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.

Advertisements

Book Review: Becoming Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

IMG_20181217_213923

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.

Book Review: Half the Child by William J. McGee

Portrayals of single fathers seem to fall into only a few tired and clichéd tropes-the fun-loving, weekend dad, the deadbeat dad behind on his child support payments, the “my ex is a bitch so all women are bitches” bitter single dad and the completely absent dad who disappears from his children’s lives.

Fortunately, Mike Mullen from William J. McGee’s novel Half the Child is none of those things when it comes to being a single dad.

On the surface Mike seems like a regular guy. He’s a loving and devoted father to his little boy Ben. He works as an air traffic controller at LaGuardia while working on his master’s degree in psychology. He comes from a loving, yet at times, testing Irish Catholic family.

But Mike is also going through a contentious divorce that will turn his world upside down, especially when it comes to both his personal and professional life.

Divided into four distinct chapters called books, Half the Child follows four consecutive summers in the lives of Mike and Ben.

In the beginning, Mike is separated from Ben’s mother and they are on the verge of getting a divorce. It isn’t long before the divorce turns sour and Mike’s ex abducts Ben and leaves the country.

This sets off Mike into a nightmarish tailspin as he fights for his parental rights, which affects his personal life, including a budding romance. It affects him physically, emotionally, and mentally. Professionally, Mike is a mess. Mike begins to suffer a deep depression and often contemplates suicide. How will he cope with every obstacle that comes his way? What will happen to his relationship with Ben? Is it beyond repair? How will survive Mike survive this nightmare? All I know is I read this book with bated breath, turning page after page, hoping there would be some light at the end of the tunnel entrapping Mike.

Written by someone of lesser talent, Half the Child would come across as way too over the top to be believed. But McGee is a thoughtful and gifted writer whose “voice” rings true. Every character is rich in detail, no matter how major or minor. And the various scenarios in Half the Child are shown, not merely told.

At turns, Half the Child is heartbreaking and hopeful. It is filled with suspense, humor, anger, and intimacy, truly a grand achievement in story-telling. McGee is a writer to watch for, and I can’t wait to read more of his work.

Book Review: You Play the Girl-On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano

51tofbXUY7L

Is there a book you wish you had written? Is there a book you would have written if you had the ambition? Well, thank goodness Carina Chocano had both the desire and motivation to write a book and that book is her collection of essays, You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages.

I love pop culture, and I’ve been studying and writing about pop culture since I was in high school. But despite my mad love for film, TV shows, music, and obviously books, I’ve often been dismayed (if not downright pissed off) by how girls and women are portrayed in these various works, and how they affect society and those we care about.

Chocano shares this loathing,  wonders these same issues, and writes about them in this dazzling collection of essays (which also acts as a caring and concerned love letter to her daughter, Kira).

After a brief introduction, You Play the Girl is divided into four distinctive parts:

Part One: Down the Rabbit Hole covers topics like Playboy bunnies, the classic Good Housekeeping column, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and MTV-inspired movie Flashdance.

Part Two: The Pool of Tears muses on the concepts such topics like ingénues and bad girls.

Part Three: In You Wouldn’t Have Come Here, Chocano writes about the surrealism of the “Real Housewives,” awkward men who choose “Real Girls” over real-live women, and the singular, life-changing journey of redemption of eating, praying and loving.

Part Four: In Mad Tea Party, Chocano acknowledges that girls love math even if Barbie claims, “Math is hard,” women as a trainwreck, the phenomenon of the Disney movie Frozen, and wraps up things with her desire for a feminist dance number (personally, I suggest bellydancing).

There are several reasons why I Iove You Play the Girl. First, Chocano is an excellent writer. Sure, she’s technically proficient but most importantly she has a distinctive voice, down to earth, wise, but also funny and charming. Plus, she just makes you think. Her essays are deeply researched and make you reflect on how pop culture affects you in ways you never thought possible, whether it comes to classic sitcoms like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie to the current day of reality television with its collection of real housewives, bachelors and bachelorettes.

Chocano also has interesting opinions when it comes to classic movies like The Philadelphia Story and a movie I hope is never considered a classic, Pretty Woman. And when it comes to how boys and girls are portrayed coming-of-age books, films and TV shows, Chocano sums things up with this passage:

“In the male coming-of-age story, the boy creates himself. In the female coming-of-age story, the girl is created by forces around her.”

She questions why in an age of diversity and women making strides in business, academia, politics, technology, activism, arts and entertainment, and business our definition of what makes a woman attractive and sexy grows more and more narrow.

Chocano likewise has a very interesting take on women’s magazines and how they prey upon women’s insecurities and perceived failings as wives, mothers, workers, and just human beings as a whole even in this age of “You go, girl!”

Throughout You Play the Girl, Chocano looks at the details but also gives us the big picture on so many attention-grabbing topics. Simply put, You Play the Girl is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

 

Book Review: Night Beast by Ruth Joffre

NightBeastFinal

To me, the hardest book reviews to write are the ones where the book is just “meh,” neither one that is super praiseworthy or one that deserves utter scorn. But “meh” is where I am when it comes to Ruth Joffre’s collection of short stories in her book Night Beast.

In Night Beast, Joffre’s characters are caught up in various predicaments including coming in terms with one’s sexual identity, romantic heartbreak, the struggles of parenthood, challenges in the workplace, gut wrenching grief, and all kinds of abuse. And they are depicted using various genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, romance and true to life-some that work, some that don’t.

Some of Joffre’s stories show great promise but are written in a choppy, too short manner. They lack enticing plots, compelling character development and satisfying conclusions (think of bad sex with no orgasm). It’s as if Joffre got bored and decided to stop writing. I wish she would have just left these stories out of her book (or a good editor would have cut them out).

But there are a few stories I found entertaining and quite thought-provoking, showing Joffre’s strength as writer of fiction.

In the opening chapter Nitrate Nocturnes, everyone is outfitted with a timer that counts the exact amount of time in years, days, seconds and so on until they meet their true soul mate. But it is also a future where everything is timed out including death. This story was quite chilling in our day of digital media and technological “advances.” How long before something like this actually happens? I shudder to think!

In Go West and Grow up, Joffre tells a tale of a mother and daughter just trying to survive as they escape an abusive and alcoholic husband and father with very little resources and support. This story really got under my skin, and I hope if Joffre writes another collection of short stories she provides a sequel to Go West and Grow Up or perhaps this could inspire her to write a novel based on this story.

Another punch to the heart is the story I’m Not Asking, which tells the tale of two women coping with the loss of their unborn child and how it affects them as women, lovers and would-be mothers. I’m Not Asking would also make for a good novel.

Joffre is not a bad writer at all. I think she shows great promise and potential. She just needs to keep her fingers to the keyboard to fully shape the stories that are less than satisfying and a kindly editor who can help her round out her writing a bit more. Night Beast may be “meh,” but Joffre has the capability to become truly magnificent.

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.

Book Report: We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

It’s no secret I’m a fan of writer, author, teacher, activist and creator of the alternative parenting magazine Hip Mama Ariel Gore. Her memoir Atlas of the Human Heart is a favorite of mine. And I also love the non-fiction Bluebird and Gore’s primer on writing How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead.

Now Gore is back with another tremendous book, a novel called We Were Witches.

“My body is a curio shop.” – Ariel Gore from We Were Witches

We Were Witches is a creative blend of memoir and fiction. We Were Witches is about a struggling single mom named Ariel and her beloved daughter Maia.

Ariel is determined to better her life by getting a college education and working less than desirable work/study jobs in a post-Reagan world of “family values,” skimpy child support checks, a shitty ex, less than ideal parents and a safety net made of spider webs.

But Ariel does have a lot of things going for you including an excellent education, an oddball assortment of loving friends, her own creativity, resourcefulness and writing talent. Ariel also has a street smart wisdom, her feminist spirit animals and Maia’s unconditional love.

As We Were Witches unspools Ariel learns to embrace being a square peg and refuses to whittle herself into a round one.

Vividly written with passages I saw in mind’s eye (especially the one on Maia’s birth, which chilled me) We Were Witches is simply one of my favorite novels of the year!