Monday, April 30, 2012

Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal
© 2001 Eric Schlosser
362 pages

I underestimated Fast Food Nation. I'd expected a heated attack on the subject from a nutritional standpoint, but Eric Schlosser's history and overview of fast food's origins and impact is far more substantial than I had ever anticipated. The United States doesn't have a national cuisine of its own, but it has been most successful in exporting an approach to food across the world. The global presence of the McDonald's corporation has allowed American values to conquer the world in a way no military effort could ever rival. Such conquest is not to our benefit, as Schlosser's work bears out.

After beginning with the history of how fast food evolved, supported by the United States' auto culture and beginning with "drive-in" restaurants, he then charts the industry's rocketing success. The key behind every chain's success story is efficiency: applying the mindset of the factory to the restaurant. This means assembly-line preparation, the standardization of portions, a dependence on pre-processed food ("meat" arrives at these stores dessicated, in vacuum bags, and requires the addition of water to resemble ground beef again), amd immediate access to huge quantities of cheap foodstuffs just to start. (They're cheap for a reason:  standards at slaughterhouses and feedlots tend toward the horrific.) A hostile attitude toward labor also seems to be a key component: jobs are broken down into a series of mindless tasks which require little training, and a worker with little training also has little power. Wages are kept depressed to ensure maximum profits, and thus there's little wonder that these places are staffed by people with few alternatives, like teenagers. That the national chains aren't keen to provide sick leave, medical insurance, or vacation days goes without saying. There are, however, exceptions to the exploitative tendency, most notably in Schlosser's account the In-and-Out company. The same abuse of labor occurs in the chains' principle suppliers; Schlosser writes that Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) would be distressed to learn how little had changed since his 19th century  expose of the food industry's labor and health conditions.

Even more impressive is the widespread influence of these fast food chains. Schlosser attributes their ever-increasing demand for food, and their success in selling it, to the growth of the power of agribusiness. The fast food chains were such rewarding customers that their suppliers were able to establish a hegemony over the markets for beef, potatoes, and so on. As the chain stores destroyed smaller restaurants, so did their suppliers-- the corporate farms -- destroy smaller, private farms.  Economic power goes hand in hand with political corruption, which Schlosser also covers. More insidious is the growth of food-related advertising. I should think that food is so important that it doesn't need advertising, but fast food apparently needs it -- and is aggressive about spreading the work.  The chains anchor their future success in their ability to turn children into loyal, lifelong consumers,  and the growing financial weaknesses of cities and suburban municipalities offers them a new market:  advertising in the schools!  When the brands work together, combining products (toy companies and restaurants, for instance, or McDonalds in WalMart), their profits become even greater. We might applaud such  cleverness were  it not for their abusive labor policies, negligent heath standards, and political opportunism.

Fast Food Nation is an impressive work, revealing the ways that the industry affects the lives of every American, even those of us who avoid it for health or other reasons. Schlosser's coverage is extensive -- exploring nearly every facet of these businesses, from their origins to their supply lines, business practices, and labor policies.  It is both thorough and pointed, and prompts readers to consider -- what is the true cost of the 'value meal'?

Highly recommended to Americans.

The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay
Sugar: the Bitter Truth
Folks, This Ain't Normal, Joel Salatin

Thursday, April 26, 2012


© 2006 Brandon Mull
368 pages

Grandma's dead, but she left money for the family to go on a cruise with. Correction: she left money for mom and dad to go on a cruise with. The kids, Seth and Kendra, get left with their other grandparents -- the creepy ones that never come to parties, who live out in the middle of nowhere with signs warning that Certain Death awaits trespassers.  But at least the attic is filled with toys to play with, and there's a chicken the kids can treat as a pet while they're there. True,  their other grandma is missing and the woods are Strictly Offlimits, but it could be worse. They could be on the cruise, eating fish eggs like their parents.  Little do Seth and Kendra know that they're in for a decidedly exciting few weeks.

After getting into trouble for sneaking into the woods, the two are told by their grandfather that he is in fact the guardian of a very special kind of nature reserve -- a reserve dominated by magical creatures, like fairies and satyrs. A great deal can go wrong on a job like this, so it's imperative that they follow the rules.So naturally, they don't, and soon they've got a destroyed house and a missing grandpa.  Left to fend for themselves, the kids must outwit a wily witch who is determined to free a demon from his prison, without being drowned by naiads, vaporized by fairy magic, or turned into a hearty stew by the resident ogress.

