Category Archives: New York Times Notable

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

The Beauty of Your Face: In which I yearn to believe in something. anything.

Sahar Mustafah’s The Beauty of Your Face is excellent. It opens with a school shooter attacking a Muslim school for girls and then whips back in time to follow the childhood of the school’s principal, Palestinian American, Afaf Raman as she grows up with a missing sister and ostracized for her race and religion, and then finds herself a community and purpose through Islam and teaching. [how’s that for a run-on sentence, mom]

Part of what makes the book so good, like Louise Penny, are the descriptions of food. I wanted to eat every time I was reading.

I jest (sort of). No. What made it so compelling for me was the sense of purpose faith brings to Afaf, and the ways the discovery and commitment to this faith changes her relationships with her family, as well as her understanding of herself. As a devote atheist I am genuinely mystified by those who believe in God, even while I recognize, at least in this book, what that belief – at its best – offers. Which is not to say Afaf’s experience of Islam is uncomplicated, or her belief blind and unquestioning. Indeed, in the most obvious way her very life is at stake in her commitment. More, that the novel offers faith as something earned and difficult, but also as security, comfort and community. It was enough to make this heretical Unitarian soul yearn for the days of open churches so I might go and sing with other people the atheist song of a biological life and a radical enjoyment of the present moment and the people in it as all you can count on. Alas. Perhaps next year.

Until then, I commend you to The Beauty of Your Face for its exquisite writing, engrossing plot and nuanced portrait of a family. That sounds like a gross back-cover endorsement. But really – it’s very good.

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Filed under Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner