Review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

24911006Blurb:

From bestselling author Jon Krakauer, a stark, powerful, meticulously reported narrative about a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana ­— stories that illuminate the human drama behind the national plague of campus rape.

Review:

Sometimes words don’t matter. People can make a “no” become a “maybe” or an “okay, I guess so” or, in the case of certain prosecutors, police officers, university officials, and powerful college boys in Missoula, Montana, a “no” can become “yes.” So instead of words, I’ll use numbers. Here are just a few from Jon Krakauer’s latest impeccable nonfiction, an investigation of rape in the United States:

-80% of rapes are never reported to the police
-only 0.4% to 5% of forcible rapes (that is, not of the more insidious and less understood “acquaintance rape variety) are prosecuted
-a mere 0.2% to 2.8% of these forcible rapes result in convictions with prison time
-most rapes are committed by serial offenders—the statistical chance is 90%

Which, as Krakauer summarizes, means that more than 90% of the time in the United States, a rapist suffers absolutely no punishment. The system rarely prosecutes rape cases, when they do, they rarely put them away, and so it becomes a scourge, a cycle of rapists continuing to rape because no one tells them that they can’t. This blurriness when it comes to punishing rapists leads to even blurrier lines during sexual encounters, especially in alcohol-soaked and hormonally-driven college campuses—what, exactly, is rape?

Krakauer interviews several victims of rape in Missoula and recounts their horrific stories, expunging no appalling detail. Rape can occur while sleeping, while passed out, while completely sober and saying “no,” while not saying “no” but never ever having said “yes.” When Krakauer lays out the stories, there is no blinking when it comes to whether or not it’s rape. And yet, between 2008 and 2012, various officials from the University of Montana, the Missoula Police Department, and the Missoula Prosecution Office blinked quite a lot when it came to convicting rapists. So much that one cheeky journalist labeled the normally bucolic small town the “Rape Capital of America.” Krakauer dismisses that title immediately in the least reassuring way possible: every story he’s about to share from Missoula could happen anywhere; its sexual assault statistics are comparable to the rest of the country. The United States has a deep problem in bringing rapists to justice, and Krakauer attempts to diagnose why.

The stories presented in Missoula are unbelievable unless read in full. For example, you have a police chief who argues that a girl with a blood alcohol content of .219 percent, so drunk she suffered multiple blackouts and checked into the hospital Emergency Room, was not physically incapacitated to the extent that she was unable to consent to sex. There are the various police officers who ask young girls coming to the station to report rapes, “Do you have a boyfriend? Because sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends and then feel bad about it and decide to say they were raped.” Then there’s the constant blah blah blah about the male rapist’s “upstanding moral character” and how he’s just always been a “really good kid” and how one life has already been ruined from this mess (the victim’s), why ruin a second life too (that is, the rapist’s, the person responsible for ruining a life)? Krakauer absolutely destroys the lead Missoulan prosecutor supposedly responsible for sexual assault cases. This prosecutor, intended to be an advocate for the rape victims, is on record saying “Some people would argue that if I go home with someone and we say, ‘Well, we’re going to go have sex,’ and then I fall asleep and wake up and he’s having sex with me—some people would say that’s consensual, and some people would say it’s not.”

Story after story, quotation after quotation, Missoula is a goldmine for every eye-rolling, head-shaking, fist-curling thing you’ve heard about rape. The only unsatisfying thing about the book is the grand finale. After hundreds of pages of appalling evidence that rape is one of the capital crimes facing current American society, Krakauer seeks to point his journalist finger at a culprit. Here, unfortunately, he does not swing the axe all the way. In the case of Missoula, he blames the university, the police department, and the prosecuting office, which is all true, but he neglects to climb the ladder one more step to arrive at the obvious and ultimate problem: the still unequal status of women.

Women are told to always be nice, so they do not want to ruin a boy’s life by saying he’s a rapist. Women avoid confrontation, so even in the middle of nonconsensual sexual interactions, they might not scream or run or fight back—it just wouldn’t be polite. When someone goes to the police for a robbery, the police do not say, “Okay, but you left your door unlocked and that beautiful new TV was just asking to be stolen.” They go out and gather evidence to press robbery charges. But with rape, the police ask the traumatized girl, “Were you drunk? Did you maybe make the man think you wanted to have sex with him? Did you say no? Did you make sure he heard you say no?” Rape victims are oddly not always considered victims, but perpetrators of a lie, of a ruse, of a scandal. It originates from a society that values boys more than girls. And although Krakauer’s exposé of Missoula ends somewhat positively, with the town’s justice system reflective and chastened and prepared to be better, rape as a phenomenon, unfortunately, cannot be combated until the sum of a girl equals the sum of a boy.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

46165Blurb:

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic and witty first novel, was written when the author was only twenty-three years old. This semiautobiographical story of the handsome, indulged, and idealistic Princeton student Amory Blaine received critical raves and catapulted Fitzgerald to instant fame. Now, readers can enjoy the newly edited, authorized version of this early classic of the Jazz Age, based on Fitzgerald’s original manuscript. In this definitive text, This Side of Paradise captures the rhythms and romance of Fitzgerald’s youth and offers a poignant portrait of the “Lost Generation.”

