Mini-Reviews: Blowout, How to Do Nothing, & The Great Pretender

Blowout by Rachel Maddow
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 1, 2019
Source: Borrowed

In 2010, the words “earthquake swarm” entered the lexicon in Oklahoma. That same year, a trove of Michael Jackson memorabilia—including his iconic crystal-encrusted white glove—was sold at auction for over $1 million to a guy who was, officially, just the lowly forestry minister of the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea. And in 2014, Ukrainian revolutionaries raided the palace of their ousted president and found a zoo of peacocks, gilded toilets, and a floating restaurant modeled after a Spanish galleon. Unlikely as it might seem, there is a thread connecting these events, and Rachel Maddow follows it to its crooked source: the unimaginably lucrative and equally corrupting oil and gas industry.

With her trademark black humor, Maddow takes us on a switchback journey around the globe, revealing the greed and incompetence of Big Oil and Gas along the way, and drawing a surprising conclusion about why the Russian government hacked the 2016 U.S. election. She deftly shows how Russia’s rich reserves of crude have, paradoxically, stunted its growth, forcing Putin to maintain his power by spreading Russia’s rot into its rivals, its neighbors, the West’s most important alliances, and the United States. Chevron, BP, and a host of other industry players get their star turn, most notably ExxonMobil and the deceptively well-behaved Rex Tillerson. The oil and gas industry has weakened democracies in developed and developing countries, fouled oceans and rivers, and propped up authoritarian thieves and killers. But being outraged at it is, according to Maddow, “like being indignant when a lion takes down and eats a gazelle. You can’t really blame the lion. It’s in her nature.”

Blowout is a call to contain the lion: to stop subsidizing the wealthiest businesses on earth, to fight for transparency, and to check the influence of the world’s most destructive industry and its enablers. The stakes have never been higher. As Maddow writes, “Democracy either wins this one or disappears.”

One of my goals for 2020 is to read as many of the Goodreads Choice Award nominees from 2019 as I can. First up was Blowout by Rachel Maddow. Despite being pretty liberal, I’ve never actually watched Rachel Maddow, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into here.

I’m not incredibly interested in the oil industry or anything, but this book was fine. Maddow is obviously very intelligent, she’s a good writer, and the book comes across as incredibly well-researched. The problem I had with it is that it’s long, not necessarily in page count, but just that it goes on and on and on and on. I found myself kind of zoning out when the book would get a little rambly, but something would inevitably pull me back in later.

Interestingly, the part of this book I found most interesting was on Russian spies. Maybe that’s the kind of book I should have been reading instead.


The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: November 5, 2019
Source: Borrowed

From “one of America’s most courageous young journalists” (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.

For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people — sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society — went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry’s labels. Forced to remain inside until they’d “proven” themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan’s watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.

But, as Cahalan’s explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?

As a book about David Rosenhan and his “pseudopatient” experiment, I can’t say that The Great Pretender really succeeds. It’s messy, it goes off on tangents, it frequently repeats itself, and (possible spoiler?) it doesn’t really have a conclusion.

As a book on psychiatry as a whole, I think it’s a lot more successful. Cahalan covers a lot of ground, and while it’s often confusing and kind of meanders around (as I said, frequently repeating itself), it’s also incredibly interesting. I feel like I learned a lot about the field of psychiatry and almost like I read a mystery.

When it comes to the actual advertised topic of this book, it almost feels like Cahalan ran out of material. Maybe this would have been better as a long academic paper than a nearly 400-page book.


How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Source: Borrowed

This thrilling critique of the forces vying for our attention re-defines what we think of as productivity, shows us a new way to connect with our environment and reveals all that we’ve been too distracted to see about our selves and our world.

When the technologies we use every day collapse our experiences into 24/7 availability, platforms for personal branding, and products to be monetized, nothing can be quite so radical as… doing nothing. Here, Jenny Odell sends up a flare from the heart of Silicon Valley, delivering an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity and techno-determinism, and to become more meaningfully connected in the process.

It seems like forever ago when I put a hold on How to Do Nothing. It ended up coming in during the first couple weeks of isolation, and what better time, really, for a book with that title. Nobody’s doing anything right now.

