Category Page: 52 Books

Adventure Book Review: Into the Wild

I’ll admit, this was one of the few occasions I have seen the movie before reading the book. Therefore I first came across the story of Alex Supertramp (Chris McCandless) on the big screen. In of itself, it was definitely a solid movie, well worth the 2 hours spent viewing it.

His life is an intriguing one however and as usual, the book was able to shed much more light onto what made him tick and ultimately, how he came to die alone in the Alaskan Wilderness.

It’s been some 24 years after Chris McCandless met his demise and still, his tale remains popular in our collective conscience. There was a recent article published in Outside Online titled “The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem

Every year, scores of Into the Wild fans tackle a dangerous river crossing to visit the last home of Alaska’s most famous adventure casualty. Why are so many people willing to risk injury, and even death, to pay homage to a controversial ascetic who perished so young?

Why indeed.. 

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The last resting place of Chris McCandless

 

The story is an incredibly divisive one. Many admire Chris as a brave, adventurous soul who put it all on the line to prove to something to himself, that he had the ability to be truly independent. He could survive, even thrive, outside the boundaries of society. He had forgone wealth and with it, the pleasures & comforts many of us take for granted. he was one of the few who had the courage to truly follow his dreams.

On the other hand, many dismiss Chris as a crackpot, an arrogant and incompetent young man who had no business venturing into the parts of the world that ultimately cost him his life. The story shouldn’t have been popularised and certainly not glorified, as it sets a bad example to those who may attempt to follow Chris’ lead. There is also the view that McCandless was suicidal, venturing into the wild as a last hoorah. An adventurous demise.

I tend to lean towards the former view of Chris, as I believe, does the author, Jon Krakauer. Many of us at certain age have the desire to prove something. Many feel the need to prove to their fathers, their peers or to the world at large that they are worthy. Others, I include myself in this category, want to prove something to ourselves. This no doubt, is the category Chris fell into. He knew the fate that may have awaited him when he made his journey into the wild, but he went anyway.

He confronted his fears & his doubts, summoning the courage to follow his dreams, what he truly felt he needed to do. If it wasn’t for a few minor errors along the way, he would’ve proven that to himself and probably lived a much more contented life thereafter. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be and although the story of Chris McCandless appears a tragedy, I don’t think he would’ve seen it that way. 

He had the courage to live life on his terms and whatever the outcome, I think he proved that to himself. Ultimately, he’s proven it to us as well.

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This is the last photo of Chris, taken just a few days before he took his final breath in the remote Alaskan wilderness. Note his expression, that looks to me, like a man at peace with life and his decision to live it the way he did. R.I.P Chris McCandless.

 

 

Mountaineering Book Review: Left For Dead

Left for Dead is an autobiographical account written by Everest Survivor Beck Weathers. Why do I say ‘Everest Survivor’? Beck was left to die (twice) on the slopes of Mt Everest during the infamous 1996 disaster. You may have seen the 2015 movie Everest which shows a little of Beck’s ordeal. He was played by this guy..

 

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Ring a few bells? Yeh well this is the actual Beck Weathers.. (before & after)

 

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Not pretty.. Hence why I say ‘Everest survivor’.

Left for Dead is Beck’s account of that tragic event and his life in the aftermath. It also spends at least half the book giving a background of his earlier life as well as that of his wife, Peach.

If I’m being honest, it’s really not a very interesting read. I think most people who read it are there for the Everest details more than anything else and this is only a very brief section of the book.

The book spends far too much time on his marital problems with his wife, who tends to narrate a large portion of the book herself. (Note- I can see why Beck wanted to spend so much time in the mountains..) I’d say at least a quarter of the book is her complaining about him not being there for herself and the kids.

My advice? Give it a miss.. there are plenty of other books dealing with Everest and the particular 1996 expedition this story touches on.

 

How to explain our behaviour in the modern world? Read Sex at Dawn

This one is a truly interesting read. Sex at Dawn focuses on the lifestyle of our Homo Sapien ancestry comparative to today’s living culture and whether many of the commonly held assumptions as to their way of living are actually correct. The short conclusion? No they’re not. The topics of sexual interaction, altruistic vs greedy behavior, the female role in a tribe are all looked at in ways you may not have previously considered. I sure hadn’t. This book is a real eye-opener.

