Betty

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Tiffany McDaniel
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug 2020 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

I’ve been dying to read Betty ever since I laid eyes on the beautiful cover art and read that it was a fictional recount of her mother’s experience growing up in a large family with a white mother and Cherokee father. It’s a long book and I decided to listen to the audiobook.

I was expecting a sad story and I read there were some hard to read scenes in the book, but I wasn’t expecting just how difficult a read this would be – by which I mean difficult content, not the writing. Betty is a coming of age story about the family’s third youngest child, Betty, the author’s mother, but it really focuses on the family as a whole and I loved that the author cast such a wide scope in her story telling.

The book starts with how Betty’s parents met and then tells the story of their 8 children. It seems like a big cast at first with so many siblings, but we spend a lot of time with this family and we grow to know each of the characters deeply.

This was a hard book to read because Betty’s family experiences hardship after hardship. They lose 2 of their children at early ages (I can’t remember now when exactly either passed away, but they’re not featured in the story beyond mention), and the rest of the children suffer varying levels of trauma. Even their parents have faced a great deal of trauma and the book really showcases the cycle of violence and suffering. 

I read a few interviews with the author after finishing the book and while this is her second book, apparently she’s been trying to publish it for years and struggled to find a publishing house that would work with the manuscript she had. She was told that the story contained too much suffering, that it wasn’t believable that one person or family would suffer so much, and worse of all, that people wouldn’t relate to Betty as a young girl. That will give you an idea of the kind of story that you’re in for, but I’m glad the author opted not to change her story because while it was upsetting to read, I had no trouble believing it. 

Indigenous Peoples have been wronged by both Americans and Canadians and our governments for centuries. Betty’s dad, Landon, was Cherokee and tries his best to honour his heritage and impart his ancestral wisdom on to his children. But he has also been mistreated and wronged as a Cherokee man and we catch glimpses of this throughout the story. While most of the children take after their mother (read: white) in appearance, Betty takes most after her father, and as a result, she is the most bullied of the children outside of the home. But in her home, she is also her father’s favourite and puts the most stock and importance into his traditional wisdom.

The hardest scene for me to read in the book was when Betty’s mother describes to her the abuse she experienced at the hands of her parents. It’s a traumatizing story on it’s own, but the way her mother chooses to share it is it’s own kind of horror and deeply emblematic of the way abuse cycles down through generations. This book has everything from violence, rape, incest, animal abuse, death, self harm, and suicide. But it also has some really beautiful scenes as well.

Landon Carpenter was for sure the highlight of the story for me. It’s hard to say whether Betty’s parents were really good parents or not – they certainly had their faults and a very laid back approach to parenting, but Landon’s love for his children was so evident throughout the course of the novel that I was able to forgive some of his other misgivings. He tried to be a good dad – to provide for his children and pass on traditional knowledge. I found a lot of faults with Betty’s mom and siblings, but I think Landon really did try his best. When I read the trigger warnings about this book, I was bracing myself for a horrible father figure, so it was really nice to find a caring and empathic one instead.

This isn’t a book I think I could ever pick up again, but I’m really glad I read it and I think it is a story that will stick with me for a long time. I’m so glad the author was able to finally share it.

Where the Forest Meets the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Glendy Vanderah
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Mar. 2019 (read Dec. 2020 on Audible)

This was an impulse buy on Audible because I liked the narrator and the cover art is really pretty. The book started so strong and I was immediately pulled into the story! The premise of the novel is that while doing her field research on buntings in a small town in rural America, Jo stumbles upon a young girl, Ursa, who claims to be an alien. Jo, of course, doesn’t believe her and tries to reunite the girl with her family. But the girl has resolved that she will stay with Jo and together they befriend their neighbour, Gabe, who runs a homestead next door and sells eggs to the locals. 

Jo and Gabe are both struggling with their own issues and the presence of Ursa is a distracting, but healing influence in their lives. However as time passes and no one comes looking for Ursa, they start to wonder how she ended up with them and what her real story might be. 

