Amazon Store

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Hope and Honor

Title: Hope and Honor
Author: Sidney Shachnow & Jann Robbins
Publisher:Forge Books (October 1, 2004)

Hope and Honor is the autobiography of Maj. General (Ret.) Sidney Shachnow, a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor who immigrated to America, joined the military, and ultimately ended up as head of all Special Forces before he retired. The book begins with his childhood in Lithuania,and follows Sascha (later Sidney) through his experiences with the German occupation, his families flight from Lithuaniaafter the war to Germany,and ultimately, to the United States. Shachnow eventually makes his way into the military, where he stays until he retires, where the book ends(Shachnow is alive and well today).

I really, really liked this book. Shachnow’s writing is simple and direct, but it conveys a lot. Most of the chapters are short –between six to ten pages – and the book flows very quickly. Shachnow doesn’t spend a whole lot of time introspecting, but it’s easy to get a sense of him both as an adult looking back on his life and as the man living it.

This being a man’s life (and a remarkable life, at that),there’s obviously a lot that occurs here, and some things will stand out to readers more than others. Amateur psychologist that I am, I found watching Shachnow’s growth really interesting. Even as a child, he exhibits certain tendencies (a will to survive, a willingness to go outside the rules, and a sense that there are times when violence is, in fact, the solution) that make his eventual role in the U.S. Special Forces seem perfectly natural. Which is not to say that Shachnow is a violent man. As much as anyone else in the world,Shachnow knows the consequences of, and problems with, violence. But he is, at heart, a warrior, and warriors fight. They also think, which is where Shachnow’s real talents lie.

I could probably ramble on about this book for a while, but I really want to get this up, so I’ll stop here. This is a powerful and interesting biography about a really extraordinary man. I can’t recommend it enough.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Dragon and Soldier

Title: Dragon and Soldier
Author: Timothy Zahn
Publisher: Starscape (Tom Doherty Associates, LLC)
ISBN: 0765350173

Dragon and Soldier is the second book in Zahn’s Dragonback series. Like most of Zahn’s books, it’s sci-fi. Unlike most of Zahn’s books,the Dragonback series is aimed at a younger audience – the books are written for kids in the 9-12 range, but honestly,I enjoyed them all the same. There’s something about Zahn’s writing style that I find very engaging. Once you start reading, it’s almost impossible not to get sucked in.

The Dragonback series revolves around the adventures of Jack Morgan, a fourteen-year old kid, and his companion Draycos. Draycos is a poet-warrior of the K’da, a race of golden-scaled draconian aliens from beyond the area of the galaxy that Jack lives in. The K’da are an interesting concept; they’re symbiotic organisms who need a host in order to survive. Most of the time, they exist in a two-dimensional form attached to the host’s skin, making them looking very much like a large tattoo. The K’da can detach themselves from the host for limited periods of time, and if Draycos is any indication, are very dangerous warriors when unleashed. K’da don’t normally bond with humans, but Draycos and Jack are essentially forced together for survival at the beginning of the series.

The first book, Dragon and Thief, revolves around Jack’s attempts to clear his own name of a crime he didn’t commit. Dragon and Solider takes off in a slightly different direction – Draycos is the lone survivor of an advance scout team for his people, and wants to know who attacked and destroyed his team, and is trying to wipe out his people. So Jack (and Draycos, by default), join up with a mercenary company, hoping to learn something about the fighters that attacked Draycos’s original team. Not surprisingly, things do not go easily, or as planned.

Overall, it’s a very fun read. Zahn doesn’t spend as much time world-building as he does in some of his other novels, but there’s enough detail for the reader to get a good sense of what this setting is like. The action moves well, and it’s engaging. Unfortunately, it ends too soon, but there’s four more books in the series on the way.

If you want something deep, profound, and meaningful…this is not really the book for you. But as a fun sci-fi adventure story, it works just great. I’m definitely looking forward to the third one.

Sunday, March 6, 2005

I Am Ivan Drago

Title: I am CharlotteSimmons
Author: Tom Wolfe
Publisher: Audio Renaissance
ISBN: 1593975201

For those wondering about the title of this review: Ivan Drago(played by Dolph Lundgren) is the main villain of Rocky Four who’s best remembered line is (said with cheesy faux Russian accent), “I must break you.”

Anyone want to guess where this is going?

I Am Charlotte Simmons is the latest work by Tom Wolfe (Bonfireof the Vanities). Having seen/heard a few favorable reviews (though I don’t remember where), and needing something to listen too during my commute to work,I decided to give this a shot. After all, it was 50 percent off, and over thirty-one hours long! Entertainment for weeks!

