Thursday, August 20, 2015

#36 [2015/CBR7] "Missoula" by Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer is my favorite non-fiction writer. He is passionate about his topics, always maintaining a careful attention to detail that I appreciate. So I was shocked when I was walking through the airport back in May and found a new book by Krakauer, Missoula (2015), on the shelves. How did I not know about this?

I guess I should admit that I dreaded reading Missoula when I learned that the subject was a rash of acquaintance rapes on a college campus, The consequences and attitudes surrounding rape are not something I delve into lightly. I also thought I already knew a lot about the subject and was not looking forward to the painful, emotional slog that was sure to come.

At the end of his book, Krakauer discusses the severe emotional distress of a friend of his, who had been raped, and how it opened his eyes to a subject that had simply not affected him in the past. "I'd had no idea that rape was so prevalent, or could cause such deep and intractable pain. My ignorance was inexcusable, and it made me feel ashamed." (348) And so, Krakauer began to look into the subject.

For this book, Krakauer focuses on a series of acquaintance rapes that involved University of Montana students from 2008 through 2012, often involving athletes as the aggressors. These stories first came to light through a series of articles in the local paper by Gwen Florio. Krakauer unquestionably sympathizes with the victims, telling their stories in vivid, disturbing detail: from the attack, the immediate aftermath, and all the way through PTSD symptoms years later. A large part of Krakauer's discussion involves the justice system and the University's reactions to these attacks and how these reactions affected the victims. In addition, Krakauer takes information garnered from David Lisak, an expert on rape, in order to give readers a wider perspective and to understand why some women react in ways that may be unexpected.

Although Krakauer focuses on a number of women throughout this book, Allison Huguet is the anchor. She is unbelievably courageous, and was the only woman in the book able to get her rapist convicted. Her story is harrowing: a young woman home from college and hanging out with her old high school friends. A University of Montana student and football player, whom Allison had always looked up to as a brother, rapes her while she is sleeping on his couch. She wakes up to the pain of it and doesn't move because she's afraid he's going to kill her. As soon as he leaves, she runs from the house, hysterical, holding up her pants with one hand, and calling her mom on her cell. The only reason they are able to get a conviction is that the police were able to get a taped confession with Allison's help. If not, it is likely the crime against Allison will go the way of the many other women detailed in this book.

Krakauer is careful to make the point a number of times that Missoula, although the chosen subject of this story, is not atypical. The incidence of rape is slightly lower in Missoula than the national average and rapists are very rarely convicted throughout the country. Numerous campuses across the country have faced similar scandals. In other words, this is not an isolated problem.

Besides the infuriating attitude of the Chief Deputy DA Kirsten Pabst, the ignorant attitudes of the blindly loyal sports fans, and the unfairness of the justice system, what hit me hardest while reading the book was learning about the research of David Lisak. Lisak gave male college students a number of questions asking if they had continued to have sex when their partner resisted, etc. that clearly described rape without using the word. Anyone who said yes, he would bring in and interview. He found that 90% of rapes were committed by a relatively small group of serial rapists. These serial rapists also often victimized others, including abusing children and animals. The number of circumstances where there might have been an honest misunderstanding or a one-time mistake were few and far between.

What haunted me most, though, was the reenactment of an interview Lisak had with one of his research subjects. The college male describes how he chooses "targets" to invite to his frat parties. He explained how he attached himself to one young Freshman, plied her with spiked punch and then brought her up to his room. He continues to explain how she squirmed and said no, but he held her down with his arm across her throat and "fucked" her. Then he went back to the party and she left. He had other victims as well. I couldn't stop thinking about that poor woman and what that experience had been like for her. I also imagined how that guy's story would change if the police showed up. And what would have happened to that girl if she'd tried to press charges. It made me feel sick, but I did go looking for the video on the internet to see and judge for myself. It was just as Krakauer described it. (The link is here for educational purposes, but be prepared to be disturbed.)

In law school we spent quite a few days arguing over the logistics of proving rape in a court of law. My reading of the beginning of Missoula may have been colored by this background. Although I believed the women, it was hard to shut off the part of my brain that was calculating how it would play in court. Eventually, I got into the stories of the women as they went through the process of accusing their attackers.

