End of Year Gifting and Giving Ideas

It's that time of year again...time to buy co-workers you don't know very well mugs with cheerful sayings on them or bland lotions or candles for the Holiday Work Party/White Elephant Gifting Season.

Sure, other more optimistic or generally less grinchy people than your friendly neighborhood Citizen Reader might call this the "holiday" or "Christmas" season. I just call 'em like I see 'em, folks, and a lot of what goes on at this time of year looks like sending holiday cards and pictures to relatives you don't know (my favorite is my annual one from a random friend of my mother-in-law's with whom we once shared an awkward Christmas Eve meal in an Applebee's, when we had to add a bit more to the tip to make up for our Baby Boomer parents' Scrooge-like frugality) and buying stocking stuffers for work get-togethers.

But I'm a capitalist born in a capitalistic system, so of course I have something to sell you too. Know anybody who enjoys British TV? Not only would I like to meet them so we could discuss all my favorite Brit shows and actors and gossip (like why is Matt Lucas co-hosting The Great British Baking Show holiday specials rather than Alison Hammond?), but if you need to buy a gift for them, might you consider either of my books on the subject?

Word searchFirst there is Bingeworthy British Television, a guide I co-wrote with my British friend Jackie Bailey to give you synopses and the entire run times of more than 100 popular British dramas, historical dramas, miniseries, police procedurals, and sitcoms, which Amazon currently has priced at $15.49 (the cover says $19.99, so you will look like you splashed out even more!). Also included are recommendations for hundreds more programs. Make 2024 your Year of British TV!

This past year I also published a new book of word searches and crossword puzzles based on British TV and slang. That book is titled The Best of British Television: Word Searches, Crossword Puzzles, and Fun Facts, and is currently priced at $8.95 (perfect for Secret Santa gifting when you don't want to go over $10 per gift).

Likewise, if you are looking for excellent charitable causes, I have a few favorites to suggest. 2023 was the year I pledged never again to give to institutions, but rather to give directly to indviduals. In that vein, here's some ideas I had. They all go through GoFundMe, which I realize is not perfect as a fundraising platform, but the individuals in these appeals are all worthy of your consideration (I believe).

Shannon Nelson Go Fund Me

Shannon is a writer at Medium and Substack who I have followed for a long time. She has had a lifetime struggle with undiagnosed Lipedema and Lymphedema and has more stories to tell than I can bear about unsympathetic and clueless and unhelpful medical personnel who don't know anything about her complex and debilitating diseases and who basically just keep telling her to lose weight. I have donated to her before and she is always very transparent about the very important health and activities of living items she uses such donations for. Mostly I just like her and I have a lot of sympathy for others who have been ignored and belittled by health care professionals. That's happened to me too, on a much tinier scale, and it makes me very angry.

UW-Madison Assault Survivor

In the fall of 2023 some poor woman was just trying to live her life in Madison, Wisconsin, and somebody horrifically assaulted her in a way that will impact her the rest of her life. This could have been any one of us, because even when we try to be safe, sometimes we women have to walk around by ourselves in the world. (I know. The fucking NERVE of us.) Please donate to this woman; her fight to survive this attack is far from over.

Cristina Balan Go Fund Me

I have written twice now about Tesla whistleblower Cristina Balan and her brave struggle against Tesla and Elon Musk for nearly a DECADE now. As if fighting to restore her work reputation and be compensated for numerous years when she has been unable to work in her chosen field (because nobody hires whistleblowers) wasn't enough, she was also diagnosed with cancer last year.

Cher Scarlett Go Fund Me

Cher Scarlett is another whistleblower I've written about who went up against Apple (for trying to discuss wages at the company with other workers) and who, of course, is now finding it hard to find another job in tech (because, as noted above, nobody hires whistleblowers). She has legal fees to pay and is having difficulty working in her field, simply because she dared question her Tech Company Overlords.

After all that, let me just say, whatever you celebrate this season, if anything at all, I hope it is a very peaceful and healthy and happy one for you. As always, thank you for reading. Here we come, 2024.


The Football Grinch Has Come To Town.

