Monday, January 26, 2015

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

Back at the turn of the century, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich spent some time working low wage jobs as part of an experiment to find out, first hand, how people living in poverty make do. She chose three different cities (Key West, FL, Portland, ME, and Minneapolis, MN), where she attempted to work and live for a month. Then she wrote about her experiences in this book.

I'm not sure I would have picked up Nickel and Dimed if it hadn't been chosen for my book club. I was a little hesitant going into it. Though this book was written 15 years ago, the premise of it has become something of an insulting fad. People regularly engage in these experiments, wearing hijabs or turbans to the mall, dying their skin a different color, or attempting to feed themselves on $2 or $3 a day in order to see for themselves how the other people live. But built into this experiment is an inherent distrust of that other. Why not just ask people who live these experiences every day and then believe them when they tell you how awful it can be?

I went into this book on the lookout for flaws in Ehrenreich's experimental design, looking for moments when her privilege shone through. And there were quite a few of these moments. She kept her already paid-for car and was able to work two jobs because of that. She has a history of good nutrition, health care and gym memberships, which made her far more physically fit than most of the people around her, even though she was in her late fifties at the time of this experiment. When things get really bad, she's able to simply walk out and return to her "real" life. For all this, she actually does a really good job of recognizing and pointing out her privilege. As she points out in the introduction, as bad as things sometimes get for her, she is living a best-case scenario.

Ehrenreich also does a good job of sharing the experiences of the people around her. She shows how easily people can get stuck in this life, how no amount of hard work is a guarantee for upward mobility. And for all her privilege, her standards erode quite sharply as she attempts to find shelter and feed herself on $7 an hour.

When this book was written, $7 an hour was considered a living wage. Minimum wage was still between $5 and $6. But even then, Ehrenreich had trouble finding a reasonable, affordable living situation. In Minneapolis she must settle for a decrepit motel room with neither refrigerator nor microwave and subsists almost entirely on fast food. Even then she can barely afford her lifestyle, thanks to sky-rocketing rents. And this was back when America was still fairly prosperous, before the housing bubble popped, before the dot-com bust even. Things have only gotten worse since then. And it's only recently that the minimum wage has started to increase again. Though it's still not kept up with a real living wage (which is mostly estimated to be about $15/hour at this point)

This book was actually quite harrowing. Knowing how much worse the situation has gotten only makes it moreso. And after reading about Ehrenreich's experience cleaning houses with a maid service, I have a strong desire to fire the maid service I'm currently using and just clean the house myself. I'm no longer confident that they actually clean my house, instead of just making it look clean. Through no fault of their own, of course, there's just no way to actually clean my house in the hour they're allotted, and they have to cut a lot of corners to stay on schedule. Suffice to say that after finishing this book, I went and cleaned my entire kitchen before I could even think of cooking in it again. And I'm going to be digging my heels in even more about tipping at least 20% every time I go to a restaurant.

You should definitely read this book, as outdated and occasionally flawed as it is. At roughly 200 pages it goes by really quickly. And you won't be able to look at the world the same way after you finish it. Or even after you finish the first section.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: The Year of the Flood

Remember when I said I wouldn't have time for much reading in January? Yeah, I'm laughing at past-me, too. I'd forgotten to factor in my complete lack of social life this month. I purposely don't make plans with anyone, as a way of recovering fully from the holidays. Add in the lack of alcohol (Kevin and I don't drink between New Year's Day and his birthday, also to recover from the holidays) and I end up spending many a weekend night reading into the wee hours.

It also helps that Atwood's The Year of the Flood, like Oryx and Crake before it, is a really quick read. There's a lot here, but something about the format makes this book just whiz by. It's broken up into small sections that alternate between characters and timelines. Each section is only a few pages long, so it's easy to squeeze in "just one more" throughout the day. Oryx and Crake followed a similar pattern, and I hope in continues through the finale. It will make it that much easier to re-read this trilogy. And I'll need to re-read it.

The Year of the Flood takes place at the same time as the first book, but focuses on a different group of characters. There is some overlap, though, which means that the two books function as an almost perfect diptych. Jimmy comes across as both more callous and more pitiful as we learn the stories of a few of the women he slept with. Their perspective adds so much to the world, and it makes nearly everyone more sympathetic. I'm so glad this book gave me characters I could really care about and root for. It really enhances what was already a pretty spectacular world.

Now that I've read this, MaddAddam has shot up my to-read list. I'll definitely pick it up the next time I'm in a bookstore. And then I'll have to go back through and catch everything I missed the first time.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: The Book of Lost Things

Once upon a time there was a young boy who lost his mother and in turn became lost himself in the books they both loved. His father remarried too soon, as far as the boy was concerned. Before he had time to properly mourn he was moved to a new house with a new stepmother and half brother, both of whom he resented and despised. He turned more and more to the stories in his books until, one day, he fell right in and found himself in a story.

The Book of Lost Things is an incredibly dark book. There's death and war, loss and betrayal. A lot of the deaths are horrifyingly brutal, in their fairy tale way. Some are, perhaps, more brutal than the crime warrants, while others seem a tad more just. All the same, I was constantly surprised at how dark and twisted the story became. I wonder if the fairy tales I loved as a child were half so dark, if I would have even noticed. Some things that seem deserved when the world is black and white become a lot more gruesome when you're aware of the shades of grey.

I liked the way Connolly wove a variety of fairy tales together. They were twisted, but still recognizable, and they feed on nightmares. Although, strangely enough, I was far more interested in David's life back home. The wolves and enchantresses and beast were fascinating but also, as these stories often are, predictable. I was far more drawn to the world of a boy dealing with a new family at the outbreak of WWII. But that eventually threads itself back in, at least emotionally, and everything comes together quite nicely.

Overall I enjoyed this book. It was a pretty quick read (if you ignore the 100+ page appendix), and an interesting take on this genre, I also liked that the ending wasn't wholly happy. Life happens and it's just life. Not all good or all bad, but worth it all the same.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Book Review: The Great Hunt

Like the first book in The Wheel of Time series, The Great Hunt took a little while to get going. Action happened more quickly, but it still felt like everyone was hanging around until Jordan managed to get all his pieces in place. And then it was off and running.

Once the plot really kicked in, the book became pretty thrilling. There's a lot going on in this series. It's not just that there are tons of characters (I looked it up and there are 147 pov characters over the course of the series) with their own subplots. The story really does encompass a whole world.

The bulk of the book follows Rand, Mat and Perrin, as them attempt to recover the Horn of Valere which gets stolen in the early going. Rand does recover it, then it gets stolen again. Meanwhile Egwene and Nynaeve begin their Aes Sedai training, where they meet and befriend Elayne and Min. On top of that, there are two nations at war by the end of the book, and a couple that seem on the brink of it. This story is epic in a way you rarely see, bringing in side characters to keep smaller plots alive around the main thrust of action.

All the shifting story-lines went a long way to keeping me engaged in the story. I kept reading, hoping to push ahead to when another character re-entered. While the characters split up, their stories still remain entwined. They always manage to come back together again, too, if only briefly. It reminded me of one of my biggest frustrations with Game of Thrones, which is that once the characters separate they stay separated. Even when, for example, Jon and Bran end up in the same battle, neither knows the other was there. Jordan has the good sense to let his characters come back together and check in with each other. To shift the groups around and explore dynamics. It keeps the relationships alive and interesting. It also helps keep all the different threads of the story connected.

I was also impressed by how off-balance I felt by this story. I found myself wondering about the trustworthiness about many of the characters. And while my instincts were proven right about some, others remain a mystery. Some of the ones I trust completely now seem like they're targets for corruption later on, Nynaeve specifically and possibly Mat, too.

All in all, this series is really taking me by surprise. I suppose it shouldn't be. It's a beloved classic for a reason, and I know the quality dips some in the middle. But for now I'm really enjoying the ride. More than I expected to. And I just want more from all of the characters. Good thing there are 12 books left. I'm going to have all the more I can handle.

Friday, January 16, 2015

2015 Goals

Two years ago I found myself in a position of instability and purgatory when the new year rolled around. I was waiting to hear about a new job, and the uncertainty had me off balance. Even though the change was completely for the best, it took a bit of getting used to.

Last year, I was planning my wedding and honeymoon. Scheduling meetings and making decisions was taking up all of my free time.

This year, I'm in a really stable place. Everything is going well, and I'm where I want to be right now. Which means that I'm finding myself with all this extra energy. So I'm spending a lot of time thinking about things I want to do this year. I already posted about my reading resolutions. These are the other goals that have been bouncing around in my head.
  • Plant some herbs. I'd love to have fresh basil and mint and maybe thyme available in my kitchen. And I think I can handle a small, indoor herb garden.
  • Plant some tomatoes. Tomatoes are supposed to be easy, and it'd be great to have some nice, fresh ones available to eat. Especially since I just found an easy marinara sauce recipe.
  • Learn to make jambalaya. Last year I conquered risotto and the year before that it was soup. This year: jambalaya. (My first attempt was a little too soupy. Next time will be better.)
  • Bake some bread. We've got this lovely stand mixer that I never, ever use. I want to use it more. Bread could be fun, right?
  • Make pasta from scratch. See above, re: stand mixer. With pasta making attachment
  • Cook more new things in general. I already moved the cookbooks out of the cupboard to help with this. If I see them everyday, I'll be more likely to actually use them.
  • Learn to knit? I mean, probably not. But also it could be fun. And something to do while I'm watching TV
  • Start building up a home gym. I want to start small: a foam roller, a mat, a set of dumbbells. Eventually I'd like to be able to cancel my gym subscription. I just need to get in the habit of working out at home first.
  • Lose some weight. It's such a cliche. For real this year, though
  • Bike to work at least once. I'm doing decently on the exercise bike, and my office really isn't too far away. I'm planning to buy a bike in March or April and get out more. Especially if this summer is as gorgeous as last summer was. (I hope I didn't just jinx it.)
  • Reorganize the library/living room. I want to get a couple more bookcases for the living room and start moving some books down there. Because my library is actually overflowing.
  • Pay off my student loans. This is definitely happening this year. It's barely even a goal. Still you have to put down something that's guaranteed. It makes the rest of the list easier.
I think I can get started with one or two of these this weekend. As for the rest, we'll see how the year goes. Hopefully I can maintain this productive "I want to do new things" energy for a while.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Book Review: Pyramids

I have very little memory of reading Pyramids the first time around. I assumed this meant it was just meh. Now that I've re-read it, I'm chalking up that reaction to all the other stuff that was going on in my life at the time. When I opened Pyramids, an old plane ticket fell out. Checking the date, I realized it was from the first time I flew to DC to visit Kevin. Amongst all the uncertainty in my life at that point (job, relationship, life in general), it's no wonder this book didn't make a huge impression on me.

I'm glad I revisited it, because I ended up liking it a lot this time through. I still think it gets somewhat overshadowed by some of the later books in the series (it's neither as good as Guards! Guards! nor as bad as Eric, the next two books), but it stands on it's own pretty well. Especially for a book that actually stands alone. With the exception of Death, I don't think any of the characters in this book ever make an appearance again. And Death is in all of them.

Pyramids is a great look at organized religion and the way it can be twisted around by the people in power so that they stay in power. It's less about faith than the corruption of priests. And the shortcomings of sticking to tradition simply because of tradition. Change is inevitable and when you resist it as strongly as the central kingdom in this book the world just passes you right on by.

There are also, as mentioned, a ton of math puns. There's a camel who is the greatest mathematician in the world. One of the great truisms in the book is that humans tend to be hampered in math at the higher levels by the fact that we have ten fingers. It's hard to break out and understand different systems (I had trouble with 4D geometry and relativity for a similar reason). There's also a lot of play with space-time, creating some really fun time paradoxes that are handled beautifully.

Overall this book was way better than I remembered. Pratchett is hitting his stride, and I'm a little surprised to see him hitting it so early in the series. Of course, it's only in a series with 40+ books that book 7 is still considered early.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: Watership Down

For years the only thing I knew about Watership Down was that it had rabbits. I'd seen it referred to here and there as "the rabbit book", but I never heard any more details. This, coupled with the fact that most people seemed to really enjoy it convinced me that I should eventually read it.

I went into it expecting a children's book. And while the plot is pretty straight-forward and the language at a basic level, this book was way longer than I was expecting from something written for a younger audience. I'm a little surprised it wasn't, or hasn't been, broken up into several installments.

Watership Down follows a group of rabbits on their search for a new home after their old one is destroyed to make way for some sort of development. They have adventures along the way and actually end up finding a likely spot much more quickly than I expected. But then they run into other problems. Mainly that they'll never really survive if they don't get some female rabbits to come join them (the lack of females seriously bugged me for a good long while before it was finally addressed).

So then they're off to find other rabbits and ask them to come live with them. They discover a dystopian rabbit warren where overcrowding is a serious problem, but the jealous leader refuses to let anyone leave. So there's a daring escape and a thrilling pursuit, and really the book gets a lot more exciting and interesting in the back half when there's an actual villain to thwart.

I'm not sure I love this book as much as others, but I think that's mostly because I came to it later in life. When the bunnies aren't going to win me over just by being bunnies and some of the flaws are a bit more apparent and jarring. Still it was a fun adventure. The author has a habit of going off on descriptive tangents, which I found either beautiful and poignant or annoying and long depending on what else was happening in the story at that point. There's some great stuff here, and it's definitely worth reading or giving to your favorite 11-year-old.