Review: Hand to Mouth

Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado is funny, yet dark. The observations about what it means to be poor in America are her own, the author repeatedly says, but they are very on point. The author takes us through her daily life, from work to children and relationships, via cleanliness, propriety and a host of other topics.
All the time I was reading reading it I felt grateful for living in Europe. Even though I’ve never been subsistence level poor (wealthy parents), I worked a low paid call center job in customer service for a few years after graduation. I thought the strict protocols, no security ‘flexible’ contracts and unfriendly (and frequently outraged) customers were bad. Turns out I was lucky. I could go to the bathroom as needed and could live off my parttime salary. I could have worked full-time if I wanted, or if I had had a family to support.
And lots of the obstacles Tirado encounters are non-existent in the comfortable European social security system. We enjoy affordable healthcare for everyone, benefits in cash (instead of complicatedly regulated food stamps) and a decent minimum wage. Most of us don’t have to work two jobs. Other things that seem normal in the US are downright illegal in the Netherlands. An employer is not allowed to search an employee’s bag, except when there’s a real suspicion of theft, and never routinely.
But one thing is exactly the same here. In the final chapter, which I think is easily the best (from a literary point of view), the author directly addresses ‘rich people’, and points out the error of their (perhaps our) ways. Meetings are a waste of time! No-one pays any attention! The majority of the time is spent circling around some kind of criticism! Children are spoiled beyond repair, thinking they’re all the very special geniuses their parents make them out to be. And ‘rich people’ treat poor people horribly. They take out all their own anger and frustration at someone in a service job, making impossible demands and pouting when they can’t be met. As if the human being at the other end of the counter exists solely to please them.
Hand to Mouth is a mirror to American (and to some extent Western) society, but an imperfect one. Obviously, the author stereotypes ‘rich people’ as much as she feels stereotyped by them. That’s not a huge problem, and she acknowledges it herself. I have bigger issues with the editing of the book. A stricter editor might have gone a long way into making the book a lot more readable and memorable. Had the structure been more clear from the beginning, it would have been easier to remember main points. Also, in the wealth of information, maybe less is more.
I realize I’m not the intended audience for this book. I definitely think Americans should read this, for a laugh and for a wake up call.  This book pretty much describes the situation I had expected to find when I first visited the States in 2012. Instead, I was met with a friendliness and positivism rarely extended to foreigners in European countries. As wonderful as that was, this book has me wondering if it was completely appropriate.

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