Category Archives: New York Times Notable

Ducks: Nearly the Best of 2022

Except I finished it Jan 2, 2023. Sorry, Kate Beaton, my kid was barfing everywhere and I couldn’t finish it before midnight on the 31st. Oh well, it’s a great, great way to start 2023: a graphic novel about the oil sands, sexual assault, environmentalism, indigenous land rights and economic ‘opportunity.’

It also made me wildly nostalgic for when my friends and I sent one another Hark! A Vagrant comics. Prompted me, too, to read L. The Princess and the Pony which she totally appreciates because she, too, wants to battle everything and does not like cozy sweaters At All.

Beaton, in the autobiographical account of her two years spent working in the Alberta oil sands, may have wanted to battle everything, but as the book so beautifully captures, figures out that the space for pushing back or speaking out can be so narrow, and that too often, the outcome of saying something is to actually make things worse. In the Afterword, she notes that the oil sands are neither one thing or the other – neither all good or all evil, nor the people there. But as the book explores, that many – many men (including the ones you hold dear) could ‘become’ the crude and cruel men that she encounters, not because they are always like that, but because the material conditions of the isolated camps and worksites makes such behaviours possible and permissible.

Some of you may be thinking, sure, Erin, but a graphic novel? Come on. Your time for graphic novel skepticism is a decade out of date. Put in your library request and be prepared to wait six months. This one is popular and for very good reason (that reason is likely that the New York Times named it a best book of 2022. But you know, probably also because of this fine review).

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, New York Times Notable, 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

Uncanny Valley: Why Was This Book Such a Big Deal?

I think we are meant to be shocked reading Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley to discover the Silicon Valley and the tech industry is toxic for women, or that tech companies are tracking and using our data (for nefarious purposes) or that most of the CEOs of companies are young and some of them are mean. I think.

Wiener leaves her shitty job in publishing in New York, moves to Silicon Valley, learns about computers and software and does customer relations. She’s good at her job because she has feelings and emotional intelligence and apparently none of the programmers do. She gets paid well but always feels a little uncomfortable (but not that uncomfortable) about how much money she makes. She buys fancy boots. Her boss makes her cry once and it is Traumatic.

I don’t know. I just didn’t care about most of it, and didn’t find any of it particularly revealing or surprising. Like I think we’re supposed to be Shocked at gentrification and the San Fransisco housing crisis. Or floored by the revelations that companies are selling our data (the only time I’ve known anyone to be upset about data collection is when the Canadian government created the Covid App and suddenly every one I know was Deeply Concerned about the government possibly having a tiny bit of data). Or horrified by the dismal state of diversity in the tech sector. And I mean, we should be outraged by all of it, but the book doesn’t make a case for outrage. It’s more “hey, did you know this was happening?” Which maybe it’s not a fair complaint to ask a memoir to be about action rather than description, but Wiener’s ‘conclusion’ of dropping out of the tech sector to turn to writing hardly seems an inspiring course for the world.

Oh. I do think Wiener has a spot on eye for describing whole classes of white men by the way they dress and shave. [Which let us pause and consider whether this kind of synecdoche would be okay if it was for any other group].

But sure. It’s on a bunch of best of lists and maybe it is very, very good and I missed the point. But for this reader I just shrugged and thought yeah.

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Filed under New York Times Notable, Non-fiction

Say Nothing: I Read Some Non-Fiction

Is it ‘non fiction’? ‘non-fiction’? ‘nonfiction’? I have so much to learn.

I started with Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing and it was an education. Turns out nonfiction (or non-fiction) is… good. Or THIS book was good. It was also long. Is all of nonfiction long? (Don’t answer that. I’m currently reading a memoir and it’s only medium to short. Maybe memoirs are short? And books about the IRA are long? [Sorry, M., the memoir is not one from your list – but they’re coming!]).

I liked it because I learned some things about Ireland and the IRA but there was also a lot of murder mystery. Less character than I like. Though still some characters. Because there were people.

Guys. When I try to write book reviews about nonfiction it reads like I’m stoned. I am not stoned. Though I did just eat a lot of really salty popcorn?

Okay let me try this again. It’s a book about Belfast and Northern Ireland in the 60s-2010s and the people Disappeared by the IRA through these years and the who and how of their Disappearance. I didn’t know most of the things in the book because I didn’t know anything about the Troubles. And now I know some things!

So yes. So far nonfiction: I learned some things, enjoyed the reading, and am concerned that all of it may be Very Long.

I hope my next review is better. Or else this 2021 resolution of 1 in 5 is going to ruin me as a reviewer. I WILL IMPROVE.

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