Category Archives: Non-Fiction

NOMADLAND by Jessica Bruder

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder looks at a relatively invisible American demographic: a mobile workforce, made up mostly of people in their 60s and 70s, who live out of vans and cars and follow low-wage seasonal employment opportunities around the country because they can’t afford homes. I wasn’t aware of this demographic before I read about Nomadland, and once I read the book’s synopsis I knew I wanted to get hold of it.

In Nomadland, Bruder looks a range of employers and job opportunities that have attracted nomad workers, including: Amazon, who hires hundreds of workers (“Camper Force”) at warehouses across the country to handle holiday season order fulfillment; national parks who hire “camp hosts” to staff campgrounds over the summer; amusement parks; the sugar beet industry, who needs seasonal harvesters; and more. These employers hire nomad workers who descend on their locations, setting up temporary mobile home communities while the work is still paying. When the work dries up, the vans pull out and the communities disappear. The work is usually tedious, physically taxing and low paying, but the workers come anyway. They need the money.

In addition to looking at the jobs, Bruder spends a lot of time on the nomads’ way of life. Where do they shower? Park? How do they get mail?  Bruder did an incredible amount of research for Nomadland, including getting her own van and spending time on the road with her subjects. She even took a job at Amazon as part of Camper Force to truly understand the experience of nomadic work. The result is a very thorough and empathetic view of the challenges of this type of lifestyle.

Bruder focused on one nomad – a woman named Linda – throughout Nomadland to lend the book a narrative structure. Linda went from a national park in California to a casino to an Amazon warehouse in search of income. The depiction of Linda’s story really captures the dichotomy of the nomadic lifestyle. On one hand, Linda enjoys an untethered existence, free to come and go as she wants, while still enjoying the benefits of a vibrant community of friends. Without rent to pay, she is unshackled from some of the financial stress that her peers share. Yes, she lives on a tight budget, heading to Mexico for cheap medical treatment and postponing needed repairs on her van, but she is debt-free and able to support herself. But Linda’s story is emblematic of so many Americans whose fortunes were decimated by the 2008 financial crisis. They lost jobs, savings, retirement plans, and the comfort of knowing that their needs would be covered into old age. Faced with financial uncertainty, they take to the road because they tave no other options. And while living on the road may sound romantic, it’s also hard in many, many ways.

Nomadland was a fascinating book. There were a few places where Bruder veered off course a little and I found myself losing focus. The chapters focusing on Linda were the easiest to follow, but some of the other nomads’ stories tended to ramble a little. That said, I still found this to be an interesting and disturbing read. Of the many casualties of the financial crisis, these older Americans without good options are among the saddest.

I listened to Nomadland on audio. It was narrated by my friend Karen White, who gave it just the gravity it needed. Her precise delivery, verging on alarmed, conveyed the substance and urgency of the topic, yet she handled the book’s wry and humorous moments just as well.

 

 

BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen

Born To Run is Bruce Springsteen’s epic, spiritual, meandering memoir, written over six years as a side project to his touring and songwriting. It starts at Bruce’s birth in Freehold, NJ in 1949 and ends in his mid 60s, exploring not only his musical career but also his relationships and his spiritual and emotional journey through life.

Like many of Bruce’s songs, the writing in Born To Run is rich and poetic. Yes, I think the book could have been edited a bit. (But who wants to tell that to The Boss?) Yes, he repeats himself a lot. But the memoir also intensely personal and introspective, and his perspectives on his working class roots and the demons he’s battled throughout his life are quite moving.

Here’s what surprised me from reading Born To Run:

  • Bruce is a lot more insecure than one would think (I mean, he’s Bruce!), and that insecurity fuels him. He says his 3 1/2 hour shows are because he feels like he has to prove something.
  • He also has a big ego and manages the E Street band more like a autocracy than a democracy. He makes the decisions and the other musicians – as accomplished as they are – have to fall in line.
  • He has dealt with depression throughout his adult life, including some crippling bouts in the last decade that left him paralyzed and unable to work.
  • Patti Scialfa, his wife, is intensely private but more interesting (and patient!) than I realized.

If you’re a fan of his music, Bruce talks a lot about his albums and what he was trying to accomplish on each of them, how/where they were recorded and how they fit into his overall musical evolution. He also spends a lot of time on his bandmates, including “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. There’s plenty of fodder for those who are well-acquainted with Bruce’s songs and the guys (and woman) he’s had on stage with him over the decades.

The first third of the book is a little slow, as Bruce gets bogged down in endless details about early bands, gigs and roadtrips. I found that Born To Run picked up a fair amount when his career did.

I listened to 2/3 of Born To Run on audio.  It’s narrated by Bruce, which was a thrill. He infuses his narration with emotion and humor in his distinctive, raspy voice. Unfortunately, it was just too long to do the whole thing on audio, so I switched to print for the last third.

Born To Run gave me a much better sense of the complexity behind this great showman. And I liked how, at the end, he expressed his hopes that reading his memoir would encourage others to take some time for the process of self-reflection. If you’re a Bruce fan or you like rock memoirs, pick this one up.