As I polish off my forties, I gotta be honest with you, I'm just DONE with a lot of things.

Football is one of them.

Football2I recently sat through a PTO meeting at my kid's middle school, and we talked for some time about how to raise five thousand dollars from a fun run/walk that we have the kids do. We do use the money for actual educational "enrichment"--we invite teachers to ask us for specific tools and resources they can use in the classroom--but still, the event is a lot of work and I'm not sure the kids enjoy it. Then, after we were done fussing about this five grand, our school superintendent came in to give a presentation on the state of the school district.

You know what she had to share? She's really pleased that the district has already raised $1.3 million to refurbish the high school's football stadium, and the district "only has to raise $1.7 million more."

(Yeah, I know. Don't worry. I've already tendered my resignation as PTO secretary and will be done at the end of this school year.)

In all honesty, I've been done with football since I read Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity. But I've always wanted to read Steve Almond's Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, so last week, I did.

It's a good read. I'll admit I've always had a soft spot for Almond, but I like the way he admits he is a lifelong football fan, and yet still...it's getting harder for him to look at the game. You'll learn a lot of information in this book--about how the NFL is a tax-exempt nonprofit that makes billions of dollars a year, about how athletes are suffering from brain injuries, about how everyone looks away from the violence and racism that run through the sport's many and various levels.

You might also get a laugh. Here's the section where Almond discusses the derogatory emails he got after wrting a New York Times Magazine article questioning the moral complexities of football, most of which included references to his vagina:

"I swear to you, nearly every piece of hate mail I received made reference to my vagina, which was usually characterized as very large.

As the son of two psychoanalysts, I suppose I am obligated to speculate on this odd size fixation. Fine. On one level my correspondents simply wish to convey the exaggerated nature of my femininity (i.e., larger vagina = more feminine). Still, it's hard to ignore that a large vagina suggests an unconscious fear of male inadequacy. Is it possible that merely asking these guys to examine their motives for watching football made them feel small?...

For the record, my vagina is slightly smaller than average." (pp. 98-99).

Yeah, I like Steve Almond a lot. If you're starting to question our nation's maniacal focus on football, you might find this an informative read.


Jeff Goodell's "The Heat Will Kill You First"

I'm going to be honest with you: I could only read Jeff Goodell's book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, a few pages at a time. I also could not read it for an hour before I went to bed. It was just that depressing.

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet - Goodell, JeffGoodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and has written several other books, among them Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (2007) and The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (which I reviewed back in 2017). His prose reads like good magazine prose: it's thoughtful, but it's easy to read; gives you a lot of information, but is very readable and you don't really have to struggle your way through it. 

Which I appreciate, these days, because increasingly my attention span and brain both seem to be shot.

Now, if only the subject matter could have been cheerful.

It's not. Goodell talks about how heat affects humans, animals, and plants; what sorts of lethal heat waves people have endured in the last decade; how cities (where increasingly everyone lives) are becoming dangerous "heat islands"; how heat encourages wildfires and mosquitoes; how heat is affecting world crops and food supplies; and how hot water in the ocean is becoming hotter, faster, than anyone guessed it would.

Let's put it this way: As I've been reading it, I've been feeling a lot less anxious about other areas in my life. Namely because, well, who cares about what grades the kids are getting, the world's about to explode.

I can't decide if this is a good development for my anxiety level, or a bad one.

It doesn't help that not only do I believe most of the science and sources in this book, but I also feel the truth of this book in my bones. For nearly ten years now I have felt increasingly uneasy because the weather I can observe seems deeply wrong. For better or for worse, I've lived in the same region for nearly fifty years, and I have a history of paying more attention to weather than most, because I grew up on a farm and the weather is inextricably tied to your financial well-being when you live on a farm. So when I say the weather I can see is changing and is making me deeply uneasy, I say this with somewhat more seriousness than many people might.

