Monday, August 17, 2015

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall

What do the following have in common?

·         LeBron James
·         Brazil
·         Arthur Evans
·         Patrick Leigh Fermor
·         Tom Myers
·         Fairbairn & Sykes
·         Shanghai
·         Pankration (Greek)
·         George Hebert
·         Norina Bentzel
·         Xan Fielding
·         The Minotaur
·         Wing Chun
·         Steve Maxwell
·         The Arizona desert
·         John Pendleberry
·         a glass eye
·         Fritz Schubert, a/k/a “the Turk”
·         Erwan Le Corre
·         Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller
·         Dr. Phil Maffetone
·         Dwight Howard
·         William Banting
·         Hitler
·         Churchill
·         Crete

If you had a difficult time discerning connections, don’t feel badly about it (although the last three items provide a strong indication of one topic). These topics—among dozens of other possible examples—are tied together in the two books written by Chris McDougall as one book: Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance (2015). In this book, McDougall examines the German invasion and subsequent resistance movement on Crete during WWII. British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents aided the Cretans during the occupation. These tales provide the central core of the book. Around this central core—fascinating and cinematic in its own right--McDougall constructs a second book about human performance from ancient Minoan culture to contemporary Parkour. In lesser hands this could have resulted in a mess, but as McDougall displayed in another favorite book of mine, Born to Run, he can weave and integrate stories as a master. The end result is a delightfully fun and entertaining book. 
Christopher McDougall. Notice the bare feet

The story of the invasion of Crete and the Cretan resistance probably isn’t well known among Americans, but it includes some incredible tales. Certainly the most astonishing feat—anywhere—involved successfully kidnapping a German general. The heist was conducted by British agents, led by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Cretan resistance-fighters (and a largely sympathetic populace). Some may recognize Fermor as among the best English prose stylists of the 20th century. His books include an account of his walk across Europe starting in 1933 (as a teenager) as well as accounts of Greece, monastic life, and the Caribbean. But one topic that he did not write at length about (other than in official reports) was his part in successfully kidnapping the German general and getting the general off the island of Crete to Egypt. (If you think that this begs for a movie, it spawned one long ago: “Ill Met ByMoonlight” (or “Night Ambush”), starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor. Bogarde, by the way, was a dashing British film star of his era. Billy Moss, one of Fermor’s accomplices in the exploit, wrote the book.)

The film version with Bogarde as Fermor

The actual kidnappers of General Kreipe: Georgios Tyrakis, William Stanley Moss, Leigh Fermor, Emmanouil Paterakis and Antonios Papaleonidas

 But McDougall wanted to write a book about human performance, also. And so in recounting this tale of adventure—with lots of James Bond-like suave from the Brits—he also dives into the issue of how these men, Cretans and Britons, could have mastered such as harsh terrain while eluding capture by the forces of “The Butcher”, the other German general on the island. This tale of extraordinary human performance allows McDougall to tell about Brits learning to survive in the harsh Shanghai underworld of the early 20th century; about how the Frenchman George Hebert developed and trained people to survive and thrive using nature as a training ground; about how Erwan Le Corre resurrected Hebert’s genius and brought it into the 21st century; about how Tom Myers revealed that the fascia (connective tissue) provides the architecture and elastic energy that powers the human body; and about how Parkour demonstrates practical application of Myers’s insights about the elastic energy of the fascia. McDougall also hunted down the reclusive Phil Maffetone to learn about how he revolutionized diet and training techniques for distance runners like Stu Mittleman along lines that Paleo/Primal adherents will recognize as kindred thinking. And McDougall relates how distance running guru Dr. Timothy Noakes, the high priest of high-carb for distance runners, underwent a conversion of Pauline-like intensity to embrace a low-carb, high-fat “Banting” diet. (“I was quite wrong. Sorry, everyone.”) 

I could go on at great length about this book because it contains so many different angles, so many intriguing side-stories. But I will stop here to and sum it all up by saying that I found the book great fun. It provided well-told stories about fascinating stuff (WWII history and human performance are among my favorite topics), but even if you don’t’ share my predilections, I believe that most readers would enjoy this book. 

Side note: Because I didn’t read Born to Run but listened to it twice, I decide to listen to Natural Born Heroes. Alas, the listening experience was not as good. Mostly because the reader attempted—rather poorly—too many accents: British, Greek, American, French, and so on. He mastered none. Perhaps you’d have to get Meryl Streep or resurrect Olivier to do it right. In addition, because there was so much information, so much learning, I bought the book for my Kindle for my second and later readings.

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