Rich and Poor

April 26, 2011

Disclaimer: I know, even though it doesn’t feel that way sometimes, that compared to many, I am wealthy.

I keep on coming smack up against the contradiction (to me) in American life where so many in the middle class are becoming so much more impoverished, and at the same time they say things and behave (read: vote) in ways that show that they have no concern for those living in poverty.  I said once that it must be because I’m not rich enough that “spreading the wealth”, the horror of the 2008 US presidential election, still sounds pretty good to me. Or maybe I’m just a communist. Read too much Steinbeck, too young.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a book I should have read a long time ago, she describes working as a house cleaner and having a discussion with her fellow workers that indicated that they were more interested in making enough money to buy the same big houses as the people they cleaned for than they were in the unfairness of the economics they were in. I realize that a critical position is in many ways a privileged one, and that a lot of it is that people living in poverty don’t have the luxury of examining it from a sociological perspective. But I wonder just what it will take, just how unequal things will have to get, before people realize…hey, maybe I won’t be the person who lives out the rags to riches American dream, so maybe I should care about whether everyone has health care or can make a living wage…because maybe someday in the not-too-distant future, it could be me.

Ehrenreich’s book is stunning, and I’m sure 10 years (it was published in 2001, that’s how tardy I am) has only exacerbated the situations she describes.  And no one else is doing the working poor any favours. This is Tavis Smiley’s comment from April 17th’s Meet The Press:

“What I know is this.  I believe that budgets are moral documents.  Budgets are moral documents.  You can say what you say, but you are what you are.  I mean, you put your budget on the table, that’s when we learn who you really are. And I’m not so sure that this is not anything more than an immoral document where the poor are concerned.  Yes, to your point, David, we avoided a shutdown of government, but we effectively locked out the American people, namely the poor.  And I don’t understand why it is in this town that every debate about money always begins and ends with how we can further reward the rich and more punish the poor.  I don’t get that.”

Canadians might not be facing the exact same issue, but we’re certainly facing similar ones. And May 2nd is coming up fast.


April 20, 2011

I’m reading Dame Judi Dench’s and furthermore, an autobiography of her career in theatre and on-screen, “as told to John Miller”.

I love her so much I’m ashamed to say this, but 50 pages in, I’m not enjoying it very much. I’m sure her life has been a great deal more interesting than how it’s coming across here. I completely respect someone who realizes she’s not a writer herself, and so has someone else do it; I also realize that not everyone has to want to discuss her personal life to the same extent as her professional one. But, for example, she tells a (very brief) anecdote about having a strong feeling, almost a premonition, that she needed to talk to her father, and he dies later that day. The strongest emotion demonstrated in the anecdote is that she deeply appreciated her director at the time hiring her mother to do costumes for the company so the two of them could support one another: “…he knew how good she was at that, and it was a great help to both of us at such a sad time.”

In all those trauma memoirs I was reading I wanted the writers to have a little more detachment, a broader perspective on their lives. Dame Judi narrates her own life as though it was a BBC documentary.

The Pale King

April 19, 2011

I’m really, really enjoying David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, posthumously edited and published (edited extremely thoughtfully, from what I can tell).

But for now, I’ll take the library’s copy back so someone else can read it (assuming there’s at least one other DFW fan out here). A couple days ago I decided I liked it so much I’d buy my own. And the reference on the last page I read to Ashtabula, OH (big shout out to Ashta.!) just confirmed my instincts 🙂


April 18, 2011

Where Dreams Come From

by Marge Piercy

A girl slams the door of her little room
under the eaves where marauding squirrels
scamper overhead like herds of ideas.
She has forgotten to be grateful she has
finally a room with a door that shuts.

She is furious her parents don’t comprehend
why she wants to go to college, that place
of musical comedy fantasies and weekend
football her father watches, beer can
in hand. It is as if she announced I want
to journey to Iceland or Machu Picchu.
Nobody in their family goes to college.
Where do dreams come from? Do they
sneak in through torn screens at night
to light on the arm like mosquitoes?

Are they passed from mouth to ear
like gossip or dirty jokes? Do they
sprout from underground on damp
mornings like toadstools that form
fairy rings on dewtipped grasses?

No, they slink out of books, they lurk
in the stacks of libraries. Out of pages
turned they rise like the scent of peonies
and infect the brain with their promise.
I want, I will, says the girl and already

she is halfway out the door and down
the street from this neighborhood, this
mortgaged house, this family tight
and constricting as the collar on the next
door dog who howls on his chain all night.

“Where Dreams Come From” by Marge Piercy, from The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

non-fiction page turners

April 14, 2011

So, I watch a lot of TV/read a lot of stuff where new, popular non-fiction is promoted. And luckily enough, most of those books come through my hot little hands a little while later when the library gets them. This often causes reading backlogs, one of which I’m just working my way through at the moment. And I have to make mention of three really great (two new) non-fiction titles, that I’ve found really engaging.

Stephen Baker’s Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything was surprisingly fast-paced considering that it covers the work of a decade or more. I made sure to watch the Jeopardy! episodes that aired earlier this year when IBM’s Watson took the stage, and was most intrigued by the clips showing how Watson tackled one of the next great challenges in computing–linguistic processing and operating within a broad and uncontrolled context. Baker’s book is well-written, well-edited, and fascinating. It offers enough background to situate the project, without bogging down in unnecessary detail. I just read a review of a fiction work that said it was “unputdownable”, and I groaned, but I might be tempted to say the same about Final Jeopardy.

I’ve been a Sarah Vowell fan from afar…from Daily Show appearances and reading bits of her books when others had them around. Unfamiliar Fishes, her examination of the US colonization and then annexation of Hawaii, was my first full read.  It is so much fun to find an author who does so much research and still has such a sense of humour (of course, when dealing with the heady historical/political issues her books do, a sense of humour should really be the only way to go). Like many, I was concerned that her work would be too weighted to the snappy remark, and maybe not provide enough substance. But from now on I’ll be reading the books and ignoring the interviews (although I have to say that her example on the Daily Show of a joint resolution–what was signed to annex Hawaii–being what New Jersey does to declare a day Jon Bon Jovi Day was even better than the book’s example. And she was quick enough to point out that, in New Jersey, every day is Jon Bon Jovi Day. All those that aren’t Bruce Springsteen day, I guess.)

The final book was recommended by G., over here. John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce. I’m just starting it, but it’s definitely living up to expectations. Another non-fiction page turner.