Category Archives: Prize Winner

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

Shuggie Bain: Not a cheerful read, and other true things.

Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize Winner, Shuggie Bain, is the sort of fat novel you crawl inside. It’s not particularly plot-y, but it is an entirely realized world of a falling apart family and a boy realizing himself. It opens with fifteen year old Shuggie on his own in a dire rooming house, before flashing back to his years as a young child growing up with his alcoholic mum, Agnes, and his serially cheating dad, Shug. Plus his half-siblings who are busy protecting themselves and his grandparents who blame themselves for Agnes’ behaviour, but aren’t equipped to recognize what needs to be done to protect Shuggie. We leap around in time following Shuggie – and Agnes – as the gay son navigates a world with parents who do little, but are somehow still sympathetic.

With that, the novel unfolds around Shuggie and what we can reasonably hope for his life given what surrounds him. And maybe that’s what makes it such a claustrophobic novel. The sort where you where you know from the opening pages that nothing good will happen. Thatcher’s Glasgow sort of nothing good will happen.

But the writing. It’s such beautiful writing.

So maybe if you’re ready – 2020 was probably not the right time to read it – you could give it a read.

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Filed under Booker Prize, 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

How to Pronounce Knife: 🔪 Friends give friends [this] short story collection[s] and other surprises

What? Two reviews in two days? It’s because Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife is impossible to put down. (And because I am between series on tv) The short story collection has common threads in Lao immigrant experiences of labour and family, but also of something like dignity and something like connection. I say something like because I’ve been lately trying to explain more and more abstractions to the kid and realizing how a word like dignity connotes so much more than ‘respect’ and ‘connection’ so much more than ‘linked’ so you’ll have to trust me that this collection makes an argument for the dignity of labour and the vitality of touch.

It is a collection free in its imagination and particular in detail. Reciting a list of the range of plot points and settings is the stuff of book jackets and you can take my word that the stories are wide ranging. Instead I’ll share the moments I liked best were of children experiencing the gutting mixture of mortification and gratitude that comes with parents making sacrifices and doing their best and yet – to the child – never quite doing or being what they hoped. And of characters who tolerate the impossible – e.g. living with your wife’s adulterer – because action would be admitting this impossible thing was happening and might necessitate a response.

The writing is exceptional; the stories swift and absorbing. Thanks to the non-book-book-club for the conversation and for K. for putting the book in my hands.

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Filed under Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner