Commentary

“My Ox Is Broken!” — a TARfly Review

"My Ox Is Broken!" Detours, Roadblocks, Fast Forwards, and Other Great Moments from TV's The Amazing Race
By Adam-Troy Castro,
BenBella Books, due for release in September 2006, cover price $17.95

Reviewed for TARflies by rabrab

If My Ox Is Broken were a person, it would be a little girl with a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, it's horrid. Really, My Ox Is Broken is three books interleaved with each other: season recaps by leg (horrid); transcripts of interviews with Racers (some excellent, some so-so) and essays (in general, the best part of the book, with a few stand-outs at either end of the quality spectrum).

To get the horrid out of the way first: the recaps. Introducing the teams, he gives them cute nicknames, and then uses those nicknames throughout the recaps. But they aren't the usual nicknames given by fans over time, and in many cases, they aren't particularly descriptive.

Quick Quiz: Identify the team:

  1. Team Diesel
  2. Team Energizer Bunny
  3. Team Monument
  4. The Old Folks
  5. Team Doomed
  6. The Enthusiastic Tourists
  7. Team Forgettable
  8. The Constant Snipers

Does it help if I tell you that these are all "couples" teams?

I'll grant that the nicknames used on the 'net are neither universal nor would some of them be much better than his are for identifying the teams, especially for a non-'netter. In that case, why not just stick with the Racers' names? Is "The Long-Distance Smileys" really easier to write than "Kris and Jon"?

The second problem with the recaps: Castro says that he's going to write "brief and fragmentary" recaps, compared to the "obsessive recaps available online." He's sort of right. The recaps are relatively brief in comparison. "Fragmentary" is one word that can be applied to his. "Wildly uneven" is another equally applicable description. Sometimes he goes into detail about tasks, sometimes he glosses over them, other times he barely mentions them. Sometimes he analyzes the pros and cons of a team's choice, but often he doesn't, even when the choice was a turning point. In one particularly mind-boggling goof, he calls one task both a Roadblock and Detour in the same paragraph.
In the recaps, Castro most often displays an odd sort of authorial split-personality, snarking on a team or Racer personally in one sentence and reminding the reader in the next that TAR is edited for a television audience.
In the recaps, Castro most often displays an odd sort of authorial split-personality, snarking on a team or Racer personally in one sentence and reminding the reader in the next that TAR is edited for a television audience. He cautions that making judgments about what Racers are Really Like isn't fair, since the editors manipulate what we see. Decide, man! If you're allowed to judge, so are we. (This part is, for me, made even worse by the fact that his snark isn't particularly witty or original. In quite a few cases, he feels the need to tell us, in so many words, that he's being sarcastic.)

One final reason I don't like the recaps: in his introduction, Castro says that an interview with Don and Mary Jean (as well as other interviews with other unnamed teams) had to be cut for space considerations. In that case, it's my considered opinion that the recaps should have gone instead, or at least, been ruthlessly pared down to something well under an average of 23 pages each (not counting the introductory team paragraphs.)

Having finished with the recaps, I'm going to go brush my teeth with Comet and gargle with sour milk to get the taste out of my mouth. Be right back...

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Ooohhhh, that's better.

On to the fair-to-good parts. Into this category fall many of his lists (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 14, 17, 20, 22, 32, 35, 36, and 37, although some of these are both list and essay chapters) with some of them, notably 2, (The Real Rules), 10 (Through a Stranger's Eyes), and 32 (The Race 8 That Would Have Pleased Us) falling well into the "excellent" category. Chapter 32 is beyond excellent. It's beyond describing, it's that good. Most of the interviews are here, because, as cleaned-up transcripts, they tend to be somewhat non-linear. Personally, I find that makes for difficult reading.

One minor note about his lists. It may be because the copy I received had not yet undergone its final editing (I believe that I could make a pretty solid guess as to just what page the copy-editor had gotten to when the copy I got went to the printers,) but I did wish that he'd be consistent in his list layout. Number the item headers; bold them; number and bold; or number, bold and line break; but pick one format and stick with it, please.

The interviews are better than some I've read online, not as good as others. The reason for this seems to lie in the person being interviewed; some folks (Joe and Bill, Brennan, Jon and Al, the Gaghans, and surprisingly to me, Marshall) give a good interview; Jonathan doesn't. Castro has a firm grasp on the concept of "follow-up question", and knows when to let the interviewee talk. He even tries to wrestle Jonathan back on point when the soapbox starts to come out, although he doesn't completely succeed.

