Non-Fiction: “The Witches: Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff

the WitchesMerry Christmas Eve! Let’s spend the time between now and the annual live-tweet of Alaina Watches Die Hard, The Best Christmas Movie In History, No I’m Serious, Don’t @ Me, by discussing a) a book I finished reading six months ago, b) about witches. So, completely the wrong holiday. Whatever; deal with it.

As you can tell from the title of the book, Ms. Schiff’s research attempts to find out what exactly led to the events of the Salem Witch Trials. She goes through the years 1690 through 1694 in deep detail, focusing on each family of Salem and their interactions, and discussed how political and interpersonal relationships could have led to exacerbating the situation with the witches.

The first quote I dogeared (and then transcribed into a Word document, because this was a library book and I didn’t want to incur six months’ of overdue fees just to be able to quote things afterwards) speaks to the mystery still attached to Salem:

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our [nation’s] first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. [p. 4-5]

For as many details there are in the book – and there are plenty – there are no true, definitive answers. The source materials Ms. Schiff draws from are incredibly deficient – family diaries, incomplete court testimonies, and the biased opinion essays of pastors and preachers related to the trials.

While the bewitched commanded a rapt audience for much of a year, their voices are lost to us. Their words come to us exclusively from men who were far from thorough, seldom impartial, and not always transcribing in the room in which they heard those statements. They mangle and strangle the voices of the accused; they are equally inattentive to the accusers, not all of whose statements they committed to paper. [p. 12]

I think everyone here must be aware of the basic plotline of the Salem Witch Trials: young girls start acting weird and accusing other women in town of being witches and using their witchcraft against them, everyone believes them, and at the end of it all, nearly twenty residents were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft. In fact, everything the collective consciousness knows about the Salem Witch Trials most likely comes from our reading of The Crucible when we were in high school. But The Crucible was a parable Arthur Miller used to expose the hypocrisy and hysteria surrounding McCarthyism, and should not be considered a historical artifact, regardless of the fact that Mr. Miller used the names of actual Salem residents for his characters.

Ms. Schiff attributes the cause of the Salem Witch Hysteria to many things, including a general distrust of women, an incredibly oppressive religious atmosphere, and a contagious psychological disorder. Sadly, we will never know the true root of the issue, as that is lost to history. Thanks, Puritan judges and other people back then who didn’t realize they should really WRITE THINGS DOWN.

Relatively early in her narrative, Ms. Schiff discusses the attitudes towards the women involved in the Witch Trials. She points out that this is one of the few times in history where the actions are directly related to the actions of women:

History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort. [p. 131]

Additionally, she discusses the power surrounding these women, and how the mysticism of witchcraft increased that power:

The wrinkle with Salem’s infernal onslaught of 1692 was that both the spirited victims and their oppressors were predominantly female. And in a New England first, women’s voices proved so commanding that the spectral testimony of two dead wives could prevail in court against an articulate, Harvard-educated minister. [p. 145]

Think about that: this is a period of time before the United States Consitutiton was even a thought. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington hadn’t even been born. The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” hadn’t been put forth yet. So our modern concept of a “trial” is not even closely related to what occurred in Salem. In Salem in 1692, a judge could accept the “testimony” of deceased women over that of a minister who had graduated from Harvard. That is a crazy concept to wrap one’s head around.

The accusations of witchcraft and witchery flew throughout the town, and created an oppressive atmosphere that centered on a form of gaslighting: fingers pointing at nearly every citizen of Salem, accusing them of witchcraft, and using previous actions as specious proof of interacting with the Devil:

For weeks the women had been stretched on the most pernicious of psychological racks: You are not what you think you are, they were hectored; you are what we think you are. [p. 235]

The biggest piece of new information regarding the Salem Witch Trials was actually a supposition or extrapolation: Ms. Schiff proposes that the cause was a form of mass hysteria, known as conversion disorder, where physical symptoms can arise following an emotional or mental crisis:

Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms. [p. 386]

The witch hysteria began in the house of Samuel Parris, with his daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams. Samuel Parris was the pastor of the town, and one of the more religious ones they’d had in town for a while. (Which is hard to believe, seeing as how Puritan the whole area was.) As Ms. Schiff states,

Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else. [p. 387]

So what would have been the inciting event that caused the mass hysteria? Possibly puberty – I mean, think about it. The two girls in Parris’s household that started the whole thing? Were 9 and 11. And in that type of oppressive religious atmosphere, who’s to say what emotional trauma may have been caused by a religious interpretation of changing bodies? Or even having a thought that went against what had been taught for years upon years? After all,

It would have been easier at the parsonage to have a vision than an opinion. [p. 388]

We will never know what really happened with the Salem Witch Trials – the causes of that trauma have been lost to history. We can only make assumptions and attempt to decipher the few documents from that era that still exist, and recognize that whatever was written down, was written from the points of view of extremely religious views and interpretations. But we can’t forget the Salem Witch Trials, or even attempt to ignore it. While the cause may have been conversion disorder, the unfounded persecution against a minority that led to the deaths of innocents was still the result.

The Salem Witch Trials endure in American history “not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt” [p. 413]. We as a people use the Witch Trials any time someone feels unjustly persecuted. But instead of using it as a label, or a crutch, we should use it as a reminder: we have done this before. We have pointed our fingers, as a society, at fellow citizens and deemed them guilty of crimes that were not proven. We killed innocents out of fear of the unknown. That era is not a time we should hope to return to. We should look to that era as a warning of where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come, so as to not slide.

Grade for The Witches: Salem, 1692: 2 stars

The Collaborators!: “The Witches” by Stacy Schiff

Hopefully, this will be the push I need to get back into the swing of a whole bunch of things. Because true confessions, I have a review of Pride & Prejudice languishing in my drafts folder here – mostly because I know I couldn’t possibly add anything to any sort of Pride & Prejudice conversation – and I can’t seem to bust through it. So, thank you to Erica for hopefully being the kick in the pants my blogging life so desperately needs.

If the theme song isn't stuck in your head, I don't know what you're even doing.

Because yes, after a year-long hiatus (mostly brought on by my complete inability to post a Gee Dee review on time – seriously, I know I keep saying I’m going to get better, but I don’t think I am, you guys. I’m back to being eight reviews behind, and I haven’t even finished reading Alexander Hamilton yet!), The Collaborators! are back! And this time, it’s not the latest Gregory Maguire novel (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but change is good!)

the Witches

(We did consider After Alice, but my Local Library pulled through.)

Erica had given me a few choices via Twitter on what our first Collaboration for 2016 should be, including After Alice by Gregory Maguire, this book, The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, John Cleese’s autobiography, and a title by Stephen King which escapes me currently, and I can’t go look it up because apparently Twitter is down.

I said that I would read After Alice if that’s all we had, but of the 7 books we’ve collaborated on, two have been by Mr. Maguire. I thought a change would be nice.

I eliminated the Stephen King title because I am a bad Mainer. That’s right, folks: I have lived in Maine my entire life and I love my state — I even work in state government! — but I am not a fan of Stephen King. The only book by him I’ve read is The Dead Zone, and the only reason I read that was because the adaptation was on USA at the time, and Sean Patrick Flanery starred in it as the bad guy, and Sean Patrick Flanery is one of the stars of one of my favorite movies, The Boondock Saints. I wasn’t impressed with the book, and to be honest, I never actually watched the series.

Also, please: do not. fucking get me started. on the goddamned Shawshank Redemption.

I also don’t like Moxie.

ANYWAY. Bad Mainer, no Stephen King. My Local Library did not own a copy of John Cleese’s autobiography – what the fuck, Yarmouth? – so that left The Taming of the Queen and The WitchesThe Witches was the first one of the two to be returned so I could pick it up.

So. What’s The Witches about?

I just spent about a minute trying to come up with a jackass retort, but I should have been in bed an hour ago. But I’m going to finish this tonight, dammit! So I’m going to move on and actually say what the book is about, and it’s about witches.

Guys, the subtitle is “Salem, 1692.” It’s about the Salem Witch Trials, okay? Okay, I’m done trying to be funny. It’s too late at night for me to try and be an asshole.

So this book is about the Salem Witch Trials. This book is also non-fiction: a first for The Collaborators! I’ve read a book here before about this time period – Susannah Morrow – but I’m very interested to learn more about this period. As I said in my review for Susannah Morrow, all I know about the Salem Witch Trials is what I’ve learned from The CrucibleSusannah Morrow, and the trip my sister and I took last October where we watched a film at the Salem Museum that had the worst actors I have ever seen on film in my entire life. And yes, that does include the porn we used to play drinking games to in college.

I’m very interested to see what new information is uncovered, and I’m looking forward to the discussion Erica and I will have when we finish the book. I only hope I read it quickly, and that I have at least three actual book reviews posted before then.

Non-Fiction: “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis

Big Short Revise 011316_978-0-393-07223-5.inddSecond on my list of Oscar-nominated titles to read was The Big Short by Michael Lewis. This film was the early front-runner for Best Picture, until it was overshadowed by Spotlight (and rightly so) and sadly, by The fucking Revenant.

No, I will never not refer to that movie in any other way. Go fuck yourself with a bear, Leonardo DiCaprio.

As you can tell by re-reading my review for The Intern’s Handbook, I had wanted to read The Big Short since at least November 2015. I mean, a movie starring Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, and directed by the same guy who wrote and directed Movie of My Heart, Anchorman? And it’s about the housing crisis? Uh … sign me up, because I’m an even bigger nerd than I thought I was? But thanks, Barnes & Noble, for not believing in having a very organized and structured non-fiction section. Although serious thanks do go out to the Yarmouth Library, for having a copy that I could read.

Long-time readers of That’s What She Read will also recognize the author, Michael Lewis. He wrote Moneyball, another Oscar-nominated film which I enjoyed. With Moneyball, I watched the movie first and then read the book, so I was a little surprised – but pleased – when the book wasn’t as linear as the movie made it out to be.

In Moneyball, Mr. Lewis would use one chapter to tell the story of Billy Beane, the manager for the Oakland A’s who, using some new-fangled notion called “Sabermetrics,” was able to turn one of the most languishing teams in the American League into a World Series contender. That same Sabermetrics led the Boston Red Sox to winning the 2004 World Series. But anyway, one chapter would be about Billy Beane and his quest to transform the A’s; the next chapter would either be an in-depth look at another one of the players on the team, or a more detailed explanation about the math and statistical analysis that makes up sabermetrics. Billy acted as our guide, for lack of a better term: we learn about how he uses sabermetrics, we see his goals and his hopes, we see his struggles, and we see his successes. The math stuff falls by the wayside, because we the reader are following a hero on a journey.

The Big Short follows the same pattern, mostly. This time, our hero is a bunch of different Wall Street bonds-men. They interact with the housing market in different ways, but their stories are surrounded by the intricate and, at times, incomprehensible financial functions that all contributed to the housing crash.

