movie: Confirmation (2016)

I only found out that this movie existed thanks to my current favorite podcast, Another Round, so thanks to Heben and Tracy for that! And so timely now.

I read Anita Hill’s memoir, Speaking Truth to Power, more than five years ago. It was a powerful experience: she did a beautiful job telling her story, and it’s a hell of a story to begin with. I was nine years old when Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings took place. I don’t remember them as something I directly experienced; my knowledge of these events comes from hearing other people (like my parents) talk about them, and from reading her book.

This movie is an excellent follow-up as well. If you’re looking for an education about what happened, I suggest Hill’s book for its level of detail. But if you’re looking to grasp the feeling, the emotional truth of this time period, the movie does a good job. Hill, Thomas, and Joe Biden are all played by actors who come remarkably close to their roles not only in physical appearance but in movements, speech patterns, and mannerisms. The feelings (on one side) of shock and concern and ill-boding about what will come of all this, and (on the other side) of indignation and impatience and real threat unlooked for, are well captured. Again, as someone who doesn’t remember viewing the confirmation hearings when they happened, I spent some time pausing this movie to pull up old video from the real events, comparing both the wording and the delivery. It’s pretty spot on.

All of which means it was hard to watch. I guess there may be people out there who question the truth of Hill’s allegations, but I can hardly imagine who they might be. Not women, for one thing, because all of us women who have lived and worked in the world know that these things happen, and we know well why a woman might not speak up when it happens, as Hill’s critics kept harping on about. It should go without saying, but: I am horrified that we are seeing these events play out again twenty-freaking-seven years later with Brett Kavanaugh. Horrified.

You can read Anita Hill’s own words on this subject in an article for the New York Times: “How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right.”

Weirdly, though, I found the movie less difficult to watch than Anita Hill’s book was to read. You’d think the movie would be more visceral because of its visual and aural elements. But Hill’s writing admirably matches her speaking: calm, measured tone, far from devoid of emotion but thoughtful and thorough. Like the lawyer she is, she is careful with fact and clear about where she speculates. She relies on the strengths of her arguments and the truth. I found this careful telling even more moving than the movie.

In a nutshell? A recommendation for this movie, and an even stronger one for Hill’s book. And a sound shame-on-you for our country still struggling to treat women with respect, like as if we were real human beings, and for punishing and not believing us when we speak up. I hope someday the cases of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford will cause history students to gasp in disbelief, rather than nodding their heads in recognition of the same old story.


Rating: 8 cases.

did not finish: Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways by Riley Hanick

I’m sure this is a good book, but not for me at this time.

The idea is definitely intriguing: three creations, linked by place and certain themes. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Jackson Pollock’s Mural; and Eisenhower’s development of the interstate highway system. Riley Hanick is in Iowa. Just four years after Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock’s mural for her Manhattan townhome (where “the narrow width of [her] hallway would have made [proper viewing of the painting] impossible”), she gave it to the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Later, Kerouac’s first draft of On the Road, on a single long scroll of paper, will be on display in the same museum. This museum will flood, and the art will itself end up on the road, in transit.

An interesting concept, to weave these three threads together, three movements. Jeremy recommended it to me in part because I was writing about Houston’s Menil Collection, and traveling home to visit it (after Hurricane Harvey, no less, with notes on what precautions the Menil took). This was a wise recommendation for obvious reasons. But as it turns out… Hanick’s style is sketched, abstract, sometimes taking the form of very short chunks, and conflating his two Jacks until I was often unsure of whom we were talking about. His pronouns run from ‘he’ to ‘they’ to ‘we’ to ‘I’ and I was frequently lost. It was nearly 100 pages in when he first quoted Gertrude Stein, and I thought, aha! that is my problem here: there is too much of the Stein here.

As I put this book down, I remain slightly interested, and in another world, one where I have lots of free reading time, I’d fantasize about picking it back up again. But in this life, when I have too much reading to do that will help me (as a student, as a writer, as a book reviewer) and that I can understand, Three Kinds of Motion is not for me.


I’m forgoing the rating this time.

guest review and more: Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, from Pops

About three years ago, I reviewed Strong Inside. My father just got around to reading the galley copy I gave him when I was done with it, and he left the following as a comment on that post. I thought it deserved better billing, here.

