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Book Review: 100 Side Hustles: Ideas for Making Extra Money by Chris Guillebeau

I’m a pretty determined person, and when I set a goal, I’m quite often so single-mindedly focused on it that I rarely step off the path toward crushing it. I’m absolutely that way with my TBR; I stick to reading the books I added to it and don’t often wander the library looking for new reads (especially these days. The less time spent indoors anywhere, the better). But on a trip to the library to grab things from my TBR, I spotted 100 Side Hustles: Ideas for Making Extra Money by Chris Guillebeau (Ten Speed Press, 2019) just hanging out on a shelf, and I was intrigued. “I’ve got some wiggle room,” I told myself as I shoved the book in my bag. “I can be flexible and read other things.” And I can! And it’s fun!

Chris Guillebeau is the creator of the Side Hustle School podcast (which I haven’t listened to, but it sounds fun). This book seems a likely companion read, or maybe more like the podcast in book form. Each chapter focuses on a certain type of side-hustle business- services, products sold that the seller doesn’t need to make or store themselves, etc- and provides multiple examples of someone who created a successful side hustle that fits these parameters. Some hustlers make a few hundred bucks per month; others pull in millions of dollars per year. Each side business started off as something distinct from the creator’s day job.

This was a really fun and interesting read. I’m not a particularly creative person, I don’t think, so being able to delve into the thinking processes of people who are was insightful. Some people turned their hobbies and passions into a business; others identified a need and set up a business that provided a solution. Still others brought a sense of humor to the whole thing and let it rip. I think my favorite business in the entire book was Troll Cakes, a bakery that will send a small cake with their mean internet comment on top to the commenter. Click on the link to see examples of their hilarious work. I laughed and laughed and laughed at that section. I would have never thought of anything like that!

I’m a bit of an anti-consumerist at heart- even more so now, after reading Made in China by Amelia Pang, so I have no desire to provide people with products that are merely wants and not absolute needs (I mean, everyone needs clothing, but don’t most of us already have more than enough? A business selling t-shirts with witty sayings on them would be fun, but I’d have some serious guilt over cluttering up the earth with even more unnecessary junk and contributing more to climate change and likely unfair labor practices, given that the product would most likely come from China). I’d love to have a side business that pulled in serious cash, but a lot of what was featured here- while absolutely fun to read about- wouldn’t quite mesh with my own personal sense of ethics.

However, I really did enjoy reading about others’ creativity. I wish my brain worked like the people featured in this book. Sometimes stepping off the path is a little fun, and I’m glad I grabbed this from the library, instead of just sticking to my list.

Visit Chris Guillebeau’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang

So much of my reading centers on learning about the world and figuring out ways to do better- to be a kinder person, to learn more about injustices around the world and what part I can play in ending them, to discover ways I can be friendlier to the earth. The global supply chain has been constantly in the news throughout the pandemic, and that’s had me thinking a lot about supply and demand and what exactly it is that we’ve all been demanding so much of. That’s how Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods by Amelia Pang (Algonquin Books, 2021) ended up on my TBR. I knew very little about how so many products are produced in China before; this book opened my eyes in a major, major way.

Back in 2012, a woman opened a package of Halloween decorations that had been sitting in her shed, unopened, for two years, only to be shocked to find a letter begging for help, detailing the gruesome conditions under which the decorations were produced. The woman hadn’t known too much about China’s forced labor system, sentencing political dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities to long sentences of slavery under hideous conditions, all to fulfill the relentless demands of global corporations, but after reading the letter, she began contacting human rights organizations in order to make them aware of what was in the letter.

Amelia Pang tells the story of Sun Yi, a Falun Gong practitioner imprisoned multiple times for dissent and the injustices he and so many others suffered and continue to suffer under China’s system of forced labor. Inmates are forced to work with little food, little sleep, no adequate medical care (unless they’re being examined as a possible forced organ donor; I wish that were an exaggeration), suffering beatings and torture, working until they drop dead. What China is running is essentially a system of concentration camps, and Amelia Pang has written a scathing exposé on the true cost of our consumerism.

