Book Review – Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman

7714686Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman describes the life and death of the man who felt compelled to walk away from a multi-million dollar NFL contract to enlist as an Army Ranger in a surge of post-9/11 patriotism. Serving in first Iraq and then Afghanistan, Tillman shunned the spotlight, preferring to serve as “one of the guys” instead of a celebrity or tool for propaganda. He fell in Afghanistan to “friendly fire”, gunned down by a member of his own squad under largely preventable circumstances.

Tillman’s story unfolds like a classical tragedy. An aggressive and competitive teen, he threw himself into whatever pursuit he undertook, from sports to partying to an ego and testosterone fueled brawl that landed him (and rightfully so) on the wrong side of the law. Behind the full-tilt exterior is a well-read, intelligent, and introspective man, as shown by his often-thoughtful journal entries and his quiet love for his wife.

Combined with a description of Tillman’s life is a history of Afghanistan that was a solid primer on the region, though not as compelling as the parts about Tillman himself.

Krakauer outlines the events of Tillman’s death in a horrifyingly precise, factual account. The litany of bad decisions surrounding his death–from inability to provide support for the squad to a refusal by higher-ups to listen to the judgment of the officer leading the men on the ground to the “fog of war” that led to his squadmate turning an automatic weapon on parts of his team–unfold with a sad inevitability.

The coverup of Tillman’s death is utterly infuriating, and Krakauer clearly paints a case that Army brass knew the circumstances yet tried their best to bury the truth. The author doggedly outlines the who and what of institutional malfeasance, as the White House and the Army first sought to lionize him, then to cover their own tracks.

What irked me about this book was that Tillman made it clear, through his refusal to grant interviews or be glorified for his decision to enlist, that he had no desire to advance anyone’s agenda. Krakauer specifically uses Tillman’s life to grind an anti-Bush axe, continually harping on point after point of everything that the author disliked about the Bush administration.

IMO, less is more, especially when it comes to authors’ opinions in nonfiction/journalistic pieces. Tillman’s life and death are a scathing indictment of war–these are the vibrant men turned into dust, frequently for no good reason other than unhappy accident. The facts of Tillman’s posthumous glorification and the coverup of the circumstances of his death are pretty damning on their own, without Krakauer telling me so over and over. His repeated injection of his own opinions both weakens the power of his narrative and calls into question whether his political leanings have colored his account.

Where Men Win Glory is, in general, what I love and hate about Jon Krakauer’s writing. In compelling prose, he tells fascinating stories of people, issues, and events that are important and meaningful. Then he ensures that no room is left for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the subject by bludgeoning the reader with his own opinion.

Book Review – Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

13459855Unique among thru-hiker guide books, Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail discusses the mental outlook necessary for the rigorous 2,200 mile hike. Zach Davis covers mental preparation prior to a thru-hike, keeping a mindset of enjoying the experience even when severely challenged, and acclimating back to “real life” after the hike.

I especially enjoyed his focus on keeping perspective on the trail, which is infused with optimism and remembering that, while a particular uphill, rainy day, or overcrowded shelter may be taxing, you are there to both enjoy the experience and accomplish something memorable.

“The trail should be enjoyed, and when joy is difficult to achieve, personal growth should become the focus.”

Appalachian Trials is definitely focused on thru-hiking, but its lessons can apply to almost any facet of life from personal improvement to on-the-job goals: optimism, taking in the moment, keeping the goal in focus.

In the most moving passage in the book, Davis tells about how near the end of his hike, he passed the body of Michael “Open Mike” Guerette and a crowd of hikers who had attempted to revive him (he likely either collapsed on the trail or fell and sustained a fatal injury). Davis was shaken by the experience, feeling sorrow for the death of a man he did not know but could easily identify with. Upon reaching the next shelter, he found Guerette’s entry from earlier in the day, describing the pleasure he felt at talking to a family of hikers on the trail. The entry ended with this statement: “Today is a great day to be alive. – Open Mike”–a touching reminder to appreciate the moments we’re given.

Davis draws from his thru-hiking experience to explore the psychological components necessary for success on the AT–arguably far more important than which pack or water filtration is best. Appalachian Trials is a great read for anyone interested in thru-hiking, or simply looking for an engagingly-written book about achieving success.

Book Review – AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

114584324 stars. David Miller was a “regular guy”: 41, married with three girls, working as a software engineer, yet wanting something a little more. He sought it by turning in his notice and heading out on the Appalachian Trail to thru-hike the 2,200 mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. He takes us along the path with him in AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, the story of his 2003 AT thru-hike.