The thing about this book is that it’s less of “an action plan to resist capitalist narratives of productivity” and more of every pretentious thought the author had after thinking, “yeah, I should write a book about how much better I am than everyone else.”

Really, I appreciate what she was getting at. I think it’s important to disconnect from technology, appreciate nature, and get back to basics. I think it’s clear that Odell can write well, but overall, I found this book incredibly disappointing.


Have you read any of these books? Have you read any good nonfiction recently?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book Review: Open Book by Jessica Simpson

Open Book by Jessica Simpson
Rating: ★★★★★
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: February 4, 2020
Source: Borrowed

Jessica reveals for the first time her inner monologue and most intimate struggles. Guided by the journals she’s kept since age fifteen, and brimming with her unique humor and down-to-earth humanity, Open Book is as inspiring as it is entertaining.

This was supposed to be a very different book. Five years ago, Jessica Simpson was approached to write a motivational guide to living your best life. She walked away from the offer, and nobody understood why. The truth is that she didn’t want to lie.

Jessica couldn’t be authentic with her readers if she wasn’t fully honest with herself first.

Now, America’s Sweetheart, preacher’s daughter, pop phenomenon, reality TV pioneer, and the billion-dollar fashion mogul invites readers on a remarkable journey, examining a life that blessed her with the compassion to help others but also burdened her with an almost crippling need to please. Open Book is Jessica Simpson using her voice, heart, soul, and humor to share things she’s never shared before.

First celebrated for her voice, she became one of the most talked-about women in the world, whether for music and fashion, her relationship struggles, or as a walking blonde joke. But now, instead of being talked about, Jessica is doing the talking. Her book shares the wisdom and inspirations she’s learned and shows the real woman behind all the pop-culture clichés — “chicken or fish,” “Daisy Duke,” “football jinx,” “mom jeans,” “sexual napalm…” and more. Open Book is an opportunity to laugh and cry with a close friend, one that will inspire you to live your best, most authentic life, now that she is finally living hers.

Let’s travel way back to 1999 for a minute, when nine-year-old Sara was obsessed with a certain love song by Jessica Simpson.

Oh, yes, I could certainly relate. But I thought then, and still think now, that Jessica Simpson knows how to make a great pop song. I wouldn’t say I was (or am) a big enough fan to seek out her memoir, but I saw such glowing reviews of this book that I had to see what was going on.

I’m glad I did, because this is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. (Or listened to, I guess.)

Reading this book felt like catching up with an old friend. Jessica knows that she’s made mistakes. She knows she’s done things wrong. She knows the stereotypes and the rumors about her. She doesn’t try to make excuses for anything, but she does tell you what she’s learned.

I wouldn’t change a single thing about my story, because I finally love who I am, and I can forgive who I was.

What made this book even better (and at times, even more heartbreaking) was the emotion in Jessica’s voice as she narrated it. She gets choked up talking about parts of her past. You can hear her rolling her eyes at some of the more unfortunate decisions she’s made. And you can just imagine her giving you a particular look as she delves into some of the juicier gossip.

I’m just so happy that I took the time to listen to this book. Not only was it a great story, but the audiobook includes a bunch of new music from her! I linked to my favorite of those songs, Heart Beat, below.

Content warnings for:sexual abuse, alcoholism, death, body image/body shaming

Have you read Open Book? What’s the best memoir you’ve read recently?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Mini-Reviews: Recent DNFs

So, it turns out that once I get on a DNFing streak, I really get on a DNFing streak. Here are some more mini-reviews from books I’ve abandoned.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: April 9, 2019
Source: Borrowed

Pulitzer Finalist Susan Choi’s narrative-upending novel about what happens when a first love between high school students is interrupted by the attentions of a charismatic teacher

In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving “Brotherhood of the Arts,” two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed—or untoyed with—by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.

The outside world of family life and economic status, of academic pressure and of their future adult lives, fails to penetrate this school’s walls—until it does, in a shocking spiral of events that catapults the action forward in time and flips the premise upside-down. What the reader believes to have happened to David and Sarah and their friends is not entirely true—though it’s not false, either. It takes until the book’s stunning coda for the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place—revealing truths that will resonate long after the final sentence.

