Bingeworthy British Television, now part of the Willow and Thatch holiday giveaway!

Willow and thatchMorning all, and happy St. Nick's feast day to you. When I was little, St. Nick's was one of my favorite days of the holiday season. On the eve of the day, December 5, my siblings and I got a bag of candies and little treats, always left out on the lawn or a snowbank, and we never, ever saw St. Nick leave it there. Our bag always included a big stick, that then stood in the corner of the living room for a while, just to scare us (although I don't remember anyone ever actually getting hit with it). Mercifully my parents were very nonviolent but they weren't above governing through fear, that's for sure.

Stick notwithstanding, I loved St. Nick's day, and we've continued the tradition with the CRjrs (minus the stick, but with the addition of notes from St. Nick, suggesting "areas for improvement" over the coming year). This year the elder CRjr said to us, "How does St. Nick keep getting that bag on the steps without us ever hearing or seeing him? Does he hide under the hedge?" We laughed and gave thanks for the eldest, who is adorable and also extremely gullible, and we also laughed and gave thanks for our youngest CRjr, who has started to watch us very closely around St. Nick/Santa times and who we think is going to figure out the whole game before his older brother does.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

SPEAKING OF GIFTS! Have you visited the fantastic period drama site Willow and Thatch lately? If not, head over there. They are doing their annual holiday giveaway, and they are offering a copy of my book, Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can't Stop Watching, as one of the prizes (along with some awesome British telly mugs, all of which I want). Entering the contest for any of the prizes is very easy, please do go check it out!!

Thanks for entering and good luck--I hope St. Nick brings you one of the prizes!


Buying books as presents this holiday season?

I am very, very excited about a new development here at Citizen Reader even though, yes, it is a mercenary development.

I am now a Bookshop.org affiliate, meaning that if you want to buy books from Bookshop.org (and you should--they are NOT Amazon, which is my favorite thing about them), if you buy them through my affiliate link, I will get a percentage of the sale (as will independent bookstores--that's one of the things that makes Bookshop.org so great*).

I haven't made any yet, but Bookshop.org also lets me organize booklists that you can shop from if you're looking for reading ideas, and that I've got to admit that my geeky book soul is very excited about compiling some new booklists there.

So, just in case you are buying any books for anyone (or yourself!) this holiday season, might I humbly request you visit here first and click on the link over in the right sidebar? If you click that, you'll go to Bookshop.org, but you will also see the name "Citizen Reader" at the upper left. That means I will get a percentage of any books you buy while you see my name there.

Thank you so much for considering doing that. And do let me know what books you're thinking of getting for people this year, I love talking books as gifts.

*FULL DISCLOSURE: I enjoy Bookshop.org and have been shopping there for my books for a year now. I have to admit, you will pay more there than you will pay at Amazon. It's true. And I know every little bit counts, and little bits can add up to big bits, so I wanted to be honest with you about that.


American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman.

There's a lot to like about Farah Stockman's book American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears.

(Okay, except the subject matter. The loss of good-paying blue-collar jobs, and the difficult lives of the people who lose such jobs, is not a fun one. I admit it.)

American madeStockman followed three workers over the course of several years, in Indiana. One was a white woman named Shannon, one was a black man named Wally, and one was a white man named John. She interviewed and got to know them and learned about their work at the Rexnord plant (a plant that made industrial and ball bearings).

Stockman first began researching the plant and its workers in 2017, and decided to focus on the three workers to show not only what happens to people when they lose their jobs, but what those jobs meant to them during their whole lives:

"The more time I spent with Shannon, Wally, and John, the better I understood what the job at the bearing plant had meant to them. It had rescued Shannon from an abusive man, thrown Wally a lifeline out of a dangerous world, and handed John a chance to regain what he'd lost. The machines there might have been old and cranky. The floors might have been coated in grime. The roof might have leaked brown water when it rained. But for the lucky few who'd managed to get jobs there, it had been a place of identity, belonging, and redemption." (p. 14.)

It's a good book, but for me, if you're going to read only one of these types of books (American economy vs. American workers), then that book has to be Brian Alexander's Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town. BUT...there is a place for this book too. It's heavier on the human stories, and definitely lighter on the complex financial shenanigans that go on in American business, although there's some of that also.

