Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Extreme Endurance: A Reading List

You can call it schadenfreude,1 but in colder months I find it soothing to cozy up in a warm house and read accounts of extreme human discomfort. Like dystopian and post-apocalyptic scenarios, physical and mental struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds can be compelling reads. I’d like to share a few books that explore the absolute limits of human endurance.

Louis Zamperini examines damage to his plane
Louis Zamperini in 1943
Among classic stories of endurance is Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, about a fisherman’s struggle to bring in the catch of a lifetime. In the 1950s Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a series of articles about Columbian sailor Luis Velasco’s survival at sea, later published as The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (Relato de un náufrago). Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage paints a harrowing portrait of the explorer’s troubled Antarctic expedition. More recently, Laura Hillenbrand brought the heroic struggles of WWII POW Louis Zamperini to life in Unbroken.

If you like historical fiction, Michael Punke’s The Revenant is a story of survival based on the life of mountain man Hugh Glass, who was mauled by a bear and left to die by his fellow trappers. Read it as a companion to the movie (starring Leonardo diCaprio as Glass), coming out December 25.

If you were intrigued by the film based on Andy Weir’s runaway bestseller, The Martian, you may want to read this tour de force rescue story in which an astronaut—inadvertently stranded on the inhospitable red planet—works out a way to survive long enough to be rescued. A real-life rescue effort is described in Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet below the Chilean Desert by Marc Aaronson. The struggle to survive impossible odds makes compelling cinema, too. All is Lost stars Robert Redford trying to stay afloat after a freak accident damages his sailboat.

No stranger to extreme endeavors, Jon Krakauer wrote a chilling (literally) account of his assault on Mount Everest, Into Thin Air. Krakauer’s Into the Wild follows a young man’s misguided attempt to survive off the land in Alaska. And no list of books about enduring intense conditions would be complete without Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, chronicling a mountain climber’s amazing odyssey back from the brink of death.

Extreme endurance can mean making unthinkable choices to avoid starvation. One example is described in Ethan Rarick’s Desperate Passage: The Donner Party's Perilous Journey West about the ill-fated pioneer wagon train stranded in the Rockies in the winter of 1846. The plight of plane crash victims in the Andes in 1972 is covered in both Piers Paul Read’s Alive: Sixteen Men, Seventy-two Days, and Insurmountable Odds and Nando Parrado’s Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home.

But having to endure life-challenging conditions isn’t the always the result of fate or luck. Some athletes set extreme endurance goals to drive themselves to excel. In A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington describes her triathlon training journey to win at the World Ironman Championships. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, and Ultramarathon Man, by Dean Karnazes, reveal secrets of the world’s greatest distance runners. Finally, you can place a hold on long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s, Find a Way, arriving in branches soon.

Laura S.

1Webster’s online dictionary defines schadenfreude as “pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune.”

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