Features

Nomadland: a reading list for the Oscar-winning film

Chloé Zhao made history when she became the first woman of Asian descent to win an Oscar for Best Director. Here are some books that offer insight into her Best Picture-winning film.

Frances McDormand and director Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland
Frances McDormand and director Chloe Zhao on the set of Nomadland. Image: Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios

Best Picture, a historic Best Director win and Best Actress for Frances McDormand: the clear winner of Sunday night’s Oscars was Nomadland. Chloé Zhao’s remarkable film follows Fern (McDormand), a former teacher and widow who, left bereft and unemployed, buys a van and travels around the American mid-West in the late Noughties.

The three Academy Awards add to an extensive mantelpiece-full of gongs for Zhao, who wrote, produced, directed and edited the film. In the process, she’s become only the second woman to ever win a Best Director Oscar and Golden Globe awards – and the first of Asian descent.

Before it was a film, Nomadland was a book - Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century – by journalist Jessica Bruder, who reported on older Americans who had turned to a life on the road having lost their jobs and homes due to the Great Recession. But the themes of loss, grief, transience and carving out a different kind of life have long inspired novels and non-fiction. Here are just a few examples:

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger (2019) 

As a woman in her sixties with no fixed address, Nomadland’s Fern finds it difficult to get work, eventually ending up in an Amazon warehouse. This particularly contemporary nod to late capitalism’s gig economy is explored more thoroughly in Guendelsberger’s arresting investigation into America’s culture of low-wage work. The author’s research was thorough: she worked for Amazon ahead of Christmas, in call centres and at McDonalds: situations all too familiar to those Nomads for whom retirement was, originally, the plan.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more