Saturday, January 20, 2007


Down and out in America.

David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible In America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

Being poor is a lot of work, so even the people who David Shipler met while he wrote this book who aren’t working are still working hard. Shipler used to be a reporter for The New York Times, and it would appear that he left so that he could devote himself to deeper, more sustained reportage that can appear in even a good newspaper. For this book, Shipler spent serious time on the ground with people whose stories don’t often make it into the Times, and he often got them to open up to him.

Some of the early chapters are the best. Shipler captures the way that the lack of access to transportation, health care, social capital, and other resources all feed on each other, and he does it by telling individuals’ stories. There’s plenty of humanity, but no pity. The chapter on immigrants is strong. Some of the later chapters fall a little flat, since Shipler can’t always find people to open up to him. This is true with his chapters on education, where he has a hard time getting beyond the classroom, and on substance abuse, where he tells the stories of some who have been down and have made it back up, stories that sometimes sound just a little too affirming and heart-warming.

The book closes with an attempt to identify policy solutions to the conditions of the poor. While the impulse to translate recognition into action is entirely understandable, Shipler’s discussion of policy is short, abstract, and out of touch with how things actually work – the polar opposite of the rest of the book.

Here’s one excerpt from The Working Poor, and here’s another that prompted me to find out more about Reach Out and Read on the internet and give them money.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Living in books.

Carlos Maria Dominguez, The House Of Paper (Harcourt, 2005).

A little novella about those of us who grow too passionate about books as possessions rather than things to read. The arresting image at the heart of this work is of a house on a lagoon in Uruguay, built of books:
”But he did take his books to Rocha with him. To the strip of sand between the lagoon and sea. It was an expensive move, because the books had to travel more than two hundred kilometers in covered trucks. They had to go in along the earth road and then be taken across the dunes by cart, until, finally, they arrived at the lean-to shack almost on the beach.

“Then what do you think he did with them? He set about finding a local out-of-work laborer, one of those men who are as competent working with wood as they are with cement, who can put in a window or thatch a roof, hammer in nails as big as your finger, drill for water or chisel stone, although you can never be sure of the results. The kind of man who asks no questions but follows instructions, whatever they may be, providing he gets paid, because he won’t have to live there.

“Brauer told his laborer to build the supports for the windows and two doors on the sand. He got him to build a stone wall, and a chimney. Once the chimney was built at the side of the shack, and the door and window frames completed, he asked him to put in a cement floor. And on that floor—you can imagine the horror that fills me as I say this—he told him to turn his books into bricks. . . .

“I can see Carlos sitting, hands on his lap, in a chair between the huge pile of books the cart had left and the shoreline, wearing a straw hat to protect him from the fierce Rocha sun, listening to the sound of the laborer’s trowel on the backs of books whose margins he had scrawled on with useless references to other works, commentaries he could never again check, consult, or cast light on with a further reading. He is neither happy nor sad, more dumbstruck by his own brutal act, and lulled by the laborer’s whistle, the radio playing, or the ocean waves breaking on the shore, the gulls on the beach.
pp. 69-71.

Must one be a bibliophile to surmise that this doesn’t end well? A cautionary tale, if you will, of living in books.

Peter Sis, whose work I adore, illustrated this book, and my chief complaint would be that his illustrations are too small, though I suppose it’s a function of publishing such a cute, little book.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Early Frayn.

Michael Frayn, A Landing On The Sun (Picador, 2003).

Brian Jessel, an English civil servant, is asked to look into the untimely death of another civil servant years ago. Summerchild was found one morning, evidently having fallen to his death from a top floor of a ministry building, under puzzling circumstances. Jessel once knew Summerchild, and his life has come to parallel Summerchild’s in certain respects. Both became absorbed in their work, however humdrum and mundane, and both come to find their home lives to be unfulfilled and unfulfilling.

Jessel soon learns that Summerchild had been seconded to an odd, ad hoc project in the months before his demise, and and as the novel progresses he pieces together what Summerchild was doing and how it led to his death. Suffice it for these purposes to say that Summerchild carved out his own domain in an unexamined corner of the bureaucracy, but that he was unable to negotiate a separate peace.

A Landing On The Sun came recommended by a trusted source, and I have enjoyed Frayn’s later works quite a bit, but I never quite got the point. The story-within-a-story never paid off, in that Jessel’s own circumstances remained unresolved at the novel’s end. As an entertainment, it has its moments but is nowhere near as fun as Headlong. From an intellectual perspective, there was much less to chew on than there is in Copenhagen. All in all, a disappointment.

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