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Two New Master Works on Espionage and Globalization

The fall book season opens with ambitious works by two heavyweights, Bob Shacochis and Scott Anderson, writing on empire and the making of the modern world. It’s been two decades since Shacochis’s last novel, Swimming in the Volcano, and the Outside contributing editor’s new offering, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, doesn’t disappoint. Woman is a masterful novel with the power to shake the bones of Graham Greene. The title character is Dottie Chambers, a.k.a. Jackie Scott, a.k.a. Renee Gardner, an American secret agent with a penchant for self-reinvention and a keen interest in Haitian voodoo. Her violent death in Haiti entwines human-rights lawyer Tom Harrington and Delta Force operative Eville Burnette in a mystery that grows to encompass Croatia, Kenya, Pakistan, the Cali Cartel, and the geopolitical run-up to 9/11.

Harrington’s a classic Shacochis character—an ex-journo turned war-criminal hunter working the dark seams of Port-au-Prince—but the book belongs to Burnette, a Montana boy caught up in intrigue far beyond his pay grade. “We’re not interested in winning hearts and minds,” a Delta leader tells him. “For our guys, hearts and minds are targets. We shoot hearts and minds.” Burnette finds himself recruited into a defense undersecretary’s network of operatives running dark ops with (and against) Pakistani colonels, Mexican drug lords, and Saudis trying to foment jihad. This is no mere thriller, though; Woman is a book of deep beauty thanks to Shacochis’s hard-earned observations on war, justice, and U.S. naiveté. Americans, Shacochis writes, never took faraway, struggling nations seriously “until their faces were rubbed in the awfulness they sometimes made when they were seized by the exalted passion to remake the world.”

Like Shacochis, Anderson is concerned with the origins of our modern mess. A veteran war correspondent with extensive experience in the Middle East, he traces the genesis of the region’s fractious present back to T. E. Lawrence and the big bang of World War I.

In Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Anderson chronicles the intersecting paths of Lawrence, the charismatic British Army officer, and three others whose Great War espionage, influence, and skullduggery cracked the Ottoman Empire apart. Anderson leaves no clandestine pact or subtle double cross unmentioned. The other main players—an American oilman turned spy, a Jewish agronomist with Zionist designs on Palestine, and a German agent trying to incite anti-British sentiment among Muslims—are compelling, but they can’t compete with the brilliant Lawrence, who adapted to Arab culture and crossed deserts only Bedouin could survive.

Everything you remember from the film Lawrence of Arabia is here, including his role in the daring 1916 Arab raid on Ottoman Empire forces in Aqaba and his failed dream of estab-lishing an Arab state. Anderson’s final chapter brilliantly stitches together the ways in which all the machinations of the Great War led to the troubles of the past century—“a catalog of war, religious strife, and brutal dictatorships.” Anderson, like Shacochis, reminds us that today’s small conflicts and porous borders will surely blow up into tomorrow’s larger war. We just don’t know when.

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6 Hot Reads for Summer 2013

It’s time to build your summer stack: that squatty tower made up of equal parts brain candy, literati buzz, and guilty pleasure. This year’s juiciest offerings feature an African aid-work hustler, a monster in backcountry Alaska, a drifter in Hawaii, a Spaniard obsessed with murder and cheese, and a trio of river rats who risk jail and damnation to become legends of the Grand Canyon.

Start with The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, by Outside contributing editor Kevin Fedarko (read an excerpt here). In the spring of 1983, snowmelt and rainstorms threatened to blow out Glen Canyon Dam, the concrete plug that harnesses the Colorado River above the Grand Canyon. To ease the pressure, dam engineers sent a raging pulse of water through the Canyon. A trio of grizzled river guides responded like Laird Hamilton to a buoy report: Launch time! Fedarko, a Colorado River boatman himself, crafts a dramatic tale of courage and hubris that encompasses the sweeping history of the Canyon.

An eminence grise of travel writing, Edward Hoagland reminds us that he is also a nimble novelist in Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse. Children follows the transient life of Hickey, an American freelance aid worker who moves food and medicine through battle zones and bandit alleys, offering a vivid window into the continent’s hot spots. About an outlaw militia’s airstrip in the Congo, Hoagland writes, “There are no police or consular officials or coroners: just vultures to do the autopsy and record the fingerprints and dentistry. You’d be recycled into wings.”

For a comic break, turn to Stench of Honolulu, Jack Handey’s adventure novel set in a bizarro slice of paradise, where the narrator goes to escape his creditors. Handey’s burlesque works best in small doses, so take one bite at a time.

