know. And it makes me think that there are probably other fights like that.

There is also a decent movie adaptation of this book, and it follows the story accurately. I would suggest reading the book first, since the movie doesn’t change perspectives as much, which loses some of the depth that makes the book so strong.

I rated this book a nine, just because some parts were a little slow.  Still, I recommend Black Hawk Down to anyone who’s interested in the military. Even though its a non-fiction book, it gripped me and was a page turner. Prepare yourself for an exciting and terrifying true story to remember those who were there.

Dae

Grove Press New York, 360 pages

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Chew on This by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson

February 13, 2016

Chew on This

“There was one kid who, as paramedics were loading him into the ambulance, asked his friends to take his burger to the hospital with him.”

One aspect that I admired about Chew On This by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and Charles Wilson, a book about the role of fast food in our society, is that it goes into lots of detail and does not just focus on one subject.  Instead it broadens out into many fields, such as the following:

  • the meatpacking industry
  • the french fry industry
  • the fast food companies
  • the flavor industry

For example, the authors talked about how these fast food companies go and advertise and sell in schools and to young kids who are only about seven years old. The authors also describe meatpacking companies where the workers don’t bother pulling the rats out of the meat that we EAT.  They also reveal that the average small french fry order at McDonald’s has more than triple the fat that a Big Mac has.  I also learned the flavor industry is so advanced that they can make a food taste and smell like body odor.  Finally, did you know that the fast food companies encourage the drinking of a six-pack of Coke every day? I had no idea until reading this hard-hitting work of non-fiction.

The reason that I picked up Chew On This was because I wanted to know the truth about what we eat.  Schlosser has taken his Fast Food Nation research and made it accessible to younger readers like me. Once I picked up this book I could not put it down, because the authors include excellent diction and such detailed description.  I was horrified, intrigued and informed all at once.  This read made me more aware of the some of the horrors of the fast food industry.

I think that Chew on This helps us by telling us what our food is really going through, and what is really in our food; I think that this will help us by educating us in this subject.  If you liked or even watched the movie Fed Up then you will love this book.  I would rate this book a 10 out of a 10.  I would recommend this book to ages ten and up.

Christian
Houghton Mifflin, 318 Pages


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