Monday, June 30, 2014

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. - Adelle Waldman (2013)

I was on a doc review project in the Willis Tower for about six weeks in May and June of 2014. Now we are always told by doc review agencies never to browse the web while we are working. I find it hard to believe that anyone actually follows this rule. On a previous project I was paid $16.50 an hour, and for that, I felt it was my duty to browse as often as possible. This recent one paid a fair rate of $25.00 (some still believe that fair is $30) so I was more wary of that rule. I indulged in reading a fair number of book reviews, among other things (but this post isn't a special comment about the vaguely disregarded notion of web browsing at work), and found the book reviews done by Entertainment Weekly to be fun, because they give everything a grade. The reviews themselves cannot hold a candle to what I do here (they are too short and limited in scope) but they seem to have a unified concept of what makes for good literature. (The only “A+” review I saw was for Building Stories by Chris Ware, and truly that looks like an A+ “book.”) 

Naturally, I wanted to see if I had "gotten in right” with The Circle. They gave it a B+, which is about what I would give it, and they said it was “about fifty pages too long,” which I basically implied. Intriguingly, they gave The Goldfinch a B-, which heartened me some, though now I feel obligated to read it. I kept looking through 2013 reviews, vaguely hoping that I would find the book I was currently reading. And there it was! Apparently The Love of Affairs of Nathaniel P. was a big enough deal at the time of publication that EW ran a review of it. Almost a year ago, they gave it a B-. Strangely, they seem to indicate that it’s pretty well-written, but there’s nothing revelatory about it. While I agree to a certain extent, I would have to say it is better than a B-. I would give it a B+. I would say it is not quite as good as Taipei, but was a good “companion piece” to it, as my review of that book led to this recommendation.

Before I get into the plot (which is super easy to tell), I considered this book something of a challenge. I have had a problem in finding female writers that I enjoy. Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorites, but there just haven’t been many others that have moved me. I can’t pin this down because I don’t want to sound like a misogynist, but I’m afraid it’s inevitable. The challenge for me was to read this book and see if I called “bullshit” on it with regard to the depiction of how men view relationships. I could not do that. This book is better than that. I am sure that there is plenty of “chick-lit” that could get me really pissed off, but this book did not make me throw it down in anger and shout, “You’re wrong about us!”

Nathaniel P., always referred to as Nate, is a writer in Brooklyn who has just gotten an advance for his first book, which is loosely based on his parents’ experience of living as immigrants in the U.S. We first see him run into an ex-girlfriend, Juliet, on the street. She had needed to get an abortion and Nate paid for it. He never really talked to her again after he paid for it, and she is clearly upset over this. He then goes to a party at the home of another ex-girlfriend, Elisa. There he meets Hannah, whom he will eventually date. Their relationship comprises the bulk of the novel’s 242 pages. Along the way, Nate circles back to reflect on growing up, and the girls he liked in high school and college. He eventually gets “serious” with Kristen in college, and lives with her for three years. However that ends because they began “drifting apart” while she went to med school. Eventually, he moves to New York and somehow makes a living as a writer. This is the first and only part that I call “bullshit” on. Ostensibly Nate works a temp job that becomes full-time, indefinitely termed, to pay the rent before any income from his writing emerges. Honestly I do not believe this is realistic. Or rather, while I do think that type of job could cover a person’s costs in NYC, the next paragraph is what I find unrealistic:

“Looking back, he was proud that he’d ‘persevered,’ by which he meant that he hadn't gone to law school. He’d moved to a cheaper apartment, which allowed him to quit the private equity job in favor of shorter bouts of temp work and freelance proofreading for a law firm. He worked on fiction and pitched articles and book reviews, getting assignments here and there. His critical voice improved. He began to get more assignments. Toward the end of his twenties, it became evident that he’d managed to cobble together an actual career as a freelance writer. The achievement was capped off when a major online magazine offered him a position as its regular book reviewer.” (34)

Now, I am sure some people can make it work as a freelancer, but can they afford an apartment they do not share? I doubt it. Hannah is also a freelancer and similarly lives alone in a pretty nice area in Brooklyn (Prospect Heights?). I never tried to be a freelancer and maybe I regret it after reading this book? I didn’t persevere. Aside from my nit-picky demand for “economic reality,” I can’t complain about much else. This book is very well-written, and it’s just subtle enough to appear true-to-life. I remember one particular observation about intellectual tastes at Harvard that seemed so obscure that it had to be true:

 “Growing up, Nate discussed current events at the dinner table; as a family, they watched 60 Minutes and Jeopardy! Apparently, though, some parents read the New York Review of Books and drank martinis. In time, Nate would learn to make finer distinctions between the homes of his most sophisticated classmates—the old-school WASPs versus the academic intellectuals (Jew or gentile)—but in the first weeks of college it seemed to him that all of them, from the children of well-known leftist firebrands to the spawn of union-busting industrial titans, spoke the same language. It seemed that way because they did. (Many of them had gone to the same prep schools.) When it came right down to it, these groups were like the Capulets and the Montagues. Whatever their differences, they were both wealthy Veronese families. Nate’s family was from Romania.” (24)

Maybe that wasn’t the exact quote I was looking for, but it’s close enough and illustrates the point: Waldman is very articulate when it comes to the characteristics of the people she writes about, skirting a fine line between stereotype and fully-realized human being. That is to say, these characters are not stereotypes, and though sometimes they come very close to looking like one, Waldman is effectively writing about a stereotypical cadre of artists in Brooklyn. Nate himself is certainly given a thorough psychological profile. Most of the time it seems like he is the type of guy that most girls would call an “asshole,” but he doesn't come across as a bad guy in the typical sense of boyfriend-material. He is just passive aggressive and doesn't always say what’s on his mind, and Hannah notices this, and calls him out on it. Some of these scenes are great in their intensity—but on the other hand, the actual “incidents” that lead to a fight are petty. This is really where the novel hits hardest. Dating is all about trying to find “the one” that you can share the rest of your life with, and the process of figuring out what you want out of life. Hannah knows this, and she teaches Nate to understand that.

The other characters are a lot more interesting than Nate or Hannah. Nate and Hannah are both perfectly likable but almost stock characters. Aurit, to name the most obvious example, is probably the most interesting character in the book, with Jason taking second. Apparently Waldman wrote an “addendum short story” to this novel that is written from the perspective of Aurit. She is Nate’s closest female friend—pretty much a hardcore feminist, but again, not in the stereotypical sense—and he places much of his intellectual faith in her. Jason is like the character the reader may imagine Nate to be after looking at the cover of the book and reading the jacket description. Okay, maybe both Nate and Jason are assholes, but I think it’s clear that Jason is the more offensive of the two—and again, not stereotypically. Some of his philosophical pronouncements are insane, but I find value in at least some of them:

“Nate pressed his palms against the tabletop.
‘You aren’t arguing that the problem is that we don’t really have one—but that meritocracy itself is bad?’ Jason nodded enthusiastically. ‘Fairness in a meritocracy is just homage to exceptional talent. For the unexceptional—by definition, the bulk of people—meritocracy is a crueler system than what it replaced.’ ‘Than slavery? Feudalism?’
‘For every Jude the Obscure,’ Jason continued over him, ‘prevented by a hereditary class system from going to Oxford, there are a thousand other stonemasons who lack Jude’s intelligence. Meritocracy is great for guys like Jude, who had talent. For the others, it’s bad news.’
‘Wait,’ Nate said. ‘How are the other masons injured if Jude gets to go to Oxford? Is this like how straight marriage is injured by allowing gay marriage? Because I don’t get that either.’
‘They’re exposed as lacking. Duh.’ Jason shook his head. ‘If everyone remains in the station he’s born to, there’s no shame in it, but if it’s in one’s power to rise, the failure to do so becomes a personal failure.’” (213)

One other criticism I wanted to make, and this one will probably be insane, but I have to say it: the novel lacks any sort of struggle with sexuality. Clearly a person like Nate, who knows he is straight and who has slept with his fair number of women but has trouble building lasting relationships with them, would at least wonder if he might be gay or bi. This would have made the novel a lot more interesting, but unfortunately it is unpalatable for people to believe that people are not just born gay or straight. It wouldn't even need to be a whole chapter in the novel—a few paragraphs would do. To be a complete and true psychological profile, at least a cursory reference to this issue should be made.

While we are on the topic of other things this book should have done, it also appears unrealistic in that Nate does not really even consider online dating. At one point there is a brief narrative involving girls he met when he first moved to New York, that he would meet in public places (like subway trains). However he decides that the easiest way to meet them is through publishing parties. Maybe there are lots of attractive single women in the publishing industry, but I don’t think so. The “reality” of my experience has shown that once you hit your thirties, it is really hard to meet someone that isn't damaged goods or way younger. I think with guys it is different, but I know very few girls my age that are not yet engaged or married or living with their significant other, their careers in a good place and a plan for a bouncing baby a few years down the line already in place. Of course, such a cynical book might become tiresome, and while I do believe that great literature should reflect "reality," any book that is almost exclusively about “the dating scene” (as this one is) should probably be a little bit romantic, if only to give the inevitable lonely reader hope that they will not be doomed to a loveless existence. I've kind of gone on a tangent here, but what I mean is, Nate doesn't seem like the most outgoing guy in the world, and would ostensibly at least dabble, or go on one date with a girl he met online. But to return to the tangent, there are at least signs that Waldman acknowledges “reality” as I know it:

“When he was twenty-five, everywhere he turned he saw a woman who already had, or else didn’t want, a boyfriend. Some were taking breaks from men to give women or celibacy a try. Others were busy applying to grad school, or planning yearlong trips to Indian ashrams, or touring the country with their all-girl rock bands. The ones who had boyfriends were careless about the relationships and seemed to cheat frequently (which occasionally worked in his favor). But in his thirties everything was different. The world seemed populated, to an alarming degree, by women whose careers, whether soaring or sputtering along, no longer preoccupied them. No matter what they claimed, they seemed, in practice, to care about little except relationships.” (40-41)

One of the blurbs on the back of the book compares this book to High Fidelity, and I have to agree that they are quite similar. However, High Fidelity is also about music and I found it to be a much better book overall. Maybe my opinion of that book is colored by my feelings on the film, which I think is one of the most successful adaptations I’ve seen (I saw the movie first—didn’t like it that much when I was 17—liked it much better after reading the book). So I can’t give this book an “A.” Still, for a first novel, it is quite good. The writing is sharp, and a lot of readers will be able to identify with the depictions of the psychological warfare that longer-term relationships almost always engender. Minor quibbles to the side, I would recommend this book and thank the anonymous reader that suggested it to me. I do think a better book on the subject could be written, but it would also be difficult to craft something as satisfying.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at the Printer's Row Lit Fest yesterday (June 7, 2014) but I could not get a ticket.  So instead I went to the God, Sex and Death Variety Hour, which included a reading by Tim Kinsella, who has just published his second book.  I have just put a hold on his first book from the library, so I will review it soon, and I tried to talk to Tim Kinsella afterwards and he said he didn't really like to read reviews, so I didn't need to let him know when I published my review.  Of course, part of me wanted to see Ehrenreich and ask a pointless question during the Q & A (presuming there was one) and film it with my camera and post it here.  Because it is quite ironic that I could have seen her while I had been putting off reviewing Nickel and Dimed for about a week--this gave me a purpose!  But it was not to be.  Such as it is with this review.  It could have been great--with multimedia and almost real-time updating, on an extremely pertinent issue--but I didn't doggedly pursue a spot at the reading, when I probably could have gotten in if I really tried.  No, I wanted to see Tim Kinsella (and actually all of the performers at the GSDVH were wonderful), and since they were both at the same time, I easily deferred to my back up plan.

My first exposure to Nickel and Dimed came in a law school clinic, the Consumer Counseling and Bankruptcy clinic.  We had to work an internship at a placement (which was easy because they basically found the job for you) and go to a seminar once a week.  We had some readings to discuss at the seminars, and our professor had given us a couple chapters photocopied out of Nickel and Dimed.  She briefly mentioned it in going through the syllabus and I looked forward to it as more enjoyable reading material than one usually encounters there.  I am pretty sure we read the final chapter, "Evaluation," and maybe one other chapter that I can't remember.

I wanted to take this book out of the library because I've been obsessed with keeping track of my monthly expenses--particularly when I was doing my post-graduate fellowship at the CTA.  That paid a stipend of $1000 a month.  I would only be disbursed $1000 after four weeks as the school only authorized 20 hours per week.  This worked out to a wage of $12.50 an hour.  I was obsessed with figuring out if I could live on $460 a month, because that was what was left over after paying the rent.  I am sure a lot of people would say they could live on that amount without a problem, but I wasn't sure.  I usually spend about $300 a month on food ($301.46, in December 2013).  I had a bad cell phone deal and was paying $63.86 a month for that.  It was another $64.57 for utilities, which leaves about $40 for everything else (and this isn't even mentioning alcohol).  Commuting alone - $45.00 for ten days of round trips to CTA Headquarters - put me in the hole.  Of course, that they did not give me free riding privileges, like they did for all the other law school externs, stung.

If I had been working 40 hours per week, there wouldn't have been a problem in covering those costs.  But people tell me I should consider myself lucky--I am not working at Wal-Mart or a fast food restaurant for $7.75 an hour.

Nickel and Dimed has a simple premise: Barbara Ehrenreich goes out to lunch with an editor at Harper's to discuss future articles she might write for the magazine and they start talking about how difficult it is to live on the minimum wage and Ehrenreich says somebody ought to go out there and try it for themselves as a sort of old-school journalism project.  The editor tells her she is just the one to do it.  The year is 1998.  From there, she travels to Key West, FL, Portland, ME, and Minneapolis, MN to work as a waitress, maid, and Wal-Mart associate, respectively.


For anyone who has worked these jobs, moments of this book will seem instantly familiar.  Personally I think the strongest chapter in the book is "Selling in Minnesota," because it delves deeply into the culture of Wal-Mart and gives Ehrenreich the occasion to unleash her most sardonic barbs.  I was under the impression that it was the longest chapter, but at 72 pages, it barely edges out "Scrubbing in Maine"'s 70 ("Serving in Florida" is only 40 pages).  However, this entire book is a pleasure to read.  It does feel a bit dated at times, but I have to say that rent is not obscenely higher than it was in 1998.  Nor is the minimum wage--but it seems inevitable that will not be true much longer.  While it is at $7.25 presently, when Ms. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress at "Hearthside" in Key West, it was $5.15.  It looks like it will change to $10.10 soon, and then maybe $15.00 in certain states.  The jump to $15 is unprecedented and could dramatically shift the landscape of the low-wage workforce.  And while Ehrenreich may not be directly cited as an influence on this positive trend, this book has gotten major attention over the past 15 years, and through a kind of cultural osmosis, the sad reality that life on minimum wage is unsustainable has seeped into the public consciousness.  The only criticism I can make is that the book is not pure reality.  It is a great social experiment, but Ehrenreich's desperation is only temporary.  Because she does not need to try and figure out some way to get out of the mess she's in, or resign to struggle throughout the rest of her life, the book is less valuable than the genuine article could be.

Perhaps that gives some of Ehrenreich's observations an air of hyperbole.  While she is looking for a place before craigslist, she does not come across any shared apartments, so naturally any apartment she keeps to herself will be more expensive.  But she writes often about staying in dirty motels:

"There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.  If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week.  If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead.  You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store." (27)


While going back through the book to try and find passages, I found too many.  I didn't want this review to just be a huge collection of quotes.  But it made me realize that, when I did the same thing for The Circle, I had a lot of difficulty finding good examples.  At a very basic level then, this book is better than The Circle, but it's less surprising and more depressing because it's real.

