Category Archives: Bestseller

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

The Fourth Child: Pick it for your book club

Jessica Winter’s The Fourth Child is (oddly) hard to put down. Odd because it’s not plot-y, but instead a family drama that follows Jane, a devout Catholic mother, and her eldest daughter, Lauren, as they live the pro-life/pro-choice division. So why was it hard to put down? I guess it’s the smooth writing (smooth writing? what is that? Just trust me. Smoooooth) and the fascination with watching as Jane tries to live in the impossible extreme of ‘no exceptions’ in the pro-life argument.

I appreciated that the book kept the reader as some distance from the intensity of decision making around abortion, and instead allowed characters to explore these options in the gaps between chapters or the switch between limited third person narrators. This distancing kept this reader from being overwhelmed by a call to personal connection that might have made empathy challenging. Instead the reader is offered a sympathetic and entirely human portrait of trying to navigate the political, personal, religious and maternal dimensions of abortion that keeps enough distance to avoid triggering the reader’s existing beliefs about abortion and to invite the observation of how these women make sense of it.

I struggled in parts with what I think was meant to be subtly and slow revelation of some climactic character development, but for this tired reader was just too nuanced for me to make sense of. There’s a section, for instance, where Jane is revealing something [avoiding spoilers] about her children and her past, and I just… didn’t get it. It’s possible I missed an earlier reference point that would have let me make sense of what she was revealing, but whatever the case the section didn’t land and I was left thinking maybe it would be resolved later, but never was. I really can’t decide whether this is a fault of the book or of my reading habits which I freely admit involve a lot of the last twenty minutes before falling asleep right now, and so are not at my… sharpest.

This book was made for discussion among a book club, and I’m SO hoping my book club can resume in the fall, perhaps with this one (hey crew? maybe?). If your book club decides to read it, do let me know the kinds of questions that get explored. I mean you could read it by yourself, too. I GUESS.

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction

The Children’s Bible: Also for atheists

Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible hits a little close. The novel follows a rag-tag group of children after environmental catastrophes – flood! – destroy their homes. Having to keep themselves, and their drug-stupor parents, alive they hole up and quarantine themselves, scratching out a new existence after society collapses.

Though it may be painful to read because of its indictment of our collective inaction on global warming, and the profound arrogance of having children amid such certain devastation, it is nevertheless, very, very good.

I grew up in the United and Anglican churches before quitting God and becoming a Unitarian (I feel compelled to offer that not all Unitarians are atheists. #joinus). But even if I hadn’t spent formative years hearing Biblical stories, the Biblical references and adaptations are drawn from the biggest and brightest of stories (Eden, Noah’s ark, the 10 commandments, the birth of Jesus, Revelations, etc) so anyone who has watched The Simpsons should have enough of a command of the allusions to appreciate the plot. That said, Millet does well to make these moments smooth and uses well timed diction to remind the reader that a Biblical Moment is happening.

Aside from mirroring these Biblical scenes I’m not sure the ‘point’ of having the plot follow that of the Bible. I guess because we are in End Times now? Or maybe to remind us that there is no God, or if there is, it’s a God who has opted for a non-interventionist approach, and it falls to us to make change. Okay, yeah, that seems a plausible reason.

The best part of the book is its argument for art and literature. It’s suggestion that we bundles of molecules, we who are destined to reunite with the water and mountains (poisoned though they may be by our garbage) find purpose and solace in writing. And of course reading.

After writing out my Christmas cards most of which began and ended with WHAT A YEAR, I’m very happy to recommend this book as a sort of 2020 solace. Like it admits and takes as its premise that everything is shit, and that there is no ‘but’ to that sentence. So you may as well read.

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Filed under Bestseller, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half has a LONG waitlist at the library, and so when I found it on the ‘Seven Day Quick Reads’ shelf I scooped it up (knowing, as I did, that I would be accruing serious fines as the likelihood of me finishing it in seven days was… poor. Given I was still reading A Little Life. Alas. The library deserves my money. ANYWAY.). Long waitlist, no doubt, because the book tops many of the top recommendations for 2020 novels and hits the right notes for a bestseller: family saga, race and identity in America, rich people, good writing. And I fault no one for recommending it, and no one for seeking it out and reading it.

You can feel the ‘but’ coming, can’t you?

But. The novel takes it’s ‘point’ and makes it just too didactic for this reader’s enjoyment. Like if you took a Bernenstain Bear’s picture book that has a literal moral on the front page and made it into well written literary fiction. Just as preschoolers can smell the moral a mile away and find the badgering about sharing or politeness or bullying (or more recently, environmentalism) to be off-putting, the way this novel continues to circle, draw arrows, reinforce in bold its message that identity is created and identity is performative and well, it gets to be a bit distracting.

So right – the plot: twins are born in Mallard, an African-American town premised on its preference for light skin. In their teenage years they run away and separate: one twin, Stella, goes on to live her life ‘passing’ as a white woman, the other, Desiree, returns to Mallard to raise her darkest-dark skinned daughter, Jude. Jude meets Stella’s daughter, Kennedy. The history and present of the family collapses, collides, secrets and ‘truths’ threaten and reveal. [Oh and Jude falls in love with a trans man, Reese, whose addition to the story reads as entirely about driving home for the reader the gaps and tensions between who we are, how we are ‘read’ by the world, how we perform and the meaning our bodies create and signify – and of course the material consequences of how others read us.] And the book does make that clear. That as much as Stella has the option of passing, Jude would not, that the idea that all identity is performative runs up against the way the world reads us, not ever simply or only how we wish to be seen or valued.

So yes. I do think there’s enough of interest her to make this a book well worth reading, and certainly an excellent selection for a book club. Just not a book you’ll read without feeling (at a few points) like maybe it was written to be taught in high school or undergraduate classes. Or a book club!

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Fiction