“Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”

Jessica Bruder

This is the story of Americans who travel to live, not who live to travel.  They’re retirement-age people, often formerly middle class homeowners, who travel in cars, vans, and older RVs to work in Amazon fulfillment centers, campgrounds, the beet harvest in North Dakota and anywhere somebody will pay them for temporary labor.  They’re not living the #vanlife or hanging out with Good Sam members in upscale RVs.  They often have health problems, problems they have to ignore to work the often punishing temp jobs they need to supplement meager Social Security or disability checks.  Think “Grapes of Wrath” updated to the post-housing crash era.

Bruder is a sympathetic but not sentimental reporter.  Although you feel bad for the place her subjects find themselves in, you have to admire their ability to make the best of a bad situation and to build community and find mutual support. It’s also a cautionary tale of how a lack of savings, bad health, or a couple of bad breaks can knock someone right out of the middle class.

I would recommend this book along with “Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads” to anyone who wants to know the truth about how many citizens of  “The Greatest Nation on Earth” have to live.  Sadly, those who most need to be exposed to the truths in these books are the least likely to read them.


“New Pompeii”

Daniel Godfrey

In “New Pompeii” the population of Pompeii is brought forward in time by an energy company to live in a reconstruction of the city.   Given that this book has both time travel and ancient Romans, I should have really liked it.  However, despite a nice time travel twist at the end, I thought is was just OK.   The plot is too complex.  Not that I don’t like complex plots, but Godfrey buries the heart of his story in needless embellishments.  I tried the sequel (“Empire of Time”) but it wasn’t worth finishing.


“A Legacy of Spies”

John le Carré

Has there ever been a spy novelist better than le Carré?  And has there ever been a more engrossing imaginary espionage world than that of the Circus during the Cold War?  In “A Legacy of Spies” le Carré brings back characters from “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” and, deftly switching from present to past, weaves one of the complex plots he was famous for when writing the Smiley novels.

I have to confess, I’m not sure how much the story of “A Legacy of Spies” is a “retcon” revision of the previous works or whether the revelations are of things he buried in his plot arcs decades ago in anticipation of resurrecting the series someday. But I don’t care — I’ve always thought the that le Carré’s writing was so good that even if (when) I lose track of the intricacies of his plots, I love being immersed in his world.


“Blood of Victory”

Alan Furst

I love the murky spy world that Alan Furst has created.  In this novel, set in 1940, an émigré Russian writer becomes part of a plot to disrupt the transport of Romanian oil to the Nazis.  It takes place in Istanbul, Izmir, Bucharest, Belgrade, Paris, and many other locations, all of which are nicely drawn by Furst, and features an interesting set of characters, some of which have appeared in his previous books.

“Reign of Evil”

Weston Ochse

I called the previous books in this series goofy but fun and compared them to comics books.  If the earlier books were like the comic books of my youth, this one is more like a modern, dark, comic.  The dark turn — the fiancé of a major character is brutally murdered in the first chapter — took away a lot of what I liked about this series.  It’s a decent horror novel, but not as much fun as its predecessors.


“Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey”

Patrick Dillon

This is a retelling of “The Odyssey” from the point of view of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. It’s original, well-written, and a solid coming-of-age story.

Parts I found especially interesting were the portrayal of the post-Trojan War world as being inhabited by physically and mentally damaged veterans and the dilemma Odysseus faces when he has to explain to the citizens of Ithaca why he — the leader — is the only one of their husbands and sons to return from the war.

As much as I enjoyed “Ithaca”, I do think the book suffers a little from the typical tiresome modern “need” to explain-away all the supernatural elements of “The Odyssey” itself. I suppose this is the price we pay for living in a disenchanted world.