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September 2020

Re-reading while older.

It's not as dangerous as driving while drunk, but re-reading books that I read as a young person, now that I am an old person, is turning out to be a bittersweet journey.

And yes, I know 46 is a little young to be feeling as old as I am. But frankly, the last few years BEFORE 2020 had aged me, and I think 2020 has aged us all. I think it's safe to say I feel about 84. On a good day. At least I don't have macular degeneration (yet). Kitchen

The other day I was reading something about Anthony Bourdain (how I miss him) and I thought, I'd like to re-read Kitchen Confidential. So I did; but only in parts. This is what I found out:

  • I really miss Anthony Bourdain. I didn't re-read Kitchen Confidential all the way through, but I read it in little bits here and there and every single page I flipped to sucked me in immediately. And what a memoir. I'd forgotten just how meaty it was--literally and figuratively (the paperback copy I've got is slightly over 300 pages). He really had a way of making everything that he talked about interesting (even the parts that weren't that interesting to me, including some of his harder-living days). I usually don't have a lot of patience for "bad boys" describing their hijinks, but I have patience for Bourdain, mostly because when he's acting like a jerk he clearly knows he's acting like a jerk, and sometimes you can hear him striving for a more perfect state of being, through food or perhaps his skill with food. It's inspiring.
  • He was just 44 or so when this, one of his biggest and bestselling books, was published, it is shocking to me how old Bourdain used to seem (when I first read this book I would have been in my late 20s or 30) to me, and now that I'm 46, he seems ridiculously young. How can sixteen years or so make that big a difference in perspective? (And of course he died much too young.)
  • I just really liked this book. Take the chapter where Bourdain describes being the chef in a restaurant that the mob set up to give to a compatriot who had spent time in prison for not ratting them out. Although the man was not really fit to be in charge of a restaurant, Bourdain describes how many of the wise guys really tried to help him make it:

"When we finally opened, we were packed from the first minute. Orders flooded in over the phone and at the counter and at the tables. We were unprepared and understaffed, so the Italian contingent--including various visiting dignitaires, all with oddly anglicized names ('This is Mr. Dee, Tony, and meet a friend, Mr. Brown...This is Mr. Lang'), all of them overweight, cigar-chomping middle-aged guys with bodyguards and ten thousand-dollar watches--pitched in to help out with deliveries and at the counter. Gusy I'd read about later in the papers as running construction in the outer boroughs, purported killers, made men, who lived in concrete piles on Staten Island and Long Beach and security-fenced estates in Jersey, carried brown paper bags of chicken sandwiches up three flights of stairs to Greenwich Village walk-up apartments to make deliveries; they slathered mayo and avocado slices on pita bread behind the counter, and bused tables in the dining room. I have to say I liked them for that." p. 148.)

It remains a classic memoir. And even though it made me feel old to re-read it, it was worth it.


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.