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I learn by going where I have to go.

In a time of epidemic and crashing economic systems and human's unkindnesses to humans, I think the thing I read today that made me feel the worst was that the news that singer-songwriter John Prine has died, aged 73.

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."

Thank you, John Prine.

*Another reason to miss CDs.


So let's talk about David Simon's "The Corner." (Part II.)

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 The Wire. 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.


Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud.

I've got more to say about David Simon and The Corner, but I have to interrupt that thought to tell you that I am in the middle of Tom Mueller's Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, and it is spectacular. More later.

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."


Watching "The Wire" and reading "The Corner" (both David Simon productions): Part 1.

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.

More to come.


Citizen Reader at Cagibi Magazine.

I don't know what's up with me. I've been thinking a lot about cornfields (as you know), and the farm, and the country. So I wrote this:

At the End of the Road: Postcard from Wisconsin

This thought cycle is due, at least in part, from my experience reading Sarah Smarsh's spectacular book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Growing Up Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. It's stupendous. If you haven't read it yet, please do so.

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.


We're drowning in the printed word and Legos over here.

And we're loving it!

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.

On my end table there's a copy of Avalanche by Julia Leigh, which I am re-reading because it is stupendous, and another pile of kids' magazines including Ladybug and Spider, and a bunch of Geronimo Stilton chapter books because the CRjrs are addicted to Geronimo Stilton. On the TV table are several recipe books because I'm trying to cook more and better, including the title Prep-Ahead Breakfasts and Lunches, which has yielded some easy and yummy meals, including a fantastic chicken and bean and kale soup. Out in the garage I've got a book called Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about it, by Richard V. Reeves*, because I like some light reading whilst I supervise the CRjrs playing in the driveway and yard.

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.


Trying to find the thread.

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?

Here is what I am re-reading: an anthology called Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today's Best Women Writers, Rose George's The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, Sarah Perry's After the Eclipse, Sarah Smarsh's Heartland, essays by Joan Didion but most particularly the essay Holy Water, Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business, and Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad.*

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."


Labor Day work books: Just a few more.

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.

 

 


Happy Labor Day! 2019 Edition.

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.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, by Sarah Smarsh. The best book I read all year. Just go read the review, and then read the book, because I can't do it justice in a sentence here.

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.

 


Read "The Diary of a Bookseller" today!

BooksellerTo everyone who told me to read Shaun Bythell's memoir The Diary of a Bookseller: You were so right!

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.


On "Fist Stick Knife Gun" and "Charm City."

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.


Mysteries for the Anglophile.

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 don't typically read a lot of mysteries, but one series of historical (Victorian, to be exact) mysteries I have always enjoyed are Charles Finch's "Charles Lenox Mysteries." So in my relaxed reading state, I wondered, has Charles Finch written any new Lenox mysteries? And yes he has, since I last read one: titled The Inheritance.*

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.


The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone.

My favorite part of being a total Book Nerd is that a lot of time I will chance across great books and not even remember how or why I found them. Books and titles just stick to me. Every time I'm wasting time online, I invariably find a few books that I want to request from the library. If I'm out and about and chatting with anyone, I almost always get some kind of book recommendation because books are one of the few subjects I'm really comfortable talking about. Sometimes I'll see authors on TV or hear them on the radio and want to get their books as well. It's great. I find when I tune my radar almost exclusively to news about books and British TV*, that's nearly all I hear about. A self-fulfilling prophecy, and one that makes me much happier than figuring out ways to be a well-compensated and useful member of society, or, god forbid, following any national news stories.

Which is all a very long-winded way of saying I have no idea how I tripped over the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. I can remember seeing the author's name somewhere online, and thinking, huh, Fagone, I wonder if that's the dude who wrote the book The Horsemen of the Esophagus, a great and fun little book about the competitive eating circuit (yes, there is such a thing). Turns out, yes, it is that Jason Fagone, so I know I got this book because I like him as an author, but I can't remember where I actually read about this latest book by him, which is an awesome biography/history of a totally unique woman named Elizebeth Smith.

I'm going to let Fagone introduce his book to you, in his opening Author's Note:

"This is a love story.

