Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Rating: Neutral

I wish I knew how to review this book. Frankly, I wish I had a consistent point of view about it.

On one hand, it was immensely irritating. There's no character development and no plot - to the extent that there is almost no action of any kind except walking. The characters have no names, and in fact there are no names anywhere in the book. Even worse, nothing here is ever explained. It's a post apocalyptic novel, but what caused the devastation is entirely unknown to the reader. From the perspective of the story, characters and setting, The Road is a complete bust.

And there are other things that irritated me. For some odd reason contractions that should end in "n't" (e.g. didn't) lack the apostrophe (e.g. didnt). Other uses of the apostrophe were normal. And dialog isn't quoted anywhere. Ever. Why does McCarthy change the rules of English usage in this book?

Beyond that there is the writing. It's simple and repetitive. Simple and repetitive. Really. Simple and repetitive. And irritating.

So there you have it. A lot of things about this book bugged me in various ways. I'd be tempted to give it a totally negative review and end it there, but...

On the other hand, there was something that kept me reading despite all of the above. At times it seemed The Road was more like poetry than prose, and that may have brought me back at points. (It was very easy to put this book down - even mid-sentence. But oddly I did come back to it.) The story is broken into bite sized bits - sometimes just a single sentence or two, sometimes a few paragraphs long. They're kind of like potato chips - reading just one is hard to do for some reason, even if you know it's not good for you.

In addition, that simple, repetitive style is related to the subject matter - walking a very long way in an inhospitable world. That may also have played on my subconscious and kept me interested when I should have gone off and done other things.

But just like someone who eats an entire bag of potato chips, I came away feeling unfulfilled. I learned nothing here - not about the characters or the people they meet, not about the world they inhabit, and not about anything else for that matter. I've read glowing reviews claiming the book shows off the wonderful bond of father and son. Nope. Some say the book discusses the human condition. I don't think so. As an exercise in story telling The Road is a failure. Maybe, as an exercise in prose poetry, it is a bit more interesting, but even then it's about 280 pages too long.

I'm not sure what McCarthy was trying to accomplish when he wrote this, and that is the clearest indication of the problem. I'm in the minority here, I know. Many others loved this book. I simply can't bring myself to that point. I've read a lot of post apocalyptic fiction over the years and this simply isn't that good.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Dangerous Book For Boys, Gonn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

Title: The Dangerous Book For Boys
Authors: Gonn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden
Rating: Lousy

For the second time in 2007 I am hugely unimpressed by a book that collected great gobs of praise in the press. This time around, it's The Dangerous Book For Boys that I can't stand.

If you've never heard of this book before I have to ask what rock you've been living under. I get very little media myself and I couldn't miss all the gushing press about this thing. But given what I heard - and despite all the praise - it didn't seem like my cup of tea, so I didn't buy one. But then I was given a copy by a friend and I correspondingly felt obliged to read it.

If you're really not familiar with it, the general idea is that boys today don't grow up with the same sort of experiences that the authors (at least) had, and that's bad. So they've written short bits of text - almost essays - on all kinds of subjects they think modern boys ought to know something about, bundled them up in a book, and set loose a PR machine somewhere.

Now my childhood wasn't all that limited. My dad did teach me a few things - particularly the way around a workshop - so I figured that even if I knew a lot what was in here I'd still enjoy the journey. And it started off promisingly enough with directions for folding the "best paper airplane in the world" and moving on to a description of the seven wonders of the ancient world. That ate up all of eight pages, and I thought it was going well.

Alas, there it starts to go off track, and it gets worse as it goes.

The next section is on how to tie five different knots. Sounds simple, right? And it should be, but the pictures are terrible, and trying to understand the knots from them is awful. I've seen much better descriptions elsewhere.

A few pages later we get the answer to the question "How do you tell the age of a tree?" The answer, and I quote the first sentence verbatim: "You cut it down and count the rings." Excuse me? Yes, technically this is accurate, but is that the right way to phrase it? Do we want boys randomly cutting down trees? Do we even want them thinking that doing so is acceptable in any case, just to determine the age of the tree? A small point, I admit, but it bugged me.

And it goes on and on. There are horrible errors here that an editor should have found and fixed. A simple example from a section about the Wright brothers: "In order to be able to fly with added weight from the engine, propellers, and reinforcements to the structure they had to increase the wingspan to more than 500 square feet, up from 165 square feet in the glider." Ahem. Wingspan is a linear measurement (of distance - specifically the distance from one wingtip to the other), not a measure of wing area. There are many misstatements like this scattered throughout the book.

But it gets worse. There is a section here on first aid, and in there it discusses CPR. The description is slipshod at best, so following it is problematic in any case, but the real problem is that it is just plain wrong. I know this. I am re-certified in CPR every quarter as part of my volunteer fire department training, and I assist at a Red Cross first aid class as well. No one teaches the initial thump on the chest with a fist anymore - that went out a long time ago - but it's still here in this book. That's just plain stupid. They should have done some (OK... a lot of) fact checking before publishing this. If the only first aid book you have is the one brief chapter in The Dangerous Book for Boys I sure don't want to be your patient. Just let me die in peace.

Other sections are basically pointless. The piece on pirates seems like it would be great for boys of a certain age, but it's entirely lacking any interesting content. An opportunity was missed there to tell both the good and the bad; instead nothing much was said at all. Another example: the book includes brief rules sets for both rugby and soccer, but don't try to use them. There's no overall description of the game, and the rules as written are almost unintelligible.

Finally there is the question of why they included some things in here. How many descriptions and diagrams of famous battles do boys really need? Why build a go cart without any kind of brake? And on and on and on.

In all, I question just about every aspect of this book. I don't think the authors included some things they should have, and they definitely included things they shouldn't have. I know they didn't fact check some entries, and that makes others suspect in my eyes. By the time I was two thirds of the way through it, I seriously considered setting is aside and never finishing it. It's that bad.

If you're the parent of a boy, you may find some things described in here are interesting and should be taught, but overall I can't imagine using this book as a resource for that process.