I wrote this book review a while ago for an ancient blog and even submitted it to an old editor of mine. It didn’t get published for some reason so I decided to dust it off, polish it up a a bit and publish it here. Enjoy!
Once upon a time I made a solid, dependable middle class income. I could easily pay my bills, rent, and other assorted necessary amenities. I could also afford luxuries like monthly massages, nights on the town, concert tickets, and fashionable additions to my closet.
Well, those days are over. Like a lot of other fine Americans our economic downturn seriously kicked me in the butt. I gave up the luxuries and at times I spent sleepless nights wondering how I would pay my rent, food bill and keep the lights on. I could easily cry over stumbling so low, but sometimes I need to laugh. And so would Angela Nissel in her book The Broke Diaries: The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures of a Good Girl Gone Broke.
The Broke Diaries began as an on-line web diary Nissel kept as a student majoring in medical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. This was in the 1990s when the Internet meant dialing up AOL and blog sounded like the noise you made when you vomited. Nissel wrote down her thoughts about being broke as a way to entertain herself (and learn how to create websites). Little did she know she’d strike a chord with her readers. Some of them even offered to send her money. However, Nissel had her pride and refused to take a cent.
The Broke Diaries commences at the beginning of Nissel’s senior year. She’s making it on student loans and the laughable pay from a federal work-study job. Whereas the rich Ivy League students she studied with used “summer” as a verb, Nissel had to stretch her minuscule dollars to pay for text books and assorted living expenses.
Nissel’s stories are a laugh out loud riot, and will ring true to anyone who has tried to make Ramen Noodles into a feast. Speaking of Ramen Noodles, Nissel was so broke that she didn’t have the 35 cents to pay for a packet of every student’s favorite flavored noodles. She only had 33 cents. Sadly, the bastard behind the counter wouldn’t cover her for the extra two cents and told Nissel to never step foot into his store again.
Nissel recalls going on many bad dates just to get a meal, including with one pitiful prospect she calls “Turdboy.” She joins one her friends at the funeral of a person she never met because of the free food. She writes about arguing with the phone company over an astronomical phone bill, and the time she used her cat bowl to mix cake batter because she didn’t have enough clean bowls. She discusses the merits of big box bookstores where one can hunker in and read a book just like at the library, but without the homeless people. But she also laments the lack of quality at free entertainment events. Her description of a poetry reading is so hilarious it’s pretty much worth the price of the book.
Of course, being broke means dealing with things you’d rather not deal with like the neighborhood check cashing place. If you are using a check cashing place instead of a bank you are truly in the land of the broke. And when you’re broke, you can’t get out of town on an airplane or even Amtrak. No, the broke mode of public transportation is the Greyhound bus. In one chapter, Nissel describes a nightmare bus ride where her seat mate nearly sits on her lap and the bus driver asks the passengers directions to their destination.
However, Nissel also proves that being broke calls for some savvy survival skills like when she poses as a college professor to get free text books (complete with study aids) or the time she uses her feminine wiles to convince a utility worker to keep her power on. And I’m sure Nissel is not the only person who signed up for a credit card just so she could score a goody bag filled with toiletries.
Nissel’s writing is clever and wickedly funny but never is she self-pitying or sentimental in her prose. And though The Broke Diaries was published in 2001 it’s timelier than ever. When you’re working a low paying McJob, and re-discovering Aldi’s and dollar stores, The Broke Diaries is the perfect stimulus package for the funny bone.