So I got shivers when I read Goodell's chapter on agriculture and found this, in his interview with Andy Cruz, a farmer in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas:

"...the seven hundred acres of aloe have been a world of trouble for Cruz. For one thing, a plant that's well adapted to heat is not necessarily well adapted to the lack of heat. A cold snap in the valley in the winter of 2020 killed half the plants on the seven hundred acres. 'It was bad,' Cruz told me. 'We were out here for two days and nights with burners trying to keep things warm. This climate change thing is making the weather like a Ping-Pong ball--you never know where it is going to bounce.'...

'Up until five years ago, things were fairly predictable,' Cruz told me. 'But now, you never know what's coming. It's different. Something's changed.'" (p. 134.)

The book was interesting. Whether or not you'll be in the mood to read it right now, when other more cheerful news to balance it out seems lacking...well, I just don't know.


Tom Mueller's "How To Make a Killing"

I only picked up Tom Mueller’s new book How To Make a Killing: Blood, Death, and Dollars in American Medicine because Tom Mueller also wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read on whistleblowers (Crisis of Conscience).

I am no fan of American “healthcare” and think it is rapidly becoming one of the most expensive and least effective systems in the world. Actually, I don’t have to think this, I now know it (thanks to this book):

“In 1980, the year Reagan was first elected president, America spent around 9 percent of its GDP on healthcare, roughly the same as other member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), and enjoyed strong medical outcomes compared to its OECD peers…In 2019, after decades of neoliberalism, the United States spent 17.6 percent of its GDP on healthcare…And America’s medical outcomes have dropped to the bottom of the OECD lit by nearly all measures: the United States currently ranks twenty-ninth in life expectancy, and thirty-third in infant mortality.” (p. 133.)

Mueller’s book is about the process and costs of dialysis (specifically) and the larger breakdown of for-profit healthcare as it is currently practiced in America (generally).

It’s also a perfect example of how nonfiction books can be a tricky beast to classify and offer to other readers. This book will primarily be given the subjects of “kidney disease” and “dialysis” and even “medicine,” but none of those quite hit the mark. It is in fact a very good investigative work on both the current practice of medicine that puts profits above patient health, as well as a readable history on the development and somewhat miraculous process of dialysis, which is the process whereby patients with advanced kidney disease have their blood cleaned (which is one of the things kidneys do) so, you know, they can keep on living.

On a regular day I would never go out looking for a book for dialysis. But it has been a great book to read, because Mueller is one of those authors who can use one very specific subject to illuminate entire other truths for you.

Consider this paragraph, which is one of my favorites in the entire book, and is about the corrupt current system of dialysis provided by for-profit corporations, but is also about one big human weakness:

“Since World War II, researchers in a range of disciplines have revealed the psychological tools that certain organizations — the Nazi Party, the Nixon White House, Enron and Purdue Pharma — use to compel basically good people within their sphere to do bad things. Many such strategies draw on deep human susceptibilities to authority and peer pressure, and operate at the subconscious level. Social and evolutionary psychologists have established that most people take their cues on what to consider morally acceptable from members of their in-group, rather than from their own conscience. When an organization creates an intense us versus them culture, often expressed in metaphors of sports and war, many of its members experience a fading of conscience, together with a heightened self-identification with that organization, and a sense that it can do no wrong.” (pp. 120–121.)

Read that paragraph a couple of times. It is a very succinct explanation of what is going wrong in health care, if not the entire world.

This book helped me learn about dialysis, and the business that is American medicine. But it also helped me learn what happens when a lot of basically good people go along with a lot of very bad ideas that are solely driven by the profit motive.


Happy Labor Day 2023!

Hello!

How did it get to be Labor Day 2023?

How did it get to be 2023?

Well, clearly I'm just way behind. But as you may or may not know, Labor Day is one of my very favorite holidays (no war, no church, no gifts, no family get-togethers), and reading about labor is one of my very favorite things to do. This year marks my 11th year of offering a round-up of the job-related nonfiction and fiction I've read the previous year (links to each previous year's list are at the bottom of this post); I hope you enjoy. Apologies for the shorter list; my reading time has, for various reasons, taken a real hit the past few years.

