She Said (CBR12 #22)

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement

I was telling a friend when I sat down to write this review that I was having a tough time finding my way in. When I reviewed Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, I was able to talk about him as part of the review, since he put himself on the page as part of the writing, and that was my way in to getting my thoughts down. That book was about both the harassment and abuse of women by men in power and the efforts undertaken to stop Farrow’s reporting and the women who were speaking out. In She Said Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey document the events leading up to their reporting of the same issues, but they leave themselves off the page. I found myself struggling to find a place to start my draft.

Which, while I enjoyed the reading of Catch and Kill more, it is a strength of She Said that Twohey and Kantor are off the page. In this book we are laser-focused on the journalistic process surrounding the ways staff at the New York Times had broken down how to find the hidden proof of sexual harassment. Building off the work of other teams at the paper Kantor and Twohey focus on uncovering the paper trail of non-disclosure agreements as a way to tell the victims stories when they are under legal orders not to. What I found most impactful in this one was the exploration of the kinds of requirements that these NDAs have, how there is little to no oversight of them, and just how broken our system is when it comes to providing information that would keep people safe from harassment and abuse. It was one of those things that I knew in my bones, but not one whose details were clear to me.

Like Catch and Kill this book extends past Weinstein – this time into the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh (I was dumbfounded honestly that this was 18 months ago already) and the fight to get McDonalds to provide employees with methods to report harassment. But unlike in Farrow’s book, Twohey and Kantor bring it back around in a more holistic way, ending their book with a group meeting with many of their sources throughout the investigative work. The women share amongst themselves; they are able in perhaps previously unavailable ways to know they aren’t alone, and we are included in that conversation, and in that mindset – we aren’t alone, but there’s a hell of a long way to go.

Ten Days a Madwoman (CBR12 #19)

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly

We’ve reached the first book of the year that I read expressly because it fit a Read Harder Challenge. Task number one is to read a YA non-fiction. I did not have any juvenile non-fiction on my 650 books deep to read list, so I had to go looking. Nellie Bly had recently come up at work and I realized I knew very little about the famous reporter beyond her time in Blackwell or her around the world trip so onto my library request list Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes went.

Its probably been over twenty years since I have read any YA non-fiction, but as soon as I opened the book sense memories of Reading and History classes in my middle school years came flooding back. Its somehow nice to know that the form and structure I had experienced as a youth still existed in a book published within the past four years. Noyes does as promised and tracks Nellie Bly’s life and times, using the standard interstitial asides to build out the larger world surrounding Bly at the turn of the last century. The book is also littered with primary source images and quotes, rooting the reader in the narrative.

I learned things as well, I hadn’t known that Bly spent World War I as a war reporter in Europe or that she had married a millionaire forty years her senior and took over his business after his death, or that she had done an in depth interview with Susan B. Anthony. Bly’s early life was also a mystery to me, but now I know, and knowing is a nice feeling, which is probably why I choose to do history as my profession. This one is a good one for the young readers in your life with questions about any number of things, including journalism and women’s rights.

Catch and Kill (CBR12 #10)

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

There is something particularly powerful about reading someone’s accounting of their dogged pursual of truth, of what is right, of what matters and we are treated to just that in Catch and Kill. In his second book Ronan Farrow reckons with the institutional powers and societal inequities that create the sort of stories he’s worked on reporting for the past few years at The New Yorker. Part memoir, part investigative report, Catch and Kill is an imminently fast read, jumping from one unbelievable if it weren’t so unfortunately believable development to another. In that way it reminded me of Bad Blood, but if that book was hyped up on five or six shots of espresso.

Ostensibly Catch and Kill is about breaking the Weinstein story and focuses on the powerful groups and individuals who fought to keep power in their hands and reporters and victims silenced in that pursuit. Farrow makes time in his book (clocking in at over 400 pages) to share various perspectives on the world of reporting and investigative journalism and how he is a small piece in a much larger puzzle – that he was quite literally both building on other’s work that had been killed before and racing other journalists to publication (I’ve already requested She Said from my library). And while it can rightfully be argued that possibly the real purpose of this book is a gloriously candid, righteously indignant, and deliciously petty outline of all the ways that specific individuals at NBC screwed Farrow over (go read Kstar’s review if you haven’t, it’s awesome) Farrow also works to make sure that while he is telling his story, it is the story of the victims that is what matters to him, and what should matter to us.

