It's unusual for me to read nonfiction, but I was drawn to Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill for several reasons. I'd already watched Farrow v. Allen and Untouchable, both of which are documentaries on HBO, and which deal with sexual abuse and abuse of power, focusing on the allegations against Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein, respectively. After watching both I came away with several conclusions: both Allen and Weinstein are no doubt guilty; powerful men like to protect even more powerful men; when a woman finds the strength and courage to subject herself to cruel scrutiny by making an allegation of sexual abuse or harassment she should be given the benefit of the doubt; and, Ronan Farrow is a fascinating guy.
He made it clear, both in his book and in his interviews after his book came out, that he didn't want this story to be about him. The story, he maintained, was about the bravery and the strength of the women who came forward. “In the end, the courage of women can't be stamped out. And stories - the big ones, the true ones - can be caught but never killed.” That line brought tears to my eyes when I first read it, and it still makes me a little misty each time I reread it.
The thing is, while Farrow spent months trying to bring these women's stories to light, Catch and Kill IS Ronan Farrow's story, and it's a story that could only belong to him. As the biological son of Mia Farrow and (maybe?) Woody Allen, he has struggled to make his high-profile career his own, to stay away from issues that relate to his parents. One thing that really impressed me about him though, was his honest depiction of himself. More than once, he describes his selfish, dismissive attitude when his beloved sister/closest sibling Dylan decided she wanted to put herself out there and renew her rape allegations against her adoptive father, Woody Allen. "Why can't you just let it go?!" Ronan had demanded, as if rape was something that you could "let go" of, equating it to moving on from a bad day or to an unfortunate haircut that you need to grow out.
Years later, Farrow is haunted by his treatment of his sister, and perhaps those feelings, in part, motivated him to help find justice for Weinstein's victims. This was not lost on Harvey Weinstein. Once it became clear Farrow's story would be published, Weinstein told him, “You couldn’t save someone you love, and now you think you can save everyone.”
Weinstein was only half right. Farrow never took for granted his ability to "save" anyone, as he was thrown road blocks at every turn. Over half his book is about NBC's determination to kill the story, particularly on behalf of the head of the news division, Noah Oppenheim. Farrow was constantly told by Oppenheim that he needed to "pause" his research and his interviews, as he worked so hard to gain the trust of women like Rose McGowen and Italian movie star, Asia Argento. They were both willing to go on record, and in Argento's case there was even a recording of Weinstein harassing and pressuring her. Yet, Farrow was constantly told there "wasn't enough to pursue" the story.
Farrow would turn to his sister, Dylan, throughout the process. In his acknowledgements (this book was so good that I actually read the entire acknowledgments) he thanks her for helping him to "imagine the unfathomable." Per his accounts of their conversations, she didn't go easy on him. But he never implies that he deserved anything less than her brutal honesty. If Dylan thought he was acting cowardly, she told him so, and he would be the first to agree with her. Yet, it was impossible not to sympathize with Farrow's plight. His job, his privacy, his relationships, and even his personal security were threatened as he pursued the story about Weinstein's accusers, and he had no support. Rather, people were trailing him, leading him to leave behind "if you're reading this it's because something happened to me" sorts of messages in his personal lock box.
I won't give away all the details of the stories of Weinstein's victims, or of how they were finally made public. But these stories are heartbreaking, and the message here is that this happens all the time. Men in power abuse women with less power. If the woman speaks up, she is scrutinized, questioned, and abused once again in the court of public opinion. Weinstein's victims were mostly beautiful, entitled women, yet none of that protected them from the trauma he induced. He literally ruined lives. Additionally, men like Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby, and Roger Aisles did the same, and Ronan Farrow did a lot to at least start the conversation about how to deal with predators like them.
But lots of questions are left unanswered. I want to know why we aren't talking about this more. According to RAIN.org, for every 1000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free. Sexual harassment still exists. Sexism still exists. Women still make 82 cents on the dollar made by men of all races. Domestic violence still exists. According to theHotline.org, an average of 24 people PER MINUTE are victims of domestic violence in the United States.
