Saturday, December 31, 2016

Naomi Novik’s Her Majesty’s Dragon: A Book Review

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Naomi Novik’s Her Majesty’s Dragon blends historical fiction and fantasy as dragons are thrust into the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. The first book of the lengthy Temeraire series, Her Majesty’s Dragon follows the events that lead to the dragon’s discovery in egg form on a French vessel to the animal’s bonding with a British naval captain Laurence, the pair’s training, and their participation in staving off Napoleon’s invasion of Brittan. While Novik does not dazzle with flowy or flowery prose, she does enthrall the reader with the story. The novel is a page turner, one you will fly through and find yourself coming back to with little thought as to why or to the time spent reading it.

Novik flawlessly leads the reader into the heart of Laurence, through the sea of emotions that accompany his forced bond with the dragon, his change in carriers, and his eventual love for his beast. In terms of the dragons, these are not beasts at all, but rather intelligent dragons that not only talk to each other, but also their captains and caretakers. Each dragon possesses unique traits and abilities, and thus they, like planes in an air force, each serve a diverse purpose. Thus, beyond Laurence and his trials, Temeraire shines as a character of both depth and importance, enough depth to draw the reader in and make them care about the dragon as much as the human aviator. These emotions allow the plot to flow, the tale to captivate, and the pages to fly by.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On reading William Trevor's The Table

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For previous installments of my analysis of William Trevor’s The Collected Stories, please see the side bar. That said, in “The Table,” Trevor deconstructions both stereotype and familial structure. The primary focus of the piece comes in the form of Mr. Jeffs who buys a table from Mrs. Hammond, playing on her emotions and embarrassment at the time, only to sell the very same table back to the woman’s husband, but this time as a gift for Mrs. Galbally, a woman Mrs. Hammond seemingly does not know. At each step he makes a handsome set of money and is openly pleased by the transactions. While the details of all of these relationships remain hidden, the antique dealer concocts elaborate stories to satisfy his otherwise empty life. He needs satisfaction, he needs something to push him forward and maintain his existence: “‘I understand you Mrs. Hammond. I understand all that. I will trade anything on God’s earth, Mrs. Hammond, but I understand that’” (68). Thus he sees both his isolation and his presence as a self-perceived omniscient man. In his mind, he is a judge of sorts.

While a rather simple plot, the focal point is with the antique dealer himself. Mr. Jeffs stands as the stereotypical, Jewish antique dealer. He is portrayed as money grumbling, and seems mostly obsessed with the making the next buck and the next deal. Nothing occupies his life more than work and thus he finds himself living a life that rests only in those enterprises: “Mr. Jeffs saw the figure of himself standing alone in his large Victorian house. Nothing was permanent in the house, not a stick of furniture remained there month by month. He sold and bought again. He laid no carpets, nor would he ever” (67). Mr. Jeffs, who wants to be more, finds that he has nothing to be more with, and in this fact Trevor captivates his reader as he drives them through the man’s wheeling and dealing. Each deal rests in rules. There is money to collect here based on custom and commission. Privacy here, privacy there. And while Mr. Jeffs is privy to all sides of this elaborate table sale and the fictions he has made up to entertain himself, he will not break from custom and constantly seeks fiscal compensation to satisfy rules and regulations: “Mr. Jeffs, sorrowfully, decided to drive round to tell Mrs. Hammond, so that he could collect what little was owing him” (65). Even though he bought a table from her, sold it to another, and then failed to buy it back from the other party for her, he must charge Mrs. Hammond because rules are the locus to his existence.