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The central thesisHumans are not naturally monogamous. (They may very well be naturally promiscuous)

The book spends the greater part of 400 pages explaining in great detail, why this is in fact the case. It makes a pretty damn convincing argument.

There are so many gems of wisdom scattered throughout, you really need to pause and think every few pages. Here are a few of the key takeaways..

“Our extravagant sexual capacity, ubiquitous adultery in all cultures, rampant promiscuity in both our closest primate relatives, the absence of any monogamous primate living in large social groups all point toward a non-monogamous humanity.”

“When you can’t block people’s access to food and shelter, and you can’t stop them from leaving, how can you control them? The ubiquitous political egalitarianism of foraging people is rooted in this simple reality. Having no coercive power, leaders are simply those who are followed—individuals who have earned the respect of their companions.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could respect our current politicians in the same regard? With the often appalling traits of our ‘leaders’, is it any wonder they’re on the receiving end of a great deal of resentment?

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The agricultural revolution may not have been the great progression of humanity it is thought to be..

Agriculture has involved the domestication of the human being as much as of any plant or animal.

“Clearly, the biggest loser (aside from slaves perhaps) in the agricultural revolution was the human female, who went from occupying a central, respected role in foraging societies to becoming another possession for man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves and livestock”

“It is a common mistake to assume that evolution is a process of improvement, that evolving organisms are progressing toward some final, perfected state. But they, and we, are not. An evolving society or organism simply adapts over the generations to changing conditions.”

“But just as “patriotism is the conviction that your country is superior to all others because you were born in it” (G. B. Shaw), the notion that we live in our species’ “most peaceful moment” is as intellectually baseless as it is emotionally comforting.”

The book suggests that the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ really wasn’t present in our earlier existence. Our population was so minute and sparse that it was far more practical to work together to ensure the species survival. We also really weren’t as ‘poor’ or starved as many may imagine..

Poverty … is the invention of civilization. Marshall Sahlins

“Having evolved in small, intimate bands where everybody knows our name, human beings aren’t very good at dealing with the dubious freedoms conferred by anonymity. When communities grow beyond the point where every individual has at least a passing acquaintance with everyone else, our behavior changes, our choices shift, and our sense of the possible and of the acceptable grows ever more abstract.”

When the number of humans in a community exceeds Dunbar’s number*, we start to have problems with negative externalities (to use an economic term). Those in a society are not held accountable by the rest of the group. Theft, immoral behaviour, adultery etc.. will all likely increase.

*Dunbar’s number is 150: ““The limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained.”

“Paternity was determined (in ancestral times) in the inner world of the female reproductive tract where every woman is equipped with mechanisms for choosing among potential fathers at a cellular level.” This suggests there is a type of ‘sperm competition’ that was more a determinant of reproduction than the external selection of partners by a female. 

 

Sex at Dawn is brimming with knowledge and eye-opening scenarios, I recommend you read the whole thing for yourself. A warning: Be prepared to have your whole world-view come into question..

 

 

Book #12: Searching for Bobby Fischer

After his world championship match with Boris Spassky in 1972, Bobby Fischer was one of the most recognised faces in the United States. He was rich, famous and at the very peak of his creative talents. Most importantly for the Americans, he had defeated their cold-war nemesis in a game that was considered the Soviets national sport. He held the adoration of millions and single-handedly spawned a chess craze throughout a nation. Then, one day, he disappeared. At the time this book was published, everybody was Searching for Bobby Fischer.

The infamous match between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky.

The infamous match between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky.

This book is the tale of Fred Waitzkin and his son Josh, a chess prodigy who had discovered a talent for the game at the age of 6. Fred was one of the many parents of the era who imagined their children growing up to be the next Fischer, challenging for the world championship and going on to similar fame and riches. The difference is, Josh Waitzkin may very well have the ability to do so.