I want to know how we could elect a man as president who preys on women, and how, when listing all of the scandals and stories that have out about him, the allegations of rape and harassment against him rarely even get mentioned. The stories about Weinstein may have triggered the #MeToo movement, but nothing is fixed. As a society, we still accept misogamy and abuse.
Without saying it directly, Ronan Farrow makes it clear that women are not treated equally to men. He also shines light on how imperative the news media is to an informed democracy when he quotes a man who was actually hired to spy on him: “You know, the press is as much part of our democracy as Congress or the executive branch or the judicial branch. It has to keep things in check. And when the powerful control the press, or make the press useless, if the people can’t trust the press, the people lose. And the powerful can do what they want.”
Ronan Farrow shares a Pulitzer with Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey from the the New York Times for their stories about Weinstein and the brave, strong women who risked everything, after losing almost everything, to come forward. I can't imagine more deserving recipients, partly because this work lays bare how much more needs to be said. Catch and Kill is Farrow's story, but it's about lots of people and it's about suppression, redemption, and justice wherever it can be found. Farrow observes, “Picking the right fights was a lesson I could be slow to learn.” He does learn this lesson however, and I can only hope he'll continue in his quest to teach us all.
I do not simply recommend Catch and Kill for its suspense, celebrity gossip, epic power struggles, and riveting plot. I call it required reading so we can all learn about the true meaning of advocacy, truth, and bravery. Start reading it today!
Tell Me Everything, by Cambria Brockman, is a riveting novel that can fairly be compared to Donna Tartt's highly esteemed The Secret History.
The protagonist of Tell Me Everything, Malin, goes to college in New England. It's not quite Ivy League, but it's elite and attracts a certain kind of accomplished of student, like the wealthy type who just fell short of getting into Harvard, Brown, or Penn State. There's Ruby, a British theater major who is the life of the party but who is also deeply insecure. Golden boy John is handsome and good at everything, but he has issues since his dad went to jail for financial crimes. John's cousin Max is a quiet, pre-med student who would rather study photography. Khalid is a prince from Abu Dhabi, and he is actually the least mysterious of the six friends. Finally, there's Gemma, a stunningly beautiful art-history major and soccer star, whom both John and Max are in love with, and who Malin feels compelled to protect. Part of the reason this novel works so well is that each character is skillfully drawn and believable, and the way they fit together seems real, especially in the context of college friendships. That's only one quality this book shares with Tartt's The Secret History.
Nearly thirty years ago, The Secret History blew my mind and it will always be in my top five list of favorite novels ever. It's the perfect combination of intrigue and character study, plus, you know right away a murder is committed and then you find out who and why and what the fallout is. All this adds to the moody New England college setting, and the fascinating allusions and parallels to ancient Greek studies completes the package. Lots of novels have tried to be like The Secret History since it first came out, but few them are. I'll admit that whenever a novel is compared to it, and a lot of novels are, I want to read that novel. That's what drew me to Tell Me Everything, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the comparison is apt.
More importantly though, Tell Me Everything is clever and original in its own right. While there are a lot of favorable similarities to The Secret History, it is not simply a weaker version of the story. The mystery unfolds slowly, with lots of shocking revelations and a stunning twist at the end. Yet, the twist isn't a twist, because once you find out it seems so obvious, but that's only because the author set it up so well.
The premise seems simple at first. The six main characters form a tight circle of friends and share a house. The story starts on "Senior Day" in the winter before they are to graduate. On Senior Day, it's tradition to dive into a frozen lake and then other festivities, like a bonfire and The Last Chance Dance, ensue. We witness the friends partaking in such festivities, but we also know, through Malin's narration, that one of the friends will not survive the day.
"There is something imminent surrounding us, and we have no idea it's there. Tomorrow morning, we will sit down for breakfast at the dining hall, as we always do, and realize one of us is gone."
Slowly, Malin reveals how the death of one the friends transpires. (We know it's not Malin who dies, but otherwise it's a mystery.) The narration switches back and forth between their freshman year, and also to scenes from Malin's childhood and the truly twisted family dynamics she had to endure. As the events unravel, so do the layers of Malin's complex personality, until we come to truly understand why she is so extremely introverted, and why she is determined to come off as "normal" by pretending to care about social interactions with her friends. The author, Cambria Brockman, skillfully ends each chapter so that the reader wants to know more, only to have the time period switch back and forth.
