Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nickel and Dimed: A Book Review

As promised, here is the first review from my post-Christmas reading list. I’m starting another class this week, so who knows when I’ll have time to read another book, much less review one (although it’s a writing class, and perhaps a book review will be one of the assignments. If so, I’ll recycle it for blog purposes. You don’t mind hand-me-downs, do you? Thanks.)

Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich) is a first-person account of Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigation of life as a low-wage worker in several US cities. Without much attempt to conceal her identity (the book was published in 2001; now that so many employers Google prospective hires, I wonder if this experiment would even be possible today), she obtained jobs as a Wal-Mart clerk, nursing home dietary aide, housecleaner, and waitress; and attempted, almost always unsuccessfully, to live solely on what she earned in these jobs (she usually worked more than one job at a time).

Although there are some examples of sloppy writing and editing, the book works really well as a narrative account of a life experience. I found myself absorbed in the first few pages and had a hard time putting the book down until I finished. That’s not to say that it reads like a novel. There’s very little character development (she writes briefly and usually condescendingly about her coworkers, changing their names and not making much attempt to learn anything about their lives or personalities), and you don’t really learn anything about her life outside of this experiment, either. There are occasional mentions of emails and calls to friends and family, but I think that the book might have benefited from more revelation about the author and the project’s effect on her personal life and relationships.

I also admire the project itself, as an attempt to wake people up to the social injustice that surrounds them. I’ve always been a good tipper, and respectful of people in service jobs; reading this makes me glad I’ve never been rude to a store clerk or waitress and has renewed my belief that our society is unfairly designed to grant further advantage to those who are already fortunate, while making it very difficult for the disadvantaged to rise on the economic ladder.

Still, there are things that disturbed me about this book, aside from the aforementioned sloppy writing and editing. Ehrenreich makes clear throughout the book that she never forgot that this was just an experiment for her; she was always aware that she had independent financial resources and that she could walk away from this life any time she chose. This works to the book’s advantage; I’d have had a hard time suspending disbelief if she’d tried to pretend she was really living in poverty. Still, her sympathy for her coworkers usually doesn't feel like true empathy; more like slightly contemptuous pity. As for the middle class, the contempt borders on hostility, barely covered with snide comments. For example, she attends a job fair at a Wal Mart and mentions that the few balloons at the tables “are, I suppose, what makes this a “fair””. Oh really? Most people with any experience at all outside the literary and academic worlds understand that a “job fair” will definitely not include kettle corn or midway games staffed by meth-addicted carnies. More irritating is her snarky comment about a co-worker during her short tenure as a maid; she’s described as the most prosperous of the maids due to a husband who works as a commercial fisherman and she occasionally mentions her “fine-dining” outings at establishments such as Friday’s. I think it would shock Dr. Ehrenreich to know that most lower middle class people who eat at chain restaurants occasionally are well aware that they’re not enjoying “fine dining”; I hated the tone that suggested a smug know-it-all elbowing her well-educated friends, saying “check out these rubes”. My mom and her friends eat at Olive Garden and Friday’s sometimes; none of them are stupid enough to think that they’re at La Grenouille. In the same chapter, commenting on the houses she’s assigned to clean as a maid, she comments on the books she finds (not many, and not of high literary quality), but then suggests that the books don’t matter because no one who lives in the house reads anyway. I wonder how she knew this. Did she have the residents under surveillance? Did she test the books for fingerprints? I guess she decided that it’s reasonable to assume that bourgeois dolts don’t read anything other than People magazine and the Wall Street Journal. But just when I'm beyond irritated, she shows genuine empathy and even respect for coworkers at Wal-Mart, and some wry, self-effacing humor (sitting in her motel room to watch TV after a shift at Wal-Mart, she sneers at "Survivor", asking herself "what kind of moron subjects himself to artificial hardship just to entertain people...oh, right." )
All complaints aside, I would still recommend Nickel and Dimed and I might also read Bait and Switch, her undercover investigation of the white-collar life. I'd be interested in comments from anyone who's read either of these.

32 comments:

Spartacus said...

Thanks for the recommendation, CDP. This was a really great piece of literary criticism.

DCup said...

I'd read excerpts, but now after reading your honest appraisal, I think I'll stick with what I've already read.

You've done an excellent post here.

Suze said...

I did read the book a few years ago. It was okay. Like you, I was a little turned off by her smugness.

Great review - you should get paid to do this!

CDP said...

Thanks! You guys are all so nice.

The Guv'ner said...

I earn WAY more than minimum wage and I can barely survive on it so heaven knows how anyone gets by on such a ridiculously low amount of money, especially if you live in a big city.

Nice review though. Hell I feel like I don't even NEED to read the book! :)

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Thanks for your honest opinion of this book. I understood the thesis right away when it came out and I've been debating on reading it. Now that you have and have done this great review, I'm going to skip it.

CDP said...

Guv'ner--I know! I get so upset every time the minimum wage is debated; it's like, how can anyone oppose an increase?

Dr. M.--thanks! Nice review of The Shock Doctrine, too.

CDP said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dguzman said...

I read the book a while back but didn't judge it so harshly. Admittedly, her snobbery shows in many places, but I found it an illuminating book nonetheless.

Sauntering Soul said...

I honestly had never heard of this book before you mentioned it. It sounds like the author may irritate me so I think I'll read something else.

FranIAm said...

I have not read the book, but have thought of it. Thanks for this outstanding review.

CDP said...

dguzman--sources tell me that Dr. Ehrenreich is a hater of Neccos, so I came down hard.

SS--it's still worth reading, but you're right, the tone was irritating

Fran--thanks!

dguzman said...

CDP--Well, given our everlasting peace treaty, I say, "Down with Ehrenreich!" But I do still like some of her stuff.

CDP said...

I like her politics, although I'm not as radical as she is...I can just do without the smug contempt.

Iheartfashion said...

Great review! More, please.
I also found her tone a bit snarky and condescending, but there were some revelations for me in the book as well.

CDP said...

iheart--thanks! I just finished reading Atonement, which is probably well beyond my reviewing ability. What can I say about it? "totally awesome story, totally amazing characters, totally beautiful writing, totally surprising twist at the end...you should totally read it, it's awesome". That's about the best I can manage when a book is as good as that one is!

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