As captivating and tender as it is surprising, Trust Exercise will incite heated conversations about fiction and truth, friendships and loyalties, and will leave readers with wiser understandings of the true capacities of adolescents and of the powers and responsibilities of adults.

DNF @ 3%

This book was so, so hyped (even Obama recommended it!) but I made it to 3% before I couldn’t take it anymore. THREE PERCENT. Between the constant descriptions of how unattractive the characters were (I get it, you don’t have to remind me on every page) and the weird groping in the middle of class, I just can’t. I know I hardly read any of this book, but based on what I did read, I don’t understand how this book won any awards.


The Hero and the Hacktivist by Pippa Grant
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: November 9, 2018
Source: Borrowed

For anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of an unsolicited dick pic…

He has the muscles of Adonis, an ego bigger than the sun, and a very clear desire to get back in my pants. Which would be fantastic if he weren’t a SEAL and I wasn’t a criminal.

Although, I prefer the term avenger.

I’m a hacktivist, cleaning up the cesspool of cyberspace one scam artist and troll at a time, and I sometimes bend a few rules to get justice done.

He’s a military man with abs of glory, sworn to uphold the letter of the law no matter its shortcomings. And if he’d known who—or what—I was, I doubt he would’ve banged me at my best friend’s wedding reception.

Or come back for more.

Which is why he’s now the only thing standing between me and one very pissed off internet troll who’s figured out where I live.

I’m pretty sure he’ll get me out of this alive—and quite satisfied, thank you very much—but I’m also pretty sure this mission will end with me in handcuffs.

And not the good kind of handcuffs.

The Hero and the Hacktivist is a romping fun SEAL / Best Friend’s Brother / Robin Hood in Cyberspace romance between a meathead and an heiress, complete with epic klutziness, terrible leg warmers, and an even worse phone virus gone wrong. This romantic comedy stands alone with no cheating or cliffhangers and ends with a fabulously fun happily ever after.

DNF @ ~5%

It’s actually been a while since I DNFed this one, so I’m estimating about how far I got before I gave up. This book was just one nope after another for me, and it got to be too much really quickly. The book starts with someone randomly throwing up in a corner and then progresses almost immediately to a hate-fuck between two people who’ve never met. Add to that characters who annoyed me from their first mention, and it was a recipe for a DNF.

#romanceopoly: military mews


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: May 6, 2003
Source: Borrowed

In Bryson’s biggest book, he confronts his greatest challenge: to understand—and, if possible, answer—the oldest, biggest questions we have posed about the universe and ourselves.

Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. 

A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.

DNF @ 42%

As much as it pains me to say it, I had to DNF my latest attempt at education via Bill Bryson. I loved The Body, but A Short History of Nearly Everything did not hold my attention at all. It’s well-written and full of information, but it’s not what I expected. Rather than give it a bad rating, I just DNFed.


Have you read any of these books? What’s the last book you DNFed?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book Review: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
Rating: ★★★★★
Links: Amazon • TBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: October 15, 2019
Source: Borrowed

In a dramatic account of violence and espionage, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Ronan Farrow exposes serial abusers and a cabal of powerful interests hell-bent on covering up the truth, at any cost.

In 2017, a routine network television investigation led Ronan Farrow to a story only whispered about: one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers was a predator, protected by fear, wealth, and a conspiracy of silence. As Farrow drew closer to the truth, shadowy operatives, from high-priced lawyers to elite war-hardened spies, mounted a secret campaign of intimidation, threatening his career, following his every move and weaponizing an account of abuse in his own family. 

All the while, Farrow and his producer faced a degree of resistance that could not be explained – until now. And a trail of clues revealed corruption and cover-ups from Hollywood, to Washington, and beyond. 

This is the untold story of the exotic tactics of surveillance and intimidation deployed by wealthy and connected men to threaten journalists, evade accountability and silence victims of abuse – and it’s the story of the women who risked everything to expose the truth and spark a global movement.

Both a spy thriller and a meticulous work of investigative journalism, Catch and Kill breaks devastating new stories about the rampant abuse of power – and sheds far-reaching light on investigations that shook the culture.