Where I got a little annoyed was in the middle, when Stockman admits, basically, that she's a college-educated person who never dreamed globalization could be bad for anyone. Maybe I've read too many of these types of books, but I'm like, really? I'm college-educated and it never occurred to me that globalization would be GOOD for anyone. What must it be like to believe what the economic "experts" tell you? Well, here's how Stockman explains it:

"Then I went to Indiana and started interviewing steelworkers. After I heard Tim the machinist describe NAFTA as a 'sellout job' down at the union hall, I drove back to my hotel room and sat down at my computer, certain that I'd quickly find evidence to prove him wrong.

Every economist I had ever interviewed on the subject of free trade had assured me that it was a boon for the country. Sure, a few people would lose their jobs, they'd said. But on the whole, the nation would be better off. That's what I'd learned in college: if every country specializes in what it's good at--its comparative advantage--things will be made more efficiently, more wealth will be created, and everyone will win. In that narrative, the steelworkers were the unlucky few whose jobs had been sacrificed for the greater good." (p. 186.)

And she goes on like that for a while. It's deeply painful to read. How could someone so smart be so clueless? At least at some point she gets around to saying this:

"There was something deeply disturbing about the way that free trade was being championed by people whose own jobs were not on the line. The more I probed, the more I began to see what the steelworkers saw when they heard fancy people on the news talk about the future of the U.S. economy. 'Our comparative advantage is our knowledge and capital,' declared the men with the money and the college degrees.'" (p. 192.)

Well, no shit, Sherlock. During this entire chapter, I remembered reading Jessa Crispin's book Why I Am Not a Feminist, and how in that book she stated she really just wanted men to figure out their own shit without women having to teach them. That's how I felt here. Come on, "educated" people--figure out your own shit and catch up with the rest of us in the real world, would you?

But overall, I still give the book points for its overall readability and Stockman's obvious time investment in getting to know the people she was writing about.


Happy Anniversary, Knapp Commission Hearings.

On October 18, 1971, hearings began before the Knapp Commission in New York City.

What were the Knapp Commission hearings, you might ask? I'm so glad you did! I just published a whole article about them at The Progressive.

They wishedBasically, the Knapp Commission was formed in 1970 after police officers Frank Serpico and David Durk tried for years to get anybody in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to pay attention to the fact that the majority of its police officers were accepting pay-offs to look the other way on gambling, prostitution, theft, and a bunch of other crimes. The Commission helped bring national attention to the massive problem of police corruption. It focused specifically on the NYPD, but if you read its report, you'll find that a lot of what it suggests as problems and possible solutions would still hold up and provide helpful guidelines for any institution that wants to be less corrupt.

Assuming, that is, any of our remaining American institutions have any interest in not being corrupt.

There's a lot of good nonfiction out there to read about this event and time in history: consider starting with Peter Maas's bestseller Serpico (which, nearly fifty years after it was first published, is still a spectacular read). If you're interested in what all goes on when a "commission" and "hearings" are formed to investigate problems, you might also want to read Michael Armstrong's history: They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption. It's a very personal history; Armstrong served as the lead counsel during the Commission hearings.


Must-see Documentary: "United States vs. Reality Winner"

If you know me at all, you know that, in a perfect world, I'd spend the vast majority of my time reading nonfiction.

But did you also know that I used to be a film and TV major (yes, such a thing exists, even though my mother refused to believe it)? And the only thing I like to do to break up my reading time is to watch TV or movies?

Well, now you know.

In recent years, I've also found that documentaries can really give me a greater understanding of some really complex issues. (I'm looking at you, "An Unreasonable Man" documentary, about Ralph Nader.)

This is all a long-winded introduction to the point I'd like to make: If you'd like to see a great movie this week, and you're still not going into movie theaters, please do consider buying a ticket to the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and Symposium. Specifically: Watch Sonia Kennebeck's film "United States vs. Reality Winner." If you've heard that name before but have never really understood the facts of Reality Winner's whistleblowing and how she was actually sent to jail for several years for revealing one classified document (that referred to an "open secret" that everyone in national security and journalism circles was talking about anyway)...this is the 90-minute film that will explain the entire complicated situation to you.

I've seen the movie and wish I could see it again and listen to the panel afterward, but I'm running out of time to get stuff done this week and it's only Wednesday. Do you want to see it? I'll gift a ticket to the first person to email me at sarah.cords@gmail.com.


Me and My People: The Book People, That Is.

I really struggle with having any kind of group identity.

I kind of want to be part of a community, and I want to contribute something to the greater good, but I am not physiologically set up for it. The minute I set foot in any institution, be it school, a government building, church, anything others might "belong" to--my skin just crawls. I took the eldest CRjr to look over his new middle school on Back to School Day this year and got one look at the cinder block, the fluorescent lighting, and the institutional flooring, and all I could think was LET ME OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW. It's distracting.*

But there is one group of people with whom I think I will always identify, and that is the Book People. Not just readers, mind you. I love readers too. But mostly I love the Book People. Like Shaun Bythell. Bythell, author of the superlative diaries The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller, has a new(ish) book out called The Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops.

It's not as good as his first two books, because, let's face it, those books were fabulous and it's hard to do that every year. It was still a very funny and very enjoyable read and just reading the writing of someone else who handles actual physical books and loves them was very comforting to me.

If you can't tell, I'm a bit frapped these days, so I've also been treating myself to some Helene Hanff re-reading. Every couple of years or so I get all her books from the library (I own several of them but they're out on loan to other readers, or I just keep giving them away because everyone must read Helene Hanff RIGHT NOW) and read through them again and they never fail to make me happy. I just re-read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (her follow-up to her classice 84, Charing Cross Road) and Letter from New York, and I'll be re-reading Q's Legacy this weekend. Helene loved books and loved writing and she died having never made enough money but wow, I think while she lived, Helene lived the perfect bookish life I would like to live.

Speaking of books as physical objects, the library copy of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the exact same book I took to the hospital with me when I had the youngest CRjr. (I know it's the same copy because it's very distinctive and its Dewey Decimal number is handwritten on the spine.) Yup, that's what I packed in my hospital bag for when I had a baby: Fiber One bars, stool softener, and the complete works of Helene Hanff.** I remember very clearly sitting in my hospital room, blissfully eating a tuna sandwich I hadn't made off dishes I wouldn't have to wash, looking at my beautifully sleeping new baby, and reading Helene Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. It is one of my most sacred memories.

People who love books, you are the only community I have left. Thank you.

*I was happy last Monday night to see the Packers win against the 49ers, and thought, hey, I still periodically care about the Packers, there's a little bit of group identity, isn't that nice.

**I didn't even bother packing my own nightgown. Screw it. I wore their ratty hospital gowns for three days so I wouldn't have to wash my own nightgown when I got home. Hospitals gross me out, so any clothes I wear into them I usually just want to burn afterwards.


Discretionary Spending, CR-style.

Disclaimer: I have probably never done enough charitable giving.*

Disclaimer Explainer: This is largely for two reasons: 1. We don't have a lot of spare cash. Mr. CR and I are united in our desire to cover our own bills and to help the CRjrs cover theirs, and that pretty much takes what we earn. 2. When we go out to eat or do anything a service worker helps us with, I am such a ridiculously good tipper (like Mr. CR used to see what I was giving and ask things like, do you know what percentage that is? Yes, I do, that's the idea.) that for a long time I viewed that as part of my annual charitable giving.

I am also addicted to sending fruit and treat baskets to people who might need a bit of a boost. In short, my charitable giving is a lot like the rest of my personality: I favor individuals over the organization. (And I am too dumb to try and maximize any charitable giving tax deductions.) I laugh when my alma mater sends me letters asking for money. (Pro tip, UW-Madison: Don't bother asking people who majored in journalism and library science for money...WE DON'T HAVE ANY.) Ditto with my church, although I will give money and goods to religious organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Just recently my church hit up its members for $3 million to add some sort of fancy gathering space on to its church, and I proudly marked the "I do not plan to donate at this time" on my form. If they had asked me to kick in to put money toward their workers' salaries and health insurance premiums, on the other hand, I would have done that. 

