Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

40217960Verdict: Mesmerising. Unbelievable. Compulsively readable. Highly recommended.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction

Published by Random House Audio, May 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

The full inside story of the breathtaking rise and shocking collapse of a multibillion-dollar startup, by the prize-winning journalist who first broke the story and pursued it to the end in the face of pressure and threats from the CEO and her lawyers.

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood tests significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

For years, Holmes had been misleading investors, FDA officials, and her own employees. When Carreyrou, working at The Wall Street Journal, got a tip from a former Theranos employee and started asking questions, both Carreyrou and the Journal were threatened with lawsuits. Undaunted, the newspaper ran the first of dozens of Theranos articles in late 2015. By early 2017, the company’s value was zero and Holmes faced potential legal action from the government and her investors. Here is the riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a disturbing cautionary tale set amid the bold promises and gold-rush frenzy of Silicon Valley.

I cannot recommend this highly enough. I sped through this audiobook in a few days because I just could not stop listening to it. There were so many unbelievable things in this true account of the Theranos scam that my mouth dropped open in a way I did not think happens in real life.

John Carreyrou traces the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her medical start-up Theranos from the beginning with the help of countless interviews and other insights. The picture he paints is breathtaking: of a firm run like a cult, of incompetence that can only be explained by a complete lack of understanding of science by nearly everyone involved, of unethical hounding of those who did see the bad science for what it was. I can tell you, if I can see the science as flawed it is really flawed – my knowledge of biology and chemistry is lacklustre to say the least.

While I overall enjoyed this book a whole lot, there were a few things that did not quite work for me. First and foremost the framing of the story – as Elizabeth Holmes did not give any interviews for this book, her story is told from the other end, which I am absolutely fine with and I do think Carreyrou did an exceptional job with this, but his clear distaste for Holmes shines through in a way that I did not always appreciate. For example, early on he uses an anecdote of her playing Monopoly with her brothers and being a super sore loser as an indication for how horrible and competitive a person she is – and I don’t buy that. Lots of kids are sore losers, most of them grow up not scamming patients. I do agree with his assessment that Holmes scammed her investors purposefully and did not care about the patients being misdiagnosed because of her flawed technology but I wish he had let me come to this assessment on my own a bit more.

As a case study of how the lack of diverse knowledge can harm a company, this book is priceless. There were many instances where having somebody on the board of directors with just a little bit of knowledge of the science between the big idea would have led to a totally different ending. I would have liked to have seen an analysis of the social structures in place that enabled Holmes to build her company and run it for many years without any pertinent experience as a 19-year-old college dropout just based on knowing the right people and acting the part. But still, this book is amazing in achieving what it set out to do.

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Review: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

39690383Verdict: Fascinating portrait of a fascinating life.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography

Published by Text Publishing, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst she discovered a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humour in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy mark her out as a one-off.

This is an incredible portrait of a deeply complicated woman – and I adored it. Sandra Pankhurst owns a company specializing on trauma cleaning (after suicides and violent crimes but mostly for people with hoarding tendencies). Sarah Krasnostein followed her work for months and tells in alternating chapter of Sandra’s clients and her own, tumultuous life.

Sandra, who was born as Peter, adopted by a deeply dysfunctional and abusive family, married young and had two children before leaving her family. She is a deeply complicated person and a completely unreliable narrator as she freely admits to having forgotten large parts of her life due both to her own trauma and drug abuse. Krasnostein manages to painting a wonderful portrait nonetheless. I especially admire that she let Sandra be contradictory and difficult without trying to paint a coherent picture: because Sandra’s life does not lend itself to coherence and her contradictions are fascinating. She is able to extend an utmost sympathy to her clients, while at the same time being callous in the way she talks about her ex-wife, who she left without any financial assistance and who had two raise her two sons on her own. She was part of the LGBTQIA-scene before it was legal and now supports conservative politicians. She is empathetic and lovely to people she hardly knows and has not spoken to people she was close with in the 70s in decades.

My favourite parts were in the present, following Sandra and her empathy while dealing with her clients. I appreciated the way in which Krasnostein painted vivid pictures of very difficult living situations while avoiding sounding voyeuristic. The women Sandra became has my utmost respect even if she has done some horrible things to get there. Her life story is an interesting and in parts harrowing one, and it is a story that is well worth knowing.

The audiobook is extremely well done and I cannot recommend it high enough. The narrator, Rachael Tidd did a wonderful job letting Sandra come alive in my ear. I think the excellent narration lifted this book to a definitely four-star read for me.

Lastly, I do feel the need to point out that this book contains some seriously harrowing scenes; there is one rather lengthy and detailed rape in the middle of the book that might be triggering for some readers.

