The Third Aughhh

The Third WaveIt’s not my usual form to bag a book about volunteering, but The Third Wave irked me on levels I didn’t even know I had. This book was so goddamn bad I want my money back. And then some.

I ordered The Third Wave the moment I heard about it because, well, we all know that non-fiction tales of people tackling social and environmental issues is pretty much my main reading genre. The first inkling I had that something wasn’t quite right about this book came when I pulled it from the post bag it arrived in: the cover art looked, well, completely wrong.

It features a blonde woman (presumably the book’s author, Alison Thompson) front and centre (not among) people in a tent city. Apart from the fact that she’s too prominent, too clean, too angelic-like lit, that her leg/body positioning is odd, and that she has an eyebrow raised in a manner that’s both challenging and cocky, the image looks as though it’s been Photoshopped onto the background. Hmm, not quite what you’d expect from a modest volunteer’s tale, I thought. Then: Was she even at that tent city?

I’d have saved myself a lot of time and frustration if I’d simply judged the book by its cover. It hinted at—what I consider to be, at least—the complete lack of humility and abundance of arrogance contained within its pages. Maybe I got out on the wrong side of the bed. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. Maybe I just really, really got rubbed the wrong way by the tone of this book. I know this review is harsh—probably the harshest I’ve ever written—but hot damn, I hope never to meet Thompson in person because I just want to shake her.

Thompson is an Australian who’s long lived in New York. If I can make generalisations, she seems to have become more American than Americans and her I-did-all-these-incredible-things bluster is far too in your face. She admittedly had help from a ghostwriter and an editor, but this book’s tone is wrong, wrong, wrong. I hold all three of them plus the graphic designer wholly responsible.

The cover blurb casts Thompson as being a girl-next-door filmmaker who, after seeing the news of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, felt compelled to do something. Armed with just a few hundred dollars, she headed to Sri Lanka to see how she could help. Sounds wholesome and interesting, except that the book opens with Thompson racing into Ground Zero on rollerblades (cue eye rolls) just moments after the planes hit.

Huh?

The opening chapters catalogue her being, like, a total September 11 hero. Me? I catalogue her as being a cowboy. As someone who does a lot of volunteer work and who also was just over 12 months ago was flooded, I’ve encountered a lot of volunteers who do fantastic work. I’ve also encountered some adrenalin-junkie cowboys like Thompson who, it seems to me, thrive on the drama.

The thing is, Thompson’s not especially skilled in any area, but purports to be an expert in many. And it seems that she flits from disaster to disaster. If I had to sum it up, I’d say: There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’, but there’s a lot of ‘I’ in Thompson’s book.

Aughhh. She subtly, and not so subtly, she makes everything about her:

‘We came to an exposed area where I saw something strange lying in front of me. At first I didn’t recognise it. It was a human body with two feet sticking up in the air. Everyone took two steps backward as I walked over to it.’ Note the three ‘I’s’ when they should probably be ‘we’s’ and how she’s brave but no one else is.

She paints her Italian (now ex-) boyfriend as not being good at the volunteering malarky, then later skates over the fact that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You know, a small thing that might actually be big and that might explain some of his behaviour. She, on the other hand, is practically Florence Nightingale.

Oh, and she’s clearly attractive: ‘The clown changed his tone and began reciting a highly provocative love poem. It was clear that his painfully awkward performance was directed at me. He moved his lips around like a horse chewing hay and stared with wanton lust into my eyes.’

The one thing that made me laugh was that she wore—and repeatedly tells us she wore—Chanel No. 5 to mask the scent of the rotting corpses. Teehee. Something makes me think that Chanel might not be so appreciative of such brand association for their high-end, aspirational product.

It’s not that I don’t want Thompson to outline the good work she’s done—I do think she’s made a positive difference and that the story warrants telling. But I want it conveyed in a show-don’t-tell manner that allows me, as the reader, to decide that she’s done good work. The look-at-me tone immediately corralled me into a cynical, critical position of distrust: Really? I kept mentally scoffing. You achieved all that on your own?

That’s not a reaction I’ve ever had with any of the other books I’ve read and loved in this genre. Anyone who’s spent any time with me or read any of my blogs will know that I practically fall over myself to recommend such non-fiction, horror-but-hope masterpieces as Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures and The Good Soldiers.

Sigh. Sorry, but something about this book royally rubbed me the wrong way.

I’m not going to talk about how Thompson made a documentary by the same title as the book—that would seem like I’m giving it a plug. I’m also not going to talk about the fact that she’s now BFFs with Sean Penn. Which kind of leads me to the other random part of this book.

In the final third, serial-volunteer Thompson goes to Haiti. Which is, presumably, to what the front cover image refers but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—the section’s small and doesn’t demonstrate the book’s focus; it certainly doesn’t warrant being on the cover. Then again, maybe it does. The cover art wholly reflects the Thompson’s tone and tale: she is front and centre and in the limelight, everyone else is incidental and behind her, and there’s a sense of [insert disaster of choice here].

Aughhh.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.

5 thoughts on “The Third Aughhh”

  1. Best book review i have ever read. This book is now top of my NWIH (No Way In Hell) List.

    Seems like along with a whole lot of I in that book, there was also far far too much E (Ego)

    Well done.

  2. I liked the book and admired the author. I thought it was an inspirational story about how anyone can help, even in a huge crisis. If her storytelling wasn’t perfect, at least it felt like it was in her own words.

    Obviously not everyone shares my opinion!

  3. I met Alison in Haiti in April and then again in June 2010 after I volunteered to accompany an American MD; Dr Toni Bark on a medical relief rotation. When I met Alison, Sean and all the other volunteers it was immediately apparent that these people were there to help. They worked from early each morning until late each night, often with medical or security emergencies happening through out the night, additionally ( and this is impressive) they continue to do so on a rotational basis – even 2 years later. Can you even remember what you were doing two years ago? This book was written to inspire others to volunteer – pure and simple. The book reviewer is inaccurate in the one dimensional assessment of Alison…I wonder why you have to be some mean spirited about someone who is giving her life in the service of others? Alison is more Mother Teresa than adrenaline junkie, and it is a shame that this book reviewer can’t see past simple plain story telling of real events and see the beautiful heart that motivates Alison and many thousands of volunteers like her. Ask yourself this….would you volunteer to go for months without meaningful sleep? Rations for sporadic meals? clean up after people die? give birth,? hug a 14 year orphan, crying because she has nowhere to go with her 1 year old infant after her parents were both killed? Console the women raped in the camps that then seek emergency care for infections and other potentially life threatening crisis’? I witnessed Alison do most of these things, and she did it with compassion, an open heart and LOVE.

  4. Helen, my gripe with this book is that the tone is completely wrong. Alison is probably a lovely person, but somewhere along the writing and editing process, the book’s tone shifted into something that really, really rubs me the wrong way. I understand the area she’s working in—it’s an area I specialise in too via such events as the Homeless World Cup. It’s also an area that I read almost exclusively about. More often than not, bedside table contains books about human trafficking, war, environmental degradation, tragedy, and homelessness. I’d highly recommend many books of this genre, including Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures and An Imperfect Offering, which are written by UN workers and the former head of the Canadian Medicins San Frontiers, respectively. I wouldn’t, however, recommend Alison’s book. It just doesn’t read or sit well. I realise this was a scathing review, but it’s something I thought long and hard about before writing. I also asked others to read her book to see if I was just being prickly. The unanimous and overwhelming response was that they were as irked by it as I was.

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