This book is soul-crushing, and if you’re not reading it and thinking of all the absolutely unnecessary junk you’ve bought over the years that were likely manufactured with Chinese prison labor, I question your humanity. My husband owned one of the products specifically mentioned in the book, which completely and utterly horrified me. To be honest, I’m not sure how I’m going to buy much of anything ever again after reading this book- but that’s the whole point. I’m responsible for feeding into this system of demand. You are, took, if you’ve ever bought cheap products manufactured in China. We all are. And this needs to stop.

The problem is that there’s almost no way to tell which products are made using forced labor, a point which Amelia Pang stresses and outlines multiple times throughout the book. Often, because Chinese manufacturers will subcontract their labor out to these prisons, companies aren’t even fully aware of how or where their goods are produced. All they know is that demand is high, so they need to put pressure on their manufacturers to produce more and more at lower and lower prices. And what can be better for lower prices than not having to pay your ‘employees’ and forcing them to work 22 hours per day, beating them if they don’t produce as much as you want them to?

This is a book everyone needs to read. America isn’t the only country that feeds into this filthy system, though we are one of the biggest. I’m devastated to learn exactly how much torture and starvation and pain and death has gone into the products that fill my house, but I’m grateful that my eyes have been opened by this riveting book. I’ve never been that much of a thoughtless consumer, but I’m definitely going to be scrutinizing every single purchase I make from hereon out. No one should suffer or die for cheap goods.

Visit Amelia Pang’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger

Home economics. Many of us had some form of this in our middle or high school education; the more modern name for it is Family & Consumer Sciences. Budgeting, cooking, sewing, child care, and basic home repair are all skills that young adults need to know before heading off into adult life, but how did this come to be part of the school curriculum, and where has it gone these days, and why? Back in the day, the science of home economics was women’s foot in the door to a career, and in The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live by Danielle Dreilinger (WW Norton Company, 2021), you’ll learn about how much more home economics has given not just the US but the world.

So often throughout history, women have been shut out- from decisions about their own lives, from government, from school, from the workplace. With the advent of the field of home economics, women finally had a in to not just a career, but the STEM fields. Suddenly, women were earning not just Bachelor’s degrees, but Master’s degrees and sometimes PhDs and working for gas companies, as nutritionists, in high-level teaching and administrative positions (although this last one didn’t happen nearly enough). And not just white women, either; home economics opened the door to education and careers for Black and Latina women as well.

Danielle Dreilinger recounts the full history of home economics in the US, from how it allowed women a place in the world, to how hypocrisy set in and working women began to tell younger girls that their place was in the home. She covers the many innovations and favorites credited to home economists: green bean casserole and sweet potato pie, clothing care labels, school lunch, Rice Krispie treats, the federal poverty level, and so much more. Home economics has always been more than high school sewing classes and cooking classes; it was a step up for women to embark in studying chemistry and engineering and holding positions of power. It’s never quite gotten the respect it deserves, but this book finally shines a spotlight that both showers the field with praise and spotlights its occasionally egregious missteps.

This is a dense, information-packed book that took me an entire week to read (granted, I had more than usual going on, so less time to read in general, but I still needed a lot of time to process everything in here). This isn’t a lighthearted glance at women in aprons, pearls, and heels doing the dusting; this is a history-heavy text that examines a field that, for the first time, really allowed women to access higher education- not always without a fight or a struggle, or without some sneering from men (who nevertheless enjoyed the fruits of home economics *eyeroll*), but it allowed women to more fully participate in the world and earn money for work they found fulfilling. That’s pretty huge.

