Saturday, September 24, 2011

Book Review: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Barbara Ehrenreich— highly educated, financially comfortable— goes undercover to see what life would be like as a minimum-wage worker in America. How can someone survive on $6-7/hour?

Ehrenreich, a journalist by trade, spent a month in each of three locations—Florida, Maine, and Minnesota— as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, maid, and Walmart worker. (She did not inform her co-workers or bosses of her "real" life until her last day at each place of employment.) Her goal was to live like her co-workers (although with the benefit of three important tools: a car, a laptop, and $1000 in start-up funds).

Her life quickly became extraordinarily difficult. Affordable housing in all cases turned out to be barely habitable trailers, hotel rooms, tiny apartments. Her jobs were emotionally demeaning and physically hard. I'm sure that it was terribly hard for her that people didn't recognize her intelligence, although she never says this. I get the feeling that she often wanted to cry out, "You can't treat me like this: I have a PhD!"

Or maybe I'm projecting. I've worked minimum wage jobs as a college graduate. I've been that waitress in a polyester uniform, silently fuming because the boss was treating me like everyone else. Did he not recognize my ability to write A+ papers?

Yes, we are the privileged middle class, and the truth is, that while Ehrenreich's book is interesting and enlightening, she can't possibly present a picture of minimum-wage America with three short months in just three random cities. She needed to add in issues of health-care (when she got a rash from her work as a maid, she called her personal dermatologist and got a prescription) and family (as a single woman, she didn't have to face issues of childcare, etc.). She needed to give up her life for a year, not just a few months, and stay in one place—without a car and an emergency fund.

Ehrenreich tries, though, to present to her readers, presumably the privileged middle class, the life of millions of minimum-wage workers across America. It's hard. It's unthinkable to many of us that one could spend one's entire life working a couple of different jobs, 60-70 hours/week, on $7 an hour. Most people I know have worked in minimum-wage jobs at some point in their lives, but we all knew that we are working there temporarily—until we were done with college or graduate school, for the most part. Even working in those jobs for a set amount of time—with that light at the end of the tunnel—can be terribly depressing and demoralizing.

The author is condescending at times and often downright snarky, but I still think this is an important read. She doesn't offer any solutions, but she does raise a lot of questions and shed light on the plight of the poor.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Sunday Salon: August in Review

Books Read in August (Click on title for reviews)
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich (totally forgot to review this one): dark and disturbing
Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore (Southern chick lit)
The German Woman by Paul Griner (WW2 lit)
The Judas Field by Howard Bahr (dark and gritty Civil War lit)
The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain (great story)
The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry. (historical fiction, medieval)
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (excellent journey into how minimum-wage America survives)

Favorite Book of the Month
Two very different books, but I loved them both: The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes and Nickel and Dimed.

Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Before the Storm by Diane Chamberlain
The Midwife's Confession by Diane Chamberlain
Father, Mother, God: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse
You Don't Sweat Much for a Fat Girl by Celia Rivenbark

Read Aloud to 10 Year Old
Island of the Blue Dolphins

Currently Reading
Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Top 3 Most Visited Reviews This Month on SmallWorld Reads
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Murder on the Orient Express

Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: The German Woman

Kate Zweig is Paul Griner's The German Woman: British by birth, German by marriage. The novel opens in WWI in Prussia at a field hospital that is about to be obliterated. Kate is a nurse and her husband, Horst, a doctor. They escape to Germany, where their lives become sheer misery, filled with terror, hunger, pain and drudgery.

Griner leaves Kate and Horst in Germany and moves into London in WWII. Claus is an American filmmaker living in London, now a reluctant British spy. His story is confusing, told in muddled bits and pieces that reflect his own confusion about his true identity. Born of an Irish father and German mother, he can't figure out to whom he owes his loyalty.

Then Claus meets Kate, who is by now a woman in her mid-40s, who has recently fled Germany to escape the Nazis. We discover, again in bits and pieces, what happened to Kate and Horst in the years between wars. Claus and Kate embark on a romance that is a refuge for both of them in the midst of their war lives. Claus struggles constantly with his role as a spy and with his desire to have his latest film accepted; Kate continues to work as a nurse, which consists mostly of providing medical assistance to civilians caught in the London bombings. They keep secret from each other portions of their pasts, doling out bits and pieces like shards of the broken city all around them.

Eventually, Claus implodes, egged on by his supervisor. Trained as a spy, he becomes suspicious of everyone, including Kate. But Griner keeps the reader guessing too, wondering if Claus is right about Kate—is she a German spy, or just a woman wounded by war?

Griner is a fantastic writer. The images in the novel are powerful and memorable: a splotch of red raspberries against the gray ash, a piano played to soothe starvation, a pig lounging in the sun. I didn't exactly understand all the espionage jargon. I couldn't quite grasp what, exactly, Claus was doing; but that is my own ignorance on war espionage. I was frustrated at times with not being able to understand this large part of the novel, but the story of Claus and Kate was compelling enough to keep reading even without understanding a lot of the historical context.

(Thanks to Bookworm's Dinner for the original recommendation. Other World War II era novels reviewed here.)