Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eye Candy

Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
$9.75 at Amazon.com ISBN: 0805063897
Barbara Ehrenreich is an investigative journalist with a master's degree and a good paying job. After American welfare reform, which promised a living wage at any job, she decided to masquerade as a low skill worker to see how someone can survive making roughly seven dollars an hour. Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty level wages. Ehrenreich decided to join them, taking several low-paying jobs in three states and then wrote this book about the experience. It put me deeply in touch with all the cashiers, maids, and cleaning professionals in the country, and her story moved quickly and was interesting enough so that the book was never dull.
Her first job was as a waitress in a truck-stop type establishment. She also worked as a maid for a cleaning service, at a nursing home as a food server, and even as a cashier and stock clerk at a Wal-Mart, America's largest poverty-level employer. She took the cheapest apartments available, applied for public assistance programs as they were available, and after spending three months at each location, usually found herself flat broke and destitute. If she'd had a medical problem or other serious, major expense, she probably would've found herself living on the street. The work was back-breaking, and her employers almost always unsympathetic.
What I found most interesting were her experiences with her co-workers. There's a stereotype here in the U.S. that the poor are lazy, stupid, and generally deserve to live as they do through bad choices. Ehrenreich reports that the contrary is true: virtually everyone she met in the lower-class set worked very hard for long hours, and didn't deserve to suffer as they did. There are several heartbreaking scenes: as a black woman eats a bag of store-brand hot dog rolls for lunch, and another young woman suppresses painful medical problems because she can't afford health care, or even to miss a day of work!
It was a good story, at all times interesting and fast-paced, and not too long (221 pages). There are a lot of important issues brought to light here: equality and justice in a democratic society, and the idea that anyone can make it if they're willing to work hard. See for yourself. You'll never look at your cashier the same way again!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Eye Candy

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir
$10.20 at Bn.com ISBN: 0802136834
Early in his reign, Henry was given awards by the pope as defender of the Catholic Church. By the end, he left the church fragmented forever. This fun book, however, barely concerns Henry at all. Instead it focuses on the women in his life, who married him often to their detriment. It offers a refreshing look at women in the high Middle Ages, so that it's not all international politics. Their personalities all come through loud and clear. My mom and I read this one together: she's into historical romance novels so this was a good choice for both of us, with lots to discuss.
Catherine of Aragon is the wife who started it all. After years of marriage she had not conceived a son, and Henry fell in love with the girl who would become his second wife, Anne Boelyn. Eager to divorce Catherine, Henry needed permission from the Pope. His holiness was somewhat reluctant, since Catherine's cousin was the emperor of Germany, so Henry tried to find another way, which he did by forming the Church of England. Catherine dedicates her life to restoring her throne and honor.
In later years, Henry becomes more ego maniacal. Two of his six wives are beheaded for alleged "infidelity and treason". One dies giving birth, one survives him and my favorite, Anne of Cleeves, willingly gives Henry the divorce he desires. She gets the medieval version of alimony, gets to keep her head and live in relative freedom and opulence in exchange for her cooperation. Who could blame her? In short, the book features the full range of female stereotypes, and the male lead who starts as Prince Charming and ends as a bloated monster.
As sexy and violent as any soap opera, the story of the Tudor family is now being made into a mini-series on HBO. Read about them now and impress your friends with your knowledge when the show comes out. Weir is a terrific story teller, and keeps the dry, scholarly element of history at bay to produce a work that reads like a novel.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Eye Candy

Bust

Bust: How I Gambled and Lost a Fortune, Brought Down a Bank--and Lived to Pay for It, by Adam Resnick
$18.96 at Amazon.com ISBN: 0061341363
Adam Resnick is probably the most serious gambling addict in history. No exaggeration. This is his autobiography. I have to admit a lot of mixed feelings about this book and it's author. He wrote illegal checks for over $200 million dollars to fuel his gambling binges. It all came to a head when he had 24 hours to deposit three million dollars in an account or the bank he worked for would collapse. He raced to a nearby Indian casino where at won point he'd won over eight million, but eventually lost everything, causing bank failure and personal financial ruin and disgrace.
So why read such a terrible guy's story? Well, there are a few possible reasons. For one thing, there's so much excitement that my heart started pounding during the first chapter. For another, it's possible that Resnick's not really such a bad guy as you'd think. His disinterested parents struggled with debt their whole themselves, often dodging calls and lying to one another. It was in this unstable environment that he began his lifelong dedication to gambling, betting on sports with friends and teachers, even starting a betting pool revolving around his school's Campbell Soup label fund raiser. By the time he was in college he was cheating in virtually every area of life: stealing, writing bad checks, at one point he was thrown in the trunk of a car and threatened by an angry bookie.
Resnick is a successful businessman during all this. He operates a company that sells medical supplies, but the money is never in the bank for long, always paying a long overdue credit card bill, or else poured onto the casino gaming tables. Lying to his wife, he tells her he goes to work when in fact he's at the dog track trying to win back their next mortgage payment.
So why read Bust? As a cautionary example of just how bad things can get. As a warning against the evils of gambling and living in debt. He always has several credit cards with high balances. The stress even causes him to be hospitalized. This is why I started to feel bad for the guy. He does wrong, no one will deny, but he pays for it dearly. Plus you have to admire the courage to come clean about it all. A life of thrilling highs, terrifying lows, and finally repentance. It made me angry at times, but I'm glad I read it.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Eye Candy

Honeymoon With My Brother

Honeymoon with My Brother: A Memoir, by Franz Wisner
$10.36 at Amazon.com ISBN: 0312340842
A true story, a travel memoir, in fact. Here's the set-up: the author was left at the altar by his fiance Annie. Since the honeymoon was already paid for, a deluxe vacation in Costa Rica, he decided to go with his brother. Because of an age difference and separate interests during their youth, the two men actually hardly knew each other. Traveling together gave the opportunity to do some belated brotherly bonding, and the guys actually enjoyed traveling together so much that they decided to make it into a regular thing. When the opportune time and extra money present themselves, they take a long, slow trip around the world.
After the initial set-up, the trip to Costa Rica, and a lot of (in my opinion) unnecessary hand-wringing about the departed Annie which drags on longer than it should, the boys are off on the first of several trips that make up the rest of the book. First they travel through Eastern Europe, beginning in Croatia then driving in a criss-cross that takes them from as far north as Sweden to as far south as Syria. Franz has a lot of European connections, and has been in many of these places before. He'd been in Russia while it was the USSR and his return to Moscow was especially interesting.
The second trip, Southeast Asia, involved backpacking across Vietnam and a trip to Komodo to see the famous dragons. It concludes with my favorite, Africa, said to be a graduate degree for travel. Evenings spent sitting out on the savanna watching the lions feed, having a drink and chatting up your bro sounds like an awesome summer to me.
In spite of its slow start-up, this book is worth the effort. Skim over the first two chapters, once her gets the check for $70,000 it starts to get interesting. If you're close to a brother or other male relative, and have always wanted to see the world, why not read this book together?