Fablehaven is the first book in a larger series, and though it hasn't quite gotten its hooks into me I enjoyed it well enough.  The initial premise of two ordinary kids finding out they're heirs to magical status and then immediately thrown into a battle between light and darkness is a little wearing after having read Rick Riordan's series, but Mull sets up an interesting dynamic between his two main characters. Kendra, the narrator, is prudent to the point of timidity; Seth, on other hand, is recklessly brave and gets the pair into trouble. As much as I might prefer Kendra's attitude to Seth's, sometimes ignoring the rules and crashing into danger is required....especially when your entire family is trapped by a witch. Fablehaven has a fascinating world; the preserve is governed by a treaty, with fundamental laws like that of the harvest; actions beget consequences. No creature can harm another, or trespass into another's territory, without losing the magical protection  of the treaty. When Seth accidentally hurts a fairy, he is exposed to their wrath, and turned into a walrus. I liked that Mull writes not just to entertain, but to provoke kids into thinking about particular issues -- consequences and the need for balance between caution and courage, for instance.  Fablehaven's magical environment seems a bit scattered at the moment, in contrast to Riordan's way of tightly connecting his characters' abilities to a particular mythology, but perhaps more order will emerge as I read further into the series.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's a Sprawl World After All

It's a Sprawl World After All: the Human Cost of Unplanned Growth -- and Visions of a Better Future
©  2005 Douglas E. Morris
245 pages

Shortly after the Second World War, the United States completely changed its approach to urbanism.  Abandoning concentrated city centers, the nation instead emphasized outward, horizontal growth, all low-density.  The automobile allowed cities to expand far beyond their original boundaries, and what technology allowed, government mandated. What followed is the scene that every American is familiar with: sprawl, the great mat of highways, housing developments, commercial strips, and office parks that goes on and on, seemingly without it. Sprawl has profoundly shaped American culture since then. It promised the solitude and beauty of the countryside coupled with the many attractions of the cities, but there is no action without an unintended consequence...and suburbia's are many. Suburbia has long had its critics, and a growing body of critical literature is gaining in strength and pointing out the variety of failures in the suburban plan, chief among them its financial unviability.   Douglas E. Morris takes a different tack, however, focusing on how this way of living impacts our quality of life. In particular, Morris sees sprawl as the chief destructor of community (which Robert Putnam hinted at in his Bowling Alone) and the reason why the United States is so fantastically violent as compared to other developed nations. While his account is not as meaty as the subject deserves,  he offers considerable food for thought, especially to those who have never considered that the environment in which they live might influence their happiness.

Morris' idea is that communities are defined by a sense of place: just as a family lives in the same house, so too does a community need to be centered about the same area. This is a need at odds with the design path Americans have chosen, which favors widespread expansion across the land. After over a half-century of this kind of development, American society has not only lost its focal points; it has become so diffuse as to lose cohesion altogether. Our lives are no longer connected, and this is a situation that social creatures such as ourselves cannot tolerate. Before sprawl, people walked the streets with one another; they saw their neighbors at the local stores.They congregated in the shared spaces -- the parks, the nearby cafes. Now we lie in homes distant from one another; we travel alone in our cars to work and on errands. We now travel to huge box stores where we are strangers to the hundreds of other people present -- where we are customers, not patrons. Robbed of the opportunities to fellowship with one another, we console ourselves with television, the Internet, and the creation of what Morris calls "niche communities" like book clubs. Because our lives no longer connect us to one another as a matter of course, we must purposely arrange meetings with one another. Niche communities hardly fill the void, however, and the result is chronic feelings of isolation, of depression and loneliness. Because our lives no longer connect to one another, the behaviors we used to improve those connections, like manners and civility, are lapsing...and the culture of anonymity allows violence impulses to go unchecked, to grow into violent actions.

In addition to this, the new auto dependency marginalizes great portions of the population: the elderly, who when their vision fails cannot go anywhere without assistance; young people, who are forced to rely on their parents for transportation anywhere and are robbed of opportunities to act like autonomous individuals, a necessary part of learning to be an adult; and the poor, who are separated from job opportunities if they happen to be carless, which is quite likely considering the cost of maintaining an automobile.

Morris points out that not only is the United States drastically more violent than any other developed nation, but the usual factors cited for this violence -- television, video games, and violent music -- are present in much safer nations. He doesn't mention America's unique relationship with gun ownership, though, and I'd question whether the saturation of violent music and television is the same in other nations. How much more television do Americans watch than Germans, for instance?

The section outlining the problems of sprawl is disappointingly short: a mere 92 pages. The rest of the book contains solutions for creating a more fulfilling life, which I did appreciate.This section's solution range from individual measures (creating niche communities, being mindful of others, emphasizing the need for manners, volunteering) to community-oriented actions, like removing zoning laws which mandate sprawl, increasing the gas tax to force people to confront the true cost of cars, and adjusting tax policies (for instance, not taxing farmers based on how much their land would be worth if it were developed commercially).  He also includes several lengthy appendices, one of which is a history of sprawl.

I'm left with mixed feelings after reading It's a Sprawl World After All. The subject fascinates me and demands more attention, especially considering the current state of America's economy, finances,  and national spirit.  The lengthy section how we might begin to rectify this sorry situation is commendable, and if someone is completely new to the subject I think it more than adequate to prompt them to think about their own experiences in the light of its criticism. I never realized how fulfilling living in a community could be until I did it -- and didn't realize what I had until I moved away again. Morris' account could provide this perspective to people who haven't experienced it for themselves. Although I would have preferred a more thorough approach, as Morris seems hurried, it's definitely worth reading for Americans. In a few weeks I'll see how it stacks up against Suburban Nation.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (24 April)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly book-related event in which we share tidbits from our current reads. Or..a bit more. Play along at Should Be Reading.

"These are the tales of the land we call Lloegyr, which means the Lost Lands, the country that was once ours but which our enemies now call England. These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God, and, may the living Christ and the Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I wept for Arthur."

p. 1, The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell

Hoping that nostalgic childhood memories of a brand will lead to a lifetime of purchases, companies now plan "cradle-to-grave" advertising strategies. They have come to believe what Ray Kroc and Walt Disney realized a long time ago -- a person's "brand loyalty" may begin as early as the age of two. Indeed, market research has found that children often recognize a brand logo before they can recognize their own name. 

p. 43, Fast Food Nation. Eric Schlosser

What happened to "Cosmic Corkscrew" after that I don't really know. I abandoned it and never submitted it anywhere else. I didn't actually tear it up and throw it away; it simply languished in the desk drawer until eventually I lost track of it. In any case, it no longer exists.  This seems to be one of the main sources of discomfort among archivists -- they seem to think the first story I ever wrote for publication, however bad it might have been, was an important document. All I can say, fellows, is that I'm sorry but there was no way of my telling in 1938 that my first try might have historic interest someday. I may be a monster of vanity and arrogance, but I'm  not that much of a monster of vanity and arrogance.

p. 7, The Early Asimov.  Asimov himself, naturally.

Er konnte nicht wissen, dass in eben disem Moment überall im Land geheime Versammlungen stattfanden, Gläser erhoben wurden and gedämpfte Stimmen sagten: >>Auf Harry Potter -- den Jungen, der Lebt!<<

p. 23, Harry Potter und Der Stein der Weisen, Joanne K. Rowling.
I finally got 'round to buying a copy of the  German translation of The Philosopher's Stone. It's beyond me at the moment, but I shall consider reading it a challenge to take on. You can probably guess what this sentence means just by the last bit in quotations. Also note that the German translation includes Rowling's first name.

Both television and sprawl are connected to what ails our country, but Americans do not live in their TVs. They do, however, reside in sprawl. Sprawl is the foundation of our society. Television is not. The wasteland of sprawl is what created the anonymity of modern American life. Television keeps us entertained in our surburban isolation, but sprawl is the reason we are isolated in the first place. Sprawl is the reason we float anonymously through life, forced to endure the culture of incivility and breeding ground for violence that America has become.

p. 90, It's a Sprawl World After All: the Human Cost of Unplanned Growth,  Douglas E. Morris


Salt: A World History
© 2003 Mark Kurlansky
498 pages
Last Autumn, my doctor advised me to start watching the amount of salt in my diet, and so I did. That this was a concern surprised me: I was never one to add salt to my meals. When I began examining nutritional value labels, however, I realized I didn't need to: salt positively abounded. It was in seemingly everything, and my entire diet changed. What my doctor did for my diet, Mark Kurlansky has done for my appreciation of world history: opened my eyes to the absolute ubiquity of salt.

Although I knew salt was and remains important as a preservative -- that's the reason it appears in so much supermarket food --  Kurlansky's account impressed me. Were it not for salt's ability to keep food from spoiling, civilization might not even exist, for salt-preserved food allows civilizations to weather periods of drought and famine, and frees some populations from having to be in the immediate vicinity of agricultural areas. This is especially true of the civilizations which have depended on fish stocks as meat;  salt allowed fleets of fishing ships to journey far from their native lands, staying on the open seas for months at a time before returning with their bounty. Such is salt's importance and ubiquity -- not only preventing foodstuffs from spoiling, but being used in processed foods like garum, butter, and cheese -- that taxes on it have provided the financial basis of some empires, like the Chinese, and badly-considered salt taxes have led to the failure of governments. The trade in salt and salted goods has been the engine of commerce throughout history, notably in the Renaissance period. Its long history and consistent vitality have allowed salt to make its mark on the landscape (towns were often sited in places where a saltworks might be founded, and place names still reflect old names for salt) and our tongues;  'salary' comes from the Roman use of salt as payment. Judging from Kurkansky's narrative, salt was as important to Elizabethan England as oil is to the modern world.

Though similar in spirit to Coal: A Human History, Salt isn't quite as cohesive. If Coal was a novel, Salt is a collection of short stories about a central character, arranged chronologically.  Kurlansky's individial chapters spotlight salt's importance in a given point in history -- to the Egyptians, in embalming; to the Baltic seafaring nations, as the basis of their fishing industry -- but can be read perfectly well on their own, not being tied together with a tight theme. This doesn't matter in the least to start with, but after industrialism the text is more scattered. Salt becomes less importance as other preserving methods (refrigeration and canning) rise to prominence,  although this happens at the same time that the advance of science is allowing humans to understand what salt truly is.  Considering that salt was once rare and immensely valuable, and is now so common that we must be conscience about avoiding too much of it and our diets, I am left with the question of why.  One assumes better processing technology allowed for efficient salt production, or that the new science allowed us to find salt with greater ease, but Salt doesn't cover this. The ending chapters rather trail off, but this is one weak point in an otherwise fascinating book. Kurlansky has written other novels in this theme, including one on cod (not surprising given the amount of fish-related information here), and I may give them a go in the future. This is a solid read about salt's preeminence in the preindustrial world, even if it is a bit weak thereafter.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bait and Switch

Bait and Switch: the (Futile) Search of the American Dream
© 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich
272 pages

The road to success is hard work and an education, or so is the prevailing belief in the United States. In Nickle and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich noted the miserable difficulties facing the working class today: despite working hard, millions live a desperate existence,  forced by chronically low wages and the increasing cost of living to fight desperately just to survive. Some who read it might take relief in the fact that such difficulty can't happen to them -- not to someone who was intelligent about the choices they made in life, not to someone who stayed in school and set goals, who made a point of getting an education.  But another journalistic investigation by Ehrenhreich gives the lie to that belief, as well. In an era where MBAs and other college degrees are increasingly worthless in the job market, it seems that success in the white-collar world is just as fickle and dependent on luck as that of the blue-collar world.

Although Ehrenreich was not inclined to be sympathetic toward the 'plight' of the unemployed middle class, the idea that someone could do all the right things and still fail seemed problematic enough to explore. And so once again she reinvented herself, this time as Barbara Alexander. Converting her years of journalism into a resume fit for a public-relations specialist,  Ehrenreich decided to explore life in the fast lane, starting a year-long job search in an executive position. Her mission: to find out what was required to realize and maintain a high-powered job, to see how the stresses stacked up against those of the working class. As the title of her work might hint, that search was a failure. For as Alexander and thousands of other highly-educated and otherwise successful professionals found out,  netting a career isn't as simple as doing the right things.

Bait and Switch is essentially a book on being an unemployed member of the middle class. In her effort to find work, Alexander discovers that multiple careers exist to serve the mildy affluent unemployed. There are job search managers, resume advisers, professional gladhanders, and more motivational speakers than one might imagine. Considering how well-developed this niche profession seems to be, chronic unemployment among the middle class has apparantly been a problem longer than anyone might expect. The only jobs Alexander can find are not not conventional jobs at all, but ponzi schemes or somewhat exploitative 'job opportunities' like AFLAC and cosmetic personnel who don't so much work for the company as service them. Despite the wealth of information and coaching available to the educated jobless,  neither Alexander nor any of the many job-seekers she encounters ever finds a truly reliable means of finding employment other than luck.  Not even the personality changes they absorb through the seminars (which teach a secular Prosperity Gospel: conform to certain ideals, believe in yourself, and everything you want will come true) are to any avail.

Like Ehrenreich at the beginning of the work, I also find it difficult to be sympathetic toward these people, who apparently have enough money to hire coaches and go to seminars. Granted, few would be in the position of sampling as many coaches or seminars as Ehrenreich, who set aside savings well in advance.  The problem of finding the right work for educated personnel is more difficult to define than the problems of a working-class existence.  Lack of focus may be the key:  Ehrenreich and her unemployed comrades lacked a definable skillset, and the jobs they were applying for didn't demand explicit skills. Both job-seekers and the potential hirers communicated in the language of resume-gibberish, one with an astounding vocabulary full of words and phrases with vaporous meanings.  In contrast to this, educated personnel who were held to certain standards and expected to posses particular skills which could be articulated -- like accountants -- fared much better. Outside of these particular fields, it seems that both employers and job-seekers were shooting in the dark. Little wonder they met with so little success.

Bait and Switch is interesting, though not nearly as impactful as Nickle and Dimed.  Reading it stressed the importance of having an education with a point, and Ehrenreich' experience provides a look into the mindset of the corporate world. It isn't one I would want to share in, especially considering that some of the problems  (individual powerlessness against the companies) are the same.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Conspiracy of Paper

A Conspiracy of Paper
© 2000 David Liss
442 pages

Benjamin Weaver is a man with a curious trade. Having left the family business years ago, in his early days he earned acclaim for his skills as a boxer, introducing a 'scientific' approach to the sport and retiring only after breaking his leg. Now he uses his intelligence and strength to different ends, serving as a quasi-detective and bill collector, sorting through mysteries, hunting down thieves, and flushing out debtors. Now Balfour, a jumped-up merchantman with delusions of nobility, is demanding Weaver's services, albeit reluctantly.  However much he might disdain Weaver for being a common Jew, Balfour believes his and Weaver's father were both in the same business, dabbling in high finance -- and that their deaths, far from being accidental, were murders. Although Weaver is dubious at first, initial probings confirm that Balfour's claims may have merit. And so he takes up the challenge of finding out who killed his father and why, in the process crossing paths with London's most notorious gangster and stumbling into the emerging world of high finance, where greedy men and powerful banks vie for the nation's coffers. The result is a captivating mystery, an absolutely stunning piece of historical fiction that rivals even Bernard Cornwell for the richness of its details.

