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Indignant, irreverent and often in touch

This Land Is Their Land: Reports From

a Divided Nation

By Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan Books. 256 pages. $24. ***

There's no mincing words or missing the targets of this tart-tongued book of short essays by Barbara Ehrenreich. The titular “their” takes many forms, ranging from the Bush administration to the health care system to corporations who spy on their underpaid employees.

If that makes it sound like Ehrenreich's writings tilt left, well it's more a permanent encampment than a leaning. Her satirefrequently makes a serious point, focusing attention on the ever-growing chasm between the few haves and the many have-nots.

For instance, the title essay laments how workers who toil in resort towns have to move farther and farther away from their jobs just to find an affordable place to live. Ehrenreich says she flinches when she hears Woody Guthrie singing “This land belongs to you and me. Somehow I don't think it was meant to be sung by a chorus of hedge fund operators.” And that's Ehrenreich being mellow.

In one of her sharpest essays, she notes that Americans spent about $10billion last year on health care for their pets. Ehrenreich contrasts that figure with the need to provide coverage for children whose parents can't afford health care. After noting how President Bush vetoed a bill that would have expanded health insurance for more than 3million uninsured kids, she offered this solution: “Make pet insurance available to all American children now!” That's followed by her worry that Bush would counter with a plan “to extend euthanasia services to children who happen to fall ill.” Call it incensed wit with shades of Jonathan Swift.

Staying with kids, here's Ehrenreich's take on stories about the Gap's using child labor in an Indian sweatshop: “The Gap should portray its child-staffed factories as part of a far-seeing welfare-to-work program that will eventually be extended to American children as well.”

Elsewhere, Ehrenreich notes how she was labeled a Marxist 20 years ago for writing about the country's growing inequality. But in a chapter called “Banish the Bloated Overclass,” she says it no longer takes a Marxist to realize the chasm that exists between the super-rich and everyone else. She backs up a lot of her jibes with statistics: the median earnings of illegal Latino day laborers are $700 a month; in 2006, average household debt exceeded income for the first time.

Ehrenreich covers plenty of topical references, from Jet Blue passengers trapped on the tarmac for up to 10 hours (“anything more than three hours on the ground isn't an airline delay, it's a hostage situation”) to the surge in oil prices, in a chapter called “The Heating Bill from Hell.” There's also an essay on Sen. Larry Craig's latrine arrest, “Fear of Restrooms,” in which Ehrenreich wonders whether the cop who spent the day on the can looking for errant fingers would've been more useful cruising the airport for terrorists.

The short commentaries – most only few pages – suit Ehrenreich's pace. Jab and poke, zing and move on.

Not all the essays work, and they can seem repetitive. And sometimes her targets are too easy. For that, see the chapters on Disney Princess products or the $210 million golden parachute for Home Depot's former CEO.

But for the most part, Ehrenreich writes with a robust audacity and indignity that is well worth reading.

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