Having redefined the road-trip memoir in Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain, Michael Paterniti travels into new territory with The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. In his quest to find the mejor queso del mundo, Paterniti discovers a Spanish cheesemaker caught up in a clash between the old and new worlds. Wealthy First World foodies beat a path to the poor cheese-maker’s door—destroying him in the process. “When you put something alive in your mouth,” the old master tells Paterniti, “it makes you more alive.” But the arrival of global commerce can suck the life right out of that perfect moment.

Best for last: for those awaiting the next Jon Krakauer–esque classic, look to an Alaskan writer named Tom Kizzia. Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier spins the spellbinding tale of the Papa Pilgrim family, a homespun clan that charmed the Alaskan locals with their old-timey government-hating ways—right up until the day the eldest daughter exposed Papa as an abusive patriarch who terrorized his family. It’s a gripping nonfiction thriller told with masterful clarity, and I’m betting it will be the sleeper hit of the summer. Put it at the top of your stack.

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Is There a Future for Guidebooks?

Since Arthur Frommer published his first guidebook in 1957, globe-trotters have stuffed dog-eared volumes into their packs. But last March, Google announced that it would dissolve the series—which it bought in August 2012—after mining it for content. It appeared to be one more spasm of a dying industry: sales of travel books dropped 19 percent last year and 10 percent the year before. Last March, BBC sold Lonely Planet to a reclusive tobacco magnate at a loss of more than $100 million.

Blame crowdsourced sites like TripAdviser and Wikivoyage, along with a swarm of innovative digital travel guides and tools like Wanderfly and VerbalizeIt. In the past few years, though, guidebook companies have started to respond. “Traditional publishers need to be platform neutral, so they can repurpose their content for whatever channel their customer is on,” says Mark Henshall, content director for digital agency Propellernet and a former Frommer’s editor. “The guidebook isn’t dead. It’s just evolving.”

Lonely Planet now has 500 e-book editions and in May launched Fluent Road, an online language program. Both Lonely Planet and Fodor’s offer apps and e-books loaded with news and links to maps. The work is starting to pay off: Lonely Planet doubled its e-book revenue last year, helping push overall revenue into the black, and sales of Fodor’s e-books grew 642 percent in the past two years. But electronic guidebooks still make up only 5 percent of the companies’ overall sales—and all digital platforms, including apps, make up no more than 30 percent.

To survive, say industry experts, guidebook companies will need to offer their content in more formats with more features, quickly. Some of that is in the works—animated illustrations and audio phrase guides for e-books are on the way—and startups will push the envelope further. “Travel publishing has been shot in the arm with adrenaline,” says Brice Gosnell, VP of publishing for Lonely Planet. “All these things we’ve wanted to do for years, we now have the tools and platforms to do them.” While it remains to be seen whether companies like Gosnell’s can catch the tide quickly enough, he’s right about one thing: “On the consumer end, it’s all great.”

Lonely Planet City Guides
Customers can search attractions and services alphabetically or by theme (“parks and gardens,” “sweeping views”). But at $4 a city, they’re pricey for an app.

FODOR’S CITY GUIDES: Splashy photos illustrate reviews, and events and shows are bookable from the app. Plus: it’s free. Unfortunately, it kept crashing on us.

ROUGH GUIDES CITY GUIDES: An interactive map shows lodgings, restaurants, shops, and sights on command. And slide shows link directly to reviews of attractions. One bummer: reviews are organized into neighborhoods, but the app doesn’t show you where they are.

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The Sharkapocalypse: 10 Movies to Check Out During Shark Week

It’s here. Like the unstoppable turn of the cosmos, Shark Week is upon us once more. It’s a time to reflect, to forget our troubles, come together, and gleefully freak out about sharks like a bunch of 3-year-olds at SeaWorld (assuming the sharks don’t, y’know, wig out and eat a trainer in front of a sold-out crowd).

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Shark Week, not because I don’t think sharks are cool (they are), but because it takes away from so many other, possibly more deserving predators (Helloooo, Cassoweek!). They’re not even that deadly, really, when compared to some of history's more prolific killers. Rats and fleas helped wipe out most of Europe in the 14th century. People forget that.

However, I DO like bad movies, and if there’s one upside to Shark Week, it’s that the Internet is emptying its arcane vaults of every shark-themed SyFy Original Feature and B-movie disasterpiece it can find with its grubby stub hands, from Super Shark to Swamp Shark and beyond. So, join me on the proverbial couch as we sift through these 10 pun-a-licious gems and search for the true meaning of this mass psychosis known as Shark Week.

Sharknado (2013)

Let’s get this one out of the way, since Sharknado basically ate the Internet a few weeks ago and is probably still lodged in most people’s brains. Supposedly, this is a movie about sharks, plucked from the ocean by a tornado, and hurled at innocent civilians. Fine. But from what I can tell, Ian Ziering plays a bartender named Fin Shepard, who, through a series of bizarre natural disasters, is able to find himself and become a leader in the community. It’s actually more like the story of Passover than people give it credit for.

Sand Sharks (2011)

“Just When You Though You Were Safe Out of the Water.” Oof. That’s a mouthful. Elevate your game, Mr. Tagline. This is basically Jaws-meets-Tremors, and I absolutely LOVE Tremors, even though that was just Dune without David Lynch and Sting in a plastic speedo. Unfortunately, this looks nowhere near as good as that Kevin Bacon masterpiece. Sand Sharks does push boundaries, and by that I mean it extends the range of the sharks about 15 feet up onto the beach, but wouldn’t that have happened at high tide anyway? “It’s a pre-historic sand tiger shark,” says a woman who looks and sounds much more like a scientist than me. “A predator that has evolved to wear sand like a coat and travel through it like water.” Ah, but can they breathe sand as well? PLOT HOLE! It’s worth noting that I’m not a scientist.

2-Headed Shark Attack (2012)

Admittedly, there really ARE two-headed animals in the world, so already, this film’s dedication to scientific accuracy has me excited. In this hard sci-fi epic, a boat full of attractive college students on a semester-at-sea (is that even a thing?) are hanging out on a tiny island (learning?) when they come under attack from a shark with TWO HEADS. I haven’t seen the whole movie yet, but I’d say their chances of survival are slim given the quality of leadership on this trip. “Spread out, but stay in this area”? Get it together, professor. As an added bonus, the producers of 2HSA (#2HSA. Make it happen.) saw fit to include not one or two, but three quasi-celebrities: Carmen Electra (once famous), Brooke Hogan ( formerly pseudo-famous-ish), and Charlie O’Connell from Sliders! That’s called “pedigree.” Respect it.

Super Shark (2011)

OK, this one is just lazy. I mean adding a second head took some creative effort. Super Shark is, sadly, just a really big shark. That’s the best you guys can do? Meh. What’s that? Bullets bounce off it? It can waddle a little on land? John Schneider’s face just about sums this one up. I’d award a few more points for the inclusion of a walking tank but that thing looks like a 2-year-old not only came up with the design for it but also did the animation and fight choreography. Outside does not endorse child labor.

Sharktopus (2011)

This thing is the Titanic of terrible shark movies. Not only did the producers of Sharktopus shell out enough money to get Eric “Julia’s Brother” Roberts, they actually commissioned an original song to color their modern epic. A secret military experiment gone wrong? That’s a plot with balls. B-movie fans will agree that the creature itself is half the battle. Maybe even the whole war. At the very least, it’s the Gettysburg of the battles when you’re making a crap movie and the Sharktopus is the Union Army and then some. It’s got spark and wiggle. Go home, Super Shark. You’re done here.

Swamp Shark (2011)

Before you get too excited about Wade Boggs being in this movie, just remember that his IMDB bio introduces him as “Five-time American League batting champion Wade Boggs,” so you know he’s still leaning on that pretty hard. Moving on. What have we got here? From the looks of it, we have a shark swimming around killing people. Does this one do anything cool? According to Worried Man In Hat, “this isn’t a normal shark.” Oh? “It swims, it kills, and it’s out there!” I think he's mixing up sharks with something else. On the surface, the best thing Swamp Shark has going for it is the shift from beaches to bayou. But remember when the producers of Friends moved Joey to L.A.? That, too, was terrible.

Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009)

This movie came out all the way back in 2009, which is positively ancient by crappy meme-based shark-movie standards. MSvGO even spawned a sequel, Mega Shark vs. Crocasaurus. These roots run deep. If MSvGO illustrates one thing about the shark genre, it’s how little it’s changed over the past four years. Big CGI shark thing eats things while washed up actors, in this case Lorenzo Lamas from Renegade, scream in front of a green screen. There’s a slight twist here in that the shark is locked in an eternal battle with a giant octopus. I’m starting to feel terribly depressed.

Jersey Shore Shark Attack (2012)

How did we ever get here? Before we even get into how dated this was, even a year ago; Joey Fatone what are you doing?!?! Sure, Backstreet was musically superior, but you can still do better than this. Moving on. In a Jersey Shore/Jaws mash-up, it’s somehow the former that comes out feeling like the more tired reference. I guess if you were one of those purse-clutching alarmists who thought that the sudden rise of Jersey Shore four years ago was a sign of our impending social collapse, you might enjoy watching heavily-gelled beach bums get snatched up like so much popcorn. The rest of us can only stare up slack-jawed at the starry as a coifed guido screams the classic line, “I hate sharks,” down the barrel of an assault rifle. If you don’t believe in God, this movie won’t change that.

