The Bookworm: Maid to order; tuning the organ

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive”

  • By Stephanie Land
  • c. 2019, Hachette
  • $27, $29.99 Canada; 288 pages

That thing? You’re ready to let it go. It sparks joy, but not enough. Or it doesn’t, and you’re not sure why you didn’t donate it before. Indeed, boxes of things are ready for giveaway and you’re looking at sparkling-clean digs. Did you do it yourself or, as in the new memoir, “Maid” by Stephanie Land, were you assisted by a stranger in your space?

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When she was a young woman, Stephanie Land dreamed of becoming a writer. In the meantime, she tended bar and thought of moving from Washington to Montana, where so many writers found home. She took odd jobs to get by, applied for college, and met a man who fathered her child, a girl that neither had planned on having.

"Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive" by Stephanie Land.

Shortly after the baby was born, he told Land to leave.

Newly homeless and with daughter in tow, she landed in emergency housing, then in transitional housing, awaiting final paperwork that might’ve allowed for more stability. Her predicament was embarrassing and exhausting; she wanted to work, to pay her bills and buy necessities. Instead, Land endured hours-long lines, applying for grants and cards and bandages to keep her afloat.

She became a statistic. 

For Land, and millions of Americans like her, pulling oneself out of poverty is fraught with “fragile circumstances.” Land needed a job, but childcare was iffy, and more income meant less help. No help meant no gas money to job-seek. With little support and few options, she started working as a paid-under-the-table, part-time housecleaner.

"Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive" author Stephanie Land.

“My job offered no sick pay, no vacation … no foreseeable increase in wage,” she says, “yet … still I begged to work more.”

When “more” was not forthcoming, Land started her own fledgling business, hustling for clients, branching out to lawn care, and bartering for what she needed. Still, she endured humiliation and difficulties, until a client who didn’t see her as “invisible” gave her advice and a caseworker gave her a lifeline.

Your desk, bathrooms, conference room, your entire home sometimes seems to sparkle more than normal. You write a check each month to make it happen. Now “Maid” shows you who does the work.

This, however, isn’t a new story: author Stephanie Land begins with a few hindsight-regretful decisions and a paycheck-to-paycheck existence that’s lost, along with reliable shelter. Readers are likely familiar with this, and the seemingly-endless bureaucracy that comes next.

The narrative shifts considerably, once we reach the part in which Land takes a job as a housecleaner, but it’s not always a good shift. There, readers get an eloquently-written look at uncomfortable, complicated processes that seem designed to keep people from getting out of poverty. We also get a peek inside the life of a maid, but Land makes the work seem like last-ditch, last-chance employment. Housekeepers who love their jobs might beg to differ.

In her foreword, author Barbara Ehrenreich points out a happy ending inside this book; getting there will open your eyes wide. You’ll absorb “Maid” like a sponge. You won’t be able to let it go.

“When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon”

  • By Joshua D. Mezrich, MD
  • c. 2019, Harper
  • $27.99, $34.99 Canada; 371 pages

Flat as a dinner plate. That was the surprise on last night’s commute home: a flat tire. An inconvenience, a hassle and an expense, but that’s the beauty of a disposable economy: if something goes bad, we just replace it. In the new book “When Death Becomes Life” by Joshua D. Mezrich, MD, though, that’s easier said than done.

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Who among us has a chance to be truly awed by our job on a daily basis? Joshua Mezrich does. As an associate professor of surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, he literally holds life and death in his hands every time he steps into the or because, for much of his career, Mezrich has performed organ transplants on extremely ill patients.

“When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon” by Joshua D. Mezrich, MD.

It almost didn’t happen this way.

Early in his medical journey, Mezrich was focused on pediatrics. Like most interns, he rotated through various medical branches and at one point, he worked with a transplant harvest team, which entailed shaving skin from recently-deceased donors to buy time for burn victims. He loved to joke around and had barely learned a thing about surgery in general, until a superior called him on his lack of knowledge. That led to a falling-in-love with the field of organ transplant, specifically that of the liver and heart.

Again, it almost didn’t happen.

In the 19th century, doctors flirted with the idea of organ transplants, but medical knowledge was woefully inadequate. About a century ago, they knew enough to make strides in the field, mostly based on theory and canine experiments. In the 1950s and 1960s, organ transplants became more successful, but not until relatively recently, in the 1980s and with the invention of immunosuppressant drugs, has it become as common as it is today.

"When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon" author Joshua D. Mezrich, MD.

And yet, as Mezrich tells in personal anecdotes that weave in and out of the history of organ donation and transplantation, there’s nothing common about it.

“We have many victories,” he says, “but the losses are the ones we never forget. They torture us, but also keep us striving to do better.”

It’s a sobering thought, and one that author Joshua D. Mezrich says haunts each of his transplant patients: in many cases, someone must die for someone to live. That fact never wavers in “When Death Becomes Life.”

And yet, this is book is not always serious.

Mezrich’s tone perfectly fits the jokester persona that he says he has. Moments of humor nicely balance the pages and pages of thriller-like action, as he and his colleagues fly cross-state to receive organs and save the lives of people who are hours from death. Those stories will pound that heart you have, as you’re introduced to heroes who gave their lives in research, and heroes who gave their lives to strangers in need.

Be aware that there are real (and unexplained) medical terms in here, but they shouldn’t be a problem. You’ll be too busy being amazed at “When Death Becomes Life” to notice, and flat-out loving it.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.