This review is already overlong, and I could probably go on for awhile more. I am impressed that Krakauer wrote a book on this subject, presumably to educate himself and the public to what these women are going through, and what they face when they seek justice. What I got out of this book was that most rapes are committed by serial rapists, men who are not "nice guys who made a mistake" but predators who victimize again and again until they are stopped. I was also reminded that going through the justice system is hell on rape survivors and probably something I would probably choose not to do if I were put in that situation.

I do wish Krakauer had a little more information on the rapists themselves, however. Lisak stated that rapists in his study tended to be narcissistic and unlikely to empathize with others. But do most even realize that what they're doing is criminal? Or do they know it's criminal but simply don't care because it is incredibly unlikely they will be punished? I don't even know if that kind of information is out there, but I was actually looking for some perspective from the attackers. I don't know if Missoula will change the minds of those who attacked or dismissed the women in Krakauer's story or the countless other women who go through this, but I hope someone will pick up this book, learn something, and have a better understanding of what acquaintance rape and its consequences really are.

Monday, August 3, 2015

#35 [2015/CBR7] "Surrender" by Pamela Clare

I chose the least embarrassing cover I could find to use for this review of Surrender (2006) by Pamela Clare. The plain, bare chest seemed a little less ridiculous than my other options.

NPR's list of 100 Swoon-Worthy romances reminded me that I hadn't read a good romance in quite some time. Pamela Clare's I-Team series made the list under the romantic suspense category, but Surrender was the only Pamela Clare book I could get immediately from the library. So I found myself reading an old-school romance of the French and Indian War instead of the contemporary suspense I had gone looking for.

My knack for last minute cramming during high school did nothing for my long-term retention of American history. Fortunately, between Outlander and The Last of the Mohicans (the movie, of course), I had more than enough historical background to understand the characters, where they came from and their current setting.

Iain MacKinnon was the son of the Laird MacKinnon back in Scotland, whose clan was decimated and survivors transported to the American colonies after Culloden. Iain and his two younger brothers grew up in America, eventually being half-adopted into an Indian tribe. Thus, they are an interesting combination of stereotypical Scottish warriors with stereotypical American Indian skills. When Colonel William Wentworth of the British Army is impressed by the brothers, he presses them into service as Rangers by framing them for murder and blackmailing them.

Lady Anne Burness Campbell's family were Scottish loyalists. Her father and brothers were all killed in the fighting before Culloden and she and her mother went to live with her uncle. Unfortunately for Lady Anne, her uncle is something of a sadist who likes to strangle his lovers during sex. After Anne sees her uncle kill her mother, she tries to run away. Her uncle catches her and has her branded as a thief and transported to the colonies. Anne finds herself as an indentured servant on a farm in the middle of nowhere, New York.

When Indians attack the farm and kill her masters, Anne runs for her life and is saved by Iain MacKinnon who is out and about on a spying mission with his Rangers. He defies his orders, requiring him not to engage in fighting unless attacked, and leaves his men in order to save Lady Anne. Anne, realizing that she has the chance to escape her unjust indentured servitude calls herself Annie Burns and lets him believe the people killed at the farm were her family. They make an exhausting and harrowing trek back to the safety of Fort Henry, where they have to deal with their hidden stories, their families' histories as enemies, Colonel Wentworth, the ongoing war, and Anne's evil uncle.

My main problem with this book was that it had the old-school feel of being written in the 1980's when heroes were aggressive alpha males who acted like assholes if you stopped to think about their actions. Now, there have certainly been heroes much, much worse than Iain, but the first time he kisses Annie, she's asleep, and the first time he sleeps with her he's pissed at her because he thought she'd hooked up with Colonel Wentworth--or something. The whole first half of the book, there is a lot of bickering about nothing much important. Also, Annie is frustratingly innocent and there is way too much discussion about her virginity.

I've learned that even though I'm a sucker for a good rescue, I much prefer my couples to work together than to fight. When Iain and Annie finally get together (spoiler! not really), I liked their dynamic and relationship much better. I also thought that Clare did well with the feeling of the dread and pointlessness of war. Even with the parts of this book that bothered me, I found myself wanting to read more after I'd finished. I also had to immediately watch The Last of the Mohicans to see another version of this story on the big screen. I'm not sure I liked Surrender enough to read about the other brothers. However, I will try Clare's contemporary books to see if the women are a little more independent and the men a little less rapey. Sure, Annie was always willing in the end, but it's a turn off when her primary emotion when Iain is about to "make love" to her is fear.