Jurassic Shark (2012)

Oof. I take back everything I said about Super Shark. This is so low budget it verges on performance art. The most famous person in this movie is the Jurassic Park reference, and they didn’t even stick in anything about cloning. It’s just a prehistoric shark who green-screens people to death. “We drilled too deep,” shudders one bloodied character. I know exactly how he feels.

Shark in Venice (2008)

Yes! Just when I was ready to swallow my keyboard, Stephen Baldwin stumbles back into our earthly dimension with Shark in Venice. I’ve watched the trailer 14 times and I still can’t tell what this movie is about. Is it about a shark terrorizing an idyllic Italian tourist trap? Or is it a film treatment of a forgotten Dan Brown novel? I’m pretty sure the villain mentions the Medici family a few times. Or he could be saying “Help me.” So many questions. So many Stephen Balwdin faces. If you watch one movie this Shark Week, make it Shark in Venice. This is what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could have been.

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Life After a Brain Trauma, Caught on Film

In her latest documentary, The Crash Reel, which airs on HBO in July, two-time Academy Award nominee Lucy Walker opens a door into the life of former pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce as he recovers from traumatic brain injury (TBI). Think of it as the rise, fall, and brutally slow reinvention of a sweet kid who could be your son, nephew, brother, or best Frend (as Pearce’s crew referred to one another). If you can watch it without tearing up, you’re a harder man than I.

Pearce’s long recovery after a 2009, pre–Vancouver Olympics training accident (in the same Utah superpipe where freeskier Sarah Burke was later fatally injured) is a story of unbridled dedication and courage that’s both uplifting and utterly deflating. The Crash Reel forcefully swipes away the energy-drink haze that has clouded our collective consciousness into believing that today’s competitive action-sports scene makes any sense at all.

I’m talking, of course, about the very existence of 22-foot-walled superpipes, inverted snowmobiling at night, extreme-skiing competitions held in vertical rock gardens glazed in ice, and the rest of the SoCal-born foolishness that demands bigger air, one more spin, and razor-thin margins for error. As The Crash Reel fearlessly depicts, your payment for the smallest of mistakes is a broken bone or concussion for each year you’ve lived. Until that one injury that changes your very identity.

Pearce is firmly of the this-life-will-be-televised generation, so Walker has ample footage to work with, from first steps to first hucks in the Vermont woods to polished competition clips. The viewer is reminded of just how young X Games–style competitors are just prior to their stardom. There’s a dreadful tension in the buildup to Pearce’s fall that’s masterfully done, but for one quibble: perhaps to make those early scenes more taut, Walker weaves a parallel thread into The Crash Reel—the rivalry between Pearce and Shaun White. It’s a filmmaker’s device, and it’s unnecessary. The extent of the animosity seems overblown, if only because of the screen time it commands. And as a head-injury victim himself, with several concussions and counting, White hardly deserves demonizing.

Pearce’s story is enough. We see in wrenching detail the effects of his injury—memory loss, a newly irritable disposition—as they radiate outward toward those who care for him. (Walker appears to have had limitless access to the Pearce home in Hartland, Vermont.) And then the inevitable: warned by his doctors that even a small blow to the head could erase his hard-won gains, Pearce nevertheless vows to return to the slopes, even if only for fun. At one point, the mother of another brain-injured snowboarder—who, upon returning to competition, suffered a second, massively debilitating TBI—deadpans to Pearce, “Kevin, you had a great life before, but you’re given a totally different brain now. You can’t go back to who you were.” But Pearce does insist on going back, and we’re left waiting helplessly.

TBIs are getting a lot of play now, thanks to President Obama’s promise of a multibillion-dollar effort to map the brain. But for those of us in the skiing and snowboarding world, TBI is nothing new. I know six skiers recovering (because you never stop recovering) from brain injuries, most of them severe. As Walker powerfully depicts, the brain is not a blown ACL repairable with time and a scrap of pig tendon. A TBI is forever.

We’ve been led to believe that the creation of taller and steeper halfpipes is the natural progression of the sport. It isn’t. If you somehow come away thinking it’s OK to send a child—yours or one you only sponsor or write about—40 feet into the sky and hope that he or she returns to earth without shattering his mind, you’ve missed the film’s point entirely.

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