Ehrenreich does a wonderful job portraying the life of a server--and I say that as a former server of 18 months at 2 restaurants.  She works at two restaurants concurrently to make ends meet, and she provides a fantastic account of a sensation every server must have felt at least once in their past:

"Ideally, at some point you enter what servers call a 'rhythm' and psychologists term a 'flow state,' where signals pass from the sense organs directly to the muscles, bypassing the cerebral cortex, and a Zen-like emptiness sets in.  I'm on a 2:00-10:00 PM shift now, and a male server from the morning shift tells me about the time he 'pulled a triple'--three shifts in a row, all the way around the clock--and then got off and had a drink and met this girl, and maybe he shouldn't tell me this, but they had sex right then and there and it was like beautiful." (33)

A personal favorite part of the book for me is Ehrenreich's experience flushing out her system to take a drug test for Wal-Mart:

"If it weren't for the drug test, I might have stopped looking right then and there, but there has been a chemical indiscretion in recent weeks and I'm not at all sure I can pass.  A poster in the room where Roberta interviewed me warns jobs applicants not to 'waste your time or ours' if you've taken drugs within the last six weeks.  If I had used cocaine or heroin there would be no problem, since these are water-soluble and wash out of the body in a couple days.  (LSD isn't even tested for.) But my indiscretion involved the only drug usually detected by testing, marijuana, which is fat-soluble and, I have read, can linger in the body for months.  And what about the prescription drugs I've been taking for a chronic nasal congestion problem?  What if Claritin-D, which gives you a nice little bounce, shows up as crystal meth?" (125)

Her tales of life as a "Wal-Martian" belong in any anthology of literature or essays on corporate culture.  As I've said, this is the highlight of the book, but I don't want this entire post to be about Wal-Mart either.  Because this book is not about that store--but the way it allows its employees to remain in poverty.

Ehrenreich gets hung up on a few topics: housing, transportation, health care, and food (a dearth of each).  I found her comments about housing surprising, because, while it is understandably difficult to get started on a new apartment on a limited budget and without a job, I still thought the rents would be cheaper in the places she lived.  I say this as a former resident of New York and Los Angeles and current resident of Chicago.  I know rents are cheaper elsewhere, and I am currently paying roughly what the "deals" were for a one bedroom or studio apartment per month, if you added up the weekly rates.

The food issue of note is the lack of nutritional value in the meals the poor can afford to eat.  One footnote, an example of the foodstuffs obtained through a pantry, seems almost too ridiculous to believe, but obviously is true:

"Middle class people often criticize the poor for their eating habits, but this charitable agency seemed to be promoting a reliance on 'empty calories.'  The complete inventory of the box of free food I received is as follows: 21 ounces of General Mills Honey Nut Chex cereal; 24 ounces of Post Grape-Nuts cereal; 20 ounces of Mississippi Barbecue Sauce; several small plastic bags of candy, including Tootsie Rolls, Smarties fruit snacks, Sweet Tarts, and two bars of Ghirardelli chocolate; one bubble gum; a 13-ounce package of iced sugar cookies; hamburger buns; six 6-ounce Minute Maid juice coolers; one loaf of Vienna bread; Star Wars fruit snacks; one loaf of cinnamon bread; 18 ounces of peanut butter; 18 ounces of jojoba shampoo; 16 ounces of canned ham; one bar of Dial soap; four Kellogg Rice Krispies Treats bars; two Ritz cracker packages; one 5-ounce Swanson canned chicken breast; 2 ounces of a Kool Aid-like drink mix; two Lady Speed Stick deodorants." (174, n.8)

The best is saved for last, when Ehrenreich steps back from being the fearless hero of low-wage adventures (which gives this book an appeal similar to Dishwasher) and puts on her Ph.D garb and analyzes the situation.  She makes some wonderful points, and writes powerfully about her subject matter:

"It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition--austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don't they?  They are 'always with us.'  What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift.  The 'home' that is also a car or a van.  The illness or injury that must be 'worked through,' with gritted teeth, because there's no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day's pay will mean no groceries for the next.  These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment.  They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations.  And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans--as a state of emergency." (214)

I've said about all I can.  Please note that I did not  read the 10 year anniversary edition, released in 2011, as I did not know it existed until now.  Obviously, after the financial meltdown of 2008, Ehrenreich was going to have more to say.  She wrote a long essay that is posted here and is definitely worth checking out:

I could go off about the minimum wage, and the debate that the cost of goods will go up if it is increased, but I am glad it is happening.  I could also go off about my options as a law grad, and how they barely pay more, but I will desist for another day.  I am just glad that a small victory seems likely, and hope that other bigger ones will follow.