Review:

The literary landscape is overpopulated with insufferable egotists, often of the white male semi-autobiographical variety, but what separates the sympathetic from the antipathetic?

This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald playing in his usual time period with his usual beautiful words. In the booming era leading up to and following the Great War, men were being lost and found. A lucky guess on the stock market made you a millionaire and gave you a name, but battles in Europe led to a battered generation of men questioning where they were going and if it was anywhere good. Amory Blaine spends the entirety of This Side of Paradise as one of the lost until he miraculously finds himself at the end.

This joyous climax did not evoke any triumphant readerly emotions here, however, because Amory Blaine is the most hateful, undeserving character I’ve ever met. And sure, perhaps his character is a window into the minds of the Lost Generation, but if people were/are thinking like this, then I don’t want to know about it. Amory meanders through life, striving towards something indefinable, which is to say striving towards nothing. His privileged childhood and adolescence lead him to Princeton and into the arms of many delightful debutantes whose chief qualities are soft lips and the proclivity to use said lips even before a marriage proposal. Amory’s striving often looks more like stomping. In climbing upwards, he crushes these women and various other members of the underclass (in other words, anyone who didn’t spend his sixteenth and seventeenth years “prepping” in Connecticut, New York, or Massachusetts), an ascent which again, isn’t upwards, but nowards, since he has no destination except superiority.

These are legitimate words uttered by/about Amory:

Oh it isn’t that I mind the glittering caste system. I like having a bunch of hot cats on top, but gosh, I’ve got to be one of them…But I hate to get anywhere by working for it.

Amory usually liked men individually, yet feared them in crowds unless the crowd was around him.

He took a sombre satisfaction in thinking that perhaps all along she had been nothing except what he had read into her ; that this was her high point, that no one else would ever make her think.

And say all you will about unlikeable narrators—I’m certainly an ardent defender as seen here—but something about Fitzgerald’s depiction of Amory rings false. I didn’t know if I should pity him or sympathize with him, so I ended up being disgusted by him. Amory, like personages from The Great Gatsby, is a careless man. But his thoughtfulness is supposed to make him a redeemable man as well, so that we cheer when he reaches epiphanous clarity riding along the New Jersey highway in the novel’s final pages.

Yet I couldn’t cheer for Amory, I couldn’t like Amory, I couldn’t even tolerate reading his various anodyne thoughts. Insipidness is still insipidness, even if it dresses well, prepped at St. Regis, studied at Princeton, and finds itself described by the magic words of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2 stars out of 5

Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

16099180Blurb:

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.

Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Review:

It was with trepidation that I started Sisterland, the sole remaining unread Curtis Sittenfeld novel in my repertoire. The blurb promised identical twin sisters gifted in ESP, one of whom predicts a catastrophic earthquake in St. Louis, a scientifically and thus narratively improbable event that nevertheless serves as the story’s catalyst. For those unfamiliar with her work, Sittenfeld plays with extreme hyperrealism, observations so mundane that many readers deem her “boring” or statements so starkly true that readers find it “uncomfortable.” Sisterlandtherefore seemed like a wild gamble, the mysticism of the psychic main characters incompatible with her mechanical truthiness.

I was wrong. Sisterland is just as honest as her previous work, even as the ridiculous omen of the upcoming earthquake looms over the text. Here Sittenfeld dissects family relationships. She does so calmly, slowly, with lots of anesthetic. The result being an acutely painful awakening at the novel’s end when all the careful sutures she’s sewn come undone.

I adore when a writer challenges herself by creating a narrative obstacle that she can’t simply detour around or abracadabra away: she must go straight through it, even if us dullheaded readers can’t possibly see how she can. The earthquake, which has the possibility to fail entirely (if it happens, she’s supporting the existence of ESP in an otherwise realistic novel; if it doesn’t, she’s essentially inflated a massive balloon of anticipation for the readers and popped it with no ado) is wonderfully resolved—in a way that’s completely surprising but also makes you go “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Kate, the harried mother protagonist who has turned away from psychicness, is believable and sympathetic in her mistakes. She’s another one of those Sittenfeld characters that reminds us that people are messy and complex, and that it’s not easy to live sometimes but it’s so lovely to. The story alternates chapters: one in the past, one in the present leading up to the earthquake. This retrospective narration is particularly inspired in a story obsessed with seeing the future. By the end of the novel, we see that hindsight, not foresight, guides us onward. While we can hope for a future, we can know only the past.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright

6582864Blurb:

Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.

