Thursday, February 08, 2007

Reviewing Books I've Never Read

Last night I attended the monthly Varsity Letters reading series at a bar/club in Chinatown called Happy Ending Lounge. I found the event at once tremendously full of potential, and slightly disappointing. It's one of the great things about living in a major metropolitan area that any time someone has a good idea, they can almost always find the ingredients necessary to bring that idea to fruition, and always find a constituency that will be equally as excited about this idea. In this case, Carl Bialik (a writer at Gelf Magazine) has found the place (oddly enough, a club in Chinatown) the writers and the audience necessary to put together a monthly reading by Sports Writers. The set-up is less than ideal: it is a dark club where one expects to find dancing metrosexual males leering at under-dressed oversexualized young females, and perhaps the occasional slam-poetry reading in the dark lounge (so dark, in fact, one of the readers had trouble seeing his own book.) Alas, it is difficult to complain about atmosphere. Where else can you find a group of intellectual sports fans gathering to hear readings by well-know writers in an intimate setting where they are free to interact with the authors, both during a question and answer period and on a more personal basis, while milling around the lounge? Outside of a large city, the answer is "nowhere else." In a large city, if the answer has to be the inside of a dimly-lit lounge, then so be it. The three readers last night were: Jack Cavanaugh, an older journalist type with credentials coming out of his rumpled suit pockets, reading from his new book about the life of Jack Tunney; Katie Hnida, author of a memoir detailing her experiences as the first Div. I female football player; and S.L. Price, who writes for SI (including this year's Sportsman of the year article about D. Wade) and has written a book about Cuban baseball called Pitching Around Fidel. As you can guess, I attended the reading to see the last author. All three of them were intriguing for various reasons, though, so we'll break them down one-by-one followed by a "would I buy this book?" segment.

Jack Cavanaugh

I can't say enough about Cavanaugh's resume. The man is a professional journalist, through and through: NY Times, SI, Reader's Digest, Golf Mag., etc... He is an old-school sports writer, a species, which--for better or worse--is becoming extinct in today's internet-based world. He is a man of research, investigative hands on reporting, who personally invests himself in his subjects and it shows: he knows of which he speaks. He spoke about Jack Tunney as knowlegeably as you'd expect from a man who researched and wrote a 300-page tome on the little known boxer who defeated Jack Dempsey in the 20's. He is, without a doubt, an expert on the subject. What he is not is much of a public speaker. This happens all the time with writers. I for one can write my thoughts about 100 times more clearly than I could ever speak them because I can draw the connections without wandering (too far) afield, whereas, when speaking I tend to forget the subject from whence I deviated. Cavanaugh had this same affliction but to a severe degree (even when reading his own work he constantly interjected random thoughts, and even complete stories, into the middle of his reading. In a cute, grandfatherly way, he was laughable in his innocence (he said things like, "I can't tell you what happens at the end of the book because my publicist says I need to tease the audience so they will buy it!") And though his reading was a bit slipshod (thanks to his personality, and to some extent the poor lighting) he did the best job of the three in really explaining and illuminating the subject of his book. He discussed Tunney as a unique persona (for an athlete)who liked to read Shakespeare, and married an heiress, despite his modest Brooklyn upbringing. He made you want to get to know more about a topic that, without reading the book, you could not appreciate; and he made you feel that without doing so, you'd be missing out on something significant.

Would you buy this book? Absolutely. If it wasn't hardcover I would have bought it on site. This was a classic case of a reading where you have no interest in the topic before the author speaks about it, yet you come out of it wondering how you'd never heard about, or read about this before.

SL Price

As I mentioned, Price was the reason I attended the event. As far as speaking goes, he was the best among the three, by far. He knew his audience, and he catered his speech to that audience. He discussed the importance of a good subject, but more importantly a great "Get," the storyline that makes a story sell (our next author seems to have heeded this advice.) He talked about D. Wade, and his relationship with his mother, an alcoholic, drug-abusing criminal, who has now cleaned up and is the proud mother of the sportsman of the year (the kind of human interest story SI does better than most.) What Price didn't talk enough about, for my money, was what I went there to see: he didn't discuss much the methods he used in researching his stories (particularly the story of Pitching Around Fidel, his book about Cuban Baseball.) In fact, he hardly mentioned the Cuban baseball book, other than to mention he had tried to avoid the political undertones of the story, which seemed unfortunate to me, as I think those undertones are the heart of that particular story. I enjoyed his speech, I only wish he had been more aggressive in pitching his book, instead of his trade.

