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.

Book Review: The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kedzior

When not being ignored by the two coasts, flyover country is being celebrated as where the “real Americans” live, usually by conservative pundits. And to these pundits, real Americans are defined as white and for the most part living in the suburbs or rural areas who define themselves as conservative Christians.

But not so fast, living in flyover country, I know we are a much more diverse bunch and so does Sarah Kedzior, which she sums up in her collection of essays The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

A reporter for Al Jazeera America and residing in St. Louis, Missouri, Kedzior’s essays focus on such thorny topics as race, income inequality, the friction among generations, education, foreign policy, the media, women’s issues and so much more.

Kedzior starts off The View from Flyover Country with an introduction rolling out what her collection of essays is all about, giving the reader a clear idea on what to expect among its six parts.

In Part One, Flyover Country, Kedzior defines flyover country and topics such as how expensive cities are killing creatives and hipster economics.

Part Two, Post-Employments, explains issues of survival, how workers are paying a steep price, zilch opportunities and how sometimes these issues make people do extreme things like lighting themselves on fire.

Race and religion define Part Three, where Kedzior writes about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s murder, Black Lives Matter, and what happened in Ferguson in the wake of Mike Brown being gunned down by police.

In Part Four Kedzior examines the broken promise of a higher education, and how school debt has crippled countless smart, hard-working and talented graduates. She also decries the deplorable pay of adjunct professors who work tirelessly to educate our students.

Part Five is a careful examination of our media and how gaining access seems to be only available to the well-connected elite (don’t I know it!) and the problem of fringe media in the Internet age.

Foreign policy makes up Part Six when it comes to gender, Edward Snowden, the situation in Iraq and basic human rights.

Finally, Kedzior sums things up with a standout essay on the importance of complaining. If people didn’t complain, women wouldn’t have the right to vote, black people would still be at the back of the bus, and gay people wouldn’t be able to marry those they love.

While reading The View Flyover Country, I marked several pages with post-it notes and wrote down some key quotes and passages in my well-worn notebook. Kedzior writes in a down-to-earth way with smarts and clarity. She truly cares about these issues and implores us to also care about them.

The View from Flyover Country is a treasure of a book and is ideal for both the college classroom and book discussion groups everywhere.

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: Voices From the Rust Belt – Edited by Anne Trubek

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Just what is the Rust Belt? In simple terms it stretches from Milwaukee to Buffalo with cities like Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh inbetween, cities that were once known as vibrant communities of manufacturing that have fallen on hard times but are trying to recapture their former glory. The Rust Belt is also a place I call home.

Sometimes romanticized,sometimes looked down upon, and often ignored, the Rust Belt is a place rich in history and tales so I was only to happy to find Voices from the Rust Belt, a collection of essays by people of all kinds who deftly write about what it is like to live in the Rust Belt.

After a brief introduction, which describes what is the Rust Belt and why it matters, Voices from the Rust Belt is divided into four parts.

1. Growing Up
2. Day to Day in the Rust Belt
3. Geography of the Heartland
4. Leaving and Staying

I pretty much loved all the essays written by talented women and men of all kinds. Some stories I could relate and others opened my eyes to experiences completely foreign to me. These stories are written by journalists, immigrants, students, artists, business owners, activists and working stiffs of all kinds who call the Rust Belt home. Nearly every one of theses writers impressed me and I was thrilled to find brief bios of the writers, which gave me further insight to these people beyond their written words. I also pondered what it would be like to see a well-made documentary on the Rust Belt – Ken Burns, I’m looking in your direction.

If I have any quibbles with Voices from the Rust Belt it is there is no voice from Milwaukee. Hmm, maybe in the sequel.

Book Review: The Common Good by Robert B. Reich

Considering I gave Robert B. Reich’s Saving Capitalism a rave review, it’s no secret I’m a huge fan of the former secretary of Labor under President Clinton. So I am thrilled to give Reich’s latest book, The Common Good, another rave review.

The Common Good is a call to arms to anyone who cares about the state of our country and all of its citizens.

And when I mention a call to arms I don’t mean guns and ammunition. This book is a call for us to bring a sense of empathy, sensibility and basic human decency when it comes to politics, business, religion, education, media, activism, and our communities as a whole. And The Common Good is written in an enthusiastic and perceptive manner that will connect with a wide audience.

The Common Good is divided into three distinct parts:

1. What Is the Common Good?

2. What Happened to the Common Good?

3. Can the Common Good By Restored?

Part one is a primer on the common good. It starts out using the sheer awfulness of Martin Shrekeli and how he fully encompasses what is not the common good.

As part one moves on Reich explains both the common good most of us share and origins of the common good.

In part two Reich examines what exactly happened to our nation’s common good through a 3-prong dismantling of the common good’s structure. Believe me, it’s not pretty.

But before readers gnash their teeth in despair, Reich wraps things up with a manifesto on how we can restore the common good, which includes leadership we can trust, the use of honor and shame, resurrecting truth and finally but most importantly reviving civic education for all citizens starting in grade school and high school.

Some of ideas may be a bit difficult to implement and others will be quite simple. But all are vital.

The Common Good is written in an audience-friendly style that instructs and inspires and will hold your interest long after you are done reading it.  I can’t recommend it enough. The Common Good is both timely and timeless.

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!

Book Review: Listen Liberal-Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank

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Anybody familiar with my little corner of the Internet, knows I am a liberal. And I don’t feel any shame in that title. I’m very proud of it and it is one that I hold close to my heart…however…

I have been troubled by the ideas, opinions and actions by some of my fellow liberals for a few years now but never could I quite voice it in an articulate, yet simple way.

So thank goodness for Thomas Frank and his latest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? In Listen, Liberal, Frank pretty much sums it up in a way I couldn’t without coming across like a blithering idiot.

Perhaps, you’re not familiar with the name Thomas Frank, but undoubtedly you’ve heard of his books. He wrote the classic What’s the Matter With Kansas, a book that should be on most political-minded folks reading list no matter what your views. I can also recommend two of his other books—The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, and Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.

This time out, instead of focusing on conservatives and the current state of the GOP, Frank focuses on his fellow liberals and the Democratic party, and his summary is not pretty.

In my life, I’ve always felt I straddled two worlds, not feeling entirely comfortable in either one. I was raised in a middle class home by two college educated parents. I graduated from an excellent college with the highest of honors. I have worked in the professional realm of media, high tech, consulting, finance, law and various creative endeavors. I have eaten brie and drink wine. I enjoy my city’s cultural landscape whether it be our local art galleries or our wonderful film fest.

However, I also grew up in a rural area.  My family history is mostly wooden spoons, not silver spoons (my maternal grandmother never attended high school). I drove to high school in a pick-up truck where guys wore John Deere hats and spit up their chewing tobacco into the drinking fountains. As an adult I lived in roach-infested apartments in really dodgy neighborhoods. My feet have walked on factory shop floors and the floors of several retail establishments. I have worked as a temp for longer than I care to admit. I’ve been poor, really poor, so poor I’ve eaten out of garbage cans and spent sleepless nights wondering if I’m going to end up homeless.

And in both of the worlds, I’ve felt marginalized and misunderstood. I am fully liberal, but today’s flavor of liberal (which favors the first world I noted) doesn’t quite understand the life I’ve lived in the second scenario I noted. And we’re worse off for not realizing this.

For the longest time, the Democratic base included many of those who work blue collar, pink collar and other assorted non-professional, managerial type of labor. Then something happened. This base of working class Jacks and Janes were cast aside for a more elitist class, which included those with college degrees (often post-undergrad) degrees, impressive job titles and even more impressive incomes. These elites are under the illusion that many of them earned their way to the top through mostly their merits. And though many of them had, a lot of them also had supportive families, good connections, went to the best schools, and were able to grab the brass ring of internships, and later great jobs. And a lot of their good fortune is due to just plain good luck.

Now many of these elitist liberals are socially liberal (which is wonderful). But they often ignore the plight of the working and service classes, the gulf between the haves and have nots, those living in rural areas, globalization, and the stagnation of wages (while CEO pay is through the roof).

As I mentioned, a lot of elitist liberals believe their success is due to merit, their talents, smarts, skills, and education. And sadly, many of these people look down at the “others.” Clearly they don’t have what it takes to succeed. It’s total snobbery.

What these liberals (and their “liberal gilt”) need to recognize is the great unwashed, the salt of the earth must be taken seriously. This includes their ideas, concerns, opinions, fears and aspirations. All of us have a stake in our country and its future. There is strength in numbers and those Democrats in power must listen to all of us (so far only Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and not to mention pundit Robert Reich seem to be open to doing this).

Sure, meritocracy is a nice concept. But so is a sense of empathy. Listen Liberal implores liberal elites to stop being such snobs, open their minds, hearts, and souls to those they think as “lesser” to make effective change that works for all of us.