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Summer's Biggest, Juiciest Nonfiction Adventures

Chris Silas Neal

The publishing and film industries are innately intertwined — the peanut butter and chocolate of the entertainment world. This complementary, crackling energy between New York and Hollywood determines the big narratives that fill our popcorn-munching hours and drive idle chatter during coffee breaks. It makes sense, then, that they tend to follow the same release schedules, reserving the spring and early autumn for indie offerings, and the summer and holidays for potential blockbusters. And though a hit hardcover will, in its long shelf life, generate less than the opening weekend take of, say, The Green Lantern, a book and a movie enter the world with the same spirit — to transport us.

There is no literary genre that says "big, juicy hit" like nonfiction adventure; these are titles so packed with action and drama that they feel like movies in waiting (and in fact, most of them are). These are the stories that, when they work, have the chance to become smashes (think The Lost City of Z, Unbroken, or the current bestsellers Lost in Shangri-La and The Psychopath Test), crowding e-readers and beach bags everywhere. This summer, a bunch of new entries have breakout potential: the diabolical story of a mad-genius impostor; a high-stakes heist born of true love; a humid sojourn to the heart of South America; a teeth-chattering account of a mountain climb gone wrong; and the tale of two society women who made it in the rough and tumble world of cowboys. Read them before Hollywood execs get their hands on them and start tossing their millions at Brad and Angelina.


The Man In The Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Impostor

By Mark Seal; hardcover, 336 pages; Viking Adult, list price: $26.95

Anyone who has read Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (or seen Matt Damon's glistening abs in the 1999 film adaptation) knows there is nothing more chilling than a case of stolen identity rendered on an obsessive scale. Vanity Fair writer Mark Seal discovered such a case when he began researching an article on Clark Rockefeller, the pseudonym of German con-man Christian Gerhartsreiter. As a young man, Gerhartsreiter moved to the States and set out to adopt various guises and aliases, finally positing himself as an obscure member of the sprawling Rockefeller clan. This counterfeit personality freed him to swirl in the highest social circles, to marry and have a child with Harvard Business School graduate Sandra Boss, and — with her income, alone — to purchase two tony houses in New England.

When the marriage soured and Boss realized she'd been duped, the mysteries began to unspool at breakneck speed. Gerhartsreiter, it turned out, was connected to the bizarre disappearance and possible murder of a Southern California couple in the 1980s, and was also arrested for kidnapping his own daughter. Seal's telling of the long con in Vanity Fair won a National Magazine Award, and his book-length rendering does not disappoint. In striking detail, and at a rapid clip, the writer unravels the complex and fantastically bizarre tale of a man aspiring to the American Dream by any means necessary.


Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education Of Two Society Girls In The West

By Dorothy Wickenden; hardcover, 304 pages; Scribner, list price: $26

Another stunning magazine profile expanded into book form, Dorothy Wickenden's recounting of her grandmother Dorothy Woodruff's treacherous cross-country journey is as charming as it is rugged. In 1916, Woodruff and her close childhood friend Rosamund Underwood left New York for the Colorado wilderness, seeking teaching jobs in one of the proliferating pioneer settlements. These society girls, the kind of women more accustomed to high tea than to saddling up or hauling well water, put down roots in Elkhead, Colo., determined to make a difference in the dusty town's small schoolhouse.

Looming large over the story is the character of Ferry Carpenter, a charismatic lawyer who enticed the women to join the settlement, promising them grand adventure and opportunity. What he hadn't alerted them to were the bitter blizzards, the town full of idle men looking to land a bride, and kids so educationally malnourished that they could not name the president. Wickenden reconstructs the initial journey and the women's first school year through letters they sent back home, capturing both the humor and the isolation of settling the West during wartime. This is Little House on the Prairie in petticoats, and it is enchanting.


