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Review: ‘Lost in Shangri-La’ by Mitchell Zuckoff

Review: ‘Lost in Shangri-La’ by Mitchell Zuckoff post image

Title: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review
Rating: ★★★★½

One Sentence Summary: After a pleasure flight of enlisted American men and women crashes in an uncharted part of New Guinea, a dramatic rescue is organized to save the survivors who are living amid a prehistoric tribe that calls the valley home.

One Sentence Review: Lost in Shangri-La exemplifies the best qualities of strong narrative nonfiction and was truly unputdownable.

Long Review: The opening paragraphs of Lost in Shangri-La do one of the best jobs of setting up a book that I have ever read:

Near the end of World War II, a U.S. Army plane flying over the island of New Guinea crashed in an uncharted region inhabited by a prehistoric tribe.

In the weeks that followed, reporters raced to cover a tale of survival, loss, anthropology, discovery, heroism, friendship, and a near-impossible rescue mission. Their stories features a beautiful, headstrong corporal and a strapping, hell-bend paratrooper, stranded amid bone-through-the-nose tribesman reputed to be headhunters and cannibals. They told of a brave lieutenant grieving the death of his twin brother; a wry sergeant with a terrible head wound; and a team if Filipino-American soldiers who volunteered to confront the natives despite knowing they’d be outnumbered more than a thousand to one. Rounding out the true-life cast were a rogue filmmaker who’d left Hollywood after being exposed as a jewel thief; a smart-aleck pilot who flew best when his plane had no engine; and a cowboy colonel whose rescue plan seemed designed to increase the death toll.

If you don’t want to pick up this book after those paragraphs alone… I’m just not sure what is wrong with you. Kidding! But seriously, if that doesn’t hook you then just stop reading now because the rest of this review is just going to be me telling you how awesome I thought this book was.

Lost in Shangri-La perfectly exemplifies everything that I love about narrative nonfiction. It puts a new twist on a familiar story, shows meticulous research through primary and secondary sources, and pulls these pieces together with well-spun characters and a story full of the dramatic ups and downs of the best adventure fiction.

One of the things I liked best about the book was the way Zuckoff shifted back and forth between the perspective of the Americans and the natives, making them book as much about two different cultures meeting for the first time as it is a sort of adventure story. After going through some incidents and reconstructing them from the notes or journals kept by the survivors, Zuckoff interviewed surviving natives or their relatives to see how they had perceived a particular incident. It was funny to read about how  completely off some of their interpretations were. It was also sobering — any one of these miscommunications could have resulted in violence if the wrong person were angered.

I wish I could think of more things to say, but everything just feels gushy. The way Zuckoff wrote about the survivors and rescuers was amazing. In just a few pages I was emotionally wrapped up in their stories, worried about them as they boarded the plane and mourning with them as they lost close friends in the crash. It’s just a great story and I highly recommend the book, especially for people looking for accessible and entertaining nonfiction — you won’t be disappointed.

A side note: After I finished the book I also learned the author works at Boston University as a professor of journalism, I think the same department where Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns teaches. I cannot imagine how awesome it would be to learn about the craft of narrative nonfiction from the two of them.

Other Reviews: Shelf Love | Age 30+… A Lifetime of Books | Chocolate and Croissants |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Helen Murdoch June 11, 2011, 10:42 am

    Thanks for a great review! I have this on my list to read this summer for one of my book groups and am really looking forward to it

    • Kim June 13, 2011, 8:45 pm

      I think it’ll be a fun book club book — there are lots of things to potentially discuss!

  • christa @ mental foodie June 11, 2011, 11:14 am

    I definitely found the misinterpreted exchange between the natives and the Americans funny! Esp when they all took off their pants lol. Here’s my review: http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-review-lost-in-shangri-la-true.html

    • Kim June 13, 2011, 8:46 pm

      Those were some of my favorite parts. I liked the way he’d go through the American perspective and I’d think, “Yeah, that makes sense!” But then he’d write what the natives thought and I’d feel like such a dork because it was so different.

  • Anastasia June 11, 2011, 12:34 pm

    I got this for review, too, but I’ve been putting off reading it because of…I don’t know. The cover? The cover kind of makes it look like a hardcore military memoir, which I’m not overly interested in. I didn’t realize it had funny bits in it! That makes me want to ignore the cover and read it anyway.

    • Kim June 13, 2011, 8:47 pm

      I like the ARC cover a lot better than the real one — it does look a little military thriller or something. But it’s really not like that; there’s a lot about cultural communication and personal connections and that sort of thing.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 11, 2011, 1:39 pm

    I read another review of this that made it sound amazing. I’m anxious to read it.

    • Kim June 13, 2011, 8:47 pm

      I liked this one a lot — I think it’s good middle-ground nonfiction for people who read a lot of fiction (entertaining and well-written).

  • Jenna (Literature and a Lens) June 12, 2011, 7:36 pm

    I definitely love readable nonfiction. It’s nice to enjoy a book while learning about history. Plus, an author who can take an event/facts and draw you in emotionally is very talented. Can’t wait to get my hands on this one. Great review!

    • Kim June 13, 2011, 8:48 pm

      I was really sucked into this one! I got so attached to the characters before the crash, and then when the plane went down it was really hard to read because I felt connected to them.

  • Heather J. June 12, 2011, 9:38 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this one – it really is a great book!

    • Kim June 13, 2011, 8:48 pm

      Yes, I was a big fan!

  • Anna June 17, 2011, 5:35 pm

    I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book. Glad to see you really liked it as well. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    • Kim June 18, 2011, 8:20 am

      Oh great, thanks, I always forget to do things like that!