29 June 2008

Nickel and Dimed

David read Nickel and Dimed recently as part of his summer internship. We haven't had a chance to talk about it yet, but here's what I wrote about it back in August 2004.

Small Change and Common Sense

My sister-in-law the banker gave me Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, On (not) Getting By in America for Christmas last year. I had heard of it. When it was published, it was widely reviewed because it was seen as an important book.

The importance came from the fact that it opened a window into a world unfamiliar to most reviewers. The unfamiliarity was real even though the reviewers (and the rest of us) see it every day.

Even in Northfield, the "Molly Maids" cars are visible reminders of the 21st century version of hired help. The waitresses at Mandarin Garden are likely to be college students, but the servers at Applebee's are more likely supporting a family. The people who care for the hundreds of nursing home residents in Northfield are mostly invisible, but without them we'd be in crisis. In Northfield, those of us who write about books we read might see the woman who checks out our groceries playing softball at the South 40 field, but we don't know much about her job -- or the jobs of the cleaning ladies or the servers or the nursing home aides. Barbara Ehrenreich's book is meant to reduce our ignorance.

She set out to tell us a first hand story about these nearby but unfamiliar worlds. In addition, she wanted to explore the job opportunities available to women "fired" from the dependency of welfare.

She went under cover to work at Wal-Mart, a restaurant, a cleaning service, and a nursing home. She tried to live on what she earned. She even took a second job during one of her undercover stints to make ends meet.

Even considering she had little experience in living near the edge materialistically, she would have had a terrible time without the safety net of her rental car (Rent-A-Wreck it may have been) and some cash to start with. As it was she raised some serious questions about the effects of welfare reform. Is welfare dependency more degrading than Wal-Mart dependency? How can it be that even two low-wage jobs don't offer enough income to rent decent housing? Where does parenting fit into a day in which work consumes 12 hours? And that says nothing about health care, stress relief, healthy food, and quality time with friends and family. This book ought to be required reading for all high school students who are tempted to make careers of after school jobs at stores, restaurants and fast food joints near their parental homes.

In spite of her intellectual goals, Ehrenreich was distracted by the people she met and the stories they had to tell. I'm not at all sorry that this isn't exclusively a polemic. The people she met and cared about ã albeit for a short time ã make this all the more worth reading. Like the little anecdotes on the note cards that Ronald Reagan used to pull out of his pockets, these vignettes humanize the issues and the dilemmas.

The executives can sit in the home offices and, with their accountants, write business plans dependent upon low wage workers and high turnover, but they'll never worry about the welfare of any of their employees ã who are merely factors of production with a price. In our society, that's "not their job." Politicians and bureaucrats can run numbers in DC offices to demonstrate that reducing government spending and taxes is good for the economy, but they won't worry about the welfare of their constituents liberated from the heavy hand of government. That's "not their job." That's the job of employees and constituents -- individually, not as members of some coercive union or special interest group.

If something sounds awry in that description, you should read Ehrenreich's book.

Learn more about Iraq

Susan Schnurr wrote from her island in Maine with a review and an assignment. It sounds like the book some of the White House officials should have read six years ago.

I will take the opportunity to add my recommendation for Stop-Loss, a powerful movie about American soldiers' experiences.

"The time has come for a book recommendation. The Mid East is VERY complicated, and nowhere have I found it better explained than in the book War Journal: My Five Years In Iraq by Richard Engel.

"Normally I do not read books full of blood and gore and gratuitous violence, but the author has the credentials to make a person sit up and take notice. He speaks Arabic, has lived in the Near East for years, and was in Iraq before we invaded it.

"He has a lot more to say than the sound bites in the evening news. The book is both hard to read and hard to put down, and we learn a lot about Iraqi culture and Islamic culture as well. We have to give thanks for every minute Richard Engel survives to report another day. If he keeps doing it, he will die there. He risks his life every minute he is in Iraq.