Turn Right At Machu Picchu: Rediscovering The Lost City One Step At A Time

By Mark Adams; hardcover, 352 pages; Dutton, list price: $26.95

Mark Adams has spent two decades editing stories on travel and adventure for the likes of National Geographic, Outside and GQ, but he admits he is not much of an "outdoors person" himself. So it is with a healthy sense of humor (he calls himself a "white wine spritzer explorer" and concedes he "might not be completely up-to-date on the latest tent-erecting methods") that he approaches this Peruvian travelogue. Adams, in fact, sleeps in a tent for the first time at, of all places, the remote and mystical Inca city of Machu Picchu. When he finally gets comfortable in his hiking boots, Adams unearths a fascinating story, transporting his readers back to 1911, when Yale professor Hiram Bingham III hiked the Andes and stumbled upon one of South America's most miraculous and cloistered meccas.

Of course, the media loves a villain, so the moment that Bingham began to boast of his findings, many accused him of looting precious artifacts and stealing credit for locating the ancient kingdom. Adams attempts to investigate these charges 100 years later, tracing Bingham's steps and encountering a cast of colorful characters along the way, including lackadaisical mule tenders and a bumbling survivalist. In the process, he tackles the question that plagued not only Bingham but continues to vex historians: What in the world was Machu Picchu? A magical city where innovations were born? An Aztec vacation community? A massive anthropological hoax? And what can we still learn from it?

Turn Right At Machu Picchu is as close to an armchair vacation as you'll get all summer long.


Sex On The Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History

By Ben Mezrich; hardcover, 320 pages; Doubleday, list price: $26.95

Ben Mezrich has already written several blockbusters — his last two books, Bringing Down the House (about MIT students who made millions in Vegas, and the basis for 21) and The Accidental Billionaires (about the genesis story of Facebook, and the basis for The Social Network), were eagerly snatched up by Hollywood. So it is no shocker that his latest, Sex on the Moon, has already been optioned by the same team that brought the Facebook story to cinematic life. And with good reason: This is Oceans 11 meets Apollo 13. What filmgoer could resist that pitch?

Love can make you do crazy things, like, say, steal priceless moon rocks from the vaults at NASA. Meet Thad Roberts, a NASA intern who concocted a Mission Impossible-worthy plot to pilfer over 100 lunar samples for his girlfriend — and got away with it. How Roberts and his henchmen managed to break into the space program's headquarters and make off with craggy chunks of the galaxy is as good a suspense story as you'll read this year. Start dreaming up the cast as you read it; you can bet a hundred heartthrobs are already lining up to play Roberts.


The Ledge: An Adventure Story Of Friendship And Survival On Mount Rainier

By Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan; hardcover, 288 pages; Ballantine, list price: $26

And now, your winner for the annual Jon Krakauer Award for Scary Things That Happen On Mountains. This well-plotted survival tale about climbing partners and a deadly fall into a crevasse will certainly slake your 127 Hours craving, but it is a unique book on its own, avoiding the thumping cliches of the "rock climbing is dangerous" genre. Nineteen years after the fact, Davidson writes about a terrible accident that took place when he and his best friend, Mike Price, were scaling Mt. Rainier. Davidson took an 80-foot tumble, fatally pulling Price down with him. Battling feelings of profound guilt and fear as he struggled in the icy cold to overcome his own injuries, Davidson had to climb out of the crevasse with his lifeless partner still attached to a rope. With the help of Price's family, Davidson eventually made peace with the tragedy and finds his own form of redemption in retelling the events of that fateful day.

With the help of award-winning Denver Post journalist Kevin Vaughan, Davidson transforms his horrific experience into a graceful, poised narrative that spares no gory detail but never feels mawkish. Davidson's gruesome description of the fall will make you shiver, but the gratitude and hope he now embraces will make you melt.

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Rachel Syme
Rachel Syme is a frequent contributor to NPR Books. She is the former culture editor of The Daily Beast, and has written and edited for Elle, Radar, Page Six Magazine, Jane, theNew York Observer, The Millions, and GQ.