Good Reads for a Bad Economy | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Good Reads for a Bad Economy 

Are you taking an unexpected "vacation" thanks to the recession? Here's some reading material in case your time off outlasts your unemployment benefits.

No Job? No Prob!: How to Pay Your Bills, Feed Your Mind, and Have a Blast When You're Out of Work
Eat Cheap But Eat Well
Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide
The Green Millionaire: A Practical Guide to Achieving Real Wealth While Helping to Save the Planet

Coal Mountain Elementary
Girl, Undressed
The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience
Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium

Stabilizing an Unstable Economy

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No Job? No Prob!: How to Pay Your Bills, Feed Your Mind, and Have a Blast When You're Out of Work
By Nicholas Nigro
Skyhorse Publishing, 300 pp., $12.95

Phone conversations with my dad are tough these days. Unemployment has clearly taken a toll on him. Each time I call home, I can hear it in his voice.

"I'm fine," he assures me time and again. "Everything will work out."

But the deflated tone in his voice tells me he has trouble believing it. Like hundreds of thousands of others looking for work in today's dismal economy, my dad's morale is at an all-time low.

Nicholas Nigro is trying to change that.

As the title suggests, No Job? No Prob! strives for a lighthearted tone while offering encouragement and nuts-and-bolts advice on maneuvering through the intricacies of unemployment. Nigro -- who's also written how-to books on such topics as starting your own pet business and trading in collectibles -- sidesteps the gloom and doom whenever possible. His very first tip is: "Don't push the panic button."

From there, No Job? succinctly walks readers through the process of negotiating a severance package, and filing for unemployment benefits. Along the way, he notes how "lucky" they are to be applying for unemployment in the Internet age. Before, Nigro notes, getting benefits meant long lines at the unemployment office and "interact[ing] with beleaguered bureaucrats who always seemed like they'd rather be in another line of work -- or, perhaps, jobless themselves."

That tone is consistent with Nigro's focus on the positive. "No death certificate has yet listed the cause of death as unemployment," he writes. Maybe not. But in trying to cast unemployment in a more positive light, he's often overly simplistic.

Many of Nigro's suggestions -- like axing your cable service or buying generic at the grocery store -- ought to be no-brainers. And is any of this really enough to get someone through the loss of a job, of health insurance? Nigro never proves it, partly because he ignores the writer's adage, "Show, don't tell."

Don't just tell me I can survive on $20 a day by shopping at dollar stores and brewing my own coffee: Show me someone who has done it. A few interviews -- or a breakdown of day-to-day living costs -- could have gone a long way toward reassuring readers that they, too, can make it.

Of course, the stress of joblessness can sometimes blind people, and even elementary tips can help restore a measure of control over their lives. Similarly, Nigro identifies steps we should take in the first hour, week and month of joblessness.

In fact, he notes, now that you're out of work anyway, you can analyze your previous job and determine if you'd really like to go back to it, even if you could. No Job? includes a series of self-assessment tests so readers can figure out whether there is some other career path they'd like to pursue.

And my dad has already adopted Nigro's suggestion to "Get in touch with your inner Bob Vila." As my parents are currently trying to sell the home I grew up in, my dad's joblessness has actually been a blessing in disguise. He now has time to landscape the yard and clean out the attic. Days he spends working around the house are days he's distracted from his job hunt, days his spirits are just a bit brighter.

And those are the best days to call home.

-- Chris Young

 

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Eat Cheap But Eat Well
By Charles Mattocks
Wiley; 208 pp., $18.95

You can save a lot of money by eating better, and I don't just mean avoiding bad-for-you foods that cause expensive health problems. I simply mean: Buy basics and cook your own meals.

My head nearly explodes when I see grocery carts laden with items like pre-cooked sauced pasta or Lunchables. Most of these products owe more to lab science than nature -- and, ounce for ounce, they're pretty pricey.

That's why in the cornucopia of cookbooks extolling spendy, dream-on cuisine, I'm happy to see Eat Cheap But Eat Well, featuring "over 120 penny-pinching recipes ... from TV's The Poor Chef."

Author Charles Mattocks gets right to the basics of cheap, easy and healthful eating: Cook from scratch, use less meat and more seasoning, and dump everything over rice. (OK, not everything, but Mattocks favors recipes that can be prepared in one pot.) The cuisine is varied -- from American comfort foods and pastas to Asian stir-frys and Caribbean curries. Going global is a sure bet: Most of the world eats for a lot less than we do.

Nor do they sweat the details. Mattocks demystifies cooking with simple instructions and handy tips for those new to their own kitchens. He also offers substitutions for those who may have limited grocery-shopping options: Not every store carries plantains or andouille sausage. What's more, he acknowledges marketplace realities. For instance, it's best to use fresh herbs, but they are relatively expensive. Solution: Plan several recipes around a specific herb -- or use dried. There are worse food crimes.

Simple recipes, simple techniques, tasty alternatives: Pork and Apple Pie with Potato Crust, Dirty Rice with Sausage, Asian-style Nutty Noodles, Mediterranean Chick Pea Pasta Salad.

Even so, could four people really eat for less than $5 total, as Mattocks claims?

To find out, I prepared, ate and broke down the cost of three recipes. (I didn't factor in the fractional amounts of basics like vegetable oil, salt, pepper or dried seasonings.)

  • Beef with Pea Pods, a stir-fry served over rice, came in at $4.39. The "luxury" item was a 99-cent can of water chestnuts. I used $2 worth of round steak, and bought the snow peas cheaply in the Strip. I also added a sliced carrot, making the true total closer to $4.50. Verdict: Very doable, especially with less meat and cheaper veggies.
  • Ginger Chicken with Avocado broke the bank at $7.13, even after substituting thighs for skinless, boneless breasts. I was undone by geography: Avocados, limes and fresh cilantro are pricey imports around these parts. Verdict: Special occasion, only.
  • Mexican Black Beans and Rice was a very economical $3.15, though I question using only one can of beans when serving four. Still, one could add another can and even a sausage, and still stay under $5. Verdict: Get on board.

In the new frugal times, great chefs won't be known by extravagant cupcakes or fussy tapas -- but how best to make $3 feed a family.

-- Al Hoff

 

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Toolbox for Sustainable City Living: A Do-It-Ourselves Guide
By Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew
South End Press, 242 pp., $16

Whether you're spooked by peak-oil theories or plummeting stock markets, it's not hard to see that very little separates us from chaos. Without petro-energy -- or the means to buy it -- how will we live?

Very differently, suggests Toolbox for Sustainable City Living. But it might be kinda fun.

Authors Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew are founders of the Rhizome Collective, an urban-sustainability project in Austin, Texas. Here they set forth the sustainable "permaculture" systems and technologies Rhizome has developed and demonstrated. Divided into sections on food, water, waste, energy and bioremediation, the book combines grassroots theory with low-tech methods that "enable people who do not have political power to gain control over basic resources."

Instead of costly hybrid cars or solar panels, such technologies must be affordable, simple, consist of salvaged or abundant materials and be suitable for urban environments. The reader is invited to cherry-pick these methods -- I'm thinking about growing a mushroom log ASAP -- or combine into your own utopian afterworld.

Plans for "food security" include microlivestock (chickens and other birds, mainly), fruit- and nut-bearing trees, and using small man-made ponds to grow fish and edible aquatic plants. You'll learn how to build a solar bioshelter to keep your critters warm, and even how to cultivate insects (mainly for feeding fish and chickens.) The water section includes plans for making rain barrels, and purification methods. Other topics include restoring the soil of former parking lots, composting, converting cars to run on biofuels, solar ovens and building simple wind turbines from recycled bike parts.

For the most part, the authors suggest avoiding questions of permits and whatnot. "A clandestine approach can keep sustainable systems under the radar," they write. Keeping the neighbors quiet is huge: With chickens, "Skeptical neighbors can often be won over by offers of fresh eggs," they write.

