Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

This week I got the best thing ever in the mail: a book present from a friend.*

The book in question is Derf Backderf's new book Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, and it is a nonfiction graphic novel about the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. That was when the National Guard was called in to restore order to the campus in the face of protests, and ended up firing into the crowd and killing four people (and injuring nine more). To this day nobody knows who gave the order to fire or why, and nobody knows who specifically did the shooting. If you don't know the story, you should immediately read this book, or read this to start with.

Kent stateAs my friend said, she hoped I enjoyed the book, although she felt that "enjoy" (considering the subject matter) was not really the right word to use.

The book is unbelievable. I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, but I find I enjoy graphic novel nonfiction in graphic form, particularly for historical or science stories that are interesting to me but on which I don't have the time to read a regular nonfiction book. What is perhaps the most stunning is the section of notes and bibliographical material; Backderf provides sources and information for every picture and page he draws, and it is fascinating to learn just how difficult it is to find the truth of this one story. History is anything but dry; excavating the layers upon layers of trying to find the facts of this story in different accounts and photos must have been quite a job.

I read the book in one breathless run (yes, I ignored the children, and the meals, and the house, and other work--you just have to do that sometimes). It also led me to do a little bit of poking around on YouTube to see what else I can find, and one thing I found was Glenn Frank's impassioned plea to the students to just leave the protest so they all wouldn't get shot. Frank was a professor at Kent State and you have got to go watch this recording of his scream. I've thought about this book (and that clip) a lot, this week.

This is what everyone should scream in the face of any violence: "Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this."

Buy, and read, this book.

And thank you to my friend who sent it. You're right, "enjoy" was the wrong word. But it was the right book for me at the right time.

*Okay, we all know the best things to get in the mail are checks. Preferably large ones. But that doesn't happen very often, and actually, book gifts are so FUN they might even beat checks.


Citizen Reader at The Progressive.

As previously noted: I love whistleblowers.

I have now taken my fan girl behavior up a notch, and moved from reading about whistleblowers, to writing about whistleblowers, with this article I just got published at The Progressive magazine:

"How a U.S. Army Whistleblower Revealed 'The Apparatus of a Police State.'"

Earlier this year I was able to interview Christopher Pyle, the whistleblower in question, who was a longtime professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He's a fascinating guy, just fascinating. I know this is going to be a hard sell, but really, consider watching this half-hour talk with him and another author about surveillance and privacy issues. Or you can read his defense of Edward Snowden.

Have a good Monday, everyone.


Happy Labor Day 2020, Everyone.

And welcome to my favorite holiday weekend of the year.

If you've been a reader for a while you might remember that I love Labor Day. I love it, I love it, I LUUURVE it (as Georgia Nicolson would say in the superlative teen novel Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging). A holiday with no family get-togethers, no church*, no memorializing of war. Just a good old-fashioned day off work (if you're lucky enough to get the day off work), and I can always get behind that. Particularly in 2020, when the coming of autumn and winter, traditionally my favorite seasons, seems a bit more ominous than usual. In Wisconsin, where I live, I notice people have been mobbing outdoor seating at restaurants, and doing a very good job of pretending "Hey, we can go out to eat in a pandemic, we're outside, everything's cool, everything's getting back to normal..." Tonight it was a bit chillier than it's been, with a bit of autumnal nip in the air, and you could almost feel the OH NO WE'RE ALL ABOUT TO BE STUCK INSIDE AND ALONE FOR SIX MONTHS OF DARKNESS vibes starting to thrum under the thin veneer of summer gaiety.

It's unnerving.

But I'm here and you're there and there's really nothing to do now but get through it, right? I am wishing good wishes for you and hoping winter will not be too bad but mostly, mostly, I am happy to share with you, as is our Labor Day tradition, the best books about work that I read during the past twelve months. So, without further ado:

Oh, okay, one further ado: Here are the lists from previous years, just in case you'd like to see them: 2019 part 1 and part 2. 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.

So, now, here are the books about work I read in 2020. Links go to my reviews of them.

  1. Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden.
  2. Adam Minter's Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale,
  3. Henry Marsh's Admissions
  4. Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love
  5. Arlo Crawford's A Farm Dies Once a Year
  6. Bonus: The Wire

Please note this is a very small list; I didn't get as much reading done during the past year as I would have liked, and what reading I did do tended to be about whistleblowing and whistleblowers. On the other hand, whistleblowing stories are almost always work stories, so there is that.

