For me, chess is a lot like poetry. I think that it’s really beautiful and amazing and the world needs more of it. And when I sit down and try to read how to play chess or play chess better (much less actually play it myself), my eyes glaze over and I feel an uncontrollable urge to eat some candy and watch Happy Days reruns. Does this reflect poorly on me? I prefer to think that it’s just a matter of it (chess) being too tough. It takes work. When I’m reading I want a story, I don’t want work! 21. aRxe7+?! What in the checkerboard world does that mean? But, still, the attraction to chess remains. What to do?
This unhappy conflict has existed between my mind and heart for quite some time, until finally I found a solution: stories about chess. I could read entertaining writing, maybe learn a little bit about this ridiculously difficult game, and not hurt my brain too bad (and as I came to learn from these books, damage to my brain and psyche is apparently a very real possibility where chess is involved.)
The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by David Shenk is a perfect example of such a book. He describes the history of chess, it’s evolutions and many examples of players being driven to madness and ruin, all in readable, entertaining prose. There’s even some of that chess notation, but he breaks it up over the course of the whole book, beginning every chapter with a move from a classic match (the “Immortal Game” of the book’s title) that took place in London in 1851.
And there’s more!
The Turk: the Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage - which relates the story of a machine which magically played chess (and won!) for 8 decades before getting burned up in a fire.
The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game by J.C. Hallman, a book that is “both an intellectual journey and first-rate travel writing dedicated to the love of chess and all of its related oddities.”
King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game by Paul Hoffman - another story of a chess player losing his mind, and then in this case trying to figure out how to keep playing without going crazy again.
Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady, a recent look at the most famous American example of a chess player turning into what some might consider a bit of a nut-ball.
So, will I ever put in the time, the sweat and effort and furrowed brows, necessary to actually learn how to play this infernal game? Maybe I feel like I need a little less sanity in my life? Reading books like this almost motivates me to consider it... if I ever do, lots of the Multnomah County Library branches have chess groups that I could start visiting.
Until then, I’ll just stick with stories.
In my life, lucky means snagging the last box of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Valentine's Day cards from the Dollar Tree shelf for the child who will have no other kind. Not even the kind with scratch 'n' sniff stickers. (My mind wonders about combining the two--what does the end of a franchise/era/childhood smell like?)
The Odds by Stewart O'Nan has 67 holds, but I managed to find a copy on the Lucky Day shelf. It was exactly what I wanted for Valentine's Day--the perfect love story to pluck from the twee sea of pink and red plush animals with giant eyes, the cheap boxes of drugstore chocolates, the cards that always fall short of the mark.
Set on a Valentine's Day weekend, the story follows Marion and Art Fowler on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary. Jobless, facing foreclosure and with their marriage set to finally implode, they book a bridal suite at a ritzy Niagara Falls casino for a second honeymoon--and the gamble of their lives with their liquidated savings.
Find a cozy place to sit and break out that heart-shaped box of chocolates. (You know, the battered ones with all the tiny finger-holes in the bottoms from children attempting to locate the caramels. Or maybe that's just my box.) Bet red or black on this game of reading roulette. Either way, you'll win.
While he's written a few books since his debut trilogy I hold a soft spot for Joe Abercrombie's first trilogy: The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings. And given these books when I say soft spot -- well, under the ribs is supposed to be a nice efficient spot to thrust a blade up into a man's heart. The cover of Book One is nicely splattered in blood in fair warning of the story itself.
In many ways this is a very traditional fantasy cast of characters. There's a barbarian berserker, a wise old wizard, a dashing swordsman and so on. But there's a dark spin on all of them. Think about it. Would you really want to be traveling with a trained killer of a man that can't tell friend from foe on the battlefield and towers over you? Logen Ninefingers may be an ally of the moment but he is an unwashed savage killer and dangerous to friend as well as foe. That wise old wizard? Well, you've only lived a human lifespan and he's got goals that don't really count the ant-like human lives around him. The dashing swordsman? Kind of a pathetic little man really. Of all the many characters I found myself feeling the most for the torturer Glokta. The most 'evil' of the main characters actually isn't too bad a guy...at least not for someone that is willing to torture people into confessions to support a corrupt institution.
They're off to save the kingdom...or collect a relic that can open a gate to the realm of demons. Not that the wizard is passing out straight answers. The series is dark, gritty and in its own way humorous.
Why do I do this to myself? I check out pretty much every animal rescue book and documentary that crosses my path. (And I keep the tissue well stocked.) I think it's because so many of these heartbreaking stories end on a hopeful note, with good people doing good things for animals in need. The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and their Tale of Rescue and Redemption is a perfect example.
Written by Sports Illustrated writer and editor Jim Gorant, The Lost Dogs tells the story of the NFL player's illegal dog-fighting operation and the amazing rescue and recovery efforts that followed the investigation. It's hard to read at times, describing in painful detail the brutality inflicted on these animals at the hands of Vick and his associates. The dogs, considered too "damaged" to be adoptable, were scheduled to be put down.
Ultimately though, cruelty proved no match for the dedication of so many people who tirelessly advocated for saving the dogs and finding them suitable homes. Most of the dogs responded surprisingly well to socialization tests, and there were more happy endings than one might expect. The children's book Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance chronicles one rescued dog's journey from terrified pup to loving pet. The simple text relays a message of compassion and resilience to young readers, and the wonderfully expressive photos are a treat for all ages.
Please welcome Gesse, a new contributor to the blog! She has this to say about herself: As a kid I used to try to read while walking, but have since realized that this is a dangerous idea. I still try to find plenty of time for reading, though, and am always eager to share my opinions with my friends and family. I figure that sharing my opinions in this blog will give my friends and family a much needed break!
Galore is well-titled, in that it really contains a lot of stuff! A lot of characters, a lot of history, a lot of thoughtful observations about modern life and a lot of beautiful turns of phrase. Michael Crummey creates a specific, detailed world, which is interesting both in its similarities to and its departures from our own world. I read most of Galore on a train trip between Seattle and Portland. I make this trip pretty frequently and generally spend a lot of time walking to the dining car and back, and wondering if that woman on her cell phone will ever end her very loud conversation. While reading Galore I was entirely unaware of such distractions; the first time I looked up from the book we were arriving in Seattle. If that’s not enthralling, I don’t know what is!
The book begins with a retelling of the Jonah and the whale story. This Jonah is named Judah and he has washed up on the shore of a remote Newfoundland town called Paradise Deep. As we learn about Judah’s story and the different reactions the townspeople have to his presence, we begin to understand the individuals that populate this settlement and the elaborate interconnections between them. As the novel continues we follow these same families out of a mystical past into recognizable historical periods, tracing the changes they experience on both personal and societal levels.
Others have compared Crummey to García Marquez, and while I can see the similarities between their magical-realist approaches and their facility with an enormous cast of characters, I think Crummey’s writing is something unique. The specific blend between realism and magic is all his own and in his hands common words and everyday occurrences become fresh and strange. If you’re a fan of richly drawn, literary historical fiction or even science fiction with a well-created alternate world, you shouldn’t miss Galore.
Picture this: Death, a pudgy, half-naked bumpkin sporting only a single buck tooth and a leather codpiece, comes rolling into the small town of Shuckton on his motorized bicycle and delivers a beat down against the mayor via television remote control before snorting up his soul through a dustbuster - and that’s just in the first ten minutes.
Death Comes to Town is eight half-hour episodes of the silliest comedy hi-jinx that The Kids in the Hall have ever produced. Conceived by Bruce McCulloch after the Kids re-united in 2008 for a comedy tour, Death’s murder mystery plot is little more than a thin excuse for the troupe to breathe life into new and irrepressible characters. There’s Marnie, the terminally forgetful pizza delivery lady who calls her condition “the fuzzies”; Dusty Diamond, the town coroner who harbors an unconventional love for the dead mayor; “Crim” the local career criminal; and RAMPOP, the mayor’s adopted “special” son who speaks only in chirps and whirrs and sees all adults as large animated butterflies. My personal favorite? Inept defense attorney Sam Murray and his decrepit, perpetually dying 32 year-old cat, Buttonhole. If you don’t laugh until you weep at the scenes where Sam takes Buttonhole to the vet, you may need to upgrade your humor software.
Filled with plenty of the satire, sight gags and salacious humor that the Kids are famous for, this four hour mini-series can be knocked out in one glorious sitting and is best enjoyed with some gravel and grubs or eggs straight from the body (why yes, there is even a Chicken Lady cameo). Don’t you want to spend some time with Death tonight?
"Remarkable events often have ordinary beginnings. Never was this more true than with my talks with Dean Spanley."
So opens the movie Dean Spanley, a tale of forgiveness, transcendence and reconciliation. Every Thursday, Henslowe Fisk makes his way through the streets of London to visit his ancient, curmudgeonly and nihilistic father. The elder Fiske grumbles that his son's visits are a burden, and that the only thing special about a Thursday is to keep "Wednesday and Friday from colliding."
Fisk begins to wonder whether the time couldn't be spent in more enjoyable pursuits. At his next visit he insists that he and his father attend a lecture on reincarnation, held by a guru on his vast estate. The senior Fisk is skeptical: "Do you think if we had souls, they wouldn't get in touch? Of course they would!"
While at the lecture they meet a local vicar, Dean Spanley. He's an odd character who makes some intriguing comments about the possibility of an afterlife. Henslowe's curiosity is peaked and he invites Spanley to dinner to discuss the topic further. He discovers that, plied with the right amount of wine, the Dean is given to telling fantastic stories of another, half-remembered life. After recounting one such tale, Spanley pauses to reflect, "One moment you are running along, the next you are no more." As time goes by, Henslowe realizes that these stories sound vaguely familiar, and may hold the key to a more enlightened relationship between Henslowe and his father.
The role of the elder Fisk is given Scrooge-like depth by Peter O'Toole, a valid reason on its own to watch this gem. Sam Neill's portrayal of the Dean is by turns hilarious and moving. Add wonderful dialog and the gorgeous Edwardian setting, and you'll find a movie that bears repeated watching. You'll have plenty of time to do so, if, as the guru insists, "You are, my dear sir, in the anteroom of eternity."
Recently I was digging around for something to satisfy me in the same way that Connie Willis' Oxford Time Travel series does and I dragged up the Small Change Series by Jo Walton. I am deep into book two, and I love it.
Book One, Farthing, is a Christie/Sayers-style country house mystery, the stakes increased enormously by the fact that this 1949 England has made peace with Hitler and the murder in question may push the country decidedly into fascism. The book is deceptively modest -- "oh, I'm just a mystery with a funny bit of alternate history, don't mind me" it whispers -- but manages to pull off a riveting whodunit, a chilling 'it really could have happened', and a lovely portrait of how brave everyday people can be.
Book Two, Ha'Penny, replaces the 'whodunit' with an effort to assassinate Hitler. But this isn't just a fantasy of derring-do in the face of evil. People who dream of a free England ally with Stalinists in order to accomplish their ends, good people are killed by other good people in the effort to do What Must Be Done. In other words, Walton acknowledges that the world is complicated while keeping the pages flying by.
The third and final book is Half a Crown, & I almost can't bear how much I want everything to be OK by the end of this reality-that-wasn't.
If you're like me you're always meaning to read more poetry. And not just because of that vague, niggling sense that poetry is good for you, but because the experience of reading a poem is immersive. I find that reading and then re-reading a good poem puts me in a meditative state as I try, on my first read, to skate along the surface, and then on subsequent reads, to find a deeper meaning. I'm not that practiced at it, and I sometimes wish that I had knowledgeable friends with whom to discuss poetry, a poetry club, if you will.
With that idea in mind, we're launching a Facebook program this year. It's called 12 by 12 in 2012. Each month we'll post a poem online and Special Collections Librarian, Jim Carmin, will hang out with the poet and you, entertaining your questions and having a lively discussion. Our first event will take place on Monday, January 23rd from 2-3pm with Matthew Dickman. We wanted to give you a head start on Matthew's poem, and so we are posting it here. Enjoy, and please join us on Monday to chat with Matthew and Jim, if you have a chance. (Please note that you will have to 'like' Multnomah County Library's Facebook page to participate in the chat.)
I like the inner lives of the silverware; the fork,
the spoon, the knife. I appreciate
how they each have a different reference toward
god, how the fork is Muslim,
the spoon, like a stone, is Buddhist, how the knife
is Roman Catholic—
always worried, always having
a hard time forgiving people, the knife kneeling
down in Ireland and Africa. In San Francisco
my lamp has become a temple.
Every time I turn it on the light moves out across
the room like a meditation,
like a bell or a robe
the way it covers everything and doesn’t want to
kill. Light is the husband
and everything it touches is its bride, the floor,
the wall, my body,
the bronze installation in Hayes Valley
its bride. The lamp chants
and my clothes, my hat thrown in the corner of the room
chants back: nothing, nothing. In my next life
I’ll have no fingers, no toes. In my next life I’ll be
a bougainvillea. A Buddhist monk
will wake up early on Sunday morning and not be a fork
and not be a knife, he will look down at the girl
sleeping in his bed like a body of water,
he will think about how
he lifted her up like a spoon to his mouth all night, and walk
into the courtyard and pick up the shears
and cut a little part of me, and lie me down next to her mouth
which is breathing heavily and changing all the dark in the room to light.
When Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey came out I read the review and decided it wasn't really going to be to my tastes. Too violent, too scary, too gory... not my thing at all. Then I picked it up on a whim. I needed something new to read and was in the right mood to try something that might be pretty gross. Turns out I was wrong to reject it the first time. I loved it. Sure it's violent and it's gory, but it isn't actually scary. Instead the books are really pretty funny -- in a sick, twisted, puerile and violent way -- but they are surprisingly humorous.
Stark was a callow young magician who loved his girlfriend and had a few daddy issues. Then he got betrayed by his buddies and cast into Hell. Alive. There he spent eleven years getting tortured in unspeakable ways while killing monsters and demons in an arena to amuse other monsters and demons, all to survive a little longer. Now he's back on earth, has a few anger management issues, and wants revenge, in part for being betrayed and in part for his murdered love. While he's getting his revenge he earns a buck freelancing as a monster killer for an angel and as a bodyguard for Lucifer when he's on earth. The only side Stark is on is his own.
These are nice light books in their own blood-and-unspeakable-gunk-soaked way. The books are a very fast read. I also enjoyed book three, Aloha from Hell: A Sandman Slim Novel. I hope there's a fourth book in the works!
Is your iPod at capacity? Mine is. And when I download songs to my computer, I never do anything with them. Add to that a shed crammed with CDs I can’t bear to part with, and it’s too much music to handle.
Library CDs broke my cycle of pointless song-hoarding. The music they hold is ephemeral, passing through my life like fragrance. Newly liberated, I scaled way back on listening to my iPod. Overuse was making me numb to its charms. These days, I only listen to it while walking on lunch break. Reducing iPod visitation hours has made me fall in love with a few bands all over again.
Like The Misfits and the anthology Static Age. It’s a collection of songs they recorded during graveyard hours in New Jersey, but it plays like tinny transmissions from a cave in outer space. Cruddy recording never sounded so right, and neither did the words “Her omelette of disease awaits your noontime meal/ Her mouth of germicide seducing all your glands.” It was 1978, and they were young enough to pull off lyrics like that with punky-sincere sneers. In my book, Static Age is all the Misfits you need.
I look like a mom and a library nerd lady who wears knitted ponchos, because I am. But on my walks I am listening to THE MISFITS, and therefore a bad-ass! And no one knows, unless I am pumping my fist and muttering some ridiculous mock-Satanic chant along with Glenn Danzig under my breath.
Today on my awesome bad-ass walk I saw a crusty old dude walking from the opposite direction. He had a puffy coat and a black eye and carried a little boom box like the one our youth librarian has in the meeting room. I paused my Misfits and heard Sam Cooke’s velvety voice blasting out of the boom box. I smiled at the puffy coat guy and he smiled back. And for a happy moment, our private music worlds intersected.
Do you have a case of the winter blahs? The sparkle of the holidays has passed, but the winter weather remains. Spring and summer seem a long way off, know what I mean? Well, never fear. Cue Fred Astaire! You can't go wrong with his singing and dancing charms. Check out the film A Damsel in Distress, based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse and recently released on DVD. This lighthearted movie is heavy on talent, featuring the music of George & Ira Gershwin and co-starring George Burns and Gracie Allen. You won't find Ginger Rogers in this one, but the story involves the usual plot suspects (romantic complications, mistaken identities, etc). And the musical numbers are fantastic! An Oscar-winning fun house routine features Astaire, Burns, and Allen dancing on and around turntables, tunnels, slides, and distorting mirrors. A Gershwin gem, "Nice Work if You Can Get it", highlights Astaire's incredible rhythm and musicality, both as a dancer and as a drummer.
If you'd like to learn more about Fred Astaire, check out his engaging autobiography Steps in Time. In his conversational, easy-going style, Astaire relates the story of his life and work, at least up to 1959 when the book was first published. In a more recent publication, Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, author Todd Decker describes Astaire's contributions to the art of jazz music and his collaborations with a variety of musicians, arrangers, and performers.
Sit back, relax, and let Fred Astaire tap your troubles away!
Whenever some pundit or book reviewer decries Young Adult or teen books as somehow not as good as books for adults, don't believe them. (This happens regularly, usually when they think they are talking about an exception to the rule.) I find there are many teen books that are complex, extremely well-written, and compelling, and many books aimed at adults that are simplistic and puerile. So if you're looking for a quick but satisfying read, check out that YA section.
I'm sure I'll write about many YA books for adults in the future, but today I will focus on a few historical fiction books.
The Pox Party (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. 1) by M.T. Anderson. A boy raised as a science experiment is given a classical education and sheltered from his status as a slave in New England in the 1760s. Blinders are removed and a pox party changes things. This book is not for the casual reader...you do have to like that 18th century baroque style.
Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. I'm sure you knew our fledgling nation's capitol was in Philadelphia in 1793. Did you also know a yellow fever epidemic claimed around a fifth of the residents? There would have been more if many hadn't fled the city, including George Washington. Protagonist Mattie Cook falls ill despite fleeing, but survives to return to the devastated city.
The Land by Mildred D Taylor. The son of a white landowner and a former slave, Paul Logan is openly acknowledged by his father in post Civil War Georgia. Paul works hard to acquire land of his own. Needless to say, he faces many obstacles. The author draws upon true family stories for her well-crafted books on the Logan family.
A few summers ago, I went to visit some cousins who live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania which is essentially THE place to be if you're Amish. I tried not to stare, but ultimately failed because everything about the Amish was so different from my experience and totally fascinating. We went to a horse auction run by the Amish, parked the minivan next to a horse-drawn wagon, passed horse and buggies and a sort of bicycle/scooter mashup that was one young man's mode of transportation, and shopped at Good's which is kind of like an Amish Wal-Mart. I finally got the inside scoop about these people when I recently read Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler.
Ira now lives in Lancaster Co, PA, but was born into a large family in an Old Order Amish community in Aylmer, Ontario (who knew there were Amish in Canada? Obviously not me.). Wagler talks about the customs, rules and differences among Amish communities (they can be pretty wide) and what it was like for him growing up in several of them. We're let in on life at an Amish school, we go to an Amish wedding and church services, we see communities work well, and sometimes not so well, and we experience the pain and struggles of Amish youth who don't fit the mold. Wagler was one of those youth. He first left when he was a teenager, and then came back and left several more times before finally leaving for good. The writing is sometimes a bit overwrought, but the feeling of being let in on a secret was certainly worth it.
I just finished Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan. He self-published his series as e-books and they did well enough that Orbit books picked it up to reprint in three omnibus volumes. This just doesn't happen very often so I was intrigued. Generally speaking I will turn my little nose up at anything self published. There's a lot of junk out there and some of the stuff I've read in the past... What has been seen cannot be unseen and I've become jaded enough to insist that an editor has been between me and that slush pile of badly written horrors. Sullivan is one of those occasional exceptions to the rule.
This isn't high brow literary fantasy by any stretch of the imagination. The two main characters are introduced with a scene that's truly hilarious if you read lots of epic fantasy. Let's not talk about how late I stayed up finishing the book one night that I was home alone and didn't have that external voice of reason telling me it was past time to turn off the light and go to sleep. (Just 100 odd pages left... OK, closer to 200. Won't take me more that an hour... or two....) The author takes all the grand old tropes and cliches and goes to town with them. The heroes are scoundrels with hearts of gold. The villains all but twirl their mustaches and laugh manically. If there had been a chandelier in this book I'm certain somebody would have swung from it. So yes, the book was flawed. I've certainly read better books and I can see why editors passed it by initially. But it's just so darn much *fun* that I found myself forgiving every flaw.
It reminded me of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. You know it's not going to be 'good' but when Captain Jack Sparrow first staggers onto the screen you can't quite help but smile.
You know how sometimes a book crosses your path and you know absolutely nothing about it, but the cover just makes you want to pick it up? This is exactly what happened to me with The Family Fang. I was instantly intrigued by the edgy cover design, which reminded me of A Series of Unfortunate Events meets The Royal Tenenbaums meets Bored to Death. A quick scan of the back cover noted a lovely blurb from Anne Patchett. A poll of my literary go-to-friends elicited the appropriate amount of cooing. “Oooh, The Family Fang. Supposed to be good. Haven’t read it yet. On my list.”
I excitedly checked it out with only a small rock in my gut, because I have to say, sometimes these key ingredients -- beautiful jacket cover plus glowing review by a fave author plus friend praise -- don’t always add up to be a win win in the incredible book department. Like any recipe you try for the first time, something can go horribly wrong, which, as a self-described heartless reader I usually know by page 15. So imagine my delight when I opened The Family Fang and was immediately hooked.
What a beautifully written, intriguing first novel from Alex Award winner Kevin Wilson. Here the author has taken the idea of performance art and turned it on its head by asking what happens when two self-obsessed artists have children. Why, they turn their children into an art project of course! Annie and Buster Fang (known only as Child A and Child B) spend their entire childhood this way. Fast forward 15 years. The Fang parents have suddenly disappeared. As their grown (and now estranged) children try to figure out what happened, all the while they ask themselves if this is just another one of their parents’ elaborate artistic events, or are the Fangs really dead? As a reader you will find yourself pleasantly on the edge of your seat until the last bizarre and wonderful moments unfold.
I love Christmas music, and I am not embarrassed. I love to sing Christmas songs and I love to play the Christmas records my Mom played when I was growing up, especially Johnny Mathis’ Merry Christmas.
But years of retail work spoiled too many Christmas songs for me. In retail, hearing bubblegum cover versions of “Wonderful Christmastime” multiple times a day for nearly three months straight is an inevitable occupational hazard.
I’m not about to let the season’s rabid consumerism ruin all my fun. You don’t have to, either. Take back Christmas music by creating your own holiday programming at home with offbeat selections from the library’s extensive selection of Christmas CDs. Here are some of my favorites.
The Original Soul Christmas, a compilation originally released in 1968, offers funky delights aplenty, especially Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa,” whose opening riff many of us will recognize from the sample in Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis.” It’s both Christmas-y and groovy all at once, and great for parties.
Best known as the original vocalist for Judas Priest, Rob Halford might seem an unlikely musician to record a Christmas album. His Winter Songs offers a mixed bag of classics and originals, but it’s worth listening to just for the mighty metal glory of his uptempo yet appropriately majestic “We Three Kings.”
My most beloved of the library’s Christmas CDs is Mario Lanza Sings Christmas Carols. The Italian-American tenor from Philly with the bombastic pipes (he was the Josh Groban of the 1950s) died in 1959, the same year he recorded this collection of secular and sacred classics; it’s borderline cheesy, but I love the deliciously dated way he enunciates “fa la la la la.” Its old-timey charm sets my heart aglow with transmissions from yore.
(And a here’s a bonus! You can download the aforementioned “Christmas in Hollis” from our Freegal service. Thanks, Library Santa!)
Today, as I sit to write this, it’s the day after Black Friday (Grey Saturday?). The Oregonian and The Wall Street Journal both have front-page photos of crazed shoppers in queues, loading carts with deeply discounted merchandise; yesterday’s USA Today had a cover story about the abundance of seasonal retail jobs. Employment rates, shopping. It’s all covered to death. But who’s talking about the daily lives of people working those low-paying jobs?
That’s what prompted me to pick up Caitlin Kelly’s Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. Kelly, a 50-something career journalist, was laid off from her job reporting for a major newspaper. Tired of the isolation of freelancing from home and unable to find a permanent position, Kelly got a part-time job at the North Face store in the mall in her affluent community. At first, she enjoyed the solidarity she found with her co-workers and the challenges of thinking on her feet, but after two and a half years she quit, drained and demoralized.
Kelly struggles with tired feet, rushed breaks, and growing resentment at the impossible policies of an unseen corporate office. She also finds helping customers exhilarating. Retail work is funny that way: a monkey could do it, but it takes a clever, extroverted human to do it well.
According to Kelly, one-fifth of American business is retail, worth 4 trillion dollars a year. But “the money that stores devote to their labor budgets--between 8 and 13 percent--is almost always the absolute least...take away decently compensated employment that matters to us, and our souls begin to die.” Lots of people who’d otherwise love their retail careers quit in frustration or become soul-less retail robots, because the company employing them does not love them back.
Kelly’s writing from the perspective of an outsider who went inside, just as Barbara Ehrenreich did in her now-classic Nickel and Dimed. For a different perspective, try the anthology The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, where writers share their most horrific memories from the retail jobs they had before they became established authors. Be glad these people won’t be ringing up your purchases this season.
What about the millions of other retail workers who don’t have a book deal to escape to? Keep them in mind, no matter which side of the cash wrap you may find yourself.