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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Ultramarathon Man

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner
Dean Karnazes
Publisher: Tarcher; Reprint edition (March 2, 2006)
ISBN: 1585424803

Yes, I finished this fast. I finished it fast because I enjoyed it (and the semester is ending, which is giving me a bit more free time). It’s good, interesting, and admittedly quick read that’s given me a lot to think about (some of which may go into a locked post).

The Basics:

In 490 BCE, a Greek messenger ran from the Battle of Marathon to the city of Athens to carry news of the Greek victory. After arriving and delivering his message, he promptly dropped dead. A few centuries later, someone decided that this sort of thing would make a good sport, and thus, the marathon was born.

There are a few, however, who find the idea of running a paltry 26 miles to be not nearly enough of a challenge. Dean Karnazes is one of those select few who choose to pursue ultramarathons, running distances of over 100 miles in a single outing. These rare athletes push themselves to the limits of human endurance, and prove that those limits are a lot further than people think.

Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner is Karnazes memoir/chronicle of his love of running, his eventual transition into the ultramarthonning maniac that he is today, and some of the more interesting/amazing experiences he’s had (running a marathon at the South Pole, running 226 miles…non-stop, and a few others).

The Good:

A lot, really.

Karnazes has a very breezy, easy writing style, that makes the reader feel as though he’s sitting around listening to some incredible stories over dinner. It would be very easy for him to present himself as some sort of inhuman tough guy, who never feels pain or fear, but Karnazes makes it quite clear that he experiences all of those feelings and emotions as he runs. In doing so, he makes it clear that the man behind the feats that he’s accomplished is, well, a man, subject to all the faults and foibles there in.

Karnazes also does a good job of getting in the psychology of how and why he runs, as best as he’s able to. He freely admits that it’s not an easy thing to describe or rationalize, but he does make a good effort at it, and ends up with some interesting insights into the mindset of the serious athlete.

And if you need something to kick you in the pants and get you motivated to go get a workout, this book will do it. It’s definitely having that effect on me.

The Bad:

I can’t really say I had any complaints. Reader’s looking for a deep, difficult, and contemplative read won’t necessarily get what they want here; Karnazes’s style, as I said, is pretty breezy—the language itself won’t challenge a serious reader. But there’s still an awful lot to think about, and I didn’t pick this up expecting Tolstoy.

The Ugly:

Near total dehydration, excruciating muscle cramps, projectile vomiting, crawling bloody handed towards a finish line; pushing the human body to it’s limits sometimes results in nasty sensations. If you don’t want to read about them, don’t read this book.

Overall, I really enjoy this. As I said—its served as a great kick in the pants for me, and forced me to think about some issues in my own life I might not have thought of otherwise. Definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


by C. J. Cherryh
Publisher: DAW; 10th Anniversary edition (December 7, 2004)
ISBN: 0756402514

The basics:
When the human starship Phoenix goes wildly off course, the survivors are forced into a desperate search for a new home. Wandering an unknown region of space, they locate a habitable planet, and send down a team of colonists who make a startling discovery; the planet is already inhabited.

Five centuries later, the humans have found a way to maintain a small colony through a treaty with the Atevi, the race of black-skinned giants who rule most of the world. In exchange for their technology, the humans have been granted control of a single island, where no Atevi can go. A single human, the padhi, serves as a translator and advisor within Atevi society. When the current padhi is targeted for by an unregistered assassin, the delicate balance of Human/Atevi relations is placed in jeopardy.

The Good:
There’s a whole lot of good in this book, beginning with the Atevi themselves. Cherryh manages to create an alien society that truly feels inhuman. The Atevi do not, as near as any human can tell, experience the same kinds of emotions that humans do. Their culture one in which assassination is considered a perfectly legitimate and respectable means of settling disagreements, and assassins are licensed, registered, and employed on a regular basis. They have fourteen words for betrayal (including one that means “take the obvious course of action”), but no concept of trust or love. It’s a culture so steeped in numerology that it has trouble adapting to computers, which use numbers that they consider unlucky or bad in some fashion.