In 1916, during the First World War, two young Americans met by chance on a mysterious and now-forgotten estate near Chicago. At first they seemed to have little in common. She was Elizebeth Smith, a Quaker schoolteacher who found joy in poetry. He was William Friedman, a Jewish plant biologist from a poor family. But they fell for each other. Within a year they were married. They went on to change history together, in ways that still mark our lives today. They taught themselves to be spies--of a new and vital kind." (p. xi.)

What Elizebeth and William became were very specialized codebreakers, with Elizebeth in particular making great use of her tenacity and well-ordered mind to crack Nazi codes and spy rings in South America during World War II.

It's a fascinating, FASCINATING book. I loved it, and Mr. CR read it too, and trust me, nonfiction has to be special for Mr. CR to plow through it. I'm sorry that I missed posting about it in March, because this would be an awesome read for Women's History Month. Do give it a try!

p.s. And then pair it with Leo Marks's unbelievably personal and funny and smart book about the fascinating work that is codebreaking, titled Between Silk and Cyanide.

*Plus if you have your Internet set to a homepage, I would highly recommend setting it to Yahoo!UK. Brexit is a whole ocean away from me, so I'm much happier to learn about that than anything that's going on in our shitstorm of a political system.

 


From reading nonfiction to writing nonfiction.

Binge for blogsIt's here! My new book Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can't Stop Watching is now available as a paperback from Amazon!

The book is my love letter to all things British television, and perhaps my favorite thing about it is that it provided me with an excuse to make a new British friend: my co-author, Jackie Bailey, who provided the Brit perspective and answered all my questions about Brit TV (and life), like "How many BBCs are there?" and "Why don't the cops in your cop programs have guns?"

AND...we're running a promotion! It's called "Buy a Copy, Review a Copy, Get a Copy." Buy a copy of the book at Amazon, review it for us there, leave a comment here or send me the review link, and I'll contact you to send you a FREE second copy that you can pass along to someone else! BOGO, if you will, with a review in the middle.

I'm very excited, and yes, I want to hear your ideas for promoting this book. Marketing has never been one of my skills*, but I want to learn!

*Indexing is, though, and please note the book is fully indexed!


Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh.

Have I ever talked in this space about how much I hate doctors and everything about the medical establishment?

Oh, wait. Yes I have. Quite a lot, actually.

So anyway. I don't like doctors. But then there's surgeons. Mostly I don't hate surgeons as much as I hate other doctors. Perhaps it's because I've had good luck with surgeons, if by "good luck" I mean they have pretty much solved the problems I went to see them for (although at least one did not shine in the department of helping me recover after surgery), and I can appreciate that.

So when I saw a review of a book by a neurosurgeon, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery,* by Henry Marsh, I thought, yeah, I'm going to read that.

And it was FASCINATING. No kidding. Imagine just being a new doctor, not particularly enjoying it, when someone asks you to come along and help prepare a patient for neurosurgery, and after watching that surgery, you decide, boom, that's it, you're going to be a brain surgeon. This is basically what happened to Marsh.

I found this book endlessly fascinating. I can't say I liked the author, because he seems like the sort of doctor/surgeon/person I wouldn't much like if I met him (although if I needed him to fix a brain tumor, aneurysm, or other brain or spine problem I would be glad to see him). But I did enjoy his voice. I enjoyed his brisk descriptions, like this one, about how he hardly ever took a science class during his "private and privileged English education in a famous school," and eventually left Oxford to work as a hospital porter in the north of England, where he discovered he wanted to be a surgeon:

"Having spent six moths watching surgeons operating I decided that this was what I should do. I found its controlled and altruistic violence deeply appealing." (p. 76.)

I loved that. If there's any better description of surgery than "altruistic violence" I don't know what it is. It also makes it crystal clear to me why there are still more male surgeons than female ones.

