Media Jones

Books

The Widening Gap: Why America's Working Families Are in Jeopardy -- and What Can Be Done About It
By Jody Heymann. Basic Books, 288 pages. $28.
REVIEWED BY LISA BELKIN

Wherever you turn in these booming times, the news from the workplace is that the workers are in charge: Their employers are offering stock options, concierge services, and even in-office massages to keep them happy.

Enter Dr. Jody Heymann, director of policy for the Harvard University Center for Society, to remind us that the workers most in need of help aren't getting it. And it isn't a massage that they need. The Widening Gap is a piercing and illuminating look at how the very structure of society makes it impossible for the so-called working class to be both good workers and good parents.

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The American workforce has undergone two revolutions within the past 150 years: first, the transformation from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and second, the entry of women into the workplace. And yet, Heymann writes, the nation's policymakers, educators, and employers all function as though women were still at home and crops still needed to be brought in. Why else, for instance, would schools still dismiss students at three o'clock and give them the entire summer off?

The centerpiece of Heymann's book draws on extensive surveys of working families, including the daily diaries of 800 workers and interviews with 7,500 caregivers. Participants were asked how often they had to interrupt their work to care for school-age children, the elderly, or the ill.

Their answers paint a sad and startling portrait of a workforce that is needed back at home. During one week, Heymann reports, "30 percent of the respondents had to cut back on at least one day to meet the needs of family members, 12 percent needed to cut back on two or more days, and 5 percent needed to cut back on three or more days."

Heymann, a physician, prescribes changes, many of them small and simple. Mandated immunizations for school-age children, she suggests, which "are currently given in doctors' offices and clinics, [and] which require parents to miss work, could easily be given at schools." And just as private institutions -- banks and malls and grocery stores -- are now open nights and weekends, public institutions, such as the Social Security office, should extend their hours as well. (Heymann makes no mention, however, of who would care for the children of those workers assigned to work the new late shift.)

These small alterations, Heymann hopes, will lead eventually to a social overhaul. She envisions, among other things, a four-and-a-half-day workweek, so that "caregivers could ... set appointments during the half business day they had off." And she calls for a "full school day and a full school year," a change she says will meet not only the scheduling needs of parents but also the learning needs of children.

Heymann is less specific about how all of this will be paid for, other than to say that "we can afford the needed changes; what we cannot afford is to continue our current practices." But The Widening Gap does provide compelling evidence that the greatest worry for most American workers is far more weighty than when their stock options will vest.

Lisa Belkin writes about the intersection of jobs and personal lives for the New York Times.

X-Presidents
By Robert Smigel and Adam McKay. Villard. $12.95.
Former "Saturday Night Live" writer Robert Smigel and co-author Adam McKay pillory our ex-presidents with a book-length comic book whose premise is as absurd as it is funny. A nuclear mishap endows former chief executives Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush with superpowers, and these X-Presidents vow to "fight injustice without a hitch, to help the helpless by helping the rich!"

In battling villains from Saddam Hussein to flag-burning extraterrestrials, Reagan emerges as a savvy leader with the power to erase memories, Bush as a sycophantic plastic man, Carter as a weak-willed kung fu fighter, and Ford as a hardheaded moron who's always crashing through walls. McKay and Smigel also skewer the pieties of American politics: On the evil alien planet, pornography is standard bedtime reading and children pray for God to die. The authors do have an appetite for the tawdry, and the plot isn't going to make anyone forget about Henry James, but there's enough sharp satire to amuse any reader whose brow swings low as well as high. --Andrew Rosenblum

Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media
By Bill Ellis. University Press of Kentucky. $27.50.
Cattle mutilations! International killer cults! Ritual sex abuse! Welcome to the world of satanism paranoia, which peaked in the United States in the 1980s. In Raising the Devil, Pennsylvania State University folklorist Bill Ellis shows how ancient bogeyman beliefs became aligned with politics and the criminal justice system to produce witch-hunts like the infamous McMartin Preschool case -- in which seven teachers were accused (and ultimately acquitted) of sadistic kinder-abuse.

Ellis traces the roots of the devil scare to sources as diverse as Cold War demonology (the Evil Empire), the "spirit possession" craze among Pentecostals, and Christian therapists who blamed patients' emotional problems on exposure to Ouija boards and other popularized forms of the occult. The counterculture, Ellis writes, also scapegoated Beelzebub: After the Manson murders, when the media began equating flower children with violent cults, arch-hippie Ed Sanders insisted (with scant evidence) that Manson was not only a right-winger but a satanist conspirator as well.