Would you buy the book? Yes, but not because of the reading. Simply because it is a topic that interests me. I don't think Price did much to attract any new readers last night. One of the highlights though was blogger Captain Caveman of With Leather asking the Sports Illustrated writer how he feels about the down-fall of Time, and the magazine industry as a whole, in the shadow of the internet age.

Katie Hnida

I'm not going to make any friends with the Dave Zirin's of the world with this one, I fear. I've tried my damnedest to argue my point with friends and no matter how logical my conclusions, no matter how relevant my points, I always come down on the side of this issue that makes me a bad person, a sexist, or a cynic. Because, here's the thing, I don't know that I trust Hnida. That doesn't mean I think Hnida is a false accuser, it just means that despite my desire to believe her, and despite my liberal politics, even despite my tendency to always fall for the victim of an alleged crime; no matter how hard I try, I keep coming to the same conclusion about the Katie Hnida story--something just doesn't seem right. Unfortunately, Katie's reading only reaffirmed by doubts. In my defense, and because I am terribly sensitive to the fact that my opinion is an unpopular one, I want to reitirate that in my heart I want to believe Hnida. I want to believe we live in a world where nobody would embellish or flasify such a private violation as rape. We don't. I defended the victim of the Duke Rape case, even as the prosecutions case fell apart. I still believe something more than stripping happened in that house, and the woman was a victim of some sort of harassment (Hnida, for her part, has called the Duke incident "frustrating," adding that, "any false accusations that are out there make it harder for those of us who have been raped or attacked to press charges."

The Hnida rape case perplexes me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my constant battle with the moral question of how fair it is to doubt someone in a situation like this. But to see Hnida reading last night was to realize that the sanctity of the situation has been unloosed, at Hnida's own doing. Stating her fear of having her sexual and personal history dragged through the mud, as the reason she has avoided pressing charges and naming the man she accuses of raping her, Hnida has, nevertheless been willing to make herself a public figure in the name of selling her story. She says one of the biggest reasons for writing the book is "for me to spread to other victims to not just keep quiet. So many women don't say anything to anyone. They just hold it inside by themselves." And yet, ostensibly, Hnida is still keeping quiet, isn't she? She has still not named her rapist, thereby implicating an entire team as the possible rapist, and she has still not sought justice for the man she claims sent her into a spiraling depression, and ended her career at Colorado.

The unfortunate thing for Hnida is, she did not speak up immediately after she was raped, but rather waited until other females had come forward claiming rape by the CU football team. Hnida's detractors, perhaps unfairly, wonder how seriously a claim can be taken when it is only brought forward after other accusations (the proverbial kicking of a dog that's already down.) It didn't help that Katie's accusations against a team atmosphere of sexual derision, fostered by Coach Gary Barnett came a few years after a meeting in which Barnett told Hnida she would not be making the team her sophomore year (she then transferred to University of New Mexico.) Which brings us to last night's reading, in which a question about Barnett brought visible anger to Hnida's face. It was the kind of reaction you'd expect when discussing Hnida's rapist. Nobody had the audacity to ask Hnida about that, however.

What got Gary Barnett into so much trouble at Colorado, and what became "the last straw" in his tenure there, was a quote in which Barnett said "Not only was Katie a girl, she was a terrible kicker." (in the context of the press conference, this seems a less inflamatory, but still unnecessary, response.) Hnida claims this quote bothered her less than a supposed email Barnett wrote following her accusation in which he asked how aggresively to approach the subject of her sexual conquests. Katie sees this as Barnett responding to a rape allegation by trying to shoot the messenger. Some former co-workers disagree: "When the story about Katie came out, there were many offers from people who wanted to come forward to discredit her," said the source. "Gary didn’t let them do that, out of sensitivity to Katie’s situation." Katie claims this email from Barnett offended her far more than his "terrible kicker comment." So I hope it won't offend Katie, if I also add on that she is a terrible writer.

The title of Hnida's book (Still Kicking: My Dramatic Journey as the First Woman to Play College Football) speaks volumes about the way Hnida preceives herself. First of all "dramatic" is an understatement. Secondly, there is no doubt that Hnida (rightfully so, perhaps) sees herself as a pioneer well before she sees herself a victim. Hnida's reading was about 10-12 minutes long, a full reading of her prologue, and it breaks down (crudely) like this: 9-10 minutes of Katie describing her the first point a woman ever scored in D-I (her PAT attempt in a blow-out bowl game) followed by about 1-2 minutes of "as great as I felt then, I couldn't forget the struggles I had been through" type-stuff. Actual lines from the reading include "it was a bone chilling, shivering cold rain." and "I had so many layers on I looked like Frosty the Snowman." All of this was read slowly, in an affected tone, with dramatic pauses. She may have been reading Invisible man. The thing is, not many people care about that extra point, and nobody cares about it more than they care about the scandal of the rape allegations. Hnida has to know that, and it's hard to tell just how much it bothers her. It's hard to know if Hnida is aware that the story sells because it is a scandalous story about a sexy female, and that is the vehicle through which she was able to get the attention necesary to tell what she thinks is the truly important story of her life: that meaningless extra point. It's hard to imagine she isn't at least aware of that. The cover of her book features Hnida's perfect smile, gorgeous eyes and long blond hair, framed over a still shot of her kicking a field goal (helmetless) with that long ponytail flying wild. She spoke last night in a black dress with high-heeled leather boots. Sex sells, even the tabboo variety. Just ask the gentlemen she playfully flirted with in the bathroom line, or Captain Caveman, who nearly fell out of his barstool trying to fumble through his pockets to give her his card.

During the question and answer session I didn't raise my hand, and I am glad I didn't. It would have taken at least as many words as I've written here to relate the complexity of how I feel about this situation (and maybe I still haven't done so.) But there is one question I wish I had asked, as she cozied into a corner table with four other women (friends, I suppose) and poured them all a bottle of bubbly (an odd choice, I thought, for someone who'd just finished talking about the nightmares she endured.) I wanted to ask her if it wouldn't set a better example for all of those rape victims for whom she says she wrote the book, if she were to stop being quiet and name, and perhaps bring to justice, the man who raped her. If, perhaps, it wouldn't be of more solace to her than any amount of money she might make off of this book? I didn't ask her, and I wish I had. But again, if I had done so, I would have been the one who came off bad. I left her to her champagne celebration.

Would I buy the book? The moral answer here is "no," right? Or is it "yes." Regardless. I don't think I will buy the book. But I am sure at some point I will take it out of the library or borrow it...or something.

10 Comments:

At 6:00 PM, Anonymous doug said...

Well I guess thats why you should never review a book you havent read. I dont understand how you can form b.s. opinions based on a short reading and q and a instead of reading an entire book to get the full story. I did read the book and I was especially interested in it for two reasons: I am a huge college football fan as well as being the brother of a rape victim. First, Katie Hnida accomplished a lot by becoming the first woman to play in a Division One football game as well as the first to score points.Second, you make yourself out as a "sensitive" soul by not asking questions or "daring" to question the writer's motives. Well, frankly your blog illustrates the ignorance about rape and sexual assault that permeates society. You want things done your way or it's the wrong way. It took my sister 10 years to finally open up.And then she closed right back down again. I did a lot of research on this subject because I wanted to understand it better- not pass flash judgement. The book was about football, not just the rape. It was an easy read, but there's little wrong with that. This woman went through hell and you want her to go through more. And what's the problem with a woman being pretty- does that mean she should be penalized for looks? She's asking for it? And the bathroom line comment was totally out of line. Just because someone tries to be friendly- others take it as a flirt or come-on. Man, you are one big pseudo-intellectual who needs to come down off your high horse and learn more about the real world-- it's not all black and white. You must be one frustrated dude.

 
At 6:46 PM, Blogger jake said...

Yeah Geoff! You don't even spell your name right! Yeah!

(Provide anecdotal evidence to make generalizations about all of mankind here)

 
At 7:48 PM, Blogger g.m.s. said...

Doug-

Well, I do appreciate your input on my post, but I think we are going to have to agree to disagree here. First of all, what happened to your sister is a tragedy, nothing short of it. I have a close friend who was a victim of rape. It's a lifelong burden. However, your response illuminates two things that I foresaw in my own post: first, that I am automatically the bad guy for being distrustful of Hnida's version of events; and secondly, that I will automatically be seen as having no sensitivity or understanding about the subject of rape as an entirety based solely on my distrust of this one individual. You are entirely correct that not everything is black and white, and that is precisely why I wrote what I did about the Hnida story: because if her story is the "black" and Barnett's story is the "white" then the truth of what happened likely lies somewhere in the "grey." Now, Doug, because you decided to personally attack me based on our disagreement over one person's version of a disputed event, I will gladly respond to your accusations and misinterpretations of who I am and what I stand for line by line.

"Well I guess thats why you should never review a book you havent read. I dont understand how you can form b.s. opinions based on a short reading and q and a instead of reading an entire book to get the full story." ~ Actually, Doug, I am basing my opinions on the Hnida rape story (something that took place five years ago, and became public two years ago; and that Hnida herself, claims is ancillary to the book) on my pretty thorough research on the course of events at CU. I edited an article about the Barnett firing, these things usually require more than a superficial understanding of the course of events. The title of this blog post was "Reviewing Books I have never read," which is actually a pretty inane idea, if you think about it. Especially because I didn't review any of the books. If you can show me where I passed any judgment on the text of the book I'd be glad to remove it. I will say that from what I heard of the prologue the writing is very weak. Apparently asking a writer to write with more than cliches and similes makes me some kind of "psuedo-intellectual."

"I did read the book and I was especially interested in it for two reasons: I am a huge college football fan as well as being the brother of a rape victim." ~ I have expressed my sorrow for what happened for your sister. I have a close personal friend who died of a drug overdose. This fact did not preclude me from disbelieving James Frey.

"First, Katie Hnida accomplished a lot by becoming the first woman to play in a Division One football game as well as the first to score points." ~ I'm not sure I agree with you regarding the significance of what Hnida did. In terms of what she accomplished by being the first woman to score points. She accomplished one point. It's a story, sure, I'm just not sure it warrants its own book.

"Second, you make yourself out as a 'sensitive' soul by not asking questions or 'daring' to question the writer's motives." ~ I really don't believe I said anything of the sort Doug. What I said was "I'm sensitive to the fact that my opinions is unpopular." You have proven my sensitivity to be nothing short of dead-on. I struck a nerve with you, solely because I am not sure I believe Hnida. So much of a nerve that you go on to accuse me of ignorance.

"Well, frankly your blog illustrates the ignorance about rape and sexual assault that permeates society. You want things done your way or it's the wrong way." ~ I'm not sure where in the range of hyperbole to utter bullshit this statement lands. Doug, what exactly, about my inner-dialogue over this matter is illustrative of ignorance? You show me one person on either side of the Hnida debate who you think has shown a more comprehensive, astute attempt at understanding the complexities of the situation than I have. The fact that we disagree on this doesn't make me ignorant about the case, and CERTAINLY doesnt make me ignorant about rape in general. It just means we disagree. And if 'I want things done my way or it's the wrong way,' then I'd like to know what my way is, exactly. My way, thus far, has been to try my damnedest to understand the situation, and to indubitably say I believe Hnida's story. Unfortunately I can't say that is the case. But I am more than willing to listen to people who do believe that.

"It took my sister 10 years to finally open up.And then she closed right back down again. I did a lot of research on this subject because I wanted to understand it better- not pass flash judgement." ~ I can appreciate that. I did a lot of research, as well. Without getting too personal, I seriously hope your sister had the courage to press charges against her rapist, or at least name him, and not just say he was "one of this group of 150 guys."

"The book was about football, not just the rape." ~ I got this sense, yes. And I specifically wrote that I am of the opinion that Hnida thinks the football aspect of the story is the real heart of the story. I don't see where I say anything to dispute this.

"It was an easy read, but there's little wrong with that." Fair enough. Marley and Me was an easy read and I enjoyed it, quite a bit.

"This woman went through hell and you want her to go through more." ~ This is where you really lose me, Doug. First of all I believe the crux of my argument was I am dubious about the amount of hell that she did, in fact, go through. I provided some evidence, and an argument that says there is more to the Hnida/CU case than Hnida's story, alone. And to say "I want her to go through more hell" is a complete empty statement. First of all, I don't think Hnida is too concerned about how I feel about the matter, and secondly, I am POSITIVE she has heard much, much worse from some of her detractors than a simple "inner-monologue" about whether or not I can conclude definitively that her story is "truth." I wish Hnida the best. Bottles of champagne at every stop along the book-tour. But that's a seperate issue than whether or not I believe her.

"And what's the problem with a woman being pretty- does that mean she should be penalized for looks? She's asking for it? And the bathroom line comment was totally out of line. Just because someone tries to be friendly- others take it as a flirt or come-on." ~ Nothing wrong at all with a woman being pretty. I love pretty women. And why is it that whenever someone disagrees with a woman's version of a rape, they are accused of saying the woman was asking for it? Is that what Hnida was trying to say when she expressed her disbelief in the Duke accuser's story?! What's out of line about saying she was flirting with a guy on the line for the bathroom. Understandably we all have different definitions of flirting. Personally, I think putting your hands on a stranger's chest, and giving coy looks constitutes flirting. I didn't pass any judgment on her for doing so, as far as I recall.

"Man, you are one big pseudo-intellectual who needs to come down off your high horse and learn more about the real world-- it's not all black and white. You must be one frustrated dude." ~ You are more than entitled to base this opinion about me on one post in which I happen to disagree with your assessment of an alleged rape, and alleged harassment. Feel free to do so. Me? I don't really understand how you can form b.s. opinions based on a short reading and q and a instead of reading an entire book to get the full story

gms

 
At 8:30 PM, Anonymous doug said...

"Doug, what exactly, about my inner-dialogue over this matter is illustrative of ignorance? You show me one person on either side of the Hnida debate who you think has shown a more comprehensive, astute attempt at understanding the complexities of the situation than I have"
---------------------------
My , we certainly are full our ourselves, aren't we. You are a self absorbed ass. I'm so glad we have people in the world to enlighten us. And thank you for doing a better job than any other person in the world at explaining abd understanding the situation. How "astute."
And yes, this final commentary of mine is opinion, not a line by line breakdown or analysis of your reply. You evidently deign to show us lesser folk the light- but you lose us in your full of shit prose. And if you truly think you are smarter than the rest of the world--- wow. (and frankly, that's just how you come across).

 
At 5:35 AM, Anonymous Brian said...

She looks too similar to ann coulter to be considered "pretty"

Do people like Doug just troll the internets looking for shit to yell at people about? Like, he goes on technorati and types in "Rape" and then scrolls down until he finds someone who disagrees with him?

Brother, sexual assault is more pervasive than anyone would like to think and chances are that we all know someone affected by it. Thinking the way you do- that your perceptions of sexual assault and its aftermath are the only appropriate ones- does nothing but limit discussion on a topic that probably needs the opposite.

 
At 5:54 AM, Blogger g.m.s. said...

Doug-

The key word in that sentence was "attempt." I am not so full of myself to imagine that I can "understand and explain" the situation to "the rest of (you.)" My point is, and continues to be, that you attacked me for showing an ignorance towards the subject of rape based on the fact that I didn't accept Hnida's story as the fact of what happened at CU. I think if you will re-read my post, you'll see that I try very hard to "side" with Katie, but in the end I don't. Ignorance, Doug, is to formulate an opinion on something based on a willfull lack of knowlege, and then to stubbornly stand by that opinion at all costs. I don't see that being the case in my post. What my post was meant to show (and either I didn't do a good enough job, or you just don't get it) is the level to which I have tried to understand and empathize with both sides of this story. In the end, I conclude that certain aspects of Hnida's story, and the way she has failed to name her rapist, leaves me dubious. As has been the case since 2004 when Reilly's article broke, I have been looking for the evidence, and for the missing pieces to prove Hnida's story true. I want to believe Hnida. And that's what this post is about. Trying to understand a very fucking complex situation. I think Brian hit the nail on the head: "Thinking the way you do- that your perceptions of sexual assault and its aftermath are the only appropriate ones- does nothing but limit discussion on a topic that probably needs the opposite." Again, if you can find an article or blog post about this subject that shows somebody TRYING to understand this situation and not just draw blind conclusions (ie "a rape definitely occured, and this is what's wrong with college athletics"; or "Hnida is a liar, she should go jump off a cliff and die. Go Buffs!!") then I would love to see it. Chances are that the article would not be tinged with a hint of ignorance.

 
At 9:47 AM, Blogger jake said...

If I Raped Katie Hnida, This is How It Happened. Also, I Like to Sky.

By, Jeremy Bloom

 
At 10:03 AM, Blogger g.m.s. said...

Ladies and gentlemen, Jake!

 
At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

Jake, the verb meaning to go down a hill on two planks is 'Ski', not sky. If you're going to be representing the unabashedly offensive community, please do it with proper spelling

 
At 2:17 PM, Blogger jake said...

Woops, meant ski.

My bad.

 

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