Ms. Dreilinger makes an excellent case for home economics remaining a part of the school curriculum. In theory, I absolutely agree with her. These are skills everyone of every gender needs to learn for a happy, productive adult life, and she rightly points out that in today’s ridiculous world, parents are already tasked with doing and being everything; it’s impossible for some families, especially low-income families whose parents work multiple jobs, to find the time to teach your kids to cook, etc. I’m just not sure where to cram it in to the school curriculum either. We already demand so much from our schools and they’re not always able to fulfill those demands (often for very good reasons; it’s hard to teach kids who come to school suffering from various forms of trauma like hunger, poverty, abuse, grief, etc) even with the best of resources- which, as we all know, most schools don’t even have.

This is a book that will take you on a journey through women’s history and make you look at the field of home economics in a completely new way, and will leave you wondering where it will go in the future. Awesome read.

Visit Danielle Dreilinger’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press

There’s a lot in the news right now about work: supply chain issues, fights over minimum wage, unions, strikes, and of course, the worker shortage. None of these are truly new issues, but the pandemic has exacerbated them all. And to get at the heart of these issues, you need to understand work culture in the US on a deeper level. It’s not all briefcases and meetings; sometimes, work means doing jobs that are looked down upon, but are deeply necessarily for society’s survival. I added Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America by Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) to my TBR as soon as I learned about it, but a segment about the book on NPR a a few days later really had me looking forward to reading it. And I wasn’t disappointed, though this is by no means an easy or comfortable read.

Think of a job you would never want to do. A scary job, a dangerous job, maybe one that turns your stomach. How much would you have to be paid in order to perform that job? How much do you think the people who perform it are paid, and do you think they’re afforded the respect they deserve? What do you think it costs them on a personal level to work that job? Eyal Press takes a look at some of the jobs and industries that are lowest on the proverbial totem pole in America- some that might immediately come to mind, such as prison guard and slaughterhouse workers- and some that probably didn’t, like the members of the military responsible for drone strikes, and oil rig workers. These jobs are highly underpaid, often leave deep scars on the psyche of those are employed in these industries, and aren’t often discussed in polite society, because we’d rather forget that such dirty work is performed in our name, and that we benefit from so much suffering.

Eyal Press interviews workers in each other these industries, human beings who suffer because of the jobs they often had little choice but to take (this is one of the many examples of inequality in the book; these industries are often located in rural, poverty-stricken areas where survival comes before morals, which ends up costing us all). The suffering is immense, and we all bear guilt for it; it’s just that so many of us choose to ignore it. Dirty Work will have you reexamining your views on class, work, and inequality in America.

This was an extremely emotionally difficult read. It broke my heart multiple times to read about how easily our society dismisses suffering and how ready we are to use people until they’re broken and then throw them away entirely, without a second thought to what they need or how to ease their pain. Disabled from work that we benefit from? Too bad for you, go somewhere I can’t see you and don’t have to think about it anymore, is the general attitude. Mentally unwell because of the killing you did in America’s name in the military? Stop talking about it; our thanks for your service should be all the balm you need. America’s attitude of ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’ is on full display in this book, because America just doesn’t do anything for the Americans who are harmed by it.

It took me almost a week to get through this book, because I kept having to stop reading in order to take a mental break. The problem, Eyal Press reminds us, is systemic, and individual acts aren’t going to make much difference at all. It’s going to take the actions of the majority of us, loud, constant voices screaming that this isn’t right and demanding change, for conditions to better. I don’t know that we have it in us, to be honest; far too many of us are happily willing to accept that others suffer and sometimes die so we can have things like cheap meat. I don’t think we’re all that good at deep self-examination and reflection as a society, as this pandemic has emphasized.

This is an impressive, hard-hitting book that should shock a reader into deep contemplation, and will hopefully help you rethink what you may have learned before about the kind of work that you may not like to think about, but that you definitely benefit from, or that is done in your name. It’s a tough, tough read, but it’s a necessary one, and I hope it sparks a national conversation about the suffering we’re willing to tolerate, and why.

