seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Up in the Air by Walter Kirn

Just finished Up in the Air by Walter Kirn - the book that the Clooney movie was based on (though substantially different). I had heard the book was hilarious and was disappointed that it definitely wasn't. However, if I didn't have the expectation of laughing like I was reading an Evanovich mystery, I think I would have enjoyed it more... it was a good book. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed the writing.

I found the movie intensely good, but it was definitely more inspired by the book than based on it -- a lot has changed in America since 2001 when this was written.

Kirn makes some great observations - this in particular struck me on many levels:

As a younger man, I made the mistake of talking to a stripper, in depth and at length, about her finances. Her income shocked me. It was double mine. She claimed to be saving for college, but when I presser her, I learned that she didn't even have a bank account and supported not one but two delinquent boyfriends. I didn't feel sorry for her, I felt insulted. There I was, the sort of clean achiever this beautiful girl should consider marrying, but instead she was shaking me down for twenties to lavish on my Darwinian inferiors.

Another one:

His painful, frostbitten feet explained the slippers, but the bubbles he blew were the purest affectation, intended to show that he plays by his own Hoyles. He knows, as all the cleverest ones do, that no human being is so interesting that he can't make himself more interesting still by acting retarded at random intervals.

Observations like these really made the book worth reading for me, as they were far more interesting than the story. The end was kinda odd and I didn't really follow it but it doesn't bother me because I was mining the book for insights more than being wrapped up in the characters. I guess I read it like a nonfiction book and I have no regrets, but it sure doesn't seem like praise.

In Dubious Battle - Steinbeck

Organizing is hell. That it is less harsh today than 100 years ago does little to change the fact that organizing workers today remains incredibly difficult. Those who do it sacrifice much to help workers get a fair share of what they produce - to give them more control over their workplace (organizing solely for a raise is seldom a worthwhile endeavor).

Years ago, I worked with organizers, most often from HERE (a union generally representing hotel and restaurant employees) and UFCW (food and commercial workers) and I have a great respect for what they go through just to get some employers to abide by the law, let alone gain advantages for the workers that are fair and yet not required by law. They work long hours at low pay, and rarely get the praise they deserve for improving the status of workers across the country.

A note for those of you who don't know your labor history - if you don't know how long it took and how many died in the struggle for a 40 hour day, an end to child labor, and for a minimum wage, you should learn. Some people actually think employers willingly bestowed these prizes on workers - this ignorance insults the memories of some of the most important people in the history of this country.

A decent start to understand the labor history of this country may actually be a work of fiction - John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle (which you should buy from (Amazon is great but independent bookstores are better for the community). Those intimidated because of being forced to read Steinbeck in High School should reconsider - this is a fairly short book and is apparently President Obama's favorite book by Steinbeck.

The book is about organizing the agriculture workers in California way back in the day. Each of these quotes comes from dialogue - starting with an insight into why organizing workers was so important:

"Did you ever work at a job where, when you got enough skill to get a raise in pay, you were fired and a new man put in? Did you ever work in a place where they talked about loyalty to the firm, and loyalty meant spying on the people around you?"

As to those who would argue that humans are too individualistic to work together, one might answer "There is power in a union."

"Men always like to work together. There's a hunger in men to work together. Do you know that ten men can lift nearly twelve times as big a load as one man can? It only takes a little spark to get them going. Most of the time they're suspicious, because every time someone gets 'em working in a group the profit of their work is taken away from them; but wait till they get working for themselves."

The final quote is something that can be applied to almost every power struggle in the history of humankind. London is the name of one of the main characters. The men they are organizing may well starve - their families may be malnourished because the owners of the orchards had all the power in the arrangement. 100 years ago, when people went on strike, some might get killed quickly in a streetfight and others might watch their children go days without food during the ordeal. These were serious struggles.

"They say we play dirty, work underground. Did you ever think, London? We've got no guns. If anything happens to us, we don't get in the newspapers. But if anything happens to the other side, Jesus, they smear it in ink. We've got no money, and no weapons, so we've got to use our heads, London. See that? It's like a man with a club fighting a squad with machine-guns. The only way he can do it is to sneak up and smack the gunners from behind. Maybe that isn't fair, but hell, London, this isn't any athletic contest. There aren't any rules a hungry man has to follow."

According to Wikipedia, when writing about the book, Steinbeck said this - something that I sometimes want to shout at pompous folks who are more horrified by a fucking expletive than the daily outrages faced by the underclass in our cities.

The what is usually called vulgar. I have worked along with working stiffs and I have rarely heard a sentence that had not some bit of profanity in it. And in books I am sick of the noble working man talking very like a junior college professor. [The novel] is not controversial enough to draw the support of either the labor or the capital side although either may draw controversial conclusions from it, I suppose

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