I added The Wire, even though it's a TV show, because The Wire is perhaps the most work-oriented show I have ever seen. It shows Baltimore cops at work, teachers at work, politicians at work, journalists at work. It even shows what a shitty, non-ending job it is to do drugs, sell drugs, and keep your drug-selling empire on top. Have you watched The Wire yet? You should really do that.

In the meantime: Happy Labor Day, all. Take care of yourselves and squeeze in all the end-of-summer picnics that you can.

*And I even really like my family and I don't mind church. But still.


Book Giveaway: Contours

Hi everyone!

So I really need to get reading some new nonfiction, but I've taken to re-reading Anne Tyler novels instead, and being horrified anew with each title I re-read. Characters who once seemed so OLD to me (when I was in my twenties) are now YOUNGER than me.

Ye Gods.

But that is all neither here nor there. What we have today is a Book Giveaway! I've got an extra copy of Contours: A Literary Landscape, New Work Collected by the Driftless Writing Center (which includes an essay by yours truly, but which also includes a ton of great essays, stories, and poems by writers who life in the "Driftless Area").

First person to email me at sarah.cords@gmail.com gets it!

And yes. I know we're all trying to pretend autumn and winter and Continuing Coronavirus are not happening. All the same: Happy September.


And now for something completely different: Raymond Feist's fantasy novel "Queen of Storms."

I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was younger, and every now and then I still like to read a good fantasy book. It doesn't happen very often, because I don't really have a good way to tell what fantasy I'll like just by looking at it, and there is too much fantasy published each year for me to plow through. But when I saw Raymond Feist had a new series out, I decided to go for it.

Queen of stormsWhen I was younger, Feist was one of my favorite fantasy authors. I still fondly remember his books Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master, featuring his main character Pug. I tend to read primarily because I like good characters (as opposed to needing a page-turning story or real comprehensive world-building, as you might see in Tolkien) and I thought Feist did a nice job of developing real characters and including some humor in his books.

The first book in the new series is King of Ashes, and I blew through that a few months back, so quickly that I barely remembered any of it when I finally got the sequel, Queen of Storms, from the library a few weeks ago. (Mr. CR liked the book too and was interested in getting the sequel as well, so hey, look at me, still playing librarian at home.) The story was pretty basic: One power-hungry king destroyed a neighboring kingdom (and bullied other nearby rulers into going in on the "betrayal," the invasion, as well), but the youngest member of the killed king's family was spirited away. Later in the book we see him growing up and being trained to be an assassin/spy, before...well, traveling somewhere.

I wasn't kidding when I said I really couldn't remember much of it. But it doesn't really matter. I remembered enough of the characters' relationships to one another that it was pretty easy to step right back into this world. The hidden heir, named Hatu, is now running an inn with a woman that he trained with when they were children (Hava). But all is not well in their world: an invading army, led by nobody knows who, is destroying cities left and right, and generally trying to send the message that they mean business. Meanwhile, Hatu is kidnapped by people who know who he really is, leaving Hava to try and find him. In the course of trying to do that, she herself is captured and sold as a slave, but she manages to take over the ship she and a bunch of other slaves are being transported on.

Yeah, I really liked Hava, if you can't tell.

It's a fun series. Good escapism of the sort I really kinda needed right now.


Doing Time Like a Spy by John Kiriakou.

Doing time like a spyI really should not have read John Kiriakou's memoir Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison.

The minute I saw the word "prison" in this book's subtitle, I should have known to return it, unread, to the library. I have a wide variety of fears, and a fear of prison or anyone I know going to prison is one of them.* Although I am a voracious True Crime reader and have watched a lot of British detective and crime programs, I cannot read or watch anything that involves a prison storyline. I only checked out this book because John Kiriakou is a famous whistleblower, and I am fascinated by whistleblowers.

Kiriakou is a former CIA intelligence officer who, in 2007, became the first (former) CIA employee to confirm in a news interview that the United States was using torture on terrorism suspects like Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded. This really pissed off a lot of people, and in a truly breathtaking display of pricktastic and vengeful behavior, the FBI and the Justice Department investigated Kiriakou until they felt, in 2012, that they could punish him by charging him with "a.) three counts under the Espionage Act of 1917, an obscure World War I-era law aimed at prosecuting spies, b.) one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), a 1982 law aimed at thwarting radical publications that intentionally tried to out covert agents, under which only one person had been convicted since the law’s passage, and c.) one count of making false statements."

