Review: 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

I think this is a much better book than my rating gives it credit for. There’s always something intensely subjective about a review, something that often has nothing to do with the quality of the text itself, that goes into the final “what do I rate this” decision. It could be the reader’s mood that particular day, it could be the juxtaposition of what else the reader is working on at the time, or it could be the phase of the moon or Saturn being in retrograde, or whatever.

I know that I personally tend to read in cycles, where I’ll focus on a particular topic or subject at a time, read through a few books, then move on to the next one. I haven’t really been in a survival story mood lately, which begs the question: is that my fault or the books? I leave it to you to decide.

Regardless, there’s a lot to like here. Franklin has an excellent writing style and keeps a firm grip on the direction of the narrative (ironically the opposite of how survivor Alvarenga’s boat drifts aimlessly across the ocean). There’s nothing worse in a nonfiction adventure story than an author who insists on inserting him or herself into the text, which can work if it’s done well . . . but it’s usually not done well. Franklin has a style like a good investigative journalist, interested in getting the facts and the truth as much as possible, but without editorializing on the subject.

My biggest problem with the story comes from the fact that one’s world becomes very, very small when one is adrift at sea. This is a huge revelation, I know, so bear with me. There are plenty of details to keep things go; tropical storms, whale sharks, water spouts, and the perpetual struggle to survive, but at some point when you’re adrift, the cycle settles in: food, water, fatigue, despair, sunburn. At some point, we’ve gotten through the fact that you have to eat some pretty disgusting things to survive and it’s hard to keep your hopes up.

Overall, if you’re hungry (heh) for a good survival at sea story, I think this book will deliver on exactly what you’re looking for. Or if you want to meditate on “how much worse can it get” for a person struggling to survive, this book is for you. If you’re not a survival story kind of reader, though, I think you can drift on.

Review: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why by Amanda Ripley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not only was this a great, well-written read, but it’s full of information you’ll want to keep in the back of your mind at all times. If there was an emergency at your work, how would you respond? What would you do? Can you visualize what might happen? Would you be embarrassed by overreaction if the fire alarm goes off? Would you know what to take with you from your desk?

Ripley covers a wide variety of disasters, scenarios, and topics, from physiological responses to the nature of heroism, those who risk their lives for strangers. Most evocative are the narratives provided by survivors of various disasters: 9/11 survivors, embassy hostage survivors, human stampede survivors, and more.

There’s a tendency for self-aggrandizement in these stores, but author Amanda Ripley never indulges in such things. It’s a very appreciated aspect of her writing.

Most importantly, Ripley doesn’t lead her readers to a feeling of helplessness or fatalism. Throughout the book, her research and writing emphasizes that survival is affected by many factors, and some of the most important factors are mental preparation and readiness.

Having recently moved into the path of a future major earthquake, it’s on the back of my mind that a major disaster may occur in my lifetime. Reading this book helped me come to terms with that and it made me think more about what I will do, should that happen. This is a book that I think should be a must-read for everyone, because there is nowhere in the world that doesn’t have some sort of disaster to contend with, even if it’s something as local as a housefire. As a survivor of a housefire myself (albeit a small one), I give my stamp of approval on her work.

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