Category Archives: Bestseller

The Farm: Pregnancy Dystopia on International Women’s Day

Joanne Ramos joins a growing genre of novels imagining a near future where reproduction is fraught and bodies-with-uteruses are (more than ever) subject to surveillance and control for their reproductive possibilities. Too bad this was such a poor comparison with the truly excellent Red Clocks and not as speculative or feisty as The Power and such an obvious spin on The Handmaids Tale as to be irritating. And that the whole thing seemed to be written as though it already anticipated its movie adaptation: lots of plot, lots of surface, lots of descriptions of sleek cars and finger nails, and a disappointing lack of character development, interiority or good writing.

The hook this novel tries to make is to wed conversations about control of reproduction with class and race: the story follows a Filipino woman, Jane, as she spends nine months gestating the baby of an ultra billionaire at ‘the Farm’ a pregnancy center/spa/prison for surrogates. We are meant, I suppose, to read all the female characters as sympathetic – even the ultra rich – as they struggle to have it all, or to have some of it, or to just get by. We’re meant to appreciate the knowing nods to the Sisterhood and how women are made to compete against one another rather than to unite against Patriarchy. It’s just all so very Obvious and looking for nuance in this book is an exercise quickly abandoned in lieu of finishing it in time for book club.

So please on this International Women’s Day continue to read excellent books about the challenge and cost of pregnancy and parenting for women (the gendered wage gap is just the beginning). Just don’t read this one.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book Club, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

Akin: In which I am bossy about how a plot should behave

The overwhelming word that comes to mind with Emma Donoghue’s Akin is ‘lukewarm,’ which as someone who tries to write down how I feel about the books I’ve read feels unsatisfying. Declare a position! But really, I could neither urge you to read or not read this one. It’s fine. If your book club picks it? Fine. If someone gifts it to you because it was on the bestseller table at the book store? Fine. If you pass over it at the used bookstore because there are seven copies and you’d rather take home [insert anything else] [except Girl on the Train] Fine.

I read it out of curiosity. I’d enjoyed Room  and Akin was getting lots of hype and I’m nothing if not easily persuaded by best-of lists and recommendations. And Akin does have reasons for recommendations: (1) it’s a tight plot – taking place in a little over ten days, it follows octogenarian Noah as he must unexpectedly take over the care for his grand-nephew, Michael, and still journey to his birthplace of Nice to discover the truth about his mother (Noah does, I mean). The focused plot gives the novel a short story-esque feel, and a relative certainty early on for the reader on how things between Michael and Noah are going to turn out. (Cue every plot ever about a troubled teenager and an equally-troubled-but-pretending-to-have-it-all-sorted adult like every teacher-disturbed class movie ever). (2) Michael is a well done character, and the questions he asks and his reactions feel sensible and in line with what his character would say or do.

And then there’s the reasons you could pass this one by: (1) The aforementioned obviousness of the outcome of the Noah-Michael dynamic and the somewhat alarming way in which having children is roughly inserted towards the end of the novel as a prime Purpose for living – an insult to folks who don’t have kids and an unreasonable burden to place on children (2) The entire plot line of investigating the backstory of Noah’s mother reads as both impossibly far-fetched and like a poorly grafted limb onto the main body of the story. Every time the two of them set out to investigate another piece of her backstory I was surprised again to find that the novel seemed to think Noah’s mother and Nazi history was the point of the book or the thematic center. Not so, novel. Figure out what you’re about and be about that. (Curious minds want to know? Themes of judgement, justice and redemption).

Taken together I remain… lukewarm. Convince me otherwise? Or don’t. With this one I really don’t care.

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Non-fiction? What?

So I haven’t read a non-fiction, non-parenting book in years. Actual years. (Which makes me feel a little sheepish for the grief I give people who don’t read a single novel in a year, or the scorn I (privately?) feel for those who shrug novels off as ‘just made up’. Not sheepish enough to change my view, obviously, as these non-novel people are clearly Bad). But I kept seeing Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity on best-of lists, and, more promisingly, described as ‘novelistic.’ So off I went and read it. Continue reading

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

Two Books to Close Out 2019: For *sigh* 36 Total (The Perfect Nanny & Marriage Material)

Folks. Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny is not good. Why are people continuing to suggest other people read this book? Why does my normally very reliable best of the year from the New York Times include this title? I can only imagine it’s because people like the macabre and they like admiring people with nice things? Or they like the never-ending question of whether women who work and have children are to blame for everything bad that ever happens to their children (spoiler the answer is almost always ‘yes’).

The book opens with the death of two children (yeah, so if that’s not going to be your plot comfort cozy, best to avoid) at the hands of their Perfect Nanny. What unfolds then is the slow unfurling of how the nanny is not-so-perfect, and the cues that were very clear to the parents, but how the parents, too tired and too selfish, continue to overlook these Warning Signs so that their lives can continue to unfold with late night dinners and No Worries Because Nanny.

The nanny herself gets rendered as utterly pathetic (which is probably fitting someone who murders two children? except for character nuance?) because of her loneliness, poverty, utter lack of self-worth, ugliness, desperation. Her redeeming moments are those where she loves and plays with the children, and so I suppose we are meant – as the parents do – to overlook the rest because she is so good with kids.

I don’t know. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for child murder? Or the unnuanced portrait of the nanny as Monster. Or the slippery line of blaming the mother for her ambition and desire to do things other than parent. But other people have liked this one A Lot, so you’ve probably read it already and have other opinions. Do tell.

For something completely different and delightful, I offer you Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material  (not to be confused with the super creepy looking 2018 movie). No this 2013 gem is funny, smart, generous and playful. It follows Arjan Banga, an Indo-British twenty-something as he grapples with the death of his father and having to take over the family business of running a corner store. In alternating chapters we also follow two sisters, Kamaljit and Surinder, as they grow up in (we later learn the same) corner store: both trying to sort out what it means to be British and Indian and Sikh in a political and cultural moment (and small town) where everyone around them wants them to be one thing and not the other.

The novel traces themes of family, belonging and racial and cultural identity with a truly impressive balance of sensitivity and humour. It’s a delightful book where you never feel like you’re reading a book about Identity, but instead that you’ve slipped into something like a romantic comedy, except all the characters are interesting, the writing is fresh and sharp, and the themes are complex enough to not feel overplayed. I hope you missed this novel in 2013 so that you can discover it now and begin your 2020 with a hopeful and kind novel and not with Twitter or Facebook. Do yourself a favour. Read a book. Ideally this one.

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Filed under Bestseller, British literature, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner