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.

Greenwood

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Michael Christie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Mar. 2020 on Audible)

It’s been just over a month since I finished Greenwood, so I’ll do my best to review. Like a lot of my audiobooks, I didn’t really have any intention of reading this book, but I stumbled across it, liked the sound of the narrator, and thought it seemed interesting enough. The story did get bogged down in places, but overall, I really liked it.

Greenwood tells the story of the Greenwood family over 4 generations and is a mixture of literary fiction, mystery, and dystopia all rolled into one compelling book. The highlight of the storytelling for me was in the structure. The novel starts on Vancouver Island in 2034. In recent years a tree virus has felled the majority of the world’s trees, but there’s still a pristine old growth forest that remains on a small island near Pacific Rim and it’s here that ecologist Jake Greenwood works, taking wealthy vacationers walking along the last remaining giants.

From here, each part of the story takes us back in time, to Liam Greenwood in 2008, a carpenter who renovates homes using reclaimed wood. Then to Willow Greenwood in 1974, a hippy and environmentalist who protests her father’s rich timber company. Then back to Everett Greenwood in 1934, a poor hermit who lives in the woods farming maple syrup, and then finally to 1908 and the events that started everything for the Greenwood Family. Once we reach 1908, the story reverses again as we slowly start to make our way back to 2034. It’s a fascinating structure. I loved going back in time to learn more about the events that preceded each storyline, only to learn new mysteries that I won’t find the answers to until the story reverses itself again.

The majority of the story takes place in 1934 and the actions Everett takes have a lasting impact on the Greenwood Family for generations to come. It’s interesting to see how secrets are hidden and how easily history can be lost over multiple generations. How quickly the cycle of poverty can reverse itself. My favourite timelines were 1934 and 2034, but I think they all offered something unique to the story. I did think the author dragged out the 1934 storyline a little bit too much – it is the critical part of the book, but I don’t really think this book needed all it’s 500+ pages and easily could have been more in the 400-450 range.

I did love how this book takes us all over Canada and parts of America and how it incorporates trees as its central theme. Even though some of the family members use the trees as a resource for profit and others seek to protect the trees, they all make their living from the trees and are impacted by them. It’s interested to see something inanimate like a tree take on such a central role in the novel. As someone who lives in Western Canada and loves the landscape here, I really enjoyed the exploration of the value of trees and was moved by the imagination of a world without them. Our old growth forests are incredibly valuable and I can’t imagine the loss of them, much less the majority of trees on the planet. How they scape our cities, towns, and parks and the number of resources that we pull from them.

So overall I did find the story slowed down in places, but overall I really enjoyed and would recommend to lovers of Canadian lit!

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Heather Morris
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Sep. 2018 (read Apr. 2020 on Audible)

This was supposed to be my book club pick for March, but then of course our meeting was cancelled and I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a holocaust book during a global pandemic. We’ve rescheduled our book club meeting so I decided to give the audiobook a go since I’ve been struggling with paperbacks recently, but have been doing a lot of jigsaws. This was definitely the way to go and a flew through this short book and my latest jigsaw in a single weekend.

Aside from the whole pandemic thing, I still wasn’t really looking forward to reading this because I’ve read a lot of holocaust books over the years and though there’s many great and emotional books on the topic, after reading so many books about the camps I find not a lot of new content offered anymore, so it’s just easier not to read such upsetting works.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz does offer a point of view I haven’t seen before, that of a Jewish prisoner conscripted to work as the tatowierer who inks all of the prisoners with their number when they enter the camps. It was an interesting story in that is was told from the point of view of someone who received preferential treatment in the camps. Lale was spared from physical labour and given his own room in one of the camp blocks. He didn’t have to report for roll calls and so was able to move about the camp a lot easier than many other prisoners would have been able to. He uses this privilege to build up a bit of an underground trade. The girls who go through the prisoners clothing provide him with jewels, which he trades for extra food. Building up a stockpile which he shares with other prisoners and uses to cash in on favours.

Unfortunately this book made me really uncomfortable, but not in the way you might expect a holocaust story to make one feel uncomfortable. I feel like I might be a bit callous in critiquing a story such as this one, but there were 3 issues I had with the story.

First of all, on Lale’s first night in the camp, he is stunned to see two men shot and killed for sport by the Nazis while using the bathroom. Upon witnessing this act, he vows that he will do whatever it takes to survive the camp. That’s all good and I admire his tenacity, but Morris revisits this theme several times throughout the novel and I felt like I was supposed to believe that Lale survived Auschwitz out of sheer force of character. This was not the case – he relies heavily on the kindness of others, which he takes advantage of to improve his own situation and that of those he cares about. But on more than one occasion his life is saved by other individuals. This in itself isn’t a big deal, but pushing the narrative that Lale’s grit is what enabled his survival is belittling to all the people that didn’t make it out of the camps. Grit and determination have literally nothing to do with surviving the atrocities of a concentration camp. Lale traded on the kindness of others and was incredibly lucky. I don’t find any fault in Lale’s actions, but let’s just call it what it is.

The second issue that bothered me, and what made this an uncomfortable read for me, was the love story between Lale and Gita. I can’t say I’ve ever read a love story set in a holocaust camp. I’ve read so many beautiful holocaust stories in which love is the central theme, but definitely not a ‘meet and fall in love in a camp’ story. Again, the idea of a couple falling in love in a concentration is not that unbelievable – this is based on the true story of real life couple Lale and Gita, so it obviously happened, but the writing about the love story just made me soooo uncomfortable.

Like I said, I believe two individuals could fall in love in a camp. Under unthinkable emotional trauma, it would be natural to seek comfort and reassurance from those around you. To be brought together by your shared experience and build a deep and lasting bond of trust and understanding. I didn’t struggle to believe that Gita would fall in love with Lale, he looked after her most basic needs, found her better work, food, and medication, and provided emotional support through a traumatic experience. But please don’t try and portray this relationship as sexy. Lale and Gita were both victims of their situation and I really think the author grossly romanticized their relationship. I know this is based on a true story, but it’s also based on one man’s 70 year old memories. Maybe this is the way Lale remembered his experience, but this is still “fiction” and the author has a duty to question how those memories may have been manipulated an warped over the years to block out a traumatic experience.

I find it hard to believe that after living several years in a concentration camp, being beaten and starved, that anyone would use a chocolate bar to try and seduce someone. In general I just couldn’t help but cringe at all of the romance scenes. Especially how Lale talked about women – how “all women are beautiful” and you have to take care of women, and what a womanizer he was. It was so eye-rolling, but again, obvious that it was probably lifted straight from her interview with Lale. Of course an old man who grew up in the 1930’s would talk like that, but nothing about it felt genuine or reflective of how Lale actually might have felt in 1942.

But this is just one example of the ways in which I struggled to buy into the story and felt Morris’ should have taken more artistic license in how she told it. Everything about Lale’s experience seemed to be romanticized. How easy it was for him to trade in diamonds and food, how he was able to manipulate almost everyone around him to get what he wanted, how no part of the camp was closed off to him and he could pretty much just do and go where ever he wanted, how easy it was for him to survive an interrogation without breaking down, and then just pick up the pieces of his fabricated life in the camp once he was released again. I don’t disbelieve that this was the account Morris’ received from Lale, but again, it’s where your duty to history and the reader comes in to question the authenticity of those experiences and how your portrayal of a concentration camp might read to those who have lived through similar, though very different experiences. I felt the author failed to portray the horror of the concentration camps, which should really be the easiest part of the story.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz reminded me a lot of another WWII book I read a few years ago, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. Both are fascinating stories in themselves, but both books were inspired by late-in-life interviews with their subjects. In both books I think the authors rely too heavily on the source material from their interviewees and somehow fail to connect to their characters on an emotional level.

Which brings me to my final point. This book was poorly written. This is more a flawed chronological account of Lale’s 3 years in the camps than a meaningful piece of historical fiction. Morris relies heavily on dialogue and plot to carry her story, but misses out on any kind of characterization. Somehow an emotional story of 3 terrible years in concentration camps lacks in any real emotional connection. Now obviously this is a personal opinion. I know a lot of people really loved this and connected with Lale, so it makes me feel like a bit of troll saying that I didn’t feel anything from a holocaust story, but I just felt that Morris didn’t give these characters the humanity they deserved. Her writing style is very detached and as such, I always felt detached as well. The story just seemed to be “and then he did this and then he said this and then she did that”. It was just kind of boring.

It was a story with a lot of promise, and like I said, it does show a different experience of life at Auschwitz, but I just wanted more from it. Lale is a flawed individual and I would have loved to see more exploration of how his morality was impacted by his time in the camp. He alludes a few times that he was worried he might be considered a collaborator and I would have liked to see more of that internal struggle. He was a generally selfless person and i felt he likely would also have struggled with the fact that he couldn’t help everyone and the impact having to decide who he would help might also have on him. At 250 pages, there was certainly room to better develop this story, so I was disappointed that the author decided to just retell an interview rather than do the hard emotional reflection on how this experience would impact Lale and those around him.

I think I’ll end it there. I could probably say more, but this is getting long enough. I see there’s a sequel. I am intrigued that it’s about Cilka, she is one of the characters that I probably empathized with the most and it was really upsetting to learn she was convicted as a collaborator. I’m curious if her sequel is fabricated or actually based on a real person. Anyone know? I won’t be reading it either way, but I am intrigued.

Dual Citizens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alix Ohlin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Canadian Lit
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Feb. 2020 on Audible)

Dual Citizens is one of the those weird creations of Canadian literature that I ended up really loving, yet wouldn’t necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a bit of an artsy story with a meandering plot, but it’s ultimately about family and sisterhood and that really resonated with me.

Lark and Robin are sisters that grew up in Montreal and received little attention or praise from their young mother. So they instead look to one another for support and long for the day when they can branch out on their own. Lark is shy but very studious and does well in school, earning herself a scholarship for a college in the States. Robin learns to play the piano and has a natural talent for it. She is dismayed when Lark leaves her behind to go to school and within the year she runs away to live with Lark.

Eventually Lark discovers a love for film and Robin is accepted to study piano at Julliard. But the pressure of music school gets to her and as Lark dives further into her film degree, the sisters begin to grow apart. The separation between the two sisters was jarring and upsetting for me. They were all each other had and I felt as set adrift by the separation as Lark did. The sisters are very different and Lark struggles to understand why her sister suddenly distances herself and they begin to grow apart, each caught up in their own struggles and insecurities.

Lark spends a lot of time working in the film industry and is quite successful, but she reads like a character who just moves through life without actually engaging in it. She is passive in every scenario and I really felt like part of her was missing during her estrangement from Robin. I’m not really an artsy person and I don’t care for film, but I really loved the storytelling in this book. I just felt this ache throughout for the relationship that Lark and Robin once had and the strain and impact that the loss of communication had on Lark. The feeling of incompleteness while the two were separated and the tenseness that continued between them even once they were reunited. It’s scary to watch two people that were so close become disconnected to the point that they don’t really know who the other person is anymore.

It really reminded me of the feelings of nostalgia and sadness that you get when you return home and realize that the people you loved and spent so much time with have all changed. The feeling of moving on, but thinking fondly of the experiences you once shared, but the sadness of realizing that some experience meant more to one person than the other.

It’s hard to describe, but Lark’s longing for both motherhood and a renewed relationship with her sister were so authentic. It’s a slow moving story with little driving the plot, but I related so keenly to Lark. I think Ohlin captured a very flawed, but real relationship, and I felt really invested in Lark’s life. I don’t think it’s a story for everyone though and I’m not sure I’d want to read it again because of the emotional toll, but I’m glad to have picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook. A great story with a lot of depth!