Remainders of the Day, Shaun Bythell

RemaindersThis is the third diary published by Scottish misanthropic bookseller (my very favorite kind) about his life selling books in the largest used bookstore in Scotland. I LOVE THESE BOOKS. I love hearing about the locals of Wigtown, Scotland; I love hearing about the books Bythell buys and sells; I love hearing about the annual Wigtown Book Festival.

I find these books so calming and so wonderful that I just read them compulsively, over and over (the first two are called Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Book Seller). In fact, my need for comfort reading this year has been so great that I have read these three diaries over and over and over again in lieu of reading many other new books.

Against the Wall: My Journey from Border Patrol Agent to Immigrant Rights Activist, by Jenn Budd.

This book was so good, and so sad. Budd talks about how she joined the Border Patrol because she really wanted to serve her country. And what happened to her? Horrible sexism, being raped at the Border Patrol academy; a work life that consisted mainly of learning about how much racism and anger exists in the Border Patrol organization. A must-read if you want to learn more about how America's immigration "policy" (if you want to call it that) is not working.

Fire and Rain: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Wars in Southeast Asia, by Carolyn Woods Eisenberg

Okay, this one is only tangentially about work, but it is an unparalleled inside look at what passed for foreign relations and military strategy under the Nixon and Kissinger White House in the 1960s. Spoiler alert: Whatever else you say about them, Nixon and Kissinger were also not very good at their respective jobs.

Milked: How An American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers, by Ruth Conniff

This one's all about the dairy industry in Wisconsin and the Midwest, and how dependent it is on immigrant labor. Conniff not only interviews farmers and workers in this country; she also traveled with some farmers as they traveled to the places their workers came from to learn more about their lives.

It was really interesting, but it was almost too hard for me to read. My father was a dairy farmer and so was my eldest brother, so it is really hard for me to read about the continuing demise of the small family dairy farm. Even though I could never have been a small dairy farmer. If that makes any sense.

Proof, by Dick Francis

Dick Francis, a former jockey (who rode horses owned by the UK's Queen Mother!) is famous for his second career as the author of horse- and racing-themed mysteries. When I worked in libraries he was very popular and I reshelved his books, which often had very distinctive, minimalist covers in bold colors, a LOT. And yet I never read one, and probably would never have read one, if a friend of mine hadn't recommended his mystery Proof. (To be more accurate, she recommended it by saying Francis's writing is, ahem--not good--but that he is very good at showing a lot of character information and vividly setting a scene in just a few words and pages.) So I read Proof, and then it promptly moved onto my night table as the book I compulsively re-comfort read whenever I need a little break from Shaun Bythell.

The main character/amateur sleuth in the book is a wine and spirits merchant named Tony Beach, and although he's actually rather boring, he's also rather wonderful. And of course the book is very British, so there is that. But my friend was not wrong--when I read this book, I can actually see Beach's store and smell his liquor storeroom--specifically that pulpy, heady smell of cardboard that contains wine, beer, and spirits bottles. You know that smell? I can no longer drink and if I smoked a cigarette I would probably pass out from the buzz, but there are not many things I love in this world more than the smells of cigarette smoke and a tavern serving beer and wine. I used to slow down when walking by bars on sidewalks just in case someone would be coming out and I could get a nice long sniff.

Weird, I know. Tell me something I don't know.

Anyway. Happy Labor Day to you all. Now go take the day off.

And here, in case you want to see them, are our Labor Day lists from previous years: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019 part 1 and part 2. 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.


Do you know who has top secret clearance?

Sometimes when I am writing for The Progressive I find I am learning more than I really wanted to know.

Over the last few months, a story has been developing about a twenty-one-year-old Massachusetts man named Jack Teixeira, who, it has been found, has been leaking classified documents online for some time. Teixeira is now in jail and is being charged under the Espionage Act for revealing top-secret documents that he first accessed in his work as an Air National Guard member.

This is another one of those news stories that will come and go and which won't even register with many people. Let's face it, a lot of the news is that way lately. Complicated, deals with wars far away, includes vocabulary we don't understand (in the Teixeira story, I keep getting hung up on the phrase "Discord server," which I guess is something a lot of gamers know about, but it makes me feel old to think about and not really understand or care what that is), and, oh yes, most of us are kept busy in America trying to stay employed and retain access to our health insurance (even though interacting with our health insurance companies and doctors' offices takes so long and is often so unsuccessful that it actually makes it difficult for us to focus on our jobs).

