Tag Archives: book review

Terrible Reviews: Everything is F*cked


I picked up Mark Manson’s latest offering, Everything is F*cked, at my local library on the New Releases rack. Readers of the blarg will know that I love profanity, especially when it pops up in places it doesn’t belong (like a book title!). So I was intrigued. Of course, I also quickly realized that this is the same Mark Manson who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a book whose title also pleased me mightily but which I never bothered reading because I figured — I’ve kinda got that covered. I’m notorious — and it drives my wife nuts — for not caring about what other people think, for giving the metaphorical finger to social niceties, for just putting my head down and minding my own business. But after reading Everything is F*cked, I’m rethinking my decision not to read The Subtle Art, if for no other reason than that I want to hear more of what Mark Manson has to say, on virtually any topic.

Anyway, I got the book and immediately began my campaign of defacement of public property, i.e. dog-earing the hell out of this book. Almost every page featured a passage or two that made me sit bolt-upright, the gremlin in my brain shouting “YES” at the top of its lungs, so this book took a beating. A loving, well-meaning beating (Dog-earing books shows them you care!), but a beating nonetheless.

Because I loved this book. I loved it so much that I had to read it slowly, digesting its insights and offerings over time, like the Sarlacc devouring its victims over thousands of years.

The thrust of the book is that Life is Pain, and the better we can understand and embrace that fact, the better off we will be.

Image result for life is pain gif

While this isn’t particularly surprising news for an atheist at least passingly acquainted with cosmology and the physics of the universe, it does rather put things into perspective.

Rather than try to review the entire book, I’m just going to provide some quotes from its pages, for your own edification and mine.

The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion. That’s because action is emotion. (33)

Much of the first part of the book is given over to the dichotomy of Thinking Brain / Feeling Brain, and how we think that we live our lives with the Thinking Brain behind the wheel, but we really don’t — the Feeling Brain is always driving. Anyway — this quote in particular is relevant to me because this is a concept I’ve attempted to communicate to my Acting students, if never in such succinct language. So I’m gonna be assimilating this quote for future use.

… silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good. (37)

I don’t have a whole lot to add here, except to say that this phenomenon is probably responsible for a lot of the tribal behavior we see these days. You know. Politically. And so on. Ahem.

The pain may get better, it may change shape, it may be less catastrophic each time. But it will always be there. It’s part of us.

It is us. (106)

If the first half of the book is an examination of how our brain deceives us, the second half of the book is an exploration of the thing that drives us — which is pain, and more to the point, an avoidance of pain. We’ve sort of become slaves to the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, that pain is this thing that crops up from time to time, but with the right outlooks and attitudes, we can avoid it or fend it off completely. Nonsense. We are defined and created by our pain, in the same way that the application of fire and heavy blows from a steel hammer create a sword.

Children are the kings and queens of antifragility, the masters of pain. It is we who are afraid. (230)

Antifragility is this concept Manson deals with a bunch in the final quarter of the book: in a nutshell, stress makes an antifragile thing (person, structure, idea) stronger. And because most of us try to hide from pain, our bodies and minds lose this quality. But kids, who haven’t yet been beaten down by the world, don’t know enough to hide from pain, so they run towards it — and this has the paradoxical effect of making them stronger.

The book is a fascinating read, and for a guy who has been sort of wracked by anxiety over the past year or so, it was an empowering and enlightening read.

It also gave me the best summation of my feelings as a writer that I have ever read:

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Terrible Reviews: Otherworld


Here’s a book with a concept you’ve heard before: *a video game that’s realer than real life.* Do Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller freshen it up or drag its corpse behind the jalopy for a few cheap miles? Let’s find out!

Otherworld (Otherworld, #1)

Summary:

We’ve got this immersive VR world created by a shadowy company literally called “The Company” (which is an attempt at a joke every bit as disappointing as it seems) and piloted by this Elon Musk-ish figure. Owing to recent advances in technology, the game — which was failing monetarily — is rebranded and re-opened as a virtual reality world-substitute — an “other world,” GET IT? — for people suffering from disabilities who are otherwise unable to function in the real world. Of course, to open such a venture on the large stage requires lots of beta testing, and since living, breathing human test subjects are difficult to come by and legally problematic (the technology might-or-might-not kill people in the real world when their avatars die in the game world), The Company opts to make its own human subjects by staging accidents that send hapless victims into comas, and then administering chemical cocktails to keep them locked-in.