So far in 2020, I’ve given the books I’ve read an average of a little over three stars. I’ve been mostly indifferent to what I’ve read, and very few books have blown me away. I didn’t expect much when I picked up Catch and Kill. After all, it’s not like I particularly enjoy reading about rape, sexual assault, or Harvey Weinstein, but this book was incredible.

CATCH AND KILL: an old term in the tabloid industry for purchasing a story in order to bury it

In Catch and Kill, Farrow is relentless. He gives a voice to many of Weinstein’s targets while naming and shaming the seemingly countless people who worked to bury their stories. The conspiracy to hide the many rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein is more extensive than I’d ever imagined. From police officers to network executives, from attorneys to surveillance teams, the amount of work that went into making sure Weinstein’s actions stayed buried is mind-boggling.

This is a nonfiction book that never quite feels like nonfiction. It’s an amazing story of the struggle to bring down a notorious rapist when the entire media industry seems hell-bent on covering it up. Farrow’s journalistic integrity and refusal to give up this story are so admirable. Because the very thought of what Weinstein did is so sickening, I could never say that I enjoyed this book. But I think it’s a worthy and important read, and I’d give it more than five stars if I could.

Content warning for very matter-of-fact descriptions of rape and sexual assault.


Have you read Catch and Kill? Can you recommend any good investigative reporting books?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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Book Review: How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
Rating: ★★★☆☆
Links: AmazonTBD • Goodreads
Publication Date: June 16, 2015
Source: Borrowed

What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime?

How Music Got Free is a riveting story of obsession, music, crime, and money, featuring visionaries and criminals, moguls and tech-savvy teenagers. It’s about the greatest pirate in history, the most powerful executive in the music business, a revolutionary invention and an illegal website four times the size of the iTunes Music Store. 

Journalist Stephen Witt traces the secret history of digital music piracy, from the German audio engineers who invented the mp3, to a North Carolina compact-disc manufacturing plant where factory worker Dell Glover leaked nearly two thousand albums over the course of a decade, to the high-rises of midtown Manhattan where music executive Doug Morris cornered the global market on rap, and, finally, into the darkest recesses of the Internet.

Through these interwoven narratives, Witt has written a thrilling book that depicts the moment in history when ordinary life became forever entwined with the world online — when, suddenly, all the music ever recorded was available for free. In the page-turning tradition of writers like Michael Lewis and Lawrence Wright, Witt’s deeply-reported first book introduces the unforgettable characters—inventors, executives, factory workers, and smugglers—who revolutionized an entire artform, and reveals for the first time the secret underworld of media pirates that transformed our digital lives.

An irresistible never-before-told story of greed, cunning, genius, and deceit, How Music Got Free isn’t just a story of the music industry—it’s a must-read history of the Internet itself.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to listen to an album, you could just… download it. Any song you could possibly be looking for, no matter how obscure, was available for download in the shady corners of the internet, and if you couldn’t find it, one of your friends definitely knew someone who could. It was great. I still remember very clearly when those sites started disappearing, so I was really excited to read a book about the rise and fall of music piracy.

The story here is interesting. Witt covers all the major players in the torrenting scene — the people who invented the mp3, the people who leaked the music, the record company executives who had to deal with declining sales — and brings up points I hadn’t even thought to wonder about. Back in the day, these songs just appeared. You didn’t have to think about who put them there, how they did it, and what they risked, so in that way, I really enjoyed reading this book.

But for being a book about music piracy, it only seemed to skim the surface of the issue. I was hoping to read about music blogs, LUElinks, and file-sharing sites like MegaUpload, which were kind of the trifecta of piracy in my circles, but they were nowhere to be found in this book. I realize that these sites aren’t quite as sensational as the employees of CD factories sneaking music past security guards, but they were used much more commonly than torrents by the people I knew. I would’ve also liked a bit more discussion on modern answers to piracy, like Spotify, or even YouTube, which used to immediately remove copyrighted songs and now provides free access to just about any song you could want.

In short, this book was interesting, but I wanted more. I’ll definitely be browsing the library’s nonfiction section for more books on the music industry.

#mm20: seeing red


Have you read How Music Got Free? Have you read any good books on the music industry?
Let’s talk in the comments!

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