Category Archives: Bestseller

That Summer: When the bathtub is the beach

If beach reads are those you tote with you to the beach (though let’s be clear, my beach days are all toting toddlers, and why is it ‘tote’ for the beach – like you never just carry something from your car to the sand, it has to be ‘toted’ I DIGRESS) what is the name for books you read in the dead of winter? For me it would be deep-bathtub-to-soak-the-cold-from-my-bones reads. I have this memory of reading The Kindly Ones almost exclusively in the bath in the winter of 2010 – memorable because it was close to 1000 pages and my bath was then (and now) Not Big – and probably because reading it was a purposeful diversion from the thesis writing I was meant to be doing.

[spoilers and sexual violence]

Now the diversion is from equally existential threats – will my floor ever not be covered in yogurt? (ha ha – we all know the threats are… much more substantive, but really, the menace of yogurt) – and the desire to sink in to anything else is high. And it’s So Cold. So we find ourselves with our bathtub read: That Summer by Jennifer Weiner – famous for beach reads. And it is one you can sink into with little effort and find yourself immersed (how far can I take this) in a decently plotted and reasonably thoughtful consideration of the long, irrevocable change wrought by a rape.

It follows Daisy and Diana and how their lives cross and the ways single events ricochet throughout the rest of their lives. It purposefully explores the privilege of class and gender – most clearly the threat of violence that underwrites too many sexual experiences and explicitly grapples with how #metoo upturned what many women took for granted as the way things were and had to be, and the safety of some men in imagining they could carry on being and doing horrendous things.

All while offering lush descriptions of Cape Code and picturesque cottages with bleached wood frames and outdoor showers. And too many descriptions of a pan fried steak. (for the record: one description of a pan fried steak is too many).

Where it doesn’t attempt any commentary and just takes for granted the assumed is in the whiteness of the book. And maybe that is fine, no book has to be all things or do all things. It just read as remarkably… focused on the particular threat for young white women running along a beach. Maybe more perplexing given the effort in the book to see the woman reading it – frustrated with a partner, irritated by a tween, struggling with Purpose and Meaning – and to myopically miss the possibility of additional complexity.

Anyway – probably all beach reads are marketed to rich white women (anyone written a Masters thesis on that?). But yes, this particular rich white woman needs another thing to read in the bath, so send me your suggestions.

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State of Terror: Such Fun and Why Not Now

Guys you need something fun. You need something that makes fun of Trump and has little dashes of totally unreasonable and ill founded hope and goodness. Louise Penny can be counted on for these qualities, and when the novel is co-authored with Hillary Clinton… well, it’s just fun.

State of Terror follows the barely fictionalized Secretary of State for the President just following President Dunn (the Trump stand in) as she tries to thwart a nuclear attack on the United States. It attempts to Seriously Grapple with the ethics of preemptive strikes, of torture, of the relative moral standing of the US in the world, and while it does dabble in those themes, it does it in the most gentle of ways. With mere seconds on the bomb left to tick down the anxiety never ratchets far: we know we are in safe hands.

And with a cameo from Inspector Gamache and plenty of descriptions of delicious food, we know that the primary pen here must be Penny, but with plot credit going to the presidential nominee.

I paid so many dollars in late fines for this one (it was a ‘quick read’ and while it *is* a quick read, my life is a hellish landscape of email and toddler snacks) and it was worth it. Even more so because Guelph is doing away with late fines in 2022 and so I may as well give them all my $ now.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

Empire of Pain: It Won’t Feel Good (and not just because it is literally very heavy) But A Must Read

I did commit to reading more nonfiction this year, and so in the waning months of 2021 I thought, why not read something cheerful, like a 560 page deep dive into the Sackler family and their obscene greed that brought the world mass marketed pharmaceuticals and Oxycontin and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths?

I didn’t realize when ordering it from the library that it was from the same author, Patrick Radden Keefe, as my previous 2021 nonfiction win, Say Nothing. But happy discovery, as like Say Nothing the writing is ‘novelistic’ in that people (cough characters) are afforded full depth and complicated motivations and that there is a plot that one can latch onto. So no dry, dull non-fiction for this reader. (Sure, sure, I get it, 2021’s experiment has proven that non-fiction is… pretty great. Don’t rub it in, NHFH.)

What this one offers is on the surface a biography of the Sackler family, beginning with the three brothers that found Purdue pharmaceuticals, but chiefly Arthur, who is something of an impossible figure to believe in the range of interests, the maniacal pursuit of them and the ‘success’ he brought in merging the fields of advertising, medicine and drug development. We then follow the subsequent generations of Sacklers and their truly relentless and amoral pursuit of profit over the clear and consistent and unequivocal proof the dangers of their opioid products. The level of corruption within the government and government agencies, of doctors and pharmacies, the collusion and feigned ignorance, it’s all… a lot, and yet, somehow not at all surprising.

The book explores with some complexity the complicity of later generations and what level of involvement within the Sackler business should ‘taint’ a Sackler family member. Or whether benefiting – directly or indirectly – from Sackler profits besmirches the character or actions of an individual family member, some of whom (though not many) were tangential to the direct business dealings.

I especially appreciated the section detailing the work of activist artist, Nan Goldin, and the demonstration of the power of art to unsettle and unseat power. A meta commentary, I’m sure, on the potential of the book to provoke change, of books to make a difference.

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Filed under Bestseller, New York Times Notable, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

How Beautiful We Were

Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were is beautiful. I mean, the story is crushing: an American oil company destroys the (fictional) village of Kosawa in an unnamed country in Africa by poisoning the water and land such that the children are dying, the land can’t be farmed, and the villagers must leave or die. Over the forty-odd years it takes to slowly and apathetically destroy the village and its people, the reader witnesses the company and its cooperating government shift from outright denials of the evidence of the environmental ruin to agreement of cause and effect but with a simultaneous decision – supported by law – to do nothing. The reader might think – as the people of Kosawa do – that the swing from denial to consent of crime might result in restitution, but such an expectation, as we should have known, is ridiculous. No one and nothing can hold the powerful to account.

Except? Well, maybe. We do witness Thula, the young heroine of the village, journey to America to study in an aim to save her village and people. With her return to Kosawa and her commitment to lead a peaceful overthrow of the government, the reader begins to hope that maybe some change will come that will restore Kosawa. I won’t totally spoil things for you, but I would say that the novel exploits novelistic structure to build up hope and expectation in ways that are clever, if ultimately frustrating.

The narrative voice shifts among the characters in Thula’s family as we experience from all points of view the ebb of hope and despair, the belief that change might be possible and the acceptance of individual self interest as the most powerful motivator. While it has no connection – at all – to vaccines or the vaccine flap, this thread in the novel – what are we willing to do for the wider good, what are we willing to sacrifice for our communities – did resonate with this reader in thinking about the current moment and the need to see past our own self interest for just. a. second.

The best thing going in the book is the beautiful writing. I did find the plot a bit slow, and the characters a bit sparse in their development. But with the book focusing on the indictment of oil, the call for environmental justice and communal action, and the condemnation of the wealthy and willfully ignorant (like me), I suppose I can deal.

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, Prize Winner