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.
I am not sad because John Prine didn't lead a full life. I think he did.
I'm sad because John Prine occupied a special place in my heart and my memory, and because he wrote and sang beautiful music, and the world needs more of that, not less.
In July of 1995, I was young. I was in college, I felt good, it was the mid-90s and women were allowed to wear the grunge look and still be considered desirable women. Life was good. Of course, at the same time, it also wasn't. In July of 1995 I was beyond depressed. I thought I was majoring in the wrong thing in college (I was) and that nobody I had a crush on would ever date me (they would, but I couldn't know that then), and that I was fat (I wasn't) and a loser (the jury's still out) and I was in the wrong college at the wrong time and why didn't I feel better? About that time I had taken a light semester of courses, with an eye to dropping out, and was working full-time at a CD store (when such things still existed) for minimum wage, which was, at that time, something like $4.50 per hour. Actually I think I was better off than my co-workers; I got a quarter extra per hour for being a full-timer.
But the job had perks, no doubt about it. First of all was the world's most relaxed dress code, which has always been the most important consideration to me when taking a job. Secondly, I worked with nice (although crazy) people, and we all had different musical tastes, so in one eight-hour shift you went from punk to country to rap to whatever Americana I was into at the time, and beyond. You also sometimes got free concert tickets, and backstage passes. In July of 1995 I got free tickets and a backstage pass to meet John Prine at his show in town.
I had no idea who John Prine was. I went because the opening act was The Subdudes, and I loved The Subdudes. I also went because I had two free tickets, and this way I could ask my friend Joe to go along with me, because he was perpetually low on cash and was always up for free entertainment. I was also in love with Joe. Joe was emphatically not in love with me. It was frustrating to be in love with Joe, because I loved his laugh and for some reason he found me funny and when we were together we laughed all the time. If you can make me laugh, I'm basically in love with you. Didn't it work that way for guys, I wondered?
Over the next ten years or so I would learn, no, it doesn't work that way for guys. But that's the subject for a whole other book of maudlin essays.
Anyway. I loved Joe and still harbored sad desperate hopes that someday, when he was laughing at something hilarious I said, he would suddenly realize he actually was in love with me. So off we went to see the Subdudes and John Prine.
The Subdudes were great, and Joe totally enjoyed that part of the concert, which made me happy. We almost left before John Prine even played, but then I remembered, hey, I had a backstage pass, I kinda wanted to hear what he was about and go backstage afterwards. So we stayed. And here's what I learned: John Prine was the King of Awesome.
John Prine has a voice like nobody else, and although I'd never heard him before, and of course I don't remember the songs he played, I still remember how I felt at that concert. I even forgot about Joe sitting next to me. I sank into the music that I'd never heard before and I just totally, totally enjoyed the showmanship and skill of John Prine and his band. I loved every song. I remember feeling both totally awake and totally still in a way that I rarely am. If I am awake, I am moving. My mind is moving, my hands are moving, my feet are moving, something. Antsy is my primary state of being.
But for the entire time John Prine played I was still. I listened. The world was still while I listened. And then, when he was done playing, I dragged Joe backstage with me and I got to meet John Prine. Of course he had to say hello to a lot of other people who had backstage passes, and I don't remember that I even talked (I think I was still in a transcendent state where speech would have seemed superfluous). I do remember that he was completely gracious, and he was not exactly a big smiler, but he seemed very kind. He signed my backstage pass.
When I was young I had the habit of tucking ticket stubs and other ephemera into my CD booklets.* So, although I have not listened to it for a long time, I just went downstairs to the CD archives and found my lone John Prine CD. Tucked in the booklet is my ticket, and that backstage pass, and it says, "Thank you. John Prine."
I don't know where Joe ended up. I can still remember his laugh, and I laugh thinking about it, and I laugh thinking about Joe and knowing what I know now, and understanding why he didn't love me back and how he was right about that, no way in hell would that have ever worked. And I'm no longer young, and the world is upside down, and a great singer is dead.
But once, long ago, I took a chance and did something new, and even if it didn't substantively change my life, it gave me a lovely feeling and a memory and an appreciation for going to see something even when I didn't really know why I was going. Or, as Theodore Roethke would say: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go."
I tried to write this post all last week. But each time I sat down to do so, I just felt I wasn't bring sufficient energy to the task. It's February in Wisconsin, and because I have a phobia about driving in snow (it's time to just say it out loud, because that will make it go away, right?), a lot of my energy goes to worrying about winter weather. I'm not completely nuts--it's not just driving. Last week the little CRjr came home from school and reported "We had to go back in school after recess by a different door because someone slipped on the ice and hit their head on the slide and hurt himself really bad and they didn't want us walking by him," and that's just the sort of remark that keeps me nice and worried about playground safety for both CRjrs. Anxiety is exhausting.
Which is one of the reasons I really love TV. For me it functions as a low-cost coping mechanism and way to shut down my brain. I love good stories in written or TV form, and the TV series The Wire, based on David Simon's and Ed Burn's books The Corner and Homicide, is stupendously plotted and jammed with outstanding character acting performances.You've seen why I loved TheWire. So why did I love The Corner?
Well, for one thing, it's one of my favorite types of books. I love investigative and journalistic accounts of people whose lives are very different from mine. (Like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Have you read it yet?) David Simon calls this (in his Authors' Note) "stand-around-and-watch journalism." I love this, because I like to stand around and watch too, but don't often get the chance. Reading these types of books allows me to watch from the privacy of my own home. I also like these types of books because they are often long-term labors of love; Simon points out that they stood around in a west Baltimore neighborhood for more than a full year before even starting to write the book. Their main characters eventually became a fifteen-year-old named DeAndre McCullough, his parents Fran Boyd and Gary McCullough, a variety of drug runners, dealers, and touts with names like "Fat Curt," and a neighborhood resident and parent named Ella Thompson who works in the neighborhood rec center.
This is how the book starts:
"Fat Curt is on the corner.
He leans hard into his aluminum hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival. His fattened, needle-scarred hands will never again see the deep bottom of a trouser pocket; his forearms are swollen leather; his bloated legs mass up from the concrete. But then obese limbs converge on a withered torso: At the heart of the man, Fat Curt is fat no more." (p. 3.)
If that doesn't say a whole world in one paragraph, I don't know what does.
Most of the action in the book follows the drug trade, of course. But there is also a lot of information about family histories and relationships; love affairs gone wrong; Ella Thompson's (heartbreaking) continuing battle to help the kids in her rec center find something, anything, beyond drugs to do; the history of the city and community of Baltimore; and above all, the never-ending struggle to make money with one scam or another,* to score drugs, to find mere moments of release.
I am doing a terrible job of writing this review. I'm going to stop for now. Please: just consider reading this book. Or Homicide, which is another mind-blower. Or watch The Wire. Or maybe do all three, and then watch the documentary Charm City just for good measure.
*Consider the life of the drug addict who needs cash, as described on p. 193: "Every day you start with nothing, and every day you come up with what you need to survive. And day after goddamn day, you swallow the pain and self-loathing, go out into the street and get what has to be got. Who else but a dope fiend can go to sleep at night with not a dime to his name, with not a friend in the world, and actually think up a way, come morning, to acquire the day's first ten?"
I am awful at making money, really terrible at it, although I actually used to like the hustle and surprise of waitressing and selling vegetables, seeing how the day would go. But still: I know it is HARD to hustle money from nothing. My biggest piece of luck is that I am way too lazy to even think about becoming involved with drugs.
I am not a Republican or a Democrat, but one of my pet peeves is when people lament to me what an American hero Barack Obama was and how much better off we were when he was the president. In the future, when they do that, I am going to read them this paragraph from Mueller's book:
"After years of endless war and institutionalized financial fraud had destabilized America, Barack Obama took office promising change, yet proceeded, through both acquiescence and action, to normalize the abuses Bush had introduced as wartime exigencies, and add a few of his own. He confirmed the de facto role of Wall Street as the rule of the US economy, and war as America's default condition. He staunchly defended Bush's torturers, kidnappers and other war criminals from prosecution, or even from opprobrium. He endorsed extralegal drone assassinations as an appropriate policy of a nation of laws, and mass surveillance of innocent US citizens as the right and the duty of the US government. And throughout, he attacked, relentlessly and vindictively, the few national security insiders (and several journalists) who questioned his betrayals of the Constitution and the people." (p. 838, large print edition.)
Boom. That's what I'm going to say when I have to offer proof for why I believe Obama was a terrible person, and Bush was a terrible person, and Clinton was a terrible person, and the first Bush was a terrible person, and so on and so forth, back to, I don't know, maybe Abraham Lincoln.
Awesome book, if you want to read a book and cry every time you're done reading a chapter.*
*Or, as Mr. CR says, "Reading more depressing nonfiction, are we? Of course you are."
Okay, I think I'm ready to talk about watching The Wire.
The Wire, which is an HBO television drama that aired over five seasons, from 2002 to 2008, was created and largely written by David Simon. It is one of those shows you constantly hear about, often in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Simpsons and Breaking Bad as some of the best TV ever made (or at least those are the TV shows you hear about from all the male TV critics, of whom there are more than female TV critics). For that reason, and also because I have a severe British television addiction problem, I never got around to watching it. I knew I would get there eventually, but I wasn't in any hurry.
So what tripped the wire in the fall of 2019 and made me think, hey, it's time to watch The Wire? I don't know, really. Back in 2017 I read David Simon's nonfiction True Crime masterpiece Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and that knocked me over. It's a classic. And it briefly went through my mind then to watch The Wire, or even Homicide: Life on the Street(which was the TV show based on Simon's Homicide book). But again. Never got that far. What can I say? Freelance jobs needed to be done and CRjrs needed to be fed, taken to various enriching activities, and hosed down once in a while.
But last fall my littlest CRjr. went to school, meaning that I now had marginally more time during the day to work, and had a whole free hour of time (time I would have spent working in previous years) between 9 p.m., when the eldest goes to bed, and 10 p.m., when I go to bed. So Mr. CR and I, crazy kids that we are, decided to fill that hour with episodes of The Wire.
I don't think we're ever going to be quite the same.
Here's the deal. The Wire is about Baltimore. To say it is a show about cops and drug dealers misses so, SO much. Cops and drug dealers may be the majority of the characters, particularly in the show's first season, but The Wire, at its heart, is about Baltimore. It is about everything that is going wrong in Baltimore and has been going wrong in Baltimore for decades. But it's not even that narrow. The Wire explores so many characters and storylines and themes and tenets of basic human behavior that it's actually a show about America. But it's even bigger than that. The Wire is a show about people. The end. Everything is on showcase here: people you like, people you don't like, people being shitheads, people being pragmatic, people being sweethearts, people being weak, people starting out trying to do something good but ending up being shitheads, people being shitheads who in small moments try to do something good, people being hilarious, people being obnoxious, people being racist, people not being racist, people being really really dumb and people being really really smart. In its insistence on strong and complex characterization, The Wire is a lot like the very best of British TV: you never quite know what's going to happen. But then when it does, it makes total sense. And then, the next day when you're out living your life, you see someone doing something great or mean or stupid or hilarious, and you can think of a corresponding scene from The Wire that reminds you of what you're out in the world looking at.
If you can't tell, I loved this show a lot. I loved this show with the whole fiber of my introverted being that loves and needs television just a little bit more than the average well-adjusted extroverted person.
And then I went to Half Price Books and was lucky enough to find a copy of The Corner, also by David Simon. Then I read that while I watched The Wire and dear readers, then my mind was well and truly blown.
Thank you all for another wonderful year of reading with me. Let's go forth and find some new books to chat over in 2020. Have a peaceful season of whatever it is you celebrate and we'll see you on the other side of this decade, all right? And remember to keep your stick on the ice--we're all in this together.
Okay, so I feel like a soulless husk now that both my CRjrs are in school, but on the bright side, I now have more time to pursue freelance work, make a decade's worth of personal health appointments and catch up on home repairs, and also, let's face it, putter around the house.
This has had the effect of making the house even messier than usual. Here's what's on the kitchen table, because you never know what I'll feel like reading while I'm knocking back some breakfast and lunch: Henry Marsh's Admissions (about his life and career as a neurosurgeon and his reaction to retirement, the sequel to the awesome Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery) and a novel, The Curiosities, by Susan Gloss (whose earlier novel Vintage I enjoyed). In the bathroom I've got a teen book on Edward Snowden, because I love Edward Snowden and sometimes a nice teen book is about the right reading level for the bathroom, and also a Cobblestones teen magazine because I have this idea that I should try writing for kids' magazines.
