Book Review: Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Title: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Author: Barbara Ehrenreich
Genre: Non Fiction
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2001
Source: I purchased this book

Barbara Ehrenreich’s non-fiction book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America has become a classic of undercover investigative reporting. Ehrenreich has a Ph.D. in Biology, but went undercover as a low-wage worker in three very different parts of America: Florida, Maine, and Minnesota. She wanted to see if she could actually make a living at jobs that barely pay the minimum wage. This book entails what happened to her while she was doing this during 1998-2000.

Florida: Ehrenreich first worked in Key West, Florida in the service industry. She applied for jobs as a cleaning woman in the many hotels in the area, but discovered that because she was white she was always considered for waitressing jobs instead.
As a waitress, she earned $2.43 an hour, plus tips. Even with the tips she barely made the minimum wage. The low wages for such physically demanding work was bad enough, but the real problem was the lack of affordable health care and especially the cost of housing. Ehrenreich even ends up in a trailer park to try to save on rent. It was impossible for many of the waitresses to rent an apartment because they didn’t have the money for the down payment and security deposit. One waitress was mourning her boyfriend, who was killed in a scuffle in prison:

And after he was gone she spent several months living in her truck, peeing in a plastic pee bottle and reading by candlelight at night, but you can’t live in a truck in the summer, since you need to have the windows down, which means anything can get in, from mosquitoes on up.

Ehrenreich is disgusted with the managers of the restaurant. She walks out after one of the managers screams at her and others, then throws an empty tray across the room. Barbara just leaves, with customers waiting and other work undone. She has the freedom to do this, because this is not really her life.

That is probably the only weakness to the book. Ehrenreich can just leave anytime she wants to. She also has a cushion of over $1,000 to fall back on. One of her rules for the project is that she won’t be homeless. She’ll fall back on her cushion if she needs to do so.

On the other hand, she is very brave. To live in trailer parks and motel rooms that are clearly not in safe neighborhoods, she was putting herself in very risky situations when she did not have to do so. I really admire that.

Maine: Ehrenreich “chose Maine for its whiteness.” She had also heard that the Portland area needed workers. What she found out was that while there were thousands of minimum-wage jobs available, most apartments were $1,000 per month and up, clearly not affordable on those salaries. Ehrenreich found work in two places: a weekend job as a nursing home aide, and a weekday job in a cleaning service called “The Maids”. She also finds a place to live for $120.00 a week, and with her two jobs she can barely make it. Working 7 days a week is rough, too. She starts to like working at the nursing home, but the cleaning job, where the workers are dispatched to different homes each day, is brutal and physically exhausting, especially since some of the workers only eat one meal a day, and that meal may be a bag of chips. They don’t make enough money to buy food in quantity. Some must rely on food vouchers in order to buy food.

Minnesota: Ehrenreich goes to Minnesota and works in a Wal-Mart, not as a salesperson, but putting clothes away from the fitting rooms and folding the clothes on the selling floor. There are many carts of clothes to put away each day:

At Wal-Mart, as opposed to say Lord & Taylor, customers shop with supermarket-style shopping carts, which they can fill to the brim before proceeding to the fitting room. There the rejected items, which are about 90 percent of the try-ons, are folded and put on hangers by whoever is staffing the fitting room, then placed in fresh shopping carts for Melissa and me. So this is how we measure our workload –in carts.

Ehrenreich actually has a nice manager, but the job is monotonous, and most of the workers cannot afford to buy into the medical insurance because it takes too much out of their paychecks. Ehrenreich never works on a cash register. She is horrified by the retail culture, where customers are referred to as “guests” and employees as “associates”.

The job is tiring because of the late nights, and she is weary when she gets home. As always, the most difficult part of working a job such as this is finding a place to live that she can afford on her Wal-Mart salary, which is $7.00 an hour. She lives in a frightening motel where she feels very vulnerable and unsafe, but still charges the outrageous weekly rent of $245.00. Barbara finally concedes defeat and realizes that she simply cannot make it in Minnesota on Wal-Mart wages and the high rent of motels.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is an important book which should be read by everyone who is interested in how the almost invisible class of the working poor try to survive in an America of low wages, extremely high rents and no national health care.

How Do You SEE Yourself?

I have loved this poster for a long time. I used to have it on my wall. We must learn to believe in ourselves. It’s a picture of an tiny orange kitten gazing into a mirror and seeing a lion:

What matters most is how you see yourself.