By the early '80s, feminists had latched onto the recovered-memory movement, and patients, therapists, police, and prosecutors were weaving tales of ritual sex abuse that put scores of innocent parents and teachers in jail. Ellis' lesson: Folk devils can be droll until the state takes them literally. Then they are hardly amusing. --Debbie Nathan

Mall
By Eric Bogosian. Simon & Schuster. $23.
Pity Eric Bogosian, trapped in the alienation of a decade gone by. The playwright and performer, whose earlier works chronicled the ignorance, hypocrisy, and estrangement that marked American culture in the '80s, has published a novel that might have felt fresh had it come out in 1983. Mall follows a small cast of cartoonish characters around -- yes -- a mall, as a speed-crazed killer rampages in their midst. There's the killer himself, who bears the rather overdetermined name Mal. At the tail end of a 90-day methamphetamine bender, he kills his mom, burns his home, packs up a better-than-average suburban arsenal, and sets out blasting. There's Jeff, the angst-filled teen who drops acid just before the mall goes up in flames; Danny, the sexually frustrated yuppie financial planner; and Donna, the voracious, bored housewife. Most embarrassingly, there's Michel, the Haitian security guard whose noble-savage goodness provides the book's moral core. Bogosian's writing, loose and forceful in his rants on stage, is too often bloated and clichéd on the page. Despite a few sharp satiric moments, Mall is disappointingly stale.--Ben Ehrenreich

Film

Conscience and the Constitution
Frank Abe. 60 minutes. ITVS.
This film chronicles a little-known facet of Japanese American internment during World War II: the draft resistance among internees whom the government tried to press into U.S. military service.

In 1943, an ultraconservative group, the Japanese American Citizens League, called on Japanese American men in internment camps to prove their loyalty by volunteering for the Army. But when many declined to enlist for the country that had robbed them of their rights, Uncle Sam simply began drafting them.

Journalist and filmmaker Frank Abe interviews surviving resisters who were interned at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The film clearly sympathizes with the 85 men who were jailed for draft evasion, yet deals evenhandedly with the hostility some Japanese Americans still harbor toward those who protested internment through civil disobedience. --Linda Weber

Benjamin Smoke
Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen. 80 minutes. Gravity Hill Films and Pumpernickel.
There are currently more than Robert Dickerson was many things in his brief life -- a drag queen, a drug addict, a musician, and an AIDS victim. Influenced by New York City's punk and drag scenes, the openly gay Dickerson reinvented himself as "Benjamin" and settled in Atlanta, where he formed the band Smoke and tried to strip himself of his addictions.

With such material, Cohen and Sillen could easily have crafted a tragedy. But because the camera's gaze rarely strays from Benjamin -- his expressive eyes and raspy drawl are impossible to ignore -- we get to know him as a storyteller, a man quick with a one-liner, and a soul who refused to be defined as a casualty. The film's impressionistic style allows the tangles of Benjamin's life to come slowly into focus, and Smoke's music -- Appalachian folk ratcheted to punk and Kurt Weill -- creates the appropriate mood: set in a minor key, but proud and fiercely human. --Mark Athitakis

Music

Live at the Old Point
New Orleans Nightcrawlers. Viper Records.
One of the best things going in pop music is the proliferation of first-rate, post-bop, post-hip-hop, post-everything New Orleans brass bands -- and the Nightcrawlers are definitely one of the best things going. Recorded in front of a boisterous Crescent City audience, this album recalls both the polyphony of classic New Orleans jazz and the funked-out '70s grooves of the Meters. From the sinus-clearing power brass on "Tchfuncta," to the amazing feats of sousaphony on "Martin's Mambo," the 10-man band's intricate jangle sounds both traditional and absolutely up-to-date. --Andrew Rosenblum

Bootleg: Detroit
Morphine. Rykodisc.
The death of Mark Sandman last year -- a heart attack, nothing sleazy for once -- brought an end to a unique band. The guitarless trio played scruffy rock 'n' roll that was dreamy and urgent at the same time, as this stirring live set demonstrates. Sandman's two-string bass rumbles beneath Dana Colley's sputtering saxes, while Billy Conway's drumming keeps the groove up front. Above the fray, Sandman's hipster crooning holds the sound together. Whether contemplating a self-destructive lover on "Candy" or spinning a sly tale of forbidden desire on "Thursday," Sandman sure could tell a story. --Jon Young

Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia
The Dandy Warhols. Capitol Records.
What do you say about a band that steals the riff from the Stones' "Brown Sugar," whose singer cops his vocal chops from Lou Reed, and who gratuitously name-drops Nietzsche? If it's that they're too cool for school, save your breath -- the Dandy Warhols already know. The Portland quartet's third album is one big sonic piñata, wheeling from faux-country ("Country Leaver") to Cake-like hip-pop ("Horse Pills") to new wave bombast ("Shakin'"). Like the original Warhol's diaries, these urban tales are barbed and unforgiving, but giddily enjoyable just the same. --Andrea Zeisler