There's some thrilling stories here, when everything went right during Marsh's surgeries on patients for an appalling number of different types of tumors, aneurysms, and other horrifying brain problems, and there's also a lot of heartbreak, when things just don't go right or (and it happens) something goes wrong due to surgeon error. Imagine having to tell someone you paralyzed them while you were trying to save them. Imagine telling a family that a patient bled to death on the operating table because you couldn't get the aneurysm clipped in the right way. I can't. I can't believe anyone can. So this book was a good reminder to me that, I may not like them, but thank goodness some people out there have the required personality to be able to cut into someone's head (and other parts), and they have terrible days. You really just have to hope you're never in a situation where their terrible day becomes YOUR terrible day.

I also liked that Marsh is a British surgeon and he had a lot to say about what goes on in the National Health Service and behind the scenes in hospitals generally.

Read it. But don't read it if you're scheduled to go into any kind of surgery any time soon.

*I love this review so much. God love The Guardian.


Something a little lighter for endless winter.

Mr. CR is firmly of the belief that all I read is "depressing nonfiction." He makes a fair point, as Mr. CR often does. I read a lot of depressing nonfiction. But not EVERYTHING I read is terribly sad. Take, for instance, the thoroughly delightful book Weird Thigns Customers Say in Bookstores, by Jen Campbell.

I blew through this one the other night as the delightful March breeze in my corner of the Badger State was taking us down to a record-breaking temperature below zero. In MARCH. That is not right. So, I was glad to have this very funny book to read.

It's organized in sections like "What Was That Title Again?", "Parents and Kids," and "Customers Behaving Badly," among many others.*

The anecdotes range from the brief and delightful:

"Customer: Do you have a book of mother-in-law jokes? I want to give it to my mother-in-law as a joke. But, you know, not really as a joke at all." (p. 20.)

To the slightly longer and delightful:

"[Child finds the light switch and begins to flick it on and off...and on and off.] Child's Mother: He's playing a game he calls night and day.Bookseller: Could you please ask him to stop? I need to be able to see the register to help these customers. Child's Mother: It's ok. He'll stop in a few minutes. See, he's pretending to snore at the moment. He'll stop soon and pretend to wake up, and switch the light on like it's the sun. He's so imaginative, isn't he? David, what time is it in the game? Child: It's five in the morning! Child's Mother: [to bookseller] See. Not long to go now. Just be patient." (pp. 48-59.)

Gosh, it made me miss working in a bookstore. It also just made me miss bookstores, full stop. This online world sucks.

Now, book people, go get this book and enjoy.

*All of which I'm sure librarians can appreciate too, although we would have to add a chapter for "Weird Things and People we Have Had to Pull Out of Bathrooms."


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.

Just when I was complaining that nothing I was reading would stick in my head, along came Sarah Smarsh and her book Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.*

Smarsh grew up in Kansas, the daughter of a teenage mother who was also the daughter of a teenage mother. In her memoir she details her rather chaotic upbringing, which involved parents who, if they hadn't had bad luck where jobs and finances were concerned, wouldn't have had any luck at all. Eventually they divorced, and in addition to moving around a lot Smarsh also had to deal with new family configurations and changing schools. Her extended family and grandparents, although they struggled to maintain healthy relationships of their own, luckily provided some stability for her and another place to live when she needed options.

It's a beautiful book. One of my favorite things about it is that Smarsh often addresses her prose to the baby she never had as a teenager. Sound complicated? It's not. She explains in the very first chapter:

"I heard a voice unlike the ones in my house or on the news that told me my place in the world...You were far more than what a baby is. My connection to you was the deepest kind of knowing--hard to explain because it swooshed around in my mind and took different shapes and meanings over the years. But there was a moment, before I was even old enough to have kids, when I was fretting about the sort of decision that in another household might have gotten help from parents. Those moments usually sent me praying to some God outside myself. Instead, I thought, What would I tell my daughter to do?" (p. 1.)

It's such a beautiful device, and it works well throughout the entire book.

You'll find stories here of joblessness, and losing homes, and the ag crisis, and domestic abuse (not to mention great pride, great warmth, great ingenuity, great--in its own way--love), all the things that go along with discussions of "class" in America. This book is how Smarsh relates the tale of her childhood, spent being poor, in a rich country. Or, as she says:

"How can you talk about the poor child without addressing the country that let her be so? It's a relatively new way of thinking for me. I was raised to put all responsibility on the individual, on the bootstraps which which she ought to pull herself up. But it's the way of things that environment changes outcomes. Or, to put it in my first language: The crop depends on the weather, dudnit? A good seed'll do 'er job 'n' sprout, but come hail 'n' yer plumb outta luck regardless." (pp. 2-3.)