Apropos of nothing, my top 5 Bruce songs of all time:

  1. Thunder Road
  2. Badlands
  3. Tunnel Of Love
  4. The Rising
  5. Born To Run

TOO FAT, TOO SLUTTY, TOO LOUD by Anne Helen Petersen

Women are having a moment, aren’t they? Between the women’s marches (2017 and 2018), #MeToo and what appears to be the a real reckoning of the impact that decades (centuries, really) of discrimination, unequal pay, and sexual harassment and abuse have had on women, these are interesting times.

Anne Helen Petersen, culture writer at Buzzfeed, entered these impassioned waters last year with her book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise And Reign Of The Unruly Woman. Petersen takes 11 famous women who aren’t living by the rules and offers an often academic explanation of why each is not conforming society’s expectations of them and how they’ve succeeded anyway. Serena Williams is too strong. Madonna is too old. Hillary is too shrill, and Lena Dunham is too naked. None of the women in the book is acting as we would expect them to. They’ve “inverted and exceeded expectations; they’ve produced their own narratives or rebelled against ones that constrain or displease them.”

One one hand, this book is maddening – why must actresses be a certain size (and if they aren’t, why do expect them to publicly lament their weight)? Why does a female politician have to have a certain timbre to her voice? Why are we critical of celebrities who don’t have picture perfect pregnancies, with a tiny baby bump and a beatific glow? Before I blame men for these expectations, I admit that I subscribe to them myself sometimes. I fall prey to the same generalizations and snap judgments that many others do. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is a good reminder that societal expectations are just another way that women have been held back in many industries. Petersen sees these 11 women who have broken the mold as helping to “accelerate the long historical march toward women wresting control of these norms, and expanding them to better reflect the ways of being that they find satisfying, nourishing, expansive, and radically inclusive”. I agree that it’s time to examine these expectations and understand how they came about and why they are so insidious.

Petersen injects a lot of theory and historical context in each chapter of Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, which can be a bit to wade through. The writing is repetitive at times. But the women at the center of these chapters are fascinating on their own, and putting them through the prism of unruliness helped deepen my appreciation for them and made me more conscious of the love-hate push-pull that they experience on a regular basis and how I can be part of ending it.

GOING INTO TOWN by Roz Chast

So I am in the middle of four books right now – The Leavers, This Is How It Always Is, Born To Run and The War Bride’s Scrapbook. (Don’t ask – it just worked out that way.) As a result, I don’t have a review to post tonight. Instead, I am watching the Golden Globes, and it’s a good night for fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies have already won a bunch of awards, and the list of other movies and shows nominated tonight that are adaptations of books is a long one. Yay for good fiction!

I did finish one short book that I have to recommend: Going Into Town: A Love Letter To New York by Roz Chast. Chast created the book as a guide for her daughter, who was moving to NYC for college and didn’t have a lay of the land. Chast wrote a very entertaining “graphic memoir” about her beloved city, with sections about The Met, the New York street grid, eating in NY, how to hail a taxi, how the subway is laid out, and more. I lived in NYC for a few years, long enough that the city still feels if not like home, then at least like somewhere very familiar to me. Chast perfectly captured the idiosyncrasies of the city and its devotees. I laughed out loud several times while reading Going Into Town. Chast’s cartoons are hilarious, as always, as is her wry, pithy writing. If you too ❤️ NY, then I recommend picking up Going Into Town or at least buying it for someone who does.

Reviews coming soon!

 

WHAT HAPPENED by Hillary Rodham Clinton

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and rarely political non-fiction, but I made an exception for Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, which is her post-mortem on the 2016 election.

Full disclosure: #I’mWithHer. Have been from the beginning – even the 2008 presidential race. My husband worked for Hillary for four years at the State Department, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her, as have my kids. So I went into What Happened already a big fan of Hillary’s. And I went into it as someone who was existentially disappointed after the 2016 election and who has been depressed and angry ever since. So that’s the prism through which I read the book.

Even though What Happened got me angry all over again, I really enjoyed it and am glad I read it. There are several sections of the book: some background on her decision to run for president in ’08 and ’16, some chapters about her personal life, a fair amount (too much?) about her policy positions, and, of course, a detailed dissection of the months leading up to Election Day 2016. There is a lot of coverage of Comey and the emails, and a very alarming chapter on Russia’s tampering in the election. But she doesn’t just blame her loss on Bernie and the emails and the Russians. Hillary takes on a lot of responsibility for the way things turned out. She knows there are a lot of people who don’t like her (as hard as that is for her), and she acknowledges missteps she made during the campaign, such as her controversial comment about coal mining. She also offers a lot of theories for why certain groups voted for Trump, why some didn’t vote at all, and how campaign tweaks might have flipped key districts that ended up sealing the deal for Trump.

It’s so clear to me that Hillary was absolutely qualified to be president and that our world would be such a different, safer and better place than it is now, had she won. What Happened confirmed all that, of course, but it also gave me a better sense of who Hillary is as a person, which I appreciated. Her humor shows through in the book, as does her intellect and her passion for public service and making the world a better place, particularly for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged.

Here are some of the criticisms and reservations I’ve heard about this book: “I can’t read it. Too soon.”; “She’s not going to talk about her role in losing the election.”; “Enough from her already.”; “It will make me too upset”. I get it; yes, she did; it’s never enough; and yes, it’s beyond upsetting. But it was oddly reassuring to hear her perspective, and to hear her say that we’ll get through this and that things will get better again. I hope she really believes that, because I am depending on that hope.

I listened to What Happened on audio. It’s narrated by Hillary, and hearing this all in her words and in her voice made for a very powerful experience. I highly recommend the audio on this one. I am not going to go into her narration – you know what Hillary sounds like. (I will confess that I sped it up a little bit because she talks pretty slowly. It’s a long book!)

My guess is you’re either going to read this book or you’re not. I can only say that if you’ve been hesitating because you’re worried you’ll be too upset, give it a try. You may be surprised by how it makes you feel.

REAL AMERICAN by Julie Lythcott-Haims

Julie Lythcott-Haims’ memoir Real American is about the author’s experience growing up biracial in America and how it shaped who she is. Lythcott-Haims, daughter of an African-American father and a white British mother, was born in Africa when her parents were working there, but moved as a young girl to the U.S. She lived in a few different places, some more racially diverse than others, and spent much of her life feeling conflicting about her mixed race. She didn’t have many black friends as a teenager, and in many ways she suppressed that side of herself in order to fit in. She went on to college and law school, eventually moved to California, and in her late 20s she took a job as a dean at Stanford.

It wasn’t until that job at Stanford, and her marriage to a white man, that Lythcott-Haims really started investigating her relationship with race, her roots and the society into which she brought two mixed-race children. Real American is a collection of short, essay-like chapters (some as short as a few paragraphs) in which Lythcott-Haims explores her childhood and the emergence of her black identity.

I really liked Real American. It’s an intensely personal book, written with unflinching honesty and inspired by strong feelings, and it opened a real window for me into what it is like to grow up black or mixed in this country. The author and I attended the same law school and lived for many years in the same place, but our experiences were very different. I honestly think everyone I know should read this book. I dogeared so many pages that moved me, way too many to try to include here. Toward the end of the book, Lythcott-Haims talks about Black Lives Matter and the series of police killings of black men and boys, and she relates her deep fear about her son’s safety as a dark-skinned boy. Really painful to read, especially as a mom of a young son myself.

I could go on and on about this book. I am so glad I read it. It’s not always an easy read, but it is a good one, and surprisingly hard to put down. It comes out on October 3 – look for it then.

 

2017 Summer Reading List

One day before the last day of spring… and here is the annual EDIWTB Crowdsourced Summer Reading List! I asked my Facebook community to recommend their favorite books from the past year, and once again, they didn’t disappoint. Here’s the what they came up with.

I’ve put ** next to those that were recommended by more than one person. When it’s a book I’ve read too, I’ve included a link to my EDIWTB review.

The Library At Mt. Char by Scott Hawkins

The Lost Letter by Jillian Cantor

**The Girls by Emma Cline (reviewed here)

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

**Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (reviewed here)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

**The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

**Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (reviewed here)

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

**News Of The World by Paulette Jiles

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

**The Nix by Nathan Hill

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

**Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here)

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The End Of Eddy by Edouard Louis

The Girls In The Garden by Lisa Jewell

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

**A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Untangled by Lisa Damour

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Harari

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

**My Name Is Lucy Barton (reviewed here) and **Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

**The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal (reviewed here)

A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

**When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

**A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry and Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The Red Bandanna by Tom Rinaldi

Golden Son/Red Rising Trilogy by Pierce Brown

**Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (reviewed here)

For The Love by Jen Hatmaker

Crazy Rich Asians and Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Elena Ferranta Neopolitan Series

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Circling The Sun by Paula McLain

**Before The Fall by Noah Hawley (reviewed here)

The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee (reviewed here)

The Improbability Of Love by Hannah Rothschild

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (reviewed here)

**City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Secret History Of  Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Small Admissions by Amy Poeppel

The Imagination Gap by Brian Reich

Heat And Light by Jennifer Haigh

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

**Fates And Furies by Lauren Groff (reviewed here)

The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (reviewed here)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

4-3-2-1 by Paul Auster

Kill Process by William Hertling

**A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

Love, Africa by Jeffrey Gettleman

The Shape Of Mercy and Secrets Of A Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

The Marriage Of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (reviewed here)

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (reviewed here)

**Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here)

City Of Thieves by David Benioff (reviewed here)

**Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard (reviewed here)

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan (reviewed here)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (reviewed here)

Cooking for Picasso by Camille Aubray

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here)

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Book Of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

All The Ugly And Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics And The Sterilization Of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen

Sons And Daughters Of Ease And Plenty by Ramona Ausubel

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Beautician’s Notebook by Anne Barnhill

Louise’s War by Sarah Shaber

The Darcy Monologues by Joana Starnes & others

Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani

Will Your Way Back by James Osborne

 

Happy Summer Reading! Report back and let me know what you picked.