Monthly Archives: July 2015

Intimate: An American Family Photo Album by Paisley Rekdal

Intimate Rekdal2012. Tupelo Press. Softcover. 261 pages.

Review:

After seeing Paisley Rekdal speak at the National Book Festival last year, I bought Intimate from the book sale area. I read it a few months ago, in two sittings. The book blends poetry, photographs, biography, imagined biography, memoir and essay. On one level, the book’s subject is the photographer Edward S. Curtis and his Apsaroke assistant and interpreter, Alexander Upshaw. Curtis famously photographed American Indians in the early 20th century, but only according to his ideas of authenticity: no contemporary clothes, no technology, no mixed-race children. At the Denver Art Museum, I saw a display which showed how Curtis erased an “errant” clock from one of his photographs.

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The erased clock is the circular shape between the two men, on the floor.

Thematically, then, Intimate is largely about self-identity. Rekdal’s mother is Chinese and her father is of Norwegian descent, and Rekdal mulls her mixed-race heritage alongside of Curtis’ legacy and Upshaw’s life to great, cumulative effect. Her book embodies what Rekdal said at the Festival: that connectivity is the primary goal of non-fiction. Why does this idea go with that idea? Why is this relevant today?

Intimate is a contemplative but also incisive book. Passages echo phrases and thoughts from earlier in the book. Opinions are asserted, and then re-examined. Though describing the book as a blend of writing styles may make it sound like an academic exercise, I found Intimate to be an accessible read, and was excited to return to it after my first sitting.

A couple of excerpts:

What strikes me now about the Curtis photos is how their beauty makes the vanishing of the American Indians seem not only inevitable but impossible to protest. (This, Curtis writes, is one of the stages through which from the beginning the Indians were destined to pass.) Though his sitters may be starving outside the frame, they look so attractive inside it: To be moved by their beauty replaces having to be moved politically on their behalf.

But if I do not meet the requirements of Chinese authenticity, neither do I always meet the requirements of mixed-race authenticity, if appearance is that identity’s defining factor. Strange facts, which other mixed-race people may have noticed as well: the face changes shape, the hair changes color. Some start looking more dark, whereas I’ve become more white. Many people are surprised to hear about my mixed ethnicity, though many others aren’t. Either way, I cannot seem to think of myself without thinking of this slice of me that remains absent, persistent and obvious yet invisible. I cannot see myself without seeing first my audience, those who are seeing me.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Dao Strom on Goodreads –I read this book in one day, captivated by its form, its daring, its reaching, its beautiful writing and images…

Shin Yu on Goodreads – “I was not able to focus on any aspect of the multiple narratives at work and felt that the collage approach worked against her in this collection.”

Courtney McDermott on NewPages.com – “The beauty of the book’s form is that it so perfectly marries the content—fragments of writing about fragments of history.”

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Mini-reviews!

Catching up with some mini-reviews! In order from the most recommended to the least recommended, with the last book rating quite far below the rest.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Smith’s wry, tumbling prose sucked me into this saga of two families living in England during the last few decades of the 20th century. It’s the writing style that I most loved – laughing as it blissfully skewered everything and everyone in sight and enjoying how it tossed around teeth metaphors like candy. I thought the plotting had its weak moments, particularly in the contrivances of the final climactic scene where everyone’s separate interests converge in one time and place. However, I would gladly read another book by Zadie Smith.

Crocodile on a Sandbank (Amelia Peabody #1) by Elizabeth Peters

Fun, compulsively readable mystery set in late 19th century Egypt. Loved Amelia’s take-charge attitude and the way she acquires a companion and friend in Evelyn. Though I don’t have a great track record for following up with mystery series, I hope to read more of the Amelia Peabody series in the future.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

First Rainbow Rowell book I heard of, and the first one I’ve read. I liked Rowell’s choice to set the novel in 1999; it makes the small-town newspaper setting poignant, without being heavy-handed. The banter between the two friends over email is fun. The romantic plotline is sweet though far from untroubled. I rolled with it, but it’s vulnerable to astute analysis – as I’ve read in other bloggers’ reviews.

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen

Listened to this book on audio while on a long drive up to Maine. In brief: a woman plots an elaborate revenge on her no-good husband who thought he had successfully murdered her. Skinny Dip is darkly humorous, baring its teeth when it comes to the destruction of the Everglades, which is a central part of the narrative. It went on a little too long, but the ending was satisfying.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

This fantasy novel had some great world-building especially the debauched kingdom city recklessly using defeated gods as their slaves. I enjoyed the matter-of-fact way the protagonist dealt with the fact of her likely doom at the start of the novel. As much as I enjoyed a number of the elements, however, I didn’t love the novel overall. By the time it ended, I didn’t feel the urge to read more of this series.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Budding cinephile Anna is sent to an elite boarding school in France for her senior year, to bolster her father’s conception of his own prestige. She is adopted by a small group of friends and falls in love with one of them. I enjoyed Anna’s inner monologue as she navigated the new school. The name-checking of translated fiction like Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was a nice touch. But the angst of Anna’s romantic adventures was more than I could take. The teenagers wander around making huge dramatic public scenes and my reaction was that they were embarrassing themselves and bothering strangers who were just trying to go about their day.

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

“It’s easy to forget that the harm done to a rape victim who is disbelieved can be at least as devastating as the harm done to an innocent man who is unjustly accused of rape. And without question, the former happens much more frequently than the latter.”

MissoulaKrakauer’s book Missoula, published this year, describes the course of several rape cases that occurred in the college town of Missoula, Montana. The book details the circumstances of the assaults as well as the response by police, university administration, the Missoula County Attorney’s office, the media, and the citizens of Missoula.

Missoula is a compelling but deeply upsetting book to read, not only because of the assaults on these women, but also the traumatic injustice of how their cases were indifferently and even hostilely handled by authorities. After one woman reported her rape to the police, an officer asked her if she had a boyfriend. She answered “No, I don’t. Why?” “And he said something to the effect of “Well, sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends, and regret it, and then claim they were raped.”

This conversation is just one example of a seemingly omnipresent and reflexive response to rape: an immediate suspicion and in many cases, a persistent belief, that the rape accusation is false. Even in the case of Beau Donaldson, who confessed on tape to raping his longtime friend Allison Huguet, his family and friends still spread rumors that it was a false accusation.

Then there were those people who didn’t participate in that level of denial, but still resisted the idea of Donaldson serving real time for his crime. Witnesses testified at Donaldson’s sentencing hearing that what he did was “out of character” and a “mistake”, despite a second woman coming forward to testify that Donaldson had also sexually assaulted her (her friends had to break down the door to stop it.) In this case and in others in the book, there is a disgusting amount of community hand-wringing over the possible ruination of these men’s reputations and futures – disgusting because of the substantially lower amount of concern given to the traumatized victims.

Krakauer’s book focuses on both the university adjudication process and the criminal justice system’s handling of these rape cases. Although criticism is aimed at both the police and the university officials, I think the Missoula County Attorney’s Office possibly edged out the others for receiving the harshest criticism in the book.

According to the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, from January 2008 through April 2012 the Missoula Police Department referred 114 reports of sexual assault of adult women to the MCAO for prosecution. A “referral” indicated that the police department had completed its investigation of the case in question, determined that there was probable cause to charge the individual accused of sexual assault, and recommended that the case be prosecuted. Of the 114 sexual assaults referred for prosecution, however, the MCAO filed charges in only 14 of those cases.

Among the people working for the MCAO, Kirsten Pabst is particularly singled out for criticism. She was the supervisor of MCAO’s sexual assault division during all but two months of the above time range. Her first appearance in the book is a description of her agreement to testify in support of an accused rapist, Calvin Harris, during a University Court proceeding in November 2011. Pabst had declined to prosecute him in criminal court. In her testimony to the University, Pabst characterized the case as “clear-cut”, though she had never talked to the victim, and Pabst’s description of the case got many pertinent details wrong.

Pabst resigned from MCAO in March 2012 to start her own law firm, and about a month later, became co-counsel in defending Univ. of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson in a very contentious and public rape trial. Her and her fellow defense counsel’s court behavior is weaselly and low; Krakauer points out that the current justice system fosters such behavior. In the end, Johnson was found not guilty, and Pabst was later elected to be the Missoula County Attorney, boosted by citizens pleased by her defense of the quarterback of their beloved football team. She still holds that office. (And is none too pleased about Krakauer’s book.)

Krakauer makes it clear from the beginning that Missoula is not unusual in the amount of rape cases it has, or in its many failures in handling those cases. This book is not about an anomaly, but about a national problem. Because the public and the justice system still do not grasp the realities of non-stranger rape, serial sexual predators are able to assault a number of victims without fear of being caught, because they don’t fit the stereotype of the “man jumping out from the bushes.”

I still remember the shock and anger I felt when I first encountered the reflexive belief that false rape accusations are prevalent. I was a college sophomore and had just learned about the molestation of a teenager I knew. I told some friends about it, and my friend’s boyfriend’s immediate response was to pontificate about false rape accusations and how they can destroy men’s reputations. Neither the victim or the perpetrator was anyone he knew – it happened in a different part of the country entirely. I was furious. He treated a story of someone I cared about as an opportunity to highlight what he apparently saw as the more pressing concern.

I’m glad I read Missoula, despite the drain on my emotions and the rise in my blood pressure. I’m glad Krakauer used his authorial stature and his research acumen to address this area of injustice.

I do recommend this book, though I should add that I read it as someone who has never been sexually assaulted or witnessed a sexual assault. Anyone who has qualms about reading it due to personal experience should feel okay with skipping it. Maybe read some reviews of it, short interviews of the author, etc if you want to be informed without going through the intense retelling of the rape cases.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Amy’s Book Obsession – “What an important exploration of rape and the justice system, using Missoula as a case study! After working with sexual assault victims for many years, this book really resonated with the experiences that I saw with my own clients (and a few friends who experienced rape & didn’t have great experiences with the justice system).”

Kalireads.com – “Krakauer never shies from providing riveting accounts on the toughest of topics, attitudes towards acquaintance rape in Missoula are as scary as any of the other material he’s covered.”

The Well-Read Redhead – “While I expected Krakauer to take particular issue with Jordan Johnson’s case (as he was acquitted of rape), I was compelled by the fact that his book does not attack the verdict itself, but rather the way in which it was reached.  Krakauer does not attempt to play judge-and-jury . . . what he does do is dismantle the appalling tactics used by the defense throughout the trial, as well as the many problems with how the prosecution moved forward with the victim’s case.”

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