True Adventure: Book Reviews

 Lost in Shangri-La

A new crop of real-life tales explores moon rocks, an island of cannibals, Colorado frontier teachers and the hunt for a legendary skyjacker.

Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History
By Ben Mezrich
(Doubleday. Movie rights: Sony/Scott Rudin)

In 2002, NASA intern Thad Roberts stole a safe with 100 grams of moon rocks and a chunk of Martian meteorite. He had arranged to sell the stuff to a collector for big bucks. What Roberts didn't know was the guy had ratted him out to the FBI, and he was quickly busted in a sting operation right out of a movie. It's a totally entertaining heist caper, but a problem surfaces that plagues Mezrich's other books, including The Accidental Billionaires, on which The Social Network is based: Names are changed, and scenes have been "re-created and compressed." His willingness to play fast and loose with the conventions of nonfiction will bother readers who believe they're getting a "true" story. Mezrich should stop insulting readers with the marketing ploy that hypes his based-on-fact fiction as true stories in favor of hyping the real truth: Dude knows how to tell a great story.

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
By Mitchell Zuckoff
(Harper)

Zuckoff shows it's possible to tell a thrilling story while remaining faithful to the facts. And what a story. In 1945, a U.S. Army plane carrying 15 soldiers and nine women in the Women's Army Corps on a sightseeing tour crashed in a remote New Guinea jungle rumored to be inhabited by cannibals -- rumored because no Europeans had ever seen them. Only two men and one woman survived. The natives who find them think the soldiers might be gods. Yet somehow, the three manage to make tentative friends with the Dani, a local tribe. The Army discovers their location and air-drops supplies and a small team of Filipino paratroopers to treat their injuries while a larger rescue team hikes in. The ultimate rescue is unbelievable, but Zuckoff, a journalism professor at Boston University, has done a prodigious amount of research using the survivors' scrapbooks, government reports and even some lost film footage of the rescue to bring this forgotten story to life.

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West
By Dorothy Wickenden
(Scribner)

This true story about two upper-class women who taught school on the Colorado frontier in 1916-17 has generated great buzz, with positive reviews from Oprah to NPR. Bored by their society life, two Smith College grads shocked family and friends by agreeing to teach for a year in the remote mountain town of Elkhead, Colo. Life was rough on the frontier. They had to ride several miles through winter blizzards on horseback to get to school. Their students were unruly, and they had to fend off randy cowboys and violent coal miners looking for a bride or a fling. Wickenden, granddaughter of one of the two women, mixes their letters home with her own research to re-create the story. It's a fascinating look into a forgotten corner of American history.  

Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper
By Geoffrey Gray
(Crown)

The well-timed book of the month: The FBI confirmed Aug. 1 that after 40 years, it had a credible lead about D.B. Cooper, the mysterious man who pulled off the only successful hijacking in U.S. history. The timing could not have been better for Gray, whose book on the case came out Aug. 9. Reading Skyjack won't bring you any closer to solving the crime, but it does shed light on America's -- and Hollywood's -- obsession with the case. Gray shows that the story around the story is at least as interesting as the crime itself. Even if the timing wasn't perfect, this would still be a fun ride into a trippy corner of American culture.           

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