ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

Sunday

5

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
Anyone who enjoys quality journalism, excellent writing, and people in power starting to be held accountable.

In a nutshell:
Journalist Farrow starts investigating Harvey Weinstein and uncovers not just confirmation of his predation, but the people in power who repeatedly covered up his crimes — and the crimes of others.

Worth quoting:
“Later, employee after employee would tell me the human resources office at the company was a sham, a place where complaints went to die.”

Why I chose it:
Given all that has transpired in the past few years, I wanted to read about how one thread came together.

Review:
This book is over 400 pages long and I read it in a day and a half. Granted, I am on lock down, but still. It is an engaging read, even (perhaps especially) knowing that Weinstein was recently convicted of some of his crimes.

At the start, Farrow is working on multiple stories for NBC News, He is an employee, on a contract to investigate and produce serious stories. He spends many months investigating this one, but as he gets closer to wrapping it up and getting it ready for air, his bosses – and those higher up at NBC, get nervous. Very nervous. And not in an understandable way (for example, I completely understand, more so now than ever, why a woman would not want to tell her story publicly), but in an ‘is this really a big deal? Is it worth getting on the wrong side of a buddy?’ sort of way. It’s disgusting.

Farrow is eventually allowed to take his reporting to the New Yorker, publishing a bit after the New York Times publishes similar work with different sources. But the story then becomes not just about the crimes Weinstein committed, but about how he was able to get away with it for so long. NBC News provides a first-hand example of those in power buckling to protect their friends, and the cost of further allowing people to be victimized by predators.

Much of the focus is on Weinstein, including the private investigators he employed to intimidate and threaten sources, victims, and witnesses. But Farrow also discusses other known predators who have been protected — and even promoted — from justice. Matt Lauer and Donald Trump, to name two. He explores how the men in power just don’t care enough about what is right and wrong to do anything about it, and he also discusses some of the women who are complicit (*cough* Lisa Bloom *cough*).

I expected to be throwing the book across the room, because I knew that the reporting would make me angry. But I never got there. And I think that’s a credit to Farrow’s writing. I feel angry and frustration for these women, and rage at the systems that allow repeated predation. But instead of feeling helpless, the book made me feel hopeful that more women will feel that they can speak out, and more men might believe them and actually do something about it. Not in a naive way – I know most people in power are not great humans, and are mostly just concerned with keeping their power. But there are journalists, and editors, and prosecutors who do care, and are doing something.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a friend (my partner wants to read it next)

Saturday

4

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Break by Marian Keyes

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those looking for an interesting read that’s a bit longer than one might expect from fiction targeted at women.

In a nutshell:
Amy’s husband Hugh wants a six-month break.

Worth quoting:
I studied her avidly, keen to know how other people managed the tricky, tricky business of being a woman.

Why I chose it:
Airport purchase. Remember airports?

Review:
I bought this book back when known cases of COVID-19 were mostly limited to Asia. I flew from the UK to the US to be with my parents during surgery, then went to visit some friends in the pacific northwest. As always, I bought a book at the airport to add to the four I had with me.

I started it on one of my flights, but wasn’t really able to get into it. I know for some people, being home so much right now (last I heard, about 4 billion of the world’s population are on lock down) means they are reading a lot, but I just can’t focus. I don’t have kids, and I don’t really even need to leave the house (we’re fine with grocery delivery). I’m just mentally exhausted, and this book wasn’t as light a read as I was hoping.

Sorry, there’s supposed to be a review in here somewhere, right?

Amy lives in Dublin with her daughter from her first marriage (to a footballer), her daughter from her current marriage, and sometimes her niece. She’s in public relations and help rehabilitate famous folks who have fucked up. Her husband is going through some things, and has decided he needs a 6-month break from their marriage.

The book is divided into before, during, and after. The during part doesn’t last as long as I expected, and the after bit is more intense than I was expecting. But I appreciated the characters – they weren’t caricatures or stereotypes. Amy’s husband Hugh isn’t a cad; he’s someone who is hurting and is confused. Amy isn’t some scorned woman; she has agency. Even their kids are complex.

It’s not higher rated for me mostly because I think it is just too long. I think the story could have been tightened up a bit, though maybe others would think that would sacrifice the quality. I do know if I come across her books again I will probably pick one up.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (eventually)

Sunday

15

March 2020

0

COMMENTS

I Might Regret This by Abbi Jacobson

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone who likes a good road trip story. Anyone who is feeling a bit lost.