I'm not really here today to tell you why you should care about the Teixeira story. I totally get it if you don't. However, I recently did have the chance to write an op/ed on this subject, titled "For Whistleblowers, Motives Matter," that was published at The Progressive (and elsewhere; The Progressive does this really neat thing where they help train you to write op/eds and then they share them around, called "Progressive Perspectives"). This was a new experience for me; I've got lots of opinions and my partner could tell you I love to editorialize, but I had never written an op/ed. Nor had I ever co-written anything, and for this piece I had the honor of working with Lisa Ling, a military veteran and whistleblower (she was featured in the excellent Sonia Kennebeck movie National Bird, which you should watch, if you haven't yet).

It was a new experience and I learned rather more than I wanted to know, from Lisa, about today's military and what it all does and where it all is (and I was grateful to her for writing this one with me). While you're still alive, you have to learn, right?


A word about The Progressive magazine.

Kissinger1My career, such as it is, has not been filled with many highs, but I had one last month when I got an article published in a national print magazine for the very first time: "Kissinger's Culpability."

This is the first line in that article, and I stand by it:

"Henry Kissinger is still alive and still in possession of the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 1973. Time will eventually address the former issue; as to the latter, the Nobel Foundation has declared that 'none of the prize awarding committees in Stockholm and Oslo has ever considered [revoking] a prize once awarded."

The article was published in the April/May 2023 issue of The Progressivewhich had an antiwar theme and included a lot of great pieces on the lasting impacts of the Iraq War and the expensive boondoggle that has been the F-35 fighter jet program (among many others). 

I learned a lot about Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, a lot of atrocities I'd never really known much about, and how the Nobel Prize Foundation surrounds itself with a shocking amount of secrecy. But I also learned, thanks to Martin Edwin Andersen (himself a whistleblower) about an ambassador and State Department employee named Robert C. Hill.

Hill started and ended his career as a Republican, but while he started it as one of Nixon's cronies who helped to derail the 1968 peace talks that might have shortened the Vietnam War, he ended it as an ambassador to Argentina who was more than a little disturbed at the "green light" that Kissinger gave the leaders of the military junta there during their "dirty war" in the 1970s. I won't give you all the details of Hill's story, but overall he appears to have been a person who was ideologically motivated, but who could still look around the many places to which he was posted as an ambassador (El Salvador, Mexico, Spain, and Argentina) and at least NOTICE when something was going murderously awry.

The world needs more people like that. People will always have ideological leanings, and opinions, and experiences...but if those same people can actually look at what is happening around them--and strive to understand it--well, that would make the world just a little bit better. At least that's what I choose to believe.

Now, I am of course biased. I have written online articles for The Progressive, and I have been published in their magazine, so you may have to take my words with a grain of salt. But I just wanted to take a moment here and tell you how much I have enjoyed working for them. In a world where most journalism outlets seem to be publishing everything as fast and with as little fact-checking as possible, I have found writing for The Progressive to be refreshingly rigorous. Every online article I submit to them seems to be read and edited by four to six people, up to and including their publisher. They expect rigorous fact-checking and research, and they also do a stupendous job of cleaning up my writing (which can get wordy, so I am grateful for their help).

In addition to good strong editorial work, the magazine also clearly appeals to a group of people with whom I feel an affinity. A while back the magazine put out a call for donations (they are a nonprofit organization), and when a friend of mine asked about sending a check rather than giving a donation site her credit card information, I asked the publisher if that was possible (and where to send the check). He not only answered my friend's questions promptly, he noted that many people who subscribe or donate to The Progressive are not over-comfortable with sharing their information online. Those are my people, friends.

The April/May issue of the magazine in which my article appears can be purchased in bookstores or online; but if you are at all open to a progressive take on the news stories of the day, I can promise you that The Progressive will give you a lot of good, actually fact-checked bang for your buck


The kids are all right.

