The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian
Confession: I remember loving Midwives, but that was in 1997 which was (gulp) more than twenty years ago. In the meantime, I’ve acquired some of Bohjalian’s other books, but somehow haven’t managed to crack the covers. The Flight Attendant has officially changed that for me.
What a book.
In the opening scene (so not a spoiler), Cassandra wakes up in a hotel room in Dubai next to the man she slept with the night before. This is a pattern she has repeated in cities all over the world, in various stages of alcoholic stupor—except this time, the man next to her has been brutally murdered.
The Flight Attendant is my favorite kind of thriller, with multiple threads and plenty of things I didn’t see coming, as well as a morally compromised and unapologetic narrator. This kind of narrator has been done before, sure; but where the narrator in Girl on the Train was somewhat grating, Cassandra hits the right wrong notes, if that makes any sense—she’s not looking for pity from anyone, and she owns her sometimes appalling decisions, even when as a reader you might feel she’s on some kind of suicide mission.
This one kept me turning pages and left me completely satisfied.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Warning: This book will probably make you hate Amazon.
Also warning: You should probably go check on your 401k, and while you’re at it, vote to make sure no one snatches your Social Security from under your feet.
This book is an in-depth look at the America’s nomads—particularly, people in their 60s to 80s who have been forced out of jobs, priced out of the housing market, and have taken to the open road in search of seasonal work and a quiet place to park the camper for the night. I’d read Bruder’s feature “The End of Retirement” in Harper’s a few years back, and approached this one eagerly. (Although note: I’m listening to the audio book, and the narrator isn’t my favorite. Read the book if you can.)
Bruder gives an insider’s look at this nomadic community as she follows them from campsites to jobs to campsites, eventually acquiring her own live-in van. There is some of the romance that comes with being on the road (think: Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley), but also some of its despair (also Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath), as well as a look at where these people came from and how they’re making the nomadic life work.
Many of these people who are old enough to be grandparents end up doing hard seasonal labor at Amazon warehouses. Amazon calls it Camperforce: a program that “brings together a community of enthusiastic RV’ers who help make the holidays bright for customers of Amazon.com” – from the Amazon Camperforce website. The work is both repetitive and grueling, requiring long shifts on concrete and resulting in numerous repetitive-motion injuries for about $11/hour. Retired people (or people of that age, anyway) make better employees, the thinking goes—they understand hard work, and they’ll get the job done—in part thanks to Amazon’s vending machines that dispense (free!) painkillers.
So those Prime boxes that appear on your doorstep like clockwork during the holiday rush? They were most likely packed by people who literally cannot afford rent and have no economic safety net, and are working in somewhat brutal conditions at an age they should be able to put their feet up.
Although I admire what Bruder is doing here, and the book has given me numerous insights, there are times when it feels like she is glamorizing the experience, or glossing over some of its more miserable aspects. This may be due to her focus on the relentlessly upbeat Linda May, who can take just about anything in stride (as I suppose you would have to, when your house can spring a leak at any time on the road). Still, the darker issues about the struggles facing the middle and lower classes when unemployment hits and housing becomes a luxury are things I wanted to see explored more in depth here.
And did I mention that my spring break has officially started? It’ll be mostly audiobooks for me as I’m trying to paint my living room from top to bottom.
Paula Treick DeBoard