I may be making it sound cheezier than it really is. The truth is, Cherryh makes the Atevi seem like a real, legitimate, but on some level, totally incomprehensible culture. This is frequently re-emphasized through the experiences of the main character, Bren; despite being padhi to the Atevi, frequently misunderstands or misinterprets Atevi interactions, especially as events begin to spiral out of his control.

The plot is interesting, and moves along fairly quickly. Bren is well fleshed out as a character, and many of the principle Atevi are as well, though they always remain a bit mysterious. Cherryh has clearly put a lot of thought into this world, and the effort shows.

The Bad:
The main character, Bren, is somewhat indecisive and unsure of himself. While it’s understandable to a degree, sometimes he gets a little too self-introspective, and seems to get dragged around by the Atevi a little too much. While I understand that he’s supposed to be out of his element, sometimes his indecisiveness gets annoying or repetitive.

The Ugly:
The book starts with the crew of the Phoenix itself, and the malfunction that takes it off course; there’s also a chapter or two devoted to the first contact with the Atevi. It’s interesting, and well-written, but I couldn’t help thinking it didn’t need to be there. The reader doesn’t learn anything from these chapters that couldn’t have been learned from a quick summary over a few paragraphs. Not bad, per se, but not strictly necessary either.
The ending is sort of a cliffhanger; Foreigner is the beginning of a trilogy, and while the plot mostly wraps up, there’s a lot of dangling questions left unanswered. It’s not so huge that you couldn’t stop reading here, but it’s not as neatly tied up as some books (even those that are part of a trilogy).

Overall, it’s an interesting, fun, sci-fi/political thriller. If that’s your gig, Foreigner is worth checking out.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The White Rose

The White Rose
Glen Cook
Tor Fantasy

The Basics:

The White Rose is the third book of Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, and the end of the first trilogy of books. I reviewed the second book, Shadows Linger, about a year ago. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get to the third one.

The Chronicles of the Black Company follows a group of mercenaries (the Black Company) as they become embroiled in a centuries-long war between the Lady, who rules the world, the Dominator (her ex-husband, who wants to come back and, well, rule the world) and the White Rose, who wants to stop her.

The White Rose is the climax of that storyline; the Black Company has switched sides, and is aiding the White Rose in her quest to overthrow the Lady. Of course, there are complications, mostly in the form of the Dominator, who is not nearly as well imprisoned as everyone thought, and is coming back. Something that no one on either side of the war wants.

The Good:

The plot is interesting and engaging. Cook provides enough details to move things along, without getting bogged down in absurdly long explanations about the physics of his world, or something similar. His characters are unique and memorable, and he manages to bring a great touch of humanity to the Lady, making her a fully fleshed out character instead of a villain.

Likewise, Cook’s locations are well described, and appropriately fantastic. The Plain of Fear, with it’s windwhales and menhirs (sentient rocks) is appropriately bizarre and creepy, as is the Barrowland where the Dominator is buried.

Cook ties things up pretty well. That may not sound like much, but for something that’s ending a trilogy, it’s nice to get to a point where everything is more or less set. Sure, there’s possibilities for the future, but it’s possibilities, not unanswered questions.

The Bad:

Sometimes, Cook’s sparse details are a little TOO sparse. I couldn’t draw a map of this world if I tried (and there isn’t one). I know there’s a place called the Plain of Fear, the cities of Juniper and Oar, and the Great Barrowland. There’s probably one or two other locations I’m forgetting, but I think my point is clear—Cook just jumps from location to location without filling in even the barest details. It sometimes makes the story a bit confusing, and makes it hard to get a sense of scale.

Also, while the Lady isn’t a caricature of a villain, the Dominator kind of is. Though that’s really his role.

The Ugly:

I was disappointed to see one character come back, since he had ostensibly died in the second book. Cook seems above that sort of thing to me, and his return is only marginally important anyway.

Toadkiller Dog and Tracker, while having a great pair of names, confuse me. I’m still not entirely clear what was up with either of them.