In a nutshell:
Writer and actor Abbi Jacobson (of Broad City fame) decides to go on a three-week road trip after breaking up with her girlfriend. She documents her time.

Worth quoting:
“People who can talk while exercising—anything more than a hike or walk—are insane to me. You want to tell me the drama that’s currently going on at your office? Ohh, your co-worker plays their music too loud?? It’s distracting and no one else seems to care?? I can’t breath right now!”
“It’s okay to not figure it all out. It’s okay to feel broken and alone and scared sometimes. It’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay to not eat where everyone tells you to, or not take a selfie in front of everything you’ve seen or done and post on the internet for friends and strangers to see.”

Why I chose it:
I like funny women telling their own stories.

Review:
It seems as though my world has changed dramatically since I bought this book and started reading it. I purchased it when I was visiting Seattle in mid-February, two weeks before their first case of COVID-19 was detected (but after one had been confirmed in a neighboring county). I had dinner with a good friend who works for the health department there, and we could tell it was just the beginning, but no one really knew what was coming. I stopped reading this book until this weekend not because it isn’t great (it is!) but because my brain is full. I feel like if I have time to read, I should be reading the news, talking to my friends who are dealing with kids home from school for the next six weeks, keeping up on Twitter.

But my brain needs a break. Sometimes that comes in the form of re-watching Parks and Recreation (only 8 episodes left!), but it also needs to come in the form of books. Good books. Books that either make me laugh or that make me feel connected to others (especially as we’re all being told to take a step back in our physical connections). This book definitely helped with that.

Abbi Jacobson is probably best known to you as one half of the amazing duo responsible for Broad City. The stories she tells in this book come from a road trip she took in the summer of 2017, right before the final season was shot and right after breaking up with her girlfriend. She spends three weeks traveling mostly along the southern bit of the US, along the way exploring her heartbreak, her feelings about the future, and many of the general issues anyone with some introspections struggles with.

It isn’t a lighthearted take, but there are parts that are very funny. It feels honest and yes, vulnerable, but not self-pitying, if that makes any sense. It’s just good reading.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend

Wednesday

19

February 2020

0

COMMENTS

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs by Caitlin Doughty

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for: Anyone – from 10 to 100 – who has questions about death.

In a nutshell: Mortician and author Caitlin Doughty answers some of the most interesting and pressing questions from tiny humans.

Worth quoting:
“Sometimes death can be violent, sudden, and unbearably sad. But it’s also reality, and reality doesn’t change just because you don’t like it.”
“Technically, per the laws of the state of California, I am not allowed to slip [your dead hamster] Hammibal into your pocket, even if he’s just a small pouch of cremated remains. I’m not allowed to ‘bury’ an animal in a human cemetery. Would I do it anyway? Umm, no comment. (tiny paw extends from your suit pocket)”

Why I chose it: I’ve read both of Doughty’s previous books, and enjoyed them very much. I also attended one of the Order of the Good Death conferences (held in Seattle), which was fascinating and well-done.

Review:
Caitlin Doughty is a talented author. She has a way of making death feel less terrifying and more another interesting part of life. I find her to also be hilarious (come on, that paragraph about the dead hamster? That’s funny shit!). And in this book she takes her skill at demystifying the scary and uses it to help our younger friends better understand what happens to our bodies when we die.

Covering everything from fluid leakage, to burial laws, to how a death in space would be handled (along with, of course, whether fluffy is going to go to town on your dead body), Doughty finds a way to keep the reader entertained without ever being disrespectful. That’s a narrow line to walk, but she does it effortlessly. The book also has fantastic illustrations accompanying each question.

What more can I say? Go check it out, and while you’re at it, pick up her other two books if you haven’t already: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it!

Monday

17

February 2020

0

COMMENTS

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Written by , Posted in Reviews

4 Stars

Best for: People who enjoy stories told from multiple perspectives.

In a nutshell: Roy Jr and his wife Celestial have been married for a year and a half and are visiting his folks when a chance encounter at a hotel leads to a woman falsely accusing him of rape. He is convicted and sent away. This is the story of what happens next.

