Nomadland by Jessica Bruder 251 pages

A few weeks ago I saw the award-winning movie, Nomadland. I kept going back to the idea that here was a subculture of people around my age that I knew nothing about. I knew that Fern, the Frances McDormand character, was fictitious, but others in the movie were playing themselves, and I wanted to learn more about them and their lifestyle.

The book Nomadland did not disappoint me. Jessica Bruder lived among these “nomads” on and off for three years. Her work of nonfiction explains how this subculture evolved, how difficult it is both emotionally and physically to live this lifestyle, and the ingenuity and sense of community these modern day wanderers possess. Nomadland introduces its readers to a fascinating group of people and they way they live.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder 251 pages

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue 360 pages

Mbue’s second novel takes place in Africa in the village of Kosawa. Pexton, and American oil company, has been extracting oil in Kosawa which in turn pollutes the river and crops causing death to some of its residents, mostly children. When the Kosawans finally figure out what is happening to their tribal village, they try in their naive and unworldly way to fight the rich and powerful American corporation. Many villagers join the fight against greed and pollution, but the leader is Thula. She is a native who was educated in The United States, and gave up everything to return to her homeland to help her family and friends.

How Beautiful We Were is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time. Well-written with heroic and villainous characters, Mbue’s work of fiction describes a sense of hopelessness for the future.

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue 360 pages

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro 303 pages

Klara is an AF, an artificial friend who is purchased by Josie’s mother. Klara is caring, perceptive and tactful; the perfect companion for Josie who has an undisclosed illness. While protecting and trying to cure Josie, Klara meets some interesting characters who also care deeply for Josie.

Ishiguro is an author I admire, and if he had not written Klara and the Sun, I would have never picked it up. The subject doesn’t interest me at all, however, Ishaguro’s understated presentation peaked my interest, made Klara, even though she is not human, a sympathetic character, and supplied me with food for thought after finishing Klara and the Sun.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro 303 pages

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker 366 pages

Vincent King has just been released from prison after thirty years for a hit and run accident that killed his girl friend’s seven year old sister. His girlfriend turns to booze,eventually leaving her thirteen year old daughter, Duchess, to practically raise the younger brother, Robin. Duchess acts as though she doesn’t care about anything except her mother and brother, calling herself an outlaw. When there is a murder in the town just after Vincent King’s release, Sheriff Walker goes to extreme measures to try to prove King’s innocence.

Chris Whitaker writes a good story. We Begin at the End is an easy read and a page turner with well drawn, empathetic characters, most especially Duchess. I predict that We Begin at the End will be a popular must read for many.

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker 366 pages

History of the Rain by Niall Williams 355 pages

Ruth Swain is sick in bed in County Clare Ireland. She does not have the energy to leave her attic bedroom, so she spends most of her time reading books (her favorites are Dickens, Yeats, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez) and writing her family’s history. As the river Shannon flows by her home and rain falls on her roof, Ruth recounts three generations of Swains and McCarrolls.

I read This is Happiness by Niall Williams almost a year ago, and I still smile whenever I think about it. I’m sure I will be remembering History of the Rain with a smile, too. If you want a plot-driven, fast paced read, you will be disappointed, but if you want a novel loaded with charm and unique “Irish” characters, read History of the Rain.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams 355 pages

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion 149 pages

After watching the Joan Didion documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, I was eager to check out her new book of essays. This collection includes a dozen essays that she wrote between 1986 and 2000. Although her subjects are as diverse as Martha Steward, being rejected by a first choice college, and the reason she is a writer, each displays Didion’s clear, concise prose. Actually the title of this book is misleading; Joan Didion never directly tells us what she means. Instead, her examples make her ideas, thoughts, likes and dislikes perfectly clear,

If you have never read Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean would not be the work I’d start with, but if you’re a fan, this group of essays and the documentary are musts.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion 149 pages

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah 477 pages

This is the story of Elsa Wolcott Martinelli, born in Texas in 1896 and died in California in 1936. She was raised by her upper middle class family to believe she was ugly and sickly. When they disowned her, Elsa married Raf and moved in with his parents, helping with the house and farm and raising her two surviving children. When the Dust Bowl ruined farming for the Martinelli’s, she took her children to California hoping for a better life.

Once we are able to travel again, The Four Winds is the perfect book to have with you on a long flight. It has a good main character (although too perfect for me) and a plot full of hardship and love. However, it is not a very complex novel and neither are its characters.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah 477 pages

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee 477 pages

Tiller, the narrator of Lee’s most recent book, is twenty years old and living with Val who is in witness protection along with her eight year old son, Victor Jr. While describing his living situation with them, Tiller often reflects back on his association with Pong Lou, an enterprising Chinese-American who is a successful chemist and businessman. Pong takes an immediate liking to Tiller and asks him to accompany him and his entourage overseas. Both of these events in Tiller’s life have dramatic results.

My Year Abroad was disappointing. Tiller’s descriptions were often unnecessarily wordy, and his “voice” sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. By the time the climactic events occurred, I no longer cared what happened to Tiller and the people he associated with. I have read several other Chang-rae Lee novels and enjoyed them, especially A Gesture Life. Unfortunately, I did not feel the same about My Year Abroad.

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee 477 pages

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin 335 pages

Ethan Frome, his feminist wife Zenobia and their hyperactive 11 year old daughter, Alex, live in a small town in Massachusetts. Ethan has a job he doesn’t believe in, a wife who is angry and militant, a daughter who is extremely difficult to handle, and a live-in baby sitter he would like to go to bed with. Most of the novel takes place during the Brett Cavanaugh Supreme Court hearing. With the exception of the introduction and the epilogue, The Smash-Up is narrated by Ethan, so his perspective is all the reader is certain of.

The Smash-Up is a good read. It has interesting characters and a timely plot. It is quite obviously a take off on Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, and perhaps I would have gotten more from The Smash-Up if I had read Wharton’s book.

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin 335 pages

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. 378 pages

There is a plantation in Mississippi named Elizabeth, but the slaves call it Empty. Samuel and Isaiah are slaves and lovers. They are handsome, kind and hard working. Samuel is quiet and and sullen and Isaiah is friendly and open. Amos is an older slave who decides to preach Christianity to the slaves every Sunday in order to get in good with the owner of the plantation, Paul. Amos reports Sam and Isaiah’s behavior to Paul despite the warnings of the slave community. Along with these three characters, Jones introduces his readers to a number of other interesting characters, many bearing Biblical names.

Robert Jones Jr. has said that Toni Morrison had a profound influence on the way he writes. It is evident in The Prophets. The prose is richly poetic, however, at times it inhibited the momentum of the plot.

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. 378 pages