This gets around to nonfiction, I promise. Periodically I email with my favorite nonfiction author, Stacy Horn, and I know that she has told me in the past that the passing of the Affordable Care Act enabled her to afford health insurance for the first time. I was appalled to hear that. (I wasn't surprised, having been self-employed for the majority of my life, but I was still appalled.) Then this year I interviewed another great author, Brian Alexander, with the hopes of maybe writing some kind of article about how nonfiction authors work. And he also told me he went without health insurance for his entire working life until the Affordable Care Act passed.**

Something about hearing this from two of the most talented and hard-working nonfiction authors I've ever read really, REALLY bothered me. I mean, these are people at the top of the "working nonfiction author" heap. Horn has published numerous well-reviewed and popular titles, and Alexander has done the same, while also working as a writer for The Atlantic and other extremely-hard-to-get-into publications. If these people at the top of their writing field can barely afford health insurance, even with legislation designed to make it easier to get, well, holy shit. It is hard to make a living writing.

This led me to rethink my own spending habits. Yes, I should give some more money to worthy causes. And you know what's worthy to me? Authors. People who write books. People who do good journalism that contributes to my understanding of the world.

I'm still going to tip well. But I have also started buying more books (from bookshop.org--fuck you, Amazon) either to read and to keep, or to read and pass along. I am also starting to subscribe to more magazines. Kids, the print word is dying. People like Horn and Alexander, who are willing to spend years researching and fact-checking their actual books, are struggling with poor sales. THIS IS NOT RIGHT.

So this is my ask for you for this holiday season and beyond: Turn off the Internet. Influencers don't need your cash and all that time you spend on Twitter (and Jesus it's addicting, I'm on it more just lately and it takes time) is taking away from the time you read actual books. Buy a new book for yourself. Buy new books for friends. Subscribe to magazines for any young nieces or nephews or friends you might have, or subscribe to some for yourself (just recently I have subscribed to both the Threepenny Review and Orion magazine and I have been pleasantly surprised with how exciting it is to get them and how reassuring it is to read quality writing after reading a lot of so-so writing on the Internet). When possible, shop through bookshop.org or go directly to the author's website if they sell their own books. Last week I bought a book of essays from Michael Perry's site, and it arrived signed and has been a wonderfully calming read.

Need suggestions for any readers you love? Comment or shoot me an email (see "Contact," above) and I'll talk through some gift options with you based on what sort of reader you're shopping for. Also, I've updated the "Favorite Authors" list over at the right--buying books from any of those authors will be money well spent.

None of the world makes sense to me anymore, except actual physical books. If I can help it they won't completely disappear on my watch. Join me in this quest, won't you?***

*My original title for this post was "Charitable Giving." I changed it, because buying books for myself and friends is not really giving to charity, and my support for great authors is not done out of charity, but rather because they provide a great product for the money. I didn't mean to be insulting. It's just that me and Mr. CR tend to be very cheap, so I tend to look on any "fun" spending we do as money I'm spending as much to help the seller as to help myself. How cheap are we? Here's a little story: Once Mr. CR looked at me and said, "Are you not wearing a bra?" And I said, "Not right now, it's in the wash." He suggested I treat myself and buy that second bra someday. I'll get around to it one of these days.

**Brian Alexander dedicated his new book The Hospital to his brother, who kept putting off going to the doctor until he could get on Medicare and get covered. And do you know what happened to his brother? He died of a heart attack months before he got on Medicare. And you're telling me we live in a civilized country? What the actual fuck is going on.

***Also please consider tipping your service providers--waitstaff, Uber drivers, food delivery drivers, anyone who works in the "gig economy"--very, very well. Thank you.


The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown

So, lately I can't sleep.

Either I can't get to sleep, or I can't stay asleep, or I wake up early and can't get back to sleep. It annoys me no end, particularly as we are heading into fall and winter sickness season and the CRjrs are back in their regular schools (Germ Elementary and Germ Middle School, yup, they're in two different schools so basically when they come home it's like we're living with all the germs of the roughly 1500 other kids they attend school with) and I would like to get sufficient sleep. But it is what it is.

The good handAll summer I would just lie in bed, not sleeping, and stew about not sleeping. Now I am learning to just get up and go read something. It doesn't help me fall back asleep, but it also doesn't mean all those hours are wasted.

So a book I spent a lot of time with at 2 a.m. last week was Michael Patrick F. Smith's memoir The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. Perhaps all books are surreal when you read them from two a.m. to four a.m., but this one was a particularly unsettling read.

When he was in his thirties, actor and stage worker and playwright Smith decided he wanted to take on a North Dakota oil fracking boom town, and see if he could make some money working an oil field job. So he headed out to Williston, North Dakota, where he spent nearly a year trying to become a "good hand"--a skilled laborer in the oil fields.

Let me just tell you right now, I don't know how people live and work in oil boom towns. I mean, I do, because I've now read Smith's book on the subject. But I don't know how (mostly) men move to North Dakota, live in close quarters with one another in tiny apartments and squalid houses (because there's not enough housing for all the men trying to find jobs), and then work ten to twelve hour days in North Dakota weather while moving around huge and dangerous machinery.

Smith is very good at describing his surroundings; it's a vivid book:

"At lunchtime, I sat in the back of the work van and ate cold Chunky soup out of the can. Bobby Lee sat with the driver's seat kicked way back, his boots up on the dash. He wore a Resistol brand Diamond Horseshoe cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. At one point the hat had been the color of pearl, but it was beat to shit, dirty, greasy, and floppy--incongruent with his studied look. 'Now you know why gas is so expensive,' Bobby Lee said.

I stared out the window of the van. The work site was cluttered with tractor trailers, pickup trucks, forklifts, a hydraulic crane, a lattice boom crane, rows of stacked piping, giant metal structures, and crews of men." (p. 3.)

The bad part about reading at 2 a.m. is that I wasn't with it enough to stick bookmarks in all the parts of this book that I wanted to remember. So I don't have as many quotes as usual to back this up, but you should read this book. You won't look at oil or gas or filling up your car or using any sort of plastic in quite the same way ever again, when you read how unbelievably hard it is to extract petroleum from the earth, and how many people break their bodies and their mental states and their families (since a lot of them move away from families to go where the oil work is) to produce it for you.

But it's not just about work. It's a very male book, and there are so many stories of men interacting with one another violently (even their affection seems to be shown violently) that it's hard, at least for this female, to read. Smith also tells a family tale about his large family and their abusive father (and also he and his siblings' unbelievable grace in dealing with that father), and discusses what he calls the "father wound"--how so many men he worked with had abusive or uncaring fathers whose approval they were still unconsciously seeking.

It's a great book, even (particularly?) when it's unsettling.


Changes Coming to Citizen Reader.

Hello, dearest Citizen Reader readers and lovers of all things nonfiction and books!

It's been a summer of change after a year of change and I'm looking forward to some more change this fall and winter. I hope that change does not involve the CRjrs picking up Covid now that they're back in school, and perhaps developing MIS-C or Long Covid, and I'm sure all of you are hoping for a similarly healthy winter.

What are the changes?

Well, for the first time in about eighteen months I am not with the CRjrs every single moment. I miss homeschooling them and I'm in the middle of quite the midlife crisis (which I thought I had passed through years ago; evidently we're not done yet), so I'm a bit discombobulated right now. But I'm trying to get over it. And here is the plan:

  1. Take care of my family, including my Mom, who is struggling (please note: getting old is not for weenies), and
  2. Make some money without leaving this house.

To some extent, this has always been the plan. But it is time for me to take both items up a notch, because I'm kind of an anxiety-ridden mess and not terribly good at number 1, and also if number 2 continues to fail I am going to have to leave this house and work some kind of hourly job. And I am terrible at leaving this house.

I've been doing all sorts of writing online this year, with varying degrees of success. For a while I played around at Medium, trying to make a little supplementary income, but I'm done with that now. I'm still trying to write some journalism, and I'm exploring writing "content" for cash, and I have a few other projects in mind. I want to write. So it's time to get serious.

On that note, I'm going to try and make Citizen Reader my online home for book reviews, as well as for news about writing projects I'm doing. This means I need to fix it up a bit and clean up the sidebar links and do some other things that I haven't done for years now.

This has already gone on too long. Mainly what I wanted to share with you today is that I am exploring ways to let readers sign up for email updates that will send when I publish a new post. I think I've found a way--see the "Get New Posts by Email" box over at the right side? If you'd like to get an email when I publish new posts, please sign up there.

Also, if anyone has already signed up using the "Subscribe" button that used to be in the top navigation bar, could I trouble you to subscribe again using the box over at the right side? I'm so sorry to have to ask that. I've been trying out a couple of email-sending services, and I'm going to go with Follow.It (rather than with another service that I had tried a couple of weeks ago). Thank you for your patience with me while I work on this site.