Look at yourself in the mirror and see the “King of Beasts”. That you can do almost anything that you set your mind to do. To believe in yourself.

Books and Authors I Hate

Here are some “classic” works of literature that I just don’t like. So sue me.

  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Boring, boring, boring.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I don’t care that he won a Nobel Prize. I read this for high school English class and hated it. I understood it. I just didn’t like it. Maybe I’d like it better now, but I don’t think so. I’ll try to read it again soon.

  • Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. Okay, I read this on my own in high school. I don’t think I need to explain why I held my nose while reading it. It has nothing to do with literary merit, which is not the point anyway. It certainly isn’t boring. I think it is essential reading for trying to understand a madman’s psyche.

  • Other than A Room of One’s Own and also her journals and letters, I just cannot finish any of Virginia Woolf’s books. Her novels usually have long run-on sentences and no plot to speak of. 
  • Shakespeare. I like individual lines of his, but suffering through some of his plays is torture. I like Romeo and Juliet, and some of the comedies, but most of his tragedies are insufferable. I know this is not a popular opinion, especially in England, but I will admit that I have never been able to get past the surface level of Shakespeare. I studied his plays in high school and university (along with Chaucer), but I must admit that I find Shakespeare pretty tedious. It’s funny about how some people complain about violence now, but has anyone ever read Titus Andronicus? Talk about blood and gore!

Book Review: Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

Title: Books
Author: Larry McMurtry
Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir
Format: Hardcover
Year Published: 2008
Source: I purchased this book.

 Larry McMurtry is the author of many fine books and screenplays, including The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove. He has won both the Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award.

What many people don’t know as that during his very successful writing career he has also worked as a professor, a bookseller, and a rare book collector. He has also owned antiquarian bookstores. His current shop is Booked Up in Archer City, TX, the town in which he grew up.

Books: A Memoir is a most unusual autobiography. It rarely discusses his family life or his writing or his Hollywood career. It is mainly concerned with his career as a rare-book seller and dealer. Although not a particularly long book, it is written is very short chapters — 109 chapters in all!
McMurtry fell in love with reading at an early age despite growing up in a house that contained virtually no books. In his twenties he started scouting books and then selling them. As he says:

For the first twenty years of my career as a book hunter I actually read almost all the books I had gone to such trouble to find. Getting the books I wanted to read was the main reason for the pursuit.

But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain. 

McMurtry goes on to tell interesting stories about the books he had bought and the eccentricities of the book sellers he has encountered over the years. Many of these buyers and sellers are not interested in reading the books but only in making a profit from them, since some rare books can sell for many thousands of dollars.

McMurtry really loved the business. Despite his great success as a writer:

Sometime in the mid-seventies I began to view myself as essentially a bookseller — or maybe just a book scout. The hunt for books was what absorbed me most. Writing was my vocation, but I had written a lot, and it was no longer exactly a passion. 

I was mystified at first why McMurtry rarely discussed his life outside of book selling and collecting, because he must have led a very interesting life. Then I discovered that this book is part one of a triology. The second part, Literary Life: A Second Memoir, came out last December, and the next volume, Hollywood: A Third Memoir, will be published in August.

Books: A Memoir is very interesting reading if you are interested in book collecting or in rare or old books. If you are not, then you might not find it interesting. I also found the extremely short chapters a little irritating. I did at times put the book down for a few days only to come back to read more. 

I am definitely interested in reading the sequels, because I want to know McMurtry’s memories of writing bestsellers and Hollywood screenplays!

Books and Authors I’m Ashamed to Admit That I Haven’t Read . . . Yet

I was an English major in college (university for those outside of the U.S.), but that doesn’t mean that I’ve read all the classics. These are some of the books I’ve always been meaning to read but I just haven’t . . . yet.

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • War and Peace by Tolstoy. I started it but never finished it. Yes, I admit that I was deterred by the sheer length. I will read it. All the way through. Really.

  • Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. I have a copy on my desk now, and I’m staring at it.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was supposed to read it in high school English class, but somehow I never got around to it. How did I ever graduate?

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I tried to read it, really I did. It probably was a little too all-male for my tastes (I like women protagonists).

  • Anything by Dostoyevsky. I started them all, but never got beyond the first few pages. I especially wanted to read Crime and Punishment, but just didn’t get very far.

  • Somerset Maugham. I haven’t read any of his books.

  • Evelyn Waugh. I haven’t read his works, either. I have his Complete Short Stories on my desk, too, and I’ve been meaning to read his novels.