Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

This book has a good premise that is poorly executed. Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich set out to uncover what it's like to be part of the working class poor in America. With her masters degree and a chunk of "just-in-case" money she goes "undercover," taking jobs that pay only $6 or $7 an hour and writes about how she gets by. The first fourth of the book I was intrigued, but it quickly went down hill.

To start, there is a big difference between pretending to be poor, knowing you will return to your enjoyable life in a few months, than actually being poor. Ehrenreich never actually discusses this discrepancy, nor does she acknowledge the fact that she doesn't struggle with many barriers that actual poor people do. More often than not, there is a reason behind someone's poverty, whether that reason be lack of education, addiction, lack of resources, language barriers, mental disabilities; the list goes on. Ehrenreich never really has a problem finding a job, no matter how low paying, but she doesn't talk about the fact that her ability to speak well, or the fact that she has means to a shower everyday and a dentist anytime she needs, might just have helped her get said job so quickly. There are many people who aren't so lucky.

The book also reeked of haughtiness. Many times Ehrenreich questioned why no one realized she had a masters, or even asked her about it, implying an innate link between education and intelligence; implying that those with no education are not intelligent because you know, she was different from everyone else. She was smarter because she had a higher education and used to eat frisee salads for lunch, you guys. How could no one notice she didn't belong? How could they not figure her out? This attitude of hers got old fast.

Finally, to top it all of, after she tells her coworkers - you know, those people who actually are poor - that SURPRISE, she's really a journalist who will be returning to her comfortable life - she couldn't believe their reaction wasn't greater! Why weren't they floored? Why didn't they worry about more than who would have to cover her shift until they hired someone else? Moreover, she didn't even consider the fact that writing about how hard it is to be poor, from the perspective of a well-off, pretentious individual, might be somewhat offensive to these women who are struggling to get by. It's almost as if she's saying "Sorry your life sucks, but at least it's well articulated in this new book I wrote about you that will be published soon. Peace."

I mean come on! There are so many things wrong with this book.

Publisher: Owl Books, 2001


A List of Mid-Year Favorites

I can't believe we are already halfway through 2012.  The first half of the year has been pretty consistent, reading wise. I've completed 27 books as of last week, maintaining at least a book a week for the first half of the year. Among those books, these are my five favorite. 

1.Native Son by Richard Wright: This might be the most powerful book I've read in my adulthood thus far. Not only is this an explicit and heart-wrenching account of the perils of the black man in 1930's America (and in some cases, they story is also relevant today), but it is truly a page-turner. Despite the brutal and affecting details, I was completely engrossed in this book. This is a life-changing read. 

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King: The premise of the novel is what initially drew me to this book, but in the end the reasons I adored it so much was not because it was a time travel novel (I'm a serious sucker for those) but because it was truly moving and really made me think about destiny how the choices we make today change our future in a way we can't even imagine.

3. People who Eat Darkenss by Ricahrd Llyod Parry: I didn't expect to read this one in just a few days, but it was just so fascinating. This non-fiction novel follows the disappearance of Lucie Blackman; a young English woman who moves to Toyko in hopes of a more exciting life. It turns out, this is much more than a true crime book. It's also a lens for what happens behind closed doors in eastern culture, like an anthropological look at the darker, hidden aspects of this culture and their obsession with ritual and role play.

4. Moon Palace by Paul Auster: This is the fourth novel of his I've read and once again he delivered. This is a book that offers unlikely adventure, a bit of mystery, and a whole lot of heartache. As always, the characterization of Auster's main character is incredibly believable, but also unconventional. The plethora of characters and events Fogg is met with are whimsical and odd, but also complex and exuberant, making for a fun and intelligent read. 

5. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: There is so much to examine throughout this novel. It explores a myriad of human emotions. It's a novel about love, loss, sex, passion, hope, and obsession. Although the chapters go on forever, there is careful attention to detail that I really enjoyed. But this isn't your mushy-gushy love story, not even close. This novel takes patience, but it's worth the effort.