Worth quoting: “Is motherhood really optional when you’re a perfectly normal woman married to a perfectly normal man?” (This isn’t a huge plot point but I loved seeing that expectation of motherhood in print.)

Why I chose it: I’ve heard so many people speak so well of it that I finally decided to pick it up.

Review: There are many things in this book that I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine being falsely convicted of a crime. I can’t imagine my partner being sent away for many years, and having to figure out how to choose to live my life while apart. I can’t imagine trying to rebuild my life after getting out of prison. But I still related to the relationships in this book. Parents and children, partners, friends. These ideas are all explored under the stress of injustice and trauma, and it’s interesting to look at how everyone chooses to respond.

The book is told in three parts: before, during, and after Roy Jr is in prison. There isn’t a big focus on the crime or the trial; instead we learn a bit about the main characters, the false accusation happens, and we learn about the conviction. The middle part is told exclusively (I think) through letters between Roy Jr and various people – his wife, his wife’s best friend, his father, his attorney. It’s a well done convention that helps move the story along. The final part is told from the perspective of multiple characters who each have a unique voice.

I’m so glad I decided to read this. I don’t know why I resisted – I’ve said multiple times that I am not primarily a fiction reader but I think I need to suck it up that sometimes I’d rather learn more about the human condition from fiction than a well-written science book. I found the story interesting and well-crafted, and the ending satisfying.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it: Pass to a friend. I’m visiting my folks and will leave it in my sister’s room so she can check it out next time she visits.

Sunday

26

January 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

4 Stars

Best for: Anyone who enjoyed Station Eleven, or who likes the post-apocalypse genre and is looking for one aimed at adults.

In a nutshell: Nuclear War has started. Two months later, 20 people remain at a hotel deep into a Swiss forest. A child is discovered dead. History professor Jon decides to document what has happened, and what happens next.

Worth quoting: “A lot of people confuse movement with progress.”

Why I chose it: Buy one get one half off sale. I’d chosen American Marriage, and was scanning for another. This had a recommendation by Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), so I picked it up.

Review:
What happens when the world ends not from an outbreak of disease, but from a day of nuclear war? If you are nowhere near the blasts, how do you survive? Do you want to survive? What is your life like?

For the guests at this hotel in Switzerland, they have plenty of food, comfortable hotel beds, and water. No internet, and rationed electricity. What do they do? Should they explore beyond the hotel? Try to get to their homes? Do their homes exist anymore?

That’s enough to try to figure out but then a dead girl is found in one of the water towers. Millions – possibly billions – have already died. But this is a death close to home, and for Jon, it means something to try to find justice for her. While also grappling with the existential crisis of a completely different world than the one that existed before he arrived at this hotel for a conference.

The book appears to be suggesting that Trump is why the nuclear blasts happened. This leads to an interesting discussion about the responsibility of those who voted for him. In a nod to the 53% of white women who voted for him in 2016, the one US citizen at the hotel who voted for him is indeed a white women. The characters are complicated – no one is outright evil, everyone appears to be just doing their best in a shitty situation.

I think the only thing that I could take any issue with were a couple of word choices that the US folks in the story made that are very much British English terms: tannoy (megaphone) and mitigating circumstances (which is the specific term for seeking some allowance or delay in an exam or paper because of something beyond a student’s control). I’d never heard either of those terms used in that way until I moved the UK. But that’s really the only thing I could take issue with.

Oh! Sorry, one more thing, which is the publisher’s fault, not the author. The back jacket reads “You and nineteen other survivors hole up in an isolated Swiss hotel. You wait, you survive. Then you find the body. One of your number has blood on their hands. The race is on to find the killer … before the killer finds you.” That’s … not a great description of the book. Yes, there is a murder and yes, the protagonist spends a fair bit of time focused on that. But this isn’t a thriller about finding a murderer, per se. It’s a thriller, but the thriller isn’t just about that, if that makes sense. In fact, I’d argue that’s a side story. So if you’re looking for a straightforward thriller, this isn’t it. But hopefully you’ll still pick it up, because it’s really good.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend

Saturday

11

January 2020

0

COMMENTS

Brain Droppings by George Carlin

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for: Fans of Carlin’s clever and confrontational style of comedy.

In a nutshell: Comedian Carlin shares jokes, observations, and wordplay.