On my table I have all the books I wrote about last week, and also Glennon Doyle Melton's Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed, because I hate it when people call other people (particularly women and their daughters) "warriors" like it's a good thing. I blame Melton at least in part for that trend, but the more I read her book, the more it seems that she is actually advocating that we NOT act like warriors--at least not in the "hack people up and win the war" sense that the word "warrior" gives me. Ditto a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which, again, leads me to believe that as people, we should really not want to be warriors: "When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men; when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefit of the soldiery." See? Not nice. Not something we should aim at for our daughters OR sons.
And everywhere else--literally everywhere else--there are Legos. Loose Legos, Lego minifigures, half-built Lego structures and vehicles, and tops. Evidently making little spinning tops with Legos is all the rage in school this year. Or, as the youngest CRjr said when he left this morning, "Sorry our tops are all over your counter, Mom, that's a real mess." At least he noticed it. Thanks, Lego Warrior.
Anyway, it's glorious. The plan is to cover every available surface with Legos and printed matter so I can't actually see how dusty the surfaces are or how badly the carpet needs to be vacuumed. I think I can achieve it.
*Interestingly enough, I had the idea that the Brookings Institution, where Reeves is a senior fellow, was a conservative think tank, but this source actually rates it as a bit left of center. It's okay and all--I'm so right I'm left and left I'm right so it doesn't matter to me personally--but I'm also happy this site ranks the think tank and its authors as "very high" on the quality/fact-checking of its reporting.
The CRjrs are both in school now, and dear friends, I am bereft.
They like school, and I'm glad for that. Likewise, it's been exciting to make ten years' worth of doctors' appointments, haircut appointments, car appointments, and house-repair appointments. But other than that? I really miss the Jrs. Sure they're enough to make you crazy, but whatever other nonsense I was doing with my day--freelancing, visiting Grandma, baking, etc.--when I was watching the CRjrs too it felt like I was actually getting something done. Doing a job I enjoyed, and was good at. I am a bit lost without that.
But, enough fooling around. I have plenty to do and am trying to write more, and I am trying to think what to do with this blog that will make it into more of an "author website." (Fingers crossed I get something published and can really lay claim to the "author" part of that equation.) I feel like I am spinning my wheels though. Would you like to hear about my current wheel-spin?
I know, weird list. But I have collected them purposefully and as I re-read them together, it seems to me they are all related. When I first started reading nonfiction, it felt like my mind blew up and I could see the connections between everything, like I wanted to tape a string to a passage in one nonfiction book, and then when I chanced across another nonfiction book that related to that passage (that starts to happen a lot when you read a lot of nonfiction), I would tape the other end of the string to that book. Bright orange string, and the nonfiction collection would be tied together with great big bunches of string. To this day when I walk into a library I don't see nonfiction shelves; I see books in a tapestry of orange string, just waiting for me to dive in and follow the leads and become enmeshed.
So how do those books relate? I don't know. It's something about being a woman, and how our ability to live and create and endure is beset on all sides with the thwarting of our wills to control; by violence; by poverty; by the weaknesses of our bodies (and the constant dealing humans have to do with shit and blood and bodily fluids, which, let's face it, is a lot that falls mainly to women). Except for the Hanff book. The Hanff book represents solely joy, and chutzpah, and the overwhelming will of women to do what it is they want to do, and how that's part of the experience too.
Yeah, I know. It makes no sense. But I'm going to keep on trying to work it out anyway. Otherwise I will notice that no CRjrs are around fighting about Legos to the point of throwing punches (the adjudication of which fights take up most of my time when the CRjrs are here) and be sad all over again.
You ever spin your wheels? Let me know how it's going with you.
*Mr. CR knows about my Stacy Horn fixation, but every time he sees me re-reading this book, he has to ask, "How many times can you read that book?" (Mr. CR is not really a re-reader.) And I say, "I'm not dead yet, so we'll just see, baby."
Right after I finished compiling the list of books about work and jobs that I read last year, I realized that this week I've kept fairly busy reading more books about jobs, so here's the Labor Day List part two!
Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee. Okay, I didn't actually get this one read, but I started it a number of times. It's written by a former Facebook insider, and details all the horrible stuff Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, et. al. are doing to destroy our sanity, our lives, and our democracy. I couldn't get into it because I don't care a whole lot about how Facebook influences elections, because I think politics is a waste of time. But I do care that Facebook and tech in general are destroying our lives and how everyone seems mostly happy to let our lives be destroyed. (Please note: All the big money tech execs out in Silicon Valley are now paying to send their kids to "tech free" schools. What does that tell you?) Still: this book was too dense for me and I already know Zuckerberg and Sandberg are jerks. Moving on.
Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much, by Robert Daley. Okay, this one's a classic, first published back in 1978. I'm on a cop kick lately (it all started with Serpico), and this title did not disappoint. It's the story of a detective named Robert Leuci who decided he could no longer go along with some of the corruption that was happening at the time in the New York police force, as well as in other levels of government and the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, Leuci thought he was going to inform only on corrupt people who weren't connected to him--but of course he ended up informing on friends, cop partners, and family members, because that's just how it goes when you get started unpeeling the onion (you know, like how you go to the doctor's office for one little thing and pretty soon you've got 18 follow-up appointments that you really don't want but now feel like you have to go to). An okay read, but it's very hard to understand what Leuci's real motivation was throughout the story.
My absolute favorite anecdote in it is the one where drug enforcement officers were trying to tap the phone line of a convenience store owner who they believed was involved in the drug trade. So then follow this chain of events: the mob called the convenience store owner and told him they were storing 300 (illegally procured) TVs in his store whether they wanted him to or not, and he needed to close for a few days. So he did, and the mob stacked his store with 300 TVs. An off-duty cop walked by, noticed the TVs, and called it in to the local precinct, at which point a whole bunch of other cops came over, took a TV, and then CALLED FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS ON THE TAPPED PHONE to come and get a TV for themselves. So then the drug cops had to get involved and tell them to put the TVs back, and for god's sake to stop calling their friends on the tapped phone. Good stuff.
Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, by Forrest Pritchard. This one is a memoir by a guy who grew up with a farm in his family (his grandparents lived on it, and his parents tried to keep it going with managers and workers while they worked full-time jobs) but didn't really plan on becoming a farmer. Eventually he decided to go all in and try to make the farm a paying concern--from selling firewood to raising grass-fed beef, to starting a pasta company with his wife. I liked this one because it was a bit less holier-than-thou than many "back to the land" memoirs are--Pritchard has a nice straightforward way of writing and isn't afraid to list his many missteps, like when he made a couple grand selling firewood but also caused $4600 worth of damage to his truck by hauling it around.
There you go! More books to read rather than doing your own work. You're welcome.
Well, if you know me at all, you know Labor Day is one of my very favorite holidays. No relatives, no big meals, no celebrating war...just a day off (if you're that lucky) to celebrate working.
Personally, not working is one of my very favorite things, but I can also appreciate a good book about the working life. Each year I try to do a wrap-up of the labor-related books I've read, and here they are all to date: 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.
So what did 2019 look like? Well, it looked like a lot of not reading. My difficulties with sleeping and my wonky eye continued, meaning that I can't regularly pound through hundreds of pages of nonfiction (interspersed with hundreds of pages of fiction reading as a palate cleanser) the way I used to. I also ran for my local city council, which was a super funny experience (well, funny sad, in that I lost, but also funny ha ha, in that I learned a lot about myself and the larger political process and also about how smart my son is: early on he saw my opponent's fancy yard signs and said "I think you're going to lose, Mom." In short, I wasn't my regular reading self. But I still found the time for some good books about work:
The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. Bythell is the proprietor of The Book Shop in Scotland, and WOW, is this book fantastic. A highly detailed but unbelievably engaging read about trying to make it in the used-book business, as well as his marketing activities and his appreciation of his Scottish hometown. One of the best books I read all year, and Vivian Swift liked it too. Even if I hadn't liked it, I'd have to respect it, because it is not easy to earn Vivian's love (just check out her comment at that post about a book by Mr. Bythell's love interest).
The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. Another superlative book about World War II (and earlier) codebreaking married couple Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman. A great history of codebreaking, a complex love story, and a well-done biography of a singular woman.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh. I think all doctors are jerks, and yet I can't stop reading their books. I read this book by Brit author/surgeon Marsh right before my mom had a stroke last spring* and, honest to god, I actually felt I had a slightly better understanding of what her doctors were telling us about her brain because I had just read this book. Marsh is an interesting personality and although this book is detailed and sometimes frightening, it is nonetheless fascinating to consider that there are actually people out there who can hack into other people's heads and brains for their paycheck. That is amazing to me.
Huh. Every year lately I think, I didn't get to read many books about work/jobs this year. And it turned out again that I had read more than I thought I had. I definitely like reading about working more than I actually like working.
Happy Labor Day all, and happy September to you as well.