The lists are sometimes funny, sometimes a bit redundant. But then, I'm not a big fan of books made up of lists, so even the best list climbs an uphill battle with me. "The Real Rules" wins that battle precisely because it's not merely a list.
There's a very clear explanation of the tricks of editing, both video and audio, in "Is the Race Real?"
Now, the excellent parts. These are primarily the essays, for lack of a better word. Any one piece could stand solidly on its own.

There's a very clear explanation of the tricks of editing, both video and audio, in "Is the Race Real?" A short and unfortunately accurate take on why the gross food tasks, in particular, are so obnoxious is covered in "The Vomit Chapter." An even shorter, but convincing case for why Zach is the best Racer so far is "The Single Best Racer in the Show's History." Jonathan is called out, frankly and just short of brutally, for his behavior in "A Dear Jon Letter."

One piece offers a detailed analysis of what happened and why in a particular leg, tracing the causes back through the whole Race: "Did Tara Throw the Race?" Leg by leg he examines Tara's interactions with Wil, and with Chris and Alex, and concludes that

"Throwing the game, just to start, requires her to be vindictive, crazy, self-destructive, irrational, flighty, and stupid. All at the same time. ...

"And even that is not necessarily the end of it. ...

"One of the factors that goes into giving '110 percent' is teamwork. People give 110 percent when they would rather endure the worst than let their partners down.

"Did Tara throw the race?

"Not believable for a moment.

"Did she give '110 percent'?

"That's a fair question and open to interpretation. ...

"This is something only she knows.

"If even she knows."

"It's Her Party and She'll Cry If She Wants To" is a very perceptive look at the unraveling of Flo over the course of TAR 3 and a skillful dissection of the progress of Killer Fatigue.
"It's Her Party and She'll Cry If She Wants To" is a very perceptive look at the unraveling of Flo over the course of TAR 3 and a skillful dissection of the progress of Killer Fatigue. It shows a great deal of both emotional empathy and consideration of the physical stresses of the Race. He identifies and then very firmly sets aside the so-common viewers' certainty that 'it can't be that hard' and adeptly puts himself in her place, admitting that he'd come off just as badly, and possibly worse, in the same situation. It's some of the finest analytical writing I've had the pleasure to read.

"Colin on the Care and Feeding of Tanzanian Cabbies" starts with a detailed, minute-by-minute recap of exactly what we saw happen, followed by a brief exploration of the general legal points of the Cabbie Incident and a clear and not-terribly-complimentary look at the attitudes and assumptions that underlay Colin's behavior that night.

"Colin fails to see it, but everything he's done now is merely preamble, next to the further offense he just caused. Before, he was just an irate customer, showing his dissatisfaction with a cab driver. Now, whether he knows it or not -- and it's pretty clear not-- he has made this about himself as an American, and about the locals as representatives of a second-rate power whose concerns do not matter a whit next to his. He is, in short, defying the entire power structure of the land where he is now behaving like a very ungracious guest. ...

It's such a small outpost that they have to open the gates, and turn on the lights, just to deal with him -- which for him should be another clue that things have spiraled out of his control. He asks the officer behind the desk if he speaks

English. The man says yes, and asks him if he speaks Swahili. And again, Colin fails to recognize the serious undercurrent there. The officer can probably guess that Colin doesn't speak Swahili. He's reminding Colin where he is."

From there it evolves into a solid analysis of Ugly Americanism in general, and the causes, uselessness, and high cost thereof. It's solid, thought-provoking and a bit uncomfortable to read. Powerful stuff.

Almost as powerful (missing only by a hairsbreadth,) is Chapter 10: "Through a Stranger's Eyes", a look at travel, culture clash, comfort zones, and the assumptions that are so easy to make when one is in an unfamiliar place. It's not exactly about TAR as such; it's more about what the situations that TAR creates can do to people who find themselves in them. There really isn't a section I can quote here; I can't pull a piece out of the tightly-written, tightly-woven whole without damaging it. I wish I could.

And then there's Chapter 32, "The Race 8 That Would Have Pleased Us." which is a perfectly brilliant piece of comedy writing, involving, among other things: bungee cords, dentist appointments, roller coasters, Guido (the dog, not the team,) reindeer, the English Channel, ketchup, an artificial intelligence paradigm, the keys to Phil's car, hay bales, Lena and Kristy, Colin's broken ox, extended warranty plans, the Great Wall of China, and a Pez dispenser. This Race 8 would have pleased me mightily, indeed.

Soooooo... would I buy "My Ox is Broken!" at its list price? I believe that I might, but I can't honestly say that I would for sure.

Give up on the quiz? Take a look at the answers.

Answer Key:
  1. Frank and Margarita
  2. Meredith and Gretchen
  3. Lenny and Karyn
  4. Dave and Margaretta
  5. Steve and Debra
  6. Chip and Kim
  7. Hope and Norm
  8. Tara and Wil