I am so glad you left me this book so I would eventually read it, now three years later.

I was in high school becoming obsessed with basketball around the time Wallace became the first black athlete in the SEC. He played basketball for Vanderbilt, a university that would later accept my application although I attended elsewhere. I was entirely unaware of Wallace at the time, but I knew most of the prominent players and teams that comprised Wallace’s sports world. I was also ignorant of the more significant social struggle that defined his life, which despite other proximities I learned largely in retrospect; that’s an education that continues today with the help of narratives like this one.

His story is iconic in so many ways, and it is a gift that Maraniss discerned this and spent eight years preparing to tell it: Wallace was a boy raised amidst Nashville’s version of the civil rights movement, with maturity enough to see beyond his social place, and beyond just sports, to recognize potential both in higher education and his prospect as a pioneer during a nation’s essential historical moment.

The result is singular insight into the civil rights movement, from the intimate perspective of a special person at very specific time and place. As such, this book reminds us how capricious history can be as it consists of stories we choose to preserve and honor. Thousands of people contributed to this era’s history; few are as compelling and admirable as Perry Wallace, from start to finish–or as thoughtfully captured as Maraniss has done here. One must wonder, how many other such strands of history go missing?

That’s perhaps the saddest part of this tale, how many important stories go overlooked.

One more bit, on that very last thought, a quote from the book describing Wallace’s thoughts upon finally being fully accepted at Vanderbilt 40 years later:

Here he stood, achieving closure in a joyful setting, when in so many cases throughout history, African Americans who had accomplished significant things had ultimately been cut down in tragic ways.

In an email to me, Pops offered a more personal series of reflections, and permission to share here.

During the summer of 1968 my parents arranged for me and a friend to drive a Jeep wagon from Houston to New England for a relocating family. At a very immature 17, I found it an amazing and daunting challenge of independence at the time, and still. We chose a route through the deep south with no clue as to events or risks; I have no idea why, or why no one counseled us about this. So we passed south of Perry Wallace, but – more significant and relevant – the chasm between our paths was immense.

We passed through DC in late June soon after the Poor People’s Campaign had been forcefully evicted from their Resurrection City shanty town (3000 people) on the National Mall after more than a month, a time that included heavy rainstorms that resulted in a muddy morass. MLK had been killed in April during preparations; RFK was killed during the occupation and his funeral procession passed through Resurrection City en route to Arlington Cemetery. When we drove through, we marveled at the filthy desolation on the Mall, and kept on going.

A particularly nostalgic and tragic anecdote (of so many!) was the page-long excerpt in Strong Inside from RFK’s speech at VU, less than 3 months before he was killed. One never hears such hopeful and ambitious expressions of American idealism today, from anyone; but I remember that naive 1960s legacy, which we were trying to build on in the early 70s.

Sports references – so many! I wonder if you recognized the name Harry Edwards, the radical sports leader described in the book; he was very influential amongst prominent athletes like Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and later Bill Walton, well into the 70s.

I remember the 1966 story when the all-black team from tiny Texas Western (now UTEP) beat Kentucky to be national champs in El Paso (!!) – such a stunning sign of things to come.

A major star from my Houston Memorial HS was Jerry Kroll, who from 1967 helped lead (with Mike Maloy) the Davidson teams mentioned in the book, so I knew of Davidson and followed their success at the time, as did Wallace. I knew most of the prominent player names Wallace crossed paths with: Rick Mount, Charlie Scott, Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy (you know that one!). Wallace was mentored later by famous 76ers coach Jack Ramsey.

The University of Houston had strong teams then, especially with Elvin Hayes; in January 1968 the “Game of the Century” had UH facing Alcindor’s UCLA team (both undefeated) in the first ever college basketball game on national TV, and the first basketball in the Astrodome. It held up to the hype, I followed it closely, and UH won by 2 in a great game. I wished I had gone, but imagine trying to watch a game way out there in the center of the Dome!

A larger iconic moment was the Mexico City Olympics later that year, with Smith and Carlos raising black-fisted gloves in the awards ceremony; a very powerful moment with the whole world watching, and again I was paying attention because of the confluence of sports and cultural political events.