"I am extremely impressed with his summary of the differences between Shia and Sunni. I read Islam for Dummies and didn't get as clear a picture. Also, with examples, he is able to give us insight into the paranoia of Islam. Some examples are absolute lunacy: Israel has trees that are loyal to Allah, and, when Judgement day comes, Jews will try to hide behind the trees, but the trees will call out to the Moslems that here is a Jew behind it. Jews, knowing this, are trying to cut down all the trees, but there are too many. Other examples sound almost rational: We would not be making the huge mistakes in Iraq if it weren't part of some larger plot so that the Sunnis can rule again because obviously we wouldn't want the Shia to rule. Or the obverse, we came in to put the Shia in power. Clearly to most Iraqi rational observers that can't be true because that is virtually handing Iraq over to Iran so there must be some sort of conspiracy not yet clear.

"Engel got to meet with Bush. The account is fascinating because Engel is another person who finds Bush to have a good mind. This is the second book I have read which shows that Bush is motivated by idealism.

"There are some parallels that show up in the book From the Islamist: Egyptian Politicians are corrupt; Islam is the solution. Israel is on our border; Islam is the solution; Dirty water is making my child sick; Islam is the solution. From George Bush: The Palestinian Authority has collapsed; Democracy is the solution. Iraq is in chaos; Democracy is the solution.

"This was a painful book to read, but it is not hard reading. You can probably never find a better book to increase your understanding as to what is happening in Iraq.

"EVERYONE should read it."

27 June 2008

No new books?

Maybe I don't have to seek out any new books.

This spring, two books arrived at the top of the "to read" pile and I picked them up and took them to Sidetrack, that little oasis on the lake. Between spring clean up in the yard and planting new blossoms, I picked up the first one and began reading.

The book was J. A. Jance's Justice Denied. I read about the first 30-40 pages and said to myself, "This seems familiar." But I had no clue about what came next. About half way through, I said to myself, "I've read this before." I still had no idea how it ended, and being away from an Internet connection, I couldn't look up ReadingBlog to see if I'd written about Justice Denied.

The more I read, the more familiar the story sounded, but I was awfully close to the end before I remembered what happened. The book cover says this is "A J. P. Beaumont Novel," and indeed Beau and his lover (also a Seattle detective) are the main good guys in the book.

And I had read it in August of '07 and written about it under the blog entry Vigilantes and the slow pace of justice.

I liked it the second time around at least as much as I liked it when I said, "...this is one of her best."

The next book I picked up that weekend at Sidetrack was The Burnt House by Faye Kellerman. After my experience with Justice Denied, I suspected a little more quickly that I was reading this book for a second time as well. But once again, I had no clue about plot twists or ending. By the time I'd finished, I knew I had read it and thought that the ending was familiar.

Sure enough, I had read and written about The Burnt House in September 2007 in the blog entry titled, Delightful details. I liked it then and I liked it again this spring. Reading it a second time was not all that different from reading it the first time. I guess I don't engage my memory much even when I'm writing about a book like this.

More good summer reading. They go on the shelf and maybe they'll be on the "to read" pile again someday. Maybe my "to read" pile should be made up of books that have been on the shelf for a few years and I can avoid trips to the library and the book store.

Winter with wolves and worse

I'm really lucky to have been in National Parks all over the U.S. Our parents and grandparents devoted resources to these gems that helped make visiting them wonderful. Those investments have allowed most of them to remain welcoming and wonderful to visit in spite of 25-30 years of deferred maintenance, reduced staffing, and the need to devote more and more resources to law and order and homeland security. [grumble... grumble... rant ending]

My experiences in national parks probably contribute to my attraction to Nevada Barr's mysteries. She's a former park ranger and all of her books are set in national parks. I like the realism of the settings as well as the institutional relationships that she describes in the books.

She writes graphically about the places and does a great job describing the characters. I get the impression that she works hard at the action scenes in her book, but they're often too detailed for my taste. How can I feel the fear and panic of the character stranded on a Lake Superior ice floe when I'm reading details about the ice edge and the character's efforts to keep the ice sheet from flipping over while removing her bulky backpack?

Barr demonstrated the power of her descriptive abilities to me when she scared me off from finishing the book she set in Carlsbad Cavern (Blind Descent). Other times, I've been totally involved, as I was in Firestorm.

I finished Barr's newest book, Winter Study, and it wasn't the best of the lot. It's still well worth reading on a summer weekend. I wouldn't want to read it in the winter.

Like Superior Death, Winter Study is set in Isle Royale National Park. However, the setting is a park abandoned to winter and to a small group of researchers who are part of a 50-year-long study of the wolves and moose of Isle Royale.

That setting makes this book a little like the locked-room mysteries set in British manor houses. There's even a point in Barr's book where one of her characters suggests that eveyone in the little group on the island is suspecting everyone else of murder. She adds a seeming bit of mysticism to the pot, but it's only a red herring.

The mixture makes for an intriguing story about tragedy, revenge, death, and a small, isolated group. Maybe it's plot line for television's Lost or Survivor.

For me, the action scenes were distractions. The descriptions are too complex. Barr manages suspense a lot better than fight scenes. And the injuries she inflicts on her main character in the climactic fight for survival are unbelievable. Maybe my banging around and minor injuries on the high school football field didn't prepare me for understanding and empathizing with the adrenaline and pain of a hand to hand fight for life.

Overall, I liked the book. I could look at the warm summer scene out my window when the shivering of the characters got too real. It wasn't, however, one of my favorite Nevada Barr mysteries.

Did you read Winter Study? What did you think of it?

08 June 2008

Frames of reference

In 1977, I saw the movie Turning Point. Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft might have been the stars for most people, but Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne were all I saw in that movie. I know full-well that the dancing was enhanced by camera angles and lighting, but I was absolutely enthralled.

Later that year, I saw Gelsey Kirkland and the American Ballet Theater perform Swan Lake. (Baryshnikov was out sick the night I was there.) Kirkland was as fantastic as Baryshnikov had been in the movie. No camera angles or movie lighting needed. I was once again enthralled -- even though I remember Kirkland landing un-ballet-like on her butt during one of her exits.

Thus began a decade when I saw a lot of dance. And loved most of it. And found nearly all of it interesting.

There was another performance of Swan Lake, a few years later, that helped me learn how good Gelsey Kirkland and the ABT were. A well-reviewed local company performed. The music was recorded, not live. The dancers were probably well-rehearsed and dutifully trained. But there was no life in the performance. Neither the dancers nor the recording of a famous orchestra could come close to what I loved about dance.

Books, Ken, books! Remember?

Oh, yes, books. Banker Mary gave me Turquoise Girl by Aimée and David Thurlo for Christmas. A couple months back, I got around to reading it. I was hesitant because last July I'd read and written about the Turlo's book, Red Mesa. I wasn't pleased with it.

One of the reasons I hadn't liked it was probably the inevitable comparisons with the novels of Tony Hillerman. The Turlos and Hillerman write about Navajo police officers and the desert southwest of Dinétah. The comparisons are all over the cover of Turquoise Girl. Obviously the publisher thinks that hooking on to the Hillerman name is worthwhile.

If I'd never seen Gelsey Kirkland and ABT do Swan Lake, I might have appreciated the local company and their tape recording. If I'd never read Hillerman, I might have liked the Thurlo's books a bit more.

But maybe not. After page 25, I stopped remembering the typos and the awful word choices. Did these people not have an editor? or a proofreader? Don't they know that spell-check won't tell them that "thought" is not a substitute for "though?" And somebody ought to tell them about pacing. Speeding up narration and shortening sentences as the climax approaches is appropriate. But doing that in the middle of the book, only to slow down the story telling and then waltzing into the climax is not fun. It's rather like riding the downhill runs of the roller coaster with the emergency brake on.

I said after the first Thurlo book that I wouldn't go back to the library for another. The next time I have a hankering to read about Navajo police officers and the high desert, I'll reread a Hillerman.

Other opinions?