I’m going to attempt to see if I can remember the financial stuff, but I’ll get into how I think the film was a better vehicle for understanding this stuff in a minute. Anyway. The housing market was always stable: housing is an actual need for a human, and while there may have been dips and spikes, there was never a crash like what we saw with stocks in 1929. People invest their equity in houses, and those mortgages were the base of the bond economy for decades.

Until someone figured out that they could package mortgages into a bond on its own. The banks would sell the ownership of their mortgages to these bond companies and turn packages of mortgages into a single bond item, called a CDO. A CDO was made up of tranches, which —

Look, I work with taxes all day, and I’ve come to identify myself as a big ol’ nerd. But this stuff is totally beyond my ken. I may have an accounting and finance degree, but that’s because at the time, that’s the only way I could get the accounting degree (thanks, USM!). I took a total of two finance classes: Basic Financial Management, and International Financial Management. They were taught by the same professor, who was a horrible teacher. Made us buy a $150 textbook, told us to read it and do the homework, but never taught from the textbook, and never went over or even collected the homework. The only reason I got a B in Basic Finance is because my graphic calculator had a finance function, so I didn’t have to remember any fancy equations.

And I maintain that the only reason I got a C- in International is because the professor really didn’t want me to have to teach me again. Because seriously, I skipped a lot of classes and flunked at least one test. No amount of studying was going to make me understand puts and libors. So, I do have to thank him for Charlie’ing me out, because otherwise I’d still be in college.

[Puts and libors = the only things I remember from that class. To clarify: just the words, not the concepts. I have no idea what they mean.]

ANYWAY. Mr. Lewis really knows his shit – he worked on Wall Street, after all. So the book is rich with information on just exactly how the Wall Street firms – especially AIG, Deutsch Bank, and Bear Stearns were able to con all of America. The stories about the bankers – Steve Eisman, the individual with the loudest personality, who set out to short the banks to teach them all a lesson about greed, was easily my favorite. (It didn’t hurt that his character was the one Steve Carrell portrayed under a different name.) Dr. Michael Burry, an ex-neurologist who created a hedge fund and then poured all of his clients’ money into his attempt to short the banks, was very compelling as a character, but was in it to prove himself right as opposed to fighting for something.

All of these guys – Eisman, Burry, Greg Lippman from Deutsche – they all decide to short the banks. Essentially, they’re going to spend a lot of money at first betting that the CDOs and other shenanigans the banks have gotten up to are going to fail. The banks laughed at them while they took their money; Dr. Burry’s clients threatened to pull out. But these guys all could tell that a crash was imminent, and when the crash occurred, they won big.

In spite of all the financial stuff which was, admittedly, over my head, the book was a very interesting read. I actually would bring it to the gym with me, and it made my 25-minute elliptical workout fly by. I read because I could understand just enough of the shenanigans to know that they are all fucking shady, and also, the people within the tale were very compelling to read about.

Having said that, I do think the film does an excellent job in explaining all of these financial concepts – and not just because they rely on people like Margo Robbie and Selena Gomez. But they have fourth-wall breaks where, either Ryan Gosling’s character, acting as the quasi-narrator, or maybe one of those random celebrities will take a couple of minutes and use a metaphor to explain one of these concepts. I think Mr. Lewis explained how a CDO is built three times within his book, but once Ryan Gosling’s character used a Jenga tower to demonstrate it, the concept made way more sense. And the concept of trading CDOs was well-illustrated by Selena Gomez and … the guy who was in her scene that I can’t remember.

I really do have to applaud Adam McKay and Charles Randolph on their adaptation of the book: the book is extremely dense at points with hard-to-understand financial concepts, and they were able to turn that into a compelling, human-driven David-vs-Goliath tale that was charming and comprehensible. Even this early in my Oscar!Read – I still have two books to go at this point – The Big Short was my front-runner for winning the category.

I was mightily pleased when it won. Not just because I felt it did the best job adapting its source material into a script – remember, not just the best film whose screenplay was adapted from a different source; the film with the best adaptation of its source material — but most importantly, because now I can say that Anchorman was written and directed by an Oscar winner.

Which makes Anchorman an Oscar-winning film. If only by association, and retroactively.

I’ll take it.

Oh come on — don’t act like you’re not impressed.

Grade for The Big Short: 3 stars

Non-Fiction: “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Snickel and dimedo back in September – remember September, you guys? Back when the sun wasn’t going down at 3:30, and it was still sixty degrees out on the regular – I realized Banned Book Week was coming up. And originally, I was going to reread Lolita. I mean, I hadn’t read that in a very long time, and if there was any book banned, it was definitely that one.

Well, I have been doing a lot of reading on my lunch breaks at work, and one of the guys always asks me what I’m reading, and for the first time, i realized I would feel slightly uncomfortable if I said that I was reading Lolita. I mean, it’s a book, and Humbert Humbert I am not. But for a guy who had never heard Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” (which, I believe, is in and of itself slightly ironic), I was afraid I would have to spend part of the lunch period explaining what Lolita is about, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in a government setting. It felt icky to me.

So I’ll read Lolita at home, someday. But in the meantime, another book that I had spied on one of the many ALA Banned Book lists (and also one I owned but had never read) was Nickel & Dimed. This book had been recommended to me years ago by my former roommate Amelia, who minored in Economics. (Wait, or was it a double-major with Poli Sci? I can’t remember anymore…) I managed to find a copy at Bull Moose a few months ago for a whopping $3.97 (you guys, if you’re in the area of a Bull Moose that sells books, GO TO THERE, THEY’RE AWESOME), and when I saw it on the Banned Books List, I was very, very confused.