Or not.

I Am Charlotte Simmons is the story of a collection of stereotypes. Whoops, excuse me. I mean, it’s the story of Charlotte Simmons, an impossibly na├»ve genius from Sparta, North Carolinawho, by virtue of her amazing intellect, receives a full scholarship to Dupont University(supposedly an analog for Duke or UVa). The other main characters include JoJoJohansen, Dupont’s sole white starting basketball player, Beverly,a Groton produced snob, Adam…Geller, a smart kid, and Hoyt Thorpe, a frat boy. Five complete and total stereotypes without a hint of original thought or action.

It gets worse.

First of all, the title character is so ignorant of the world that it’s actually offensive. I may have siphoned off some of my friend Jessica's sensitivity on this subject, but North Carolina is hardly stuck in the Dark Ages. Yes, there are backwoods places that aren’t up on the latest culture and fashion, but Charlotte Simmons is so ignorant it is quite literally unbelievable. She’s completely shocked (shocked, I tell you!) that there is drinking going on in her dorm. Drinking!It’s unbelievable. How could students be drinking?This is a dry dorm! The RA said there would be no drinking! And yes, the book does go on, and on, and on, in this fashion. Wolfe seems to feel the need to repeat each and every point over and over again. And one more time, in case you missed it.

To make things worse, Wolfe occasionally displays his own total ignorance of the culture he’s writing about. During one of Hoyt Thorpe’s many drunken contemplations (frat boys in the Wolfe-verse never sober up), he starts thinking of various frat type movies like Animal House, Old School, and The Usual Suspects.

The Usual Suspects?It’s a murder mystery, Tom. If you’re going to clumsily assail modern academia(and believe me Tom, there’s plenty to assail), could you at least get your facts right? Or make some sense.

The audio version is read by Dylan Baker (Spider Man 2), who does a decent voice acting job, though all of his college-age men sound precisely the same. He has a tendency to sound whiny a lot, but I think that’s an effect of how whiny this book is, not his acting skills.

As much as part of me wants to, I just couldn’t finish this thing. The book lacks a believable character, plot, or event to draw the reader in. Worse, Wolfe seems intent on showing off his voluminous vocabulary and dragging out each and every moment for as long as possible. I finished about six CD’s, and then gave up.

Sorry Mr. Wolfe – you broke me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Black Hawk Down

Title:Black Hawk Down

Author:Mark Bowden



If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years,or otherwise haven’t heard of this book (even after it was made into a major motion picture), here’s the short version.

In 1993, a group of Rangers and Delta Force soldiers went on a mission to try and capture several members of the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s organization from a meeting in the heart of the city of Mogadishu. It was supposed to be a one hour mission – in and out, no fuss, no muss, no bother.

To say that the mission went horribly wrong is a gross understatement. Two of Task Force Ranger’s Black Hawk helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu,and the soldiers became trapped in a protracted battle in the midst of the city. It was long, bloody, and ultimately cost eighteen American soldiers their lives (and who knows how many Somalis). While the mission was technically a success, it was not viewed as such by the majority of the political and military leadership, and American forces withdrew from Somalia shortly thereafter.

Black Hawk Down is the story of that battle. While Bowden provides some very interesting analysis of the larger policy issues at play towards the end of the book, the vast majority of it is simply a narrative of the battle, from beginning to end. It is, as one might expect, intense, graphic, and alternately inspiring or disturbing. Bowden makes no effort to hide the realities of war, and no effort to make people look particularly good or bad. He tells the story, warts and all.There are certainly moments of heroism on the part of those soldiers, but there are also moments of fear, machismo, arrogance, and all sorts of other emotions that you would expect of normal people. Indeed, one of the greatest things about this book is that it shows the military as not a bunch of a faceless goons, but as a collection of living, breathing, people, who have their own lives, hopes, fears, etc.

There are a lot of characters involved, and keeping track of all of them is sometimes difficult. With so many privates, sergeants,operators, majors, and so on, it’s not always easy to keep track of who’s who.That difficult might be my only real complaint about the book, and I’m not sure there’s anything anyone could do about it. A great number of people were involved in this battle…keeping track of them is hard. I suppose the book could have had a “cast of characters” section at the beginning, but that seems inappropriate for the work.

Bowden’s post-battle analysis is interesting, and well thought out. He clearly has put a lot of thought into the events that lead up and followed the battle, and probably has one of the clearest pictures of anyone of those particular set of events. Still, his analysis isn’t the point of the book, or even the highlight. The story stands well enough on it’s own.