As the reader we spend over a year with Farrow as he lived and breathed this story. Part of what makes this a fascinating read is that there were a lot of people trying to do everything in their power to prevent him from telling this story (including hiring Black Cube to run surveillance on him and build a dossier to take to his bosses at NBC), and how that nearly prevented him from continuing to investigate and report,  and that story deserves to be told as well. The latter parts of the book deal with the fallout of publishing at The New Yorker including Weinstein’s attempts to discredit his accusers, and NBC’s attempts to distance themselves from their failure to report the story,  as well as the environment of harassment and fear in their own offices. Farrow, now well removed from his time there and perhaps a false sense of loyalty goes ahead and names the names, and is not afraid to paint unflattering pictures of the various people who feature in this story if it is deserved. The only truly weak part of the book was in the very final section where Farrow recounts the other stories that grew from this initial reporting (Les Moonves, Matt Lauer, The National Enquirer) as they felt at times only tangentially connected to the rest of the narrative. But, I won’t complain too much as those pages also contain his proposal to Jonathan in the draft he reviewed and my sentimental heart was won over.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? (CBR12 #8)

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death

I’ve read Caitlin Doughty’s previous books Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity and enjoyed them both immensely. I find Doughty’s manner of discussing death and dying and all that comes after reassuring, practical, and informative with just the right amount of humor and levity. When Ale brought to my attention that she had a new book out I knew I’d be reading it no matter what.

When I put it on my to read list I had no idea what Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death had to offer outside its catchy title – I figured it would be a catch-all of the types of questions that Doughty fields in her day job as a mortician and funeral home owner as well as at Ask A Mortician and The Order of the Good Death. I was mostly correct. The conceit of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Is that the questions are coming from Doughty’s younger fans – children who are just as interested and concerned in the what happens next as their adult counterparts but aren’t afraid/ashamed to ask yet, since our dominant culture has yet to make them believe they shouldn’t be asking those questions.

I know not everyone believes the questions come from actual kids, but having spent time with more than my fair share of 11-14 year olds I think they did, I just think the “tiny” in Doughty’s title is more metaphorical, in the we are all just tiny bits of space stuff sort of meaning. While my library system shelves this in adult non-fiction I would happily hand it to the inquisitive pre-teens and teens in my life in order to help assuage their questions, quandaries, and fears.  Each short chapter (3-5 pages on average) answers one question – ranging from the titular concern about our house pets, to can I be preserved in amber, to will I poop when I die, to what happens to soldiers who die far away from home? Doughty answers the questions head on (and provides her sources) but also talks about the area of concern a little more generally, helping to build towards greater understanding.

This book was a quick read, I zipped through it in an afternoon, but I’m not really its target audience. I’ve read her other books, I’ve learned some of these things from other sources (Mary Roach’s Stiff), and I’ve generally made my peace with my eventual death (do not embalm me, donate me to science and/or organ donation – whichever makes the most sense at the time). This is meant to be more of a primer, and if you’re interested in finding out if Doughty’s authorial voice is for you, this is  great place to start. Then go read her other books, because they are great.  

Wordslut (CBR11 #44)

Image result for wordslut

Cannonballer kdm posted on Facebook about reading Wordslut and based on her recommendation and its bright eye-catching cover I immediately requested it from my library. I’ve read my share of feminist books over the past several years, trying to build my own repertoire of experience and knowledge whether it be in the form of a treatise on Single Ladies, the recollections of a self-described Bad Feminist, or feminist geeks, or the story of a heroine of mine the Notorious RBG. Amanda Montell’s Wordslut is a worthy addition to those other books, it covers hundreds of years of linguistic history and today’s cutting-edge research in sociolinguistics.

How often do we really think about language, specifically the language we ourselves use? Thankfully there’s entire fields of scientists studying just that – tracking how language develops and how we use it. Building from her own degree in Linguistics and her interest in feminism and inclusive language Montell gives us 10 chapters exploring how we got to the language we have and suggestions for ways to reclaim certain phrases, find more inclusive alternatives, and generally being comfortable with how our word choices and sentence structures tell the world who we are.

Listen, I have a lot of space to grow myself, just today I was putting some chickens away in their hen house and when speaking to them called them “guys”. They are all laying hens – they are girls. But this book pulls apart why my brain went to “guys” instead of “ladies”, or even better “folks” or “friends”. Montell also gives fantastic, well-researched, and inclusive arguments for the singular they, non-binary pronouns, and using y’all because English is missing a second person plural pronoun.

