Book Review: Maid-Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

Over the past few years I’ve read several books on what it is like to live in the richest country on low pay, back breaking work, while striving to make a better life for oneself and perhaps one’s family. Some of these books include Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado, We Were Witches by Ariel Gore, The Broke Diaries by Angela Nissel, and of course, Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic, Nickel and Dimed.

I didn’t think I could handle reading another one until I came across Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid-Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. (Introduction by Barbara Ehrenreich)

Not quite 30, Land found herself leaving an abusive relationship with a young daughter in tow. What followed her was a nightmare of homelessness, deplorable apartments, low wages working as a housekeeper, and a very unpleasant journey through the so-called safety net when it came to acquiring government assistance. Unlike some fortunate souls Land lacks a supportive family who help her in her time of need.

Land decides to clean houses to support herself and her daughter while also attending college. She works for a local housecleaning company but also takes on freelance gigs. Not surprisingly, housekeeping is truly back breaking, horribly paid, and demoralizing. Some of her clients don’t see her fully human and worthy of respect. And then some of them just don’t see “her.”

Not making enough money to buy even the basic necessities, Land has to go on government assistance, a tangled weave that is often very difficult unravel with its endless paperwork and noxious questioning of Land’s eligibility and worthiness. If one earns a few extra dollars, one can find their benefits slashed or lose them in their entirety.

Keep in mind, not only is Land taking care of her daughter and cleaning houses, she’s also attending college. I just dare any reader to call her a slacker. She is the antithesis of lazy. In fact, due to my research, most people receiving some type of assistance are working and/or going to school. They are not cheating the system and most are not lazy losers.

But back to the book…

Maid is searing with brutal honesty. Land’s love and devotion to her daughter is undeniable as is her willingness to make a better life using various options. Her resourcefulness is both admirable and clever. I couldn’t help but root for her. Does she at times feel sorry for herself? Well, of course. She is human, after all. There certain times in one’s life when you just got to cry over your lot in life, and then you move on.

In the end people who are struggling like Land deserve respect, not empty pity or utter derision lacking any type of empathy.

In the end Maid convinces the reader to look beyond the stereotypes you may have swirling in your brain when it comes to the poor, anyone on benefits or those faceless, nameless heroes and heroines who make our lives much easier through their blood, sweat and tears.

Maid is a treasure of a memoir. Land should be very proud of herself, and I hope she keeps writing. I expect more from her. She’s one to watch.

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Book Review: Becoming Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

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Even my cat, Pokey Jones, liked this book!

Once upon a time, in land called the south side of Chicago, lived a girl named Michelle Robinson. Instead of living in a huge castle, she lived in a modest house on a street called Euclid Avenue. And instead of having to deal with an evil stepmother, she had two loving parents and a protective older brother. Like a lot of girls, Michelle Robinson dreamed of adventures that would take her beyond her humble roots and finding her own Prince Charming. She did that and so much more, thus becoming the history-making first lady Michelle Obama, not only the first black first lady (not to mention one of the most educated and admired, and if I may dip my toes into the shallow end of the pool, one of the most stylish first ladies, in the history of the United States).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are so “unwoke” you might as well be in a coma, you are fully aware of Michelle Obama’s years of living in the White House – her “Let’s Move” campaign to alleviate childhood obesity, her work with second lady Dr. Jill Biden on veterans’ issues, her loving marriage to President Barack Obama, and her challenges of raising two children in the White House under the glare of the media. This is a very compelling part of Becoming, and Mrs. Obama is fully honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly she dealt with during the White House years.

However, most of Becoming focuses on Mrs. Obama’s life before her time as First Lady, and it is both extraordinary and ordinary, which I’m sure a lot of readers with relate to.

Mrs. Obama describes these years in rich detail that had me riveted. Her family was firm and loving, inspiring her to be a striver and excel in whatever she pursued. She writes about teachers who supported her from grade school through law school. She lovingly mentions the girlfriends who inspired her, and are still with her today (even if one standout friend is only with her in spirit). Mrs. Obama discusses the various mentors she was blessed with while navigating the difficulties in the workplace. And she’s brutally honest about these privileges and her gratitude seems truly sincere.

However, she also had to deal with the thorny issues of both racism and sexism, and plenty of naysayers who claimed she’d never make it. For instance, one person tried to convince Mrs. Obama that she wasn’t Ivy League material. Ha, she showed this person, didn’t she?

And yes, Mrs. Obama also dishes on a certain fellow named Barack Obama, from her initial meeting when she was his mentor to her twenty-five plus years of their marriage.

But just as Mrs. Obama is grateful for her blessings, she is also honest about the trials and tribulations she faced personally. Prince Charming was sometimes a bit of a challenge and often their marriage was less than ideal. Mrs. Obama also faced issues with having children, finally reverting to using fertility treatments and later giving birth to her cherished daughters Malia and Sasha. In other words, her life is at turn both typical and atypical, one that inspires and one that a lot of us can relate to.

Now, it’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Michelle Obama. However, as a book reviewer I realize I must be truthful of my assessment of Becoming. Not to be gross, but you can’t crap on a cone and expect me to call it ice cream. Thank goodness, Becoming is a sundae of a read and truly exceeded my expectation. It’s both down to earth and out of this world, one that takes a treasured place on my book shelf. I can’t recommend it enough.

I Read It So You Don’t Have To: How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

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Whenever I write a book review I remind myself an actual human being wrote this book-remember to be empathetic in your review, be fair, be firm.

But when it comes to Cat Marnell’s memoir How To Murder Your Life…well, screw being nice. As the kids say, “I can’t even.”

Now I’m a pretty caring and compassionate person, especially when it comes to someone in a cruel grip of addiction and mental health issues. I’ve read countless books about people dealing with these issues and I know people in real life who have dealt with these issues. And have offered an open-mind and a shoulder to cry on to them.

Knowing a smidge about Marnell due to my interest and experience in both fashion and media I picked up How to Murder Your Life thinking it would be a book about a young woman’s harrowing journey through addiction while trying to make a living in two very challenging industries while also dealing with personal issues like family, education, friends, love and various mundane tasks like paying the bills and making sure the fridge is full.

I thought How To Murder Your Life would convey how Marnell finally realized she had a problem and had a someone or several someones intervene and tell her she needs to get help. I thought it would be a tale of Marnell agreeing to get help, go to rehab and at turns deal with breakthroughs and breakdowns finally arriving on some type of sobriety and doing everything in her power to stay that way. I expected wisdom, clarity, vulnerability and redemption. I was at the very least, hoping for a well-written book.

I got none of these things.

Marnell grew up posh and privileged in the DC area. Her family is both loving and at times infuriating. Marnell, as a child, seems to be silly, fun, creative and like any kid, a bit of a handful. Well, aren’t we all? From a very young age Marnell is interested in the fashion/beauty industry and develops a passion for magazines, going to the point of creating her own ‘zine.

When she reaches her teens she decides to attend boarding school and soon after goes into a tailspin, some of it where she is truly a victim (she loses her virginity to what seems to be date rape), but most of it where she is a willing and enthusiastic participant. Lazy, obnoxious, and fully entitled, Marnell barely graduates high school, can’t quite get into a proper college and gets addicted to various substances thinking it makes her dangerous, edgy and glamorous like she’s the Edie Sedgwick of the modern age.

But despite her lack of education, talent and mastery of anything other than taking an alphabet of any drug she comes across, Marnell gets an enviable gig working for Lucky magazine. Much of her easy entry is due to being privileged, white, thin and spoiled and well-connected. Granted, this isn’t exactly rare in the world of media and fashion.

Thus, Marnell continues to be a complete trainwreck, professionally, personally and romantically. From her early days with Lucky to later on where Marnell is working for the website xoJane under the “legendary” Jane Pratt.

Drugged out her gourd, Marnell’s life is a collection of missed deadlines and missed periods. But instead of being horrified by her life, she seems almost proud. And sadly, she is coddled by nearly everyone in her realm and as How to Murder Your Life reaches its conclusion, Marnell is still a fucking junkie!

Well, isn’t that a trip? Is How to Murder Your Life well-written? No. Marnell’s writing is distraught, callow, unenlightened and so purple Prince would probably say, “Okay, that’s enough.” And the name dropping of celebs, high priced cosmetics and designer duds just made me roll my eyes. Your not only one to apply MAC to your lips, Marnell. It doesn’t make your special (As I type this I’m wearing Chanel no. 5. Yes, you may touch the hem of my ancient Limited sweater).

Fortunately, there are countless on books about drug addiction that are worthy of your time. How to Murder Your Life is clearly not one of them.

 

 

Book Review: Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions by JR Helton

In his memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions, JR Helton (who goes by the name Jake in the book), visits his younger years in 1980s Austin, Texas. It’s a time of working shitty barely blue collar gigs that are hardly on the fast track to respectability and career success. And it’s also a time when he found himself on a never ending cycle of crappy decisions, which included a bad marriage, toxic friends and family members, drugs and alcohol and educational aspirations cast to the wayside.

Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions begins with Jake dropping out of the University of Texas-Austin to try his hand making it as a writer. Alas, Jake has to give up his writing ambitions and find himself a “real job.” His first job is a soul-sucking job with Austin Paint and Spray, which morphs into other awful painting jobs working with dangerous chemicals and even more dangerous co-workers and shitty bosses. Helton writes about his co-workers in exquisite detail that they spring to life on every page.

Jake’s personal life is also in shambles. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Susan, but their marriage proves to be more sour if not outright dysfunctional. The only thing these two lovebirds have going for them is a really hot sex life. Whereas, Jake eeks out a living painting, Susan takes on bunch of lowly office jobs, but soon finds her way into Austin’s growing movie production scene where she often has affairs with her co-workers, throwing it back in Jake’s face every chance she gets.

And it doesn’t help that Susan’s parents make for less than ideal in-laws. Her father is a washed-up football star with serious mental health issues and her mother is a faded, has-been actress.

But don’t feel sorry for Jake just yet. He proves to be less than an ideal husband. He’s sullen and misanthropic. His communication skills are almost non-existent. And he spends most of his time with Susan pissed off and has a strangely flirtatious relationship with her mother.

As for his own family? Well, they don’t come across quite some cuddly and lovable either.

And thus Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions goes on-Jake working one bad job after another and making poor decisions, which hound him in his younger years until he finally realizes it’s time to grow up and get it together when it comes to work, education, his substance abuse and to his too long marriage to Susan.

Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions is a memoir that reads like a novel, a bit similar to Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches. It also reminded me of two other memoirs of poverty and blue collar life-Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth and Ben Hamper’s Rivethead. It is a book written with true to life characters, a compelling plot and richly-detailed dialogue.

And though Jake is a bit of an anti-hero, he is one you end up rooting for especially once Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions reaches its satisfying end, which of course, you’ll have to read yourself.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Actor’s Life-A Survival Guide by Jenna Fischer

Back in the day, I believe it was in the year 2006, when MySpace was still a thing and we were all friends of Tom, Jenna Fischer wrote a post on her MySpace page where she discussed the trials and tribulations she faced as an aspiring actor. Already well-known as  the sweet and vulnerable Pam Beesly on The Office, Ms. Fischer’s MySpace post resonated with a lot of people, even people with no acting ambitions.

Now Fischer has turned that MySpace post into something more with her book The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide that is at turns both a memoir of Jenna’s journey to acting success and a wise and practical primer for aspiring actors.

Fischer fell in love with acting and performing as a child. She took acting and dance classes and performed in both community and school productions, including acting as the Fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof, which must have been quite a challenge for a someone going to all-girls Catholic school.

After earning a degree in theater at Truman State University in Missouri, this St. Louis native packed her bags and headed out to Los Angeles. All Fischer had was her college diploma, a beat up car and some saved up cash. But she also had a big dream to make it as an actress in both television and in film. She thought it wouldn’t be long before she saw her name on the marquee of movie theaters or among the credits of a hit television show.

Boy, was she wrong. It took her eight years to finally become a success on The Office and in movies like Blades of Glory and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. And in that nearly decade long road, Fischer dealt with the good, bad and ugly of being an aspiring actor, which she isn’t afraid to share in The Actor’s Life.

When it comes to the survival guide, Fischer offers sound advice on getting the right headshot, getting into the film and television’s actor union SAG (Screen Actors Guild), and building one’s resume as an actor. She also advises on finding and keeping an agent and manager.

Fischer also discusses in detail the arduous auditioning process, the heartbreak, the glory, and how to keep going on.

Want to know what it’s like to be on the set as an extra, a bit player saying three lines in one scene, a guest star or part of the main cast? It’s not glamorous, but once your performing, you’re reminded why you chose acting as a vocation.

Of course,  even once one makes it things don’t go smoothly. Pilots for TV shows don’t get picked up,  shows get cancelled, speaking parts get edited out,  a movie bombs at the box office even if you’re an established name. You may even get fired. Fischer was recently fired from a TV show. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She’s now the star of the ABC show Splitting Up Together, which is filming its second season.

Interspersed throughout The Actor’s Life are Fischer’s tales of getting speaking parts on hit shows like Spin City and That 70’s Show, working less than desirable office gigs, falling apart at The Pottery Barn because she felt like such a loser, filming kissing and sex scenes, her wonderful relationship with her manager Naomi Odenkirk, and the dos and don’ts on how to behave on the set.

Fischer also discusses creating opportunities by generating DIY acting projects and how the iconic book The Artist’s Way helped her on her journey as did actor and friend Molly Shannon.

Within the pages of The Actor’s Life include inspirational quotes by a diverse collection of people-Einstein, Sheryl Sandburg,  Marilyn Monroe, Jon Hamm and Debra Messing.

I enjoyed reading The Actor’s Life,  starting with an introduction by Steve Carell who played the bumbling Michael Scott on The Office to Fischer’s loving acknowledgements to family, friends, and colleagues at the very end.

The Actor’s Life is honest,  funny and wise. Fischer’s writing voice is empathetic, truthful and warm. It’s a must read, and not just for actors. I’m using it as a guide as I get my writing career back on track.  I also think this book is ideal for teachers, guidance counselors, and college career centers.

It was The Office that made me a fan of Jenna Fischer and The Actor’s Life is one reason why I remain a fan.

Well that,  and we both suffer from MCG-Midwestern Catholic Guilt.

 

Book Review: Shrill-Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I’ve been a fan of writer Lindy West since her Jezebel.com days. Whether she was writing about pop culture or social issues, I found her writing voice to witty and wise,  a welcome relief from tiresome clickbait and lazy listicles.

So it was a thrill to read West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud woman.

Growing up,  West was nerdy, shy and fat, not exactly a recipe for success. Yet, she was able to find success, both professionally and personally, once she became an adult and found her voice.

And though her voice brought her admirers it also brought her haters,  mostly obnoxious trolls.

You see West is a woman with an opinion. She’s also fat. How dare she!

Through her feature articles and opinion pieces, West expressed her disdain for rape jokes and the struggles with body shaming. In response, she often faced horrific comments telling her she should be raped and ripped her apart for not being a tiny size two.

West fully describes in Shrill what it was like to be caught up in hail storm of hatred. It was a time of loneliness and tears,  vulnerability and anger, but it was also a time where West found support, decency, empathy and a the will to go on as a writer and just person trying to live her life

But in the end West triumphed. She triumphed so much a troll even reached out to her to apologize.

Today, West is having the last laugh. Shrill is gaining lots of praise, including praise from two of my faves, Caitlin Moran and Samantha Irby. Now based in Seattle West now writes for GQ,  The Guardian,, and other assorted highly respected publications. She founded the advice blog for teenagers called I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault. West is also blessed with a loving family and a happy marriage. Hmm, maybe being shrill isn’t such a bad thing.

Though Shrill is West’s story, it’s also the story of every woman with an opinion and  one who doesn’t fit into our society’s slender notion on how to behave…and look like. I highly recommend it.

Retro Review: The Child Who Never Grew by Pearl S. Buck

For the longest time I only knew multi-award winning author Pearl S. Buck through her classic The Good Earth, among other notable works of both fiction and non-fiction.

But Buck was also a mother of daughter with special needs, a daughter named Carol, which I was made aware of this when I came across Buck’s slim memoir about raising Carol called The Child Who Never Grew. And it at turns, bittersweet, wise and very touching.

When Carol was born she seemed perfectly normal and healthy. Buck and her husband felt truly blessed. But it wasn’t long before they realized Carol wasn’t developing at the same rate as other babies. In fact, Carol’s cognitive abilities would never surpass that of a four year old child.

Devastated, yet determined to do right by Carol, Buck and her husband arose to the challenge of raising a child with “mental retardation,” finally sending Carol to a facility most suitable to address her needs in Vineland, New Jersey.

The Child Who Never Grew is brutally honest on the “stigma” of raising a child like Carol but also the compassion that was so needed and desired by Buck and her husband, and most a beneficial to a person like Carol. I was also impressed on how Carol was looked at in the western culture of the United States and the culture of the far east. This book is also interesting on how we’ve come in our society when it comes to the lives of children and adults with special needs.

A book filled with heartache and triumph, The Child Who Never Grew isn’t just a memoir of mothering a child who is “different,” it is an amazing look at motherhood itself.