I've read David Liss before, as he penned one of my favorite novels from last year, The Ethical Assassin. This and Assassin seem worlds apart, and not only for their disparate settings. Liss adopts a voice in Conspiracy of Paper which is meant to evoke the style of 18th century literature and prose, with some modifications for readability.  The voice is a triumph; from the first page the elegance of it entranced me. There are books so artfully written that the mere sound of the words is a pleasure to experience, and this is one them. To this Liss adds a truly labyrinthian mystery. The setting is that of the 18th century, when paper currency is gaining popularity in the form of bank notes, and governments are beginning to finance their wars and large-scale commercial projects through the issuance of bonds, or loans. Commercial enterprises like the South Sea Company reliance on selling stock to finance themselves as well, and in London people are beginning to trade bonds for stocks, moving further away from simple specie-based transactions. Money is becoming increasingly complex, and those who understand the subtleties of finance can make a killing by taking advantage of those who don't.  Weaver has never journeyed into this world before, even though his father and uncle are both tradesmen who were involved the markets. To unravel the mystery he must first understand what his father's business was, and Liss accomplishes this by having various characters, including a comical surgeon who doubles as Weaver's best friend and confidant, teach him the new economics.  There are few souls in London in whom Weaver can place complete trust; he is exploring a labyrinth, and there are many who wish him to fail. Some take direct action against him, and others are content with subtle misdirection.  The entanglements only increase as Weaver progresses further in. Having few facts to go on, he must instead rely on probabilities and instinct, guessing where the next few turns might take him...and sometimes, forcing his way through the maze's walls to simplify things, relieving the tension with drama.

What I like most about The Ethical Assassin, beyond its quirky humor, was the thoughtful discussion Liss' characters mull through. Assassin's themes were veganism and anarchism, though here Liss is a bit more subdued, his target that of paper money. As the promises of payment -- banknotes -- supplant actual payment, and paper replaces precious metals, the imaginary seems to have triumphed over the real. Money becomes a matter of belief, not fact, and Weaver would find it difficult to take seriously were it not for the fact that seemingly harmless actions, mere crimes of paper, keep manifesting themselves in the real world, in murders, robberies, and burned homes. And however much he might find the new finances absurd, there are those who believe that the fate of the nation hinges on Weaver leaving well enough alone.

A Conspiracy of Paper is quite a feat; delightful and fascinating. Considering what I've read so far, Liss is rapidly becoming a favorite author.

Gallows Thief, Bernard Cornwell
The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson
The Ethical Assassin, David Liss

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nickle and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
© 2001 Barbara Ehrenreich
221 pages

In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich asked her editor at Harpers Weekly a question for which neither had an answer: how do people get by on the meager wages available to the unskilled? To find out, Barbara reinvented herself as "Barb", a recently divorced homemaker with no work experience. Leaving her world of comfort and ease behind her, 'Barb' moved around the country, from Florida to Maine to Minneapolis, looking for the best work and cheapest rents available in a given area -- and attempting to make ends meet. She found out that 'unskilled' labor is anything but, for every job required a different set of physical, mental, and social skills, some so demanding as to be overwhelming -- especially after she was forced to take on second jobs just to break even. For despite the sneering retorts of politicans eager to dismantle social programs, simply finding a job isn't the answer to poverty -- the cost of living is so high that one job often isn't even enough to survive on, let alone serve as a foundation for fiscal success. Further, in her time spent in the trenches, Ehrenreich realized the conventional argument of these politicians is utterly reversed from reality. Far from those on welfare living off the work of others,  those who are comfortable maintain that existence only because of the treatment the working poor stoically endure,  doing jobs that no one appreciates but everyone demands, and receiving nothing -- not even a sense of security -- for their efforts. Ehrenreich's insights would have been damning in 1998: today, in a worsened situation, they demand reading.

Barb begins her existance in Florida, as a waitress. The experience is  a baptism by fire; introducing her to both impossible customers and hostile low-level managers, who seem to be paid just to ensure that the staff are miserable. She soon looks for additional work on the housekeeping staff of a local hotel, but the stress of two jobs proves more than she can take and soon 'Barb' makes her first move -- this time, to Maine, where she works as a maid, and later moves again to Minnesota to experience life as a Wal-Mart associate. While waitressing, cleaning, and sales are her primary occupations in these experienments,  invariably she has to look for supplemental work to meet her expenses, usually a part time job like the weekend gig she took in a nursing home, serving food and providing entertainment for a ward of patients with dementia.  Taking on a second job doesn't necessarily solve her problems: in fact, she usually decides to try another state soon after beginning a second job and realizing it's too much. Not only can she often not take the stress of two jobs -- of having to scurry from one to the other without a break in between -- but taking on a second job often adds additional financial burdens. While her first job might have been chosen for its relative proximity to cheap housing, the second is usually more distant, consuming more of her time and forcing more dependence on transportation.  Even when Barb pulls ahead, it's by so meager a count that the smallest disaster threatens to destroy her standing completely. Try accounting for a trip to the doctor or replacing a car part with $8.  Sadly, this is not hypothetical; while working as a maid, Barb witnesses one of her coworkers hobbling around on a bad ankle because she can't afford to lose a day of pay, let alone spend money at a physician's office.

There's voyeuristic appeal in Nickle and Dimed, but Ehrenreich combines a narrative of her experience with serious analysis,  picking apart the hiring, working, and living conditions, and pointing out that as strapped for time and cash as she is, "Barb" is getting off easy. Unlike her coworkers, she isn't trying to raise a family on these meager wages...and unlike them, her body hasn't been broken by a lifetime of motonous, labor-intensive work. Ehrenreich writes that if it is possible for her to pass as a fake, if productive, member of the working class, it is only thanks to a lifetime of above-average nutrition and plenty of time spent at the gym. Her coworkers make the most of what they can in a desperate situation -- attempting to survive on lunches of hot dog buns and nothing else, or living together to pool resources.

They shouldn't have to. The United States has been a fantastically wealthy country throughout most of the 20th century, and that conditions like this exist is outrageous -- an insult to what we are capable of. Although Ehrenreich's account dramatically establishes that the conditions of the working class which exist are unconscionable, she doesn't evaluate what went wrong or what can be done to change this. Her own experience does hint at part of the problem, though, the decentralization of American cities. The rents she can afford are generally far from the places which are hiring...and with no mass transit system in place, and with sprawl so extensive as to defy attempts to build such a system, she's forced to drive. In Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay called this 'the geography of inequity'. Ehrenreich is alarmed at the prospect of $2/gallon gas, less than half of today's prices.

Nickle and Dimed must be read by Americans, because the problems Ehrenreich witnessed are still here and are more pronounced.  Witness the results of the National Low Income Housing Coalition's reports on the affordability of rent on a minimum-wage salary. Today, to afford a two-bedroom apartment on the minimum wage in Maine and Florida, "Barb" would have to work 81 and 97 hours respectively. Working two full-time jobs, "Barb" wouldn't make quite enough to pay rent -- let alone groceries, bills, transportation, or anything else. While 'Barb' doesn't  need a two-bedroom apartment, consider that two adults with kids would have the same problem. Even if both were fully employed, they couldn't afford rent -- or anything else, including daycare. Resolving this crisis will probably take work on both ends. Although the minimum wage should adjusted to be a living wage, more fundamentally the United States has to change to become a more livable nation. The zoning laws which prohibit mixed-used architecture -- a traditional source of cheap apartments -- need to be taken off the books. In addition to promoting sprawl, they have destroyed the ability of the poor to live recently. It is no accident that Transportation for America, a group advocating for a transportation system that can not only be paid for, but be used effectively by everyone, advocates for the restoration of mixed-used planning.

If only to convince you that a problem exists, this is a must read.The working class didn't create the miserable conditions they are stuck in, and no one should be forced to endure them.  I would also recommend the books in the related section.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

At the Library

Great news to report! Back in January I began volunteering at my hometown library while I looked for work, for four hours a week helping in the reference department' computer lab. In one wing of our library is an area with two dozen computers, and my job was to sign people into and out of the lab, and assist them as needed. At the end of March, one of the library's staff members was offered an opportunity in another city, and the director of my own library invited me to take her place. I thus donned the blue and khaki of the library in which I grew up,  my new boss a woman who -- ages ago -- took me by the hand and led me and a group of other children on a town of Selma's historic downtown. Since then I've been working steadily and happily as a reference assistant, although the last two weeks were especially hectic as I have been covering other people's hours while they were on vacation, hence my diminished activity online. The work is fulfilling, however, and the experience so far leads me to believe I would be quite happy as a librarian.