My two favorite sections of the book marry nicely – the first discussing how words go through the process of amelioration or pejoration, either gaining more positive or more negative meanings over time. The second is all about cursing while female presenting. Apparently, we tend to curse for humor, for emphasis, and in a category almost exclusive to us: as part of our personality. In that way so many of the perjorized words that have become vulgar are feminine we’re actively using them (and others) to express who we see ourselves to be. But, we are also using language differently in single-sex situations, really letting the f-bombs fly to show intimacy and trust. I know I do this, as I got more comfortable with one of my previous coworkers my vulgar language use skyrocketed (as, it should probably be noted, did hers).   

So why for the I Love This Bingo square?  I’m a logophile, a lover of words. I love finding very specific words, I love learning new words, and I really love foul words. I also love a book that takes on a non-fiction topic (in this case language) through an historical lens and isn’t afraid to be humorous while deconstructing social norms. Read this book, won’t you?

Couldn’t Keep it to Myself (CBR11 #41)

Image result for couldn't keep it to myself

The task list for one of my challenges strikes again. Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge includes a book written in prison. I was struggling to decide what to read for this one, I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a book by the type of criminal who would be the type to get a book deal in the first place. Then a bit of internet research led me to this collection edited by Wally Lamb of the work the women of the writing group he co-facilitates at York Correctional Institute in Connecticut, the state’s only high security prison for women.

The collection features the work of the women of York as they describe in their own words how their true imprisonment started before their entrance to the penitentiary, whether it be by abuse, rejection, or their own self-destructive impulses. These aren’t victimhood tales, instead they are reflections on lives lived, choices made, and consequences endured. I found that Lamb’s introduction did a fantastic job laying out exactly what to expect in the reading, but also all that went into the writing process and how this project found its way to the printing press. Lamb described the journey the women took to authentic expression through their writing. Perhaps most endearing to me from Lamb was when he shared how he ended up working with the program in the first place and how working in this challenging environment as gown him as a teacher and as a fellow author. With his loving and respectful intro I was prepared, or so I thought, to read the women’s work.

Some stories fall into the type of work you might expect, some focus on life before their time at York and while you can see the interstitial tissue connecting their work to their time behind bars it is busy telling a different narrative. (It is important to note that in respect to Connecticut’s Son of Sam law the authors did not write with any specificity about their crimes and profits were shared with Interval House of Hartford who work to end Domestic Violence.) Couldn’t Keep It to Myself becomes a testament to finding oneself and reckoning with what comes next.

Lamb has continued working with the writing program at York Correctional Institute, publishing two more collections with the participants; I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison and You Don’t Know Me: The Incarcerated Women of York Prison Voice Their Truths whose publication date is Tuesday September 3, 2019 – a bit of good timing on my part.

Bad Blood (CBR11 #25)

Image result for bad blood carreyrou

I picked this one up based on its very good Cannonball Read reviews and because I needed a book of non-violent true crime for the 2019 Read Harder Challenge. This book did not disappoint. I admit, some how I had missed the entire Theranos story as is broke in 2016, so I can to this narrative entirely unspoiled. I was in for quite the narrative ride.

Bad Blood is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the company she founded at 19 as a Stanford dropout, Theranos. Holmes intended to develop ways to accurately test blood from simple finger pricks with small amounts of blood as opposed to intravenous draws and provide miniaturized machinery that would allow patients the ability to test at home and away from the corporate lab giants. Instead Holmes perpetrated a 15 year ever evolving con that has seen federal fraud charges laid at her feet and other high-ranking members of her company.

John Carryrou broke the story following a tip in 2015 and spent the next year going toe to toe with Holmes and her legal team with the support of his employer, The Wall Street Journal. Following his coverage in the paper, Carreyrou then turned the saga into this book, carefully laying out each step in the saga of Theranos. This is Carreyrou’s first book, and while it is award winning, it also shows here and there his journalistic background – the chapters often have the feel of articles building one on the next. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, the Theranos story goes from one mind-numbing bit of subterfuge to the next.

The story reads as so outrageous that I actually went and watched the HBO documentary The Inventor to see if it played out as nuts on screen… and while it does it just reiterated to me how well Carreyrou built the tension and how extensively he traced how the secrets and lies built on each other to lead to a truly unbelievable if it weren’t true story.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.