Review:

Black Boy is a deeply horrifying and intelligent memoir from Richard Wright, a Mississippi black boy who became so much more than black boys were supposed to become. His earliest memories on a Southern plantation and the tough streets of Memphis become fantastic stories that he, unfortunately, had to live.

Richard is different, who knows why, but he’s different. All the black families living on his street are hungry, but Richard wonders why he’s hungry. Why can’t his mother, a cook at a restaurant serving heaping plates to white customers, give him enough to eat? He’s too young to understand, but this inquisitive behavior will follow him through various tragedies.

At the age of twelve, before I had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.

At its core, the memoir is a book about a boy becoming a man. But Richard is a black boy who becomes a black man, and so instead of your basic coming-of-age story, you have a story about a boy coming of age in a society that hates him. And because Richard is so smart, he tries to learn why it hates him. This line of questioning is extraordinary given that the conditions of black people in Jim Crow South are almost like those of people living in pre-agricultural societies: they are so consumed with fulfilling basic human needs (the only constant through Richard’s numerous moves across the South is an everlasting hunger), that no time remains for them to develop things of worth and permanence.

Richard discovers the complicity of black people in their own subjugation. Indeed, this book is rarely about the oppressors, about the white people pushing the heads of black people into the ground. It’s about a culture where a white man doesn’t even have to push a black man down: he’s already lying there, starved and beaten. For the beginning of his life, white people are a hazy specter in Richard’s world. The racism of Richard’s time is so devastating and so complete because another race barely even needs to exist to perpetuate it. Almost every one of Richard’s friends refuses to shake the status quo, indeed sometimes doesn’t realize there’s a status quo to be shook.

But really what I learned from Richard’s wonderful evolution from a poor Mississippi boy with no schooling to a published Chicagoan author is the importance of compassion for others whose lives we cannot imagine. In the North Richard works as a dishwasher in a restaurant with a bunch of young white girls waitressing. They are not ill intentioned, but still they will never understand him, will never even seek to understand him, and will thus simply add to a culture that denies him basic personhood. This is bad. Imagining others is important. And that’s why Black Boy was so thrilling to me. Here is a man with a life story that I will literally never be able to fathom. And yet, he’s trying. He’s trying to make me fathom it, with every brilliant thought and sentence he’s got.

I fail. I cannot imagine living as a black boy in Mississippi in the 1910s. But gosh did this book get me close. And getting closer is what the world needs.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

13273327Blurb:

The sheltered son of a Jewish mobster, Art Bechstein leaps into his first summer as a college graduate as cluelessly as he capered through his school years. But new friends and lovers are eager to guide him through these sultry days of last-ditch youthful alienation and sexual confusion–in a blue-collar city where the mundane can sometimes appear almost magical.

Review:

Take a dull boy in a dull city during a dull, liminal summer. Not an adult but soon-to-be, not really anything yet but certain he will be. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh begins at this doorway and records Art Bechstein’s quest for a summer of whimsy and profundity that will change him for the better.

June finds Art making fantastic new friends who all seem to know how to live better than he does. Inspired, Art sits atop a hill in Pittsburgh and thinks this:

I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

June leads to July and then August, sultry months that will find Art in various predicaments that are recounted nostalgically even as they are happening for the first time, and throughout Art will interrogate himself: How does one become “big”? But to answer how, it is necessary to answer what. What does it mean to be “big”?

Each character approaches bigness differently, and Art finds something to envy with every one. Big, mean Cleveland steps onto the page straight from a Hollywood action sequence. He is undoubtedly the biggest character in the novel. But you don’t even have to squint to notice how small he is inside. He resorts to showing off to hide his emptiness, and yet everyone around him idolizes him, fears him, historicizes him even though he’s a 20-something who has barely started living.

The other two principals in Art’s motley crew are Phlox, the girlfriend described as a movie star beauty but who is terribly mundane beneath it all, and Arthur, the cultivated gay man who feigns coming from a palace but actually grew up in a 2-bedroom ranch. Every character starts out big but pops at some point, floating downwards towards the blue-collar streets of Pittsburgh. Maybe down there they aren’t big, but there they can stop and think for a while. And maybe there, like Art, they’ll learn that bigness doesn’t come with living; it comes with remembering. Philosophizing, exaggerating, daydreaming—whatever you want to call it. People are big when they give you something to think about.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

22571781Blurb:

On the grubby outskirts of Paris, Grace restores bric-a-brac, mends teapots, re-sets gems. She calls herself Julie, says she’s from California, and slips back to a rented room at night. Regularly, furtively, she checks the hometown paper on the Internet. Home is Garland, Tennessee, and there, two young men have just been paroled. One, she married; the other, she’s in love with. Both were jailed for a crime that Grace herself planned in exacting detail. The heist went bad—but not before she was on a plane to Prague with a stolen canvas rolled in her bag. And so, in Paris, begins a cat-and-mouse waiting game as Grace’s web of deception and lies unravels—and she becomes another young woman entirely.

Unbecoming is an intricately plotted and psychologically nuanced heist novel that turns on suspense and slippery identity. With echoes of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, Rebecca Scherm’s mesmerizing debut is sure to entrance fans of Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl, and Donna Tartt.

Review:

So the Unbecoming details the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of a girl following a failed heist. Shame that I’m not one for a heist novel because the story’s founding ideas are solid; its flashy plot, however, is not.

What we have is a love story. Grace has a childhood sweetheart whom she intends to love forever until her growing up reveals different, contradictory intentions. She’s faced with a question I ask myself a lot lately: at what age can we finally assume that the person we are is mostly the person we are going to be? And whose decision is it? That is, who decides who we are going to be? Us? Someone else? The blind, unfeeling universe?

Grace learns that when whoever that whomever is makes his decision, it’s impossible to bridge the gap. Gone are the days of one leg firmly sunk in the sands of childhood, the other leg tentatively stepping toward adulthood; Grace is pushed along whether she likes it or not. She tries, like any normal human being, to fight what she’s becoming. And that’s where we get the heist, the much touted thriller element crying out to prospective readers on the back cover. That’s also where the story begins to fail. Once Grace’s largely plotless but entirely typical personal metamorphosis disappears under piles of blueprints, printouts from art auction house websites, and million dollar paintings, the story moves too quickly and loses itself. In life climaxes tend to happen quickly; in books climaxes must unwind slowly and carefully or else the reader’s patience is only briefly, perfunctorily rewarded.

The crazy fast plot befuddles character motivations. Where Grace was once recognizable, indeed pitiable, she is now confusing, unrealistic, and unsympathetic. Author Rebecca Scherm tries to say some great things in Unbecoming, but her choice to pursue a commercial thriller plot foils her attempt. Grace’s love and growing up are justifiably convoluted; unfortunately the heist plot is too.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

168642Blurb:

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

Review:

“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”

How can two opposite things both be true? How can someone be a killer but not—never—be worthy of being killed himself? How can the world treat you poorly but in doing so not give you the right to treat it poorly?

The answer to these hows? A set of arbitrary human laws that we have tried to bend around the unarbitrary universe.

Murder, as a subject of debate, doesn’t seem particularly sticky. And yet we have hundreds of thousands of pages of judicial literature devoted to its consequences and hundreds of thousands of pages of fiction and non-fiction literature dedicated to its perpetrators, its victims, its sufferers, and its enforcers. The rule humans have developed for murder is as simple as the one recorded in the Bible a few millennia ago, “Thou shalt not kill,” and yet…we kill. And yet, we struggle to understand why.

The murder here is both as unfathomable and fathomable as they all are. Two greedy men stomped on by the world decide to rob a prosperous Kansas farm family for money. Failing to find a massive safe full of cash, they abandon the enterprise but still decide to brutally murder the four family members.

In Cold Blood is widely considered the exemplary work of the True Crime genre. Never before has a family’s doom been quite so picturesque. It is the most fantastic of murders, more atavistic than the “original” murder of Abel by Cain. The dead family is the family, more good, wholesome, and kind than it should be possible to be. And the killers are the killers, not entirely psychopathic but not entirely rational. They’re straight-up thugs, beat-up and blackhearted, motivated by a special blend of vindictiveness and simple desire.

What makes it even more fantastic is its hyper-realness. Verisimilitude cannot substitute for newspaper clippings, wet pools of blood, and the itch of a real rope around a real man’s neck. This all happened, Capote reminds us with every tragic detail. A family met death while the family in the neighboring farmhouse slept through the night. You can google “Perry Smith” and stare into his drooping eyes, just as the Clutter family might have stared into those eyes, tied up, desperate, wondering but probably more so knowing that they’d be the last thing they’d see. Likewise you can google “Nancy Clutter” and see her brilliantly coiffed hair paired with a genuine smile.

While the Clutters were killed, so were the perpetrators, just later and in a different way. And looking at all their faces—their real faces—it’s easy to forget those human laws and it’s hard to say whom you pity more.

4 stars out of 5