My main duty is to monitor the computer lab, which is used steadily throughout the day for people. Most patrons are merely stepping in to check their email or browse the internet, but these days people reply on the library as a place to help them with their job searches. They not only use the computers to fill out applications, but employ library resources -- books and staff -- to help them write resumes.  (That is what I assume I am doing in the picture above.)  Another mainstay is that of word processing, most of which seems to be done for school projects. Patrons keep us constantly busy, as we must help them navigate the software and work through websites to find the information they need. Given my other duties (faxing, assisting patrons in running the copier) as part of the reference staff,  most of what we do can be summarized as helping people use technology. The number of adults who still regard the computer and internet with confusion and anxiety still surprises me, though there are many who take the right attitude. A gentlemen I have been assisting the last couple of weeks had never used computers before, but he decided to enroll in an online university. Since then he's been coming in and getting practice; the two of us work together side by side, and he is gaining confidence in his ability to use the machine to his own advantage.

After almost a month of regular work, I'm already starting to recognize most of the usual patrons and my brain is busy creating little storage files on them, remembering their favorite computers and the the kind of interaction I'm liable to have with them. I know that this fellow always comes in early and always requests headphones;  and that another woman comes in several times a week to work on her school assignments. Of course, there are the problem patrons. There are certain computers the reference staff likes to use for handling certain patrons: troublemakers get computers that allow us to monitor what they're doing, and those who often need help will be seated near us so we can work with them and at the same time watch the desk and printer. One of my duties is to occasionally patrol the lab straightening desks; this is to make sure no one is doing anything inappropriate and to see if anyone needs help. Most of those who need help are aggressive about asking for it, some more politely than others. I've never been snapped  or whistled at, thankfully.

Although I've worked in a similar position before, as a secretarial assistant in which I spent a great deal of time answering questions from students and fetching information they needed, that job was much more predictable. The information students asked me for tended to be the same: class times, class cancellations, and course requirements. In the library, there's really no boundary to the kind of information we might be asked to procure. Since we recently passed the deadline for tax filing in the United States, we've been getting a lot of patrons looking for the appropriate forms, and so help me if I haven't become conversant in the language of taxes. "Capital gains? Oh, she needs Schedule D!".  In addition to tax forms, we also have huge binders full of commonly-used legal forms used by people and businesses, and people often don't know the exact form they need so I have to ask probing questions and then figure out what would be best for them.

Although as a volunteer most of my time was spent "babysitting the computers",  since becoming a staff member I've had many more opportunities to work with what I wanted to work with in the first place -- people looking for books. Because I'm such an avid nonfiction reader, anyone looking for nonfiction books is directed to me, and -- unless they're reading something on flower arrangement or deer hunting, or one of the other few areas outside of my wide interests --  I can generally help them find the book they need. Last week, for instance, a teenage girl came in wanting a book on tidal waves. We don't have any books on tidal waves themselves, but I'd read The Oceans recently and knew it had a substantial section on the matter. Typically I spend all of the morning and some of the afternoon behind the desks: in the late afternoon,  student assistants and volunteers are available for the desk-babysitting, and I have time to tend to my official duties:  maintaining the special displays, reshelving, and the never-finished task of Sorting Shelves.  In our reference department there are three areas in which we display a dozen or so books (in each area) linked by a theme. Part of my job is to update these displays every two weeks. This is somewhat demanding, as I have to come up with an idea that (1) we have enough books to create a full display on and (2) that the patrons will find attractive.  I don't think I have a particularly firm grasp on what ordinary people find interesting in a book, so that that latter demand is especially onerous. At the moment I am displaying books on spring cleaning and home maintenance, the American Civil War (there is a reenactment scheduled this month), and Women.  I chose Women because March was Women's History month, and so I have books  on women's issues, biographies of famous women, and notable books by female authors out.  Finding books that meets my standards for promotion and that patrons would find interesting is a balancing act. Although I snobbily think girls should be reading about Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and other women who have become leaders, I know patrons are apt to find books on Oprah more interesting. So, I mix them up: I use biographies like Whoopie Goldberg's to lure patrons to the shelves, but right next to the eye-catching bios are more "meatier" books.  So far the women's theme has been a big success, but this is because one of the area schools assigned a project for their class in which every student must do an essay on a black woman. The timing of that has made me look positively brilliant: the books on Michelle Obama, Billie Holiday, Barbara Jordan, and so on flew off the shelves. I've taken advantage of it by finding all of our biographies of famous black women, and whenever one is checked out I put another one on display.

The job is not without its down periods. When I have nothing else to do, my standard "keep busy" assignment is to Straighten Shelves, in which I labor to see that the stacks are neat -- that every  row of books  is even. This, like sweeping, must be done...but is never finished. Patrons are constantly browsing, pushing books into the back of the shelf where they threaten to fall  in between the stacks and vanish into some nether region. Less often patrons leave me gifts, pulling books out and then leaving them anywhere. Sometimes they even take the books to another section of the stacks and leave them there. Or, they might decide to just stick the books into the stacks somewhere, which is how I find books on horse grooming in the religious section. Religion is probably the busiest area: whenever I have time to do some shelf-sorting I start there. Of course, when I find a patron I offer my assistance in helping them find a book. Shelf-sorting has the virtue of being inexhaustible, but I see a great deal of books I'd like to sit down and read. Of course, I can't do that when I'm supposed to be tidying shelves...

On certain days I help close the library. We are open until six pm most days, and I'm still surprised by the fact that people will come up minutes before closing, even though there's not enough time for them to do anything before we must ask them to leave. The closing routine is as you might expect: straightening up the staff area, cleaning the desks and surfaces, replenishing supplies, that sort of thing.

So, after a few weeks on the job I'm increasingly comfortable at it and quite happy.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Blood, Iron, and Gold

Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World
© 2009 Christian Wolmar
376 pages

Outside of the wheel, the railways may be the single most influential form of transportation ever invented by human beings. This is a bold claim, but one encouraged by this excellent and engaging survey of rail transport's effect on human history. Originating in Britain, railways took the world by storm, crossing continents and knitting the world together with roads of irons. The rails became the backbones of economies, the skeletons on which new nations like Germany and Italy grew; economies were transformed and empires created to the sound of a steam whistle. The modern world is unthinkable without them, and even though the rise of automobiles and aiprlanes may have dimmed our appreciation for them, author Christian Wolmar believes trains are posed to make a well-deserved comeback.

Blood, Iron, and Gold is an ambitious and exciting work, spanning nearly two centuries and covering the birth and evolution of a worldwide transport system, one which leaves virtually no part of human society untouched: in attempting to relay their importance, Wolmar writes on war, politics, food, religion, economics, and industry on almost every continent. Despite the sheer breadth of this narrative, it's never overwhelming; he succeeds in maintaining a cohesive, fairly tight narrative throughout. While it bounds in fascinating trivia (Spain's first railways were built not in Spain, but in Cuba: the first transcontinental railroad was constructed by the United States,  but not in north America),  the true value of the book (beyond sheer entertainment value, which for me was through the roof) lays in the perspective it adds to the development of powerful nation-states and industrial economies in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The railways' integral role in the unification of Germany and Italy has been mentioned, but rails were also part of the fabric of British imperialism. The United Kingdom's position as a pioneer allowed it to wield an incredible amount of influence over the development of rails across the world, exporting engines, cars, drivers, planners, and even gauge standards; the metric of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is curiously ubiquitous. In Russia, the Trans-Siberian railroad provided an exercise in state planning on a massive scale, one which Wolmar believes influenced succeeding Soviet governments.  Wolmar doesn't shy away from the negative legacy of railroads -- the exploitation of labor to build them, the political corruption surrounding them in the United States, their use as a tool of the state to quickly put down riots -- but remains an enthusiastic supporter of the technology, both because of what they've done for us, and what they will continue to do. Railroads are our past, he writes, but also our future.

Our past; our future; but not quite our present. At the present moment, cars and planes reign supreme. Wolmar's history follows rail lines into the 20th century, as they begin losing traffic to their competitors, and examines why they failed to compete more effectively. The long attachment to steam technology is part of the reason, Wolmar believes: not only was this a technology companies were long used to, but one they had an enormous amount of capital already invested in. Diesel and electric engines were new and unproven, and without a guarantee of success, few companies were willing to take the leap of faith that was required of them. Throughout the history and his analyses, Wolmar is delightfully moderate. He scorns neither the free market nor centralization and central planning: nations and rail companies have experimented with both throughout their history with rails, and either alternative might be the best in a given situation. Despite the fact that railway transportation has been in decline -- especially tragic in the United States -- Wolmar believes that is on the mend. Not only are steadily rising oil prices making cars and airplanes look like an abysmal bargain compared to efficient rail lines,  but decades of increasing car ownership have resulted in unmatched congestion and sprawl; automobiles are increasingly unpopular. These views are not Wolmar's alone: in the United States, private rail companies are itching to get back into the passenger business, and for the first time in a half-century the cities are growing and the car-dependent surburbs shrinking. As oil becomes increasingly dear,  the human race is rediscovering the value of one of its best inventions.  I live in hope that I will see a rail renaissance in my own lifetime. For now, I shall read this book again and again to experience the triumphs of the past and imagine what future glories await.

Absolutely superb book: exciting, informative, and timely.

Nothing Like it in the World: The Making of the Transcontinental Railroad, Stephen Ambrose
Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back, Jane Holtz Keay

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (3 April)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly book-related event in which we share tidbits from our current reads. Play along at Should Be Reading!

Crossing his arms over his chest in what Tom sensed was feigned annoyance, Cambridge said, "I don't recall either of you gaining access to my castle in order to destroy my death ray."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Harry said without conviction. "Truth is, we got a little...what would you say?" he asked Tom.
"Bored, right," Harry agreed. "Feel free to destroy the galaxy whenever the mood strikes you, your lordliness."

p. 44, Star Trek Voyager: Children of the Storm