Friday, May 31, 2013
You Want Fries with That?: A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage by Prioleau Alexander
In You Want Fries with That?, Alexander abandons an unsatisfying advertising career and decides to explore the minimum wage world (it helps that his wife works). He delivers pizzas, serves up ice cream, labors at a construction site, and of course takes orders at a fast food restaurant. His descriptions are vivid, informative, and often funny. I like how he writes about his coworkers without looking down on them as Caitlin Kelly did (I guess that book really stuck in my craw), and I like that he sticks around longer at each job than Daniel Seddiqui. He doesn't get into the economics of surviving on minimum wage, aside from explaining how delivering pizzas is a losing game. He sticks to describing the work itself. It's one of the best books I read all month.
Stern decides to become an EMT in middle age because she wants to help people and feel useful. This book tells about her training process and some of the more interesting calls she has answered. She also has some psychological issues that are impacted positively and negatively by her new (volunteer) job.
Ambulance Girl is a quick and entertaining read. It should be required for anyone interested in becoming an EMT, especially later in life. As for me, I'll pass. But that's also how I felt before I read it. At least now I have a better understanding of the work and a greater admiration for those who do it.
This book is hilariously cynical. Or cynically hilarious. Anyone should be able to identify with something in this book, be it pointless tasks or clueless managers. Schneider writes a little more than necessary about sex, but I think he's trying to show that guys without jobs can still get laid. More offensive are his morals: theft, deceit, and sabotage seem to come naturally to him. Regardless, it's an entertaining read about the working world.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Belly is awesome, and so is The Great American Bagel in Elk Grove Village. I redeemed an offer there for a free breakfast bagel (egg, cheese, meat) this morning. It felt like robbery to walk in, show the QR code on my phone, and walk out without paying, sandwich in hand. And to make it even better, Belly is giving me $10 for using the offer. It's like they're buying me breakfast twice!
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
After achieving his goals for the project, Shepard pontificates about how this means any American can start with nothing and find a decent job, get an apartment, get a car, and put money in the bank. He doesn't acknowledge his obvious advantages over many poor people. He's physically and mentally healthy, he has no addictions, and he has no dependents. While he doesn't tell anyone about his degree, he still carries all he has learned in his head, and I presume he is articulate and carries himself well. Surely these qualities make it easier for him to get and keep a job.
Scratch Beginnings is an interesting story about life in the underclass. Shepard's success may inspire some, but his broader conclusions based on an experiment of one are presumptuous if not ridiculous. Still, I enjoyed most of the book until the epilogue.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Friday, May 24, 2013
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
For me, the most important revelation in this book has nothing to do with working retail. Kelly writes a lot (too much) about her decades of experience as a journalist. Assuming her portrayal is accurate, I would have fucking hated being a journalist. That's a big deal because I was on that career path when I started college.* At least I had a lucrative 10-year run in computers; I never would have lasted that long in journalism.
I didn't like this book. Let's start with the subtitle. Can you really call 27 months a career, especially when you only work one day a week (with an extra shift or two in the holiday season)? That's maybe 130-150 days of work, about half a year if she had been a full-timer. Let's move on to the basic theme: working retail sucks and pays poorly. Did I need to read a book to learn that? I was hoping for some interesting and/or amusing stories, but there are few.**
I don't like the author's attitude. She tells us over and over how she wouldn't normally associate with her fellow, um, associates (Kelly repeats herself often—yet another book in need of a decent editor). She acts like she's the greatest employee, master of the sales floor. She brags about the new skills she is learning but still has the air of one who feels the work is beneath her. She brags even more about her glorious past as a journalist. I would love to hear what her coworkers really thought of her.
Then she gets upset when she is passed over for a promotion, but again, she's only working one freaking day a week. I worked retail for a few years in high school, and I quickly learned there is a big difference between the full-timers and the part-timers. Apparently this is lost on Kelly, who after all has elevated her single day a week into a "career". At least other people who have written about doing crappy jobs (most prominently, Barbara Ehrenreich) have fully immersed themselves.
Kelly throws in some interviewing and reporting—she is a journalist, as she constantly reminds us—but it doesn't add up to much. She should have stuck to her experiences at work. And if that wasn't enough to fill a book, well, that kind of says it all, doesn't it?
* I was editor of the high school newspaper for three years and quickly became an editor on the college paper as well. Career counselors say to envision yourself in the job you want, but I could never imagine being a journalist in "real life" even though I wrote and edited stories in school. I took that as a sign that I should do something else. I switched to computer science before the start of sophomore year.
** I hope another book I have called Retail Hell by Freeman Hall will provide that.
Monday, May 20, 2013
50 Jobs in 50 States is too short for the ground it attempts to cover, though. It could easily have been 50 pages longer, one more page for each state. For that matter, it would have been better if the author spent at least two weeks per job. The journey seems rushed, and for all the effort he put into securing each job it would have been ideal to spend more time at each one.*
But the book's biggest flaw is too much about Seddiqui and not enough about the work. I'd say this has risen to the level of pet peeve for me since I see it in so many books. Isn't one of the cardinal rules of writing "don't let yourself get in the way of a good story"? People don't want to read about you; they want to read about what you did. Especially annoying is his relationship with a psychotic** pseudo-girlfriend. It's a perfect example of something that seems important to the writer personally at the time while readers really don't give a shit. Heck, in 5-10 years Seddiqui probably won't care about her anymore either. I hope.
* Of course, it's hard enough to commit a whole year to a project, much less two, so I don't fault the author for this even though I think it would have resulted in a better book.
** I don't throw that word around casually. The woman has serious issues.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Hack: How I Stopped Worrying About What to Do with My Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab by Melissa Plaut
This book is pretty much what one would expect: a narrative of the hiring process followed by a collection of tales about the job. Plaut tells of good and bad tippers, kind and rude people, getting lost at the airport, getting stuck in traffic, and so on. The stories are somewhat random and unorganized, but that's the nature of the work.
Hack is interesting at times but not particularly memorable. As with any memoir, Plaut is at the mercy of what happens to her, and other cabbies may have better stories to tell. I suspect that she wouldn't have scored a book deal without the novelty of her gender. Plus she has a rather boring personal life, and although she doesn't write a lot about it, the book would have been better with less. If I reviewed books on Amazon, I'd give it three stars.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Did you know that a barracuda is actually a combination of a fish and a dragon and a hawk? Right now it can only exhibit its fish powers, because the other two are chained down by the demons deep below the Earth's surface, but believe me, one day, the barracuda is going to take over the world.
Contrary to popular belief, Antarctica isn't full of scientists—most of the workers are support staff who provide food, dispose of waste, repair things, etc.* These service industry jobs are managed by a large corporation serving as contractor for the National Science Foundation. With the layers of governmental and corporate management acting arbitrarily, it is amazing anything is accomplished down there.
Big Dead Place is a bit hard to follow at times. It is mostly an anecdotal memoir which seems scatter-shot at first, but eventually the broader theme of bureaucratic disenchantment emerges. Johnson addresses the notion that harsh weather conditions drive workers away:
I have never heard one person say that the most difficult thing about Antarctica is working outside, or being cold. I have never heard one person imply that Antarctica's tough physical environment would be the main reason not to return. I have never heard of one returnee who finally quit because it's the world's highest, driest, coldest, or whatever. People leave because of the bullshit.He proceeds to document a fair amount of that bullshit in excruciating detail. He weaves tales of South Pole explorers into his narrative, and it is obvious that despite his bitching about the way the program is run, he truly finds Antarctica fascinating.
It isn't all riveting, though. A better editor would have excised many of the dorm hijinks stories, for example. Still, Johnson offers a valuable perspective on living and working in Antarctica. I think it's a good book for the curious (like me) and a mandatory book for anyone who wants to work down there.
While doing research for this post, I learned that Johnson committed suicide in December 2012.
* This reminds me of my experience working at the American Bar Association. People often asked me what it was like to work with a bunch of lawyers. But I didn't—the only lawyers I knew there were at least three levels above me, and naturally I didn't interact with them. The ABA provides services to members who happen to be lawyers, but most employees are administrative assistants, computer programmers, magazine editors, data entry clerks, etc.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
May's theme is work, which may be an odd choice for someone who hasn't held a steady job in nearly a decade. I plan to read about all sorts of occupations from the unusual to the mundane. Who knows, maybe I'll find a new career. Or more likely I'll be reminded how good I have it as a homemaker who can sit around and read books about work.
Moore is an Australian travel writer with a knack for bad experiences.* The title comes from a sign posted in a cafe in China. This book is written in a Q&A format with Moore providing sarcastic, funny, and yet often practical responses to a reader's queries about world travel. He also draws on his experience to offer "Top 10" lists of what to avoid.
Though there is a helpful glossary, I couldn't always follow Moore's Aussie slang (my copy is a UK edition so it's not Americanized). Also the book is aimed toward backpackers, a particular kind of traveler. Overall I found this book amusing but not great. I think my wife enjoyed it more than I did (I read it aloud), although she was initially put off by the title. I'd give it three and a half stars (out of five).
* Not to be confused with Tim Moore, a British travel writer whose books I've read.
The book is based on a series Malusa wrote for Discovery Online wherein he rides a bicycle to the lowest point on each continent. He doesn't ride around the world from lowpoint to lowpoint in one long trip; he flies into a convenient airport and rides a few hundred miles to each one (except Death Valley, which he rides to from his Tucson home).
I enjoyed this book. Malusa really connects with the locals, and most are exceedingly generous. With a background in botany, he describes his natural surroundings vividly. I think his ride through Djibouti was my favorite, though the ride from Cairo to the Dead Sea was very interesting. Djibouti surprised me because the people are so friendly—aside from some kids who throw rocks at him—and because the French Foreign Legion has a presence there. I hadn't heard about them in such a long time that I assumed they had disbanded.*
* I remember the Foreign Legion being portrayed when I was young, circa 1980, as elite, mercenary, and very dangerous (i.e. its members didn't live long). But I must admit that a good portion of that impression came from jokes in Mad magazine.
Friday, May 10, 2013
"Instead of the postmaster general's 'shrink to survive' strategy -- which will only begin a death spiral for the USPS -- what is needed is a dynamic business plan for the future to take advantage of the many opportunities for growth, including in the exploding package delivery market," Fredric Rolando, the union's president, said in a statement.Wait a second... did Rolando say "exploding package delivery"? Boom!
Wednesday, May 08, 2013
Oh-oh if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowdI was driving home today totally buzzed on adrenaline after a bike ride on the North Branch Trail. There was a train crossing on Touhy Ave. so traffic was stopped, and I had the windows down. This song was playing and I sang along loudly, pounding out the rhythm on the door (like I said, I was really buzzed). As the song ended, I thought Gosh, wouldn't it be funny if the driver next to me had the passenger-side window down?
Draw dicks on a wall
Oh-oh if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall
If you can't draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall
She did. Then she pulled forward a bit, turned and glared at me over her shoulder.
Tuesday, May 07, 2013
The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson
The road trip is entertaining for the most part, though I've read more engaging travelogues. Fortunately the authors do not include every correction they made, instead trying to stick to the most illustrative ones. Surprisingly, the most interesting parts are where Deck reflects on the evolution of language. It becomes a sort of existential crisis that I did not expect. In that respect, it is the best kind of road trip: one that brings the travelers back to someplace different from where they started, metaphorically speaking.
Overall, unfortunately, The Great Typo Hunt falls a bit flat. The book is written in an overwrought, heroic, righteous tone that starts out amusing but can become annoying. Though the premise appeals to me, this isn't much of a travel memoir. Most of it could have just as well occurred on the streets of one city. This is underscored by a lesson the authors learn: people make the same errors everywhere (oh well, I guess somebody had to drive around the country to figure that out). Also the writers don't give much detail about the things they see aside from the typos; it all seems to pass by too quickly. A grammar freak/scold will like this book, but someone looking for a vicarious vacation may be disappointed.
* At one time I might have, but I guess I've grown too cynical about making any kind of difference in the world to bother. And I could never write a book like this—the pressure not to publish any mistakes would be unbearable. Just omitting a one-letter word in Biking Illinois devastated me, and I am probably the only person in the world who expected that book to be perfect (my only solace was in finding the error myself before someone else pointed it out).
Thursday, May 02, 2013
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism by Thomas Kohnstamm
As a travel author, I can identify with Kohnstamm's dilemma. Time wasn't as big an issue for me as money (at least until the last month when I realized I had blown nine months writing 30% of the book). I doubt that any travel guides end up making much money for their authors (though travel memoirs may). Alas I cannot identify with Kohnstamm's tales of debauchery. Researching my book was a solitary process with neither female nor chemical companionship.
Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? is a funny and engaging tale. Along the way it exposes some of the dirty truths of the travel writing industry—or confirms them depending on one's cynicism.