I mean, look – I get why some books are on that list. Now, I’m not agreeing that the book should be banned, or any book for that matter — except Fifty Shades of Gray, because reasons. But I can see, in most cases, the small-mindedness which would cause a book to be challenged. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance – sure, the use of the ‘n’-word is prevalent, and no parent should want their child to throw that word around as casually as Huck does, but when reading Huckleberry Finn one should also recognize the historical context – that word was common parlance during that time and location, and used very frequently and casually.  Mark Twain wrote of his time and culture, and someone should (hopefully) realize when reading it today that that type of language and those attitudes towards other human beings should be an historical artifact. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

When I read Brave New World last year, one of the reasons the book was on the Banned Book List was because of the promiscuity it championed. Parents didn’t want Little Johnny or Sally to read that book and think it was (*gasp!*) okay to have sex outside of marriage!  Or for fun, even! Oh, the horror!

And even I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – that’s non-fiction, and that is on the List because of the horrific actions suffered by Maya Angelou. But that type of history shouldn’t be swept under the rug -it’s important for teenagers to read these books, because it gives them a wider, braver understanding of the world and the people in it.

But … why was Nickel & Dimed on that list? It’s a non-fiction account of an investigative journalist who goes undercover as a minimum-wage worker, and attempts to make a living on said minimum wage. In what way would that harm the sensibilities of teenagers attempting to learn about the world?

As I read it, I began to understand why some individuals would want to see the book removed from curricula: it promotes that those who work for minimum wage have human emotions and human needs, and that trickle-down capitalism does not work.

Oh, the horror.

Ms. Ehrenreich – whom I should refer to as Dr. Ehrenreich, as she does hold a Ph.D. – began this journey in the late 1990s, before the first minimum wage hike:

How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, we wondered, were the roughly four million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour? Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: “Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism – you know, go out there and try it for themselves.” [p. 1]

And that’s what she did. She gave herself $1,000 to begin her journey, so she could afford rent and other sundries before her first paycheck (admittedly, a fund most individuals do not have the luxury to afford), moved out of her house in Key West, and tried to get a job as a hotel’s housekeeper. The first obstacle she ran into was that at every hotel she attempted to get a job, they recommended she waitress instead. Ms. Ehrenreich presumed that it was because of her skin color – as she was not Latino, she was perceived as being higher-class than someone who would be a housekeeper; hence, the waitress positions.

She managed to find an apartment and also managed to survive waiting tables for fifty hours a week, something she hadn’t had to do since college. After her time in Key West, she moved up to Maine and joined a maid’s service. The rent in Maine was too much for an apartment (which, tell me about it), so for her tenure here, she had to rent a hotel room by the week in Old Orchard Beach. Thank goodness it was the off-season for her.

Her last stint was in Minneapolis, which was supposed to be having a booming economy. Jobs were plentiful, it was true, but there was a severe housing shortage. While in Minneapolis, she worked at Wal-Mart and nearly caused a union uprising.

I’m going to get more in depth, but basically, she discovered the injustices and struggles every minimum-wage (or below-wage) worker experiences. The lack of respect from management, the constant distrust, the monitoring of your every move … but also the sense of family and, in some cases, survivor-hood that develops between yourself and your coworkers. If there is anyone who has struggled to make ends meet, you should read this book. But actually, now that I think about it, the people who should read this book are those who have never had to struggle; never felt the pain in your stomach when you realize you need to save your last ten dollars until payday for gas, which means you’re not buying any groceries until payday; those who have never had to wonder if this check they’re writing is going to bounce; never had to suffer indignities bestowed upon yourself simply because you are working a lower-paid job than someone else. Those are the individuals who should read this book, and it should be required reading for those in Congress.  Although, with the exception of Elizabeth Warren, I wonder if some of them can read.

(Also: remember, this book was written prior to the year 2000. None of the individuals Ms. Ehrenreich came into contact with had student loans, because they didn’t go to college. So as you read this book now, realize that many of these situations haven’t changed, but more individuals are feeling these struggles to live as well as having to pay off enormous mountains of debt. Just … muse on that.)


Some sobering statistics:

With the prevailing wages running at $6-$7 an hour in my town and rents at $400 a month or more, the numbers might, it seemed to me, just barely work out all right. But if the question was whether a single mother leaving welfare could survive without government assistance in the form of food stamps, medicaid, and housing and child care subsidies, the answer was well known before I ever left the comforts of home. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 1998 – the year I started this project – it took, on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, and the Preamble Center for Public Policy was estimating that the odds against a typical welfare recipient’s landing a job at such a “living wage” were about 97 to 1. [p. 2-3]

Remember, this was written in 2000. You know what hasn’t happened in that time? The minimum wage hasn’t risen to $8.89, that’s for sure.

During her waitress stint, Ms. Ehrenreich was astonished to learn that she didn’t get a real break during her shift, and something she said about smoking, of all things, really made sense:

I complain to one of my fellow servers that I don’t understand how she can go so long without food. “Well, I don’t understand how you can go so long without a cigarette,” she responds in a tone of reproach. Because work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself. I don’t know why the antismoking crusaders have never grasped the element of defiant self-nurturance that makes the habit so endearing to its victims – as if, in the American workplace, the only thing people have to call their own is the tumors they are nourishing and the spare moments they devote to feeding them. [p. 31]

Trust me, when you work in retail,  you cherish every freaking second you get to yourself. I’ll admit – there were a couple of times I wished I smoked so I could get out of the building for five minutes. Stupid freaking healthy workplace environment.

So the next place she takes herself to is Maine:

I chose Maine for its whiteness. [p. 52]

I cannot tell you how loudly I laughed at that. Because it is true – demographically speaking, according to the 2010 Census, the population of Maine stood at 1,274,923. Of those, 1,236,014 identified as Caucasian. That is 96.9%. Now, granted, the Census doesn’t literally count everyone, I’m sure, and that doesn’t take into account human error or human lying, but that is still a sobering statistic.

