Book Review: Catch and Kill

This weekend I finished the mind-blowing book Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Through telling his account of uncovering the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Farrow exposes the way that the wealthy and powerful control the media and therefore the public narratives about themselves – even when their abusive behavior is an “open secret.”.

The book: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Catch and Kill was an addictive read. Although it is a non-fiction book, the story it tells is so gripping that the book reads more like a thriller. Farrow weaves together two main story-lines throughout the book: the first is the story of his attempts to investigate claims of sexual assault and harassment against Harvey Weinstein, and the second is the story of Weinstein’s lawyers blackmailing and stalking Farrow to prevent him from going public. The way that Farrow moves back and forth between the two (obviously very connected) stories adds so much thrill and suspense to the book.

Also, the degree of corruption exposed in this book is absolutely insane. Obviously, the Harvey Weinstein scandal was huge news when it broke – yet it wasn’t until reading Catch and Kill that I internalized just how much bribery, blackmail, and general corruption it took to keep the scandals quiet. Harvey Weinstein – and powerful people like him – basically controlled media outlets, forcing them to keep his scandals quiet while publishing character assassination pieces about victims who spoke out against him. Understanding this (sickening) detail makes me so much more appreciative of the fact that the Weinstein scandal was reported at all. It also makes me wonder what other scandals news outlets are sitting on. Some information that was exposed toward the end of the book strongly suggests that the Harvey Weinstein scandal is just one of many examples of institutions knowingly protecting predators. It is harrowing.

One thing about Catch and Kill that didn’t quite work for me was Farrow’s attempt to weave into the book stories about sexual assault cases against Donald Trump. These stories show up in the last quarter of the book, but the transition from the Weinstein scandal to Trump’s scandals feels sudden and bumpy. That being said, I understand why Farrow included this section. The book demonstrates the disgusting, predatory, unethical, and oftentimes illegal behavior of powerful people; and it shows how Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer were exposed for their crimes…yet the United States has a president who is guilty of the exact same type of behavior, and hasn’t really faced consequences for it. I think it was important for Farrow to make this point, even if the execution fell a bit short.

Also, there were moments in the book were I felt annoyed by Farrow. As someone who was born to famous parents, attended Ivy League schools, and became a high-profile reporter, Ronan Farrow isn’t always the most relatable narrator. This shows up from time to time in the book – like when Farrow mentions someone’s Ivy League schooling as a testament to their superiority, or when he tells an anecdote about not getting the internship he wanted in law school and having to “slum it” at a second-tier law firm. That being said, Farrow has obviously done a lot of good by taking seriously the claims of sexual assault survivors, and publishing their stories (and this book).

Overall, I loved Catch and Kill. The story is thrilling and harrowing, and I am so grateful that someone was brave enough to tell it. This book changed my life, as it opened my eyes to the insane degree of corruption among the wealthy and powerful. Even the criticisms that I have of this book only bring my rating of it down to 4.5 stars out of 5. I can’t bring myself to lower the rating any more than that, because the book was that good.

Book review: Stubborn Archivist

February has been a great month of reading: we’re only two weeks in, and I’ve already finished four (!!!) books! The latest book I read was Stubborn Archivist, a novel about a young, half-British/half-Brazilian woman navigating adult life in London, and trying to make sense of who she is.

The book: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Stubborn Archivist was an interesting read, and one of the reasons why was its use of language and formatting. There are interesting line breaks throughout the novel, and also (very intentional) omissions of punctuation. These features give the book a very poetic feel, and even give some parts of the novel a sort of surreal quality.

I also liked how – through the lens of the protagonist’s experiences – author Rodrigues Fowler portrays the challenges of looking “different” or “foreign” in your own country. Without having experienced any of the micro-aggressions portrayed in the novel, I really felt for the protagonist, who repeatedly deals with men exocitizing her because of her ethnicity, and people making assumptions about her ability to speak intelligently. Books that demonstrate these challenges are vital because they give voices to cultural phenomena that are common and important, but still not discussed enough in mainstream media.

At the same time, many of the protagonist’s experiences were familiar to me (someone who is not considered “different” looking in their own country). Being steamrolled or ignored by well-intentioned people who assume you have nothing to say, passing up invitations to socialize and drink with coworkers because alcohol upsets your stomach, obsessing over what if situations before a date – these were all so relatable! These relatable moments illustrate how some experiences and feelings are universal, and have the ability to transcend culture, language, and geography.

My main critique of Stubborn Archivist is that it feels…unfinished. The whole novel is so ambitious: in the stories it tells, the timelines it follows, and the creative formatting and language it employs. But at times it feels like Rodrigues Fowler sets out to do so many things, that sections end up feeling incomplete and blurry. The gaps in the novel may be intentional (the title of the book gives me reason to think it is), but I personally prefer less “blurry” narratives.

Overall, I enjoyed Stubborn Archivist and appreciated its story and main character. I recommend this book, because it is a different read, and because it shares interesting perspective that many people could benefit from reading. Just know in advance – if you do read this book – that the formatting is a bit surprising at first and that some parts of the novel have a sort of unfinished quality.

Valentine’s Day Reading List, 2020 edition

Happy Valentine’s Day! In the spirit of the holiday, I thought that I’d share some of my favorite romance novels with you all. The only problem is…I have not read very many traditional romance novels. So I’m being very generous with the term “romance novel” here, and recommending my favorite novels that have romance in them (but would not necessarily be categorized in the romance genre).

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less is not a traditional romance novel, yet the entire book feels like a rom-com in novel form. In this novel, writer Arthur Less plans an around-the-world adventure to avoid going to his ex-lover’s wedding. The book is hilarious, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and surprisingly profound. I recommend this novel to those who love a good rom-com!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is even less of a traditional romance novel than Less, but it features a truly excellent love story. This book revolves around the (fictional) reserved Hollywood celebrity Evelyn Hugo, who sits down with a journalist to give a tell-all interview about her life. In telling her life story, Evelyn recounts her seven marriages, and the story of the one true love of her life. This novel is an addictive page-turner, and also surprisingly moving.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

This book is the clearest “romance-novel” of the bunch. In it, two frenemies (who happen to be the first son of the U.S.A., and Prince Henry of England) are forced to stage a friendship as a publicity stunt. As the two spend more time together, they become close and develop real feelings for each other. Both being major public figures, however, they have to determine if becoming a serious couple is actually possible. This novel is wonderful: the love story is believable and endearing, and the characters are so smart and complex. I highly recommend it!

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

This one is really different. The Pisces follows graduate student Lucy, who moves to California for a summer after breaking up with her boyfriend of nine years and spiraling into an emotional crisis. Lucy is supposed to use the time in California to pick herself up and attend group therapy sessions, but instead feels her emptiness with sex and relationships…ultimately finding somebody as insecure and needy as she is. This book is strange, and disturbing at times, but it is also incredibly profound, and makes a great anti-romance novel.

Have you read any of the novels listed here? What other romance novels (not listed here) do you recommend?

Book Review: Lot

Over the weekend I finished reading Lot (making it the 3rd book of 2020 that I read after it being on my TBR for a long time). Lot is a fictional short-story collection that follows characters living in black and latinx communities in Houston, Texas. Half of the stories are told from the perspective of a single character, allowing the reader to follow his journey from early-adolescence to adulthood.

The book: Lot by Bryan Washington
Genre: Fiction, short-stories
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

As is the case with most short story collections, some of the stories in Lot work better than others. I thought the best stories were the ones told from the perspective of the “main character” (i.e. the only character whose perspective appears multiple times throughout the book). In short stories, it can be challenging to connect with the characters, simply because there isn’t as much opportunity for character development as there is in a novel. But by having a recurring character in Lot, Bryan Washington allows his readers to deeply understand and connect with one of the characters.

Something that I really appreciated about Lot was that, although most of the characters in this novel are struggling, their stories are told compassionately. Washington shows characters dealing with gentrification, troubling relationships, homelessness, and more. Yet it never feels like Washington exploits his characters struggles. The characters in Lot are deep and complex, and they are clearly defined by more than just the difficult circumstances they face.

I also found the writing in Lot to be very powerful. The language is never flowery; it is precise to the point that I frequently found myself marveling at how Washington conveyed so much using so few words. In “Bayou,” the narrator mentions that his father walked out on him, saying: he stepped out for a glass of water, and believe it or not he’s been thirsty ever since. In “Waugh,” the main character reckons with his friend’s life-threatening illness, reminding himself that everything could and would be fine, until all of a sudden it wasn’t.

All in all, I highly recommend Lot. Individually, the stories shine a compassionate light on people living in marginalized communities. Collectively, they illustrate how everyone tries to make the best of their circumstances and find a place of belonging.

Book Review: Conversations with Friends

I finally read Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney! This book was on my TBR ever since reading Normal People in June. Conversations with Friends is the story a young student/poet, Frances, who is discovered by an older and more prominent writer named Melissa. Frances (and her best friend and co-performer, Bobbi) start spending more time with Melissa, and Frances finds herself increasingly captivated by Melissa’s husband Nick. As Frances and Nick become closer, Frances’ relationships – with her friends, family, and Nick – begin to spin out of control.

The book: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

This novel was so captivating! I am not sure whether to say that I consumed it, or it consumed me. But I finished the book in less than 24 hours because the plot was intriguing and suspenseful. Which is really impressive for a non-mystery-or-thriller novel. What made the book so captivating was simply the main character’s emotional complexity and personal struggle. I couldn’t put this book down, because I wanted to see how or if Frances would resolve her personal issues.

I was surprised that Conversations with Friends pulled me in so deeply, because the narrator and main character (Frances) is kind of unlikable. Frances is self-conscious to the point of being excessively self-centered, and she frequently engages in impulsive, selfish behavior that has the potential to hurt others. She also struggles to apologize for her harmful actions, and instead waits for the people that she has hurt to apologize to her. Yet reading her story, it is clear that Frances isn’t hopeless: she has the potential to learn, grow, and change. This is part of what compelled so deeply about this novel: I was rooting for Frances to change.

While the narrator and main character (Frances) was certainly challenging at times, she wasn’t the only difficult character in Conversations with Friends. Most of the major characters in this novel had blatantly unlikeable qualities. At the same time, though, all the characters are so well-developed that the root of their challenging behaviors becomes clear. This isn’t to say that psychology is an excuse for morally questionable actions – just that the characters in Conversations with Friends are realistically complex.

Another aspect of Conversations with Friends that was realistic yet frustrating was the bad communication between characters! So many of the issues in this book – particularly Frances’ issues – could have been resolved with better communication. I think this was very intentional on author Sally Rooney’s part, and that it’s meant to highlight the importance of good communication in a healthy relationship.

All in all, I loved Conversations with Friends. The book is frustrating, heartbreaking, and above all – deeply compelling. If you like stories with *slightly* unlikeable or emotionally complicated main characters, I definitely recommend this book.

Book Review: Mobituaries

My first read of February was Mobituaries by Mo Rocca. Inspired by Rocca’s podcast of the same name, Mobituaries gives obituaries to people (or things) who are misremembered or altogether forgotten by society: mediocre presidents who accomplished great things outside of their presidency, revolutionary athletes who nobody’s heard of, and even dragons.

The book: Mobituaries by Mo Rocca
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I enjoyed and learned so much from Mobituaries. My favorite stories were about famous people who are still remembered today (for acting or modeling or being president), but perhaps not as well as they should be. For example, I learned that Herbert Hoover – before he became president – was an engineer and humanitarian who saved hundreds of thousands of Europeans from starvation during World War I.

Also, for a book about people who have died, Mobituaries is extremely positive, and even funny! Author Mo Rocca injects his offbeat humor into his obituaries (excuse me, Mobituaries) at surprising times, but it never feels disrespectful or out of place. Instead Rocca’s humor lightens the mood of the book, and prevents the stories from getting heavy or dry.

I did have a couple issues with the book, though. The first is that, as a listener of the Mobituaries podcast, I was disappointed by the number of stories that were repeats of podcast episodes (except for the story of the poisoning of the famous Auburn tree – I will never tire of that story). This book was advertised as having unique stories not told on the podcast…but that wasn’t 100% true.

My second issue with Mobituaries was the size of the book! It is huge! I think the book is intended as a “coffee-table book.” It definitely would make a great coffee-table book, but the large size of the book made it a bit challenging to carry around or even to read in bed.

Minor inconveniences aside, I loved Mobituaries. Mo Rocca pays respectful tributes to individuals whose complete legacies have been forgotten, and tells each story in an upbeat (and oftentimes funny) way. If you want to learn a bit more about history, I definitely recommend this book!

Month in review: January 2020

Is it just me, or did this January seem to stretch on for an eternity? It wasn’t a particularly eventful month for me, and the interesting things that did happen in my life were…not great. It was a good month of reading, though, and that’s what this post is about!

Books read:

Books in progress/goals for February:

I’m currently reading Mobituaries by Mo Rocca. The book is a tribute to influential people who didn’t get the obituary they deserved, or whose accomplishments and legacy seem to have been forgotten. I’m really enjoying this book so far, and will have a review up sometime next week.

In February, I plan to read at least these three books: Lot by Bryan Washington, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow.

Notable blog posts:

I read so many wonderful blog posts and did a better-than-average (my personal average, that is) job of engaging with other bloggers this January. But I forgot to save my list of notable blog posts! I will remember to keep track of them in February.

Quotes/advice that helped me this month:

  • “There will always be someone who can’t see your worth. Don’t let it be you.” (this was posted on Vee’s blog, Millennial Life Crisis)
  • “Empathy without boundaries is self-destruction.” – unknown
  • “All my life had been muck and depths, but I was not a part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.” – Madeline Miller, Circe

January photo dump: