Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich

51ksxjzFaRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Book-– Many are familiar with Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a journalistic experiment in which Ehrenreich take a series of low-wage jobs to investigate the difficulties faced by the working poor. Bait and Switch is a lesser-known companion to this book and explores the raw deal faced by the white collar unemployed. Ehrenreich gives herself 10 months to find a white collar job (defined here at $50,000+ per year, full time with benefits) which is the average length of time it takes most white collar job seekers to find employment. She will then work that job for about three months and do an insider report on corporate culture. What follows is a series of shifty career coaches, wardrobe updates, endless resume tweaking, networking events, and endless web-searching, and no job to show for it at the end.

While I can see how this book might be a cathartic read for a white collar professional struggling after a lay off, I think Ehrenreich’s work suffers from going into her job search with all the wrong motives. I felt that Ehrenreich’s insulation from the real-life consequences of her simulated unemployment causes her writing to be permeated with smug coldness, especially when describing her fellow white collar job seekers. She lacked the compassion for the corporate job-seeker’s plight that would have humanized this book. Nevertheless, Bait and Switch stands well as an indictment of how difficult it is to enter (and re-enter) the corporate world, especially as a middle-aged woman. However, I think the work would have been even stronger if either written by an actual laid-off corporate employee or if Ehrenreich simply chronicled the journey of a white collar job seeker instead of going undercover and shoehorning herself into a story that’s not hers to tell.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Book – Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett has the most adorable bunny cover I have ever seen by far. But whilst one might expect to find a cute story of an adorable rabbit beneath this cover, we are instead met by death, mourning, and sleepwalking. The back synopsis was insane; there was such an onslaught of information I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow everything going on when I actually started reading.

Elvis is 11 years old, and her mother has just committed suicide, or so everyone says.  Elvis is skeptical, and thinks something more sinister may be afoot in her mother’s death.  In the wake of her mother’s passing, Elvis is forced to undergo weekly sessions with the school counseling, and begins tracking her journey through the nine stages of grief. Her father mourns by dressing up in her mother’s clothes and wearing her lipstick. Elvis’s older sister, Lizzie unfortunately inherited her mother’s sleepwalking, and it’s quickly growing out of control. In the midst of trying to save her sister from meeting the same ghastly fate of her mother, Elvis works furiously on her mother’s unfinished memoir, and searches for answers into her death.

There is so much going on in this story; it’s dark, a  fair bit depressing, and very quirky. The sleepwalking was a huge aspect of the story, and I was so fascinated by it. Though it wasn’t the sweet story I anticipated from a glance at the cover, this book exceeded my expectations.

A Matter of Trust by Susan May Warren

Book- This is the third book in the Montana Rescue series by Susan May Warren. In my own literary journey, I have come to know her as a definite Christian fiction writer. I am not a personal fan of religious views being thrown at me, but I feel she does an amazing job getting into the nitty gritty of the story with just a touch of Christianity spliced into a few scenes. I highly adore this series, and once I get my paws on one of these books, I can usually read them within a week! Impressive I think for someone who used to HATE to read as a kid.

This story revolves around Gage and Ella. Gage is a worldclass champion free rider in snowboarding. Ella is a lawyer turned senator. Gage has always had a thing for the limelight. He shines in every aspect of his life. Unfortunately he is blamed for the death of a young man who wanted to be taken on an epic snowboarding run through the back wood country. Ella happens to be a junior attorney at the time and is assigned to his case. This lawsuit has all but destroyed Gage. He now works for PEAK rescue team and also works at the local mountain lodge as a ski patrol. Ella has come back to this fateful mountain to chase down her brother that insists on following in the footsteps of his hero Gage on an epic run down the mountain. Ella and Gage team up reluctantly and set off to rescue her brother. There are many obstacles physically and emotionally for these two as they relearn to work together and gain each others trust again.

The scenery is set up amazingly in this book. As you read you will feel the icy wind blow down your neck, the salty taste of your lips coated in tears. I highly recommend this one for someone who is looking to “check out” of reality for a little.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Book – Anything Is Possible is a set of connected short stories about the people living in the small, rural town of Amgash, Illinois. Retired school janitor Tommy Guptill reflects on the lives of some of the former students as he shops for a birthday gift for his wife. The three Barton siblings attended the school and  we learn about their difficult childhood and lives as adults. Linda Peterson-Cornell relates the consequences of her husband’s voyeurism and infidelities. A war veteran searches for love and redemption. I loved seeing characters through the eyes of different townspeople, as they encountered them in their daily lives. Despite the obstacles and difficulties they faced, there were also moments of grace and hope. I have found myself reflecting on these stories and on the bonds of families and friends. Stout also wrote Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton, Amy and Isabelle and other popular novels.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson

Book – I frequently tell people that some of the best science fiction and fantasy is happening in short stories. It seems counter-intuitive that you could squeeze a satisfying world and characters both out of a couple dozen pages, especially when it’s so hard to find a novel that isn’t part of a series, but there’s something about the short format that really packs a hefty punch. Kij Johnson is an excellent example: her stories are complex, rich, and deep, set in spectacular worlds ranging from just different enough from ours to be intriguing to so different they should be hard to imagine (although she makes it easy). And they’ve won three Nebula awards, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The stories in At the Mouth of the River of Bees circle around themes of grief, loss, rebuilding, and the power of story itself to help us through these. In “The Horse Raiders,” a young woman is the only survivor of an attack that wipes out her clan, only to discover that a plague is wiping out their entire planet’s way of life. In “Dia Chjerman’s Tale,” women captives on an imperial spaceship tell the stories of how their ancestors stayed alive. And in the title story, a road trip leads to an unexpected pilgrimage and an even more unexpected chance for grace on behalf of a woman’s dying dog. The characters in these stories are angry, they’re hurt, they lash out and they make mistakes, but they also pull themselves together and carry on.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

7493Book— Structured into six chapters covering six seminal events in Revolutionary American history, Founding Brothers provides a glimpse into the psyches of America’s founding generation. According to Ellis, accounts of the founders often render these men heroically remote and untouchable (well, until the Hamilton musical, that is); by focusing on the bonds among them, Ellis hopes to render his subjects more accessible. Discrete incidents such as the dinner that decided the location of the U.S. capitol and the duel that took Hamilton’s life reveal who these men were when their characters were tested. Ellis’ writing shines when he humanizes the founders with little personal details. Jefferson often sang under his breath. Madison was sickly. Adams was choleric and has a tumultuous friendship with Jefferson. Ellis’ accessible story-telling makes the Revolution feel immediate and precarious rather than a foregone conclusion with the benefit of hindsight.

For a closer look at some of the founding fathers, check out Ellis’ other books, like American Sphinx, which focuses on Jefferson, and His Excellency, which portrays Washington.

 

No Manches Frida (WTH Frida?!?!) (2016)

Movie – In a new take on a German film, No Manches Frida is a story about a con man, a group of at risk high school kids, and a teacher who needs help to reach them. Zequi just got out of prison for bank robbery. They never found the money he stole. Zequi hid it so well even he cannot get to it. Buried under a school gymnasium, Zequi needs to figure out how to retrieve the money, payoff an associate, and stay out of jail.

Zequi goes for a janitor position interview at the school and ends up with a teaching position. He is placed in charge of the most troublesome students on the campus. His job is to keep them in line and out of trouble. On his first day though, he runs screaming from them and vows never to return. Convinced to stay he comes prepared with some very unorthodox methods of keeping them inline. Paintballs, shaming, and a field trip to see what becomes of unruly high school students; the students begin to respect Zequi and believe they can succeed.

Set in Mexico, the movie is a feel good, help the misguided, romance story. At a time when all the stories coming out from there are about narco-traffickers, kidnapping, disappearances, and government corruption, this movie doesn’t really address any of those issues. Instead it demonstrates how anyone from any background can make a difference sharing their experiences. There is a lot of vulgar language in the movie and some questionable teaching methods. It is not for everyone. If you like over the top foreign comedies with profane language, them this is your type of movie.  The movie is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

41-rjgGUB5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book–Ella Minnow Pea (LMNOP) lives with her family on the fictional island of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina. On the island nation founded by Nevin Nollop, supposed creator of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Nollopian citizens are proud of their wordy heritage and communicate in a sesquipedalian style that makes their letters a fun, dictionary-requiring read. In the center of town, there is a memorial to Nevin Nollop, including his famous sentence. The plot begins when one letter falls off of the statue: the letter “Z.” Rather than re-affixing the letter to the monument and moving on, the island Council chooses to interpret this as a divine sign from Nollop, and bans this letter from Nollop’s written and spoken discourse. While “Z” is no great loss, the Nollopian’s rationalize, and dutifully eliminate it, they are less sanguine when more letters begin to fall from the statue and accordingly, from their language, turning their society of free expression into one of censorship, fear, and constrained liberties.

Considered as a novel, Ella Minnow Pea is weak–the characterization is broad and the world-building is vague. As a fable in the vein of Animal Farm, though, it is great fun, and as a linguistic experiment, it’s even better. This book will appeal to people who love children’s books like The Phantom Tollbooth and The Lost Track of Time and were craving an adult version of books that have so much fun with the English language.

 

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Book – Being a First Lady is no easy task.  Perhaps that’s why our current President’s wife, Melania would rather pass the baton to her step-daughter Ivanka than fully take on the role herself. Curtis Sittenfeld tells the fascinating story of the American Wife and the work and loyalty required of someone whose spouse has political aspirations. Supposedly, this is a fictional account of former First Lady Laura Bush. However, while reading this, some other politician’s wives came to mind, especially those who have stood by their man through thick and thin. This is the story of Alice, a Wisconsin girl with a humble background. She is a school librarian who is swept off her feet by Charlie Blackwell who has grown up in a different world. He is highly privileged and comes from a very wealthy family that is tight-knit and Republican. Even though Charlie isn’t politically ambitious, his family has other plans for him. He becomes governor and then unlikely ascends to the White House. Alice meticulously recounts that life is far more tedious and complex than it appears on the surface and that all her actions are monitored for political ramifications and that privacy is a thing of the past.  She also is conflicted, because she has always been a Democrat and wants to hold onto her ideals while being supportive to her husband. I hoped that Alice would have been a stronger character, nevertheless it was a very interesting read.  This would be a good book club selection, as well.  You may also enjoy Sittenfeld’s other books – Eligible, The Man of My Dreams, Prep, and Sisterland.

 

My Favorite Thing is Monsters: Book One by Emil Ferris

Graphic novel – Set in Chicago in the 60s, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is the semi-autobiographical story of Karen, a ten-year-old girl who pictures (and draws) herself as a werewolf. After her upstairs neighbor dies mysteriously, her death officially labeled a suicide, Karen takes it on herself to investigate, learning about her lovely neighbor’s history as a Holocaust survivor, her older brother Deeze’s many and varied relationships with women, and just exactly how far her monster mask will take her. Meanwhile, her mother is dying of cancer, Martin Luther King, Jr. has just been killed, and Karen is probably in love with her best friend.

This is an incredible story, richly layered, full of wonderful, fully-realized characters. Despite the youth of the narrator, there are a lot of heavy themes, but they are rendered with their full complexity intact. And the art is astounding – printed on paper lined like a spiral notebook, the sketchy pencil drawings are absolutely gorgeous, whether Ferris is rendering Deeze’s many weary ex-girlfriends or Karen’s favorite works from the Art Institute. The only unfortunate thing? It ends on a cliffhanger, and Book Two doesn’t come out until next year.