One of the first places she applies at when she lands in Maine is a Wal-Mart, where she is subjected to one of the most horrific things a job-seeker encounters: the personality survey. If you have never had to fill one of those out, then congratulations – you’ve never tried to work in a customer service environment with a tradition of severe management psychosis. The personality survey is an attempt to weed out the “good” candidates from the “bad” candidates, by asking a series of probing, contradictory questions about productivity, work ethic, and morality:

What these tests tell employers about potential employees is hard to imagine, since the “right” answers should be obvious to anyone who has ever encountered the principle of heirarchy and subordination. Do I work well with others? You bet, but never to the point where I would hesitate to inform on them for the slightest infraction. Am I capable of independent decision making? Oh yes, but I know better than to let this capacity interfere with a slavish obedience to orders. […] The real function of these tests, I decide, is to convey information not to the employer but to the potential employee, and the information being conveyed is this: You will have no secrets from us. We don’t just want your muscles and that portion of your brain that is directly connected to them, we want your innermost self. [p. 59]

I could get into a rant about the above paragraph, and how it is so completely, 100% true, and how retail managers try to give you this phony spiel about how your personal life is important to you and therefore it’s important to us too, but not on weekends, or holidays, or after 6 p.m., or when there’s a floor set coming up, and while you may have some personal stuff going on in your life and it’s very important, could you please leave it at the door when you come in for your shift, and it’s too bad that your grandmother passed away but you only get three days off for bereavement and the funeral’s on the fourth day so we’ll need you back in for your 2-10 shift, and more horrible, atrocious things, but basically yes, once you fill out that personality survey, they own you.

Ms. Ehrenreich gets the job with The Maids, and while the cleaning practices will shock you so much that I wonder if that’s the real reason this book was on the Banned Books List – wealthy housewives were horrified to learn that their cleaning service was merely moving dirty water around and not actually cleaning anything – I’m not going to get into them. I will post this quote, because it speaks to the feminist inside of me:

I learn that Mrs. W [the homeowner] is an alumna of an important women’s college, now occupying herself by monitoring her investments and the baby’s bowel movements. I find special charts for this latter purpose, with spaces for time of day, most recent fluid intake, consistency, and color. […] Maybe there’s been some secret division of the world’s women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be reproducing at all. Maybe this is why our office manager, Tammy, who was once a maid herself, wears inch-long fake nails and tarty little outfits – to show she’s advanced to the breeder caste and can’t be sent out to clean anymore. [p. 82]

How many times have we heard mothers vilified in the same sentence as Welfare, food stamps, and low-income earners? There have been conversations today that those on food stamps or other government programs shouldn’t be raising families. SO RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE TO LET THEM GET OFF WELFARE.

Ms. Ehrenreich works at The Maids Monday through Friday; to make ends meet, she also works at a retirement facility, serving meals to their patients. About three weeks into her monthly stint at both jobs, she wonders

If you hump away at menial jobs 360-plus days a year, does some kind of repetitive injury of the spirit set in? [p. 106]

Jeepers, I sure did dogear a shit-ton of pages. I’d apologize, but I feel it’s important to discuss this stuff.

So Ms. Ehrenreich leaves Maine and heads to Minneapolis, where she does in fact end up at a Wal-Mart. In her interview, she learns about Wal-Mart culture:

[The interviewer] personally read Sam Walton’s book (his autobiography, Made in America) before starting to work here and found that the three pillars of Wal-Mart philosophy precisely fit her own, and these are service, excellence (or something like that), and she can’t remember the third. [p. 125]

Oh, my god.

Much of her time in Minneapolis is dealing with the severe housing shortage – she housesits for a while, then ends up having to stay in a Motel 6. I think she manages to get an efficiency apartment in the last week of her experiment, but she is constantly juggling the distance from where she could find an apartment to the suburban Wal-Mart, the cost of gas, and other amenities. It is difficult to find the perfect balance between housing, transportation, and job location.

This next bit sums up the retail life something fierce. I apologize in advance for the lengthy quotation, but guys, this is important. It all starts when one of Ms. Ehrenreich’s coworkers gets sent to another department where she doesn’t know the product as well:

It’s the difference between working and pretending to work. You push your cart a few feet, pause significantly with item in hand, frown at the ambient racks, then push on and repeat the process. “I just don’t like wasting their money,” Melissa says when she’s allowed back. “I mean they’re paying me and I just wasn’t accomplishing anything over there.” To me, this anger seems badly mis-aimed. What does she think, that the Walton family is living in some hidden room in the back of the store, in the utmost frugality, and likely to be ruined by $21 worth of wasted labor? [p. 180]

And before I get into the other half of this piece: I had a friend who used to work one day up in the Women’s department. Now, his home base was primarily Footwear, and the rest of the time Men’s Apparel, but that one day a week he had to work in Women’s for one of the brands we were pushing at the time. And he said multiple times that he didn’t feel that … how did he phrase it? It was something along the lines of, “I’ll do it, because you tell me to and it’s my job, but I’m not as effective upstairs [in Women’s] as I am downstairs.” And his argument was not the same argument as Melissa’s above. He was gladly taking his paycheck, regardless of where he was working; he did not begrudge a cent given to him, and rightly so. He saw it from the customer’s point of view, where he was, admittedly, correct: women shop differently from men, he’s not as familiar with the women’s product as the men’s, so therefore, his skills weren’t utilized to the maximum potential. But his argument about working in a different department did not stem from the idea that he was wasting the company’s money.

So in the middle of this labor discussion, this happens:

[Melissa] suddenly dives behind the rack that separates the place we’re standing. […] Worried that I may have offended her somehow, I follow right behind. “Howard,” she whispers. “Didn’t you see him come by? We’re not allowed to talk to each other, you know.” [p. 180]


Now, Wal-Mart — much like Mother Russia — does not like when you talk behind her back. Especially when that most dreaded word floats up in conversation – union. And this is how Ms. Ehrenreich commented on that situation:

So if low-wage workers do not always behave in an economically rational way, that is, as free agents within a capitalist democracy, it is because they dwell in a place that is neither free nor in any way democratic. When you enter the low-wage workplace — and many of the medium-wage workplaces as well — you check your civil liberties at the door, leave America and all it supposedly stands for behind, and learn to zip your lips for the duration of the shift. The consequences of this routine surrender go beyond the issues of wages and poverty. We can hardly pride ourselves on being the world’s preeminent democracy, after all, if large numbers of citizens spend half their waking hours in what amounts, in plain terms, to a dictatorship. [p. 210]

And in those various dictatorships, after taking those various personality surveys, what did she learn about the relationship between management and employees?

While I encountered some cynics and plenty of people who had learned to budget their energy, I never met an actual slacker or, for that matter, a drug addict or thief. On the contrary, I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly, either in wages or in recognition. Often, in fact, these people experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done. […] Left to themselves, [the employees] devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.  [p. 212]


I promise this is my last quote from Ms. Ehrenreich’s book. I’m sure you’re wondering what else I could possibly have not included, as this is most likely one of the longest reviews I’ve ever done. But guys, if you don’t work retail – or have ever worked any low-wage job – you don’t get it. There is a corps of people I have worked with who have shared these exact same experiences – it doesn’t matter if your dress code is “blue shirt and khakis” or “green shirt and khakis,” or even “fashion-forward and fully made-up”: there will always be a severe disconnect between what is promised from management to employee (“we recognize you value your personal life, so we give you a work-life balance!”) and what is actually delivered (“look, all the other managers have families with little kids, so even though you requested it off as your number one choice, we’re going to need you to work Christmas night.” “…. So, I have to work because my womb has never been occupied?!”)

What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life. [p. 187]

So please – unban this book. Read it. Devour it. Hell, Christmas is tomorrow and Bull Moose is still open; buy a copy for someone. Buy it for your manager! It will be hilarious!

But most importantly, send a copy to your Congressman/woman – especially if they keep voting to keep the minimum wage at $7.25 an hour.

Grade for Nickel and Dimed: 5 stars

Non-Fiction: “The Race Underground” by Doug Most

race undergroundFor this year’s selection for American History Month (because yes, I am making that a Thing and no one can stop me), I went beyond the Presidents that I don’t know and Teddy Roosevelt, and went for a moment in history that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been discussed: the inception of the subway system.

Occasionally, I think deep thoughts.  And some of those deep thoughts occur while driving.  For instance, I could be driving to Boston to see my friend Jen (don’t forget to buy her book!), and all of a sudden, I’ll realize that a hundred years ago, the road I’m driving on didn’t exist.  There was no I-95 in 1914.  There were barely cars during that time!  And it’ s not like Boston built its city up, around and over the existing T – those tracks had to be created.  Basically, sometimes the things we take for granted scare me.  But then I listen to the next episode of Welcome to Night Vale and I feel a bit better.

This book was shown in one of my Goodreads newsletters, and luckily, my local library had a copy for me and I was able to read it in time for American History Month.  According to the subtitle, the book is supposed to talk about the rivalry that occurred between Boston and New York with regards to their subways, but while the story was interesting and intriguing, I wouldn’t say it was a rivalry.  I mean, the greatest rivalry between Boston and New York is between the Red Sox and the Yankees.  I’m not even from Boston, and I’m not even a big Red Sox fan, and I grew up with a deeply-ingrained hatred of the Yankees — y’know, when I bother to think about baseball.  If there was a true rivalry between Boston and New York while they were building their subways, I would have expected to have seen some Bostonians down in New York, booing the tunnel diggers and telling them they suck.

What really happened was that, between bureaucracy, red tape, and a monopoly on the cable-car system of the day, New York wasn’t as quick to adapt to the concept of a subway as Boston was.  Therefore, Boston’s subway opened up first (in 1897) and New York’s subway didn’t open until 1904.  That’s it.

The book talks a lot about the different inventors and innovations that occurred leading up to the first American subways.  London had the first Underground system, and in its first inception, was steam powered.  That meant a lot of disgusting air and smoke in the tunnels, which made the rides very uncomfortable.  The American cities wanted to avoid that, so they kept going with their above-ground trollies and cable-cars.  But eventually, between population growth and the width of the streets, traffic jams were horrible (imagine your daily rush hour commute.  Now imagine that with horse poop.  You’re welcome) and something needed to be done.

Two brothers from Brookline, Henry and William Whitney, were instrumental in both Boston and New York in creating the subway systems.  Henry stayed in Boston and was one of the first men to consider a subway as an acceptable alternative (imagine, if you will, Boston full of elevated train lines.  I mean, yes, the Green Line is above-ground from Lechmere to North Station, but imagine that ALL OVER).  William married into the New York scene, and in-between being assistant secretary of the Navy (before Teddy Roosevelt – I just can’t quit him!) worked very hard in the transportation department of New York City, monopolizing cable-cars and eventually, getting the required charter for the team that would actually build the New York subway.

I enjoyed the book – I thought it was very thoroughly-researched, but it wasn’t boring.  Unlike The Story of Ain’t, this author was able to keep the narrative through-line throughout the book; I didn’t feel confused by all the “old white guys” that populate its story.  As someone who rides the T at least once a month (I live in Maine, I’m not a native Bostonian), I love that I’m able to recognize landmarks like the Park Street Station, and Tremont Street, and the Common, and know about Somerville and Brookline – all of those words mean something to me.  I can also appreciate how god-awful old the Green Line actually is, which is why I hate riding it.  (And now Government Center is closed for two years.  Because yes, it needs an update, but two years?!  That’s crazy!)

I do not have any familiarity with the New York Metro, however.  It is on my list of Places to Go, but as of yet, I have not gotten any closer to New York City than driving I-95 through it at 5:30 in the morning coming back from Florida two years ago.

If you’re from Boston or New York, or are just interested in the engineering behind building a subway system, then you’d probably like this book.  If you don’t fit any of those qualities … you probably won’t read it.  And that’s okay, too.

And before I go, here’s the true difference between New York and Boston:


Grade for The Race Underground3 stars

Non-fiction: “Island of Vice” by Richard Zacks

island of viceHoly crap, I spent entirely too long on this book.

First, the setup. See, I had just finished Nerve and as I was wondering what I was going to pick up next, I remembered a throwaway statement I made last year when I reviewed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I had commented in that review that since the April before that (2011), I had read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and now I found myself reviewing another book about a different US President (with some fictional vampires thrown in), that it appeared that April had turned into American History Month here at That’s What She Read.

Flash-forward to me in April 2013, remembering that throwaway statement. Then cut to me completely taking that throwaway statement and running away with it. Because for about a week, I was popping in and out of Bull Moose and (shudder) Books-A-Million, looking for a book about American History that I could read and review, because if I sarcastically say something one year out of the corner of my mouth, apparently it becomes incontrovertible fact the next?

I picked up a few books at both places, and when I got home, I realized that there was no way I could spin the complete history of MI-6 as American History. I mean, I can spin some shit, but let’s get real. So after Round 2 of shopping, I did finally pick up this book for two reasons: 1) It went into depth of Teddy Roosevelt’s time as Police Commissioner for New York City, and I like Teddy Roosevelt, and 2) it was called Island of Vice. That sounded awesome! I love vice! It’s my second-favorite sin.

(Wait … vice isn’t … y’know? Don’t correct me. It’s fine.)

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t like the book; I did. It had its moments. I think my biggest complaint about the book is that for something entitled Island of Vice, it really should have been called something like Boardroom of Bureaucracy instead. There was entirely too little vice and too much paperwork and interpersonal problems that involve wording around laws for something with this title.

The book details the fight between the laws governing New York City (then, just Manhattan) and the saloon-owners and brothels of the island. See, saloons and whorehouses brought in tons of money. Problem was, they were illegal. Well, saloons were legal, they just had to be closed on Sunday. Except the saloon-owners said ‘fuck that shit’ and served alcohol to everyone on Sundays, same as the rest of the week. A reverend, Dr. Parkhurst, got sick of all the drunkenness, the prostitution, and the corruption of the NYPD that allowed these institutions to function – as long as the kickbacks and protection money kept flowing into the cops’ hands, of course. So the reform Republicans created a Commissioner’s Board, which was supposedly bipartisan, and it included Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt focused on upholding the letter of the law, and wanted all policemen to do the same. Whether he believed that saloons should be shut down on Sunday or not, it was his duty as commissioner to ensure that the law was upheld. He and I agree on this one issue: if you don’t like a law, you enact to change the law. But you can’t break the law just because you think it’s stupid.*

*Except speeding. But this was written before automobiles, so. Also, I operate under Aladdin’s Law: You’re only in trouble if you get caught.

In the end, due to the pressure put on him by New Yorkers who just wanted to get their drink on, Roosevelt ponies up to President McKinley and manages to get out of the failing Commissioner’s Board position and into the Assistant Secretary to the Navy position, wherein he nearly single-handedly gets the Spanish-American War started. New York goes back to its vice-ey ways, and not even Prohibition can stop them.

Hm. So this review feels a bit disjointed; probably because it’s taken me five days to write it. In the time since I finished this book and today, I have read the entirety of The Great Gatsby. I just … I feel confused about the book. I liked it, and yet I didn’t like it?

Here’s my problem with the book: I wanted there to be more vice. The book starts off with Rev. Parkhurst’s tour of New York’s prostitution houses, and saloons, and other places. And it was HILARIOUS to me to see how offended he was! Now, granted, I am not exactly a God-fearing Christian woman. And society is much different today than it was over a hundred years ago. But being able to look at history from today’s perspective can sometimes be hilarious.

FOR INSTANCE: Here’s a menu of what could have been offered in a brothel back then: [UH MOM DON’T READ THIS NEXT PART]

– “Common old fashioned fuck” [man on top]: $1
– “Rear fashion”: $1.50
– “Back scuttle fashion” [anal]: $1.75
– “French fashion with use of patent balls” [elaborate oral]: $3.50
– “All night, with use of towel and rose water”: $5 [[p. 285]]

SEE? Inflation ALONE makes that funny!

I wanted more of that! Funny stories where vice was happening! I don’t care about paperwork! If I wanted to read about paperwork, I’d read a book about business! *sigh* But it was also about Teddy Roosevelt, and I love Teddy Roosevelt! See? All conflicted.

If you’re a die-hard TR fan, then go ahead and read the book. It is interesting; I just wanted more sexy escapades. THAT DIDN’T DIRECTLY INVOLVE ROOSEVELT, I feel that needs to be EMPHATICALLY CLEAR.

Grade for Island of Vice: 2 stars

Non-Fiction: “The Story of Ain’t” by David Skinner

Has everybody heard the story about how Brad and I have fought, off and on, for five years, about the status of ‘irregardless’ as a possible word? No? Okay, in brief:

I fought vociferously that ‘irregardless’ is not a word. Brad maintained that it is a word. I said, again, that it was not. Brad threw a dictionary at me. IN HIS DEFENSE, it was a paperback pocket dictionary, and I caught it. It’s not like he threw a fifteen-pound book at my head. Anyway, he threw it at me because he said that since ‘irregardless’ was in the dictionary, that made it a word. I said that okay, sure, it was in the dictionary, big deal, but it stated that it was non-standard usage, which meant that it shouldn’t be used, therefore, it shouldn’t be a word, so DON’T FUCKING SAY IRREGARDLESS EVERYONE.

That would be our routine whenever anyone said ‘irregardless’ around the both of us. Jean especially thought it was hilarious, and would say it on purpose just to rile me. Because — God love him — he’s kind of a dick. 

Four weeks ago I went to the library because I was bored with my book selection at home. Ten boxes full of books I moved, and I didn’t want to read a single one. Anyway. At the library, on the ‘notable’ shelf, was something called The Story of Ain’t, which proclaimed itself to describe “America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.” And because I’m a freak for grammar (oh yeah, I’m thatkind of freaky freak … freak!), I picked it up and then it took me four weeks to read it because as it turns out, it wasn’t that interesting, anyway.(A book about a dictionary. I thought a book about a dictionary would be interesting. Goddamn, I’m a moron sometimes.)

HOWEVER. There was an important passage that I need to make note of:

And whatever ain’t was — substandard or nonstandard — it was not standard. It was not “good.” This did not mean that ain’t was not a word, only that it was out of favor in standard English. [85] [my emphasis]

Dear Friends With Whom I Once Worked:

Odds are at least one of you guys reads this. Maybe not every time I post a review, and that’s totally okay. But I’m guessing that one of you will eventually see this entry, and I need one of you to do me a solid.

Could you print this entry out for Brad? Because I’m still not convinced he actually has internet, and I know he doesn’t read this blog on a regular basis [which is TOTALLY okay; I do not need him asking me why I thought Prelude to a Scandal was both hilarious and horrifying]. But he’s going to want to read this for the next few paragraphs alone.

Okay. Have you printed out a copy of this entry?
playbook jpg


Dear Brad:

You were right, and I was wrong. ‘Irregardless’ is a word, because it is found in the dictionary. Being designated as ‘nonstandard usage’ does not mean that it is not a word. As that was your central argument for the past five years, I must concede my point to yours, the superior, for in this instance, you were right, and I was wrong.

I figured you would like a printed-out version of this, because, as stated above, you don’t read this on the interwebs. Also, I expect you’d like to frame it, so you can always point to it and tell people that I was wrong about something and you were right about it. I fully expect you to break into your “I Told You So” dance when next I see you.

(And to be honest: who knows when this will happen again? Us fighting about something, I mean. Ten years and the only other big fight we’ve had has been about the fact that Droopy is a cartoon dog and not a figment of my imagination. [I was so right about that.])

Please don’t think I’m being facetious. Never again will I proclaim that ‘irregardless’ is not a word. Instead, I will yell at the top of my lungs “IRREGARDLESS IS NONSTANDARD USAGE.” So. Be ready for that.



Okay. Now that that’s out of the way…

In the end, I did not like the book. And no, it wasn’t because I lost the fight. It’s because it took me four fucking weeks to read 300 pages. It took me the same amount of time to read Great Expectations, and that book had longer sentences, more characters (though not by much), and much more difficult concepts to understand.

Mr. Skinner attempts to introduce all the characters who were somehow involved with the creation and editing of Webster’s Third International Dictionary, but in the end, they’re all very well-educated, old white guys, and I can’t tell them apart. Oh, this person was the head of the linguistics department at Harvard. This person headed up the College of Letters at the University of Chicago. And that person was another big muckety-muck about words and language and stuff. Whatever. Mr. Skinner does provide a biographical glossary in the back of the book, but — I’m lazy. When I read a book, flipping to the back to remind me of who that is is not the best use of my time.

And the way he starts chapters — it almost seems as if … hm. How do I explain it? You know how textbooks begin chapters? Where there’s a random anecdote, and then that ties into the main point of the chapter, with the vocabulary supporting the thesis. It honestly felt like I was reading a textbook. And I’ve been out of school for almost two years. But anyway. The chapters didn’t feel as if they went together. The whole feel of the book was very disjointed, and I did not enjoy that at all.

I feel that I was promised a fun romp through literary history: the making of a dictionary that legitimized such words as ‘ain’t’ and ‘irregardless,’ and the men that made those decisions. Instead, I get some backstory on some dude who didn’t even edit the dictionary, only lambasted it in his own magazine, and a lot of little stories about people involved, but no funny anecdotes about that one jackass that tried to sneak in their own definition for something. Because you know there was a jackass on the team, and he was always trying to sneak in their own definitions for things. Like, putting in Einstein’s definition for insanity. Or … dammit, I can’t think of anything else, because HOLY SHIT it’s 4 AM?! WHY ARE YOU STILL AWAKE, ALAINA?

You know what needs to happen next, though? The Oxford English Dictionary needs to recognize Cromulent as a real word. Please, dictionary people? I’ve been ever so good.

Grade for The Story of Ain’t: No stars.