*She's doing quite well now, thanks for asking, but let me tell you this: aging is not for pussies.
I loved this book. It's just that simple. I read it in a couple of days, and then I turned back to the front page and read it all over again. Then for another month I read different pages of it while I ate my old-lady breakfast of Fiber One cereal* and coffee.
What surprised me most about this book was how dense it was. A lot of times when you get bookish or reading memoirs, or even retail memoirs, they're rather light on text. This book is a solid 300+ pages and the type is surprisingly small. Bythell is the owner and proprietor of The Book Shop in Wigtown (designated the National Book Town of Scotland), and this is the diary of a year in his life running the used bookstore, getting along (kind of) with his employees, his life in the community and among his friends, and taking part in the town's annual Wigtown Book Festival. He begins each entry by noting how many of the store's books were ordered that day through various online channels, and ends each one by noting how many customers were in that day and what the "till total" was.
All the highlights of the used book trade are here--people thinking they own very valuable first editions when they want to sell them, and thinking all used books should be cheap when they want to buy them; dealing with eccentric help when you're a bit eccentric yourself; driving hither and yon to assess and buy book collections in all manner of conditions. Bythell also clearly enjoys his environment, both the shop and the natural one; he includes entries about the difficulties of heating the shop and trying to keep the rain out, as well as about the sunny and not-so-sunny days when he ducks out to do a little trout fishing.
This should give you an idea about Bythell's tone, which I thoroughly enjoyed:
"Opened the shop five minutes late because the key jammed. The first customer of the day brought two Rider Haggard first editions to the counter, 8.50 each. At the same moment the thought 'Those are seriously underpriced' entered my head, he asked, 'Will you do them for 13?' When I refused to knock anything off them, he replied, 'Well, you've got to ask, haven't you?' so I told him that no, you do not have to ask." (p. 115.)
What a great read. It took me right back to my job in a used bookstore, which I loved and loved and loved, and would be doing still if I hadn't needed health insurance and if the owners hadn't eventually closed the store and taken other jobs because they needed health insurance too. If you have sold books or love books, read this one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
*Don't get me wrong. I love my Fiber One honey flakes cereal. It makes my life better. But it doesn't really make for the most exciting breakfast eating ever, which is why it's so nice to put them together with a very strong cup of coffee and a lovely book.
I've been in a reading mood where I'm re-reading a lot of nonfiction that really knocked me over the first time I read it, so last week I re-read Geoffrey Canada's memoir/call to action Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence. I first read this book back in 2011, and here's what I have to say about that: I can't believe I've been blogging this long, and I can't believe how clearly how much of that book stayed with me.
Geoffrey Canada is the president and former CEO of an organization called the Harlem Children's Zone. He grew up in a violent neighborhood and he has spent his life trying to help children (and adults) better their surroundings. He has also spent his life advocating for better gun policies in America, mainly because he saw firsthand the shift from fist and knife violence on the streets to gun violence. He also makes no secret that he owned a knife and he owned a gun, and the writing in his book on how weapons both make you powerful and vulnerable makes the entire thing worth reading. For my money, I wish a lot more communities would pick this book for their "community reads."
So while I was thinking this book over I noticed that a documentary called Charm City (about Baltimore) was showing on my PBS channel. It's stupendous. And by that I mean it's heartbreaking and scary and overwhelming and yet oddly life-affirming. It's well worth a watch.
I don't actually know what to do with all the thoughts I've had about re-reading this book, and watching this movie, and doing them both within the week. I want to say something here. But I don't know what it is. Go read the book and watch the movie and then come back and tell me what you're thinking, will you? I can't think about these alone.
I continue to be in a bit of a strange reading mood, re-reading some old nonfiction favorites and reading more fiction than I do usually. I think I'm just tired, and I need to read things that aren't going to wear me out further (although Mr. CR points out that re-reading Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky, about the experience of her rape and the trial of her rapist, is not exactly "light" reading).
I enjoyed this one because it included more exposition of Lenox's relationships with his co-workers (fellow detectives Polly Buchanan and John Dallington, who have their own little romance intrigue going on); his family, including his wife Jane Lenox (one of my favorite characters); and, in this book, a childhood friend of his. It's a nice serviceable little mystery, and it will definitely appeal to Anglophiles of all kinds. Get yourself a cuppa and enjoy.
*I totally disagree with this review, by the way, but it does provide a basic plot synopsis.