Saturday, May 18, 2013

Good intentions

Most often, when you see one person writing about another person's book, they're trying to tell you why you should or should not buy/read the book. Well, you already know what I think of should, and I'm not telling you you shouldn't buy, or like, Eric Greitens' The Heart and the Fist. I do, however, regret buying it. It was an Audible credit too, and those are precious to me. Still, it's an instructive regret.

Eric Greitens is, I am sure, an admirable human being. If you ever find yourself behind enemy lines, you'd want him to come and get you, all that Navy SEAL and boxing moxie. I'm sure he's perfectly good at what he does. Not altogether clear on what that is, these days, between the Navy and the non-profit, but the fault is in me, rather than the internet.

You see, I got a little disgusted. It is so far one of only two audiobooks ever that have irked me so profoundly that I cannot finish them. First of all, there's the reading. I know that there is a strange misunderstanding that says that authors make the best readers for their books. This clearly does not relate to reality very well; or rather, it only works if the author is, by some gracious accident, actually a good reader (hello Stephen Fry!) or knows better (Terry Pratchett maybe? His books always have the best readers). Many are fine, but unexciting (sorry Neil Gaiman. You are good at a great many others things, including, oddly enough, doing cameos in other people's audiobooks). Some are outright bad. Greitens has a cadence to his reading which may be a side effect of the unaccustomed adventure of being audio talent; to me, it is reminiscent of both JFK and, at times, William Shatner. The pauses! The emphasis! It may do well enough for a speech or an episode, worthy only of a gentle ribbing; but four hours in, I start to get more than a little antagonistic every time I hear him insert Capital for Extra Emphasis. It grates on the nerves, grates like cheese grates that I keep cutting myself with for some reason.

Let my hypothesize that I had bought the paperback instead. That is best. Would that be better? Well, it would. The voice in my head would be better. My real disappointment is not, alas, confined to the narration. That would be lovely, and easily remedied. The narration is not why I wanted to read this book.  I wanted to read it because I thought that it would be interesting to hear what someone who'd been trained as a Duke graduate and Rhodes scholar to be a critical thinker, and who wanted to help in the broadest sense, would give as his reasoning for giving up his individual power to decide to join the Navy. I really have a great respect for people who can be a part of such a non-individual, hierarchical effort and yet not lose their individuality or their capacity for critical thinking. I respect people who are willing to compromise and fight for a good cause imperfectly. One of the things I like best about Orwell is that he had the courage of his opinions and actually fought in a fight he believed in, even if "his" camp was disorganised and, to some extent, corrupt. I respect people who trust themselves to assess the situation and be able to know when the corruption/chaos outstrip the good being done. This is where Greitens really lets me down.

He isn't a great writer. That's not, in itself, so insurmountable; but it results in him using a lot of cliches. The book, the part of it I could bring myself to read, reads like a movie novelisation. The boxing, the tests of endurance, the high-minded yet ill-defined philosophy, it is all very Karate Kid. The dismissal of academia and a career as somehow not active enough is vague and unsatisfying. There is no reasoning that I could find, nothing tangible. The stints of volunteering abroad that he describes don't betray a deeper knowledge. Maybe he has that knowledge of Bosnia and its history, or of Colombia; I just don't see it in the book. I don't even necessarily want to fault him for not having that deeper knowledge, though I have many doubts about being a foreigner trying to help in a culture that he/she understands poorly; but that's the part I'm interested in. I want to know - why Bosnia? Why Rwanda? There is suffering in many places. Why pick this one?

What finally turned me away from this book was this: he writes about his Navy SEAL training. This is where I really want to hear about what it is like to be a thinker, a humanist, a humanitarian in a military machine. Instead, what I get is a pep talk about how incredibly hardy and select Navy SEALs are.

I knew that already.

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