Bait and Switch [Book Review]

Bait & Switch, is a natural successor to Ehrenreich’s earlier book: Nickel & Dimed (reviewed on this blog in part 1 and part 2). As an author I find her to be both honest and thorough in her research, and her topic area in both this book and its precursor have been particularly relevant to me. When I saw the book sitting on the shelves of Autumn Leaves, it was a must-grab.

The title eponymously refers to a con-artist tactic wherein the victim is led into the con with the promises of something alluring, only to find out that their hopes were deliberately misguided by the con-artist, who has replaced their desired object with something inferior that would not have drawn in the victim otherwise.

In this case, Ehrenreich explains, the “bait” is the prosperity of the American dream: pay your dues to society, study hard, forgo youthful indiscretions (or be quick to learn from them) and ye shall find your way to success and prosperity. The “switch” is the cold reality that white-collar middle-classed jobs have been commoditized to the point where “human resources” may as well mean “human chattel”. Gone are the days of 1950s-era pensions, single-company devotion, and long-term employment followed by autumn-year retirement.

In Nickel & Dimed, Ehrenreich explores the class of people (blue-collar workers) that are often marginalized because it is believed that they are in their predicament due to bad choices: impulsivity, laziness, irresponsibility. As a society, we have sold ourselves into the “work hard and you’ll be successful” idea as if it was a pure function: that the only thing holding you back from success is that you aren’t working hard enough. But in Bait & Switch, we see a class of people that did everything right: well-educated, hard-working people that rose through the ranks and suddenly had their career balloon popped through downsizing, streamlining, or whatever the current buzz word is for lay-offs.

Ehrenreich, adopting her maiden name Alexander, goes undercover as a middle-aged job-seeker wishing to join into the corporate world after freelancing for several years. Her ultimate goal is to secure a middle-class income ($50k-100k) at a private sector, regardless of who the employer is. At the risk of spoiling, she summarizes her journey best:

So, after almost seven months of job searching, an image makeover, an expensively refined and later upgraded resume, and networking in four cities, I have gotten exactly two offers: from AFLAC and Mary Kay. But these are not jobs, not in the way I defined a job when I started this project, in that no salary, benefits, or workplace is provided. … No one, apparently, is willing to take a risk on me. Is the fear that, if given health insurance for even a month, I will go on an orgy of body scans and elective surgery? The most any corporation seems willing to give me is the right to wear its logo on my chest and go about pushing its products. (p. 189)

But it would be completely unfair to say she was unsuccessful in her research; her journey of job exploration shines a high-powered spotlight on the trials and tribulations of the 8 million unemployed workers in America.

Discussion after the jump.

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Alternadad [Book Review]

Picked up a hardback copy of this book from the clearance bin at Hastings. In retrospect, I totally would have paid full (or at least “full paperback price” — I’m pretty frugal) price for it.

Neal Pollack is a modern-age writer-hipster who refuses to grow up. He has a child. That alone qualifies as a plot for either a reality TV show or perhaps a feel good Dramedy starring either Hugh Grant or Colin Firth.

I’ll be honest, the book cover and title were catchy enough to draw me in, as was the concept: “memoir written by father that wants to remain cool in spite of fathering an ankle-biter”. And that’s pretty much this book in a nutshell – Pollack sacrifices tradition to maintain his youthful identity as he approaches middle-age as a new father.

The writing style is done in a series of semi-linear vignettes; each chapter focusing on a particular period starting in the year(s) leading up to fatherhood into the first two years thereafter. I say “semi-linear” because I think there is some overlap, some backtracking / flashbacking, and each chapter doesn’t necessarily abut directly to the next. At first, I found this to be a little disorienting, but after a couple chapters, you begin to see that the book is more illustrative than documentarian. He is also extremely candid, speaking frankly and unabashedly about everything from his primal urges, to his pot habits; he writes with a candor that is generally honest, even when owning up to his mistakes.

I absolutely adored this book; although I also recognize that this book may well not be for everyone. I found Neal & his wife’s experience to really resonate with my own path into fatherhood; creepily, at times. While not a specific analogue to my own life (I don’t smoke pot, for example, and I am not independently employed), the arc of his transition mirrored mine very well.

As a memoir, it is both clever and, in my opinion, a joy to read. Too many reviews I saw on Amazon seemed tainted by criticism on his parental choices and personal habits & vices, rather than just experiencing his victories and defeats vicariously. But perhaps I’m just being overly generous since it resonated so strongly with me.

I give it 10*/10 rating, the asterisk indicating that your mileage may vary.

Nickel & Dimed (part 2 of 2) [Book Reviews]

This is a continuation of my book review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel & Dimed. Part 1 posted yesterday.

Housing costs post the greatest obstacle for low-wage workers. Why does our society seem to resist rectifying this situation? Do you believe that there are realistic solutions to the lack of affordable housing?

In Nickel & Dimed, Ehrenreich’s first job (near Key West, Florida) as a food server does not pay enough for her to even get a modest apartment. She eventually upgrades to a better paying food service job, and is able to rent a half-size trailer so narrow you can touch both walls while standing in the middle, but only after having a $600 deposit. Most of the people she worked with, living paycheck to paycheck in a hotel room somewhere, do not have even that much starting capital, even though it would ultimately be cheaper in the long run for them to live in an apartment or trailer. Continue reading

Nickel & Dimed (part 1 of 2) [Book Review]

Homelessness is the state of not possessing the right to use a single place for shelter persistently.

Joblessness is the state of not possessing the privilege to be paid for work persistently.

Homelessness and joblessness are both very prominent problems here in America, and have been for quite some time. However, they are not always causally linked, nor does remedying one necessarily remedy the other.

In the book Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the state of America’s lower-class (the various poverty strata) that struggle to live even modestly while working one or more jobs.  At the time this book was written (1998-2000), America’s job market was booming; in fact, that time period was at the tail end of a decline in unemployment that led to the lowest unemployment rates we’ve seen in the past 20 years. [As a side note, unemployment has been steadily eking upwards since World War II ended, along a boom-bust pattern]

It seems completely counter-intuitive: we are told time and time again this Protestant mantra that hard work is the path to prosperity; that the poverty-stricken and homeless are the way they are because of sloth or carelessness and bad choices; that having a job will logically lead to having a home and ultimately a life.

But the reality is far less simplistic.

Ehrenreich’s approach to research, calling on her background in the natural sciences, is to, as she says, sit at the bench and do the work. This particular approach has been tried by others, such as Morgan Spurlock on his show 30 Days, and while I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely accurate, it definitely provides more insight than simply crunching numbers. She confesses, in the beginning, that while she will work hard and fully intends to make her research as realistic as possible by abandoning the opportunities and resources granted to her by her privileged social stratum, she will not do so to the point that it threatens her health or safety. Personally, I felt this was a reasonable compromise.

Throughout the course of the book she works under a pseudonym as a food server in Florida, in a nursing home and as a cleaning maid in Maine, and in retail at Wal-Mart in Minnesota. She works roughly a month in each job before leaving; although I can never tell if her job-changes are arbitrary based on time or because she just can’t take the work anymore.

Her writing style is very candid, informal, and I would even venture to say that she certainly doesn’t pull her punches, referring to one of her bosses as a “pimp” at one point. She does anonymize the people in the book, to protect their identities, however.

I felt this book was worth reading: it’s relatively short (~230 pages) but provides some terrific insight which is backed by textual research (“Real Researchâ„¢”). Despite the book being 10 years, things haven’t changed all that much, which is quite unfortunate.

More in-depth discussion after the jump. (Due to this particular review being so massive, I’ve broken it up into two parts, with part 2 posting tomorrow)

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The Periodic Kingdom [Book Review]

I’ve actually had this book for a while — I picked it up while back east on holiday with my family. Somehow, it got shuffled away and then rediscovered when planning out this years books.

The Periodic Kingdom is a book that explores the Periodic Table of Elements (ie. chemicals) through the perspective of geography. I was initially attracted (pun not intended) to it partly because I’m a nerd for chemistry, but also because I’ve been sort of working on my own variant-approach to teaching chemistry, and I wanted to see what Atkins has to say.

P.W. Atkins is a professor of Physical Chemistry (the kind that deals with quantum mechanics, as opposed to organic or biochemistry, which deals more with life-based compounds) at the University of Oxford. Throughout the book, he clearly shows that he has both academic prowess and extensive teaching experience; it’s worth noting that simply because I’ve read many books on scientific topics where one or the other is lacking — it’s not often that you find both.

That said, I was a little disappointed with the book. Continue reading

Getting Things Done [Book Review]

book coverI found this book by accident while looking for personal productivity tips. I kept seeing “Getting Things Done” or “GTD” mentioned in different online software tools (such as Remember the Milk).

Anyone that has read this book already will know the significance of the three letters “GTD”.

David Allen, a productivity guru that has served as a consultant for some very affluent and influential people, wrote this compelling book to explain his system in detail.

I’ll be honest that I was expecting something drier, boring, and perhaps even obsolete — this book is none of those. Allen weaves an engaging jib with terrific anecdotes and advice that just makes sense. This system will help you organize, become more productive and, as the title says: “get things done.” That is, provided you are willing to put in the effort and hard work — nothing is free, after all.

That is the rub, of course — the system is not easy, it is not something you can implement in a half-assed manner, nor is it something that can be adopted passively — if it is to work, it must be a concerted effort and the price of its effectiveness is eternal diligence.

If you are someone that is soul-searching for some solution to help you overcome a mountain of work, or if you constantly feel mired and two steps behind, this book is definitely worth reading; even if you decide to not try the system (like I said, it will take hard work to do it!), there are some terrific philosophical musings on the nature of productivity and work.

More details after the jump. Continue reading