(If that sounds a bit mustache-twirling and far-fetched, well, just buckle in.)

The novel centers on Simon, a protagonist you’re going to hate, but not, I think, in that love-to-hate-them way. (More on that in a moment.) He’s enchanted with the idea of the Otherworld game but becomes obsessed with it when his kind-of-but-not-really girlfriend, Kat, becomes one of The Company’s victims and finds herself trapped in the game. His quest to save her and blow the lid off The Company’s secrets leads him through the immense and twisted Otherworld.

Critique (not exactly constructive):

I’ll keep my spoilers vague, since this book is fairly new, but much like my other recent read (Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties), the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is: meh. Otherworld is a softer take on The Matrix, a harder take on Tron, and it wants to be a gamer-geek’s take on The Hunger Games. The setup is fine, the premise is good; it just never seems to deliver in any satisfying way.

The biggest problem: the characters are a let down. The protagonist, Simon, is a jerk of the highest order. Not a jerk that you love to hate, a la House or Frank Underwood or Loki, but a jerk who you really wish would just go away. He’s rude to absolutely everybody he encounters in the real world with the exception of Kat, the girl who makes the mistake of giving him some attention (naturally, he’s completely in love with her). And there’s no good explanation for this ball of hate rolling around in his guts; he’s the child of fabulously wealthy parents whose only complaint is that his parents don’t pay attention to him. So he goes out sunbathing on his lawn in the nude to make his neighbors angry, knowing they’ll call his mother at work (…really?) to kick up a fuss. The authors want him to be an anti-hero, but he’s really just an a-hole.

His love interest, Kat, seems at first like this tough, troubled girl — you know, that elusive Strong Female Character type — but after the first third of the book, she’s relegated to the damsel in distress. Simon chases her into Otherworld, but there she’s just a mirage; always just out of reach, just out of sight. Further, upon reflection, I’m not sure we see a genuine interaction between her and another character in the book. She hangs around with some people Simon hates (yeah, I know, that narrows it down exactly zero) and seems like she might be dating some deadbeat (when she could have Simon, the … not deadbeat?), but don’t worry — she’s playing a long con, and they spend the final fifth of the book kissing every chance they get. Often when it’s totally inappropriate. (It’s gross.)

Their love story, by the way, is as ludicrous as you could hope. Never mind the ridiculous flippance and disdain Simon flings at everybody else he meets or the fact that Simon tells us, again and again, that he’d destroy all of Otherworld and everybody (real people, too!) living in it for her. They’re literally driven apart by an evil stepfather. I just … yeah. I’m moving on.

The continuity is suspect. Simon and his crew flit from one locale to another with no explanation of how they did it or how long it took. Sure, they’re in a video game so the rules could be bent, but there’s also very much the sense of — much like your average video game — okay, here’s the ice level, here’s the desert level, here’s the jungle level. At one point, Simon gets whipped away from his companions and beamed, Star Trek-style, to the other side of the world to die. But before long, one of his companions finds him. How? Don’t ask, she just does; and just in time to save him from certain death, besides. How fortuitous!

And of course, there’s the issue that most of the book takes place in the game world. Well, what about your body in the real world? To its credit, the book deals with this issue on the one hand — every time our hero wakes up in the real world, he finds he’s soiled himself and he’s starving. (Somebody in the real world even gives him diapers to help himself with this problem, which is actually pretty funny. But because he’s a class-A jerk, he doesn’t bother using them so that he can deliberately run around smelling of urine and feces.) But at the same time, he is somehow able to dip in and out of the game for days at a time, and his physical body is never found, never disturbed. This beggars belief.

Then, there’s the ending. Without spoiling it, the ending is a non-ending; a straight cliffhanger leading into the next book (as yet unreleased). Not a resolution to the conflicts opened by this book, but a continuation of them. Wholly unsatisfying.

