Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family by Patrick Radden Keefe 442 pages

Keefe describes three generations of the Sackler family and how they acquired their wealth and held on to it. First generation brothers, Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler all became medical doctors, were visibly philanthropic, bought pharmaceutical companies and kept quiet about how they ran their businesses. The second generation gave the world oxycontin, lied about its addictive qualities, and used marketing tactics which, unbeknown to its users, encouraged addiction. The third generation of Sacklers continued down the same immoral path as their ancestors.

The more I read Empire of Pain, the angrier I got. Patrick Radden Keefe writes an easy to read narrative, where with every chapter, the reader hopes this corrupt family will receive just punishments.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family by Patrick Radden Keefe 442 pages

Real Life by Brandon Taylor 327 pages

Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize, Brandon Taylor’s debut novel, describes a weekend in the life of a man named Wallace. He is Black, gay, and working towards an advanced degree in biochemistry at a nearly all white Midwestern University. During this early fall weekend, Wallace interacts with friends and fellow chemistry students. These encounters include a sexual relationship with a “friend” who continually denies that he is gay. The weekend forces Wallace, a passive man,to look seriously at his life and where he should be headed.

There’s a lot going on in Real Life. Taylor touches on many contemporary issues while presenting his readers with a sympathetic, yet enigmatic, main character.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor 327 pages

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