#34 [2015/CBR7] "God Help the Child" by Toni Morrison

I was first introduced to Toni Morrison through Beloved (1987) in my high school English class. I remember Beloved being powerful and disturbing, but I'm guessing I would get more out of it now. Toni Morrison is an impressive woman, though, so when I saw she had a new book out: God Help the Child (2015), I immediately got on the library's waitlist.

I should just accept, before I get started, that my review is not going to do justice to this novel. It is complex and disturbing and probably requires a lot more critical thinking than I can give it. This may be an odd comparison, but I think of Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy as similar writers. They are both incredibly talented and use simple language to create something more visceral and powerful than its parts. I read both authors with a feeling of dread in my stomach, knowing that they will take the narrative to ugly and disturbing places that other authors wouldn't dare.

God Help the Child revolves primarily around Bride, a young Black woman who has a prestigious job in Los Angeles at a cosmetics company where she is developing a new line of makeup. She is gorgeous, with striking blue-black skin that complements her always-white outfits. She has grown into a world that has learned to appreciate her unique beauty, but it wasn't always that way. She was born Lula Ann to a mother who was disgusted by her.

"It's not my fault. So you can't blame me. I didn't do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn't take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I'm light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann's father...I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me."

Bride has saved up money in order to give cash and a plane ticket voucher to a woman who is getting paroled after fifteen years in jail. Some of this book involves figuring out who this woman is, how she is connected to Bride, and how they connect in the present.

Another part of the book is Bride's mysterious boyfriend, Booker Starbern, who recently told her "You not the woman I want" and left her. She loves him. "To them [other men], anything besides my flirting or their pronouncements would lead to disagreements, arguments, breakups. I never could have described my childhood to them as I did to Booker." Yet she knows almost nothing about him.

"Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget." The main theme of this book seems to be how what happens to you as a kid lasts with you forever, whether that be neglect, disinterest or abuse. Child sexual abuse runs rampant throughout this book, affecting almost every character. In addition, in a book that is generally realistic, Morrison changes Bride in physically impossible ways, which both informs Bride's mental state and is deeply disturbing.

I don't want to go into any real detail about the plot because I think it's best  if you discover it as you go, but what that leaves me with is a very disjointed review. Let me just say that God Help the Child is original, layered, powerful, disturbing, well-written, and thought provoking. Each sentence is a plainly spoken, small kernel of truth about the world, and this book is definitely worth reading.

#33 [2015/CBR7] "Lucky Us" by Amy Bloom

I didn't know anything about Lucky Us (2014) by Amy Bloom when my book club picked it as our next book, but it looked like it wasn't too long, so I didn't have any objections. I haven't read anything by Amy Bloom before, but she comes with some impressive credentials, including nominations for the National Book Award and a short story published in Best American Short Stories.

"My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us." Eva meets her older half-sister, Iris, on the day her mother drops her off at her father's house, leaving her suitcase on the front porch and driving away with no goodbye and no explanation. Eva and Iris's father is only the slightly-more-reliable parent, and when Eva is about twelve years old, she and Iris run away to Hollywood. Eva is smart but also a middle-school drop out, dependent on her sister for everything.

The book follows the two sisters from Hollywood to New York and beyond, through the years surrounding World War II. I don't want to go into too much detail about what occurs, but each character has their own challenges. What's perhaps most striking about this book is that there are a number of tragic circumstances that would have suffocated another narrative or other characters. But Bloom's characters keep moving through their life, grabbing onto opportunities as they pass by and ending up where they would have never imagined.

This book was original and well written. Told through letters and narratives, I can't say I've read another book like it. It stayed interesting throughout and didn't take me long to read. However, I can't say that I loved it. I never felt too connected to the characters or the story and I just don't feel strongly about it. I didn't dislike it, but I never felt too connected to it either. There are certainly some actions that I remember vividly, but I guess I never really bought the characters as real people. I always felt like I was in a story.

Iris is the most memorable character in the story. And when Iris's first love betrayed her to safeguard her own Hollywood career, I was shocked and sympathetic. It was the most connected I felt to any character in the book. But then Iris goes on to send an innocent man to an internment camp and kidnap a little boy in the name of love. I can't relate to that. And then Iris's love is killed by a random and horrible fire. It kind of makes you wonder if Bloom is throwing a moral in the story: you can try to fix your life with immoral 'ends justify the means' machinations, but in the end you have no control over where you end up.

Finally, even though I wasn't too invested in the outcome, I appreciated the awkwardness of Eva and Gus when they came together in the end. It had been a long time, and there relationship had changed drastically. Bloom's description was much more realistic than a sweet falling into each other's arms.

"He had a soft spot for young people. They had no idea what was coming and how much of it was just dumb luck." (37)

"The greatest struggle in my life is between a dignified silence and having my say." (200)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

#32 [2015/CBR7] "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

I rarely read books twice. There are just too many great books out there for me to retread familiar ground. But Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813)  is a special book. Also, Storywonk* is doing a podcast/discussion on the book and I couldn't resist.

I remember my first exposure to Pride and Prejudice like it was yesterday. I was a Freshman in college and I picked it up as a way to avoid reading whatever book I was actually supposed to be reading for English Literature. I did not know the story and had never read Austen before. I was half expecting something musty and old fashioned, so imagine my surprise and delight when I began to read. Many of Austen's other books followed, along with Colin Firth and the BBC, Keira Knightley's Lizzy, and most recently The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (totally worth it). But nothing could compare to that fantastic first discovery of my favorite book.

I have to admit that this second reading was nothing like my first. I wasn't sure why I was bothering to read a book again when I already knew almost all the lines by heart. Not only did I know them, but I was imagining Jennifer Ehle saying them as she said them in the movie. I might as well have been watching the movie. But I couldn't resist the magic for long, no matter how well known to me. It also helped when I hit bits of the book that were not replicated line for line in the movies.

I think it would be weird to do a plot synopsis at this point. If you don't know the plot by now, then you probably have no interest and are not reading this review. Instead, I'll focus on how my perspective has changed in the...seventeen years (yikes!) since I first read this novel. I still love it, love the story, love the commentary, and I love the characters. I've found, though, that with age, I've become more frustrated by Mr. Bennet and have more sympathy for Lydia--as annoying as she is.

Mrs. Bennet was the crazy and inappropriate parent on my first reading. Obsessed with marriage and sending her children out into storms to secure a husband, she was also whiny and dramatic. Mr. Bennett, on the other hand, was smarter and quieter and had great esteem for my beloved Lizzy. What's not to like? Well, as obnoxious as Mrs. Bennet is, she is trying to secure a safe future for her daughters in the only way that is possible. She is trying to exercise the only control she has. Mr. Bennet's future planning for his daughters consisted of hoping he'd have a son and hoping he doesn't die too soon. Otherwise, they are on their own. In addition, with the way he talks about Kitty and Lydia, I'm surprised they didn't turn out to be strippers in the village. A little interest, structure, and positive reinforcement would probably have gone a long way with those two. Keira Knightley's Pride and Prejudice has Donald Sutherland playing a much more sympathetic Mr. Bennet and the difference with the book is stark.

Finally, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has the most empathetic take of Lydia Bennet, and I'm not sure if I'm projecting some of that portrayal into the book, but instead of pure irritation and hatred, I felt more sorry for her on this second reading.

"To be sure it would have been more for the advantage of conversation, had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town [become a prostitute]; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world, in some distant farm-house. But there was much to be talked of, in marrying her; and the good-natured wishes for her well-doing, which had proceeded before from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such a husband her misery was considered certain." (299)

Lydia is only sixteen. The heartlessness surrounding her in this paragraph is disturbing.

Declaring a favorite out of the hundreds of books I've read is difficult, but I almost always fall back on Pride and Prejudice. It's a classic: insightful, fun, and romantic. Whether re-reading the original or enjoying an adaptation, when it's well done, it doesn't matter the format, it just never gets old.

*Storywonk is my new go-to time-suck podcast couple. They have podcasts on Outlander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, and more.