Finally, I don’t know who the book is really aimed at. The premise and execution have a decidedly YA flair to them — Simon is of high school age, after all, going on a grand (virtual) adventure so save the (virtual) world. But the tone of the book is not at all YA. The main character’s thoughts and speech are littered with profanity, and it’s regularly intimated (and here and there outright stated) that Otherworld is a haven for orgies and all manner of devilish perversions. Not that I have a problem with that stuff, but I’m not sure a YA novel is the right place for it.

Verdict:

So — is the book any good? Well, despite my laundry list of complaints, I didn’t hate it. To be fair, I don’t think I liked it all that much, though it did tickle my geek-bone well enough to keep me turning the pages. And this concept alone is entertaining enough to me that I’m willing to dip my toes in just about any waters that explore the idea. The novel does try to explore some themes about the dark side of human nature. But it’s a bit like tossing frogs into boiling water rather than trying to cook them properly. There’s no wading in, there’s no gradual transition; we just find ourselves in the midst of cannibals and gladiators. The end result is less “oh, wow, that’s deep” and more “what the hell am I reading?”

Still, I can’t help feeling like *Otherworld* is trying to ride on the coattails of some other recent successes *cough Ready Player One cough* rather than trying to forge its own way. It’s a decent enough bit of escapist literature (and goodness knows we need that these days), but that’s about all it is.

The verdict: Two out of five smelly, peed-in pants legs.


Terrible Reviews: Sleeping Beauties


Here’s a novel that’s the literary equivalent of a totally rebuilt, souped-up, cherry red vintage Mustang that stays locked up in the garage, never to be driven. This is Cameron Frye’s dad’s car, slaved over, worshipped, revered, and eventually driven backwards through a plate glass window. It’s Thelma and Louise leading the entire police squad on a mad chase right up to the edge of the ravine, then stomping on the brakes, turning around, and going home — and the cops let them go.

I loved this book and hated it. To clarify, I wanted to hate this book, but couldn’t stop loving it; I wanted to love this book, but I couldn’t stop hating it.

Feck. Let’s get to it.

As with all Terrible Reviews, spoilers ahead.

SK

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King, is the story of a parallel reality in which women start falling asleep. Once asleep, they become cocooned and unresponsive, and if awakened, they become (to quote the book’s excellent inside flap) feral and spectacularly violent. While they sleep, the women travel to another world unsullied by men.

Sounds freakin’ awesome, right? Social commentary! Gender issues! Horror!

So, as more and more of the world’s female population falls asleep, an otherworldly woman — who sleeps and wakes as usual but who has a habit of levitating above her mattress — appears in a small town in rural Appalachia. She (her name is Eve, *wink wink nudge nudge*) kills some meth-heads and allows herself to be taken into custody, and as word of her ability spreads, tension spreads and before long, a battle for the future of womankind breaks out.

Holy sharknado! I can’t wait to read this book!

That’s the setup. And it’s bloody fantastic. But then, once the pieces are all strategically positioned across the board, everybody — and I do mean everybody, from the characters themselves to the authors behind them — loses their nerve. The men, fighting each other with literal rocket launchers, stop short of their goal of killing Eve. The women, faced with the prospect of an idyllic world free of the strife that men bring (translation: ALL of the strife) decide nope, actually, we’ll go back to the world we had. And the god (demigod? Trickster spirit? Psychic rando?) sent to witness the whole thing gives up her quest and goes home with her tail between her legs.

Did I mention it’s 700 pages. Which is about 400 pages more than it needs to be.

*gesticulates wildly*

*attempts to tear hair out*

*has no hair*

*gibbers and dances into the yard*

The Good

The concept. It’s drool-worthy; just reading the inside flap was enough to get me to leave off the other book I was reading (and enjoying!) to pick this one up. And the book itself doesn’t disappoint — there’s great characters from start to finish. Thrilling action sequences. Stomach-turning gore (this is King, after all). Despite all my frustrations with the novel, I couldn’t stop reading it; I churned through all 700 pages of it in just two weeks. Unheard of for me lately. I was reaching for the novel while cooking, during commercial breaks in This is Us, staying up way past bedtime to read just a few more pages.

The characters are deep and well-developed and flawed and rich. They fight for the things that matter to them, they have agency, and they drive the plot. (They just drive it at forty miles per hour when they should be at interstate speeds.)

In short, the writing is spectacular. (Again, this is King.) The prose is lovely and crisp, and the tension has this inevitable build that’s hard to do well. (The problem is what it’s building to, which is a giant pile of meh. Which brings us to…)

The Bad

I can’t say that what I would want for any reader of any book I might write is for that reader to reach the end of said book, close the cover, and think, well, that was a waste of time. But I can’t help feeling exactly that about Sleeping Beauties. To wit: the novel ends basically the way it began. There is no great change in the world, no great revelations on the part of the characters, no great payoff to the supernatural plot that’s driving the whole story. The only difference between the world at the start of the story and the end of the story is that there are a lot of buildings on fire and a whole bunch of dead people. And some of the men have vowed to be nicer to their wives. (But the book is sure to undercut even that, pointing out how abusers make these promises all the time, go to therapy for a few months, and then go back to their old ways.)

The problem with the ending is not only that it’s anticlimactic (though it’s most assuredly that. Which is fine. The real world is most often anticlimactic, but one would argue, if you’re reading a Stephen King novel, you’re not reading it for a bath in the soothing waters of the real world). The problem is I don’t buy it. (Here, again, your spoiler warning. Bridge is out ahead.) The Kings spend a lot of words setting up what feels like an inevitable conflict at the end of the novel — this book is 700 pages, to reiterate — and in the last fifty pages, all that conflict just melts away like a sad Atlanta snowflake:

  • The men, who have just mowed down handfuls of people in a shootout at a prison trying to get to the (supposed) progenitor of the curse, come face-to-face with said progenitor. They literally have her at the point of a rifle, undefended. And they lose their nerve when she puts on a display of her supernatural power. Which is great, except that they already thought she was supernatural, given that she caused the curse. But they throw down their guns and let her walk.
  • The women, who, having fallen asleep in the real world, wake up in an alternate universe without men, are faced with a choice immortalized by The Clash: should we stay or should we go? Catch is, their decision must be unanimous. (Why must they be unanimous? Because go Fargo yourself for asking, the authors seem to say say — but more on that in a minute.) Their new world is near perfect. They learn quickly that babies can be born there just fine (though one wonders, if a baby is born in the alternate universe, is it also born in the real world? Women who die in the real world vanish from the alternate world, but the book is mum on this), so there’s no problem with living there forever. They miss their husbands and fathers and sons, but they almost all agree that the new place is better in practically every way. So when they have to make their choice, of course they vote to stay. Except they don’t. Somehow they unanimously agree to go back to the crapsack world they knew, with the justification that “she missed her husband too much” or “the new world was too good to be true” or “a sense of duty.” And, yeah, okay, fine. I can see that for some. Maybe even most. One theory the novel posits, after all, is that women are the glue that keeps this ramshackle world from going to pieces to begin with. But for every single woman? Not a chance. Nope, sorry, not buying it, especially when the authors go out of their way to craft characters who Definitely Do Not Need Men In Their Lives. But no, they give up actual paradise for a world that’s literally on fire.
  • Eve’s entire arc isn’t a bad thing, per se, but rather a confusing thing. We’ll come back to her…

But really, the root of the problem is that the book is 700 pages long, and it should really be half that, if that. There are too many characters to keep track of. (When the book actually has a list of the characters in the front pages to help you keep them straight — and that list is longer than a single page — there are too many characters. When you have the thought, while reading: “maybe I should take notes,” there are too many characters. When you’re introducing brand-new, never-previously-spoken-of characters on page 530 of a 700 page book, there are too many characters.) And because there are too many characters, entirely too many of the book’s too-many-to-begin-with pages are given over to backstory for those characters. I just don’t have the time!*

The WTF

A lot could be said here, so rather than deep dives, I’m gonna scattershot it.

First of all, Eve:

  • What is she, even? She’s clearly supernatural. She wanders around naked and speaks in riddles and nonsense and occasionally sprouts vines and leaves or turns green. Other characters call her “goddess” and “witch” but she never identifies herself.
  • What is she doing? She claims to be a “witness” and claims to have been “sent” to Dooling. But sent by whom? We never get even a whiff of a hint. And for a “witness,” she does a lot of interfering. Is she responsible for the strange events? We never find out.

