History

How did I miss this? July 30 is National Whistleblower Day!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).

So: Happy National Whistleblower Day. Celebrate by checking out books like Tom Mueller's Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud; Mark Hertsgaard's Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden; or the classic Serpico by Peter Maas.

*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.


Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon.

As previously noted, I am fascinated by whistleblowers.

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.


A sad anniversary.

Fifty years ago today, on May 4, 1970, National Guard troops shot at a crowd of students at Kent State University (in Ohio) and killed four of them.

For whatever reasons, I was recently speaking with a friend about the history of the 1960s and 1970s, which I have, after a lifetime of largely ignoring, have suddenly decided was a fascinating period of US history. This is a sure sign of aging. All sorts of historical stories that I was never interested in before are starting to appeal to me. Maybe because I'm learning in my own life that, no matter what happens, mostly, there is nothing new under the sun. That's almost equal parts appalling and comforting.

Anyway, my friend said something about the Kent State incident, so I took myself off to Wikipedia to get the thumbnail (and probably wrong) sketch of what happened. And I was surprised to discover (I first looked this up two days ago), that today was going to be the 50th anniversary of the shooting. It's not been getting much media play, of course; Corona is King.

I am not going to get a book on the subject, primarily because my library is closed right now. Also, a new graphic novel about it is coming out in September, by none other than Derf Backderf, who is an author that I absolutely love. I will actually probably overcome my cheap nature and just buy a copy of it, because Derf Backderf should be able to make a living. So I will wait and read that.

In broad strokes, here's the story: A group of students were protesting the Vietnam War (in particular the bombing of Cambodia) on campus at Kent State, in a protest that lasted for several days. Nobody actually knows who fired the first shot, or why, but after twenty-eight National Guard soldiers (who were there partially because over the prior weekend prior someone had set the ROTC building on campus on fire) shot at the students, four of them were dead and nine were injured (including some students who had just been walking to or from class, and weren't involved in the protest).

Yeah. Kind of a story that hits you in the gut, doesn't it?

P.S. In happier news, the CRjrs inform me that it is also "May the Fourth Be With You" Day. That reminds me, I have to stop typing this and get back to trying to teach those little punks their math. Ye Gods. The little Target gift cards I gave their teachers over the holidays should have been much, much bigger.


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."


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.

 


Stacy Horn's Damnation Island and more essay chat.

I've not yet reviewed it here, but I have read (and loved) Stacy Horn's new book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. I also had the good fortune to interview Stacy about the book for The Millions. But the big news this morning is that her book got a great review in the New York Times! YAY, Stacy!

The book is not a light read but I loved it for all the usual reasons I love Stacy Horn's nonfiction writing: It's thoughtful, it's well-organized, I know it's been exhaustively fact-checked. But she always brings a little something extra to her stories, even when they're about crime and horrible mistakes that all sorts of people make, not just criminals but also those seeking to reform criminals: sympathy. You finish this book and you're sad, mostly because if you read enough books like this you realize there have never really been any "good old days," but also because you can't believe how much how many people have suffered down through the ages. But at the same time, she never really seems to give up. I like her tenacity. In her last pages she points out how the struggle to figure out how best to incarcerate people still goes on, and that we first have to learn about these problems to start to consider how to approach them.

In other Essay Project news I'm now in David Sedaris's We Talk Pretty One Day. Anyone else read the Sedaris? What are your thoughts? In reading (re-reading? I think I've read it before but can't remember--never a good sign) I find that I'm feeling the same way about Sedaris that I have always felt about him: I largely don't understand the appeal. I think he's a good writer, and he sometimes makes me laugh (mainly when telling stories about his very...ahem...interesting family), but I've never quite understood why he became a huge best-selling essayist. Can someone explain the appeal?


Second great read of the year: Serpico.

Okay, I read Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System in 2017, too, just like I read Prairie Fires, but frankly, I was ready to be done with 2017 a few weeks before it actually finished, so there's that. I was able to fly through Serpico because it was my book to take along when we stayed overnight at my in-laws' for the Christmas holiday. I love my in-laws and they are very nice to open their house to us, but for some reason I can never, ever sleep there. So I always make sure to take along a book that will keep me company from, roughly, the hours between 10 p.m. (when, if we're lucky, the CRjrs, after all the excitement of presents and cousins and too much food, oh my, finally drop into an exhausted half-sleep) and 4 a.m., when maybe, sometimes maybe, I can pass out and dream anxiety dreams because I know the boys will be up again in two hours and will wake me up with them.

Anyway. This book turned out to be perfect for that purpose, and a completely engrossing read in its own right!

Now, "Serpico" is one of those names I've hazily known about my whole life. Here's what I knew: 1. it was the title of a movie starring Al Pacino (that I have never seen). 2. Serpico was a cop.

And that is it.

But then, I saw a trailer for a new documentary about Serpico, titled Frank Serpico.

And I thought, wait a second, Frank Serpico was a WHISTLEBLOWER?

I am beyond fascinated by whistleblowers. I am, as a matter of fact, a whistleblower groupie. I don't know what this says about my personality, because I think whistleblowers are by and large really complex and really interesting and really important people, but I think they can also be very difficult people.

So immediately I thought, I've got to read the book Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System*, by Peter Maas (on which the Pacino/Sidney Lumet movie was based). It's a straightforward account of Serpico's youth, desire to be a cop, journey to become a cop, and then his growing realization, after he became a cop, that nearly every other cop in New York City at that time (the 1960s and 70s) was either accepting bribes and payoffs from gamblers, organized crime types, and drug traffickers. Even the cops who weren't taking payouts were going along by acting like nothing was wrong, and this went all the way up to the highest ranks of the department.

Until, that is, Frank Serpico came along. And for a long time he tried to do his own thing, but eventually it became impossible. So he started trying to go to his superiors with his stories, and they were not interested. Then he went to someone in the mayor's office, and they weren't really interested, either, because the 1960s and 70s were not exactly happy sunshine-y times in the history of NYC, and the mayor kind of needed to keep the police department on his side. So then Serpico went to someone in the press, and of course then the shit pretty much hit the fan. And very shortly after that Serpico himself got shot in the face in a drug bust gone wrong, about which incident there is still some question about whether it was a set-up to get him killed or just an honest shitshow.

I just opened this book to find a good quote to use, and honestly, it's the type of book that's compelling wherever you dip into it. Here's the beginning of chapter two, which is the first page I flipped to:

"When he was shot, Serpico was a member of a plainclothes detail in the Police Department. Plainclothesmen are actually patrolmen working, as the name indicates, out of uniform and on special assignment, usually in narcotics, prostitution, or gambling. While corruption in the police force was by no means limited to those on plainclothes duty, the temptations and opportunities it afforded for graft had always been especially high--in narcotics because of the huge profits at stake, and in prostitution and gambling not only because of the money, but because they were two areas of illegal activity that a large segment, if not a majority, of the public constantly demanded." (p. 21.)

It was a great book. Read it. Anyone seen the movie with Al Pacino? I'm going to watch that too (as well as the documentary linked to above, when it's available on DVD).

*Evidently I never knew about this subtitle, which kind of tells you that he was a whistleblower.


First great read of the new year: Prairie Fires.

I actually read my first great book of 2018 in December of 2017. Let's apply a phrase I believe in and use a lot: "Close enough for guvmint work."*

Prairie firesThe book in question was Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and WOW, was it fantastic.

It is, of course, basically a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House books continue to loom large in our reading and pop culture. And WHAT a biography. Fraser covers not only the woman's life, but also how her books (largely presented as factual, or autobiographical) were actually very careful amalgamations of fact and fiction and personal philosophies (both Wilder's and her daughter's).

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it is actually a dual biography: not only are the details of Wilder's life explored, so are the details of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane's, work and life and loves. And what lives they were. The more I read details of how hard life was on the frontier, trying to build your own house and grow your own crops and stay safe from numerous prairie blizzards, the more I am stunned by how easy life is now. Here I sit in the arctic blast, anxiously listening to my furnace and hoping it continues to kick in. I can't imagine huddling in my little sod or wood homestead, depending on wood I had to cut myself or hay I had to twist myself just to try and keep warm enough to survive. It boggles the mind.

When I first started reading the book, I thought it was a little dry, because when I read biographies I pretty much want all the gritty details. (My main question, of course, involves procreation and parenting, because those are always the details I am interested in: why did Wilder, when she had her first baby in her late teens and her second baby--who, tragically, died shortly after birth--shortly thereafter, never have any more? What was her marriage to Almanzo Wilder really like?) But then I realized Fraser wasn't really holding back, she was just sticking to the facts she knew, which was tricky enough, considering that most of the details about Wilder's life comes from her books, and her books are not actually 100% true nonfiction. And by the time I was done with the whole book, which is excellent and wide-ranging and both clear-eyed and sympathetic, I found that I really had all the details about Laura's, her family's, Almanzo's, and Rose's lives that I needed.

I also had a healthy new appreciation for how great it is to live in this time and place. I spent the next few weeks after reading this book telling the CRjrs, when they went to the bathroom, "Imagine having to go outside to go to the bathroom, to a little wood shack with a hole in a plank. Imagine having to clean that poop pit out yourselves. In this cold weather!" And they both looked at me like I was crazy, but then asked more questions about that whole deal. Because both my own parents used outhouses in their very early years, I was also able to make it personal. "When Grandpa was your age he had to go outside to poop! And go out to care for their animals on these subzero mornings! And grow a lot of his own food!" I probably bored them to death but I certainly reminded myself that my life, filled as it is with indoor plumbing and access to antibiotics, is truly something to be thankful for. Not a bad way to start 2018, actually.

Do read this book. It needs more pictures and it slightly drags in parts but overall--a fantastic and important read.

*A corollary to my overall life motto, as noted earlier, of "Fuck it. Close enough."


D. Watkins's The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America.

I wasn't going to write about this book. But I can't NOT write about this book. I first heard about it in 2015 when it was published and became a New York Times bestseller, but didn't think about reading it. Then I read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, about Baltimore in the 1990s (and from the cops' perspective, for the most part). I thought that reading this book, from a resident's perspective of Baltimore in the 1990s and 2000s, would be a valuable read on the other side.

Beast sideI don't know what to think about The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America.

On the one hand, it certainly describes a place that is unknown to me:

"I wanted to go to an out-of-state college. But my plans were derailed when, months before my high school graduation in 2000, my brother Bip and my close friend DI were murdered. I became severely depressed and rejected the idea of school.

Most of my family and friends came around in an effort to get me back on track. My best friend, Hurk, hit my crib every day.

I met Hurk way back in the 1990s. His mom sucked dick for crack until she became too hideous to touch. Her gums were bare, her skin peeled like dried glue, chap lived on her lips, and she always smelled like trash-juice. Then she caught AIDS and died.

Hurk's my age. His family was a billion dollars below the poverty line. He had so many holes in his shoes that his feet were bruised. I started giving him clothes that I didn't want, and he stayed with us most nights. We became brothers." (p. 6.)

Watkins himself worked as a drug dealer and makes no bones about that fact. He also does a very good job of describing segregated Baltimore, as when he is invited to talk at something called the "Stoop Storytelling Series" (after an essay of his, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," drew a lot of attention):

"That's when I realized. This is one of those events. By "those events" I mean a segregated Baltimore show that blacks don't even know about. I walked through a universe of white faces, and I wondered, how is this even possible? How could we be in the middle of Baltimore, a predominantly black city where African Americans make up more than 60 percent of the population, at a sold-out event, with no black people--except for me and the friends I brought?" (p. 4.)

I don't know what I was looking for in this book, but overall it mainly made me very sad. Sad that it was so sad, in parts (see above). Sad that it seems lately we are farther away than ever from being able to discuss and address the issues Watkins raises in this book. Sad that there is so much anger in this book--and there is anger--which I understand. And I suppose this is going to sound like something a privileged person would say (which I am, because I have never known hunger, and which I laughably am not, as I have had to work all my life to try and put a living wage together), but I don't know where the anger is going to get us. At one point Watkins lovingly describes what he would like to have happen, in prison, to a cop who has killed a black man, and it is disturbing. And all it does is leave me with the questions that violent action and reaction always leave me with: will retribution bring the victim back? Will it solve anything?

I think you should read this book. I don't know how on earth we're all going to talk about it, but I think you should read it.


Reading notes: July 2017.

On Monday I was so busy whining about the demise of EarlyWord that I forgot to include my usual weekly reading notes in the Citizen Reading report, so I thought I'd put them here.

I forget exactly why I got Peter Coughter's The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills that Win Business from the library, but I suspect it is because I am always interested in books about how to give presentations (enough so that I wrote one) and how to sell, because I am a terrible salesperson. I only skimmed this one, but I have to say I think it is one of the best and most succinct books on good public speaking that I've seen. You wouldn't even have to read the whole book; just read the first chapter: "Everything Is a Presentation." I particularly liked the list of characteristics of great presenters and their presentations, things like "It's a conversation, only you're doing most of the talking."* That does not mean you get to be boring or pontificate, it means, as Coughter explains, "We've all been there. Sitting in a meeting, praying for it to end while the speaker drones on about something that is apparently important to him, but of no interest to us. It might have been okay if he wasn't so stiff, so stilted, so 'professional.' Caught up in his own world. Lecturing us.

Don't be that guy. I can't say this strongly enough. Just talk with us. The best presenters know this, and that's how they present." (p. 16.)

That last line is the beginning, middle, and end of good public speaking. Coughter adds more bullet points, of course ("be yourself," "tell stories," "know your stuff," etc.) but I think his suggestion to just TALK with the people you present to is never given enough emphasis in other public speaking books.

Sharon Weinberger, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World. I'm about thirty pages in to this one, and it's interesting, but I'm just not in the mood right now. Already I've learned that DARPA really began with the mission to move America ahead in the space race, and when they lost that mandate shortly after they were formed, they turned to investigating anti-insurgency during the Vietnam War. I'll definitely want to get this one back someday.

Nick Westergaard, Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. I am interested in digital marketing, even though I really have no idea how to do anything digital. I've also always been weirdly interested in marketing from a completely detached viewpoint. I don't really want to DO marketing but I find it a fascinating subject--how do people market and sell to us? How do we sell to others? So I snap up marketing books like I used to snap up dating books--I wasn't any good at dating either but found the whole process interesting from a sociological standpoint. But this book doesn't really seem to offer anything new, and it takes too long to get there. And ever since my eye went wonky this spring, I find myself asking, is this book worth wasting my waning vision on? No? Moving on.

Sophie Kinsella, I've Got Your Number. Total chick-lit fluff, but AWESOME chick-lit fluff, and set in London to boot.  A million times better than her Shopaholic series; many, many thanks to my friend who suggested I read this one.

*Full disclosure: In my experience, this is spot-on. I try to be a good listener, but let's face it, I like to hold forth. For an introverted control freak like myself giving talks and presentations is the most fun thing ever, because I get to interact with people for a useful purpose, and I get to mostly direct the conversation. Ah, that's the sweet spot.


Sally Bedell Smith's Prince Charles.

Let's be honest. Nobody thought that a biography of Britain's Prince Charles was going to be the most scintillating book on the planet, did they?

Prince charlesSally Bedell Smith may not have chosen the liveliest subject for her biography Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, but she has written a lively biography nonetheless. I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the subtitles of biographies, but in this case, I think she's got it about right. Although part of a family known for its stiff reserve and formality, Charles, the Prince of Wales, does indeed seem to have many passions in his life: Camilla Parker Bowles, perhaps, foremost, but also tradition, the environment, and spirituality. Likewise, "paradoxes" is a fair word choice for the duties governing him. Just think about waiting for your "real" career to start as you age into your 70s.

Smith is no stranger to writing biographies about the royal family (her earlier books include Diana in Search of Herself, about Princess Diana, and Elizabeth the Queen, which I've also read, about England's current monarch Elizabeth II), and she is also a former journalist. Her writing's a bit journalistic/gossipy at times:

"Patrick Beresford, a friend for some fifty years, said that whenever Camilla walked in the room, 'your spirits rise, because you know you are going to have a laugh.' For a young prince with downbeat tendencies, that sort of personality was catnip." (p. 67.)

But in all she does a good job of relating the details of Prince Charles's life, and she does it in efficient fashion. This book is 500 pages long, but it only took me a few days to read, and that's largely due to Smith's straightforward expository style, short chapters, and copious quotes from interviews that she did with friends, family members, and former staff members of the royal household.

This review is feeling fairly dry but I can't seem to help it. I enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed learning a little bit more about Charles, but, at the end of the day, he's still a bit of a challenging man to really enjoy spending much time with. By all accounts he feels his beliefs strongly and he's not afraid to let them be known, so that makes me like him. All the same, he also seems to have a self-pitying streak a mile wide, although for that, again, I can't really blame him. His childhood and schooling don't really sound like they were much fun, and just imagine having a telephone call of yours taped in which you confessing to simply wanting to live within your lover's trousers forever (perhaps as her tampon). Having that sort of story blown all over the news might make one, I assume, a bit prickly about ever letting the press know any of your personal details again.