#31 [2015/CBR7] "Our Endless Numbered Days" by Claire Fuller

Peggy Hillcoat is an eight-year-old girl growing up in London with her concert pianist, German mother and English, survivalist-leaning father. When her mother goes on a concert tour, her father takes her to a run-down cabin in the remote woods of Germany and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed, including all of her family and friends.

Our Endless Numbered Days (2015) by Claire Fuller alternates between Peggy growing up in the woods with her father, and when Peggy is recently returned to her mother in London at seventeen years old. We immediately know that Peggy's father is dead, and there's a lot of shit she needs to work through. The rest is a mystery.

Part very odd coming-of-age story, part survivalist adventure, part family drama, Fuller balances a lot in this book. It's not until the end that the reader finally figures out the full truth of what has happened.

Imagine a little girl, thinking she's lost her mother, her grandmother, and her best friend forever--that she thinks she'll never be able to leave the spartan cabin and little meadow that is her new home. Her father is her only companion and has kept her alive for years. But he's also mentally unstable, took her away from her life, and lied to her. The haunting combination of love and betrayal that Peggy has to deal with when considering her father is unfathomable. It really made me think about how vulnerable children of mentally ill parents are.

Peggy is a child, not initially capable of understanding everything that is going on, and she is dealing with intense and traumatic experiences. Thus, she is an unreliable narrator. The reader has to figure out what's going on between the lines. There is some question throughout the book as events happen that seem unlikely. There are no happy endings and tidy summations for Peggy. She's gone through a lot and is incredibly resilient, but the story leaves her with more. This was a book that kept me turning the pages and stuck with me in the end.

#30 [2015/CBR7] "Bad Feminist" by Roxane Gay

I'd read some good reviews of Bad Feminist (2014) by Roxane Gay, and I usually enjoy feminist books. They give me a refreshing and different perspective from what I often face at work. I especially enjoy reading about real-life stories that I can relate to and small, concrete ideas to make things better. I've really enjoyed the other feminist books I've read , and I was looking forward to this one.

Unfortunately, this book wasn't what I was expecting, and I ended up being disappointed. If I had paid more attention, I probably would have realized before I started reading that this was not a coherent book, but a series of unconnected essays, written at different times. The book felt like it was all over the place. I couldn't figure out if it was a memoir of Gay's experiences or an academic look at women in literature and film. It went from a story of competitive scrabble to discussions of the role of women in books that I hadn't read.

Fortunately, as I read, Gay began to take on books and films that I was familiar with, which made the reading much more interesting. This helped, but it still didn't do much for me. I'd either agree with her immediately, like her discussion of Django Unchained, but then I wondered why I needed to read pages and pages of discussion when I felt like she was pointing out the obvious. Another movie that earned Gay's criticism was Twelve Years a Slave. And, again, I agreed with her up to a point. Gay complains that the majority of stories about Black people involve slavery and suffering. In addition, Gay did not like that Patsey's suffering was used to fill the narrative of Solomon's story. Again, I agree with her up to a point. We do need more films like Love and Basketball that show different stories, but I don't think attacking Twelve Years a Slave, a well-done and true story, is the answer. When I read Twelve Years a Slave, Patsey's story was the most memorable and heartbreaking. Patsey was not in a position to record her tragedy and I'm glad that Solomon Northup remembered her.

I understand that literature and film are reflections of our society and how women and minorities' stories are told in these mediums are important. But I'd rather read discussions about what's actually happening in the real world. That being said, I'd never seen any Tyler Perry movies, so I did find Gay's discussion of them both interesting and enlightening.

Although Bad Feminist was not what I was expecting, and I was, admittedly, disappointed, I was still impressed by Gay's honesty and insight. I found her interesting, and I probably would have enjoyed the book much more if it had been more of a memoir than a literature review.

"There are times when I wish finding community was as simple as entering some personal information and letting an algorithm show me where I belong." (14)

"On my more difficult days, I'm not sure what's more of a pain in my ass--being black or being a woman." (16)

"I thought he was going to throw the table over. Male anger makes me intensely uncomfortable, so I tried to sit very still and hoped the uncomfortable moment would pass quickly." (39)