Tag Archive: Jon Krakauer


Review by C.J. Bunce

Like Jon Krakauer’s account of the May 1996 disastrous climb up Mt. Everest (Into Thin Air) prompted only more people in subsequent years to make the climb, and like Krakauer’s account of ill-fated adventurer Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild) drove more adventurers into the Alaskan outback, more than 125 years earlier the tale of a man separated from his exploration party in Yellowstone for 37 days would prompt excitement across America that would result in President Grant naming the forest of geysers, hot springs, sulfur pots, geological features, and waterfalls the first national park.  The man lost in the wilderness was Truman Everts, and his first-hand accounts of his trials in Yellowstone (the longest anyone has ever been lost in the park and not discovered dead) is recounted in Lost in the Yellowstone (New Edition), a thrilling account of being lost and alone with only the clothes on his back with snow, storms, mountain lions, bears, wolves and coyotes.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

After World War II, in essence a world stunned with death and destruction emerged to try to forge its way into the future after one of the planet’s most trying challenges.  Inspiring tens of millions was the true-life voyage of Norway’s Thor Heyerdahl, a pioneer made of the same mettle as Shackleton and Hillary.  Heyerdahl was a student in Oslo who spent a year in Polynesia, where he developed the idea that peoples like the ancient Incas could have traveled across the Pacific Ocean and settled the area easier than saling from the west.  After a decade trying to prove his hypothesis, Heyerdahl assembled a team of six men, five Norwegians and a Swede, and built a balsa raft consistent with parts and construction the Polynesians would have had available centuries before, which he named Kon-Tiki after an Incan sun god.  His challenge?  To complete the voyage from South America to Polynesia without assistance from modern technology.

Heyerdahl’s 1948 account of the voyage, Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, became one of the best-selling books of all time (selling more than 56 million copies), his 1950 documentary of the voyage, Kon-Tiki, earned an Oscar, and an impressive 2012 theatrical adaptation, also named Kon-Tiki, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film.  Both of these films are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Crime novels tend to include an element of mystery.  Usually the attraction for the reader is going along for the ride with the detective, the cop, the private eye, or the wrongly accused.  Some novels have variations on the theme, but few are purely character studies that begin with the reveal of the murderer and then take readers on the pathway of whydunit.  That’s not 100% what’s going on in Oakley Hall′s So Many Doors, but it’s close.  First published in 1950 and reprinted by Hard Case Crime for the first time in 60 years, So Many Doors centers around Vassilia Baird, a teen girl who, despite her father’s best efforts, ends up in the arms of a bad boy, resulting in a downward spiral that leads to her death.  Hall’s writing has a storytelling quality that may make it a good study for writers, but, despite his quick prose, it is bogged down with ugly characters in the obscure world of Depression era bulldozer operators.

At first Baird is the obvious character whose cause needs championed–an innocent.  But without explanation, she’s transformed overnight into a femme fatale.  Hall does not give the reader enough access to her to understand anything personal, any motivation, any reason other than she’s in the position of the novel that a reader should ordinarily be sympathetic toward, until she isn’t.  Hall never gets into her head, instead choosing to provide access to others who were part of her life, including an odd father, a would-be friend, a creepy much older neighbor, and her murderer.  Readers will not likely find those characters as particularly real either, or follow common sense (or decency toward others in many cases), or participate in the average person’s experience with the human condition.  And the single twist is predictable.  It’s unfortunate, because the set-up is brilliantly introduced upfront: A public defender is assigned to the bad boy, who refuses his services and admits to murdering Baird (known throughout the story as “V”).  But that’s followed by 300 pages of waiting for something exciting to happen and the action never again matches the first chapter.

The fact that So Many Doors saw acclaim in 1950 is unfortunately telling about the era, a story full of shockingly smarmy or cowardly men on the one hand and stock naïve and stock evil women.  It wants to be Vera Caspary’s Laura, but isn’t.  Instead the leads are caricatures of characters with little chemistry out of The Great Gatsby, embedded in a setting from The Giant and East of Eden and unpleasant interactions and relationships like those found in On the Waterfront and Dangerous Liaisons.  That kind of tale may very well still have an audience out there, but the sum of the parts may not add up for modern readers.

