Reading year 2020 gets off to a great start…

January 20, 2020 at 9:25 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

…with these three terrific novels:


A shooting in self-defense by a Korean shop owner reverberates years later in a completely unexpected and shocking way. This is a no holds barred look at the tensions between the African-American and Korean communities of Southern California. But it is no sociological treatise; rather, it is about real individuals in tough situations, trying yet somehow failing to make things right.

Vivid characters, a gripping plot, excellent writing – all the ingredients for a top notch work of fiction.


Kamchatka is a peninsula located in the Far East of Russia. It is the site of some three hundred volcanoes, about thirty of which are currently active. Between four and seven can be expected to erupt each year.

And there is more:

In late summer, Kamchatka’s abundant rivers run red with the crush of salmon racing upstream; it is the only place left where all six species of wild Pacific salmon return to spawn. An estimated 20,000 brown bears roam its enchanted forests of Russian rock birch and other trees, growing fat and mostly happy off salmon.

From “Forged by Volcanoes, Kamchatka Offers Majestic, Magnetic Wilds,” New York Times

Having first come to this exotic locale as a Fulbright Scholar in 2011, Julia Phillips knew she wanted to set a novel here.

It was like this enormous setting for a locked-room mystery. Kamchatka’s really contained historically and geographically. There were very few people and no foreigners going in and out of it during the Soviet period. There are no roads connecting it to the mainland. In that isolation, it’s incredibly beautiful and distinctive.

From a Paris Review interview with Julia Phillips

Kamchatka is like a character in the book. The characters themselves are utterly believable; their dilemmas and crises are  compelling and urgent.

What a wonderful novel this is!

And this one was a real gift. I don’t remember where I read about it, but I had placed a hold on it at the library, and when the reserve came in, it jumped at once to the top of my to-read list.

This is the story of a family of Moroccan immigrants: a mother, a father, and two very Americanized  grown daughters. Nora, one of these, is the main character. I found myself completely caught up in her travails and triumphs.

The Other Americans is very much a story about grief, the kind of grief that can strike any human being and lay that person low for who knows how long. While I was immersed in this novel, I was also reading a piece in The New Yorker entitled “Grief” by V.S, Naipaul. Naipaul, who died in 2018, says this:

We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable.

This is the painful lesson that Nora learns, and grows, to a degree, to accept.

For me, this novel resonated powerfully partly because of its setting in California’s Mojave Desert. At one point, Nora’s father Driss observes:

It was a cold, clear day in December, and there was snow on the peaks of  the Little Bernardino Mountains. The valley was a blanket of high grass and mesquite and yucca,slowly warming up under the morning sun, and after the road dipped and rose and turned, we reached the first grove of Joshua trees. How hard the believers make it to get into heaven, I thought, when  they have all this right here.

This is a place that is very special to me. My parents used to winter over in the Coachella Valley nearby. My father loved the place. My mother resented being taken away from her lifelong friends in New Jersey, but even so, she eventually succumbed to the enchantment of the desert. As for me, I loved it instantly.

Ah, Joshua Tree, I miss you.

So – there you have it, three outstanding novels by three exceptionally gifted writers. All, by the way, would make excellent book club selections. Disappearing Earth and The Other Americans in particular have ambiguous conclusions which I would love to discuss with another reader.


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