Keep in mind, please, that John Kiriakou did not torture prisoners (and yes, torture is supposedly still illegal under the Geneva Conventions), and in fact, when he was an active officer, he turned down an offer to be trained in "enhanced interrogation techniques"--national security-speak for torture. And yet, for telling the truth about prisoners who were being tortured, HE was the one sent to jail for 30 months.

That paragraph, to me, is everything that's wrong with America right now.

But I digress. Although Kiriakou gives a quick rundown of his case in the first chapter of this book, it is mostly about his experience being incarcerated for thirty months. And the Feds didn't fool around; although he thought he would be serving his time in a minimum-security work camp, the second chapter is about how he instead got assigned to the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. (More payback, evidently.)

What follows is an entirely unsettling account of how Kiriakou used tenets he learned in the CIA (like "admit nothing" and "blend in with your environment" and "if stability is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend") to survive his prison experiment.** Jesus. Even a "low-security" prison sounds HORRIFYING. I commend Kiriakou for making it through, but his descriptions of deciding which table to sit at (segregation is the order of the day), the crimes and mental problems of his fellow inmates, and the machinations of both prisoners and prison guards to survive and even profit where they can was almost more than I can read (and it's certainly more than I can stomach rehashing to tell you about here).

In short: Why anyone in this world still chooses to become a whistleblower is absolutely beyond me.

If you'd like a flavor of the book before trying it, it is actually based in part on a series of letters Kiriakou sent to the media while in prison: Letters from Loretto. You could preview those.

It's a good book. I certainly didn't get any dumber reading it. But can I recommend that you read it? Not really. Too scary by half.

*Me--or you--or anyone--going to prison is not as far-fetched an idea as you might think. Kiriakou tells you why: "Harvard Law School professor Harvey Silverglate argues in his book Three Felonies a Day that the US is so overlegislated and daily life is so over-criminalized that the average American going about his normal business on the average day commits three felonies." (p. 206.) I try not to think about this too much or I'll never sleep again.

**Please note: as he expounds upon these rules and how he survived, Kiriakou actually sounds like a bit of a prick sometimes. But the man refused to learn "enhanced interrogation techniques," and he went to jail because he wanted to tell the truth, so overall I still find him interesting.


How did I miss this? July 30 is National Whistleblower Day!

Evidently July 30 is National Whistleblower Day; it commemorates the day in 1778 when the Continental Congress passed a resolution that "honored ten sailors and marines who spoke out against their commander’s abuses of his office."

I have recently gone down the rabbit hole, reading about whistleblowers, and it is FASCINATING. Fascinating sad, but still fascinating. Here are a few things I have learned about whistleblowers:

  1. First off, what is a whistleblower? Definitions vary, but seem to agree on the points that a whistleblower is someone who witnesses and can document illegal or dangerous behaviors or policies, and who then reports that wrongdoing through the proper channels set up to do so. In some cases, when they receive no response from the proper channels, they take their information to the press or to special government officials called Inspectors General.
  2. We all hear the word "whistleblower" a lot, but I do not think we are aware of the many services whistleblowers perform for us. Consider many of the automotive industry insiders who first got word to Ralph Nader that many cars were manufactured in the 60s and 70s (and before that, of course), with absolutely no safety innovations. Do you think seat belts help save lives? You have whistleblowers to thank for those, and too many other laws and safeguards to count.
  3. Most of us know a few famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, the guy Russell Crowe played in the movie The Insider, whoever turned Trump in for his Ukrainian phone call, Serpico. But we hardly ever know any of the details or nuances of their cases. If Edward Snowden, for example, ever returns to the U.S., he will be charged under the Espionage Act, and his penalty could be death. So, fine, say the hard-liners. Let him return and defend himself. But here's the sneaky little bit about the Espionage Act: Snowden is not allowed to testify, at his own trial, about why he released the information he did (or about how he tried to bring his concerns about the government and its contractors violating the Constitutional rights of every American citizen to his superiors). The only thing he will be tried on is whether or not he released information, and he is not contesting that. See? That's the barest bones of the tiniest bit of the Snowden story, and it's complicated.
  4. There are a lot of whistleblowers. A lot a lot. I recently set up a Google Alert for the word "whistleblower" and I get a lot of results every day, about a wide variety of whistleblowers in all sorts of industries and in government. Seriously. It's both amazing and appalling how many whistleblower stories there are on a daily basis. Amazing because, thank you, whistleblowers, for speaking up. Appalling because wow, there is a lot of wrong shit going on everywhere, every day.
  5. Whistleblowers often tend to have very complex personalities, in the best possible way. They are fascinating people. But here's what I find unbelievable, in the the very best way: They tend to be successful people who are good at their jobs. And yet they often lose their jobs, their health insurance, their pensions, their community connections, their marriages, everything, because the main hallmark of being a whistleblower is that whoever they blew the whistle NEVER says, hey, thanks for the info, let's fix it. What they do instead is they DESTROY the whistleblower.

