Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Villainy ("I Wear the Black Hat" by Chuck Klosterman)

Towards the end of I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman, there is a section--a chapter? an essay?--in which the author discusses 90s gangsta rap group NWA; Jack Tatum and John Matuszak of the Oakland Raiders; their team's now deceased longtime owner, Al Davis; and Dutch auteur Lars von Trier, whose films seek out controversial topics like rape, racism, xenophobia, and adultery, and handle them, well, controversially. It's a bizarre combination of people that, outside of a Pynchon novel, would never have any valid reason for being assembled in one text. But in the ever-churning cultural-societal melange that is the mind of Chuck Klosterman, there is a perfect reason for this unique assortment of men to exist:  they are all, in their own special way, villains.

Specifics aside--and each of their individual connections to "villainy" are as interesting as they are diverse--Klosterman is attempting to understand just what makes someone a villain. The usually tendency to condemn a person as a villainous figure is based on inconsistencies and undefined, ever-changing criteria:  for example, someone like Hitler should undoubtedly be considered a villain, his actions having been responsible for the deaths of millions, but other men who committed similar crimes, or even brought about the deaths of two or three times as many people--Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong--are not placed within the same circle as Hitler. We've isolated Hitler, made him out to be the one and only Ultimate Villain, even when the very criteria used to judge his villainy judges other men as even worse. It's as though, in evaluating the wickedness of men, we administer the Hitler Test, and often the subject scores higher than the control.*

Similarly, villainy is often defined by the era in which its potential villains live. Klosterman examines these discrepancies as they occurred over the last two or three decades--Bill Clinton in the 90s versus Bill Clinton in 2012, Bernhard Goetz in the crime-addled New York City of the late 80s versus Bernhard Goetz today--but he could easily have reached back centuries and found examples that are just as pertinent.** For instance, an adulteress in the 1600s--let's call her Hester--would be shunned by her townspeople as the pinnacle of sinfulness and egotism--a living, breathing danger to those around her--while, four hundred years into the future, she'd be little more than a prototypical American woman, possibly even a reality TV star, some sort of "real" housewife whose lack of job skills allows her to spend all day drinking and being catty towards other, similarly hobby-less women.

But in reading Klosterman's book--a collection of pseudo-essays, each connected by the theme of villainy and containing an eccentric selection of figures real and fake--it becomes apparent that our author isn't too interested in deciphering a formula for villainy; in fact, within the first few pages, his theory--"villains don't care"--is pretty well established, and it carries Klosterman through the remainder of the text. Which is actually just as well, not because his theory isn't fascinating in its own way, but because, page after page, watching Klosterman wax philosophic over such a strange company of men and women, somehow drawing them into a web of similarities that makes perfect logical sense, is downright beautiful. Over the course of 200 pages, he manages to boil up a mixture of artists, politicians, athletes, millionaires, presidents, rappers, hackers, comedians, coaches...and make it work, despite all expectations to the contrary, as a stew of disparate ingredients that goes down smooth and tastes delicious.

Which brings us back to NWA, the Raiders, and Lars von Trier. The first is depicted as "villainous" only in an archaic sense:  they sang of race, violence, and inequality at a time when doing so, especially as blatantly and unapologetically as they did, was seen as little more than stoking the flames of civil unrest. Davis is a "villain" because he ran his organization with the sole purpose of winning, which is an obvious goal for the owner of a franchised football team, but in doing so he removed any accountability for the actions of his players:  as long as they worked to win, he didn't seem to care how much damage lay in their wake.

Tatum and Matuszak--a defensive back and a defensive end, respectively--are seen as "villains" for their actions while players in the NFL; Tatum is remembered for paralyzing wide receiver Darryl Stingley from the chest down, an act he never fully apologized for, while Matuszak is depicted as someone whose dangerous lifestyle was either caused by--or was the cause of--how the public perceived his role on the team, which is almost paradoxical in a way:  does a player's violent off-field behavior inform his violent on-field actions, or do his violent on-field actions inform his violent off-field behavior? Does the player beget the man, or does the man beget the player?

Klosterman has no real say in the matter--he even refers to Matuszak's situation as being "less clear-cut" in comparison to Tatum's. However, his short sections on von Trier, specifically the filmmaker's over-eagerness to stroke controversy by speaking of Hitler and Judaism in an intentionally misleading way, offer some guidance in the matter. Von Trier is villainous for the sake of being so; he makes statements that are incendiary and all but certain to cause a stir, and he makes sure they're spoken in such a way that the over-eager and context-shunning media will take the bait. (Anyone who's seen interviews with Von Tier, like the one he did for The Story of Film, know he can be an intelligent and charming man, much against the self-made caricature of himself.) But does acting like a villain (and not meaning it) necessarily make one a villain?

