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I guess summer is the time when overworked, red-eyed college students are released from our ivory towers to…”freedom”. The freedom (burden) of having many weeks of self-scheduled time to hopefully jam pack with experiences and contemplation on what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives (kudos if you’ve already figured it out, or realized that you don’t need to) away from the convenient distractions of classes and exams. Maybe helped along with some beachy lounging, moments of unadulterated bliss, and sangria here and there.

But when you’re working 14+ hour days as an analyst, you and your fellow disillusioned coworker may one day realize (via witty email exchange!) that Google can speed things up in more than just work related situations.

Google (“what to do with my life”) –> I’m Feeling Lucky

Surprisingly good article? Or maybe just hits a little too close to home. Am usually not a big fan of self-help books (“I don’t need any help!”), but may pick this one up…

PS- Am currently watching the MJ memorial on TV in my hotel room. Quite touching, actually (ooh, Kobe is there) and great performances. He may have been slightly insane, but when it comes to what to do with your life? be yourself? live to your heart’s desires, and don’t tone it down not even a little? MJ got it right.

book_iconAfter countless raves and recommendations from all sides, I finally finished this book on the plane home. I’m generally more critical about things that come highly recommended, so take the following with a grain of salt.

First, the plot is entertaining and not at all difficult to get through. The author handles time travel — a fairly complex and overused plot device– freshly and elegantly, so the whole suspension of disbelief thing is not really an issue there. The writing style is sometimes too ponderous and melodramatic, but overall it’s fairly well done, classically contemporary. I like how the story unfolds in a sequence of intertwining vignettes — it plays well to my preferred organisation of life as a series of vivid, colorful, mood-moments. So far, so good.

A lot of people I know love this book because they love the central relationship in it. They want to be Henry, or Clare, or to have some shadow of what they have together. It’s not hard to see why. Henry is clearly a character tailored to appeal to female fantasies, and Clare, well, she is what girls think guys want (but who knows if it’s actually true) — fiery, beautiful, pure, and devotedly willing to wait. But is the fact that they are romantic archetypes enough to warrant their undying devotion to each other? It didn’t completely work for me.

If their relationship is deterministic and ethereal, transcending space and time, then why does it all manifest as so purely physical when they are together? Seriously, whenever Henry is not time-traveling, they are basically just sleeping together. Or just literally sleeping. The story wants so badly for you to envy  and see hope in how their closeness transcends adversity , but I only felt depressed by it. The world around them seems so sparse and monotone (sorry Tina, but the fact that it’s Michigan makes it worse, I think), and their relationship isn’t quite three-dimensional enough to suck you in and compensate.

Maybe it’s because I’m no longer under the impression that love needs to be tragic to be beautiful (what a change from myself in middle-school, finishing Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy for the first time…or my past obsessions with all the monologues in Romeo and Juliet. I would have loved everything about this novel five years ago.).  I wanted Henry and Clare to have a little more fun together, to create a more believable sadness when they are apart.  I wanted them to grow and change over time, but they were disappointingly static.  The letter that Henry writes at the end was my favorite part, but I feel like perhaps the story would have been better if he had not told Clare, so that her life could be unencumbered for awhile instead of more of the same. The final scene would have been just as poignant and joyous, or even more so.

But overall, worth reading for the circular plot (really very well managed), and before the movie comes out. If you do read it, let me know what you think!

Next up..some Murakami this summer.

I forgoed my usual Economist + Cosmo double threat for on-the-plane reading this week, and picked up a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

The book created quite a splash when it came out a few years ago, but I had never gotten around to reading until now. Oh boy. I was enthralled and finished it in one RT flight, with time to spare! As a premise, it follows the author (who is a very respected political journalist / writer with a Ph.D in Biochemistry before switching fields) as she tries to survive in America as an unskilled, working class citizen working minimum wage jobs. Her experiences take her to Maine, Florida, and Minnesota, working as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, maid service, and Walmart associate along the way. As a white, native English speaker with no kids or physical disabilities, one theme that she reiterates throughout the piece is that she is a best case scenario, and that most of her coworkers actually have it far, far worse. Even so, her experiences are harrowing–she must keep two jobs throughout the book to make ends meet (in addition to typing up journalistic notes every night), and is often forced to live in “expensive” motels because she either can’t find or afford the advance payments for cheaper apartments and trailers. Despite her hardest efforts to cut costs (forgoing medical care, a healthy diet, and with no family to support), she is usually left with less than $50 in savings at the end of every month.

She writes superbly about her own experiences, but I found it most poignant when she touches on the lives of her coworkers and managers, who don’t have the luxury of escaping these experiences at the end of the social experiment, who must survive everything Ehrenreich does with the added desperation of looking forward to their minimum wage lifestyle for the rest of their lives. People who can’t afford to leave abusive jobs because the boss lets them park and sleep in their cars for free overnight in the restaurant parking lot. Women who hop on one leg to vacuum and dust after spraining their ankles because their boyfriends will beat them if they miss a day of work. Coworkers who beg for an additional 10% discount on a stained work uniform polo (clearance price: $5.70), and are crushed when the manager comes by and evilly mentions that there are no employee discounts on clearanced items.

Ultimately, this book could use a little more insightful analysis on the experiences detailed, but it’s worth reading as is. Even if it doesn’t offer any solutions, it’s guaranteed to make you a little more compassionate towards those who pay daily in blood, sweat, and tears to support that comfortable yuppie lifestyle.

It was also interesting to read this book while traveling and staying in hotels and eating out. Ehrenreich works as a hotel housekeeper at one point, and gives a detailed description of the priorities when cleaning rooms, which mostly involve speed and the appearance of cleanliness..and not actual cleanliness.

At first I find the videos on kitchens and bathrooms baffling…germs are never mentioned by The Maids. Our antagonists exist entirely in the visible world–soap scum, dust, counter crud, dog hair, stains, and smears–are to be attacked by damp rag, or, in hardcore cases, by Dobie (the brand of plastic scouring pad we use). We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe. Nothing is said about the possibility of transposing bacteria, by rag or hand, from bathroom to kitchen or even from one house to the next. It is the “cosmetic” touches that the videos emphasize…

Really makes you think twice the next time you’re putting your toothbrush on the counter in a sparkly hotel…