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Astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days aboard the International Space Station in 2015, has been in the news this month as scientists learn more about his health after such an extended stay in space.  NASA admitted Scott and his identical twin brother Mark into its elite astronaut program in 1996, and after many years the brothers’ back and forth missions resulted in Scott accepting a Russian mission to test human reaction to extended space travel, in part contemplating a trip to Mars one day.  At the end of his 2015 mission not only did his body change, but he encountered what travelers to Mars will encounter: living in weightlessness, relying on the tools, food, and oxygen processing technology, and experiencing work stress for a similar period of time as a voyage to Mars.  Although readers of his recently published memoir will learn the selection of the brothers into NASA and the selection of Scott for his record-breaking ISS mission initially did not contemplate use of the twin brothers as comparative test subjects, NASA soon realized the knowledge they could gain from such an endeavor.  Although scientists have since backed off on early claims that Mark and Scott now have different DNA, their analysis continues, and Scott said he and his brother will continue to be tested and observed as part of the study for the rest of their lives.

In his book Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly recounts his life story and the details of his four trips into outer space: via the space shuttles Discovery (STS-103) in 1999 and Endeavour (STS-118) in 2007 and later via Soyuz TMA-19 in Expeditions 25/26 in 2010 and Soyuz TMA-18M in Expeditions 43/44/45/46 in 2015 with a record-breaking mission The Endurance in the title reflects both the ship captained by Sir Ernest Shackleton in the 1901 expedition to Antarctica (and Shackleton’s book Kelly took on his journey into space for inspiration and reflection) as well as the mettle and resolve required to push his mind and body to the limits to survive his many journeys off-planet.  Readers learn through his experiences the detail, perfection, and self-discipline that makes up “the right stuff” for the military fighter pilot turned test pilot, Navy captain, and astronaut commander are the same things that seem to make him so focused that he was perceived as less communicative and responsive to those closest to him.  Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery is very much another chapter in a continuing history of books by astronauts recounting their circuitous and unlikely paths to NASA, yet Kelly’s account reveals less of a superman and more of a flawed but committed adventurer, and his flaws will no doubt engage any reader and fan of real-life adventure stories.  The personal details, openness to discuss his own reservations, concerns, and mistakes, make this unlike any other of the more famous accounts of human travels in space.  Kelly is most likeable when he’d seem unlikeable to us back on Earth–when he shows his frustrations, when at the end of a year in space little comments from his peers simply annoy him.  He seems preoccupied with the ISS toilets and carbon dioxide levels throughout his year on the ISS, both of which he knows could mean the end of any Mars mission if they can’t become more reliable.  And it’s these kinds of details he hopes will drive NASA to improve these components of space travel to hope to make a mission around the moon, around an asteroid, and ultimately a mission to Mars, a reality one day for mankind.

That’s Commander Scott Kelly (bottom right) in the crew photo sporting Jedi robes for Expedition 45.

Kelly credits another book, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, as his inspiration for taking on a career as jet pilot and astronaut–he even called Wolfe from space to thank him at the end of his ISS mission.  Kelly’s descriptions of several of his experiences, especially his three harrowing spacewalks while aboard the ISS, provide for a riveting read, and readers shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves breathless as they follow along with him as he floats 254 miles above Earth orbiting at 17,000 miles per hour.  Some sections of Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery are as nailbiting as Jon Krakauer’s extraordinary account of his ill-fated Mt. Everest climb, Into Thin Air.  Some of Kelly’s more minor details are the most startling, like his description of hand rails outside the station that are riddled with bullet-sized holes, caused by space debris.  Any new arriving piece of debris could poke a hole in him, too, as he floated in space.  In one mission he encounters the same tile problem that caused the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia.  A chunk of an old satellite careening in the vicinity of the ISS provides another dangerous condition for the crew that illustrates another theme of life on the ISS–international relations.  Kelly speaks nothing but admiration for Russia, its space program and its cosmonauts, but their processes and procedures sometimes vary widely.  When the satellite approached, the Russians kept on working just as he and his team hunkered down.  The Russians figured any collision likely would kill them all instantly, so why worry about it?  Readers will learn a lot about those less exciting parts of being a 21st century astronaut, especially about the required extended stays required these days in Russia, the departure point for American astronauts in the post-Space Shuttle world.  In between flights, Kelly served as NASA’s Director of Operations in the legendary town of Star City, Russia, and we learn much about his many encounters with other astronauts and ground crew.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

After reading Michael Crichton’s groundbreaking science fiction novel Jurassic Park, I was hooked, and set out to read everything else he had written before and awaited each subsequent work with excitement.  I quickly learned that you can identify his work through his character choices and his storytelling, and not only were his ideas fresh and new (Crichton passed away in 2008), he knew how to spin a good yarn.  Yet, except for the Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, each of his books is completely different from one another.  In common the books follow intelligent people who set about accomplishing something unprecedented.  Crichton’s latest (and perhaps final?) posthumous novel is Dragon Teeth, and in true form it is both a brilliant Crichton work, and also unlike anything he’d written before.  It arrives at bookstores later this week.

Shelf Dragon Teeth alongside Jurassic Park as the very best of Crichton.

Here at borg.com I’ve so far reviewed three of Crichton’s eight “lost” novels penned under pseudonyms.  In the early days of borg.com I reviewed Crichton’s Micro, a posthumously published novel Crichton hadn’t quite finished when he died, which included the technology that could shrink humans to half-an-inch tall beings.  With Dragon Teeth, there is no suspension of disbelief required as with many of his works.  This story is historical fiction, and a Western–easily one of the best Westerns I’ve read.  We meet a college student in 1876 named William Johnson.  He is an arrogant, self-absorbed son of a shipping magnate who takes on a dare and ends up accompanying a professor on a journey across the Old West in an early search for dinosaur bones–then newly-discovered proof that the planet is much older than previously thought.  The professor, one of the early paleontologists, is in a lifelong battle with another, competing paleontologist and their squabble becomes deadly as Johnson finds himself a pawn in repeated attempts at oneupsmanship.  Based on the feud of real-life 19th century professors, Dragon Teeth sucks the reader into every black and white Western movie where the heroes weren’t all that heroic, the dust was thick, the path was treacherous, and each new day could very well be your last.

Crichton stitched together all the Western spots you didn’t want to find yourself in as an outsider in 1876–Cheyenne, across the Badlands, into Montana and Wyoming territory, and the end of the line in murky Deadwood.  Dragon Teeth has all the atmosphere of Silverado, and reads with both the folklore of a Louis L’Amour novel and the peril and adventure of a Jon Krakauer true-life account.  You’ll find deceit and friendship as they existed beyond the frontier, Native American friends and enemies, and a look inside political and religious clashes that exist to this day.

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Hansen on Everest

Review by C.J. Bunce

I am an avid follower of the many chronicles of the May 1996 disaster on Mount Everest But it all comes down to the brilliant storytelling of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air that really sucked me in.  So compelling, his account made me feel like I was having breathing issues reading his novel into the wee hours of the morning.  Russian climber guide Anatoli Boukreev didn’t like Krakauer’s account, so he responded with his own, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest.  Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest documents Beck Weathers’ story.  Each of these are worthy reads.  Other accounts include Climbing High: A Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy, by climber Lene Gammelgaard, After The Wind: 1996 Everest Tragedy–One Survivor’s Story, by Lou Kasischke, High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, by David Breashears, and the Everest IMAX movie (filmmakers encountered the disaster climbers on their own climb and Brashears was instrumental in saving Beck Weathers).  Krakauer’s story got a less than adequate treatment in the film Into Thin Air, starring Christopher McDonald.  Which brings us to director Baltasar Kormákur’s 2015 theatrical release Everest, now available on streaming services and home video.

