Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book review: "Yeager" by Chuck Yeager

"Yeager" is stuffed full of great stories. You probably know Chuck Yeager as the pilot who broke the sound barrier and that story, of course, is included. But there's a lot more.

There's exciting stories about World War II dogfighting. There's a story about Yeager running for his life behind enemy lines after being shot down. There are many breathtaking stories about flying high-powered aircraft to record speeds and heights. And there are crashes. Yeager acknowledges that he's lucky to be alive.

Yeager also throws in good stories about interesting people, like pilot Jaqueline Cochran and bar owner Pancho Barnes. There's a surprising story about spying on the Soviet Union and very funny one about golden trout (yes, the fish).

It's hard to believe one man experienced so much in one life. I deliberately took my time reading this book, because I wanted to enjoy each story fully, without rushing on to the next one.

I really liked that the book includes "other voices" short sections from Yeager's wife and colleagues that help provide extra perspective.

The book is in first-person, but co-written by Leo Janos. While it's impossible to know how much Janos actually wrote, I suspect he deserves a lot of credit. Why? Because more than once does the book mention that Yeager, while a master pilot, had little grasp of basic English. "He could barely construct a recognizable sentence," recalls an Air Force general who knew Yeager.

I was fairly shocked by the poor treatment Yeager got from the military while he was risking his life flying experimental planes. For years, he got no promotion and his family had to crowd into a barely habitable shack. (Yeager eventually moved up and finally became a general near the end of his career.)

I was bothered a bit by Yeager's callous attitude toward the many people he saw die in his military service, but he makes it clear that it comes with the territory.

"I got mad at the dead: Angry at them for dying so young and so senselessly; angry at them for destroying expensive government property as stupidly as if they had driven a Cadillac off a bridge. Anger was my defense mechanism. I've lost count of the how many good friends have augered in [crashed] over the years, but either you become calloused or you crack."

One minor complaint: Sometimes Yeager uses aviation or military phrases that could use some translation: "Dead stick landing," aileron, "bird colonel." It's not a big problem, but a sentence here and there could have made things a bit clearer.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Book review: "Final Flight" by Peter Stekel

"Final Flight" is perhaps not a great book, but you can't fault author Peter Stekel's enthusiasm for the subject. Stekel delves deeply into every aspect surrounding the mysterious 1942 crash of an Army plane in California's Sierra Nevada range in which four young airmen died.

In what is probably the high point of the book, Stekel hikes high into the mountains and himself discovers one of the victims' bodies in a glacier.

I particularly liked the first half of the book where Stekel tries to solve an historical mystery: Official records and other reports say remains of the four airmen were recovered and buried in 1948. So how can it be that one of the bodies was found in the glacier in 2005? And another found in 2007 (by Stekel)?

Stekel looks at the crash from every angle, recounting the lives of each airman, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the airplane, reviewing all the recovery efforts, describing similar aviation accidents and trying to sort out what actually went wrong.

He notes that these sort of training accidents weren't uncommon during World War II more U.S. aircraft were lost to accidents, he says, that were lost fighting the Japanese.

My main criticism of the book is that Stekel doesn't seem to know when to stop. He goes on way too long, for example, talking about weather conditions on the day of the crash. While much of the book is interesting, you will definitely find parts you can skim.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Book review: "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban"

I respect American journalist Jere Van Dyk for having the guts to go into the heart of Taliban territory on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And I sympathize with him for having to endure a 45-day captivity.

But Van Dyk's account of his ordeal is frustratingly difficult to read. There's a good story in this book, but it's tough to sift out.

"Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban" begins with Van Dyk preparing to make a furtive trip into Taliban territory, a delicate process of shadowy negotiations. But shortly after the trip begins he and his companions are taken captive by men whose motives aren't entirely clear. After a month and half in which Van Dyk repeatedly fears his execution is imminent, they are mysteriously freed.