He couldn’t stop, sending more links and notes, but I couldn’t help but pass these on as well. It’s a fine example of how reading can open up into contemplations of all the parts of life. He says, “you know how these things accumulate when you nuzzle into a subject.”

I’m sending on this essay about the Poor People’s Campaign only because it overlaps with my recalled 1968 history (see photo below) – a history in focus now with a year’s worth of 50-year anniversaries.

photo credit – click to enlarge

Also: The Atlantic has a whole series on King, including this essay from Jesmyn Ward about her family’s legacy of poverty and why she is raising her own kids back home in Mississippi.

David J. & Janice L. Frent / Corbis / Getty, from here

Also, another in that series: Rev Barber (of North Carolina Moral Mondays fame) reminds us that King’s ‘three evils’ (racism, poverty and war) are still very immediate, and are now four (environmental decline.)

Also, my anecdote: as MLK’s multi-racial poverty campaign was ramping up, he was referencing in part The Other America, a classic still on my shelf authored by an American ‘democratic socialist’ in 1962.

Plenty of reading there for today, friends.

Thanks, Pops.

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

Breathe (2017)

Breathe is a lovely movie. If not the finest accomplishment of the art form, it was a very enjoyable, positive, uplifting story; and if that sounds sentimental, then guilty as charged, what do you want from me, I’m human. I appreciated knowing that it was a true story because I loved the background (nodding to the necessity for ADA legislation, for instance) of looking for hints of today in this version of yesterday. Disability rights matter to me. In the selfish way that our own experiences shape our concerns in the world, I have a bad knee; I had knee surgery some years ago and needed special accommodations a time or two, and my frustrations in meeting even my simple, and temporary, needs gave me a greater appreciation for the much bigger concerns of more profoundly and permanently challenged people.

This is a rather sentimental story, with a love story forming at least part of its heart. Robin and Diana meet and fall in love, and they marry around the time that he falls ill with a fever that ends in his total paralysis by polio: “you can’t even breathe for yourself.” He becomes depressed in the hospital (and who can blame him?!) but she won’t “let” him die, insists that he pursue his life anyway, and they have to break him out of the hospital against the wishes of its administration, in an era when polio patients were apparently, according to this film, basically imprisoned. What follows is a family of friends making their own way: building him a wheelchair that incorporates his breathing apparatus, dealing with the obvious calamity of the breathing apparatus failing, and gradually freeing him to travel the world. They attend a disability conference in Germany where they have to literally break the doorway out of a hotel room to fit his chair in (this is where I see promises of ADA). He lives a longer and fuller life than anyone thought possible, frees some of his co-polio-sufferers from the hospital/prison system, and dies at home with his family with him–in an assisted suicide, by the way, thereby touching on another medical-ethics hot button.

This film absolutely deals in emotions, and gets a wee bit saccharine; but it felt really good, I learned some things, and it was, well, sweet. I had a perfectly nice time watching this movie and I cried at the end and then felt better again. There are worse ways to spend an evening.


Rating: objectively, 7, but I give 8 dusty Spanish roads for emotional impact.

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Charles Fréger

A rich collection of photography explores the Japanese mythology that both celebrates and protects longstanding traditions.

yokainoshima

Yokainoshima is a lushly beautiful collection by photographer Charles Fréger (Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage), with commentary by experts on his Japanese subjects. Yōkai are “spirits, ghosts and other monsters,” or, literally, “bewitching apparitions.” On Yokainoshima, the “island of monsters,” and in Japanese culture, these gods and ghosts emphasize links to other worlds, in which humans are not the only inhabitants.

The bulk of Yokainoshima is filled with nearly 200 glossy color images of masked and costumed performers representing specific yōkai in grassy fields, beaches, forests and snowfields. Standing alone, these powerful, vibrant photographs offer stories and evoke emotions. Descriptions of the depicted characters, groups and customs (located at the back of the book) elucidate the mysteries offered by the images: seasonal rites requesting fertility, abundance and protection. Short essays portray a culture defined by its spirits, monsters and connections, enriching Fréger’s striking visual art.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 pieces of straw.
%d bloggers like this: