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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
All 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.
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.
Hey, everyone, and welcome to the 2021 edition of my favorite holiday of the year: Labor Day! Now, avoid your family, skip church, don't go to work, and do all the other things that make this holiday so great.
As you may or may not know, I love books about work, and each Labor Day I round up all the job- and work-related nonfiction I read in the prior year. I'm off to look through the year and see what I've got...and here it is:
And that, friends, represents a lot of the books I wrote about here in general. Work is one of my favorite subjects to read about, perhaps because reading about work is so, SO much easier than doing work.
The books above were all really good reads; the links go to my reviews. I would particularly recommend Fulfillment, because if you need the incentive to break yourself of your Amazon habit, that might help. Amazon is killing us. It really is. And it's no good for the climate, either. Which is also killing us.
In other Labor Day news I read a stupendous book last week titled The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. I read large chunks of it at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning (I can't sleep anymore, thanks to perimenopause, and might I just ask why every stage of womanhood has to be horrifying?), which is a very surreal time to reading, and it was a very surreal book: fascinating and sad and crazy and thoughtful. More on that later. It deserves its own review.
If you knew how much of my mental energy in the past few years has gone to thinking about the collected works of David Simon (including his fantastic True Crime classic Homicide, his more personal and sociological book The Corner, and of course, the TV show he wrote and produced, The Wire) you would probably be a little appalled.
I can't help it. When somebody knows their business--and I think David Simon knows his business of reporting by going to where people are and hanging out with them--I am powerless to look away. So a few weekends ago I plowed through the oral history All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, by Jonathan Abrams.
It's a great book, and if you're interested in how great TV is made, it's a great primer in that too. Actually, if you know any youthful aspiring drama club members or actors, this would be a very handy book about the actors' (and writers', actually) craft to give to them.
Abrams went and interviewed a lot of the star's main actors, writers, directors, and crew members, so the result truly gives you a picture of the TV production world (as well as of Baltimore, where the series really was filmed). Although I enjoyed the whole thing--and drove Mr. CR nuts by reading pieces of it to him all weekend long--I really enjoyed the interviews with David Simon and Ed Burns, who were the creators and main writers of the show. I also enjoyed the interviews with George Pelecanos, a crime writer who also wrote many of the show's most infamous episodes.
So, consider this quote from David Simon, in which he is talking about a discussion he had with one of the actors, about the possibility of reforming systems:
"I had told him it was much harder to reform a system. The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty." (p. 68.)
This came up at least once as he was explaining to the actors that the show itself was going to be a cruel world, where nothing was going to get fixed systemically. "I was going to promote all the wrong people, and the same policies were going to go on...that's how the show ended." (p. 65.)
And that's why The Wire is so hard to watch, and why it's so great.
I think I was reading this one too fast to even stick bookmarks in at every part I wanted, but I'm going to read it again someday. On this first pass it was just totally a much-needed and much-appreciated pleasure read.
Last week my laptop crashed, so I took it to be fixed, as I am never in the mood to buy a new laptop.
So my laptop spent a week at the laptop spa, and I spent a week being forced to check my email and read the Interwebs on my phone, which never stopped being annoying and which led me to wonder, yet again, how everyone can stand to be on their phones every minute. I don't do any real complex reading online, but trying to follow the thread of any story I was trying to read while only being shown two lines of text at a time on my teeny phone screen was infuriating. I know why all citizens have lost the ability to see the big picture--and that is primarily because we all spend our days looking at extremely tiny pictures.
On the bright side, the week was a nice time to wean myself off my continuing and destructive recreational YouTube habit, which is cheap and doesn't require me to get a Narcan shot, but which wastes literally ALL OF MY TIME. I spent the week reading even more than usual, and it was glorious.
One of the stupendous books I read was Debora Harding's true crime memoir, Dancing With the Octopus. It is the story of Harding's abduction and sexual assault when she was a very young teenager. To make the story even harder to read, Harding also slowly reveals the abuse that was present throughout her life in her own home. Although she had a close and loving relationship with her father, and good relationships with her three sisters, her mother was, if not stereotypically physically abusive, psychologically cruel and neglectful. Although she could confide some of her and her siblings' problems with their mother to her father, he often worked away from home and usually refused to believe things were as bad as they said.
This, then, is a memoir of family trauma and crime trauma, so it's not easy to read.
But you really HAVE to read it, because you have to meet Debora Harding.
This is a woman who has survived several types of abuse and trauma, which she did for a long time by mostly not admitting to herself (or others, never to others), how much she was affected by everything that happened to her. Her focus throughout the early part of the book is how she started experiencing symptoms that she did not understand, and which she slowly comes to understand are her body's delayed response to her childhood and the kidnapping. I am a huge believer that our bodies hold all our secrets and can be a mystery even to our brains, so to watch her work through the process of understanding her own physical being was powerful.
This is also a powerful story about restorative justice and what happened when Harding eventually met the man who kidnapped and assaulted her. It is a story of trying to come to terms with all of her own family members, at a time when she was trying to raise her own children.
I'm blabbing on pointlessly here. It's a beautiful book and you need to read it.
Which I think is rich, coming from Mr. CR, who is my partner in our natural (if not ideal) habit of always imagining the worst-case scenario. He's way more bleak than me, but he hides it better, mostly because he's very, very quiet.
I know. You totally want to hang out in our cheerful, laugh-a-minute home, don't you?*
Anyway. He was right. This book was super depressing.
It's been on that end table for a week now, because that's where I set it when I finished reading it, had a little cry, and then moved on to whatever homeschooling, caregiving, or freelancing stuff I had going on that day. I've been trying for a week to get myself to post about this book, because I actually do think you should read it.
Pein set out to live and succeed in Silicon Valley, figuring there's tons of start-up cash available there for whatever kind of start-up he might be able to dream up (and then kind of vaguely start, and then cash out of). In other words, and as the jacket copy proclaims: "To truly understand the delirious reality of the tech entrepreneurs, he knew he would have to inhabit that perspective--he would have to become an entrepreneur himself."
And so he does. The first hurdle, of course, is finding a place to live on a journalist's budget in Silicon Valley. It's pretty much impossible, and it involves either living with many, many other tech workers in tiny, tiny, tiny (and shared) living spaces, or actually in a tent that somebody is renting out as an Airbnb. The second hurdle is dreaming up an idea for a start-up, and then getting that idea in front of investors. Third? Try not to lose your soul.
I think I left this book sitting on the end table because I knew it was going to be hard for me to do it justice in a review. It's sort of a strange concept, but there's no doubt that Pein does a very good job of dropping the reader right in the middle of Silicon Valley culture, and WOW, I find that a hugely scary place to be.
The most disturbing story (for me, anyway) in a book of disturbing stories came at the end, when the author describes his and his spouse's life in India, where they lived in 2016. At that time, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, implemented a policy of "demonetization," because he wanted people to move to smartphone apps for all of their transactions. So Modi's government announced that two denominations of Indian currency--two denominations that comprised nearly 90% of all cash in circulation--wouldn't be considered legal tender and had to be turned in for larger bills.
That sounds fairly benign until you learn that the Indian government partnered with a tech company on a start-up app called Paytm, that was in no way able to handle the massive amounts of Indian citizens' daily transactions. It was a disaster:
"In the cities, many sick and elderly people died in the long ATM lines--in at least one case, a doctor refused treatment after demanding cash, which was, of course, what everyone was waiting in line for. It was easy to spend an entire day traipsing from one machine to another, only to find them all out of cash. But these problems were largely invisible to India's wealthy and middle class, who hired servants to do their shopping and thus escaped the battle of will and endurance that suddenly characterized routine commerce." (p. 290.)
Does that last bit sound like anywhere you know? Maybe everywhere, just recently when wealthier people paid desperate people (not enough) to go out and do their shopping or driving or other basic commerce for them? I thought, huh, I'm surprised no politician here has demanded that we all turn in cash and use only a Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos approved/created payment app.
Then I remembered, that just hasn't happened YET.
I know, it's depressing. Read this book anyway.
*Actually, we all do laugh a lot. First off, the CRjrs are hilarious little animals, and also, if you have an absurdist sense of humor, there is a LOT of material in our current world at which to laugh.
Over this past weekend, being completely out of Agatha Raisins, I turned my attention back to nonfiction.
On Friday night I watched a documentary titled We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which was about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Bonus points: I learned that Assange is actually an Australian. Why this struck me as so strange I have no idea; but for some reason I had the idea he was from a Nordic country.
It was a good movie; WikiLeaks is a fascinating concept and Julian Assange, whatever else you think about him, is one strange and unique dude. The hardest part of the documentary was learning more about Chelsea Manning, which, I'm not going to lie, was mainly heartbreaking. She mainly tried to let people know how many civilians our drones were killing in Iraq, and her life has been never-ending torture ever since.
Then, on Saturday, for something a little different, I turned to the book A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, about four nuns who were murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Another light read. But wow, is it stupendous. A compelling biography of Maura Clarke, one of the women who was murdered, as well as a well-told history. It's by a journalist named Eileen Markey, and I'm not kidding: it's a compellingly told story in which nearly every single paragraph is footnoted and referenced. I don't even know how she did that. It is an amazing, and inspiring, book, and I do not throw those words around lightly.
On Sunday I treated myself to a refresher course on the My Lai massacre and one of the whistleblowers who revealed it, Ron Ridenhour, in order to write a story on Medium called "The Soldiers Who Told the Truth."
It wouldn't have been comfort reading for everyone, I know, but reading so many difficult and heartbreaking stories made me more determined to find the good in each story. Learning about Chelsea Manning makes me want to cry for Chelsea Manning, but WOW. Talk about a person who tried to tell other people about a massacre that was making her sick, and how she paid for it. Such bravery. Ditto with Sister Maura Clarke and so many others who tried to rebel against corrupt (and American-backed, ye Gods) regimes in Central America, in Nicaragua and El Salvador specifically. Such bravery. And of course any of the soldiers in Vietnam who chose to defy their superiors' orders and NOT kill civilians in My Lai, as well as Ron Ridenhour, who listened to soldiers' stories and wrote thirty letters to various politicians and top Army officers until somebody paid attention. Such bravery.
People both freak me out and amaze me. For some reason I like books and stories that show me that whole continuum. And nothing gives me that like nonfiction does.
Yes, I know you probably thought I was talking about something else, but let's face it, unless it pertains to whistleblowers, I don't follow political news at all anymore. I don't want to get into a whole big thing about it, but I might just caution against thinking rural voters are a completely different species than anyone else. For a truly eye-opening look at the cultures, economics, and politics of living in rural America, I would highly suggest reading Paula vW. Dáil's excellent Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest.
But: that is all neither here nor there.
This week I'd like to tell you about this SUPER book I've been reading all summer long: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. It was first published in 1988, and I'm reading the twentieth anniversary edition from 2008, but I'm telling you, it reads like it was written this morning. Anyone who is feeling grossed out by our world of corporations and groupthink and organizational behavior (three things which all gross me out A LOT), is going to find a lot to read about in this book.
Ostensibly the book is about the "occupational ethics of corporate managers," and can also be considered a "sociology of the peculiar form of bureaucracy dominant in American business."
Now that makes it sound dry as hell, and I'm not going to lie to you, this is an academic book. It requires slow reading and attention, which is why I can only get through about 1.5 pages every day, in between yelling at the CRjrs to stop hitting each other so hard (I've given up on telling them to stop hitting each other full-stop). But if you put in the work, I think you'll be rewarded, because here is a quote from an actual manager that REALLY tells you what the book is about:
"As a former vice-president of a large firm says: 'What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'" (p. 4.)
And if that doesn't explain a lot of what is going wrong in the world today, I don't know what does.
I used to enjoy living in Wisconsin. But it's not been the most peaceful of places just now.
I don't have any answers or any ideas and I'm actually kind of tired of listening to people who think they do. So, it's back to avoidance of life through reading, and friends, I EXCEL at that sport.
So what I have been reading?
First up: the Agatha Raisin cozy mystery series by M.C. Beaton. I was never really into Beaton before now, but then I watched the fantastic series Agatha Raisin, starring the always-underappreciated Ashley Jensen.
The mysteries are terrible, beyond simplistic, but I LOVE Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin, and it turns out in the books that I just love Agatha Raisin for all her middle-aged prickliness (which hides a soft gooey center of kindness and insecurity). I'm in the early part of the series still, before Beaton started to phone them in (I've read a few later entries and yes, they get a little more slapdash), so that's good stuff.
I also polished off a few illustrated biographies/histories by an author named Ted Rall, who I really enjoy. Previously I have read his biography of Edward Snowden*, titled simply Snowden, but this month I tackled Francis: The People's Pope and Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which was a fantastic American history book no matter what your politics.** I would highly recommend Ted Rall, and, as a special treat for these troubled, disjointed times, they are very quick reads.
Last but not least, for most of the summer I dipped into and out of Paula vW. Dáil's superlative Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest, which, no kidding, is a meaty buy for your library or for you at $29.95. If you are at all confused about what it's like living in rural America today, this book will lay it out for you with research, personal interviews, and economic numbers that will make a lot of things very, very clear. I'm from the rural Midwest, and I loved this book for the many ways it was right on, and for the many ways it pointed out how rural people who know things are continually screwed in our country, and also the pros and cons of their rural communities (and how they live within them). It's not easy to find a scholarly book that isn't condescending, but this one isn't, and I was endlessly grateful for that. I won't lie--it can get dry--but wow, I sure kept reading it. I would highly recommend it.
So. What have YOU been reading?
*The only piece of news I've seen for months that really made me happy was this one: Edward Snowden has been given permanent residency in Russia. I'm sad because this means I'll probably never be able to vote for him for president, but I can also stop worrying every three years (that was how often they had been renewing his visa or whatever he had for staying there) that he'll be returned to this country and executed just for being a decent, thinking human being.
**Okay, Republicans probably won't like it, but I'm a Nothing (politically, socially, professionally) and I enjoyed it.
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).
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.
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.
As 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.
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.
When 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
*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.
"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.
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.
Which 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.
And you can only read about whistleblowers for so long before you bump up against another person who loomed large in twentieth-century culture and history: Ralph Nader.
I knew his name, of course, but I really knew very little about Ralph Nader before I tracked down a 1972 publication of his: Whistle Blowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility. It's actually a compilation of presentations given at a conference Nader sponsored in January of 1971. It's a fascinating read in its own right, and it proves that there was a lot of corruption and bullshit going on in the 1960s and 1970s, which should prove once again that there is no such thing as "the good old days." The more you read about whistleblowers and corruption, as a matter of fact, the more you see the human race's overwhelming contributions to the world: corrupt institutions and bureaucracies that may or may not be corrupt but which are still bumbling (at best) and evil (at worst). Well done, humans!
But I digress. I wanted to learn more about Ralph Nader. So, because I am lazy and because my clunky right eye continues to make it difficult for me to churn through books the way I used to, I went and watched the documentary An Unreasonable Man:
You must go watch this movie.
And then, because I was still fascinated, I went and got the book Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. And it's really, really interesting. Regardless of how you feel about Nader (particularly his contentious run for president in 2000), it's a good biography. The author himself admits that he had no shortage of material: most people, particularly those who have worked with him, have strong opinions about Nader. Here's how the author describes his research work for this book:
"My job became easy. All I really had to do was say, 'I understand you know Ralph Nader' and then sit back and listen. What I gleaned most of all from these interviews was that in speaking so expansively, so candidly, so fervently, people were working to deliver up whole the complex story of someone who had played an incredibly important role in their lives and in the country's history. They wanted to do justice to a true original." (p. xv.)
Just like it was pleasurable to spend time with Edward Snowden, I found it very pleasurable to learn more about this unique (and complex, and more than just a little difficult) person.
Well, the world is having quite a time of it, isn't it?
This is emphatically not a current events blog, but it occurs to me that I would like to be helpful in some way. The other day I read that many stores in our area had their windows broken, and merchandise stolen, except for a small used bookstore. The story about that stated that the bookstore had their windows smashed, but no inventory was taken. I emitted what can only be described as a "chuckle cry" (or "sob guffaw," whichever you prefer) at that news, because it was both so sad and yet so strangely funny. And then decided I only know a couple of things in this world fer sure. Here they are:
I want more people to read.
Bookstores are one of the few things on God's green Earth that I love unreservedly and I want to support them as long as they are still here to support.
So this is my ask for, and my pledge to, you. Here's the ask: Share this blog with as many friends as you can. (I've even got a snazzy new design that shows up a lot better on mobile devices! Lookit me, catching up with the 21st century!) And this is my pledge: my new small charitable mission in life is to send people books from independent bookstores.* The catch is that I get to choose the books, and they will mostly be nonfiction. The rules are simple: the first person each giveaway to send me an email at email@example.com will get the book.
This week's book? Geoffrey Canada's memoir Fist Stick KnifeGun, which I have read twice. Geoffrey Canada is super interesting. Who wants this book? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: if you don't hear back, you haven't won. I'll email the winner to get their address info and I promise I'll never use your email addresses for any marketing purposes or anything barfy like that.
Now. Thank you for sharing. Go read and take care of yourselves.
*Amazon can go fuck itself. I will be buying the books through bookshop.org.
Here's my stance on Election 2020: I will only vote for President if Edward Snowden is on the ballot.
That's awkward, considering that Snowden is living in exile in Russia and if he ever sets foot in America he'll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for treason, but hey, I figure, everyone who can is already working from home. Snowden could work from home in his Moscow apartment and be President of the U.S., surely, it's not like he doesn't know how to work tech.
As a fan of privacy, I am of course of the opinion that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower who tried to highlight illegal activities of the government and the NSA as they spied on American citizens and collected all of the data from their phones and devices (as opposed to a leaker who committed treason). Nothing I read or see about Snowden indicates to me that he is anything other than an intelligent, thinking person, who is perhaps less motivated by money than he is by other motivations. I say that because I don't actually know what motivates Edward Snowden, even after reading several books about (and now one by) him.
You know what motivates me, and I'm guessing, about 95% of most Americans, or whatever percentage of Americans who still have jobs that they are clinging to? HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. This is a constant drumbeat in my head. This is the drumbeat that would make it impossible for me to work as a freelancer if I didn't have a spouse who had HEALTH INSURANCE. This is the drumbeat that was in my head when I was a young kid, fresh off the farm, knowing I would have to go to college and get some sort of career that would provide HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.
You see how the all caps is distracting? It is. It's a never-ending fear-inducing back-of-mind-awareness anxiety that is always with me. Last fall, when Mr. CR had a fairly serious health crisis? Yeah, I shit bricks. Mainly because he's my buddy and I would miss him and I don't want to even think about what the CRjrs would do without him, but also because, there it was again, without Mr. CR and his job how in fuck would I get HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE?
You know who I think gets that? And what a problem it is? Edward Snowden, that's who. I just saw the interview (below) with him, and this is what he says, a whole 3 minutes into it:
"And the thing that I find grotesque about this situation is that now, the people who are being asked to sacrifice the most, are the people who are in the most precarious positions, who have the least to give."
He also says this: "Where are our resources? When our hospitals say they need ventilators, where is all this great technology that is being used to surveil everybody down to the tiniest toenail, when we need it to create things that actually save lives?"
Those two statements, friends, are two of the most sensible questions I've heard asked about the pandemic, or America, so far.
This post has a book point, I promise.
Recently I read Snowden's memoir, Permanent Record.* It was entirely strange, because I think Snowden is an entirely strange person. It's not a feel good, "get to know Snowden better personally", type memoir. It's a pretty straightforward recounting of his youth, his different school experiences, his work for the government, his procedure for whistleblowing, and what happened to him in Hong Kong (as well as to his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, in this country).
It was a fascinating read, in its own weird way, and I would highly recommend it. If nothing else, it felt like I was spending time in the company of Edward Snowden, and I enjoyed that. I think a lot about Snowden, and about whistleblowers in general, because I can't believe anyone actually blows the whistle on anything. Which brings us right back to HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. Personally, I can't believe anyone endangers their own access to health insurance and care, no matter what they're blowing the whistle on. And that is wrong. We already tell creative types and freelancers and everyone in the overrated ridiculous "Gig Economy" (just another way of letting our Corporate Overlords keep more of their own cash, after all) that their work is invalid because it is not linked to a corporation or an institution, and that they don't deserve to live because they have little access to affordable HEALTH INSURANCE. Now we also tell whistleblowers, basically (or our government does, when it prosecutes whistleblowers for various infractions) that yes, they should tell us what bad and illegal things are going on, but they should be prepared to lose their jobs.
Which also means, of course, that they lose their HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.
So why on earth would anyone tell the truth about all the stupid crap going on everywhere, at all times? Yeah, I don't know either.