Citizen Reader on YouTube: My Year In Gardening Books

First off, many thanks to Ann and the McFarland Public Library for hosting my talk titled "How to Read True Crime and Still Sleep at Night"! It wasn't hugely attended, but we had a lot of fun and we talked over a lot of books, so that makes for a very successful evening in my opinion.

That said, if you'd like to share any great True Crime titles you've been reading or have read, please share them in the comments!

In other news, I also taped a YouTube segment for the library, about the different gardening books that I read in a year. This was my first experience recording anything for YouTube,* and it was a lot of fun! Please be aware that Ann has made a ton of these awesome book talks for the McFarland Library, called "Browse the Stacks."* Do check them out when you need something new for your TBR list.

*It should be noted that before I taped this I drove to the library with my windows down and yes, I probably should have run a brush through my hair when I got there. If it rarely occurs to me to actually garden (rather than just reading about gardening), it even more rarely ever occurs to me to run a brush through my hair.

**Librarian Ann is AWESOME and seriously knows her books and reading. My very favorite kind of person!!


How to Read True Crime and Sleep at Night

Good morning!

If anybody who reads this blog is anywhere near McFarland, Wisconsin, you are cordially invited to attend my presentation there, titled "How to Read True Crime and Still Sleep at Night."*

Mr. CR thinks it is totally weird how much True Crime I read, but I gotta tell you, I like True Crime because it is honest. I don't think we will ever conquer our cultural love of violence until we look at it more often and much more analytically. I firmly believe the first way to make a problem bigger is to ignore the problem. Reading True Crime is one way I feel I am trying to look at one of society's biggest problems.

There are also some phenomenal True Crime books out there to read, among them Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep and Sarah Perry's After the Eclipse and Debora Harding's Dancing with the Octopus.

The program will be at 6 p.m. at the E.D. Locke Public Library in McFarland, on Thursday, June 23rd. Hope to see you there!!

In case you can't make it, here's the website to go with the talk: How to Read True Crime website

Here is a bibliography of True Crime titles to read: True Crime Bibliography

and

Here's something I wrote a while back to try and explain why I read a lot in this nonfiction genre: Why I Read True Crime.

*I actually make no guarantees that you will be able to sleep after the talk or after reading any True Crime titles. So much for truth in advertising.


An Essay a Day...

...won't keep the doctor away, or anything, but I still say a daily essay can make your life better.

How handy there is a website called "Essay Daily" to help you get your fix!

Over at Essay Daily, they periodically run a feature called "The Midwessay," featuring essays set in the Midwest, and I am extremely excited to say that they published an essay of mine last week: You Can't Go Home Again.

I've read a lot of the other Midwessays there, and they all provide a slightly different look at a region that doesn't often get a lot of love. The entire site is highly recommended!


New book about the Triangle Fire.

Talking to the girls"On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at 4:40 p.m., as the workers prepared to leave with their pay in hand, an alarm bell sounded at the Triangle Waist Company...The factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the modern Asch Building (now the Brown Buildings). Workers produced shirtwaists, an iconic item of clothing for the 'new' American woman inspired by the Gibson Girl, created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson..."

This is a fairly sedate introduction to the Triangle Fire in 1911 New York City that wound up killing 146 workers, the vast majority of them women, and a lot of them teenagers. This, however, might come nearer the mark of what the terrible fire was actually like:

"...the Triangle fire was impossible to ignore. It assaulted the senses of middle- and upper-class New Yorkers. People saw smoke, bodies plunging out the windows, to be smashed on the ground below, firemen standing around helplessly with broken nets. They heard fire bells, screams from the victims, gasps from the gathering crowd, and the awful sound of bodies hitting the pavement, recorded with stunning clarity by [William Gunn] Shepherd: 'THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD.'" (pp. 5 and 7.)

Both of these descriptions of this workplace disaster come from the introduction to a new anthology of essays titled Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti (and published by New Village Press). Here's the neat trick, though: the essays are not so much about the fire as they are about how the fire affected its survivors, victims' families, and countless labor activists since 1911. At first glance (especially if you're not fascinated by the Triangle Fire, as I always have been) that sounds like it might not be real exciting--but it is. Giunta and Trasciatti have both referred to this collection as a "labor of love" that they've been working on for years, and it shows. There's a wide variety of stories here--from artists who have written about and agitated for the Triangle Fire to not be forgotten and who themselves are now being gentrified out of their New York homes (which used to be tenements), to labor activists who worked with Chinatown's striking garment workers in the 1980s, to Frances Perkins's grandson, to a wide variety of people who either remember elderly relatives' stories about surviving the fire or who find out much later in their lives that their elderly family members were somehow touched by the fire or worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist company but then never, ever talked about it.

I've written a much fuller review of the book over at The Progressive, but I thought it was a really neat book and you should know about it. Also, if you've not read much about the fire to begin with, I can highly recommend both David von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire That Changed American and Leon Stein's The Triangle Fire.


So Many Great Nonfiction Books, Such a Lazy Nonfiction Books Blogger

It has been a wonderful spring for reading. (Not so much for doing anything outside; we're expecting another rain/snow mix tonight. That's okay. All I really like doing outside is reading, too, and I can do that just as easily inside!)

I've been in a bit of a mood, and when I'm like that I sometimes enjoy re-reading things I've enjoyed. So I re-read Peter Manseau's disturbing but very, very thoughtful and interesting memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, and if that title alone doesn't make you want to read it, I give up. (If you're more of a fiction reader, Manseau also just published the The Maiden of All Our Desires, a historical novel about a nun in the fourteenth century. I really like Manseau and want to support him as an author, so I bought a copy of that at Bookshop, but haven't read it yet. Also thinking I need to give some money to one of the numerous groups trying to prod the Catholic Church into allowing women and married clergy. Talk about a lost cause, but traditionally I am a huge supporter of lost causes, so that seems about right.

Farmers lawyerI also revisited Michael Lewis's The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, after watching and LOVING the movie of the same name. (Also: You need to go watch the movie right away; it explains a lot about how money is made--and lost--in this country.) Re-reading the book after the movie was fun; I thought they did a fantastic job of adapting the movie from the book, so it was fun to look at them together and look at what they changed. One of the few instances I've ever seen where the book and the movie are equally fantastic, for different reasons. (Another example of that is Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Great book, great movie, for entirely different reasons.)

When I was done re-reading, I picked up a few new titles, namely Matthew Stewart's The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture and Sarah Vogel's The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm. The Farmer's Lawyer is a totally fascinating memoir and history of farm economics in the twentieth century, and most particularly of Ronald Reagan's (and his minions') shameful role in foreclosing on every single farmer they could possibly do it to in the 1980s. I grew up on a farm in the 1980s, so that subject was near and dear to my heart.

Spring has been a bit of a wash (literally; it won't stop raining or snowing or rain-snowing here) otherwise, but I'm at the point in my life where, you throw a few good books at me, that's about all it takes to keep me happy. Happy Spring to all of you as well.


Do you know what's going on at your favorite tech company?

Take your pick: Tesla, Meta, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Microsoft, and especially Apple. What do those companies have in common? There's a lot of sexual and racial harassment and discrimination going on at all of them.

I got to speak with Apple whistleblower Cher Scarlett, and I am grateful she is out there advocating for such companies to be more transparent, and also to allow workers the rights they already have under current law. To read about what she has to say, please read my latest at The Progressive magazine:*

Blowing the Whistle on Big Tech

*And yes, I am always aware of the irony of complaining about big tech while using big tech products seemingly every minute of my life. Their very ubiquity in our lives is just one of the reasons we should be watching them a lot more closely.


What it takes to care for the human body: Marianna Crane's "Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic."

CraneI took a break from reading about the horrors of management and bureaucracy to read a nurse practitioner's memoir about managing a senior health clinic in a Chicago subsidized housing building.

Mr. CR says I just don't know how to relax but the joke's on him, reading depressing nonfiction IS how I relax!