With these facts in mind, Mr. Jeffs does not succeed in life, but rather struggles. He is mostly empty, he lives through the stories that he invents and the stories that accompany them. Everything is a fiction, an empty thought, a hindrance to true meaning and happiness: “‘I cook my own food,’ said Mr. Jeffs again. ‘I do not bother anyone’” (68). Each night he returns home to systemic emptiness without any true purpose. A home that generates nothing more than a self-loathing hatred.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Terri Schneider’s Dirty Inspirations: A Book Review

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One of the best things about reading well researched nonfiction is that you discover new books to read that expand the depths of your knowledge base. While reading Travis Macy’s Ultra Mindset, he cited and noted Terri Schneider’s Dirty Inspirations: Lessons from the Trenches of Extreme Endurance Sports. This text follows the author’s life and her journeys through endurance sport, and does so in more of a memoir fashion. Thankfully, Schneider avoids the precepts model; she is not out to teach her reader a list of ideas or thrust a unique philosophy upon her readers. Instead, Schneider, who starts out as a triathlete before venturing into adventure racing, climbing, and just about anything sport that is both extreme and endurance based, moves to share her experiences and pull you through them.  

While this is not a text that will overly excite you, it will inspire you. You will see her fail, succeed, and experience the world. Ranging from locations you know and understand to the obscure reaches of existence that have never crossed your mind, she has climbed, run, biked, rowed, or transversed it. She admits defeat as often as she declares victory and does so in a humble, caring manner. Further, chapters are written in such a way that you can put the book down from time to time and pick it back up again a week later without missing a step. This characteristic might seem like an odd thing to laud, in general, as an avid reader who reads five or more books at a time, the ability to put some aside while you grab the latest fancy is endearing. That said, if you enjoy endurance sport and want to read about someone’s wild ride through life and sport, give the book a look here

Matt Fitzgerald's Brain Training for Runners: A Book Review

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After sitting on Brain Training for Runners for a while, I finally had a chance to write my thoughts. First off, the book takes and complies a copious amount of information. Like many well written books on sport, especially about endurance sport, Fitzgerald strives to apply scientific backing to his claims. Following a similar model to what Jack Daniels does (and many others I have read over the years), Fitzgerald walks you through the physiological science of running. This style of training, which he coins as the Catastrophic Model—trains the body to the limit of each physiological system. Train each system to withstand stain and shutdown and improve. The book includes many strategies for form refinement, discusses the need to use varying speed in training, and has intriguing core routines and exercises, so of which I have tested, tinkered with, and added to my own coaching regimen.

Where Fitzgerald differs from the norm comes in the fact that he advocates a model that goes against standard training styles. These styles are based in the argmunet that there is “no direct physiological cause of fatigue” (xi). With this idea in mind, he notes that the catastrophic model is flawed. Fitzgerald ignores the lactic accumulation, moves beyond glycogen depletion and the idea of training the body to better cleanse toxins and use energy. Not that he discounts the need to train your body and improve the various systems associated with running, but he claims that training should also: “Raise your brain’s threshold of response to the body’s danger signals” (6). In essence teach the brain to endure and survive: “I’ve done this before; I can do it again” (16). He advocates working through mental blocks just as much as physical ones and then he backs the ideas up with scientific data and metaphor, and in part, these ideas are very helpful, especially if understand the basic premises of training and the physiology behind said processes.

Outside of core and scientific explanations, Fitzgerald breaks into the standard fare. He targets training by pace, using current fitness as a barometer for your targeted paces. In this case, he uses TPL levels in lieu of the Jack Daniels VDOT charts, but both of these methods have comparable if not overlapping numbers. He provides sample plans, based on time, distance, and pace but in this case he provides an emphasis on neural feedback as well. He maintains a focus on constant tinkering, refinement, and efficiency “use the material of the run experience” and control the “feedback loops” as a focus on proprioception to improves both form and ability (6, 12). The more feedback you include, the more you tinker, the more neural control. Improve your overall abilities and focus on how “training increases the number of motor units that your brain is able to access and use to contribute to running” (42).

That said, the book is a fine compliment to any runner’s bookshelf, especially if they want to explore new options. These options cemented much of my research, back up many of the clinics I have attended, and in the end his suggestions of working on a less rigid training philosophy were already in practice in my book, for a combination of scientific wherewithal and emotive understanding is needed to find success in any and all sport.