Like I said, the story starts really strong. It’s impossible not to love Ursa – she’s a vibrant character who’s full of life. She claims she’s decided to stay on earth until she “witnesses 5 miracles” and it’s hard not to be impressed with her zest for life. The author also adds more depth to Jo and Gabe, one of whom is a cancer survivor and the other who is battling depression. I really liked that the author added this complexity to the story and I was convinced I had stumbled upon something that was going to be truly magical.

Unfortunately, the further the story progresses, the more it starts to fall apart. The elements that I was impressed with early in the book start to become problematic, leaving me scratching my head about why the author chose to include them at all. The last third of the book went in a totally different direction than what I was anticipating and I found it to be both jarring how quickly the plot seemed to diverge, and disappointing how the author seemed to abandon the ideas presented at the start of the book.

I’d like to dive a bit more deeply into these issues, so the rest of my review will have spoilers and I suggest you quit here if you’re planning to read this book.
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I loved that Jo was a breast cancer survivor and I was impressed with the creation of a character who had already come to terms with her double mastectomy and the loss of her ability to bear children. She was able to look back on those decisions with no regrets, which I thought was such a great message. Similarly, Gabe was suffering from depression and I was really into the inclusion and intersection of these emotional struggles.

Beyond that, I found the author’s portrayal of depression problematic. Jo had almost no regard for his depression; she clearly didn’t understand it and continually pushed Gabe outside of his boundaries as if that was all he needed to be healed. He told her he had extreme social anxiety and had never kissed anyone before and her first instinct is to make a move on him without even asking his consent first. I thought it was so insulting and that it would have driven Gabe away from her or made him extremely uncomfortable.

But that wasn’t all, she kept badgering Gabe about his family and inserting herself where I felt she didn’t belong. Forcing Gabe to have conversations and interactions he didn’t want to have and then the author passing her off as so amazing for helping Gabe to confront his demons and grow. Personally, I thought she was a bit of an asshole and I would have been so mad at her for constantly meddling if I had been Gabe. Plus, I don’t care how much a person complains about a member of their family, you never get to insult them. They are always allowed to vent, but the way Jo bitched and complained about Gabe’s sister was so rude. 

As for the ending, I don’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, I just was really hoping for something more poignant. I wanted magic from this story. I wanted Ursa to actually be an alien. I thought her presence would be healing for Jo and Gabe and that we would witness something magical for the final miracle as a result of her presence. I was looking for more magical realism from this story and what I got instead was a hard dose of realism.

The story quickly changes track with a shootout on Jo’s property and from there a magical introspective story turns into some kind of crime drama. It was just such a change from the first half of the story that I felt like I had whiplash. The writing lost its magic and became repetitive and whiny.

The other problem I had was with Ursa’s behaviour. Suddenly our quirky little alien turns into an out of control, scheming, dangerous child. Did I believe a child could behave like this? Sure, but it was so worrying! Ursa knew exactly how to manipulate those around her to get whatever she wanted, which I found extremely frightening, not endearing like I suspect was the author’s intention. Did I want Jo and Ursa to be together? Of course, but to me, Ursa’s behaviour indicated that she would be impossible to discipline and I’d be extremely concerned about how manipulative she will be as she grows. I know she went through something extremely traumatic, but I think this girl needs a lot of therapy. It was cute when she was an alien, but as an orphaned girl, she’s a compulsive liar who will threaten those around her and throw tantrums until she gets what she wants. It was concerning. Plus I still don’t think Jo would have ever been granted the right to be her foster mom, nor did I think she deserved it.

So overall, this book had so much potential, but really flopped in the execution. I can’t fault the author for the direction she took the story, it’s her book, but it just wasn’t what I was hoping for and I can’t look past all the problematic elements. 

The Pull of the Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emma Donaghue
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: July 2020 (read Oct. 2020 on Audible)

With everything that’s going on right now, I was super intrigued by the plot of The Pull of the Stars. It’s set in 1918 Ireland during the last global pandemic. The entire book revolves around 30 year old nurse Julia, who works in the maternity ward of the Dublin hospital. However during the pandemic, she is assigned to the pandemic part of the maternity ward, which is where all the women with flu symptoms have been sent.

The Pull of the Stars wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was definitely compelling. Emma Donaghue made the somewhat interesting choice to set almost the entire novel within the hospital over a span of only 2-3 days. Throughout that time, we see the strain that Julia is under as a nurse and the limited resources of the hospital due to the pandemic. Donaghue focuses both on the challenges the flu has on the mothers and their labours (in many cases it caused the women to go into pre-mature labour, which obviously complicated the births), as well as the challenges women in general faced during the time period.

At 30, Julia is unmarried and considered a bit of a maid. Besides nursing, she mostly takes care of her brother, who came back from the war severely traumatized. The hospital is extremely understaffed, so they bring in a young volunteer named Bridie to help in the ward. Bridie was raised in the convent by nuns and her situation shines a light on the catholic church and the unfair advantage they took of girls and women without families or who found themselves in bad situations. Bridie was abused by the nuns and then forced to continue working for them to pay off her indenture for the care she received as a girl (even though the nuns are paid by the state). Donaghue explores this theme of abuse of power by the church throughout the novel and I found it really eye-opening and enraging.

Finally, the novel also has a small focus on female doctor, Kathleen Lynn, a former rebel who’s supposedly on the run from police. I liked how Donaghue explored what it meant to be a female doctor at the time, how she was perceived by men, and how her approach to medicine and labour differed from that of the male doctors. She definitely saw more of the humanity of the new mothers when they experienced complications in labour and generally was less judgmental of those who had fallen pregnant outside of wedlock.

So overall I thought it was a really interesting book. The themes were subtle and a lot of time did focus on the new mothers and their complicated births, so I liked how the author explores the other links between church and state, especially since it’s so relevant with the story being set in 1918 Ireland. The only thing I didn’t like is that there’s a hasty romance thrown into the story near the end that felt very much out of place. I get what Donaghue was trying to do and I appreciate her for trying to explore some other themes, but it just didn’t work for me. It was too short lived and I don’t think it really added much to the story overall. 

Otherwise, this was a good book that wasn’t too long or overwritten. I listened to it on audiobook and thought the narrator did a good job.

A Very Punchable Face

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Colin Jost
Genres: Humour, Memoir
Pub. date: Jul. 2020 (read Jul. 2020 on Audible)

This was a fun read that pretty much delivered what I was expecting, with a few surprises. Not totally sure why I picked this one up, I think I just saw it Audible and thought it would be a funny listen. I don’t really know that much about Colin Jost or have any particularly strong feelings about him, but I always get a kick out of watching him and Pete Davidson on Update so I figured why not give it a go.

Like most memoirs of this type, the book is a collection of stories, mostly funny, about Jost’s intro to comedy and his time at SNL. The essays are good and I laughed out loud at more than one of them, although I was left wondering how one person, who never really does anything dangerous, can injure themselves so many times. He had some interesting insights into what it’s like working at SNL – the long hours, the seemingly endless amount of rejection, and how you always have to be prepared to just roll with the punches (pun intended).

I think jost is a little too fond of Staten Island and maybe needs to be more critical of its flaws and that he should probably get over the google incident, but what stuck with me were his more meaningful essays about his mom and the NYC fire department. As a community of firefighters, many were first responders for 9/11, including Jost’s Mom, and I really appreciated his thoughtful essay on what that was like for him and his family. I’m a sucker for men who openly love their moms (hello Trevor Noah), so I really liked this essay.

Beyond that I don’t have a whole lot to say. Jost alludes at the end that he may soon be moving on from SNL and I would agree with his assessment that after 15 years, it’s probably time. I’m interested to see what else he’ll do next. There’s just one thing in this book he’s wrong about; Aidy Bryant. She is the best cast member.