It's a good book. But unless you're a hardcore British royal family fan or Anglophile*, there probably isn't much in it for you. Oh! Except a ton of pictures. Good on Random House for publishing this book complete with two stand-alone color photo sections, plus a photo at the head of every new chapter. Nicely done, Random House. I require my biographies to contain lots of pictures.

*I'm guilty on both counts!


Reading notes from February 2017.

I read or skim-read a few interesting books last week, but none of them really seemed to warrant their own review. So here we go with a few quick impressions.

Really good dayI got Ayelet Waldman's A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. I've always kind of gotten a kick out of Ayelet, but there wasn't enough here to keep me reading. Basically she read somewhere about how microdoses of LSD can help with mood disorders (as well as studies about how use of mushrooms, for their psilocybins, increased peoples' sense of well-being), and tried out microdoses for a month. This is her diary of that month. It did improve many factors of her life, but at the end of the day, she had to stop the regimen because LSD is illegal and she only got her original stash from a friend of a friend who had a bit left from running his own experiment. I skim-read the first 100 pages, then skipped to the last couple of chapters and called it good. A few things: not sure a whole book was necessary here. And, as long as she wrote the whole book, it needs an index; it references enough scientific and historical information that an index might have been helpful (and would have been fairly easy and cost-effective to prepare; her book is not long or complex).

I did enjoy her honesty concerning her marriage, her children, her work, and other facets of her life. Particularly noteworthy was her stream-of-consciousness fantasizing about getting divorced, in which she ruminates on how she's priced small apartments in the area so she and her husband could split but simply co-parent ("bird-nesting") while letting the kids stay in the house all the time. Seeing as Ayelet is a woman who's largely famous for declaring that she loves her husband more than she loves her kids, that made me feel better about having similar fantasies.

Our lady of birth controlI also read the graphic novel Our Lady of Birth Control: A Cartoonist's Encounter with Margaret Sanger, by Sabrina Jones. It was all right. It was an interesting book but it is hard for me to get too excited about a book when I am no fan of the book's subject. I get what she was trying to do and I am sympathetic to the desire (particularly in the era when Sanger was working, when women regularly had double digit-numbers of pregnancies, miscarriages, and births) to control one's reproductive destiny, but the simple fact of the matter is that I think Planned Parenthood and the birth control industry still disproportionately place the burden of birth control on women. When Planned Parenthod a.) pushes to develop and market a viable birth control pill for men, and b.) runs a massive campaign to tell men to wear condoms whether they "like to" or not (the poor dears), I will have no time for Planned Parenthood.

I did appreciate that the author of this graphic novel addressed some of the controversies and charges that have sprung up against Sanger in past years, including the fact that she was a proponent of the eugenics movement. I'm not satisfied by Jones's conclusion that a lot of smart people were interested in eugenics, so it wasn't really that bad, but her awareness of some of the complexities of Sanger's legacy was nice to see.

ThreadbareAnother graphic novel that I mainly made it through was Anne Elizabeth Moore's Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking. Mr. CR saw this one laying around the house and said, really? Where do you keep FINDING these depressing books? To which my only defense was, I don't know, they keep finding ME. This was another interesting graphic novel, but it was a collection of comics by different illustrators, which I never like: I find it too jarring to go from one visual style to another.

I think this is an important book and well worth a look--particularly for its early chapters on the links between "fast fashion" and clothing waste and slavery worldwide--but at times the links it made between fashion, the apparel industry, and human trafficking were too complex for me to follow. Right now. I'm scattered even on my best days lately, and last week we all had killer colds in my house, so I definitely wasn't myself while reading this. But take my word for it: you might want to check it out. Also? Shop less. Evidently apparel companies and retail outlets now change their offerings every few weeks, rather than every season--wasting a lot of material and wearing out a lot of workers just so people can "see something new" every time they go to the mall. Uck.

I might just have to find a little something lighter to read for March. Any suggestions?


Love a good quick nonfiction graphic novel read: Andy Warner's Brief Histories of Everyday Objects.

Every now and then I like to read a good graphic novel (fiction or non, I'm open on graphic novels, for the most part) and Andy Warner's stupendously entertaining Brief Histories of Everyday Objects did not disappoint.

Brief historiesI found this title on some booklist of nonfiction graphic novels that I linked to in a weekly Citizen Reading post a few weeks or months back, leading me to once again say, YAY book lists. You gotta love a good book list, particularly one that is outside your normal reading interests or comfort zone.