*Gasp* I can't believe there isn't a single female author on this list. 


Thoughts on Bukowski's Barfly

My boyfriend got this movie for Christmas - one of the many gifts his mother gave him. At the time, the only thing I knew about this film was that it's pretty rare to find on DVD, making it a somewhat coveted, look-how-cool-I-am-to-own-this, movie*. After I bought Ham on Rye a month or two ago, Ryan was quick to tell me the Barfly was also a semi-autobiography of Bukowski's life for which he actually wrote the screenplay. After finishing Ham on Rye I was so excited Ryan had Barfly and we had the chance to watch it earlier this week. 

The first thing I should mention is that there isn't a lot of overlap between Ham on Rye and Barfly. The first focuses on Bukowski's early years, his adolescence into his early manhood, while Barfly begins with Bukowski's adulthood. Those differences aside, both the book and the movie exude a gritty, crude look at the life of a man who doesn't really give a shit about anything except where he can find his next drink. As with the book, the movie follows Bukowski's alter-ego Henry Chianski. Henry, played by Mickey Rourke, is as smarmy and sordid as he came across in Ham on Rye, if not more so.

Most notably for me, the film began and ended with the same scene, signaling Henry's lack of growth or progression throughout the entirety of the movie. It's almost as though he has taken hold of the person he believes himself to be and doesn't let go of it, for better or worse. The film as a whole is quite dark and mostly miserable, it's also very entertaining and at times, even cheerful, but don't ask me to put my finger on any scene that leads me to this conclusion. Oh, and this may go without saying, but Faye Dunaway's performance is seriously AH-mazing. Upon finishing the movie I couldn't help but think that if Bukowski were alive today, he would really hate all of us in the "me" generation with our over-the-top consumerism and self-absorption. 
This is a world where everybody's gotta do something. Y'know, somebody laid down this rule that everybody's gotta do something, they gotta be something. You know, a dentist, a glider pilot, a narc, a janitor, a preacher, all that.  Sometimes I just get tired of thinking of all the things that I don't wanna do. All the things that I don't wanna be. Places I don't wanna go, like India, like getting my teeth cleaned. Save the whale, all that, I don't understand that.
After the film we watched the special features, which include four clips from interviews with Bukowski. His outlook on life is incredibly interesting, but also incredibly pessimistic. I should also note that Bukowski wrote a book that chronicles his experience writing the screenplay for Barfly, entitled Hollywood. In addition, Bukowski himself does make a cameo in the movie, playing what else, but a patron at the bar. If you've read and enjoyed even one of Bukowski's novels, I have to tell you I don't think you'll be disappointed with this movie. 

*I did find a copy of it on Amazon, so I'm not exactly sure what the difference between this rare edition vs. the mass market edition, if there even is one. Regardless, I still think it's cool if you own this movie.

Release date: September 30th, 1987
Written by: Charles Bukowski
Directed by: Barbet Schroeder
Presented by: Francis Ford Coppola


Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

What a weary time those years were - when you had the desire and the need to live, but not the ability.

This book was on a staff recommendation shelf at Half Price Books awhile back and after reading the synopsis I decided to buy it. I went into it without any expectations, which I've come to learn is the best way to go into reading any novel, really. Ham on Rye is a semi-autobiographical novel of Bukowski's own life, which makes the book all the more fascinating. We follow Henry Chianski, Bukowski's alter-ego, grow from a child into a young man during the Great Depression. It's a coming-of-age novel, but it's quite different from most other novels I've read in that genre. Bukowski's prose is straighforward but powerful, the diction is crude but intriguing. I have to say Henry Chianski is a character I won't soon forget. The majority of his childhood is filled with uncertainty and loneliness and even though he is a prick most of the time, I still wanted him to succeed in life.

This book is not for the fainthearted, as it's soaked with profanities, dirtiness, and violence; masturbation, impromptu trysts in the backseat of abandoned cars, and drunken brawls. About halfway through my reading of Ham on Rye, I actually stopped and thought to myself, there is no way teenage boys think about sex and women's anatomy that much. The subject permeates a good portion of the novel. But it's about more than that; it's about the awkwardness that is adolescence and growing up in a time when there was little opportunity and making the most out of it.
We were the way we were, and we didn't want to be anything else. We call came from Depression families and most of us were ill-fed, yet we had grown up to be huge and strong. Most of us, I think, got little love from our families, and we didn't ask for love or kindness from anybody. We were a joke but people were careful not to laugh in front of us. It was as if we had grown up too soon and we were bored with being children.
In addition, I felt that Bukowski's outlook on life, or at least the outlook he related through Chianski, is somewhat Vonnegut-esque. As Vonnegut stated, "We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different," Bukowski writes, "The whole earth was nothing but mouths and assholes swallowing and shitting, and fucking."It's all just a deconstruction of the wonderful beings we believe ourselves to be and a reminder that at the end of the day, we are all human, stinking, sweating, germy people just trying to make it through.

I ended up liking this book a lot, which was actually a bit of a surprise to me. I wasn't surprised in the way that I feel like I'm too good for the book and all this crudeness is just absurd (I actually rather intrigued by it). Instead, I was surprised in the sense that a novel that included such low morals and a lack of a plot could communicate such universal issues that felt so relevant to me. That is what surprised me. But I think we can all relate to coming-of-age stories, not matter how great or how little.

Though the novel isn't super short, it's actually a quick read. Highly recommended.

Publisher: Rebel, Inc, 1982


Another list

I know you all love lists as much as I do! I came across this one yesterday on the Divine Caroline; Thirty Books Everyone Should Read Before They're Thirty. She states " The thirty books listed here are of unparalleled prose, packed with wisdom capable of igniting a new understanding of the world. Everyone should read these books before their thirtieth birthday."

I've got four years left (err.. three and a half) to complete it! I've only crossed out seven so far.

