Like many of you, I have been on vacation during this past month, hence the lag time in posting a new blog. But carpenters are pounding away on the lot next door, rebuilding a neighbor’s home, which reminds me that many people work harder in the summer than at any other time of year. The pounding also reminds me of the years I spent as a laborer and carpenter apprentice myself. Work is a subject that consumes so many hours of our lives, and there are some thoughtful and challenging reads that describe that experience beautifully. Here is a handy toolkit of poetry, fiction and non-fiction suggestions on the topic of work.
This was the first novel by O’Nan that I read, and he has became a special favorite of mine–a slightly-under-the-radar writer. This small, vivid book has a simple premise: it follows the last work shift of a crew at a Red Lobster that has been closed by management. Through the eyes of the underpaid, overweight and overworked manager Manny, O’Nan portrays this routine work with a subtle hand. O’Nan is a master of portraying the lives of these characters working at the poverty line–they can make ends meet, but just barely, and their aspirations for “The American Dream” will go unmet. Manny’s last day includes detailed duties that evoke the tedium and sadness of minimal wage jobs, and the sadness Manny feels for his doomed relationship with an ex-girlfriend who works with him. But ultimately, the sadness he feels is larger–it is for the comfort and familiarity of the restaurant and those he has spent his work life with. I love this writer!
The Alaskan Laundry, by Brendan Jones
Newly published (in paperback only), is this unique take on a woman working in a man’s world: the harsh and demanding one of fishing and fish processing in Alaska. Like most who migrate to Alaska, seeking to start a new life after suffering old wounds or becoming bored with “life in the lower 48”, Tara Marconi is no different. She quickly learns that her past training as a boxer is no preparation for the hard work she’s taken on. The descriptions of life on the bottom rung of the fishing industry are vivid and engrossing, and as one would expect, there are plenty of “characters” who populate the story. I found myself seesawing at times between the tenderness of her relationship with the boyfriend she left behind, and the harsh lessons she learns when she falls in love with a rundown tugboat she wants to buy and restore. Well done!
Nickel and Dimed: on not Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Hard to believe this is the 15th anniversary of this landmark book, and having just read it again, it rings even truer today then it did when I first read it. Ehrenreich researched her book by heading out into the world of minimum wage jobs, to see if she could make it. She worked as a waitress, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson, moving around from Minnesota, to Florida and Maine to see whether geography played a role. She found out it didn’t–her work experiences exhausted her, and she found she had to have “at least two jobs if I wanted to live indoors”. I have recently read a long, rather smug rant about this book at an online website, but the guts of the author still astonishes me. She could have just interviewed people in low wage jobs, but she lived in those jobs and tried to survive on the $6-$10 an hour wages she earned, and find food and housing. Better than most journalists and writers would do–this book is still a classic, and unfortunately its findings are still true.
Journeyman’s Wages, by Clemens Starck
In all fairness, I must say that knowing Oregon poet Starck personally and being a student of his almost 20 years ago made me fall in love with his poetry. Like Clem, I had worked in blue collar construction jobs (as has he), so this particular book resonated strongly with me. I love his deceptively simple and economic style, using the everyday, the mundane to set the scene, much like the brush strokes of Japanese calligraphy. Some my favorites in the collection: “Me and Maloney” (the relationship between foreman and worker) “Slab on Grade” (the timelessness of a simple concrete floor), and “Why We are Afraid” (the psychological depletion when one lives in a country that “has it all”). Starck is not only a carpenter, but a student of Russian, a scholar and performance artist (hearing him read is to appreciate poetry in a way you may never have before). He will be reading from his new book “Old Dog, New Tricks” at Village Books in Bellingham on October 1st. Don’t miss it!
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton
de Botton, ever the witty and imaginative philosopher, has tackled the unusual again with his musings on the nature and meaning of work. Previous works of his (The Art of Travel; How Proust Can Change Your Life) are like cherished old friends–ok, maybe middle-aged friends: comfortable yet still able to surprise. This work, published in 2008, covers an eclectic assortment of people in wide-spread places and professions: French rocket scientists, tuna fishermen from Madagascar, a Scottish engineer, an English cookie designer. There is a wide variety of jobs I had never thought about included here. At times he seems somewhat bored with some of the work (offices most distress him), yet he is quirky and self-effacing enough to own up, hence get away with it. He covers his own work (writer) as well, which he hints may be the most boring office job of all! I’ll try anything he writes, and am looking forward to dipping into his newest novel, The Course of Love.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe
Nearly 60 years after its publication, Sillitoe’s sharply rendered novel of the political awakening of working class Arthur Seaton in rural England is as poignant and timely as ever. Considered one of the “angry young men” of post-war literature, Sillitoe wrote prolifically yet his most well-known works were this title and a collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Arthur is a bright yet angry and cocky lathe-worker who lives a rowdy, undisciplined life. Many readers were shocked at the descriptions of his affair with a pair of married sisters, but his writing arches over the unsentimentality into poetry. What I remember most were his lyrical renderings of sharp cold mornings, the lively warmth and small comforts of English pubs, and the aching realization that he must grab whatever is at hand to stave off life’s loneliness. This writer should not be forgotten!