Utne Reader Book Reviews: September-October 2008

Obscene Contradictions
Most Outrageous:The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester
by Bob Levin (Fantagraphics)

The evidence was distasteful: 3,200 cartoons addressing such subjects as child abuse, dead babies, and human excrement, many depicting a nerdy-looking pedophile known as Chester the Molester, all created by Dwaine Tinsley, cartoon editor for Hustler magazine. The charges were clear: 16 counts of child molestation, “oral copulation,” and incest. Surely the man was a beast.

Lurid and fascinating, Bob Levin’s book Most Outrageous recalls Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon. It presents a daughter’s and a father’s conflicting tales, along with testimony of psychotherapists, friends, and police officers. Though the book is loathsome in its details, there are compelling reasons to stick with it. For one, it could be any one of us in jail for expressing our most outrageous ideas. As an attorney, Levin sees the shortcomings of adversarial law. Justice is tenuous, his account suggests. Prosecution is a phone call away, and conviction as near as a jury wanting to reach compromise and go home. The book also forces readers to consider what it would be like to have a child accuse them of abuse. (Tinsley’s 18-year-old daughter accused him of having had sexual contact with her “at least 100,000” times.)

Convicted in 1990 and sentenced to six years in prison, Tins­ley served more than a year before his conviction was overturned. A California appellate court ruled that cartoons introduced as evidence had prejudiced the jury. Now only one person knows the truth about what happened, Levin says. (Tinsley died after a heart attack in 2000.) What the rest of us know, Levin shows, is that sins of fathers and mothers are still visited upon their children. Ultimately we are our own judges. –Chris Dodge

Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska
by Seth Kantner (Milkweed)

Seth Kantner grew up in a sod igloo in remote Alaska in a family that trapped and shot their dinner, built their own dogsleds, and became almost Eskimo as they learned from Natives–great material, in other words, for a budding nature writer and photographer. In Shopping for Porcupine, Kantner captures in words and photos the magnificent harshness of life on the edge: of the tundra, of society, of the 21st century. A collection of essays rather than a complete memoir, the book nonetheless sketches a narrative arc and returns often to a common theme: One can no longer move far enough away from civilization to escape its effects. Snowmobiles, technology, and now climate change, he writes, are irrevocably changing the landscape right outside his caribou-skin door. –Keith Goetzman

My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me
by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan (PublicAffairs)

We know remarkably little about the hundreds of men still being held at Guantánamo Bay; their stories have been kept under the lock and key of restricted visits and classified documents. Some get to speak their piece in My Guantánamo Diary, a graceful debut from Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, who visited Gitmo some three dozen times as a translator for attorneys representing Afghan detainees. Khan doesn’t just tell the tales of these men’s imprisonment–though there are plenty of horrifying details about their capture, detention, and in many cases torture–but also shares snapshots from their pre-“enemy combatant” lives as doctors, businessmen, goatherds. The book also offers a vivid account of the camp itself, describing how small kindnesses like flowers and letters from family members were kept from the detainees. –Danielle Maestretti

The Radical Jack London:Writings on War and Revolution
Edited by Jonah Raskin (University of California)

Neither radical through and through nor largely about war and revolution, the anthology The Radical Jack London traces the novelist’s political thought from his early socialism (1895) to his resignation from the Socialist Party (1916) via essays, short stories, and excerpts from novels and nonfiction books. We learn that London was a racist (writing of “inferior races”), liberal in his attitudes toward what to do about juvenile delinquency, prescient about global economy (“predatory capital wanders the world over, seeking where it may establish itself”), and aptly disgruntled about the impediments to firsthand war reporting. The liveliest writing here is an excerpt from The People of the Abyss, London’s account of English poverty based on his literal slumming in London’s East End. –C.D.

Obsessive Branding Disorder:The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion
by Lucas Conley (PublicAffairs)
The branding logos, slogans, and jingles that ooze their way into people’s brains are familiar punching bags for anticonsumerists. Obsessive Branding Disorder takes the critique a step further, showing the corrosive effects brand marketing campaigns have on American innovation and human interaction. Author Lucas Conley interviews respected marketing gurus and snake-oil salesmen who advise companies, governments, and people to build “loyalty beyond reason” for their brands through insidious and incentivized “word-of-mouth” campaigns, self-help-style programs, and neuroscientific studies. The polemic shows how creeping marketing efforts fueled by “armies of clandestine propagandists” are corrupting culture, eroding trust, and distracting people from making their products, their cities, and themselves better. “We will always have brands,” Conley acknowledges–but we shouldn’t let them define us. –Bennett Gordon

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