I recently had the pleasure of being contacted by a teacher who let me know that he works with a group of students in a history club, in which said students did research and presentations about different aspects and types of history. One of his groups focused on historical fiction, and they wanted to let me know that they had found a certain page here at Citizen Reader useful for their research:

https://www.citizenreader.com/citizen/links/ 

Now, that's a little embarrassing for me, because if you click on that link, the first paragraph is all about the historical fiction series Poldark (by Winston Graham) and how much I love Poldark and how, really, if I could, I would spend most of my time doing nothing but re-reading the Poldark series and watching all the British TV programs based on it. I do, in fact, have a little Poldark addiction.

But still, if that page was helpful to anyone, anywhere, I am very glad about that!

This charming teacher went on to say that his equally-charming-sounding students wondered if I would also share a helpful page about researching and writing your own historical fiction, and of course my answer to that is YES, because I love well-written historical fiction and want people to write more of it. And of course, if someone comes along and decides to write fan fiction or sequels to the Poldark series, well, I won't complain about that at all. Here is the link (which I will also add to the sidebar, over in "Fabo Book Blogs").

https://www.jomashop.com/blog/articles/a-writers-guide-to-historical-fiction

Philip, Megan, thank you so much for your email, and for reading, and for doing research work to learn more about what you love. Research is awesome. You don't know how much it cheered me up to hear from you.


New Book: The Best of British Television Word Searches and Crossword Puzzles!

Hello, I know I have been shamefully neglecting Citizen Reader. I do mean to come back one of these days; I've been reading some great (if depressing--all about tech bros, health care, a biography of former GE CEO Jack Welch--bleah) nonfiction.

Part of the reason I've not been here is because I've been working on other things, and sometimes in your 40s you just give up, realize there are only so many hours in the day, and you need your sleep more than you need to talk books. (GASP. Appalling but true.)

British tv word searchesBut today I'm pleased to share, here is one of those projects!! Please welcome to my tiny "Citizen Reader Books" imprint (under which I also self-published Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can't Stop Watching), a new activity book:

The Best of British Television: Word Searches, Crossword Puzzles, and Fun Facts

The book consists of 33 word searches (based on Brit programs like Detectorists and All Creatures Great and Small), 20 crossword puzzles (exclusively about British slang words, which, if you watch enough Brit TV shows, you'll be surprised to find how many you know), and some basic "fun facts" about British TV. Its format is 8.5 by 11, so I made the print as large as possible  for ease of use.

So, are you a Brit TV addict like yours truly? Or, know somebody who enjoys a challenging word search? Please do consider buying a copy; I've tried to price it attractively so it would also make a good not-too-expensive gift. Thanks!!*

*And, if you do purchase (thank you!) might I also humbly request that you review the book at Amazon? Reviews make a big, big difference to self-published books. Thanks again!


Jenn Budd's Border Patrol memoir "Against the Wall."

WallYesterday I got another book review published at The Progressive. This one was of Jenn Budd's memoir Against the Wall: My Journey from Border Patrol Agent to Immigrant Rights Activist.

You really need to read this book.

I cover most of the reasons why you should read it in the review, but let me just say on a personal note that Budd's book made me learn and think about a lot of our national immigration "policies" that I hadn't previously. Did you know, for instance, that the Border Patrol reserves the right to patrol any territory 100 miles from any land or maritime border? Look that up. That rule covers two-thirds of the American population

Really. Go look at that link (the two-thirds one). Brings this issue a little closer to home, doesn't it?

I won't lie. The book is a really tough read. Budd details her rape (perpetrated against her by a fellow agent in training) as well as a million other ugly racist and sexist things that go on in law enforcement. 

But at its core it is still a hopeful book. It is also the story of a person living their life, trying to understand their own history and choices, and questioning why things have to be this way. In that way it reminded me of Debora Harding's superb Dancing with the Octopus, another superlative true crime book that was hard to read but really held out hope that humans can learn from and heal with one another.

Budd has also pledged that a minimum of 10 percent of any profits she receives from the book will be donated to organizations assisting migrants.