Oddly, although there are many depressing things in Marianna Crane's memoir, Stories From the Tenth-Floor Clinic, it is not really a depressing book. It is exactly what its title promises, a very straightforward memoir of Crane's experiences helping (primarily) elderly, very sick, and very poor people in Chicago.

Consider:

"My mind drifted back to the day I had first met Stella. I had been alone in the clinic when she rolled her wheelchair off the elevator and stopped in front of the open door. She peered inside, saw me, turned around, and careened down the hallway. Where the hell was she going? I took off after her. She braked at the end of the corridor. Trapped in a dead end, she sat in her chair, silent.

I bent down so I could see her face. 'I'm Marianna Crane, the nurse practitioner. What can I do for you?' I said.

Stella concentrated on her hands gripped in her lap.

'Is something wrong?' I asked.

A dirty blond wig sat askew on her head. Only one leg, which was covered with a wrinkled cotton stocking, extended past the skirt of her housedress, and her foot was encased in a heavy black orthopedic shoe. She reeked of a sharp ammonia smell. Urine?

I remained crouched, determined to wait her out. Finally she raised her head, and said, 'I don't feel good.'...

I later found out that Stella had been a diabetic for many years. Because she didn't keep her blood sugar under control, she had developed peripheral neuropathy, a loss of sensation, in her legs and feet. She didn't realize she had stepped on a dirty tack while walking barefoot until her foot turned black. After she lost her leg, she was fitted for the prosthesis and then participated in just enough rehabilitation to be able to get around on her own." (pp. 144-155.)

There are a lot of stories like that in this book, which really is quite a fascinating read.

It's not quite as polished a memoir as I might like, it just kind of moves from one chapter to another without developing a real story arc, but it's very sincerely and well-written. I read the whole thing and I'm glad I did.

 


Moral Mazes: Chapter 1 (continued).

Yup, I'm still working on the first chapter of Robert Jackall's business classic Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.

Last time, I shared some quotes from the book in which Jackall very briefly explored the history and psychology of the Protestant work ethic, and its place in our American system of business and bureaucracies.

Basically, the Protestant work ethic combined religion and business. The religious work ethic gave workers the idea that you could glorify by God by working really hard, and, further, by living simply and denying yourself, you could also save up resources and capital to have for your family. Jackall also shared the enlightening thought that, over time, the accumulation of capital led to conspicuous consumption and the assumption that "good people did good"--if you worked hard and invested wisely, you could not only do well financially, that also made you a smart and good person.

Enter: Bureaucracy. Specialization. The increasing organization of business and society along hierarchical lines.

It was kind of a lot to take in, and Jackall covered all of that in (literally) three pages.

No wonder this book is exhausting. But wow, is it good.

So here we are, still in chapter one, now up to the twentieth century. Or, as Jackall explains, our recent history (and by recent I mean the early 1900s through now) in which:

"Mass distribution required greater administrative coordination for its success, and mass production demanded the centralization of operations to achieve efficiency..."

Think big corporations and big schools. Big complicated supply chains. All in the name of efficiency.

And this didn't just happen in business. Here's a Jackall quote from this chapter to strike terror into your soul (or at least it should):

"The tide of bureaucratization spilled over from the private to the public sector, and government bureaucracies came to rival those of industry. The chief forces here have been the erection of the massive apparatus of the welfare state during the New Deal, the militarization of American society during World War II and the subsequent importance to key economic sectors of administered military spending..." (p. 9)

I maintain that kids in high school should be allowed to skip at least one year of American history classes if they just promise to read this book. If that paragraph doesn't sum up what military spending does to a society and your entire economic system, I don't know what does.

So: If we were smart, we've all gotten specialized and found our places in the bureaucracy.

But what is the special character of American bureaucracy? This is what Jackall has to say on the subject:

"But bureaucratic impersonality in its pure form lacks affinity with the American character. Our frontier experience emphasized individualistic solutions to problems, even if they were illegal; in any event, the law was often remote...Moreover, big city bosses based their quasi-feudal regimes on personal loyalty and on the delivery of personal services. By the time American corporations began to bureaucratize they instituted as a matter of course many of the features of personal loyalty, favoritism, informality, and nonlegality that marked crucial aspects of the American historical experience. The kind of bureaucracy that developed in America, especially in the corporations but even in the higher reaches of government, was a hybrid; it incorporated many structural features of the pure form of bureaucracy but it also resembled patrimonial bureaucracy.