Miller communicates well, with direct sentences and little flowery prose. He’s pretty even keeled and approaches the AT with a pragmatic sense, but he also realizes that the goal is to enjoy himself rather than simply to reach a destination or put a feather in his cap. I get the feeling that Miller finds satisfaction in simply taking in the moment:

“…spectacular overlooks and scenic waterfalls have universal appeal. But I have come to recognize that most of what is memorable and pleasing about my time on the trail is ordinary moments in the outdoors. Simply sitting unhurried in the shade of leaves is an irreplaceable moment. It is a joy in itself to amble through the woods for hours, even when views are limited to the dense trees surrounding me. It is fulfilling to be saturated with the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors. My fond recollections of my hike are full of unremarkable moments, like the smell of a dewy morning, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the blaze of a campfire, the soothing trickle of a stream, or the rays of sun through a maze of trees.”

Any AT trail journal is, by necessity, repetitive: get up, hike, eat, set up camp, repeat until resupply point/town is reached, shower, eat massive amounts of food, hitchhike back to the trail, hike. Just as the sum is greater than the parts on a thru-hike, so is AWOL on the Appalachian Trail: no single thing kept me turning pages, but I did anyway because Miller’s hike was satisfying to experience through his eyes.

Miller is frank about the challenges of the trail: foot pain, gastrointestinal distress, drudgery, steep climbs, inclement weather. He also gives a good sense of the pleasure and fulfillment of the trail.

As a fortysomething code monkey myself, I easily related to Miller’s outlook and wish to fulfill a dream. It’s inspiring to know us cubicle jockeys can do something extraordinary when we put our minds to it! What I appreciated most was his frank discussion of why he chose to go, and what he got out of it:

“…it is important for parents to continue to live their own lives. We can’t sit by and say we’ve already made our decisions, done our striving, and dish out opinions on the doings of our children. Words alone lack authority, and we risk making them surrogates for the life we’d like to lead. We can better relate to the budding aspirations of our children if we follow dreams of our own.”

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail shows that attitude and persistence, combined with planning and preparation, are keys to success on the trail (and probably in life as well). This would be a great book for any prospective thru-hiker to get a good feel for how to proceed on the AT, and very enjoyable to armchair hikers everywhere.

Book Review – Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West

175716464 stars. Bryce Andrews spent a year as a ranch hand on a massive Montana ranch, penning this eloquent, beautiful volume to celebrate the landscape and wildness of the region, and the character of those who work it. With a deft eye for detail and keen sense of language, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West is much like the mountain land itself: gritty and lyric, harsh and appealing.

“The real work of ranching isn’t riding horses, moving cattle, shoveling shit, fixing fence, digging holes, or any other specific task. It is instead the process of toughening the body into something worn, weathered, scarred, and strong enough to do everything asked of it, and honing the mind until it knows precisely what it can and should ask of the body.”

Andrews chronicles his daily life on the ranch (hint: 20,000 acres represents a lot of fence keep repaired), conveying the drudgery of his workload in very readable prose. There is no glamorizing the life of a cowboy here; it sounds like backbreaking, demanding work. His writing keeps it interesting, in part because of the richness of his account. How many other authors can make a passage on building H-braces for fences interesting? Not many, I fear!

His story gains power as a pack of wolves, recently reintroduced into the area, begin to take their grisly toll on the cattle of the ranch. With a mix of fascination and dread, Andrews and his fellow ranch hands begin a hunt for the carnivores, culminating in an emotional encounter between predator and defender of the herd.

Throughout the story is his love of the land. His descriptions of mountains, gullies, and meadows are powerful and evocative. I feel that I saw the ranch through his eyes. His admiration for the wolves is palpable, and his heart-felt anguish of the plight of the wolves seeking to find equilibrium with ranchers is moving.

Those who love mountains and the wolves who roam it will appreciate this book, as well as anyone seeking to learn about the uneasy relations between ranchers, land managers, and predators in the area. Badluck Way is a beautiful book about grim places, work, and topics.

Book Review – Watership Down

766205 stars. Richard Adams’ recent death motivated me to revisit his beloved classic and a childhood favorite of mine, Watership Down. The tale of a group of rabbits and their quest for survival proceeds in classical epic fashion (on a rabbit scale at least!) for a cracking good read with appeal to all ages.

After Fiver, a young rabbit with the gift of premonition, foretells the doom of their warren, a group of young rabbits depart to find a new home. Their adventures lead them through dangers both apparent and hidden that forge them into a tight-knit group as they seek a place to create a new warren. The tasks necessary for the long-term survival of the new warren will take every bit of their cunning, ingenuity, and bravery.

Watership Down excels in every aspect of storytelling. The plot itself is riveting; even when I know what is coming, it is suspenseful and hard to put down. The style of writing–epic in miniature–is perfect for a tale that appeals to young audiences and gives richness to older readers. The world and life of the rabbits is deep and detailed; Adams creates a believable culture, mythology, and identity for his heroes. (The stories of rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah on their own make for rollicking reads.) The prose itself is straightforward and easy to read, with lovely descriptions of the English countryside.

The book really shines when it comes to the characters: Hazel, the quiet and effective leader. Bigwig, the brave and strong champion of the group. Strawberry, who joins their journeys when he can no longer stand living under duplicity. Campion, the dangerous, competent, and still admirable captain of the enemy. Hyzenthlay, the resourceful doe who wishes for the freedom of promised by the group. General Woundwort, the frightening and almost mythic adversary.

While the author denies any allegories, it’s easy to see how many leaders and historical conflicts could be found by the story. Perhaps that’s the strength of classical archetypes and themes–they resonate because they are fundamental to human nature.

On a personal level, I always appreciate books where intelligence and cleverness are the crux of the story rather than force and strength. The rabbits follow Hazel because his wits and vision lead them superbly. The climax of the story reads like an ingenious prison break, where the hints that Adams gives readers all come to fruition.

Watership Down is a book that has been a delight to read since childhood. Thank you, Mr. Adams, for your lovely tale of home, friendship, leadership, and adventure.

Book Review – Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue

4 stars. Each chapter of Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue details a disappearance in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and subsequent rescue effort as told by ranger Dwight McCarter. The introductory text describes the circumstances that necessitated the search and rescue effort. McCarter’s journal entries outline his role once he joins the search, and he details the terrain, weather, evidence found by the searchers, and most interestingly, his impression of the decisions and actions of the lost party.

The writing is clear and direct, favoring the factual over the dramatic, yet doesn’t miss McCarter’s love for the land, appreciation of its beauty, and emotional involvement with each search and rescue. The stories are memorable, sometimes tragic and sometimes happy. The willingness of the searchers to trek through the treacherous backcountry and “laurel hells” of the Smokies in any weather, day and night, is inspiring even when the outcome is sad.

As an avid hiker and frequent visitor to the Smokies, I found this book to be very interesting for several reasons. I’m familiar enough with many of the trails and areas described that I can very easily relate to the rescues. I appreciated reading about the park from the point of view of someone whose intimate knowledge of its terrain gave me extra insight into the park; even walking GSMNP’s trails doesn’t give more than a hint at how rugged and wild a place it is. The line between finding a lost person and recovery of a body often comes down to pre-hike preparation combined with sound decisions, and this book highlights how both are essential when conditions worsen or the unexpected occurs. I also found it very interesting that there are a number of airplane crash sites in the Smokies (McCarter often checked those to see if lost parties took refuge in the wreckage).

A quick and interesting read, Dwight McCarter’s Lost! is a great addition for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Book Review – Stiletto

5 stars. I was a huge fan of Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook, thanks to its engaging world, madcap action, sly humor, and brilliant lead character Myfanwy Thomas. Stiletto brings back all the fun of the first volume, with a deeper and richer story that is more subtle and more meaningful as two former enemy organizations–the British supernatural defense agency called the Checquy and the Belgian surgeons/scientists of the Grafters–seek to merge their talents. Pawn Felicity Jane Clements is assigned to protect Grafter Odette Leliefeld, and their mistrustful and antagonistic relationship shows that the merger will not be easy. Not to mention that someone is actively trying to disrupt the merger…

My initial complaint about Stiletto is that Myfanwy is a minor character in the book, but I came to enjoy the very strong leads of Felicity and Odette very much, and telling their story was the right way to handle the narrative. The pace is more thoughtful, allowing the tension to build, as well as letting characters and the relationships between them develop naturally. The world-building is extensive (with perhaps some that was non-essential to this story that could have been better delivered as a short story on the author’s website…) and allows for an immersive experience.

The action delivers the same punch as The Rook, with a turn towards the outlandish and icky that adds a bizarre humor to the scenes. A twisty plot also provides ongoing fun. O’Malley’s engaging prose gives the proper sardonic edge, delivering several laugh-out-loud moments as well as snide chuckles. Themes of institutional distrust and overcoming hatred (which seem very timely these days!) are handled subtly and gently.

Stiletto is an exciting and immersive read, a worthy successor to The Rook. I can’t wait to read more of O’Malley’s world.