Unfortunately, the book bogs down too often in Van Dyk's repetitive and circular emotional swings. He is distrustful of everyone (even those who help him after he is freed) and lurches between fears of death, suspicions about his companions, hopes for release, and, again, fears of death. Of course, these feelings are understandable under the circumstances, but detailing each mood change soon becomes tedious and advances the story nowhere.

"Captive" is also hamstrung by Van Dyk's use of short sentences almost exclusively ("It was dark and silent. No one talked. I put my head down and pulled my quilt over my head. I wanted to be alone. I thought of my family.") As a reader, you feel like you're constantly starting and stopping.

Van Dyk does succeed somewhat in putting a human face on the Taliban. He tries to understand his captors, and while they are often cold and exhibit a frightening religious fervor, they sometimes reveal a more compassionate side.

The book could really use a second voice to explain efforts to win his release and to show how his family is reacting. Even at the end, many questions are left unanswered: Why did this trip go awry? Did his interpreter betray him? How did he get freed? Was a ransom paid?

If you are interested in this sort of story, a much better book is "Buried Alive," by Roy Hallums, a contractor who was kidnapped and held for months in Iraq.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book review: "No Way Down: Life and Death on K2"

In "No Way Down," author Graham Bowley thoroughly details how arrogance, disorganization and selfishness combined with unstable snow and ice to produce 11 deaths in a tragic few days on K2, the world's second-highest peak.

The book does have moments of heroism and gutsy survival. I was particularly impressed with the effort of Sherpa Pemba Gyalje to help other mountaineers. The story of Wilco van Rooijen, who spent two freezing nights trapped alone high on the mountain, is amazing.

But the book makes it clear that many of the deaths and injuries could have been avoided. Too many climbers kept going up when they should have turned back, and they failed to cooperate or stick together when they should have.

There are so many characters in the book, I had some trouble keeping them straight. And since the events of the tragedy unfolded chaotically, there is no central character to follow.

I read an uncorrected proof edition which had no maps or pictures. It would nice if the finished book has both.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book review: "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer

As a 50-year-old man, I know I'm hardly the intended demographic for "Twilight." But my daughter had absolutely inhaled all four books in this series, so I decided I should at least read one of them to see what the attraction was. And who knows? maybe I might even enjoy it.

I'd often heard "Twilight" described as a "vampire book," but that is really misleading. Sure, it does have vampires, which help add mystery and occasional flurries of action, but in its heart and soul "Twilight" is simply a teenage romance. The two lovers, human Bella and vampire Edward, fall in love against all odds just like Romeo and Juliet, just like Maria and Tony in "Westside Story," just like many a star-crossed pair throughout the history of literature.

The attraction of this book to girls can be summed up in one word: Edward. He is, in Bella's word, "godlike." He is impossibly handsome, intelligent, mysterious, caring, and good at EVERYTHING. He comes to Bella's rescue multiple times. Edward also does something rarely seen at that age (teenage boys, pay attention!) he shows a genuine interest in Bella, asking all about her and actually listening to the answers.

I'm sure many girls who like the book also identify with Bella's feeling of being an outsider, of being different than the crowd. (Sometimes I wonder: If everyone feels like an outsider, who are the insiders?)

While it's obvious why Bella adores Edward, it's not so clear why he is interested in her (besides the fact that her smell is alluring to a vampire). She is a disappointingly shallow character with virtually no interests outside her infatuation with Edward. Sometimes it's hard to take her immature hand-wringing (He looked at me! He didn't look at me! Why isn't he looking at me?)

Author Stephenie Meyer writes smoothly and clearly, but the book needs some trimming. "Twilight" bogs down about halfway through, after Edward's secret become clear and he and Bella settle in to overlong conversations fed by an undercurrent of teen and vampire hormones. A burst of action near the end of the book gets things moving again, although it's disappointing that after a long buildup to a confrontation between Edward and another vampire, Meyer skips past that crucial scene.

I'm not going to read the rest of the series, but at least I have a better understanding of what so enthralled my daughter.

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