Catch and Kill

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ronan Farrow
Genres: Non-fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Aug. 2020 on Audible)

Catch and Kill was one of those books that I read the synopsis for ages ago, added it to my TBR, and then promptly forgot entirely what it was about. My book club voted for this as our August book and I enthusiastically purchased the audiobook thinking this would make for a great listen! I was mostly right.

The book is great. I vaguely knew it was about Harvey Weinstein, but I had no idea it was also about years of cover up and a culture of silence at prominent news outlets. There’s a lot more to be found within these pages than just the breaking of the Weinstein case and the follow-up #metoo movement. What really stuck with me was the level that powerful men go to to both silence and discredit women, but also the level that other powerful men will go to to protect the power of other men. There is so much gaslighting of women, it just really struck home how much women are up against in Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and really just in general. It’s ironic that people like Donald Trump cry fake news at liberal media outlets and then it turns out that those same media outlets are in fact protecting other wealthy white men like Donald Trump.

I have to give props to Farrow, this was a wonderful piece of journalism. It really does read like a thriller crime novel and at times I struggled to believe the scope of influence that Hollywood’s powerful have over the entire industry. How widespread a network serial abusers have, the insane amount of power, and how far the industry will go to protect their talent. What is most terrifying is the culture of NDA’s that seems to exist throughout our entire society, well beyond the confines of protecting just the rich and powerful. In the wake of the #metoo movement, it’s become evident that so many companies use NDA’s to protect any and all levels of powerful men, even those that are not Hollywood famous. What’s more frightening (to me anyways) is the many abusers working for organizations that are not newsworthy. Those women face the same shame and sabotage to their careers with none of the fanfare (by which I mean press interested in exposing their abusers or access to funds to seek legal counsel).

The book has a large cast of characters that at times feels a little confusing, but Farrow maintains a compelling narrative throughout the entirety of the book. I feel like I’ve attempted other audiobooks of this nature where I got lost in all the names, but for the most part I was able to follow along with Farrow and keep most people straight. Where I did think the book could use a little improvement though was in providing adequate backstory. I felt that Farrow assumed I had more knowledge about the book and who he is than I actually did. I had no idea who Farrow was before reading this and he would often allude to people or events without giving the proper context. It’s a small complaint, but at times I felt he was little ahead of his reader.

The only other complaint I have was with Farrow’s accents in the audiobook. They were truly terrible and really took away from the narrative. Apparently every single person Farrow knows has some kind of accent and he is terrible at all of them. It was distracting and frankly a bit embarrassing. But what was worse was his impersonations of women. Please please please, don’t try and use a voice when you are reading for women. It was insulting. He made all the women sound really breathy and bad. Just use your own damn voice. Your accents and impersonations add nothing and are distracting from an otherwise good audiobook.

The one part of this audiobook though that you will not get from the paperback is the recording of Harvey Weinstein. I can’t remember the name of the women who took the recording, but it’s the one where he’s trying to get her up to his hotel room (I know, that could be anyone, Weinstein is disgusting) and she is protesting and he says “I’m used to that”. I assume the paperback has a transcript of the recording, but the audiobook has the actual recording and it is chilling. His coerciveness and entitlement is repulsive – I could easily see this being a trigger for victims of abuse though, so please be aware.

In conclusion, this was a great piece of investigative journalism and I applaud Farrow for his conviction in sticking with it, but more importantly, my praise goes out to all the women who were a part of this story. To the women brave enough to come forward with their stories; to the women whose careers were ruined; to the women who reported and were ignored or hushed with NDAs; and to the women who have not come forward but who have still suffered all the same. They are the real heroes of this story. I hope that your courage will allow the women who come behind you to be heard, believed, and amplified.

If you’re looking for another perspective, check out She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey, which I will be adding to my TBR. Please read this, but more importantly, please believe women.