Visit Eyal Press’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty by Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox

Poverty is a special kind of hell, and it takes a special kind of miracle to unearth oneself from its depths. The myth of working hard in order to better one’s station in life is some Horatio Alger-type nonsense; how can you work hard enough when the rent alone is over half of your take-home pay? How is it possible to get ahead when you’re barely keeping up and a blown tire or a minor medical emergency is all it takes to put you behind yet again? Salaries haven’t kept up with increases in cost of living, and if you don’t understand poverty well or have never picked up a book on the subject, Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty by Joanne Samuel Goldblum and Colleen Shaddox (BenBella Books, 2021) is an excellent place to start.

In this well-researched and aptly argued primer on poverty in the United States, authors Goldblum and Shaddox lay out the case for exactly how dire the situation is- bad for some, worse for others (and notably worse for nonwhites in every case). The system is stacked against people to move up out of poverty; those who come from money are likely stay there, and those who don’t aren’t statistically likely to get ahead. Those who do manage to claw their way out end up nowhere near those who are born into money in terms of assets. It’s a terrible, vicious cycle, one that is unmistakable throughout every chapter of this book, with example after depressing example and even more disheartening statistics.

But poverty is a choice, the authors argue- not a choice made by the people living it, but a choice we as a society are making. We choose to allow this; we choose to maintain a system set up to sentence people to intense suffering and hideous living conditions. We don’t have to live like this, and myriad suggestions point out how easily (and not so easily) things could change. If you’re looking to make a difference in the landscape of American poverty, Broke In America should be on your reading list.

This is an intense book, one that will definitely open your eyes if you’re unaware of what life is like for people who live at or under the poverty line (currently defined as $26,200 for a family of four). Children going hungry and sitting in full diapers because parents can’t afford more. Women using toilet paper and old rags because they can’t afford menstrual products, and missing work and school because of it. Medical conditions that go untreated due to lack of insurance or money to pay a doctor. Families living in unheated homes and apartments in brutally cold winter temperatures, and children going without winter coats in the snow.

Charities aren’t enough; societal problems take societal solutions (you can’t personal responsibility your way out of a societal problem, as Twitter is fond of pointing out), and there are plenty, but Goldblum and Shaddox make the reader aware that it’s going to take a lot of action, and a lot of long-term action. We’ve let society become this kind of mess over a long period of time, and it’s going to take an immense amount of effort and political will that I’m not sure we have to solve this. The American myth of people deserving the situation they’re in is deeply baked-in here, and I don’t have the slightest idea how to disavow people of that, when not only is it something so many have believed all their lives, but the kind of people who believe that are most often not the kind who would pick up a book like this. They’re more interested in policing people already suffering (as evidenced by the woman I saw on social media the other day, complaining about how she always *insert eyeroll* saw people on food stamps buying shopping carts full of steak and lobster. I told her that was pretty nosy of her to not only monitor what other people were buying but to get close enough to check what kind of card they were paying with, and did she not have any more productive hobbies? Reader, she did not respond).

Broke in America is a sobering look at the way far too many of our fellow citizens live, and it’ll make you consider what you can do to make a difference. I already have some ideas.

Follow Joanne Samuel Goldblum on Twitter.

Visit Colleen Shaddox’s website here.

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Book Review: The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

I’m one of those weird people who actually enjoys grocery shopping. Of course, the pandemic has changed that a little bit; these days, it’s mostly get-in-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-possible-without-breathing-near-people, but in normal times, I enjoy seeing what’s on the shelves, what products I’ve haven’t tried, what’s on sale. I live by some great grocery stores, so this is always an adventure. It’s because of all this that The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (Avery Publishing Group, 2020) ended up on my TBR. I requested it at my library even before it hit the shelf, and there were several people ahead of me! I love knowing I live in a town with such enthusiastic readers.