1. Siddhartha by Hermann HesseA powerful story about the importance of life experiences as they relate to approaching an understanding of reality and attaining enlightenment.
2. 1984 by George Orwell1984 still holds chief significance nearly sixty years after it was written in 1949. It is widely acclaimed for its haunting vision of an all-knowing government, which uses pervasive, twenty-four/seven surveillance tactics to manipulate all citizens of the populace.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeThe story surveys the controversial issues of race and economic class in the 1930s Deep South via a court case of a black man charged with the rape and abuse of a young white girl. It’s a moving tale that delivers a profound message about fighting for justice and against prejudice.
4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A nightmarish vision of insane youth culture that depicts heart wrenching insight into the life of a disturbed adolescent. This novel will blow you away … leaving you breathless, livid, thrilled, and concerned.
5. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayA short, powerful contemplation on death, ideology and the incredible brutality of war.
6. War and Peace by Leo TolstoyThis masterpiece is so enormous even Tolstoy said it couldn’t be described as a standard novel. The storyline takes place in Russian society during the Napoleonic Era, following the characters of Andrei, Pierre and Natasha … and the tragic and unanticipated way in which their lives interconnect.
7. The Rights of Man by Tom PaineWritten during the era of the French Revolution, this book was one of the first to introduce the concept of human rights from the standpoint of democracy.
8. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
A famous quote from the book states that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” This accurately summarizes the book’s prime position on the importance of individual human rights within society.
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García MárquezThis novel does not have a plot in the conventional sense, but instead uses various narratives to portray a clear message about the general importance of remembering our cultural history.
10. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
Few books have had as significant an impact on the way society views the natural world and the genesis of humankind.
11. The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas MertonA collection of thoughts, meditations and reflections that give insight into what life is like to live simply and purely, dedicated to a greater power than ourselves.
12. The Tipping Point by Malcolm GladwellGladwell looks at how a small idea, or product concept, can spread like a virus and spark global sociological changes. Specifically, he analyzes “the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.”
13. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth GrahamArguably one of the best children’s books ever written; this short novel will help you appreciate the simple pleasures in life. It’s most notable for its playful mixture of mysticism, adventure, morality, and camaraderie.
14. The Art of War by Sun TzuOne of the oldest books on military strategy in the world. It’s easily the most successful written work on the mechanics of general strategy and business tactics.
15. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. TolkienOne of the greatest fictional stories ever told, and by far one of the most popular and influential written works in twentieth-century literature. Once you pick up the first book, you’ll read them all.
16. David Copperfield by Charles DickensThis is a tale that lingers on the topic of attaining and maintaining a disciplined heart as it relates to one’s emotional and moral life. Dickens states that we must learn to go against “the first mistaken impulse of the undisciplined heart.”
17. Four Quartets by T.S. EliotProbably the wisest poetic prose of modern times. It was written during World War II, and is still entirely relevant today … here’s an excerpt: “The dove descending breaks the air/With flame of incandescent terror/Of which the tongues declare/The only discharge from sin and error/The only hope, or the despair/Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–/To be redeemed from fire by fire./Who then devised this torment?/Love/Love is the unfamiliar Name/Behind the hands that wave/The intolerable shirt of flame/Which human power cannot remove./We only live, only suspire/Consumed by either fire or fire.”
18. Catch-22 by Joseph HellerThis book coined the self-titled term “catch-22” that is widely used in modern-day dialogue. As for the story, its message is clear: What’s commonly held to be good, may be bad … what is sensible, is nonsense. Its one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century. Read it.
19. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzgeraldSet in the Jazz Age of the roaring 20s, this book unravels a cautionary tale of the American dream. Specifically, the reader learns that a few good friends are far more important that a zillion acquaintances, and the drive created from the desire to have something is more valuable than actually having it.
20. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
This novel firmly stands as an icon for accurately representing the ups and downs of teen angst, defiance and rebellion. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of the unpredictable teenage mindset.
21. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A smooth-flowing, captivating novel of a young man living in poverty who criminally succumbs to the desire for money, and the hefty psychological impact this has on him and the people closest to him.
22. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
This book does a great job at describing situations of power and statesmanship. From political and corporate power struggles to attaining advancement, influence, and authority over others, Machiavelli’s observations apply.
23. Walden by Henry David ThoreauThoreau spent two years, two months and two days writing this book in a secluded cabin near the banks of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. This is a story about being truly free from the pressures of society. The book can speak for itself: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
24. The Republic by PlatoA gripping and enduring work of philosophy on how life should be lived, justice should be served, and leaders should lead. It also gives the reader a fundamental understanding of western political theory.
25. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
This is the kind of book that blows your mind wide open to conflicting feelings of life, love and corruption … and at times makes you deeply question your own perceptions of each. The story is as devious as it is beautiful.
26. Getting Things Done by David AllenThe quintessential guide to organizing your life and getting things done. Nuff said.
27. How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale CarnegieThis is the granddaddy of all self-improvement books. It is a comprehensive, easy to read guide for winning people over to your way of thinking in both business and personal relationships.
28. Lord of the Flies by William GoldingA powerful and alarming look at the possibilities for savagery in a lawless environment, where compassionate human reasoning is replaced by anarchistic, animal instinct.
29. The Grapes of Wrath by John SteinbeckSteinbeck’s deeply touching tale about the survival of displaced families desperately searching for work in a nation stuck by depression will never cease to be relevant.
30. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail BulgakovThis anticommunist masterpiece is a multifaceted novel about the clash between good and evil. It dives head first into the topics of greed, corruption and deception as they relate to human nature.
31. BONUS: How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman900 pages of simple instructions on how to cook everything you could ever dream of eating. Pretty much the greatest cookbook ever written. Get through a few recipes each week, and you’ll be a master chef by the time you’re thirty.
32. BONUS: Honeymoon with My Brother by Franz WisnerFranz Wisner had it all … a great job and a beautiful fiancée. Life was good. But then his fiancée dumped him days before their wedding, and his boss basically fired him. So he dragged his younger brother to Costa Rica for his already-scheduled honeymoon and they never turned back … around the world they went for two full years. This is a fun, heartfelt adventure story about life, relationships, and self-discovery.


Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

I'm in a bit behind in my reviews. I actually finished Bechdel's latest a few weeks ago but haven't written any thoughts until now. I attended the signing for this book with my sister at the beginning of May and had a really nice time. After leaving the signing I was so excited to read this book. I loved her first memoir, Fun Home, and assumed the follow-up would have to be just as good. But you know what they say about assuming...

I didn't dislike this book altogether, it was just really hard for me to get beyond Bechdel's over-the-top self-absorption. It permeated the whole book in a way that felt like I was listening to a stranger complain about their problems for two hours, which is never fun. It really took away from the story as a whole. Let me explain: Are You My Mother? is very meta, which is to say the majority of the book concerns Bechdel's self; the story as a whole is very internal, recursive, and interior. We spend the majority of the novel inside Alison's head (Alison the character) as she attempts to piece together her identity, her faults, and her weaknesses in terms of the relationship she has with her mother. We go to Alison's therapy sessions, and more of Alison's therapy sessions, in which she discusses her mother, her childhood, her failed relationships, and her own psychoanalysis. These therapy sessions are never ending. Page after page, complaint and complaint; I'm all for the coming of age, story of self-awakening, but at times this book felt exhausting. Did I mention the therapy sessions?

With that said, the book does offer a lot to digest. Much of the novel is preoccupied with the writings of child psychoanalysis Donald Winnicot, and Bechdel incorporates his ideas into her story in a way that feels relevant and even at times, interesting. There are many layers and endless metaphors that come together and keep it interesting. The relationship Alison has with her mother is one of the many strands of the book. Virginia Woolf makes an appearance as a character, and Alison uses Woolf to make connections between her own dairy, memoir writing, and fiction writing. She also examines the idea of the transitional object; who has whom between a mother and a child?

At Bechdel's reading she described the narrative of the book as an "emotion excavation." I'm happy she found a way to let it all out, but for me as a reader, I lost interest quickly. In the end, I would really recommend Fun Home and if you happen to stumble across Are You My Mother?, I'd say skip it. (And really, I am quite pained to say that, as I was so very excited about this book.)

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 2012


Authors I'm ashamed to admit I've never read

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is a rewind, which means we can chose any topic we like. I was inspired by Book Riot's open thread last week that asked you to name five authors you are ashamed to admit you haven't read (yet). Well, even more shameful, I've got ten.

1. Charles Dickens: I think a lot of people started with Dickens in school, probably with the assigned reading of Great Expectations. Well, I must have missed that class and somehow went until the age of 26 missing Dickens altogether. For shame.

2. Thomas Hardy: I feel like Hardy is a favorite among many readers. He published 18 novels, a plethora of short stories and works of poetry, and even a few plays. That's a lot to choose from, yet I haven't read one.

3. James Joyce: Joyce is one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century; he holds the number one spot of the MLA's best 100 novels with Ulysses, but I still haven't picked him up.

4. Evenlyn Waugh: Another favorite among book bloggers, I'm ashamed to admit I wasn't even aware he was a male until the last year or so.

5. David Foster Wallace: I must admit, Wallace's Infinite Jest is probably the book the intimidates me the most, of all the books, ever. I've avoided his work because I think it would be too challenging for me. However, I've had a copy of Consider the Lobster on my shelf, unread, for a good three years now. I really should pick it up.

6. Leo Tolstoy: That is just embarrassing.

7. Anita Bookner: Another favorite among book bloggers, she wrote a couple dozen books. Anyone know which is a good one with which to start?

8. Cormac McCarthy: I do have The Road sitting on my nightstand, so hopefully I can cross him off this list this year.

9. Barbara Kingsolver: When I was 12 or so I remember all of my teachers and friends' moms were reading The Poisonwood Bible. I tried to read it then and only got a few pages in when I realized it was way over my head. I've always wanted to read it as an adult but haven't yet gotten there; La Lacuna and The Bean Trees also sound good.

10. Muriel Spark: I really have been meaning to get something of hers because her novels sound so fun and unique, especially The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.


Alias Grace: Read-Along, Part 2

My apologies for not getting this post up on time. I've been crazy busy with a new job and a bunch of late-May birthday activities (my mother, Ryan, and Ryan's mother - have I mentioned both of our mother's names are Annette? Spooky.) that I was able to finish the book on time, but didn't have a chance to post my final thoughts. Better late than never, right?

Warning: final thoughts contain spoilers.

Anyhow, back to Alias Grace. Man, is this book a mind-f*ck, and I'm saying that in the best possible way. The novel follows Grace Marks, a 16-year-old Canadian servant girl who is convicted of the murder of her employer and his mistress. It takes place in the mid 1800's and lays out Grace's past and the controversy surrounding her trail; many believed her to be innocent while others vehemently encouraged her incarceration. Grace herself claims to have no memory of the night these murders took place. The story is told in a double narrative with chapters alternating from Grace's story, to the point of view of Dr. Simon Jordon, the doctor who is interviewing her in hopes of bringing her memories of the crime to the surface. The story itself is a patchwork, combining a variety of actual interview snipits and Atwood's own take on the story. The murders themselves were sensationalized to the point that Grace Marks became one of the most well-known criminals in 19th century Canada. We aren't ever given a definitive answer as to what truly happened, but rather allowed to decide for ourselves as Atwood outlines the details, both fictional and factual, for us.

One reoccurring theme that struck me from the beginning of the novel and remained prominent throughout was the idea that nothing is what it seems. I found this theme especially prominent when Grace described her dreams, or we were taken into a dream sequence of hers. Things she saw or touched quickly transformed into something artificial. Grace describes a detailed dream in the second half of the novel, to which she ends with this:
But as my sight cleared, I saw that they were not birds at all. They had a human form, and they were the angels whose white robes were washed in blood, as it says at the end of the Bible; and they were sitting in silent judgment upon Mr. Kinnear's house, and on all within it. And then I saw that they had no heads.
Many of my favorite novels are those that don't outwardly explain what exactly happens, but instead let the reader decide. With that said, I felt that I had a hard time fully getting into this novel, as the narration was very distanced and the tone quite bitter. I can see why many readers mark this novel for a reread; there are so many details to digest and so many pieces to the novel, some that fit and others that don't. I think I could extract a lot more from this novel through a reread.

In addition, the story as a whole was more subtle than I expected. There was a great deal that told about Grace's everyday life as a servant and the lead up to the murders themselves comprised two-thirds of the book. Considering the novel dealt with topics of murder, possession, and infidelity, as a whole it felt rather subdued. I'm not saying this was a bad thing per se, just very unexpected.

There was a part of me that wanted the events to feel more heated, more immediate. Because there was so much sensationalism surrounding the actual murder, I thought Atwood might employ that energy and feeling into the novel itself. Instead, as I mentioned above, there was a lot of focus on the day-to-day of Grace's chores and her servant life. While I did enjoy those bits, I felt like I was waiting for something more. When I finally did get into it, I was intrigued, but also somewhat let down. I wish there would have been more excitement leading up to the climax, or at least more of a focus on Grace's possession. Without it, I felt that the book could have been more condensed. However, with that said, the quiet craziness is the theme that Atwood does well. I've come to expect a lack of definition in her denouements and a plethora of complications in her straightforwardness.

All in all, this isn't my favorite Atwood (Cat's Eye still holds that spot) but I did enjoy the reading experience, nonetheless. Atwood did a fantastic job capturing the feeling of the period, and I'd like to see her write more historically based fiction. I'm also so happy I participated in the read-along, as this book was a fantastic choice for discussion among other bloggers.

Publisher: Bloomsbury, 1996