By the end of the book, there is no clear answer here...and that's quite possibly the point. Just as there's no definite answer on von Trier--and NWA, and Davis, and the two Raiders players--there is also no conclusive evidence linking any one person to the label of Pure Villain. Even someone like Hitler, who is far and away the closest we have ever come to understanding pure evil--whatever that terms means--cannot be the standard-bearer, the definition, the model by which all others are judged. "Villain" is such an in-flux idea, constantly moving to fit the changing morals and ideals of our society--our hundreds of societies--that trying to wrangle a consistent measure is pointless. But that doesn't mean reading about them can't be just a little fun, never mind how slightly villainous that idea in itself might sound.

*This is a terrible analogy, so if you prefer.... Imagine you take a test called the Einstein Test, in which your intelligence ranked on a scale of 0--or incredible stupidity--to Einstein, which signifies that you are the most intelligent person alive, an equal to the great physicist himself. He is the Everest that you scale:  you may reach his peak and essentially become "the next Einstein," but you cannot exceed him. Now imagine you score Einstein + 1...smarter than the man himself, on a test named for him. You have climbed Everest and now somehow stand a foot above it. That is analogous to judging all historical villains against Hitler and finding, quite shockingly, that some exceed the test.

**My apologies to Bill Clinton for placing his name within the same dash-separated clause as a bigoted, squirrel-obsessed vigilante from thirty years ago. But it could've been worse--I could've mentioned him alongside Sarah Palin.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Inheritance ("Empty Mansions" by Bill Dedman and Paul Newell, Jr.)

When William A. Clark--copper industrialist, mining magnate, railroad tycoon, former United States senator--died in 1925 at the age of 86, his youngest child was only 19 years old:  a shy, sparkling daughter by the name of Huguette (pronounced "ooh-GET"). Born during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, Huguette would live long enough to see the election of Barack Obama--a life spanning almost 105 years. Taken with her father's lifespan, not to mention the late age at which he became a father for the sixth and last time, their story is one of two generations spanning 172 years, a monumental feat by any stretch of the imagination, and one that connects elements of American history that would otherwise seem too distant:  Martin Van Buren to Barack Obama; a union of 26 states to one of 50; the American Civil War, waged face to face with cannons and muskets, to the War on Terrorism, waged by tanks and Humvees and unmanned aerial drones; tintype photographs to digital cameras, telegraphs to Skype, the Pony Express to e-mail. The changes are endless.

But the story of these two individuals--an accomplished, cutthroat father and his beloved but withdrawn daughter--is more than one of historical bridges. It's the story of legacy:  what we leave behind when we depart this world. Both W.A. Clark and daughter Huguette lived full, interesting lives--lives supported almost entirely by unimaginable wealth and opportunity--but left behind vastly different legacies. Empty Mansions, ostensibly about how Huguette Clark spent her vast inheritance over her 105 years, is really the story of how two people connected through blood could walk such thoroughly different paths.

The first half of Dedman and Newell's book is devoted almost exclusively to W.A. Clark, with a special emphasis on his rags-to-riches early life and how, as he grew older, his ethics and his wealth fought for control over him. On the surface there seems to be little here concerning Huguette, other than to offer a backstory about where her eventual millions came from (and for the occasional anecdote about a doting father); however, in beginning with the story of Huguette's wealth rather than, say, her life interrupted every so often by backstory, the co-authors are offering up a financial contrast between father and daughter--how they used their money, how money affected them--rather than a biographical one, as much of Huguette's life revolved around artwork, real estate, a vast doll collection, and her correspondences with friends and family. The emphasis here is not on their obvious differences--W.A. Clark was a public man, whereas Huguette was private, downright reclusive--but their material ones. It is on these terms that Huguette Clark is defined, and it is also how the story of Huguette Clark becomes something akin to a Shakespearean tragedy.

You see, W.A. Clark used his money to gain influence and power over others, often for the benefit of his own status and legacy. This included buying his way into the United States Senate, which would eventually get him removed from office. (He would return to office, Dedman and Newell say, on his own merits a few years later, though he would accomplish very little there.) He used his power to gather up businesses, fight against competitors, and muscle his way into social circles that would have otherwise pushed back against his advances. He also built himself and his family a large, ugly behemoth of a mansion in the middle of Manhattan--one the family occupied for less than two decades and had to be torn down afterwards because of its cost, which no other buyer could afford--which would be the first of many Clark Family houses that would stand opulent but empty over the coming decades.

In contrast, Huguette used her inheritance to not only buy up expensive works of art, many of them handmade dollhouses built to her specifications in Europe and Japan, but to make the lives of her friends and family, not to mention casual acquaintances and even strangers, extremely comfortable. The depiction of Huguette's habits is one of a woman who has an innate understanding of how money can be spent--this becomes obvious in her later years--but not how it should be saved. Not that she was ever in danging of depleting her accounts, but Huguette's seemingly carefree ability to write a check for tens of thousands, continue paying pensions to the spouses of long-dead family employees, or pay in full the tuition for a friend's children is a direct challenge to the legacy of her father. It's an interesting and admirable way for one person to use their wealth, though it invited quite the number of blackmailers and thieves as she grew older--the very same kind of people who, a century earlier, would have seemed like successors to the practices of W.A. Clark himself.

In an era before campaign finance and the direct election of senators, when safety regulations, strong labor unions, and income equality were still fantasies of a majority of Americans--an era much like our own, the authors suggest--Clark used money like a weapon. His wealth poisoned him, and while he was far from a ruthless Scrooge, it's safe to say that he would never have accomplished so much had he been worth half as much as he was. Seventy-some years after his death, Huguette sat in a New York City hospital room--a place where she'd spend the previous twenty years of her life--as those around her seemed hell-bent on gathering up weapons of their own. Her cherished nurse, as well as the nurse's family, received checks from the old woman, which slowly gave way to requests for more--in one instance, one of her sons asking for a car--until they had received upwards of thirty million dollars in money and gifts...quite the income, even for a nurse who worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Banks stole from her safety deposit boxes, knowing she wouldn't report it for fear of drawing unwanted attention to herself, and artwork was pilfered. Even her attorney and accountant, two men who should have had her best interest in mind, seemed to be drawing a suspiciously high amount from her, especially in a revised will that looked to benefit them greatly when she passed away. (Clark's wills are currently the subject of a massive court case pitting both of those men and Clark's trusted nurse against more than a dozen members of the Clark family, many of whom never met Huguette.)

W.A. Clark used his power, wealth, and influence to gather even more power, wealth, and influence; in turn, Huguette suffered at the hands of those who wished to gain the same from her. It's a strange cycle, perhaps the saddest aspect of the Clark Family's legacy--a moral on how the sins committed by our parents can come back as sins committed against us--and one that is tinged with an even greater sadness considering how much more goodness such wealth could have brought so many others over that century and a half. And regardless of how Huguette Clark's wealth and possessions are eventually distributed, there's little question that its inheritors will find themselves rich with money and objects that, despite their value, are little more than physical embodiments of the emptiness that comes with such fortune. After all, no matter how much art you store within their walls, empty mansions are still empty.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Journeys ("Love in the Time of Global Warming" by Francesca Lia Block)

I'm a sucker for odyssey stories. No matter the genre, any literary journey strums a chord or two somewhere in me that other books and plots do not, regardless of their own merit. Wild by Cheryl Strayed and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson are the two works that immediately come to mind, both involving two very unprepared narrators on walks that span over a thousand miles, though there are certainly others.  But why? What is it about experiencing a journey vicariously through others--real or fictional, realistic or fantastical--that draws such profound reactions from readers?

The easy answer is, well, easy:  life is itself a journey, and these storylines represent, in some small way, the experience we all have on this small, cloudy marble. But this answer is too broad and overused, and at some point we have to look beyond the obvious and investigate ourselves. For example, the minute I got my drivers license I couldn't stay off the roads. Looking back it seems ridiculous--pointless, mundane reasons to get behind the wheel for hours, just moving from one street to another with no real destination in mind--and I cannot begin to imagine how much time, money, and gas I wasted in those aimless pursuits. But I can't be that hard on myself because those trips opened the doors to world beyond my small town; what began as 20- or 30-mile drives to shopping malls and movie theatres became excursions that lasted for days and took me (and my brother, and friends) to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and hundreds of smaller towns in-between. These trips cost very little money--just enough for gas, food, and a movie, with more than enough left over from my supermarket job for college--and I honestly don't know how I managed to pull it off. My parents didn't even put up a fight, even though it was technically their car--a seven-year-old Pontiac with great gas mileage but a poor driver--and they never knew exactly why I needed to go. All they knew was that I needed to, and it was good enough for them.

So why did I go? Why is it that, one year after graduating from high school, a friend and I decided--almost on a whim, with very little actual planning--to uproot ourselves for a week and drive over 600 miles to Cleveland, where there was absolutely nothing we wanted to see or do? We just picked a city--after ruling out Seattle, after ruling out Memphis--and drove. I don't remember how we got a hotel room for four days, though we did stay in one, and I don't recall spending one minute in Indiana, though we must have. Instead, I remember small, seemingly irrelevant details that have stayed with me as Big, Important Moments:  leaving Cleveland at midnight and passing a caravan of parked semi trucks, which ran alongside the highway for three or four miles, all their marker lights on full under a sky free of stars; a mall that, for whatever reason, had pink and purple swirls painted on every surface, a place we dubbed the "Wonka Mall"; walking out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after five minutes when neither of us could figure out why we were even there, except that it was something people talked about.

Or for that matter, why all those college weekends spent driving down Highway 41, from Green Bay through Oshkosh and Milwaukee to Chicago, to see four or five art-house movies that would be on DVD in a few months anyway? Almost a decade later, I should know the answers to these questions...and yet, I don't. Part of being a teenager, even a college student, is doing things without a clear enough reason, other than that they fulfill some longing inside you that is desperate to be satisfied but really is, and I was lucky enough to have family and friends who accepted this and even took part, even if they didn't fully understand. (Even today, the urge to spend my Saturdays and Sundays on the road is ever-present, though thankfully it's dulled somewhat with age and responsibility. Still, the road awaits, and I'm not one to turn a deaf ear to its siren call.) I can't say I did it to run away from anything--there was never an urge to drive away and stay, and I've always been an unapologetic homebody--and it had nothing to do with being a tourist or laying claim to arrogant pride that comes with being well-traveled. It was about exploring the world in which I lived--the world in which I would someday be an adult, with added responsibilities and problems--and about being totally free for the few moments in my life when that was completely possible. Kids--teenagers, college freshmen, what have you--live on maps with vague, gray borders that change with every given day, as though the world were still being redrawn in response to them, and perhaps by wandering like I did, as though I were some modern-day minimum-wage nomad, I was fulfilling one of the few responsibilities I had as a young adult:  walking away from what I knew and exploring what I didn't, not because I had to, but because I could. Because it was there.

However, there are those who explore because they must, not because they can. Such is the case with the protagonist of Francesca Lia Block's Love in the Time of Global Warming, which is set in a post-apocalyptic America. Centered around Penelope--later shortened to Pen, a nod to her gift for storytelling--Block's novel opens like a typical dystopian thriller, with landscapes ravaged by out-of-control weather, little food, and a roving band of thieving killers. Escaping their attempts to capture her, albeit barely, she embarks on a journey in search of her family, who were washed away in a sudden deluge but might still be alive. A lover of classic literature, Pen is guided on her way by Homer's The Odyssey, yet another story of a lost survivor trying to back to loved ones.

But this story is not what it seems. Our assumptions about the apocalypse's cause, supported by novel's chaotic weather and allusions to an overheated former world, not to mention the novel's actual title, are false. As it happens, the world was destroyed by an overzealous scientist and his creations--an army of giant, one-eyed genetic mutants--who now stalk the Pacific coast causing mass destruction. Along the way, Pen joins forces with other wayward teenagers--all of them seemingly gifted with superhuman powers, all of them familiar with The Odyssey, all of them LGBT--to fight back against the scientist and rescue her family. There is little doubt Pen's journey is written to mirror Odysseus', and that's perfectly fine--after all, a good adaptation, especially of such a significant and rich literary work, can still be a story all its own, ala O Brother, Where Are Thou?--just so long as it's done right.

The most difficult part of allegorizing one of the most important works literature is balancing the original with the new--that is, preserving enough of the original story to make it a loyal update while also departing from it enough that it isn't a lazy ripoff. Unfortunately, this is where Francesca Lia Block's book suffers greatly. Not only does Love in the Time of Global Warming feature not one but four protagonists who rely on Homer's original tale to guide them through the post-apocalypse--in essence, an allegory of The Odyssey that also features The Odyssey as a main driver of the plot, which is simply ridiculous--but the similar characters and plot-points are not so much alluded to as copied outright, with updates that are supposed to modernize the story doing little more than reducing one chapter after another into helpless parody. The Lotus-Eaters who populated an island of drug-fueled laziness in Homer's tale are now lotus-eaters who populate a hotel of drug-fueled laziness in Block's.* Circe, the seductress who transformed Odysseus' men into slobbering pigs, is now a failed TV star who has one "minion," a teenage boy she brainwashes with pastries and keeps in a collar. And the cyclops who terrorized Odysseus and his men are still cyclopes, only now they're genetic mutants who supposedly cause earthquakes.

Though to be fair, that might not be true. From the book's very early pages,  encounters with the Giants are strange and inconsistent--they're big enough to rest on mountains, they're small enough to hide in a store, they're illiterate, they understand complex narratives--leaving some doubt as to whether these creatures even exist at all. Even more, Pen's encounters with them are less human-versus-monster and more human-versus-human, only the human being attacked has created a fantasy in which her attacker is not of her own species, almost like an abuse victim whose mind has engineered a fabricated reality to avoid dealing with the real one. (Pen is also led places by strange butterflies that appear randomly, which is never explained, and much of the novel moves between what is happening and Pen's flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations, all of which are presented indistinguishably and in italics.) For the novel's first 50 pages, Pen seemed less like a lost survivor and more like an unreliable narrator whose own mind is nothing but a pool of delusions, and we're left to reconstruct what happened to her through possibilities related to this diagnosis. Had the ambiguity around this issue been intentional, it would've been a risky but interesting choice on the author's part; unfortunately, it reads like the effects of sloppy writing.

Which is a shame because there are rare moments and flourishes--the ones that mark Block's strongest departures from The Odyssey--that are the novel's most memorable and interesting. A scene in which Pen and her two companions visit a museum, one that she and her mother visited often, for the sake of seeing if art has survived is especially poignant, though its emotional depth is ruined when yet another Giant appears, this one sporting two eyes and a spoken desire to fatten up Pen into a good wife. (She is then tied to a bed in a newer wing of the museum and fed tendon-heavy meat until freed by friend and love interest Hex, who wields a Japanese sword.) As the novel moves closer and closer towards its close, it becomes increasingly overwrought and ludicrous:  the main villain strokes his goatee as he speaks, the love scenes between Pen and Hex read like something in a Harlequin romance, and a closing plot twist related to Pen's parents and her special powers--though for some reason not the others'--is eye-rolling in its silliness. When the story finally ends--and it does so, grindingly, with one last overdone surprise--it feels less like an accomplishment and more like a betrayal of Homer, whose epic poem could easily have been read in the same amount of time and with much more enjoyment.

When I say that I have a soft spot for long journeys--by real men and women, by fictitious inventions--and that I'm a sucker for those stories, I make that statement with one obvious caveat:  just because I'm a sucker for those kinds of stories doesn't mean I'm a sucker, period. Regardless of the journey your characters take, if the story isn't well written--if the dialogue is stilted, the emotions cliched, the prose so shoddily written it seems as though it were done on purpose--then it doesn't matter where your characters are going, or why, or with whom...the entire experience is painful. Reading about someone else's journey is itself a journey for the reader, one that draws out a deep sense of understanding--we feel the pull of wanderlust, the bitterness of being homesick, the flatness of the road beneath our feet. That is why a book like this is so deeply unfortunate: a road trip that could've gone somewhere promising if only its driver had embraced the joys and freedoms of such an experience.

*You would think, in an age of runaway drug abuse and drug-abuse hysteria, the author could have thought up something different. After all, it's been more than two millennia, and there is Ecstasy now.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Progress ("Pink Sari Revolution" by Amana Fontanella-Khan)

If the American publishing industry is to be believed, we live in an age of unprecedented revolutions. Even a cursory search on Amazon reveals that we are currently undergoing a revolution in how we eat (The Paleo Revolution, The Slow Cooker Revolution, The Green Smoothie Revolution), where we live (The Metropolis Revolution), how we run our businesses (The Social Media Revolution), how we live our lives (Work Life Revolution), and the role of government (Ron Paul's The Revolution:  A Manifesto), among others. Almost all of these revolutions are gratuitous in nature, christened as such by a series of agents, book editors, and publishers, not to mention the slew of writers who hope to redefine themselves as oracles important enough to warrant fame, follow-ups, and a hefty paycheck. The only true "revolution" here--that is, the only widespread change in the status quo--is not political or economic or even dietary, but linguistic:  we've taken a word with a deep historical and political meaning, especially here in the United States, and redefined it to fit our own silly lifestyles and ideologies.

What's worse is that, while Americans plod along with focus-group revolutions, there are actual blood-and-sweat revolutions taking place throughout the world--the very kind of social movements we should be watching and supporting from start to finish. First and foremost was the Arab Spring, which began with one man's self-immolation and spread to more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries, resulting in the overthrow of five dictators as of this writing.* A 2010 revolution in Kyrgyzstan ushered in democratic elections and a new Constitution in a region of the world where democracy is often suppressed, and protests in Brazil over a simple spike in bus fares earlier this year highlighted growing issues of poverty, poor education, and the spending of taxes in one of the world's biggest economies. Other protests and revolutions across the world--Spain, Greece, Turkey, the Central African Republic, Syria--exemplify a changing world in which those who are downtrodden or oppressed see a solution in free speech and assembly, even in the face of violence and death.

There is no better example of this than the Pink Sari Revolution happening now in Uttar Pradesh, a Michigan-sized region of norther India that is home to over 200 million people. There, as in many places throughout India and the world itself, corruption among politicians and police is rampant; because of this, crime often goes unpunished and even unreported, especially when committed against girls and women. Much of Indian society relies on an outdated understanding of social class and gender roles, and marrying off underage girls--which means taking them out of school--is still commonplace. Another common occurrence is violence--physical, sexual, emotional--against women, though only recently has the issue gained widespread media attention beyond India's borders.

Leading the charge against all of this--corruption, poverty, and crimes against women--is Sampat Pal, an unassuming housewife who, against a myriad of odds, has raised an army of over 200,000 women to fight alongside her. Together, they push back against long-standing obstacles, no matter the danger. Dressed in pink saris and wielding large sticks, the women organize as best they can--very few have cell phones, and even fewer have the means to travel--and descend upon police stations, jails, power plants, doctors' offices, and anywhere else they're needed to rail against injustice, oppression, and wrongdoing. Should their demands not be met or their grievances be laughed off, they are not above using the sticks to their advantage, even against men in positions of power; often, they are followed by the news media, which delights in gathering soundbites from the savvy and well-spoken Pal for rebroadcast across the region and nation.

Amana Fontanella-Khan's Pink Sari Revolution follows Sampat Pal and the Gulabi Gang over the course of a criminal investigation involving Sheelu, a 17 year-old Indian girl who is at the heart of a conspiracy involving theft, rape, and threats of murder. Though the facts of the case are unclear, what isn't is Sheelu's innocence:  she is little more than a pawn in the machinations of a local political hack and a corrupt police force, all of them acting in tandem to deflect attention from the politician's many crimes and malfeasances. As Sheelu's story unfolds from arrest to trial, so does Sampat Pal's, and the book alternates between past and present in a way that shows us the importance of progress for two very different people:  a young girl who defied the norms of the day for her own benefit grows up and continues to defy them, this time for the sake of someone else, just as Sheelu is transformed into a symbol of hope for girls throughout the country.

What makes Fontanella-Khan's book so beneficial, however, is the author's ability to talk about Sampat Pal without ignoring the aspects of her life and the Pink Sari revolution that are less than commendable. More than once, Fontanella-Khan details Pal's own home life, which includes a husband who has little visible input in their marriage, at least one daughter who was herself married off young, and a home that is more often than not without its matriarch. There are also issues with the gang's management; as Pal herself admits--on record--there are those below her using the revolution to their own selfish advantages, and a few of them are in positions of power. On top of all of this is Pal's relationship with Sonia Gandhi and the United Progressive Alliance, respectively India's most admired politician and its greatest political party. By aligning herself with politicians, even those who are progressive in their own rights, Pal is both increasing her gang's influence while also attaching it to the very same government that suffers under corruption and social stagnancy. Some in India say this alliance has cheapened Pal's movement by politicizing what was otherwise a grassroots uprising against injustice; Pal, always honest, brushes aside such accusations and says powerful allies are better than no allies at all, though her words do little to address the paradox of fighting abuse alongside the very people who have the power to end it.

Fontanella-Khan's focus on these issues, which goes beyond a simple mention here or there for the sake of appearing even-handed and unbiased, lends her book credibility, as she is able to paint Pal as someone who is leading the charge against a system she herself is still struggling to break. It is an indictment not so much of Pal but of a country--a people--so deeply mired in its past that change requires much more than empty words. It requires action, even if that action comes at the end of a stick, and in a region of 200 million people, her small revolution--less than one-tenth of a percent of Uttar Pradesh's overall population--is a minor one. But how do big revolutions arise if not for the smaller ones? After all, even the tiniest of waves will eventually break down the mountains if given enough time.

*Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Mohamed Mursi in Egypt.