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Friday, April 19, 2019

Book Review: Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land (audio)

If you've read Nickel and Dimed and/or Educated a lot of this book will feel familiar. That's not to say don't read it, it's repetitive. There aren't enough voices out there speaking for the underprivileged, the overworked, the abused. Even better if those voices can be as eloquent as Stephanie Land's.

Stephanie never made it to college. She meant to go. In fact, in her late twenties, she was enrolled to start at the University of Montana at Missoula in the creative writing program, when she became pregnant. Her boyfriend reacted with anger and violence, and I kept begging her to just walk out and never look out, right there. But alas. (People, two parents are NOT good for the kids when it leads to major problems. One parent is just fine if it's a sane, relatively stable parent.) After an especially violent outburst involving the police, Stephanie takes her baby daughter, Mia, and leaves. Her angry ex fights her for custody (seemingly more to hurt Stephanie than because he gave two figs about his daughter), her own parents are either struggling themselves (her father) or clueless nincompoops (her mother) who can't/won't help, and they end up homeless. Thankfully it seems that all along the way, Stephanie had great case workers, counselors, and others in the system to advise her. After the abused women's shelter, she ends up in a little cabin available to the homeless, and then transitions into low income housing. I was hopeful at that point that things would slowly but surely keep progressing upward. But then she gets involved with another man and quickly moves in with him. He's not violent, but he's not good. This is where she starts to get into house cleaning.

She works for two different companies and also for herself. She has a process, and she seems to really like learning about her clients, even the ones she never sees who don't seem to know she exists. The voyeurism was very tempting (and also made me aware of what our own house cleaner might be learning about us!) There is "the sad house" and "the porn house" and even (shudder) "the clown house." She knows who is ill, who is down on their luck, whose marriages are in trouble, without ever laying eyes on the people. It's intriguing, to be sure.

But it's also backbreaking, exhausting work, that pays very little and can be highly demoralizing. Luckily, Stephanie has Mia to inspire her. She comes up with a plan, to attend community college and get a degree. She takes online classes at night and studies while Mia is with her dad. She doesn't sleep much and she eats even less. I did worry several times about just how she was going to break out of the cycle of poverty in which she was trapped. And to that end, she does have advantages other abused homeless single moms do not: her parents went to college. She's white. She owns a computer. In that regard, even though she didn't have even half the safety net that Barbara Ehrenreich had (admittedly, she had the entire safety net, as her experiences of poverty were entirely self-inflicted for the sake of journalism, and could be and in fact were ended on the spot when she decided her experiment was over.) For Stephanie this was no journalistic foray to check out the life of The Other. But it still is a half a step removed from the truly impoverished who cannot break the cycle.

That said, it is Stephanie's story and no one else's. And I'm not making light of her experiences which were pretty awful. It's simply that when this book, and Stephanie herself, are held up as examples of why-can't-all-poor-people-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps, I'm just saying hers is not the same situation. But she's told it well and I have hope for her and Mia's future. I even have hope that she might develop better taste in men.

Meanwhile, I will continue to use a maid service myself, as I know it's valuable job for the unskilled and for non-English speakers, and I will continue to tip very, very well. I hope that's the number one thing my house cleaners remember about me.

I listened to this eaudiobook via Libby/Overdrive from my local library.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Book Review: The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling by Jeanne Safer

My father's only sibling, his younger sister, had both schizophrenia, and also mental capacity limitations. When she was a young adult, their parents and she moved to Florida where the mental health system was better. For decades she cycled in and out of homes, had a wide variety of harmless to severe health issues, and was a constant drain on his emotions. Years ago I read a fascinating book, Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadow of Mentally Ill Siblings by Clea Simon, who had two older siblings with schizophrenia. And after the recent success of the book, The Collected Schizophrenias, which my company distributes, I've been thinking about their relationship again, and a friend loaned me this book.

It is mostly about having a severely damaged sibling. The various case studies range from the expected (schizophrenia, bipolar) to addiction, narcissism, brain damage, and just plain horrid siblings with no diagnosis. A few were not as extreme on the scale, which was nice for variety, and also to make the book more accessible to some of us who might have difficult, but not clinical siblings. It's interesting that Dr. Safer came up with the term "Caliban Syndrome" because I've certainly heard it, even though I'm not in the mental health field. I do wish the chapters analyzing The Tempest were a bit shorter (maybe readers less familiar with the play do appreciate the lengthy descriptions however.) And I wish there was more directive of approaches to those relationships, but the book is more of a series of case studies than a how-to. The stores were fascinating and riveting, and I kind of wish the book had even more of them--if it was chock-full like a Dr. Sacks book. But I understand she needed to explain the underpinnings of the patterns she was seeing, particularly as at the time this was published, there was little to no psychological research about siblings at all. Which is bizarre as, as she points out several times in the book, your sibling relationships will be the longest relationships you have in your life.

It would be truly fascinating to see a new edition--or perhaps simply a follow-up book--twenty years later as the mental health field has changed so much in the intervening time. With new diagnoses and more diagnoses and changing attitudes towards mainstreaming and mental health concerns, I think Dr. Safer would find significant differences, in just two decades. A really interesting read.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Book Review: Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

The Yoo family has emigrated from Korea. First the mother and daughter together, and many years later the dad. The mother and daughter live with a white family in Baltimore. The mother, Young, is essentially treated like a slave, working in a convenience store their host family owns, seven days a week, 12+ hours a day, with a very long commute. The daughter is not treated like their own, but she goes to private school and has a pretty privileged life. So she's become very Americanized, very fast, and when her father, Pak, comes to America and they move to Northern Virginia for him to start a business as owner of a bariatric chamber, there is even more first-generation/second-generation tension than usual.

And one day the bariatric chamber explodes. A child dies, a couple of people are badly injured. Naturally, there's a big trial. Was it the daughter, resentful of her parents and having an affair with an older customer? What about the Yoos, who are finding life in America harder than they'd expected, looking for an insurance payout? Or maybe the mother of the dead child, whose life had been so difficult with a troubled, ill, difficult to manage child who had taken over her life? Then there were the protesters who had gotten dangerously close to the equipment.

Now I have read a fair number of legal thrillers, and this is definitely the most literary one I've ever read. It has much more character development and less action than one gets in a typical legal thriller. But that doesn't mean the tension doesn't ratchet up as you go along. Obviously, there's no lack of suspects, and as each person testifies and we hear the different parties' stories--although not always in court--a multi-layered and complicated story is made clear, and the truth about that horrible day will finally be revealed.

This book is published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Book Review: Girls on the Verge by Sharon Biggs Waller

Camille is pregnant. It's not a rape or a long-term serious boyfriend. It's a mistake. And she's only 16 and this would really destroy her life in a lot of ways. And she wants to get an abortion.

Her best friend, Bea, who is religious, is the opposite of supportive. She cuts Camille off without even hearing her out, leaving her alone. She has no boyfriend to go through this with her, she can't tell her parents (they don't have a bad relationship but a tempestuous one, and this wouldn't improve things), and now her best friend has abandoned her. Luckily, she runs into Annabelle while buying a pregnancy test. Annabelle is older but Camille knows her through Drama. And Annabelle lets Camille know that she will do whatever it takes to help her. Annabelle has her own reason of course, but they embark on an unforgettable roadtrip. Oh, and with Bea along, as she begs Annabelle to let her come, says that while she doesn't agree with Camille, she does want to be supportive. Camille isn't inclined to trust Bea again, but she lets her come. The three set off across Texas on a series of quests, running into every possible legal speed bump along the way.

This book was very much written as a way to demonstrate the consequences of the draconian abortion-restriction laws that have been passed across the country in the last decade or so, and often books with such an agenda really sideline novel basics such as plot and character. And while the plot is straightforwardly in service of this goal, it's well done, and the characters are really well drawn. I loved this book. Lots of teenagers (and older women) have to go through this gauntlet of restrictions, and poor Camille gets thwarted at every turn. She even hires a lawyer at one point to try to get permission for a legal abortion in Texas without parental notification. She does everything right. And yet, as a privileged white girl heading to college in a couple of years, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable. One quickly realizes how daunting these same obstacles would be someone with fewer resources.

This is a very important book. I love that the character of Bea helps round out the story and address her concerns and be a questioner of Camille's decisions. As much as I would have done the same thing as Camille in her shoes, my high school girl friends were all very religious, and I would have met with much the same resistance. This book can help any teen going through this decision, who might be in the future, or who might have a friend in trouble. And it's also a great road trip, girl-power story. I loved it.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Book Review: Death of a New American: A Mystery by Mariah Fredericks

Jane, the ladies' maid we met in A Death of No Importance, gets embroiled in another mystery in this second book in the series.

The mousy sister from the last book, Louise, is actually engaged to a wealthy and accomplished young man from a prestigious family. His uncle, whose house on Long Island is to be the setting for the wedding, is the current New York City police investigator who has been recently much lauded for his great success in starting up an Italian Squad to root out crime, especially related to The Black Hand. He's so passionate about this work that he even employs several Italians at his house, which is both noble, and also a little icky in the paternalistic racism. But he's trying.

Pretty much as soon as they arrive, Jane meets the nanny, Sofia, and then Sofia is dead. The official story that there was an attempted kidnapping of the baby who Sofia was murdered while protecting, doesn't ring true with Jane. She thinks there's more to it. And with the help of journalist Michael Behan, she investigates.

Once again, we get a view of this 1910s America that isn't featured much in literature, when everyday life was just so much more dangerous, especially among the lower classes, and that was just considered a given and no one gives it much thought. Jane is relatively independent but not anachronistically so, which is refreshing. The mystery is well set up and kept me guessing. I really like this series and am looking forward to seeing where it goes next!

This book is published by Minotaur, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Monday, April 1, 2019

My Month in Review: March

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star. I got bogged down at the end of the month with Sales Conference. I hope I can catch up in April.

Books completed this month:
Molly: The Amazing True Story of the Pet Detective Who Rescues Cats by Colin Butcher, with JoAnne Lake
Campusland by Scott Johnston
Ellie, Engineer: In the Spotlight by Jackson Pearce
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land (audio)*
Broke: Detroit and the Cost of Urban Austerity in America by Jodie Kirshner
Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson
Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson
The Lost Man by Jane Harper (audio)
Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action by Seane Corn
Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope (audio)*

What I acquired this month (non-work books): 
Startalk: Everything You Ever Need to Know about Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe, and Beyond by Neil deGrasse Tyson [a gift for my husband]

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Book Review: Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Cat always takes care of her little brother Chicken. But he's more high-maintenance than most little brothers. He has a tendency to run off, he's extremely impulsive, and doesn't seem to understand scary things like that cars will run over you and if you can't swim, the ocean will kill you. But Cat doesn't mind; after all she really loves Chicken. And that love has inspired her mom who has written a series of picture books about Cat and Chicken. Which is great because they need the money since Cat's father died. But with Mom working essentially three jobs (college instructor as well and I forget the third, maybe tutor?), it's even more vital for Cat to watch Chicken.

This summer, Mom has gotten a temporary position teaching at a college in Atlanta, where their family's best friends moved last year. It's perfect because Cat and Chicken can stay with the friends all day while Mom works. Except that while they're on their flights from San Francisco, Mom gets a phone call. The Atlanta friends have to fly to India because their grandmother has had a stroke. And no, they're not coming back soon as India is so far away and they have so many family members there they haven't seen in years. So Mom has to come up with a Plan B for Cat and Chicken right away.

She rents a car. And they drive to the Outer Banks of North Carolina where their mom grew up. Cat and Chicken are going to stay with their grandparents, who they've never met. They disapproved when their daughter got married (you wonder for a moment if it's because her husband was black but no, it's because they were too young, they wanted to be artists and to move to San Francisco.) And there's been a rift ever since. Obviously, everyone is nervous going into this situation.

It's not going to be shocking news that everything works out. But you'll have to read the book to find
out! Both Cat and Chicken grow a lot emotionally over the summer, they learn a lot about what it means to be a family and to be a friend and to be part of a community. They learn a lot about their mother that they never knew. And they end up having an unexpectedly great summer, albeit not without its drama.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Bloomsbury, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.