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Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 14, 2015
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“A mash note to physical endurance. . . . McDougall redefines the heroic ideal, establishing heroism as a skill set rather than a virtue. . . . [And] schools the reader in the art of the champion. . . . The essential narrative here, the twisty tale of a kidnapping that incredibly goes right, is exciting. It is balanced out with the journalistic account of McDougall’s entry into the world of the hero. His personal quest to ‘rewild the psyche’ might seem an awkward fit with war storytelling. But under McDougall’s sure hand the combination improbably works. Kind of like kidnapping a German general on an island swarming with Nazi troops.” —NPR Books
“A heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life. . . . [McDougall] constructs a fascinating edifice of ideas . . . and eventually finds a modern-day hero of his own. But the pleasures of the book are as much to do with the fascinating panoply of characters, war heroes all, British, Commonwealth and Cretan, whose exploits contributed so much to Hitler's downfall.” —The Independent (London)
“In the thoroughly absorbing Natural Born Heroes, which tracks heroism from the times of Zeus and Odysseus to the World War II bravery of a motley crew of fighters, Christopher McDougall makes it clear that . . . heroes, both ancient and modern, are not somehow supernaturally endowed after all. Indeed, they may come by their skills quite naturally. . . . His extensive knowledge of fitness training, nutrition and physiology winds artfully around a tale of superhuman resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Greek island of Crete. . . . [McDougall] solves this mystery with a witty eye for every detail, inspiring his own captive audience along the way.” — BookPage (The Top Pick of the Month: Nonfiction)
“Compelling . . . engaging . . . provocative . . . with inquiries into the nature of heroism. . . . True heroism, as the ancients understood, isn’t about strength or boldness or even courage. It’s about compassion.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Riveting. . . . A well-done recounting of a truly heroic episode of WWII. . . . In absorbing detail, McDougall describes how . . . ‘ordinary’ men who were far from stereotypically tough, battle-hardened warriors . . . trekked across tortuous mountain terrain while avoiding a massive German dragnet..” —Booklist
About the Author
Christopher McDougall is the author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. He began his career as an overseas correspondent for the Associated Press, covering wars in Rwanda and Angola. He now lives and writes (and runs, swims, climbs, and bear-crawls) among the Amish farms around his home in rural Pennsylvania.
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(1) I know little to nothing about nutrition, and shouldn't be trusted very much in regards to advice in that arena, but the book has steered me in a right direction in terms of changing the foods that make up my daily diet---what to limit, what to increase---and that (among other recommendations from actual trainers) has drastically improved not only my athletic performances, but I just simply feel healthier. Like McDougall suggests we all do, I'm just trying to get to a state of holistic health to where I can function like, well, a kid in a playground. To that end, his writings are incredibly thought-provoking and damn-near mindblowing.
(2) The unbelievable story of a bunch of rag-tag nobodies kidnapping a Nazi high-ranking officer already has my attention (and I'm sure McDougall is keenly aware of how cool this story is), and tale itself from beginning to end is as captivating as you might imagine. Great job of teasing it out.
Toward the latter parts of the book, I thought that some of the time-jumping (you switch between his present-day adventures, WWII, and sometimes somewhere in between) got confusing, and it made me do some re-reading in case I glossed over some important points. Not a deal-breaker for me, but thought you should know.
In the end, I think that this book has a TON of information about eating/fueling/exercising in a notably different way than I'm used to, but it is also bursting at the seams with little asides for subjects that could have their own book of this size or even greater (Crossfit movement, why humans were so successful at hunting, heart rate training, performing athletically under said proper heart rate, extracting essential foods from your local surroundings, etc.). I would heartily suggest that you read this and use it as a springboard to other subjects within that interest you. McDougall's book has set me on a course of heart rate training that I had been postponing for years, and I can say without question that I'm an improved athlete and a healthier person due to his research and experiences. Is this for everyone? Why, of course not. Each athlete has their own set of eccentricities and particular things that their body responds positively to, and I would humbly ask that you take that into account if you execute anything within here.
Remember: even if you hate exercise, it's got one hell of a WWII story, so there's that.
One such story is the battle for Crete. And that story, fantastic as it is, serves as the backbone of Christopher McDougall’s latest book, Natural Born Heroes.
McDougal came to fame as an author with the success of his first book, Born To Run, which told the story of an obscure, hidden indigenous tribe somewhere in the wilds of Mexico that produces men who are able to run unbelievable distances at unbelievable speeds – without shoes. Like that book, Natural Born Heroes is also concerned with local, untrained men who are able to accomplish almost unbelievable physical feats.
I would describe this book as layered. It’s not strictly chronological. It weaves back and forth between the main story – the capture of a German General during the occupation of Crete during World War II – and stories about Greek culture and the daily lives of the type of men who carried off this breathtaking capture and escape. The book is filled with stories about the various kinds of physical and dietary regimens being discovered and practiced today that mimic or approximate the native lifestyle of the hardy Cretan. He writes about Parkour, primal eating and various kinds of self-defense systems.
I read a lot of books, but it has been a long time since I enjoyed a book so thoroughly. I found myself making time in my days to get back to it and looking forward to the hours set aside for it. The story of the battle of Crete is enough, in and of itself, to rivet one’s attention. As the book tells us, when Hitler’s Chief of Staff was being tried for war crimes, he blamed the loss of the war not on the resolve of the British or the entry of the Americans intro the European theater but on the dogged resistance of the Cretan citizenry whose efforts stymied the German plan for immediate subjugation. Hitler had planned to move his armies to the Russian front in the spring and defeat the Russians in battle there before the terrible winter set in and his troops be caught in ice and snow.
But the Greeks gave him more trouble than he ever imagined. In fact, it took longer for Germany to establish its command on the tiny island of Crete than it did for them to conquer France. Because of the resistance of the Cretans, Hitler was not able to move his armies to the Russian front in a timely way and because of that they did get mired in the awful Russian winter and because of that they lost on the Russian front and, according at least to Hitler’s number one man, because of that , they lost the war.
That is saying a mouthful: that the freedom that the world has enjoyed for the last seventy years or so is due in large part to the pranks and hardheadedness of a local citizenry that prevailed against incredible odds.
But the other stuff is great, too. The forays back into the ancient history of Greece and Crete. The stories of King Minas and the Minotaur. The stories of Aristotle and Plato. The stories of Troy and Sparta; of Odysseus and Achilles and Ajax.
McDougal has been criticized elsewhere for filling the book up with stories that are unrelated to each other. I disagree with that criticism. Even if the ancient myths and the character of the men who participated in the resistance in 20th century Crete are separated by millennia, it all makes sense to me. The past does matter and it does affect the character of a place and its inhabitants.
The stories of modern day exercise and diet, even if not precisely the same as that of the Cretans, is nonetheless dramatic and informative. We ought to be stronger and more healthy than we are and this book is a kind of expose for why we aren’t and what we might do to improve our lot.
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