Then, the “disease” itself. The cocoons are awesome, but what is their source? Is it a sickness? A mass-hysteria event? A parasite or insect infestation? Again, the answer to these questions seems to be “Fargo you for asking,” because we never know, and never get close to knowing. The cocoons burn with an odd spherical flame that, when it goes out, becomes moths but the farthest we go down that rabbit hole is a plastic surgeon saying “well, that’s obviously supernatural,” and never speaking of it again.

These weird moths hang around a lot, and Eve uses them as eyes or something, but that particular point is never fleshed out beyond being weird and slightly creepy.

And, not to go all lit teacher, but … what’s the theme of this thing? Empowerment of women, maybe? Yeah, there are great female characters here, but the most powerful one of all — Eve — just flounces around and then FedExes herself back to heaven or whatever when things don’t go her way. And yeah, the women found their own Utopian society, but then they give it up under a pretty dubious pretense. That men are pigs? There are all sorts of jerko men running around doing jerko things, but for a novel called Sleeping Beauties to be focused on the men (And I’m just gonna ballpark it and say that no less than half of the book is about men rather than women) feels like a bait-and-switch. That the human race is doomed to mundanity even in the face of truly miraculous events? Well, maybe, but then, also, why a story this long and involved to boil down to such a cynical premise?

The Verdict

I just don’t know what to make of Sleeping Beauties.*

The characters are great, but there are too many of them.

The concept is out of this world, but it fizzles out like a dud firecracker.

The writing is lovely, but again, there’s 700 pages of it, which is kind of like eating nothing but whipped cream for weeks.

To compare it to another King work, it’s very like The Stand: strange disease wipes out most of the people on earth, survivors have to rebuild society and war with each other as they do so. Less nuclear threat and religious overtones here, but the same general concept. The Stand is even longer, but it’s also significantly better, and I don’t really know how to square that except to guess that maybe Owen King isn’t quite the writer his father is, and he’s muddying the waters here.

All that said, here’s the footnote:

*Despite this, I devoured the book like a starving man in a cake factory.

Could I recommend it? That’s a tough one.

Looking back from the end, it’s far from the best thing I’ve read, or even the best thing I’ve read in recent history. If you want a post-apocalyptic story like this, King has better works on offer. On the other hand, while I was in it, I couldn’t put the story down, despite my mounting frustrations with it. And that, that unputdownableness, has to go for something, and a pretty significant something at that.

I just keep waffling.

So for all that waffling, I guess I have to give this one two and a half out of five overcooked waffles drowning in syrup.

Actually, make that a full three. Because it’s good to be King.


Terrible Reviews: End of Watch


I’ve just finished Stephen King’s End of Watch, the final installment of his Mr. Mercedes series. And I want to say I enjoyed it. Well — I did enjoy it, but I’m also really, really confused and kinda disappointed by it.

Spoilers below, but the novel is like two years old, so… you know …

The entire premise of the novel is a head-scratcher — Brady Hartsfield, the psycho killer from the first novel, has woken up from his coma with psychic abilities thanks to experimental drugs administered by a fame-chasing doctor. (That’s the One Big Lie — if you can swallow that, the book is fine!) Now, he’s reaching out through mind-control to induce suicide on a massive scale.

Which … okay. It’s a fascinating idea. And a horrific one. It’s a great idea for a Stephen King novel, in fact. Problem is — there hasn’t been a speck of the supernatural at work in either of the first two novels in the series. And all of a sudden, the big bad can do incredible things with his mind and a little game boy device and — everybody in the story just buys it. They just do!

It’s just a bizarre turn in a series that didn’t need a woo-woo bent. What was King thinking?

And the end is an absolute bummer. Hodges, the lovable grouch, succumbs — not to the attacks leveled by Brady, but to the cruel whim of cancer. And not moments after securing the dispatch of the big bad, but several months later. With no fanfare. He dies “off camera”, as it were, with King showing us an upbeat Hodges at his birthday party in the treatment center, upbeat and fighting, and then cutting to almost a year later at his funeral.

Again — wtf?

It may be true-to-life, and maybe that’s the point — but crikey. We read detective novels not to live in the real world of mundane (if horrible) cancer deaths, but to live vicariously by the seat of our pants. I’d have been happier if Hodges and Hartsfield managed to off each other in the end, or even if Hodges succumbed a few days or weeks later. But months? He finishes the baddie and looks ready to give cancer a run — but nope, surprise, he’s dead anyway?

Mr. Mercedes is a detective story — the finding of clues, the glimpses into the mind of a psycho, the inevitable pursuit and capture. King is great at those things, and all three novels tell a great detective story. But this final chapter is just laden with so much else.

Again, it’s not a problem with the content. I don’t mind the story of an aging protagonist struggling with cancer. I don’t mind the concept of a murderer using mind control to commit his crimes. In fact, that’s kind of awesome! But you can’t shoehorn those things into an established story world just for sharknados and giggles.

I whole-heartedly recommend Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the series. As for the later installations?

What was he thinking?

Verdict: Two and a half out of five daisies pushing through the fresh-tilled earth.

This terrible review is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.


Terrible Reviews: Natural Born Heroes


I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of Christopher McDougall.

I can’t say he’s the most artful of writers, but he spins a good yarn, and he has a way of taking subjects that could easily get very preachy, and packages them in a straightforward, simplistic, trust-your-gut kind of way that makes it all very believable.

McDougall is better known as the author of the incredibly popular Born to Run, which would most certainly crack my top five non-fiction books (not that I’ve actually made that list in my head or anything) and might crack my top five books period. When I saw he had a new book out that attempted to give mountain climbing, street fighting, parkour and other natural feats of strength the same treatment that he gave to distance running in Born to Run, I was sold immediately.

Natural Born Heroes is kind of two books in one. It’s the tale of a daring feat of espionage during World War II on the island of Crete, but it’s also a treatise on diet, exercise, and the virtually immeasurable limits of human strength and endurance. The author himself acknowledges in his notes that these two ideas have sort of been smashed together and run through the blender. While exploring the two ideas separately, he realized that there was quite a bit of overlap, and so: one book.

I liked it, but I think I might have liked it better if I hadn’t read Born to Run first. And maybe that’s my fault; it’s not entirely fair to judge a book based on other books, but in this case, it’s hard not to.

Let’s get down to some word salad (see, because in this book and in Born to Run, McDougall makes a big deal out of all the salad he eats):

The Good:

So, this book is two concepts, right? Those two concepts are excellent, and treated excellently.

I’m not much of a history guy, but the story of the kidnapping of a German general during World War II is fascinating. The tale is audacious from its inception, harrowing in its execution, and compelling from start to finish. Some of the characters bleed together a little bit (there are so bloody many of them, I felt overwhelmed at times), but on the whole the narrative portion of the book is cogent and satisfying.

Then the health and fitness part: this stuff is outstanding. I’m a little biased in this regard. In my recent stabs at fitness (in fact, let’s call them less stabs and more fumbling for light switches in a dark hotel room) I’ve come independently to many of the same conclusions that McDougall makes in this book. To wit: gyms are a waste of time, and natural, functional exercises and movements are not only more efficient but actually make you stronger and more useful in the world. (Think zombie apocalypse. Who do you want in your crew: the musclebound dudebro who can squat 500 lbs and squish your skull with his biceps, or the wiry guy who can scale walls, run for an hour at a decent clip, and deliver a knockout punch with little or no warning? On second thought, maybe you don’t want that guy; if things go sideways, he’d sucker-punch you and leave you as bait.) Further: Most diets are a load of hot garbage. Calorie counting and low-fat foods and all that are for the birds. Eat more vegetables. Eat protein. Stay away from processed sugars and carbs. Profit.

Person, Silhouette, Jump, Male, Young, Sky, Sunset, Joy

In short (too late!) the creamy center of the book is exactly as advertised, and it makes for really compelling reading (I highlighted and dog-eared the heck out of the book so I can go back through it and look up a bunch of the fitness concepts). It sent me scurrying to youtube more than once to look up things either directly or indirectly referenced by the books (like this and this, for example), which made for a neat experience while reading.

The Not-so-Good:

As much as I liked the two foci of this book, I have to quibble. Rather unlike peanuts and nougat, the narrative and the fitness informational do not mesh well on the palate. It feels more like jalapenos and chocolate. (Yeah, I know people eat that crap, but they shouldn’t.)

Maybe it’s because there’s such a broad focus on the fitness concepts (first it’s boxing and pankration and Wing Chun, then it’s parkour and mountain climbing, then it’s fascia and elastic motion, then it’s foraging for herbs in Central Park), or maybe it’s because there are so many damned characters and threads in the WWII story (The story follows mainly Paddy and Xan, the guys at the heart of this abduction attempt, but is also awfully concerned with a veritable host of people who pop in for a chapter to dispense a bit of knowledge and then are never seen again), but the book left my head spinning. It became downright hard to read, sometimes, which is basically a death knell for a novel. It’s a shame, too, because individually the two halves of the book are so strong, but together, like overlapping radio waves, each one interferes with the other’s signal.

For my money, if these two concepts were two separate books, then each of those books would have been stronger in its own right than the swirled mishmash they’ve become in this book.

Yarn, Colors, Tangle, Thread

I have another quibble with the fitness portion of the book, which is that it’s a shotgun blast of information: it hits hard up close, but it dissipates quickly and becomes useless the farther you get from your target. (I have never fired a gun. Thanks, first-person-shooter video games!) I came into the book … expecting isn’t quite the word, because I try not to read with too many expectations … but hoping to learn a lot about natural movement and the merits, strengths, and methods of some of the techniques described within. And … those things are there, but it’s barely a skimming of the surface.

I know, I know; this isn’t an instructional text. But I feel like with so many of the things discussed in this book, all that I can really say I know about them is: they exist. McDougall spends a lot of time talking about the ancient Greek art of pankration, for example, but the only technique he describes in any detail is a heel-kick (the “THIS IS SPARTA” one from 300). Even there, he talks about the force it delivers, but says little about how it’s achieved and how much practice is required to master it.

And for all the book has to say about diet, there’s very little said about the things which would be reasonable to eat. It’s not unusual for books that talk about diet to have … I dunno, an appendix listing, at the very least, a few easy-to-make meals, or a sample shopping list or something? I guess I wanted that portion of the book to be a little more actionable, though again, I may have been wanting too much.

The WTF:

As if the two halves of the book weren’t enough, there’s a third story thrown in there, which is a framing device for the one and connective tissue for the other. That story joins McDougall in his quest to follow in the footsteps of the abductors, and it is in the following of that thread that he learns about these fighting arts, practices parkour, and tracks down a dietary swami.

Of course, none of this is linear — how could it be? — spanning, as it does, several years of research across no less than three continents. So the book jumps from a moment in the abduction to McDougall’s firsthand experience with a rabid historian to a treatise on how the jagged rocks of Crete forced the ancient warriors and goatherds to adapt the way they moved and then back to the abduction and … see, that right there? That dizzy feeling you’re getting? The book does this to you every fifteen pages or so, and it’s disorienting as hell.

Greek God, Zeus, Mythology, Sculpture, Statue, Myth

Then, amidst all of this historical fiction and apparently well-researched fitness credo, there’s a ton of allusion to Greek myth and legend, up to and including the recent bastardization of those myths vis-a-vis the Percy Jackson series of books (which are fine for what they are, but they’re hardly canon and don’t really deserve a place next to the proper myths of Theseus and Odysseus, for example). These moments seem misplaced and not helpful when they crop up. In fact, they seem like remnants from an earlier draft when they might have been a more central focus of the book, but like a vestigial tail, no longer serve any particularly useful function.

The Verdict:

The book was frustrating at times, and took me longer than a book of its length would usually take me for that reason, so it’s hard to give it good marks. For all the natural movement sections left me wanting more, however, those sections had me riveted and kept me coming back. In fact, the movement focus of the book was interesting enough to make me care about the historical portion of the book, which is saying something in my case (the last time I did any extracurricular reading about historical events, outside of awesome freak occurrences like Tunguska, was … let’s see … yeah, never). So that’s something.

If you read Born to Run and enjoyed it, you may well enjoy this, though it will probably not leave you quite as satisfied. Born to Run is a far superior offering in many respects. It is focused where this novel is scattered, it gives depth where this novel dips its toes in the water. Still, this ain’t bad.

I give it three out of five bare footprints in the sand.

Sand, Footprint, Water, Beach, Coast


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