And that's the crux of the matter. THAT is why I find whistleblowers fascinating. As previously noted, one of the big fears of my life is that my family and I will lose our health insurance. I can't even imagine being a person who just wants to tell the truth about something going wrong, only to find that you are the person who is going to lose your job and your insurance and your employability. Don't think that can happen? Ask Thomas Drake, a senior NSA official who was disgusted that the agency was spending billions of dollars on Operation Stellar Wind, an operation that both mined the personal data of Americans and also didn't work to increase national security*, how the government crushes people it wants to silence (he lost his job, his pension, and had to go to work in an Apple store to support his family).

So: Happy National Whistleblower Day. Celebrate by checking out books like Tom Mueller's Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud; Mark Hertsgaard's Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden; or the classic Serpico by Peter Maas.

*See? Complicated. Every whistleblower story is like that. You have to understand how something should be working, how it's not working, how the whistleblower tried to prove isn't what working, and on how many levels the whistleblower's life is being destroyed, it's a lot to try and follow.


I still like Meghan Daum.

The problem with everythingI've said it before, Meghan Daum is one of my favorite essayists.

I like her because she's smart but not pointlessly intellectual (I'm looking at you, David Shields), thoughtful but not sentimental. As per usual, I enjoyed her latest collection, The Problem with Everything: My Journey through the New Culture Wars. It's an essay collection that started out as a treatise on feminism and the perhaps unintended directions it has traveled. In short, feminism in the 2010s bothered her:

"What bothered me was the way the prototypical young feminist had adopted the sort of swaggering, wise-ass persona you see most often in people who deep down might not be all that swaggering or wise.* This young feminist frequently referred to herself as a badass." (p. xiii.)

I enjoyed that because I particularly hate women calling each other and their daughters "warriors," like being a wager of war is a good thing.

But then she got distracted because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election: "But the way things turned out, there was no subtlety to be found. There was no room left for left-on-left critique of any variety." (p. xiii.)

Well, if that doesn't just sum it up, I don't know what does.

Daum is also balm to my Gen X soul, because we're roughly contemporaries in age (although our lives diverge wildly in the fact that she is successful and skilled). This entire essay spoke to the way I feel lately, like I'm old even though I'm not that old. It also becomes increasingly clear to me that I am not very good at interacting with millennials (and god help us if I'm trying to communicate with anyone even younger, including my own small children) and, here's the rub, I'm not particularly interested in interacting with millennials.** Or, as Daum puts it, much more elegantly:

"Meanwhile, the pace at which the digital revolution was moving had me feeling old before my time, even physically dizzy*** on a near-daily basis. At my computer, the tweets and memes and hot takes scrolled down my screen so fast I could scarcely comprehend a fraction of them...This book still has a lot to do with the conflicted and tortured state of liberalism generally and feminism in particular. But it's now also a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart. It's a story about aging and feeling obsolete as the world spins madly--and maddeningly--on. It's also, by dint of my age, about the particular experience of Generation Xers, the last cohort to have experienced both the analog and the digital world as adults."

I didn't love the whole book, but I read it and appreciated (as always) Daum's skill with words. It made me feel a little less alone and lonely, missing not only the pre-Covid world of routines**** but also the 1990s world of the movie Crossing Delancey, with a less-angry New York City and the idea that a smart beautiful woman could make it in Manhattan while working in a bookstore. I'm just so sad, y'all.

But I am thinking of you. Have a good weekend.

*In other words: men.

**This seems to me to be the beginnings of the cranky old person mentality of someone who can't be charmed by younger people, and I really don't want to be that cranky old person.

***Well, actually, if she's at all like me in her forties, maybe this is perimenopause. Still annoying.

****Although I'll be the first to tell you that I feel the routines of our pre-Covid world were largely bullshit and led directly to our Covid world, and we should strive to do better in the future.


Watch out for rich people on the roads.

So for years, as I have been trying to teach the CRjrs how to safely cross roads, I have often told them to watch out for BMWs and Lexuses because the rich jerks driving those cars don't stop for children or pedestrians. Mr. CR has suggested that this is perhaps an unfair blanket assertion.*

But yesterday I was happily reading an article titled "Why Are Rich People So Mean?" and I came across this little tidbit:

"Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff monitored intersections with four-way stop signs and found that people in expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers, compared to folks in more modest vehicles. When the researchers posed as pedestrians waiting to cross a street, all the drivers in cheap cars respected their right of way, while those in expensive cars drove right on by 46.2 percent of the time, even when they’d made eye contact with the pedestrians waiting to cross."

HA! Vindicated! But wow, that is sad, to see it proven. Explains a lot, though.

Now go enjoy summer and if you're walking, for the love of all that's holy watch out for rich people on the roads.

*To be fair, I make a lot of those. Like the time the eldest CRjr asked why bike-riders often wear special clothing while biking, and I told him it was because they were usually wealthy people with a lot of money and time to blow on shopping**. I didn't think much about it until I heard him telling that little "fact" to his dad the next day, which got me in trouble, because Mr. CR is a much nicer and better person than I am, who doesn't want the boys to grow up to be bitter pills like their mother.

**Apologies if you ride a bike with the special biking clothes, or drive a BMW or Lexus. I'm a jerk.


60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Madison.

So this is what I discovered this weekend: ice cream, topped with Nutella, topped with cashews.

Now I can die happy. I will also be dying soon, with packed arteries, as well as carrying at least 100 extra pounds.

Seriously. The minute I tried that combination and realized it was the best thing ever, I also realized that I can never have it again, or my weight will finally spiral beyond control. My weight already has spiraled out of control, because I'm an emotional eater and there is no emotion that I haven't had in the past twelve months. Sad? Let's eat. Worried? Let's eat. Bored? Let's eat. Disgusted with myself for eating all the time? Let's eat.

60 Hikes Within 60 MilesWhich is a very awkward way to back into this review of Kevin Revolinski's 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Madison*, but there you have it. Pretty soon small children will make the truck-backing-up noise when they see me backing into anything, so it is clearly time for me to get outside and get active.

I am not a hiker or a camper or a user of state or county parks, for the most part, so I didn't know what to expect from this book. But my overall first impression was a good one: The book is meaty but not overly hefty; you could definitely chuck it in your backpack and haul it around pretty easily. It's got a ton of beautiful pictures, most taken by the author, which are not only fun to look at just as pictures, but which also help you picture the landscape and interest points of the hike being described. It's got a ton of handy charts for "hikes by category" (including such attributes as "busy," "solitude," "wildflowers," "bird-watching," "historic-interest," "kid-friendly," "dog-friendly," etc.).

When you get to each of the sixty hikes, you won't be disappointed; for each one you can see at a glance how long it is, how difficult it is, how much of it is shaded, how much the elevation changes, and whether there are facilities or wheelchair access.  The author neatly takes you through each hike, in a surprisingly comprehensive way. The trails are described so well that I'll admit I'm actually thinking about skipping the hiking and just reading the book.

I was also extremely pleased with the prose in this guidebook, which is anything but the dry, informational writing I was expecting. I particularly appreciated information in the front of the book, in a description of the Kettle Moraine State Forest:

"The most recent period of the Ice Age is known as the Wisconsin Glaciation. It came to its dwindling end in a jagged line across the state about 10,000 years ago. Thanks to the land-altering efforts of an ice sheet that was as much as a mile thick in some places, there is no better spot to see the dramatic effects of continental glaciers than in Wisconsin. Two massive lobes of glacial ice left behind two ridges approximately 120 miles long in the southeastern part of the state. Melting ice buried within glacial deposits left kettlelike depressions that have since been overgrown with hardwood forests and, in some cases, filled in with bogs. The very ground beneath your feet is strewn with sand and broken rock, some of which may have originated all the way back in Canada." (p. 1.)

If I can get through an entire paragraph about geology, it's good writing.

I've not had the chance to go through the whole thing, because Mr. CR has stolen it and is planning hikes for our family for the summer. It'll be good, but I'm kind of tired just thinking about it. Tired? Does that count as an emotion? I should go eat something.

It's a lovely book. Buy a copy for yourself if you're in Wisconsin, or if you know any Wisconsinites, consider buying them a copy as a gift. If there was ever a summer when it would be a good time to get out there and hike, far from other people who may or may not believe in wearing masks, this is the one.

*Full disclosure, because I can't not disclose. I know the author. And I'm mainly sharing that because I want you to know that after reading it, I asked him how long this book must have taken to write, because it's really detailed, and really cool. He admitted it was a lot of work. It shows, in the best possible way.