Worth quoting:
“You could hear a pin drop. Well, you can’t hear a pin drop. Not even a bowling pin. When a pin is dropping, it’s just floating through the air. There’s very little noise. You might be able to hear a pin land but certainly not drop.”

“I hear ya.” “Wonderful. And are you picking me up visually as well?”

Why I chose it: I’m trying to read before bed (instead of staring at my phone) but didn’t want anything too heavy. Thought I’d revisit what I used to describe as one of my favorite humor books.

Review:
Some of you may know Carlin as the first host of Saturday Night Live. Others may know him from his famous ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” sketch. My guess is most of you know him as Rufus, the amazing supporting character from the Bill and Ted films, who will be sorely missed when Bill and Ted Face the Music is released this summer. I think of him as the author of this book, because I’ve read it (part or in full) probably a dozen times.

This isn’t a comedic memoir, or even a collection of humorous stories or essays. There are some slightly longer bits (say, 2-3 pages), but mostly it is a paragraph joke, or a one-liner, or even a collection of two-word phrases that Carlin thinks is interesting. Some of it makes me laugh out loud; some of it makes me think. A lot of it revolves around wordplay and the discussion of what certain words and phrases actually mean, if one really thinks about it.

There are definitely parts of this book that make me cringe. Carlin has a strong aversion to the idea of ‘political correctness,’ and claims to not be on any ‘side’ politically. This is evident, for example, in his justification for use of the word r*tard. However, he has a strong sense of justice, and recognized how poorly people of color (though he would hate using that term) and women are treated in society. I think he’s who people like Ricky Gervais think they are (edgy, cool, astutely observant) but they couldn’t hold a candle to him. They’re not in the same world as him.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it.

Saturday

11

January 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Year of Living Virtuously Weekends Off by Teresa Jordan

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for: Those who enjoy very short essays about life in the mid-west US.

In a nutshell: Author Jordan uses a (very loose) framing of virtues and vices to tell stories about her life and the lives of others.

Worth quoting: “I respect people who keep their promises — when those promises are honorable.”

Why I chose it: I thought it was going to be more in line with, say, an A. J. Jacobs book. It was not.

Review:
I purchased this book long ago, and brought it with me when I moved to the UK. As part of my giant bookshelf purge, I decided I need to start reading the books on my shelves before buying more, and this one seemed like a good place to start. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite what I was hoping, and ultimately wasn’t for me, but might be perfect for others.

I thought (especially given the sub-title of ‘weekends off’) that this would be the author’s attempt to live her life according to certain virtues and vices and see what it meant to her day-to-day. Instead, Jordan researched ideas of virtues and vice (drawing heavily from Benjamin Franklin) and writes an essay about a past experience in her life that she thinks illustrates that concept. Sometimes the connection is strong and obvious, sometimes it is subtle, and sometimes it is a bit of a stretch. Much of it focuses on her life growing up on a ranch, which is a life I cannot relate to. So in that respect it was an interesting reading challenge for me.

As I flipped through the book after finishing reading it, I noticed that nearly everything I underlined was a quote from someone else that Jordan included. I think there is a skill there, in bringing in other thoughts and weaving them into one’s own work, but also if I’m reading someone’s thoughts I want to read their thoughts, if that makes any sense.

The writing is good, and the storytelling is at times interesting, but the conceit doesn’t fully hold for me.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Thursday

2

January 2020

0

COMMENTS

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism by Vladimir Lenin

Written by , Posted in Politics, Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People interested in a sense of what the Marxist philosophers were saying in the 1900s. Admittedly a niche market at this point (for now, anyway).

In a nutshell:
The title basically nails it – Lenin argues that Imperialism is Capitalism at its end.

Worth quoting:
“..for both uneven development and a semi-starvation level of existence of the masses are fundamental and inevitable conditions and constitute premises of this mode of production.”

Why I chose it:
It was assigned as part of the Marxist book club I’m in.

Review:
My how my life has changed. Never thought I’d be reading and reviewing Lenin, but here we are.

This fairly short book serves as a surprisingly relevant discussion of imperialism, and specifically how capitalism fuels the colonialist actions of nations. Lenin lays out the development of monopolies (along the way refuting the idea of truly free markets, as they eventually evolve into monopolies), the major role that banks play in consolidating wealth and capital, and how the need to further feed these monopolies needs nations and corporations to seek out further raw materials and financing.