Think of the grocery stores you shop at- a chain? A big box store? A specialty store like Trader Joe’s, a co-op, maybe a store with lots of organic products like Whole Foods? Maybe you’re one of the few people who still have a local store. Regardless of where you purchase your food, there are rules as to what food ends up on the shelf. The supply chain, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, is a machine with many parts, but each part is far more precarious than the average American might expect.

From the studied beginnings and growth of Trader Joe’s to the exploitation of American truckers, from the numbers-and-hustle game of getting a product on store shelves to the exploitation of Thai shrimp workers, Benjamin Lorr covers the profits-over-all system of food shopping in the US and how we as consumers participate in this system simply by our need to eat. Were you aware that a large portion of shrimp in the US is produced via slave labor? Did you know that around 90% of new products end up failing each year, and that the producers of each product must pay to get their products on the shelf? How much do you know about how exploitative the trucking industry is, and how the men and women who deliver everything you consume and use might not be making any money at all, but might instead be paying to work? Almost every part of the machine that works together in order to fill our grocery stores has a dark story that we don’t necessarily see or think about, and it’s all laid out here on the pages of this book.

I went into this book expecting to learn solely about grocery stores, but I came out of it better informed about the horrors of the supply chain that makes American grocery stores possible. Absolutely every cog in this machine runs on exploitation, from the lowest paid shelf stocker to the one-handed Thai slave who works 20 hours a day on a shrimp boat, to the person who has developed a great new product and who has run themselves ragged and put their life savings into trying to get that product into stores. Other than the high-up CEOs and high paid businesspeople at big box stores and mega corporations, American grocery is built on the suffering of people around the world, including Americans.

This is one heck of an exposé, and it’s a pretty depressing read- it’s a necessary one that will change the way you look at grocery stores and the products on the shelves, but it’s a book that will have you questioning your participation in such a terrible system. (I didn’t plan it this way, but the book I picked up immediately after finishing this discusses ways to extricate oneself from this system to the extent possible, since we’re all bound to it in some part.) I did wonder how the pandemic’s affect on the supply chain would have affected the book (toilet paper, anyone?); an additional chapter in future editions would definitely make a great addition, but that might actually be its very own book.

The Secret Life of Groceries will force you to examine the ways you participate in a system that harms so many, and it’ll have you pondering exactly how these stores and corporations are manipulating you through their marketing strategies. Ethical consumption is the responsibility of everyone who can financially manage it, but the modern grocery store has made that a massive, massive challenge, and Mr. Lorr has proved that in this book.

Visit Benjamin Lorr’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter

I’ve always been a big secondhand shopper. Even as a kid, I recognized the value in buying something for less money, and as I grew older, I appreciated that used items were less taxing on the earth’s resources. Yard sales and thrift stores have always been my jam. That’s why I was so excited to read Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale by Adam Minter (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). What exactly happens to the items we drop off at the thrift store? What happens to the items that don’t sell? Where, exactly, does all this stuff go?

Adam Minter travels around the world, from the US to Japan, from Malaysia to West Africa, following the stream of secondhand stuff, from thrift store drop-offs and rejects, to items cleaned out from homes where the residents have died or left for nursing homes or assisted living. Our lives are full of stuff, and all that stuff has to go somewhere at some point. Japan has excelled in the creation of businesses meant to deal with possessions after the death of their owners; West Africa has done an amazing job of creating industries that repair and refurbish outdated technology, including laptops, computers, and televisions rejected by Americans. The problem of used clothing, which includes fast fashion made from cheap fabric, is a little trickier, however.

While I enjoyed this, I did find it a little dry from time to time, but I will fully admit that this may have been a personal issue due to the timing of my reading (could anyone focus well on anything the first week of November?!?!?). His criticism of planned obsolescence (one of the dumbest concepts ever created) and companies that deny their customers the right to repair the products they’ve purchased is perfection (as is his spotlight on iFixit.com, a website crammed full of repair manuals for products whose companies don’t necessarily offer them). Far too many societies have adopted an attitude of disposability,  and that’s obviously a major, major problem. Adam Minter does an excellent job of focusing on this problem without condemning the reader, who has likely been guilty of these behaviors and attitudes at some point in their life, throughout the text. There are problems, yes, but there are solutions, many of which readers can actively engage in.

I’m careful about the clothing I buy- I stay away from fast fashion (especially after having read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline; I cannot recommend this book highly enough); I don’t buy dry-clean-only clothing; I make sure what I do purchase (which is almost always secondhand) are things I can repair if necessary (I’m trying to learn how to darn socks, but so far I stink at it. I am, however, awesome at patching over holes and stains, and I’m working on my embroidery so as to make visible mending more aesthetically pleasant), but Secondhand has definitely inspired me to keep going with all of that. The amount of secondhand clothing in the stream is too high for us to do anything other than take good care of what we own.

Visit Adam Minter’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I first became aware of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf Publishing Group, 2020) when I was searching NetGalley for new books. My request for it wasn’t accepted (you win some, you lose some!), but I knew 100% that I had to read this. After reading their previous book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they’re an auto-read for me. So much eye-opening information, presented in a way that keeps me turning the pages.

The American Dream is increasingly unavailable to anyone but the very rich; hard work and a determined attitude don’t count for much when your brain is primed for addiction and chaos, and there are no resources to help pull you out. In Tightrope, Kristof and WuDunn shine a light on communities in America that, through poor choices aided or directly caused by policy failure, have fallen through the cracks and are barely surviving. Some aren’t surviving at all. The pain travels through the generations; when parents suffer, their children don’t thrive either, and when they’re raised in chaos, they pass that along to their own children, and the damage works its way down the line. Poverty, violence, drug addiction, dropping out of school, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, prison records, these aren’t merely personal choices (although some of them start out as such); they’re systemic failures that our society and our government have failed to address and at times have purposefully made worse.

Kristof and WuDunn don’t just point out problems, they offer solutions (ones that will summarily be ignored by anyone with power in order to further their own short-term gains, as our country is wont to do). The US is chock-full of problems, but they’re solvable problems, if only we stop looking at things like hunger and lack of available jobs as a personal choice.

It’s a damning book, and I fear that the people who need to read it will ignore it. Look at this quote:

‘Children in America today are 55 percent more likely to die than kids in other affluent countries, according to a peer-reviewed study in Health Affairs. “The U.S. is the most dangerous of wealthy, democratic countries in the world for children,” said Dr. Ashish Thakrar of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the lead author of the study. If the United States had simply improved at the same rate as other advanced countries, 600,000 children’s lives would have been saved, Thakrar calculates. If America had the same mortality rates as the average in the rest of the rich world, 21,000 kids’ lives would be saved each year. Because we failed to modernize our health system the way our peer countries did, we lose fifty-eight children a day.’

Fifty-eight kids a day die because we’ve deemed them not worthy as saving. That’s over THREE of my daughter’s first grade classes. PER. DAY. We throw fifty-eight kids in the garbage every single day, and who knows how many adults, because it’s more important that insurance companies make money than those children get a chance to grow up. If you wouldn’t be okay with this for your own kids, or for yourself, you shouldn’t be okay with it for anyone else.

Why do some people thrive while others sink to the bottom? How do some folks escape difficult circumstances while others struggle for generations? The writing team covers this, as well as the resources necessary for everyone to thrive. In order for America to prosper, we can’t leave vast swathes of the population behind; America is only strong when Americans- ALL OF THEM- are strong, and the authors illustrate this well in heartbreaking example after example.

Kristof and WuDunn focus mainly on the community where Kristof grew up, in Yamhill, Oregon (famously the hometown of Beverly Cleary; she writes about it in her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill), but they do expand their look to other states that have been hard-hit by the policies of the last fifty years. It’s a devastating look, a hard one that far too many aren’t interested in taking at the US, but one that absolutely needs to be taken. It’s not without hope, but it’s sobering, and if you’re in the US, you can’t afford to miss this book.

Read Nicholas Kristof’s writing at the New York Times here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Follow Sheryl WuDunn on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I had Nomandland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton Company, 2018) on my Goodreads TBR, but when I requested it from the library as an ebook, it was for a reading challenge. I ended up reading something different for that prompt, because this took about four months to come in, but my goodness, was it worth the wait. If you haven’t read this book and you’re American, put it on your TBR right this very second, because this is required reading for every single American. (And if you’re not American, well, it may be eye-opening about what we’re driving our elderly population towards.)

Jessica Bruder follows a group of Americans, mostly at or nearing retirement age, who no longer reside in homes or apartments. They live in cars, vans, campers, refurbished buses, because they can no longer afford a stable life. They live off of disability, Social Security, jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it, working through illness, pain, chronic medical conditions with little-to-no treatment. They sleep in sleeping bags, covered in multiple blankets, in temperatures that dip down into the teens at night or remain in the 90’s, while snow and ice pile up around their tires, or the occupants in each vehicle swelter. They eat whatever they can cook in their mobile housing, over campfires, sourced from food pantries, given to them by friends. They do their best to survive and keep an optimistic attitude, but their lives are nothing to envy.

These seniors (or close to it) work managing park campsites and harvesting sugar beets and fulfilling orders at Amazon in punishing twelve-to-fifteen hour shifts and sometimes more, in jobs that hand out painkillers for free because their workforce isn’t able to keep up without them. They travel from job to job around the country, sleeping in store parking lots, moving on from campsites after their time has expired, doing whatever they can to stay alive. It’s not always enough.

God. This book is depressing, but it’s important. Take a good look around you the next time you see an RV or a large van or a car that seems a little overly full of stuff. There’s a good chance that there’s someone living in there full-time. (We’ve got one of these at our local library. It breaks my heart every time I see their vehicle parked there. It gets *cold* here in the winter…) And while some families hit the road full-time by choice, these people are forced into it. It seems like one of the main causes is divorce, which turn many people’s stable financial situation into something untenable, but job loss and medical bills are also a major culprit into forcing people into these nomadic situations. If you think you’re immune, you’re wrong. Plenty of the people in this book had worked at the same job for decades, only to be downsized and then discover that it’s impossible to get a new job that pays a livable wage at 59 years old.

Jessica Bruder shines a light on a community that lives in the shadows in the US. Its members don’t like to think of themselves as homeless- they prefer to think of themselves as free from the trappings of life that tie them down- but homeless is absolutely what they are, and at a time in their lives when they should be able to relax, spend time with their family and friends and gradchildren, and take care of their health problems. Instead, they’re shivering through cold nights, trading tips about how to cook on hotplates in a van, and working with broken limbs that they can’t afford to get treated. What on earth are we doing as a country? How is it that we’re so quick to dispose of people???

Nomadland is a shocking, eye-opening, terrifying exposé. It’s one that shows that no matter how safe we think we are, we’re one illness, one spouse’s affair, one job loss away from living in our car. Ms. Bruder must have some serious strength of character to follow the people she profiled in the story for so long; I’m not sure I could have held up emotionally through the end. This book is a page-turner; it’s one of the scariest books I’ve read in a very, very long time, and despite that, I can’t recommend it highly enough. We all need to be aware of what life is like for those who fall through the cracks, because it could be just about any one of us. (If you’re white, that is, and Ms. Bruder does go into explanations for the reasons why there aren’t that many people of color living like this. That doesn’t mean that life for people of color of these ages are necessarily any better or easier, just that living full-time vehicles hasn’t shown to be a solution for these groups in any large number.)

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts; if you haven’t yet read Nomadland, put it on your TBR and come back after you’ve read it, because your thoughts matter to me as well. Everyone should read this book.

Visit Jessica Bruder’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.