 

Review: Ongoingness – The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

22244927Verdict: Glorious.

My rating 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Creative Non-Fiction, Memoir

Published by Graywolf Press, 2016

Find it on Goodreads.

In Ongoingness, Sarah Manguso continues to define the contours of the contemporary essay. In it, she confronts a meticulous diary that she has kept for twenty-five years. “I wanted to end each day with a record of everything that had ever happened,” she explains. But this simple statement belies a terror that she might forget something, that she might miss something important. Maintaining that diary, now eight hundred thousand words, had become, until recently, a kind of spiritual practice.

Then Manguso became pregnant and had a child, and these two Copernican events generated an amnesia that put her into a different relationship with the need to document herself amid ongoing time.

Ongoingness is a spare, meditative work that stands in stark contrast to the volubility of the diary–it is a haunting account of mortality and impermanence, of how we struggle to find clarity in the chaos of time that rushes around and over and through us.

I adored this. When it arrived, I just wanted to have a peak at the first page and suddenly I was a third of the way through. There is just something hypnotizing about Sarah Manguso’s writing and I cannot wait to pick up more of her books.

This is a book about a diary, without any quotes taken from that diary at all. As such it is obviously an incomplete text – but some reason I cannot even put into words it spoke deeply to me. Sarah Manguso kept a diary, obsessively so, for years: “I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination – so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.” Until she stopped. She writes in short, fragmented paragraphs about a text the reader cannot access – and everything about that just worked for me so very well.

I found this book mesmerizing and deeply moving; her language is precise and no word is obsolete, which is often my favourite type of language. I cannot quite give it five stars, as it is super short and maybe could have been fleshed out more. But on the other hand, every sentence of this book hit home.

Review: Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young

40206019Verdict: Uneven.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays, Memoir(ish)

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, August 9th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In Can You Tolerate This? – the title comes from the question chiropractors ask to test a patient’s pain threshold – Ashleigh Young ushers us into her early years in the faraway yet familiar landscape of New Zealand: fantasising about Paul McCartney, cheering on her older brother’s fledgling music career, and yearning for a larger and more creative life.

As Young’s perspective expands, a series of historical portraits – a boy with a rare skeletal disease, a French postman who built a stone fortress by hand, a generation of Japanese shut-ins – strike unexpected personal harmonies, as an unselfconscious childhood gives way to painful shyness in adolescence. As we watch Young fall in and out of love, undertake intense physical exercise that masks something deeper, and gradually find herself through her writing, a highly particular psyche comes into view: curious, tender and exacting in her observations of herself and the world around her.

How to bear each moment of experience: the inconsequential as much as the shattering?

In this spirited and singular collection of essays, Ashleigh Young attempts to find some measure of clarity amidst the uncertainty, exploring the uneasy tensions – between safety and risk, love and solitude, the catharsis of grief and the ecstasy of creation – that define our lives.

This was… highly uneven. I thought the second half worked a lot better than the first (there were some really amazing essays there) but if I hadn’t had a review copy of this, I don’t think I would have even gotten that far. The first third of the book was particularly difficult to get into.

Ashleigh Young wrote essays on a variety of topics, often semi auto-biographical in nature but always considering other perspectives as well and in theory I should have adored this. There is a fairly long essay early on in this collection (Big Red) dealing with her relationship with her brothers that seems custom-made for me (I do love sibling relationships) but made me nearly give up the book. I found it unfocused and to be honest, pretty badly written in a vague way.

I did, however, really enjoy her essay on working in Katherine Mansfield’s birth house which signaled a shift in quality for me. After that her essays become both more experimental and more assured in tone. Her essay on her eating disorder was the high point for me. I adored how she structured it and the vulnerability and strength she showed.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

33606119Verdict: Important, timely, for a different reader.

My rating: 3,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction (Essays)

Published by Bloomsbury, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

In 2014, award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote about her frustration with the way that discussions of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it. She posted a piece on her blog, entitled: ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ that led to this book.

Exploring issues from eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance, whitewashed feminism to the inextricable link between class and race, Reni Eddo-Lodge offers a timely and essential new framework for how to see, acknowledge and counter racism. It is a searing, illuminating, absolutely necessary exploration of what it is to be a person of colour in Britain today.

My thoughts on this are slightly complicated. This book is incredibly important, impeccably researched, stringently argued – but possibly not quite for me. I spend an awful lot of time reading feminist texts, both academically and in my private life. I have been following the discourse closely for a few years (ever since I realized how white my formal academic background is I felt the need to remedy that) and I think the most important work in recent feminism has been done by intersectional feminists (and here especially black woman). This book gives a comprehensive overview – and it cannot be overstated how brilliantly argued and researched it is – but for me there was very little new. Then again, that seems like an unfair baseline for any work, so take my rating with a grain of salt. Because I do think everybody should read this.