Although many of the strategies here might appeal to those who simply want to shave some bucks off their monthly bills (so they can blow the cash on gargantuan HD TVs, the capitalist pigs!), the book tends toward that kind of maddeningly earnest tone which often afflicts sincere activists. Even the section on composting our poop resists cracking a grin. ("We feel it is very important for people to know that human-waste recycling is an option and want to be 'out' about it." Is that so?) Illustrations by Juan Martinez -- of, say, an ant working in a bike shop -- provide some anthropomorphic levity.

The core message comes late in the book: "A 'descent culture' must be created -- one that is capable of functioning on the lower energy provided by renewable sources. This low-energy life needn't be a grim existence. Instead, it could be an opportunity to redesign society and to eliminate the gross disparities between haves and have-nots."

Or you could just start a compost pile, collect your rainwater, grow some plants and call it a day.

-- Aaron Jentzen

 

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The Green Millionaire: A Practical Guide to Achieving Real Wealth While Helping to Save the Planet
By Nigel J. Williams
Green Marble, 160 pp., $29.95

First off, The Green Millionaire does not contain any secret tips about how you can turn your recycled cans and bottles into a fortune.

The plans and tips offered by author Nigel J. Williams aren't well-kept secrets that will make you rich overnight. Rather, the book is a compilation of eco-friendly tips that should save you money in the long run ... and help protect the environment in the meantime.

Oddly enough, in fact, the easiest way to get on the road to being a green millionaire is ... DO NOT PAY $29.95 FOR THIS BOOK. In this economy, it's hard to justify spending $30 on a book about how to save money. And luckily, Williams gives you another option.

You can buy a downloadable eBook for just $1 at greenmillionaire.com. Right off the bat, you're already up $28.95 -- and you have a book you can read on your computer, or print out on the back of scrap paper. What's more, the eBook comes with a subscription to the Green Millionaire newsletter and links to the book's Web site to provide interactive information.

In either format, the information is packaged in a user-friendly, graphically pleasing package that makes it a breeze to read in just a couple of hours. There's nothing earth-shattering in here: For instance, Williams says you can save around $2,700 every year by skipping trips to the coffee shop and brewing your own at home. It saves not just gas but wasted stirrers, cup holders and other accoutrements.

But chances are that even the simplest info will be new to some people: According to a 2007 Harris Poll, after all, 25 percent of Americans still don't even recycle. And while Williams' style feels a bit like an Amway presentation at times, some of the tips are really good. Instead of buying bottled water, for example, you can purchase a water filter and save $2,200 annually while cutting down on about 800 bottles each year.

Plus, some of this information really was new -- at least to me. For example, Williams advises purchasing a $300 "Power-Save 1200," a device that stores electricity unused by your household appliances. Electric appliances, Williams notes, take in more power than their motors need. Ordinarily, that unused power -- which you've paid for -- goes back to the grid. The Power-Save stores the electricity instead, until you're ready to use it.

None of these ideas are bad: Some are cheap and easy to do, while others are expensive and more time consuming. I wouldn't spend $30 on it, but $1 to get all of these tips in one handy location makes a lot of sense ... and you'll only have $999,981 to go.

-- Charlie Deitch

 

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Coal Mountain Elementary
By Mark Nowak
Coffeehouse Press, 200 pp., $20

Economic hard times are relative. Try bemoaning the status of your 401(k), for instance, to the Peruvian Indians who died last month trying to keep oil companies from sinking wells in their land. What we call economic "growth" typically bodes ill for others -- including the coal miners and communities that fuel our lifestyle.

Poet and labor activist Mark Nowak attends to those overlooked folks in his artful and accessible new book, Coal Mountain Elementary.

Nowak didn't write Coal Mountain so much as assemble it from three sources: news accounts of Chinese mining disasters; first-person testimony from rescuers, co-workers and survivors of the deadly 2006 mine explosion in Sago, W.Va.; and, most pointedly, text from an educational curriculum provided by the American Coal Foundation.

The book alternates selections from each source, with each excerpt playing off the material before and after.

The news stories are dispassionate, terse: "A colliery gas blast on Wednesday killed at least 23 miners and sickened 53 others in North China's Shanxi Province, local mine safety authorities said yesterday." But the deadpan journalese brackets evidence of anguish. "It is a job for living people working in hell," the sister of a dead Liaoning province miner is quoted saying.

The dispatches contrast dramatically with the informal, sometimes poignantly poetic tone of the Sago testimony: "So he was in a sitting up position," one survivor recalls, "and I was trying to get his lips pried open to try to get air to him, and I couldn't get him."

Nowak's choice of source material echoes his readers' cultural and geographic distance from China -- even as it shocks us with the scale of the carnage there. In China, where a new coal-fired power plant opens every week, hundreds can die in a single incident.

U.S. coal-mining deaths annually number "only" in the dozens, but Nowak shows corporate depersonalization closer to home, too. One Sago miner, for example, reveals that miners had no say in the risks they were assigned. Nowak emphasizes the similarities between mining in China and the U.S. by juxtaposing his own color photos from Sago with images by Ian The, a British photographer who works primarily in China.

Yet Nowak's master stroke is including the American Coal Foundation's classroom exercises. The program was originally intended to instruct schoolkids, but Nowak has rendered it in the form of blank-verse poems. Particularly ironic is a section on "cookie mining," in which children are instructed to extract chocolate chips from the dough. They are instructed to remove them with a care that -- as we see from the rest of the book -- is absent in the real thing.

"Was making a profit easier or harder than they expected?" the curriculum asks of the children. "What costs or possibilities for profits were not included in this exercise?" At his most slyly corrosive -- and, you sense, his most outraged -- Nowak also includes this bit of guidance: "Working in tandem to complete the profit/loss worksheet might be helpful for those with math-related learning disabilities."

-- Bill O'Driscoll

 

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Girl, Undressed
By Ruth Fowler
Penguin Books, 264 pp., $15

Here's a memoir that's worth tucking into your beach tote. It's full of grimy glamour, and it might salve the wounds left by a tanked 401(k) or depleted stock portfolio. It offers some consolation that things could be worse, a bit of reassurance if you're a downsized blue-collar worker who hasn't considered stripping to make ends meet yet -- or even a whipsmart Brit who may be shakin' what her mamma gave her, but who isn't turning tricks.

Ruth Fowler has a Cambridge education and a plummy English accent. But not even that can prevent her descent into the seedy, booze-soaked underbelly of New York's strip-clubs.

Fowler ends up in the Big Apple after a peripatetic existence cooking on yachts and traveling to exotic locales. When she first arrives, she has dreams of becoming a crusading journalist, but those plans have to go on hold because she can't get paid without a green card. So she finds herself scratching for the kinds of jobs where no one is double-checking Social Security numbers: slinging pasta at a shitty restaurant; slinging drinks in a strip club ... and finally realizing that stripping is where the real cash is to be found.

By this point, Fowler has perfected the art of leaving -- friends, lovers, hemispheres -- at the drop of a hat. That expertise helps her create a defense mechanism against her often debauched existence as a stripper. In effect, she leaves town without going anywhere, carrying out an internal psychic cleaving: "Ruth" is the person she keeps behind walls; "Mimi" is the stripper who doesn't give a shit and thrives on chaos, vodka, cocaine and cash. It is Mimi who pushes Fowler ever deeper into the mutually parasitic world of sex work.

Ruth/Mimi's big break comes when a New York Times writer does a feature on her, the too-smart-for-this stripper foundering in the big city. The notoriety costs her a job, but it also leads to bigger jobs and, eventually, book deals. The success doesn't silence Mimi, though, or slake her thirst for self-destruction.

Girl, Undressed sometimes rings hollow, and it takes navel-gazing to new extremes. At times, Fowler comes frustratingly close to making some brilliant points about being an illegal immigrant: How is that life different when you're brown and don't habla Ingles -- as opposed to being lily-white and having an accent that makes people think you're smarter than them? How are those experiences the same? But Fowler's sense of solidarity only goes so far. She peppers her tits-and-ass prose with gratuitous five-dollar words, so as bad as things get for her, we never forget that she isn't one of them.

And let's be real: Sex sells. Pathos sells. Cristal and cocaine and faux-lesbianism sell. The book hews much closer to that narrative. Read it on the beach, but make sure you take a shower before you get home to your Chomsky and Chekov. You wouldn't want them smelling the glitter lotion smeared all over you.

-- Melissa Meinzer

 

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The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience
By Rob Hopkins
Chelsea Green, 240 pp., $24.95

Ever since Pittsburgh scrapped the "Smoky City" moniker, people have been trying to attach a new nickname to it. "Roboburgh" ... "Knowledge Town" ... even "City of Champions" is back in vogue. But perhaps the title we should be seeking is "Transition Town."

In this case, though, "transition" doesn't refer to taking on new industries and real-estate deals. Instead, it's about gearing up -- or, more accurately, down -- for a world in which fossil fuels aren't so readily available.

Devised by a Brit named Rob Hopkins, the "transition" approach is a holistic way of preparing for the coming energy crisis. The Transition Handbook is Hopkins' urgent but optimistic treatise on oil depletion -- which, he argues, looms closer than we think -- and how we need to deal with it.

"Peak oil" is the point at which oil reserves are so depleted that we can no longer drill for it at the current rate. Based on consumption and estimated reserves, Hopkins explains, we're due to reach this point within the next decade. After that, petroleum will become increasingly expensive, and our current rate of fossil-fuel consumption will become unsustainable.

Discussions of peak oil often lead to doomsday prophesies, but Hopkins steers clear of such dire scenarios. He intersperses his scientific data about climate change and oil-depletion with bits of advice on how to get involved with, and to involve others in, "transition culture."

Hopkins counsels against relying on nuclear energy (itself both dangerous and unsustainable) or a yet-undiscovered "magic bullet" solution to our energy problems. Instead, he insists that we must "power down": develop living and working arrangements that cut down on the necessity for regular travel and shipping. Developing localized commerce and agriculture is front and center in this work, as is eschewing energy-intensive forms of entertainment. Dozens of communities in Great Britain have adopted the approach, becoming more self-reliant and calling themselves "Transition Towns."

To encourage other communities to follow suit, Hopkins cites the historical precedent set by wartime mobilizations. He also invokes the metaphor that our reliance on fossil fuels is much like a substance addiction ... and that the solution should take cues from 12-step programs.

That approach lends Hopkins a positive outlook on our capacity for change. But then, this book is geared to a British audience, and it's not clear how well the transition movement will translate in the United States. Britons might not all be devoted progressives, but on this side of the pond, political discourse on environmental issues can be downright venomous. Hopkins' consensus-building approach doesn't necessarily take that into account.

Still, his insistence on cooperative, rather than adversarial, political work helps give the book its note of optimism. And its mix of fact, inspirational material and humor make it an excellent primer on peak oil and approaches to dealing with it.

-- Andy Mulkerin

 

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Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium
By Dick Meyer
Crown Publishers, 271 pp., $24.95

It might seem odd to try to escape your feelings of dread by reminding yourself of how much worse it could be. But author Dick Meyer is somehow cheery and uplifting enough that if you are only now realizing what our nation's problems are, his book won't send you into a spiral of insurmountable despair.

Why We Hate Us is perfect for those who already think they know the answer to the question posed by the title. It lays out most of what's wrong in our society, but in a way that is delightful to recognize, and that won't make you freak out about how much you hate everything. After all, Meyer notes, this book could only be written in a country with enough abundance and freedom to afford his style of "social self-loathing."

We live in a culture, Meyer says, that has a distinctive lack of heroes and rewards those with poor moral character. "We generate celebrity but not leadership, fame but not honor." This ailment strikes at the core of two of our largest institutions: politics and media.

We hate politicians for being performers, and hate them doubly if they are bad performers. But then we resent them if they turn out to be just like us after all. (Meyer cites our own Richard Mellon Scaife as a famous example of a hypocrite.) Idiots and criminals become celebrities, and are celebrated for their failings. This, in turn, causes the problem in us, Meyer writes: We are suffering from an "erosion of common decency." Modern technology, in all of its glory, generally serves to exacerbate our problems.

Meyer makes some broad assertions about very complicated issues. He makes a simplistic argument that the media's depiction of young girls is leading to a "socially approved skankiness," and that the attitude of "boys will be boys" is enabling boys to act like "boys." Each chapter of Why We Hate Us could easily be its own book, but taken on its own, it's a good start. Meyer presents his ideas logically with cultural references and amusing personal anecdotes, even pointing out his own hypocrisy. Even so, the book can get a bit academic: It's fine for a summer read if you're not more concerned with vampires.

Why We Hate Us is great for those who yearn for a bygone era, feeling nostalgia for a world they were never part of. But it also reminds you of how things got this way in the first place. If our major ill is phoniness, Meyer says, the cure is authenticity. Meyer's proposed solutions are pretty much just to control what you can -- which is really just yourself.

Or as a wise man once said: "If you wanna make the world a better place / take a look at yourself / and then make that change."

-- Lydia Heyliger

 

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Stabilizing an Unstable Economy
By Hyman Minsky
Yale University Press, 372 pp., $55

Unless something goes horribly wrong on your vacation -- like the airline swaps your luggage with that of someone attending the G-20 summit -- you probably won't be reading Hyman Minsky on the beach.

But if you can't afford a vacation at all, you might want to spend some time with this 1986 book. An economist whose work has been out of favor for decades, Minsky now looks like a lone voice who saw the current crisis coming a quarter-century ago.

This won't be fun reading. Your eyes will glaze over at assertions that "(Wc/Av) is a supply condition once Wc is defined as labor costs rather than as a worker's wages subject to tax." But sprinkled throughout the text are aphorisms like, "Only an economics that is critical of capitalism can [lead] to successful policy for capitalism."

That's a lesson the rest of us are just now learning. The year after Stabilizing was published, Alan Greenspan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, took over as chair of the Federal Reserve. Ever since, conservatives have pushed a deregulatory agenda, insisting that free markets always correct themselves through the magic of the "invisible hand."

As Minsky points out, if you believe markets fix themselves, then "financial trauma can only occur because of shocks ... imposed from outside the system." Thus, conservatives blame the current recession on, say, community activists at ACORN, who supposedly bullied the world's most powerful CEOs into making bad mortgages.

Minsky, though, argues that financial trauma is built directly into the system. Left to its own, capitalism will produce a series of 19th-century-style booms and busts. In part, Minsky writes, this is because "A banker is always trying to find new ways to lend, new customers, and new ways of acquiring funds ...; he is under pressure to innovate." And those innovations will often involve taking ever-more audacious gambles with other people's money. As Minsky notes, and as we've come to learn, there really isn't that much difference between a Ponzi scheme and a lot of (legal) financial speculation.

Minsky proposed a much more active government to serve as a counterweight to the financial sector. To him, that meant tougher financial regulation, of course ... but it also meant establishing New Deal-style government jobs programs to shore up the economy's base.

Conservatives, of course, would denounce such a program as "socialist." Even today -- after all that's happened -- it's almost impossible to imagine a politician quoting Minsky's assertion that "Big Government is the most important reason why today's capitalism is better than the capitalism which gave us the Great Depression."

Will we pay closer heed to him in the future? Or is Minsky doomed to be the Cassandra of economics -- the seer whose prophecies are never believed? The jury's out. But it's not encouraging that we have a president who, for all his gifts, is deeply indebted to Wall Street ... and who seems to believe that "bipartisanship" means acting only half as smart as you really are.

So I'm hoping a couple G-20 attendees, at least, really do pack Minsky's work in their carry-on bags.

-- Chris Potter

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