The story works its way through Josh’s rise up the chess rankings to the penultimate crown for a young player in the United States, the national championship. It comments on the role of parents in the life of a talented child and the pressure on these kids that they must deal with alone. Can such dedication and single-minded focus at a young age lead to deficiencies in other areas, perhaps even spawning a little psychosis/mania as in the case of Bobby Fischer? It also comments on the larger issues of the day, freedom in Soviet Union and the poor state of chess in America, particularly in terms of respect and compensation. Josh may have the chess talents but his father is certainly a great writer.

I was a big fan of chess around the age of 10 or so and even won an outer-school tournament one year. This book rekindled a little of my interest in the game. Chess is truly an artform, such a seemingly simple game full of endless intricacies and possibilities. It encourages (perhaps a better word would be ‘forces) patience, strategic thinking, creativity and discipline. Even if you don’t have your sights set on  glory, I believe most people would get something out of the game.

This book is well worth the read & I’ve heard the movie of the same title is also well-done.

Lessons From the Greatest: The Tao of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali, boxing legend, activist and icon of the 20th century, in his prime considered perhaps the most famous person on Earth. I’ve read and watched a great deal on Ali and every time I seem to find out something new. He truly was an intriguing and multi-dimensional figure, no piece of writing seems to be able to fully capture the entity that is Muhammad Ali.

The Tao of Muhammad Ali was no exception. This book was unique in that it deals with Ali well past his prime, long after the Parkinsons and physical decline had begun to set in. It gives us a glimpse at a simple, warm and open side to Ali, a prankster and wise grandfatherly figure to practically everyone he encounters.  The central theme being that although Ali has been practically written off by the world at large, he still has a great to deal to give. He religiously promotes the Nation of Islam and spends with his fans, treating every one of them with respect and attention.

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The author spent a great deal with Ali and clearly shared a bond with the great man.

That being said, I find the book a little over the top in its adoration of Ali, almost to the point where the author is worshiping a transcendent figure. Davis Miller (The author) is quite clearly a fan in the most extreme sense of the word, knowing every minute detail of Ali’s life and dedicating a large part of his own to the task. Although I have no problem with this of course, it does lead me to question whether it was truly all-encompassing of Ali’s personality or whether the less flattering elements were left out.

For example I’d previously read King of the World in which Ali was portrayed as both an incredible individual and well, a bit of a dick. Particularly striking was his complete abandonment and criticism towards Malcom X, formerly a close friend, when he left the Nation of Islam. There were no stories of this kind present in The Tao of Muhammad Ali. Perhaps this was because Ali had in fact changed as he’s aged and Mr Miller wanted to leave out the less honorable elements of his past. Maybe it was also because the author has used this book as a way to commentate on the personal impact Ali has had on his life, which is clearly significant, of course on;y encapsulating Ali’s positive traits. Whatever the case, it felt a little shallow.

All in all it’s a well written book and gives great insight into the life of the mortal Ali, the one who still lives life on his own terms and shuns our sympathies. Perhaps he really doesn’t need them.

 

Book #3 : The Martian

Perhaps a few peoples nightmare scenarios play out in this Andy Weir Novel.

On research trip to Mars..

Large storm rolls through on day 31..

You get injured and become separated from rest of crew..

Crew takes off with return vessel and leaves you stranded with no way home.. (ON MARS)

 

This is what happens to Mark Wastney, a NASA astronaut who is part of a crew of 6 on only the third ever manned voyage to the red planet. After the rest of his crew leaves without him, Mark is forced to fend for himself, left to figure out a way to survive without contact to Earth, or anyone else for that matter.

It is a compelling story, filled with ever-present challenges that Mark must overcome. He knows at some point, another mission will arrive. He is therefore faced with the prospect of trying to survive until that day arrives.

I believe it’s first and foremost, a tale of human will and a testament to the perseverance and endurance we as a species are capable of under extreme duress. Mark maintained a positive attitude throughout, along with a constant sense of humour, which allowed him to meet obstacles as he faced them, rather than sit in a corner and wait for his day of reckoning to arrive.

 

The major takeaway:

  • Never give up. Take the scientific approach and always work through problems logically. Usually, you can always find a solution to whatever stands before you. But only if you don’t allow yourself to be run by your emotions. There was only one example of Mark losing his cool during the whole time he was stuck on Mars. He quickly regained composure and went about rectifying the situation.

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