Book Review: This Land Is Their Land

Barbara Ehrenreich’s no garden-variety pessimist on health care, Wal-Mart, and the superrich. She’s a full-fledged member of the glass-has-only-one-drop-left cohort.

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The secret source of humor, Mark Twain famously observed, is not joy, but sorrow. This collection of short commentaries from the prolific and sharp-tongued social critic Barbara Ehrenreich suggests a corollary principle: The secret source of satire is not bemusement, but anger. And make no mistake—Ehrenreich is mighty PO’d.

The targets of her ire are a deserving, if predictable, bunch. Wal-Mart, health care execs, Big Pharma, the superrich, and, naturally, the bigwigs of Bush Co. all get drive-bys here. Ehrenreich imagines a notorious corporate layoff artist consigned to a fate in which he is faced with “a choice of Dick Cheney or Nancy Grace as a roommate and spending eternity listening to Sanjaya’s greatest hits.” In one of her more purely comic essays, Ehrenreich demands that God apologize for the South Asian tsunami (his “latest felony”) and decries his “penchant for wanton, homicidal mischief.”

Overreaching is an occupational hazard for professional pundits, and Ehrenreich is not immune. In the realm of health care reform, she contends, all the Democratic presidential candidates (save Dennis Kucinich) are guilty of “Chamberlain-like appeasement.” The health care industry may be dysfunctional, but are insurance companies really like Nazis? And while This Land casts a useful spotlight on various injustices and absurdities, it lacks the heft and original reportage of Nickel and Dimed.

By the end of the book, it’s clear that Ehrenreich isn’t a garden-variety glass-is-half-empty pessimist; she’s a full-fledged member of the glass-has-only-one-drop-left cohort. If you need to bone up on your talking points before encountering that mouthy right-wing cousin at an upcoming family get-together, This Land belongs on your summer reading list.

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