For me, the chapter that was most important was the one on feminism itself – here I found a lot to mull over. Reni Eddo-Lodge shows the structures of privilege and the way these spaces that should be inclusive can end up being the opposite.

The chapters that read more like text-book entries (for example on White Privilege) are equally stringently argued but for me those did not quite work – as I said, I do think I am fairly well-read in this area. I can still see why it is important to include the bases of one’s theories in a book like this, that is not written with me in mind. It gives women of colour the tools to talk about everyday occurences and gives white people a perspective they might not have considered. And Reni Eddo-Lodge’s measured and thoughtful approach is definitely a needed one.

On a final note: I just cannot get over how brilliant the cover is. Clever, stunning, evocative.

Review: Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

25175985Verdict: Important, well-researched, infuriating, empowering.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster, April 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

Women are standing up and #shoutingback. In a culture that’s driven by social media, for the first time women are using this online space (@EverydaySexism www.everydaysexism.com) to come together, share their stories and encourage a new generation to recognise the problems that women face. This book is a call to arms in a new wave of feminism and it proves sexism is endemic – socially, politically and economically. But women won’t stand for it. The Everyday Sexism Project is grounded in reality; packed with substance, validity and integrity it shows that women will no longer tolerate a society that ignores the dangers and endless effects of sexism.

In 2012 after being sexually harassed on London public transport Laura Bates, a young journalist, started a project called Everyday Sexism to collect stories for a piece she was writing on the issue. Astounded by the response she received and the wide range of stories that came pouring in from all over the world, she quickly realised that the situation was far worse than she’d initially thought. Enough was enough. From being leered at and wolf-whistled on the street, to aggravation in the work place and serious sexual assault, it was clear that sexism had been normalised. Bates decided it was time for change.

This bold, jaunty and ultimately intelligent book is the first to give a collective online voice to the protest against sexism. This game changing book is a juggernaut of stories, often shocking, sometimes amusing and always poignant – it is a must read for every inquisitive, no-nonsense modern woman.

I started listening to this as a sort of antidote to the misery that was It by Stephen King (which I have since put on hold and I am not sure I will pick back up again, I struggled with the depiction of sexism and racism and homophobia), and while this was certainly not a fun book, it was one that I thoroughly recommend and one that I am so very glad to have read.

Laura Bates talks about sexism here, the small acts and the larger acts and how they together form a society that is not particularly nice to women (or men for that matter). Drawing on the extensive collection of women’s experiences with sexism and an impressive amount of research, Bates has written an incredibly important book here and one that should be required reading. While I think she could have adressed intersectionality a bit better in parts, she did it a lot better than some other feminist works have done. Her chapter devoted to intersectionality was thus my favourite part of the book and something I would have liked to be more at the centre. But still, what an impressive book and man, what a kick in the gut to listen to her rallying cry of a last chapter that is infused with so much optimism – because, for me at least, the world very much feels like a clusterfuck at the moment.

Mini-Review: Women & Power – Mary Beard

36313514Verdict: Interesting, but ultimately too short for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Published by Profile Books, 2017

Genre: Non-Fiction

Find it on Goodreads.

Britain’s best known classicist, Mary Beard, is also a committed and vocal feminist. With wry wit she shows how history has treated powerful women. Her examples range from Medusa and Athena to Theresa May and Elizabeth Warren as she explores the cultural underpinnings of misogyny, considering the public voice of women, how we look at women who exercise power, our cultural assumptions about women’s relationship with power, and how powerful women resist being packaged into a male template.

With personal reflections on her own experiences of sexism online and the gendered violence she has endured as a woman in the public eye, Beard asks: If women aren’t perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn’t it power we need to redefine?

I don’t have all that much too say about this book which is why my review will be rather on the short side (quite like the book). This book collects two speeches Mary Beard has given, one called “The Public Voice Of Women” and one “Women & Power” and as speeches I am sure this worked wonderfully. As a book however, it really fell a bit short for me. I might not be the target audience and this might work better as an introduction to feminist thinking but for me, while I agreed with Mary Beard and appreciated her expertise in history, it just did not blow my mind.

I do like her emphasis on changing structure to really be able to achieve change and I think that social structure is too often ignored in feminist analysis. There are so many things we just take for granted that Mary Beard shines a light on. But I also thought that her dialectic use of “male” and “female” is too easy and her examples are often too neat to be all that convincing.