Fortunately Everest the movie is not a disaster.  It gets the story right.  The cast is nearly perfect.  Yet it doesn’t match the thrills of the true-life adventure it adapts, and so a detailed critique is warranted.  The screenwriters have pieced together all the key scenes and moments from the various firsthand accounts, sometimes picking and choosing so as not to adapt any single vantage point from another.  Yet it skips over some key climax points that could have made the film so much better.

Jason Clarke Everest

In a story where there are more males than females, why not highlight the two female climbers we do meet (played by Amy Shindler and Naoko Mori), instead of focusing on spouses (played by Keira Knightley and Robin Wright) whose only participation was a series of phone calls?  In the two roles where women get plenty of screentime, Emily Watson and Elizabeth Debicki are left with recurring close-ups where they are supposed to show concern, yet they come off as emotionless.  The actors were given little to work with.  A directorial or screenwriter problem?

Part of the problem also is the missed opportunity for well-edited musical cues.  Composer Dario Marianelli (V for Vendetta, I Capture the Castle) provides a score that is neither thrilling nor matches the emotion of the struggle and despairs depicted in the film.  It’s a sweeping score but never prepares us for what is ahead and never lands where it should.  But the music is secondary to the writing.

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Everest movie poster

The more I see of Universal’s latest disaster movie, the more I think this one could be next year’s biggest Oscar nominee.  Next month’s IMAX release Everest looks even better in this new trailer released a few hours ago, better even than the first great preview.  If you’ve read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or any of the other accounts of the 1996 Everest disaster, no longer the biggest disaster in the history of the mountain, then you can’t help but cringe as each character that doesn’t make it off the mountain utter their lines.

If you know nothing about it, be prepared for a gut-twisting story that will leave you breathless–if director Baltasar Kormákur and writers William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy can reflect the reality here that in this case, is greater than fiction.

One think to note about this preview is how cocky Jake Gyllenhaal appears.  He plays Scott Fischer, and Fischer, as well as the other guides who hiked that mountain multiple times were as cocky as anyone you can imagine–if the accounts of their lives match what we’ve read.  The bottom line?  The 1996 Everest was so harrowing and full of incredible stories that it’s going to be very difficult to screw up.

With an all-star cast including Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Sam Worthington, and Robin Wright, and an IMAX production that looks so pristine and real, we’re in for something big.

Here’s the new trailer for Everest:

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Everest movie

Twelve climbers died on Mt. Everest in 1996, but the harrowing story of the events that occurred on May 10-11, 1996, have created the most exciting story of human endurance and survival yet documented.  More than 300 hundred documented climbers have died on the mountain, many whose bodies line the road to this day and still are used as checkpoints or mile markers for future climbers.  We don’t know all the details of their stories like we do of the May 1996 disaster.  And that’s thanks primarily to the fact that a master storyteller was on the mountain to be part of what happened.

That storyteller is Jon Krakauer, a journalist who would later document the events in the bestselling account Into Thin Air, one of the most exciting, jaw-dropping books ever written.  Without Krakauer so many people around the world would not know so much about these peoples’ lives we’d otherwise have no reason to know about:  Beck Weathers, Rob Hall, Scott Fischer, Anatoli Boukreev, Doug Hansen, Andrew Harris, Yasuko Namba.  The crossroads where they would all meet is finally coming to the big screen this year in director Baltasar Kormákur‘s Everest.  It will be difficult to screw up this story.  Millions of dollars went into the production.

Josh Brolin is Beck Weathers

Just look at the major league cast alone.  Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Zodiac, Source Code, Homicide) plays Fischer, Josh Brolin (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jonah Hex, Men in Black III, Milk, No Country for old Men, The Goonies) is Beck Weathers, Michael Kelly (House of Cards, Fringe, Law & Order, Unbreakable) is Krakauer, John Hawkes (Deadwood, Lost, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), is Hansen, Jason Clarke (Terminator: Genisys, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) is Hall, Martin Henderson (The Ring, House, M.D.) is Harris, Icelander Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson is Boukreev, and Naoko Mori (Humans, Torchwood, Doctor Who) is Namba.

Check out this first, full-length trailer for Everest:

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Star Wars Episode VII photo

We’ve just wound down another year of big movies–from Captain America: The Winter Soldier to X-Men: Days of Future Past to Guardians of the Galaxy to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. So what’s on the radar at borg.com for 2015? We think you’ll want to see several of these big sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, and action flicks coming to a screen near you next year.

Vice movie poster Bruce Willis

Vice – Jan. 16 – The next in a long line of Bruce Willis action flicks.  This time it’s a sci-fi story about a future resort where humans freely pursue their vices–with artificial humans.

Wild Card movie poster

Wild Card – Jan. 30 – A story based on a novel by Academy Award winning writer William Goldman, starring Jason Statham as a gambler.

Kingsman movie poster

Kingsman: The Secret Service – Feb. 13 – This Colin Firth as spy action flick will tell us once and for all whether Firth would be a good choice to play James Bond.  With an all-star cast including Mark Hamill, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Chappie movie poster A

Chappie – March 6 – Neill Blomkamp’s latest science fiction entry.  A Pinocchio story where a robot learns to live among humans.

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By C.J. Bunce

It’s All Star Major League Baseball week, and if you’re roaming around host city Kansas City this week, don’t bother trying to figure out those big symbols painted on the street at intersections throughout the city.  You’re probably better off not looking at the pavement as you drive, anyway.  They’re just ads for the event.  Planning and reporting for this week’s festivities made me ask myself:  How many host cities are asked to tear down dozens of houses to improve the appeal of major events?  That’s right, part of the deal to get the big MLB extravaganza into town was agreeing to tear down a bunch of abandoned east side homes near baseball fields holding related games.  Those supporting the action say it caused the city to get off its rear and act on something they needed to do anyway.  But local elected officials have been voicing their dismay on behalf of neighborhood residents–why do we need a sporting event to clean up our city?

This same week, halfway across the country, 150,000 or so fanboys and fangirls will descend upon San Diego for the annual International Comic-Con. It makes you wonder–how many houses are getting torn down in San Diego?  Both All Star Week and Comic-Con bring in money for their towns, and from a city management standpoint, that’s all that matters.  For a city like Kansas City, you don’t get many bites at the apple, not many chances to bring in national events, although the city has built up major convention centers like the Sprint Center and Kauffman Performing Arts Center–facilities that rival their counterparts across the country no matter what size the city, and these venues are attracting the commensurate talent. Kauffman Stadium, where the All Star game will be played Tuesday, is without dispute one of the best venues to see baseball anywhere–its giant scoreboard video screen is one of the top of its kind in the country.

Sponsors have dumped hundred of thousands of dollars into promotions for All Star week.  Nike, Chevrolet, Bank of America, even the Budweiser Clydesdales are all at the stadium, despite temperatures nearing 100 degrees (plan on buying a lot of bottled water if you’re going in person).  At the Sprint Center even more promotional activities are underway at the “Fan Fest,” including members of the original women’s baseball league featured in the movie A League of their Own.  Again, baseball is about money, money and money.  And so is Comic-Con.  If you’re a fan of either, you just ignore all the glitz and go after what you want–watching the baseball game (which seems like it may be an afterthought with all the promotions) and meeting your favorite comic book artists and writers and your favorite TV and movie stars, once you make it through the crowds at Comic-Con.

So I figured, what better way to start out All Star Baseball and Comic-Con week than revisiting the successful Brad Pitt movie Moneyball?  Last October, borg.com writer Jason McClain was a bit dismayed with the film.  He had read the source material, based on actual events and real people, and I think his best praise was that the film was just OK.  After finally seeing it, if you’re like me–less of a diehard baseball fan and more of a baseball movie fan, you may very well love Moneyball.  In fact, I’d argue inclusion of Moneyball is a must on a future borg.com Top 10 baseball movie list.

