Next time a snowstorm has you tent-bound at 18,000 feet, or you're facing a 12-hour flight to Lima, make sure you've packed a library in your MP3 player. Web sites like Audible.com (founded by Outside contributing editor Donald Katz) and iTunes.com now offer thousands of downloadable audio titles. Check out Jon Krakauer's INTO THIN AIR (Bantam Audio, $31; 7 hr, 47 min); Bill Bryson's fascinating exploration of the natural sciences, A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING (Random House Audio, $26; 5:39); and climber Aron Ralston's extraordinary story of survival, BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE (Audioworks, $26; 5:18), all read by the authors.
Acts of Faith
BY PHILIP CAPUTO
Where Soldiers Fear to Tread
A Relief Worker's Tale of Survival
BY JOHN S. BURNETT
(Bantam Dell, $24)
WHEN JOHN S. BURNETT, a UN relief worker who delivered aid to flood- and war-ravaged Somalia in 1997 and 1998, writes that he and his colleagues are "mercenaries, missionaries, or maniacs," he isn't joking: During the past five years, there have been more UN aid workers killed than armed peacekeepers. This month the mercy givers get their literary due in Burnett's gritty memoir Where Soldiers Fear to Tread and Philip Caputo's remarkable new novel, Acts of Faith, both of which deal with volunteers bringing relief to conflict-riddled African nations. Burnett gives readers a raw, up-close look at Somalia's ten-year-old soldiers, feuding warlords, and cynical relief veterans, but his book is likely to be overshadowed by Acts of Faith, which features America's greatest living war writer at the height of his powers. Caputo, author of the Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War, spins his own firsthand research into an immensely satisfying portrait of Western "mercenaries with a conscience" operating in chaotic, war-torn Sudan. Caputo's main characterstwo rogue pilots and a midwestern missionaryarrive as neutral aid workers but soon discover that neutrality is impossible. After witnessing a government attack on a helpless village, one of the pilots agrees to start running guns along with the salt, soap, and sorghumbleakly realizing that only "antiaircraft guns and shoulder-fired missiles would transform [the villagers] from victims into people in full command of their destiny." As Caputo's and Burnett's relief workers find, you can't deliver sanity and peace. And that, in the end, is what drives them out of the business. "The misery of the world will continue with or without our gallant efforts," a burned-out Burnett writes. "Let others replace me; let others try to save the damn world."
The Golden Spruce
A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed
BY JOHN VAILLANT
NOT SO LONG AGO, in a remote forest on Graham Island, in Canada's Queen Charlotte archipelago, there grew a 16-story Sitka spruce with yellow needles so brilliant they seemed to glow. This 300-year-old tree was a rare mutant, a sort of arboreal albino that had long been sacred to the native Haida community. "If the tree dies," a Haida princess once declared, "the Haida Nation will die." But in the winter of 1997, the tree was cut down: A former logger named Grant Hadwin felled it in a strangely contrived protest over clear-cutting in Canada's western forests. Hadwin was arrested for criminal mischief but mysteriously disappeared before he was brought to justice; his wrecked kayak washed up near the AlaskaBritish Columbia border. Locals think the experienced outdoorsman staged his own death, and the case was never closed. In his first book, Canadian journalist John Vaillant interlaces a well-reported murder mystery with elegantly spun cultural and natural history, conjuring the spooky mood of Northwest forests with the clarity of David Guterson or Jonathan Raban. "The undergrowth is thick, and between this and the trees, it is hard to see very far," he writes; "the sound of moving water is constant, and the ground is as soft and spongy as a sofa with shot springs." Writing like a seasoned pro, he turns a bizarre episode into a well-paced, thoughtful rumination on the price of industrial logging and the line that separates courageous protest from wanton destruction.