Category Archives: Nonfiction — general

Catch and Kill, by Ronan Farrow

Like most people who are paying an average amount of attention to the news, I was aware of journalist Ronan Farrow’s role in uncovering allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men in American media and business, most notably Harvey Weinstein. I’d heard Farrow interviewed a few places, including on the podcast of his partner Jon Lovett (I’m a big Lovett fan). So I figured I was interested enough to listen to Ronan tell the story behind the story — how he did the investigative reporting and broke the story, and the efforts (disputed by some, of course) of executives in the media to keep him from pursuing the story.

There are really two pieces to this review: one of the book itself, and one of the audiobook, read by the author. The book is an interesting glimpse into the behind-the-scenes work of an investigative journalist, and while some people (especially at NBC, where he used to work) have disputed some of Farrow’s claims, I don’t think anyone should be shocked to learn that powerful people in all fields consistently try to cover up accusations of wrongdoing against other powerful people. There’s a whole system dedicated to making sure that men in power don’t pay for their wrong actions, and this book just gives a glimpse into a few cases of that sadly well-known phenomenon.

Then there’s the audiobook. Ronan Farrow has a relatively pleasant, unremarkable voice and does a fine job of narrating his own story … except when there’s dialogue. And there’s a lot of dialogue, because he recounts or recreates tons of conversations with sources, interviewees, bosses, fellow journalists, even private investigators who were hired to tail him. And for every single person, he “does” a voice. A distinctive voice. Usually with an accent. He does Spanish, Italian, British, Russian, southern US, and many many more accents. He does high-pitched voices for women and stereotypically effiminate voices for gay men, including his own partner. And every single one of the voices, particularly the ones that involve accents are … how to say this? … laughably bad. Just terrible. The terribleness of Ronan Farrow’s accent work and voice acting generally just pulls you right out of this high-tension story of wrongdoing in high places and … makes you burst out laughing. At least it did for me. Which was actually welcome in some cases since the story was so dark and laughing hysterically at the world’s worst British accent was almost a relief. Are some of these accents borderline racist? I mean, probably, though most likely unintentionally, because Farrow is an equal-opportunity bad accenter. He’s famously a child prodigy and one of the best-known journalists working in America today, but let’s just say he did not get his mom’s acting talent, and he should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to narrate his next audiobook.

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The Skin We’re In, by Desmond Cole

The Skin We’re In is a look at one year (2017) in the life of a Canadian black activist, focusing on events, news stories, and acts of protest that highlight racism, especially (but not exclusively) anti-black racism in Canada. Desmond Cole has been on the frontlines of both reporting on, and protesting against, this systemic and institutionalized racism. His book should be required reading for every one of us white Canadians who likes to comfortably think that our country is “not that racist” in comparison to the US. You’ll find this eye-opening, uncomfortable, and hard to read in places — as I did. But it’s necessary. We can’t fight our own racism if we keep pretending it doesn’t exist.

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How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

This book by American writer and historian Ibram X. Kendi was full of enlightening information and challenging ideas for a class Well-Meaning White Person like me (even though that’s not exclusively, or maybe even mainly, who it’s addressed to). Amid many ideas Kendi pursues in this book, a recurring theme is that there is no such thing as being “not racist.” Rather, if you are not actively being antiracist — working to dismantle racist systems and policies — then you are, at least tacitly, supporting those racist systems and policies. There is no room to stand on the sidelines and be neutral about racism.

Kendi weaves his arguments about racism in the United States into the narrative of his own life, growing up as the child of black activist parents who still managed to internalize some racist ideas that he had to learn to challenge as he matured. This memoir aspect of the book gives the broader truths about society as a whole a more personal impact, and made me enjoy it more than if it had just been a book about ideas — important as those ideas are.

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The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold

This is another one I enjoyed as an audiobook that would have worked just as well in print or ebook — the material is fascinating no matter how you consume it. For a history buff like me who is particularly intrigued by women’s lives that are often marginalized or ignored altogether in recorded history, this was a book I knew I had to read as soon as I heard about it.

The titular five are the five “canonical victims” — that is, the five women generally considered to be victims — of the murderer known as Jack the Ripper. Five women of low social status, indigent and in most cases homeless, killed (presumably) by a single murderer over a period of a few months in London in 1888. This historic serial killer has, of course, fascinated people for more than a century, spawning a whole spin-off industry of “Ripperology” and people trying to do what the police at the time could not do: identify the murderer.

Throughout it all, the unknown killer has become romanticized, while comparatively little attention has been paid to his victims. They are often dismissed with the sweeping statement that Jack the Ripper “killed prostitutes.” In fact, only one of the woman was known and identified by all around her as a sex worker; some of the others may have occasionally engaged in casual prostitution along with begging in order to survive, while others almost certainly never did, but none of them except Mary Jane Kelly, the last “canonical” victim, would have identified themselves or been known to those around them as sex workers.

What these women had in common, based on what we know of their lives which Rubenhold so brilliantly pieces together in this book, is that they were all desperately poor at the time of their murders — although most of them had good starts in solidly working-class families and, in some cases, had the chance to climb a little higher in society, aspiring to a more middle-class vision of security. A combination of misfortune, alcoholism, and laws that made life almost impossible for women after a marital breakup, all worked together to drive these women into abject poverty, moving from workhouses, to “sleeping rough,” to unsafe accommodations. In these conditions, they were easy prey for a brutal serial killer, but Rubenhold, unlike almost everyone else who writes about the Ripper murders, does not dwell on the gruesome details of murder and dismemberment. In fact, she barely touches on the murders at all, choosing instead to focus on the women’s lives from the earliest known information about them, up to the nights of their deaths. This is, as the title suggests, very clearly the story of these five women, not of the man who murdered them nor the things he did to their bodies after death.

There have been, after all, more than enough books written about the murders. What nobody has done before is pay the kind of careful and sustained attention that Rubenhold has done to these women themselves — not simply as “the Ripper’s victims” but as flesh-and-blood women with real lives, hopes, and aspirations. Along the way, we learn a lot of social history about the daily lives of poor women in Victorian England; when information is not available about a particular period in one of these women’s lives, Rubenhold attempts to fill in the story by telling us about the sort of thing that might have happened to a woman in the same position in that era. The entire book is a vivid reminder that while women are generally at a disadvantage compared to men, and the poor always at a disadvantage compared to the rich and middle-class, the very worst thing you can be in most societies is a poor woman. And perhaps the only thing worse than that is to live on forever in a kind of ghoulish historical afterlife where you are rarely even called by your name or thought of as a person, but remembered only for your connection to the man who ended your life. Rubenhold gives these five women the dignity of their own history, and it’s a fascinating read. One of my favourites of the year.

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The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

I’m reviewing a string of audiobooks all together here, and this is another one I found thoroughly enjoyable, although unlike a comedian’s memoir read by the comedian himself, this one would work equally well on paper or e-book. It has that traditional Susan Orlean touch of picking a subject and taking a very, very deep dive into it, coming up with a treasure trove of wonderful, quirky historical details you didn’t know you needed to know.

The ostensible subject is the 1986 fire at the main branch of the Los Angeles public library, but the broader subject is libraries in general — their history and place in American society. Several strands of story — the history of the Los Angeles library, the fire and subsequent investigation into suspected arson, the life story of the main suspect, the role libraries play in society and how they are changing to meet changing times — weave in and out of each other in alternating chapters: all fascinating, and all informative. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

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Perfect Sound Whatever, by James Acaster

This book was entertaining and weird. It’s part serious memoir, part comic monologue, and part music criticism — large helpings of all three. James Acaster’s usual quirky humour — generally in the form of embarrassing anecdotes about his own life — is mixed with serious reflection about his depression after a bad breakup and some professional setbacks in the year 2017. Always an ardent music lover, he decided to cope by seeking out new music from the previous year, arriving at the not-uncontroversial conclusion that 2016 was the greatest year in the history of music.

He gets into detailed analysis of many of the hundreds of artists and albums he listened to from 2016, most of which I’d never heard of, although his analysis and thoughts about the music are interesting in and of themselves. However, it was really the personal reflections — at once funny and deeply serious — that I was listening for, and was not disappointed. As noted in an earlier review, Acaster is definitely someone whose books I want to listen to rather than read, as his delivery is part of the pleasure, and I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

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Harry’s Last Stand, by Harry Leslie Smith

I realize the last two books I reviewed are ones about which I’ve said, “People really need to read this!” but people also, really really really need to read Harry’s Last Stand. Yes it gets a bit ranty in places, but the author was well into his 90s when he wrote it and he had every right to get ranty.

Harry Leslie Smith was born into abject poverty in 1920s England. His childhood was like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes but without any veneer of beautiful writing or sentimentality — just poverty, disease, and hunger. Harry fought in the RAF during WW2, married a German girl after the war, eventually emigrated to Canada and ended his life as a solidly comfortable member of the middle class. But this is not a rags-to-moderate-riches story where the moral is that things got better because Harry worked hard, or was blessed, or even lucky. No, Harry Smith’s thesis is clearly that things got better after WW2 for people of his social class because governments in the UK and elsewhere put together a social safety net of programs that provided health care, education, and the means for people to get out of dire poverty. And when, as an elderly man, Smith began to see those same governments rolling back those safety nets and stripping away those protections in favour of unregulated capitalism and tax breaks for big corporations, he became an activist. In his 90s. He began writing and speaking about the importance of governments that are by, of, and for the people, and how we need to get back to those values.

Anyone who believes in the claptrap that we all automatically become conservative as we age, anyone who hearkens back for some imagined “good old days” when people didn’t complain and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, needs the good harsh dose of reality provided by this admittedly cranky old man. Harry passed away a couple of years ago but his message is as relevant today as when he first took up his pen, and we all need to listen. Read the book.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general, Nonfiction -- memoir