Jason identified the best part of the film, namely Pitt as protagonist Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and young Yale economics grad Pete Brand (name changed from the original person in the story) played by Jonah Hill (Superbad) in a much deserved Academy Award-nominated role for best supporting actor.  In an attempt to encourage Beane to push everything aside and do the right thing for himself, Pete shows Beane footage of a classic baseball moment–Jeremy Brown rarely takes the chance to round first and break for second base.  This one time he does he screws up and tries to make it back to first, getting tagged by the first baseman in the process.  What Brown didn’t realize was that his hit made it over the wall.  He’d hit a home run and didn’t know it.  Pete’s point?  Beane was a success and just didn’t know enough to stop and soak it up.

Moneyball is obviously about money in baseball–not just how baseball has changed from its origins into this established, maybe bloated system that resists any effort to change with the times.  It applies to movie stars in NYC and Hollywood, too, but you have to ask: Does anyone deserve $7 million for whatever they do?  I once made it to a day game to see the Yankees play in the Bronx.  Strawberry struck out at bat.  Twice.  Pretty underwhelming game.  But what was memorable was all the local kids at the game.  Each one had a well-marked season’s scorecard with plenty of margin notes.  These were the diehard fans.  And when you think about increasing prices everywhere, including tickets for baseball games or movies, you wonder at what point fans will just stop going.  Or for a change, when prices actually drop.  But that would require thinking differently.  That would require real change.

More than money, Moneyball is simply a great sports story.  Brad Pitt offers one of his less difficult but most subtle and smartly played roles.  For the first time since Twelve Monkeys I saw Pitt in the big leagues as an equal to the likes of Robert Redford in The Natural.  (One humorous bit is every scene he is stuffing his face with some kind of food or having a dip).  The fact that he is willing to stop and change when no one else wants to is inspiring.  As strange and unlikely as it seems, Pitt mirrors Gregory Peck’s role in the Hollywood classic Twelve O’Clock High.  In that film, the Allies keep fighting but keep losing at the same time.  It’s a war of attrition, and hard decisions must be made that affect lives of airmen but actually the fate of the world is at stake.  Peck’s role is clean-up man.  He’s the fixer.  In Moneyball, the stakes are different, but for Pitt, this could be the end of his world if he is not successful.  Can he change the very nature of baseball so his ball club can survive?  Years ago a CEO who was about to get the axe asked me for advice.  “Where did I go wrong?” he asked.  Set in his own ways, he resisted change.  I recommended he watch Twelve O’Clock High for some inspiration.  But it was advice asked and given too late.  Resisting change is natural, and it is powerfully hard to do.  That’s why those people who are successful at moving forward in the face of huge resistance make great stories.

As for criticisms, I will leave those to Jason–he noted (probably justifiably so) that the filmmakers (and underlying source work) may have been harsh in its portrayals of real-life coach Art Howe and scout Grady Fuson.  In brief, these guys are used to the old rules and resist change.  As the story of Moneyball is about change, and as those resisting it, they become the villains.  Whenever you portray real-life people in movies or non-fiction works, someone isn’t going to like the portrayal (particularly the public figures themselves).  Yet you always have to ask whether there is at least a grain of truth in these portrayals.  In what is one of the best pieces of storytelling of all time, Jon Krakauer’s account of a failed attempt of several climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest was met with much opposition, by nearly every other guy who climbed the mountain with Krakauer.  But that does not detract from the fact that the story told by Krakauer is gut-churning, nail-biting, and exciting.  Ultimately accounts of real life can seemingly take on their own lives.  The events of May 1996 on Everest are separate and apart from Krakauer’s bestselling memoire Into Thin Air.  So, I think, may be the film Moneyball versus its source material, the Michael Lewis book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, or even the real events that summer where the Oakland A’s broke baseball’s winning streak records.  We don’t really know what Beane and the man Pete was based on were like then, but we know the characterization of these guys in the film was superb.  And we can love the film whether it got everything real life right or not.

Whether you’re in it for the fandom or the money, this is bound to be a great week from Kansas City to San Diego. Bring on the fans!