There were so many mysteries to uncover. Who dies and why? What happened to Malin's brother when they were kids? Why is Malin the way that she is? All of the answers are given in a satisfying, if dark, resolution. I was sad when I finished the book because it was so very good. Going back to something I said in my last book review, that a story's ending should be both surprising and inevitable, well, Tell Me Everything nails it.
I HIGHLY recommend this novel. Drop everything right now and start reading!
All Your Twisted Secrets, by Diana Urban, has an intriguing premise. Amber, our main character and narrator, is attending a dinner with the mayor and several of her other classmates, all of whom have supposedly won a college scholarship. All of the classmates have a close connection to Amber, as in they are her boyfriend, her estranged best friend, her current bitchy best friend, her secret crush, and a stoner who always seems to be around. The mayor never shows up, and suddenly the door slams shut and they're all locked in the basement's restaurant. The kids find a syringe and a note that says if one of them doesn't take the syringe full of poison and die in the next hour, the all six of them will die because a bomb will go off.
This book has been compared to The Breakfast Club, which I've seen, and to Saw, which I have not seen. It reminded me more of the type of morality scenarios that are often discussed in philosophy or social science classes, like the famous "Trolley Problem." A trolley is racing down the tracks and can't be stopped. It will for sure kill five people unless you flip a switch and change course, but in that case, one person will be killed. It seems easy at first. Of course you'd kill the one as opposed to the five. But when you think about it becomes more complicated, because by flipping the switch, you are intentionally killing one person as opposed to unintentionally killing five. So, a major issue the characters grapple with in All Your Twisted Secrets is how do they decide to intentionally kill one of them, and whom should it be? Or, rather than committing murder, should they allow themselves all to die from the bomb explosion?
Of course, this situation creates a ton of conflict. The story alternates between the six main characters being stuck in the restaurant's basement, and flashbacks, where we learn about the messed up lives they all have, and we start to understand how all the conflict came to be. I'd be lying if I said the book wasn't at times riveting, and I kept reading even when I'd guessed what was going on. But ultimately I was disappointed. The dialogue was fairly stiff (I started counting all the times a characters said "ugh." It was a lot!) The characters were mostly two-dimensional, and there too many coincidences for me to find the story believable.
In one of my grad classes for my MFA in Creative Writing, I read that a story's end should seem both surprising and inevitable. The end of All Your Twisted Secrets was neither. I predicted it, all while thinking to myself, "Come on. That could never happen."
I did enjoy reading All Your Twisted Secrets, because the setup at the beginning was well done, and Diana Urban is skilled at building suspense. That said, I can't whole-heartedly recommend it, not when there are so many other novels with great premises and suspense that also manage to nail dialogue, characterization and satisfying endings as well.
In my quest to write quality YA fiction, I’ve been reading quality YA fiction, hoping something will sink in through osmosis. They do say that the best way to learn to write is by reading, and with that in mind, Jessica Goodman’s They Wish They Were Us was an excellent choice. It’s a great story with a surprisingly feminist message.
The main character is Jill Newman, who attends a prestigious Long Island private high school on scholarship. Jill comes from an artsy Jewish family, and her parents, who are solidly middle class, struggle to make ends meet. If it weren’t for her scholarship, she couldn’t afford to go to Gold Coast Prep, and now that college is on the horizon, Jill knows she will need another scholarship to attend her dream school, Brown. The pressure can be overwhelming, and it’s one of the reasons Jill endures all the hazing and crazy social obligations of being “a Player” - which means she is part of an elite “secret” society of students, and which gives her access to all sorts of answer keys to tests and other study materials.
But membership comes at a cost. During her freshman year, Jill had to undergo grueling and humiliating “pops” - which were tests that the upperclassmen players concocted for her and her peers to prove their worthiness. Freshman year, on the last night of the pops and right before initiation, Jill is nearly raped. Luckily, she escapes that horrible fate, but her best friend is not so lucky. Shaila, the most beautiful and compelling of them all, is found dead. Her boyfriend is quickly accused and convicted. But three years later, when Jill is a senior, new doubts come to light.