Patrimonial bureaucracy was the organizational form of the courts of kings and princes. There, personal loyalty was the norm...Of course, in America, kings and princes were unavailable as objects of personal attachment. But the hierarchies of bureaucratic milieux allow the hankerings for attachment generated by the intense personalism of our historical experience to be focused on chief executive officers of corporations, as well as on certain high elected and appointed officials." (p. 11.)

Basically, we replaced our need to suck up to kings and princes with a need to suck up to CEOs, and in America, we also combined that with a weird frontier belief in avoiding the law and believing that we were all rugged individualists.

Yikes.

Here's why I believe this book. Here's why it's freaking me out. It was published more than thirty years ago, right? So think about that paragraph: a cultural belief that laws were made to be broken, and also a desire to be ordered around by strong leaders. And then look at headlines from this past week:

"Tesla recalls autos over software that allows them to roll through stop signs"

and

"New York is a corporation. I'm the CEO of New York City." (Said by new NYC mayor Eric Adams.)

Yeah, we've really come a long way, baby.

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go:


A Walk On the Lighter Side: Charlie Berens's "The Midwest Survival Guide."

MidwestLest you think all I do is read lighthearted sociological works on the workings of bureaucracy, I'm taking a small break to tell you that my whole household has been enjoying Charlie Berens's new book The Midwest Survival Guide: How We Talk, Love, Work, Drink, and Eat...Everything with Ranch.

I was trying not to like Charlie Berens, because, let's face it, I was a little bit jealous that he's making his Wisconsin/Midwest shtick pay. I have been talking like a 60-year-old Wisconsin farm lady since I was 18 (or, as a former college roommate said upon seeing me again, after it had been a few years: "Oh...there's that accent!") and it has never made me a dime.

But, fine, I give in. I like Charlie Berens. My kids like him too; we've all enjoyed his videos like this one: Midwest Voice Translator. (And also: Midwest Meets East Coast.)

So when I saw he had a new book out, I thought I'd take a look through it. And now that I've brought it home, everyone is reading it and enjoying it, right down to the 8-year-old CRjrjr, which I didn't really expect.

Berens is funny. Here's some of the stuff from his section on driving in Wisconsin, and I'm here to tell you, it's right on.

"Long Drives. There's not a whole lot of walking to the store, school, or job when living out here--there's just so much space. It'd take most folks six hours to walk to work...A Midwesterner is prepared to drive an hour to get to the closest Olive Garden. And this isn't a sixty-minutes-sitting-in-traffic kinda thing. This is driving 70 mph for 45 minutes. East Coast in-laws will stare in wide-eyed amazement when you pass the thirty-minute mark when driving to a nice dinner out and will eventually break out with, 'Where in the heck are we going?'...

Rule 2 [of Driving in the Midwest]: Landmarks = GPS. Ask how to get somewhere, don't expect street names and route numbers. We don't really know how to use those. We can visit family or a best friend once a week for a decade and have zero idea what street they live on. Instead, Midwesterners depend almost entirely on landmarks. 'Over there by the railroad tracks, right off the main drag' or 'Go ten minutes that way and take a right just past the second Dairy Queen. If you pass the three bars by the church you went too far.' Street names are usually just some goofy name a developer added to the universe. It's kinda illusory. But that railroad track is a real and permanent thing." [pp. 75-79.]

It's good stuff. And I'm not just saying that because I'm "Midwest Nice."


Moral Mazes: Chapter 1 ("Moral Probations, Old and New")

I'll be the first to admit that old Robert Jackall has really got to jazz up his chapter titles. I'm not even sure what "Moral Probations, Old and New," means. For one thing, when I hear the word "probation," I think people who have committed a crime and have to complete a period during which they are supervised. But "probation," of course, also means this: "the process or period of testing or observing the character or abilities of a person in a certain role."

And that makes sense. This first chapter in Moral Mazes is largely the story of how Jackall found some corporations that would let him do observational field work at their locations and among their managers. You may not be surprised to learn that finding such corporations, who would allow their bureaucratic processes (and the effect of those processes on the morality of their managers) to be observed, was extremely difficult.

But in the beginning of the chapter, Jackall first draws your attention to the history of bureaucracy (generally) and to the Protestant work ethic (specifically).

My whole life I've been hearing about the Puritan and Protestant ethic and work ethic, and I've never really known much about it. (Not least because I'm Catholic and the family culture I grew up in was a weird mix of feeling discriminated against by Protestants, and also feeling superior to Protestants. I also never paid much attention to American history in school because I was an indifferent student and was quite bored by American history.)

Jackall starts the chapter by saying that before we can understand the connections between managerial work and bureaucracy and morals, you must first understand the original Protestant ethic ("Protestant ethic" being the term used by Max Weber to "describe the comprehensive worldview of the rising middle class that spearheaded the emergence of capitalism.")

Basically, the Protestant ethic refers, Jackall says, to the "set of beliefs, and, more particularly, to the set of binding social rules that counseled 'secular asceticism'--the methodical, rational subjection of human impulse and desire to God's will through 'restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling.'" (p. 6.)

We're barely a paragraph in to this first chapter and I feel like I have to take a break. Jackall packs a lot of information (and history) into a few pages here. But, basically? You are familiar with the Protestant ethic, particularly if you live and work in the United States." That Protestant ethic humming along in the background is what leads to sensational news headlines like these:

"It's Time for Americans to Get Back to Work" and "In Biden's America, It's Better Not To Be Employed."

This all led, in American history, to what Jackall calls the enduring significance of the Protestant ethic; it linked proving one's self, work, and eternal salvation together. As Jackall says:

"This rational and methodical pursuit of a worldly vocation, when it was crowned with economic success, proved a person before others." (p. 7.)

Personally I find it kind of funny that something that started out as a way to please God turned into a way to "prove" yourself before other people. Anyone else?

At first, Jackall goes on to explain, hard work was also linked with self-denial and an emphasis on saving to help future generations build capital. Eventually, however, individuals with money began to engage in conspicuous consumption.

So here's the paragraph(s) I'm going to leave you with today. I would suggest reading it a couple of times, and then think about whether it seems like an accurate description of the United States in the late 20th century. I think it does, but maybe that's just me. Do feel free to offer your opinion in the comments!

"With the shaping of the mass consumer society later in this [20th] century, accompanied by the commercialization of leisure, the sanctification of consumption fueled by consumer debt became widespread, indeed crucial to the maintenance of the economic order.

Affluence and the emergence of the consumer society were responsible, however, for the demise of only some aspects of the old ethic--namely, the imperatives for saving and investment. The core of the ethic, even in its later, secularized form--self-reliance, unremitting devotion to work, and a morality that postulated just rewards for work well done--was undermined by the complete transformation of the organizational form of work itself. The hallmarks of the emerging modern production and distribution system were administrative hierarchies, standardized work procedures, regularized timetables, uniform policies, specialized expertise, and above all, centralized control--in a word, the bureaucratization of the economy." (p. 8.)

Today's takeaways?

Ask yourself if the above is what it feels like to live in the United States today. To me the above reads like 1. our economy demands constant growth to remain stable (never mind if that's good for the earth), 2. at one point, even when it lost its attachment to religious belief, the Protestant work ethic promised that if you did good work you'd do good; and 3. this all led to a system where everything was systematically controlled through hierarchies.

I have to ask myself, upon reading this book, how is that system controlled by hierarchies holding up for us currently? I would argue it's working well for managerial types (see Jamie Dimon, who now makes $34.5 million a year) to make a lot of money, not so well for those of us wondering why you can't find and buy N95 masks or COVID home tests even if you have the means.

Next time? More of Chapter 1, including how America combined the worst parts of rugged individualism with a love for authority.

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go: