Tuesday, October 24, 2017

NOMADLAND :: Jessica Bruder

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is reprinted here with permission.

In preparation for writing Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder immersed herself in a new American subculture: the houseless. These "vandwellers" are individuals and families who for myriad reasons have ended up on wheels. Far from carefree RVers, these are folks for whom the American dream has been proven a con, and they make ends meet by doing itinerant work across the country.

The practice of giving up real estate for "wheel estate" has increased exponentially in recent years, following stock market crashes, the housing crisis and increasing economic risks faced by American families. Having to choose between food or electricity, health care or warm clothes, these nomads live in converted vans, campers, even Priuses. Many thrive while surviving day-to-day, but being a "workamper" is no easy ride.

Skewing older (many are in their 60s or 70s and have lost their retirement funds) and subject to "harsh migrant labor treatment," they are nevertheless sought-after workers due to their experience and reliability. Amazon has unsurprisingly taken advantage of this shadow economy, setting up company towns and recruiting its own "Camperforce," for whom long, difficult hours and low pay are the reward.

Joining them in Halen--a converted van (the subculture is strong with vehicle puns)--Bruder became intimately knowledgeable about this often heartwarming mobile community that blurs class lines. She writes with a steady and thoughtful hand about the frightening consequences when long-held social contracts are breached and upheaval becomes the new American normal, and exposes their underbelly with grace and heart.

STREET SENSE:  A well-written and researched look at a microcosm of Americans who have taken up a life on wheels in order to survive national economic crises. High recommended.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  [F]or them--as for anyone--survival isn't enough. So what began as a last-ditch effort has become a battle cry for something greater. Being human means yearning for more than subsistence. As much as food or shelter, we require hope. And there is hope on the road. It's a by-product of forward momentum. A sense of opportunity, as wide as the country itself. A bone-deep conviction that something better will come. It's just ahead, in the next town, the next gig, the next chance encounter with a stranger.

COVER NERD SAYS: This cover is perfection in my book. The art work, the color palette, type face and spacing are all pleasing to the eye and give the viewer an at-at-glance idea of what they might get inside. Although the whole does not address the community many nomads experience on the road, the constant shift and upheaval does provide an overwhelming sense of solitariness that is exemplified in this image. This is one of my favorite covers of the year.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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