Jill is the only one who seems to care that Shaila’s murderer might still be out there. But in her pursuit for truth and justice, she risks losing everything: her friends, her reputation, her academic future, and even her life.
They Wish They Were Us is a perfectly crafted mystery. Alternating between flashbacks and present day, it’s a slow reveal of terrible secrets and surprising truths about all the major characters. While I did guess who the real killer was, getting to that culminating scene where everything clicks into place was still nail-biting. And, like I said, the story had a surprisingly strong feminist message. Because, while the Players are equal numbers male and female, the hazing for the girls is far more brutal.
At one point, Jill wonders “Why did the boys have the power? Why did they make the rules while we dealt with the consequences?” This novel is primarily a mystery, but it also explores self-discovery, female friendship, and the pitfalls of young love.
They Wish They Were Us works on every level, and I strongly recommend it for adults and teens alike.
Summer Darlings, by Brooke Lea Foster, opens with our protagonist, Heddy, musing about Jackie Kennedy. As Heddy looks out at the waters of Martha's Vineyard, she thinks to herself that the first lady is probably looking out at the same sea. Heddy feels exceedingly lucky to have gotten a summer job as a nanny, working for a wealthy family who seem the epitome of glamour and privilege. Yet, this a novel, so of course nothing is as it appears in the new world Heddy has come to inhabit, and literally everyone she meets has a secret. That includes the couple who hired her, Jean-Rose and Ted, their young son, Teddy, the cook, Ruth, the movie star who lives next door, Gigi, and Heddy's two love interests, Ash and Sullivan.
But Heddy is no different, for she's hiding something as well. She doesn't want anyone to know that she has lost her scholarship to Wellesley, and if she doesn't come up with a couple of thousand dollars, then her future is in peril. In addition, Heddy's single mother has been laid off and forced to live in a boarding house. As Heddy feels obligated to care for her mother and to figure out a financial solution for them both, Heddy grows tempted to "catch" a wealthy husband who could give her financial security.
One of the biggest themes of the novel is privilege, and whether or not being privileged makes you hard-hearted and judgmental. Race is not really brought up, save mention of a Cuban man whom Jean-Rose had been in love with when she was young. However, there is a subplot involving Teddy, the boy whom Heddy nannies, and his attachment to a baby doll named Miss Pinky. Jean-Rose tries to get rid of the doll, out of fear that Teddy's attachment to it means he's gay. There are other plot elements that have to do with people's attitudes toward homosexuality at the time the novel takes place, but ultimately, the message is that anyone who doesn't subscribe to the strict social & moral standards of the era is judged and cast out, even though, most likely, the "deviants" are going to be kinder, better people than the ones who've been given every advantage in life.
The other big theme of the novel is about women's roles, and Heddy's journey is one of self-discovery, finding her own strength, rejecting the notion of a "MRS degree" and marrying for love rather than need. Along the way, there are descriptions of learning to surf, riding boats, and walking along moonlit beaches. There are love scenes, glamorous Hollywood parties, and exotic 1960s fashion. Oh, and I got really hungry for lobster rolls while reading this book.
All in all, it's a great beach read, with juicy plot twists and some social commentary thrown in. Summer Darlings was definitely worth my time and I recommend it!
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I love "ripped from the headlines" sorts of novels, and Admissions most certainly qualifies as one. However, as it's written from a kid's POV, this novel also qualifies as YA, which I haven't been reading too much of lately. That's changed though, since I have decided to venture outside my comfort zone and write my own YA novel. So, I thought it would be smart to read whatever YA novels look intriguing and well done. Admissions by Julie Buxbaum was a good place to start.
My Book Reviews
I love novels! My favorite genres are high-end women's fiction, suspense, and psychological thrillers, but occasionally I'll also pick up some chick lit or YA. I mostly read books on my kindle, and I also listen to audio books every morning when I go for my run.