It's a great book. It's about a million times better than Hillbilly Elegy and deserves to sell at least twice as many copies as that one sold, but it won't, because frankly, there's no justice in this world.

*God, do I hate GoodReads. I almost linked to the Heartland page there, because I know a lot of people are GoodReads fans, but I never, ever agree with the majority of reviews there. Ugh. Thank God for the New York Times review, which is the one I linked to above. That one gets it right.


Diana Athill, 1917-2019.

Out of nowhere one day, no more than a month ago, I wondered when we would lose* editor and author Diana Athill, and I actually felt some sorrow just thinking about the day she would die, which I figured must be coming because a. we all die, and b. I knew she was now either in her high 90s or 100s.

So yesterday came the announcement: Diana Athill has died, aged 101.

Go read that obituary. Really. Even if you have no idea who she is her life story is a wonder. Not only do I feel tremendous warmth toward Athill for being part of the publishing house of Andre Deutsch (the publisher who published Helene Hanff's books in England), but I really enjoyed her as an author, too. Also, because she found much of her success in writing after her 40th birthday, I find her tremendously inspiring. Here's a list of posts I've written about her in the past (I had forgotten there were so many).

I don't know where to tell you to start: among other things, she wrote the memoir Stet, about her life as an editor; Somewhere Near the End, about life as she aged into her 80s and 90s, and Alive, Alive Oh! an essay collection which includes her essay about having a surprise pregnancy and miscarriage at age 43 that remains among the best things I've ever read about a woman's body by a woman.

I salute you, Diana Athill. Fly, be free.

*Mr. CR says I have got to stop using the word "lose" as a euphemism for someone's dying. When my brother died, years ago, I called my library boss to tell her I'd lost my brother and wouldn't be in to work the next day, and all she snapped was, "Well, you're on the schedule the day after that, too," to which I patiently had to explain I wouldn't be in that day, either. When I got off the phone, appalled, Mr. CR said, "Well, maybe she really just thought you lost your brother out in the cornfield or something." (That's actually one of my favorite Mr. CR moments of all time.) But I can't help it! "Died" is too harsh and I hate the word "passed." So "lost" it is.


Best of 2018: The Max Power Way.*

I've got to be honest with you: I'm not all that sorry to see 2018 go. Not that I really expect great things out of 2019 (my secret to happiness being, of course, low expectations), but it is nice to pretend through at least January or so that "YEAH! This'll be my year!"

One of the reasons I was not fond of 2018 was because my reading took a real hit. Between eye fatigue and newly developed (I think, anyway, who the hell knows? Not any of the doctors I've seen) sinus headache issues, as well as any number of other job and family chores, I wasn't able to churn through at least a hundred pages of something every day like I've been pretty used to doing for the last twenty years. But there's people in this world with real problems, and I'm related to some of them, so it's time to stop whining that "I can't read as much as I used to and it is making me depressed!" and move on. So let's stick a fork in 2018 and make it official with this "Best Books I Read in 2018" list. The links below go to my reviews of each book.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist. Actually, I liked Bad Feminist: Essays a lot more than I thought I was going to. It made me think. It made me look at a few things differently. That's why I read essays. And, God love her, Roxane Gay dares to say, when men ask her if she's on the pill, "No. Are you?"

Stacy Horn, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. Stacy Horn is the hardest working, most thoughtful, most rigorously dedicated to good fact-checking nonfiction author we currently have. Go read the conversation I was lucky enough to have with her this year, and then go read all her books.

Peter Maas, Serpico. About whistle-blowing NYPD cop Frank Serpico. What a great read. Technically I read it in 2017, but hey, this is my list so I make the rules.

In addition to losing productivity as a reader, I also lost productivity as a writer this year, which was not a direction in which I wanted to go. I read a lot of nonfiction that I never got around to blogging about. I would finish a book, give it some thought, put it on my table to write about it, where...it eventually went overdue and I just had to return it to the library. One of those books was David Sedaris's latest essay collection Calypso. I've never really been a huge Sedaris fan, and I tend to like him most when he is writing essays about his large and completely (and I mean this in the nicest way, coming from a similar family myself) BATSHIT INSANE family members. Guess what? A lot of the essays in Calypso are about his family! There's also an essay in it about how strangers speak with one another and how (what I'll call) "marketing speak" fills up most of our conversations, and I just laughed the whole time I read it. Then I cried a little bit because the laughter wore me out and the essay was just so good, so gentle, so everything I wish my essay writing could be. Well played, Sedaris.

InfidelityLast but not least I read a memoir titled Infidelity, by Ann Pearlman. It is a memoir of an entire life, and a big issue: that of the history of the men in her family to be unfaithful to their wives (which happened to her grandmother, her mother, and herself). I didn't expect to like it. It was, in its way, depressing as hell. But it was also really, really good. I mean, look at that cover. I hardly ever include pictures on this blog anymore but I had to share this one--it's a perfect cover and it's perfect for the book. Anyone else read it? I'd love to hear others' thoughts. I don't even remember where I found it, except that I think maybe I read something else online by or about Ann Pearlman? Ah, it's hell, getting old.

That said, here's to another year of all of us getting older together. As long as we continue to read good books together and chat them up here, I'll be happy with 2019. Thanks, as always, for reading, not only this blog, but in general. Reading is good for you. Now get out there and spread the word.

*Wrong, but faster.


Hitting up the comfort reading hard.

I really, really enjoy Christmastime.

Of course it is not really the done thing anymore to say it that way, and that's okay. I'm down with saying "Happy Holidays" or whatever other greeting is appropriate for people I know. I don't particularly believe there's a war on Christmas. But there's also no use denying that it's Christmas that I really love. "The holidays," particularly when taken to include Thanksgiving and the hell that is the New Year's Eve/New Year's Day duo, and "the holidays" with all its connotations of enforced shopping and relative-seeing, well, "the holidays" actually aren't my favorite things ever.

But I like twinkly lights, and to some extent I like cold weather, and I love singing Christmas carols (if you haven't heard Frank Sinatra sing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," you haven't lived...unless you've heard Judy Garland hit it out of the park), and I ADORE making my ravenous way through absolutely horrifying amounts of chocolates and cookies and Christmas goodies, and as a routine-driven introvert I like doing the same things around the same time, year after year after year. I love putting up the same old nativity set that I've put up my whole life (my mom is still with us, but gave me her nativity set--the one we always used when I was a kid--a few years back). I love hanging the same ornaments. I love watching the CRjrs hang their favorite ornaments, and finding some of the crafts they made last year.

And most of all I love reading and watching all of my favorite things. Often in December I'll give the hardcore reading a rest and instead spend a lot of time with my favorite British TV Christmas episodes, watching my favorite holiday movies (I have added Just Friends to this rotation), and re-reading all my favorite and non-challenging books. Because I always re-watch Bridget Jones's Diary at this time of year, I also decided to re-read the novel it was based on, and that's fun. (The movie and the book are really different. I'd totally forgotten that.) And this year, although I've read it several times before, I am re-reading Helene Hanff's lovely Letter from New York, where I found this:

"I have eight people and two dogs coming for Christmas dinner and since studio apartments have small refrigerators, you have to work out the logistics in advance. You make your pies, cranberry sauce and sweet-potato casserole ahead of time and then distribute them around the building in other people's refrigerators, since the turkey, hors d'oeuvres, vegetables and eggnog bowl are all you'll have room for in yours. On Christmas morning once your turkey's in the oven, you go and get everything back. And the logistics consist in remembering whether the casserole is in 4-F or 16-B, and did you get the keys to 8-E up the hall, because Shelley and Susan have gone skiing in Vermont for Christmas, with your pies in their freezer." (p. 16.)

If that doesn't get you in the holiday spirit, I don't know what will. Happy Christmas to all, to all a good night, and may your 2019 be filled with only good things.