In the book, the primary areas discussed are oil and coal, but substitute pretty much anything modern and its clear that monopolies have not gone anywhere, and imperialism is alive and well, though perhaps not in the exact same way. Amazon.com doesn’t invade countries and claim their land, but they do take over cities, making those cities dependent on them to survive (*cough* Seattle *cough*). Something like 40% of the box office in 2019 were came from Disney studios. Companies — and countries — continue to seek new customers and new materials for their products, further consolidating until all those ‘choices’ we think we have are just different ways of our money going to the same few individuals.

Some people may not find this disturbing. As long as they get their next season of Stranger Things, or their favorite shampoo arriving on their doorstep 24 hours after they order it, they don’t much care. And frankly, much of the time, when I’m not thinking about it, I don’t care either. But then I look at how Amazon treats their warehouse employees. In some places that might be the ‘best’ job available, but it’s still crap, and Amazon can get away with it because they’re the only game in town. Monopolies like this are harmful to nearly everyone in some way (except the people diving into their vault of cash, Scrooge McDuck-style).

There are a couple of areas that I picked up on that don’t seem to have held up (or at least, haven’t necessarily come to pass on the time line of 100+ years). At one point Lenin talks about how the Stock Markets have become less important and I get the impression that he thinks they will eventually fade away. However, in the US we can see that while Stock Markets are playing around with essentially fake value, how those markets move drives so much of the commentary about how ‘healthy’ the economy is. A company can lose millions of dollars in ‘value’ in the stock market in one day because of a news story, and that’s what’s reported. The overall value of the market is still shared at the end of newscasts. People care about it, even if it shouldn’t matter.

The other area (which may be the result of me not fully understanding the book) that I found didn’t quite hold up is the assumption that this imperialism is the last stage of capitalism, and that necessarily capitalism is decaying. To me this implies that soon after this writing (in the early 1900s), Lenin believed that capitalism would cease to be. Obviously that hasn’t held, but perhaps his other writings clarify this point or provide detail on what would need to happen to speed up this decay.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Toss it (I read a printout of a PDF, and as its in the public domain, anyone can read it online.)

Thursday

2

January 2020

0

COMMENTS

My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People interested in learning a bit about what the music industry can be like for young women, and a lot about what it was like for Lily Allen.

In a nutshell:
Musician Lily Allen shares her life story, including all the messy bits.

Worth quoting:
“When women share their stories, loudly and clearly and honestly, things begin to change – for the better.”

Why I chose it:
I was looking for another audio book and this one was on sale. Plus, read by the author, so right up my alley.

Review:
I knew very little about Lily Allen when I purchased this audio book. I think the only songs of hers I know are Smile and Fuck You, both of which I enjoy. And when she talks about the well-placed anger over her ‘Hard Out Here’ video, I recalled having read something about it. Beyond that? Nothing.

Allen opens herself up to the reader, sharing stories from her childhood through until right now, with an updated chapter added to the audio book in 2019. She shares her challenges with drugs and drinking, with her family, with sex and relationships. She is also brutal in her honestly and clarity around the feelings that accompanied two very hard times in her life: the death of her son George just before his birth, and her experience with a stalker. She is honest about how she perceives her faults, but also doesn’t hide behind false humility when it comes to her talents in her music career.

Really I have just one area of disappointment with this book. Allen was raised by people in the entertainment industry, but spends some time in this book stating that she was able to get her successful music career on her own. After reading this memoir, I can see why it annoys her that people think that her connections are why she’s successful, because she did work quite hard (and she is talented). But there is a bit of self-awareness around there that is lacking. She didn’t pull herself up all on her own – she definitely had a hand, and even while she’s being rightfully pissed at the tabloids assigning 100% of her success to her privilege, she seems to not fully acknowledge the benefits she had. Now obviously I don’t know everything (a couple hundred pages, no matter how honest, don’t tell anyone’s full story), but in what appears to be an otherwise open and raw book, it was the one thing that seemed off to me.

That aside, as someone who knew very little about and wouldn’t consider herself a fan of the author, I still enjoyed hearing about her life and getting her perspective on things. I think others will enjoy it as well.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend