Saturday, October 1, 2011

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Banned Books Week)

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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
May, 2001, Henry Holt
Adult Nonfiction
Read for Banned Books Week

Summary from Goodreads:
The New York Times bestseller, and one of the most talked about books of the year, Nickel and Dimed has already become a classic of undercover reportage.
Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.
Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategies for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor, and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor.
You didn't think I'd let Banned Books Week go by without a review, did you? The problem is that I've read so many of the books on the Frequently Challenged Lists (banned books are some of my favorites!), and wanted a fresh new read for this year. In addition, I'd heard about Nickel and Dimed and originally and mistakenly thought it was a book about a journalist who goes undercover to reveal the down and dirty tasks of a waitress. While waitressing is included, it's not the star of the show.

Barbara Ehrenreich decides to go undercover and live as a minimum-wage earner to explore and expose the difficulties of these important but underpaid people. I found the premise quite engaging, and actually really enjoyed Barbara's descriptions of the jobs she holds, duties expected, and the people she befriends along the way. And ew, the whole scene where she's a cleaner with "The Maids," and is instructed to only use a half-bucket of water to clean a house, and only uses one sponge to clean all the surfaces? I wanted to vomit.

However, this book really wasn't written for a layperson, but for people who are more financial-minded that me. The amount of footnotes was off-putting, and I found myself drifting through the last twenty pages. In addition while Barbara did live as a low-wage earner the best she thought she could have, critics of the book say that she should have attempted sharing a one-bedroom apartment or motel room, as many people she worked with had to, because they had no other choice. She was still living on the high end, in some ways.

Nickel and Dimed rated number 8 on ALA's Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged Books for 2010 because of "Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint. Specifically, at one point in the book Barbara attends a local church revival and as a result lets her religious viewpoints show through. In addition, there are several references to drugs and if I recall there's some swearing, as well. Do I think that validates the challenge? Hells no! First and foremost, this is an adult nonfiction title. I understand that the challenge came from the parent of a high school student who was required to read this title as part of a personal finance class. Great, so let's just gloss over the fact that so many of the working-class in America isn't bringing home enough money to eat, clothe, or shelter their families adequately. Instead, let's focus on the fact that the author appears to have different religious beliefs from you. Yeah, that makes sense. Do I think the religious opinions expressed needed to be there? Not really, whatever, I'm not the editor. The point is that the focus of reading this book should be on the plight of working-class America.

Borrowed book from the library.
Enjoy your reading!

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