Overall, this is a solid-ending to a solid series. It’s much grimmer and nastier than some traditional fantasy, and the main characters aren’t the movers and shakers of the world as much as they are the people who work for them, but that’s the charm of the series. It’s neat to watch events from the ground.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Masters of Chaos

Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces
Linda Robinson

Masters of Chaos is, as the subtitle suggests, a history of the US Army Special Forces, sometimes known as the “Green Berets.” It’s important to understand that this is a specific, specialized, branch of the military, not to be confused with the more general term “Special Operations”, which covers not only the Army Special Forces, but also groups like Navy SEALS, Delta Force, and other groups made popular by eighties action stars. For the rest of this review, I’ll refer to the US Army Special Forces simply as “Special Forces”, because it’s easier, and because I understand they prefer that term to “Green Berets.”

I’m trying a new format for this review. Comments on it are welcome (as are comments on the review itself, of course.).

The Good:

This is a very comprehensive history. Robinson’s background is in journalism, and she’s done an impressive amount of research in addition to spending time interviewing a large number of Special Forces operators. She does an excellent job of describing what it is that the Special Forces do, what makes them special, and how they’re different from other Special Operations groups. She covers their operations from Vietnam up through the current Iraqi conflict (or as far as that conflict had gone at the time of the books publication). The book weighs in at an impressive 388 pages of fairly small type—there is a ton of information here.

Robinson does a fairly good job of characterizing the various soldiers, not at all an easy task. One of the great difficulties in any kind of military writing (or film making, for that matter) is capturing the differences between a bunch of guys who all dress the same, have the same haircut, etc. The Special Forces tend to have looser uniform regulations, but still, it can be easy to make them all end up sounding the same. Robinson doesn’t, by and large. I had some moments of confusion, but for the most part, I could keep track of the various characters, even the unnamed ones.

Yes, there are some unnamed characters; some members of the Special Forces asked to have their names kept out of the book, and Robinson respected that. So there are few characters like the sergeant who keeps trying to finish the deck on his house, that never get named. But still, they’re mostly easy enough to keep track of.

There is a fair amount of technical information, and again, it’s all presented in a fairly clear and easily understandable fashion.

Robinson does a nice job of staying focused on the history that she’s telling without drifting to the politics that surround the deployment of the Special Forces. While there’s certainly a place for evaluating that sort of thing, I appreciated that she mostly stuck to the story of what the Special Forces did on their various assignments. It helps keep the story focused, and lets the reader focus on the characters, and what they do. Which isn’t to say that she paints a rosy picture; Special Forces operators are human, and humans make mistakes, have accidents, and die just like everyone else. Robinson doesn’t shy away from the fact that the operators do sometimes make errors or have problems, but she keeps her focus to the operators themselves, not the larger structures that they’re involved in (except when it’s particularly relevant).

What they do, incidentally, is extremely interesting. If you think that the Special Forces are just a bunch of steroid-abusing Rambo-style thugs, this book is worth a look just to dispel that belief. These guys are warriors, but they’re also scholars and diplomats. They have a great deal of latitude in their mission, which generally require a lot of creative thinking, and not necessarily a lot of firepower.

Of course, firepower is occasionally required. These guys are in the military, after all.

Finally, Robinson makes a convincing case for the need to expand and invest further in the US Special Forces. These are the people who specialize in dealing with asymmetric or unconventional warfare, terrorism, and similar kinds of threats—in short, the types of conflicts that the US is likely to have to deal with in the next several decades.

The Bad:

Robinson’s writing is very direct and straightforward, but sometimes, it’s less than inspiring. She has a tendency to resort to ridiculous clich├ęs far too often for my taste, and some of her characters verge on becoming caricatures. It’s the sort of writing that’s fine for a newspaper column (as I mentioned, she is a journalist), but for a nearly four-hundred page book, it can get a little tiresome.

The Ugly:

The title. It’s also a chapter title in the book, but it sounds much more “macho” and “bad-ass” than this book or the men it portrays really deserve. Also, the cover photo on the paperback edition is less than ideal.

There’s a picture section embedded in the middle of the book, which is ok, except that I didn’t realize it was there until I reached it, and the pictures reference things that happened all over the book. I wish they had just placed the pictures with the relevant chapters.


If you like military history, this book is definitely worth checking out. If you want to know what the US Army Special Forces are really about, it’s definitely worth checking out. But it isn’t a light read, and I wouldn’t go for it unless there’s something about the subject that really interests you.