In this lighthearted history Warner examines (very briefly, in just a few cartoon panels per story) the histories of some objects that we basically could no longer imagine living without: toothbrushes, kitty litter, silk, tupperware, traffic lights, beer cans, kites, and coffee beans (among many others). The drawings are clean and easy to follow (sometimes I'm too lazy to follow graphic novel layouts when they're too dense or complicated; I remain a word girl, not a picture girl, at heart) and the facts are fun, interesting, and very succinctly written. Also, at the end of each short history, Warner throws in a few panels of "Briefer Histories," with all the tidbits of research he couldn't really fit in anywhere else, like "Ingredients in ancient toothpaste included ox hooves, eggshells, oyster shells, and charcoal. Minty fresh!" (p. 5.)

I also really enjoyed running gags throughout the stories, such as when multiple visionaries/inventors failed to cash in on their inventions. In the first such instance, a briefer history discusses how "Walter Hunt's grave in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery sits in the shadow of the monument of Elias Howe, who got rich manufacturing Hunt's unpatented sewing machine." (With a picture of Hunt saying, "Rub it in, why don't you?") (p. 47.) And by the end of the book Walter Hunt and a bunch of other poor visionaries are grouped together, saying "We've decided to move in together to save on rent." (p. 177.) I'm describing it badly, but it's funny stuff.

In other news, this book has a wonderful bibliography, including many popular micro-histories, and Mr. CR gave it the highest praise he can give a nonfiction book: "Hey, that book you've got in the bathroom right now is pretty good."


Victoria the Queen.

I really loved the historical biography Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, by Julia Baird.

Victoria the queenIt was the perfect mix of detail and good writing, and Baird did a nice job of touching upon all aspects of Queen Victoria's life, including her relationships with the many Prime Ministers she worked with over her long life; her relationships with Albert, her husband, and their nine children; and her ruling style, opinions, and personal traits. Baird also does a nice job of placing Victoria's reign and Great Britain's influence in the nineteenth century in the broader context of world events. And she does it all in...let me look it up...752 pages?!?

Holy cow. This book read so fast that I really thought it was a lot shorter than that. Rest assured: a good chunk of that total is index and endnotes. And there's a lot of pictures spread through the book too. It was a great read; if you're at all interested in British history you should pick it up. (Particularly if you're watching the period drama Victoria on PBS that's running right now; if you read this, you can feel superior about all the historical details with which the BBC/PBS is playing a little fast and loose).

Just to give you a taste of the text, and for Victoria herself:

"What is most striking about Victoria is that apart from wanting to be taller and thinner, she cared little about her appearance. She knew she was  no beauty and did not dwell on it. She joked about her looks with her half sister, writing that she was 'very happy to hear that the portrait of my ugly face pleased you.' Yet she genuinely took pleasure from the aesthetic appearance of others--both male and female. Her second cousin Charles, the Duke of Brunswick, particularly fascinated her, with his dark mustache and the fur-trimmed coat he wore riding. She greatly admired the way he did his hair, which hung 'wildly about his face.'" p. 43.


Frank: The Voice, and Sinatra: The Chairman--My first big reading experience of 2017.

My reading year 2017 started off with an intense biography experience.

It should also be noted that my first worthwhile reading experience of 2017 actually started in 2016. For some time I had been aware of James Kaplan's definitive two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, but hadn't yet had the time to tackle either or both books. However, every year we go to my in-laws' house sometime during the Christmas holiday and stay an overnight, and I can never sleep at my in-laws'. They're lovely people, they always welcome us, we get our own room with the boys, and in general it's a pleasant experience. It never matters. Usually I drop off around 4 a.m. and wake up again at 7 a.m. when the boys start stirring. So in recent holidays I have wised up and started taking along books that I know will either require some time or which I anticipate to be lovely reading experiences that I want to savor.* When you're up reading at 2 a.m, wherever you are, you generally are in search of something engrossing, I find. So this year I thought: I'm going to take the first volume in the Sinatra series, Frank: The Voice!

Frank the voiceAnd it was a good choice. Clocking in at 718 pages, this was definitely one that was going to take some time. I started it a bit before Christmas, read a huge chunk of it on Christmas night from midnight to 4 a.m., and then finished it up during the week after New Year's Day. I could put it down, because sometimes when you're dealing with a big brick of a biography like that, you have to put it down, but I was also dedicated to picking it back up and finishing it.

Regardless of how you feel about Sinatra, I must say that there have probably been few entertainers who merit a biography to the tune of 1500 combined pages (which this volume, along with Kaplan's sequel, Sinatra: The Chairman, totals), and Frank Sinatra is totally one of them. In addition to the unbelievable and dominating musical career, you have several other aspects to consider: his personal life, which was complex and filled with first a domineering mother, and then a variety of wives and paramours; his acting career, which included an Oscar-winning performance in the critically acclaimed and popular film "From Here to Eternity," as well as other star turns in "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Pal Joey," and "The Manchurian Candidate"; his business and singing career in Las Vegas; his long-standing associations with mobsters and Mafia connections; and his political work and friendships.** It should come as no surprise that the guy hardly ever slept and, by all accounts, had to keep moving at all times.

Perhaps my favorite part of this first biography was all the discussion surrounding Frank's very challenging rise to stardom, and, later on, the details about the arranging and recording of many of his biggest hits.*** Kaplan also has a fairly lively writing style. I don't know that this will appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it and thought it suited his subject matter. Consider this sample, in which Frank first performed an arrangement of the song "I've Got the World on a String" by Nelson Riddle, with whom he'd never worked:

"From the moment the nervous-faced guy on the podium signaled the downbeat, Frank knew something was up. Stoller clashed a pair of cymbals; the horns swirled a downward-spiraling cadenza; and then the second Frank sang, 'got the string around my fin-ger,' the brass kicked--BANG!--and the band was cooking. Frank was smiling as he sang, as the seventeen musicians swung along behind him--he even had a smile for the unsmiling guy on the stand, who was waving his arms for all he was worth.

It sure didn't sound like Billy [May] to Frank. It didn't sound like anybody. He loved it.

They did a take, and then another, got it just right. It was golden--but it wasn't Billy May. 'Who wrote that arrangement?' Frank asked Alan Dell.

'This guy,' Dell said, indicating Mr. Serious, who was distractedly leafing through pages of sheet music. 'Nelson Riddle.'

The name registered for the first time. Sinatra made a surprised face. 'Beautiful,' he said.

It was a serious compliment. Frank was generous with gifts and money but extremely stingy when it came to praise. If he said it, he meant it; if he didn't mean it, he didn't say anything.

He looked at Riddle and said it again. 'Beautiful.' And Mr. Serious managed a quick, almost undetectable smile: more like a wince, really." (pp. 615-616.)

I thoroughly enjoyed that. I could just picture the scene. And if you go listen to the song (DO IT) you can just hear the joy. Combine that with the fact that this scene took place at the beginning of his career comeback--perhaps the biggest and best comeback of all time--around 1953/54, after many very bad down years, well, then it takes on even more import. Imagine singing that song, like that, after living through several tough years. THAT is art.

Which is not to say that Sinatra was not a major asshole in many and various ways, all of which Kaplan details. I enjoyed Frank: The Voice so much that I went on to Sinatra: The Chairman, but I did not enjoy that as much, and actually skim-read most of the last 300 pages so I could get some closure. For one thing, I much preferred to read about Sinatra the hustler in his early career years, rather than reading about Sinatra the Rat Pack pig who turned misogyny into an art form in Vegas and beyond. But it was still a great reading experience, and sometime I might revisit it when I can give it more time. Next Christmas at the in-laws', perhaps.

A few technical notes: these biographies have pictures spread throughout the text, which I do not enjoy as much as dedicated picture sections, but which probably allowed them to fit more pictures in, so that was good. Also, these books are exhaustive: volume one covers the years from Sinatra's birth in 1915 through his Oscar win in 1953, while volume two largely covers 1954 to 1971 or so. The nearly twenty last years in Sinatra's life, and his fourth marriage, are dealt with in a less-than-40-page "Coda" at the end (and boy, is that a depressing 40 pages. Getting old, my friends, is not for pussies, even when you are Frank Sinatra).

*And yes, of course, I always take at least two books along so I have options. I'm already dragging an air mattress, pillows, all our clothes and a thermometer and kids' Tylenol (just in case, because I am nuts), so what's a couple more things to drag along?

**I didn't just learn about Frank Sinatra in these books. I can quite honestly say I never realized what a disgusting pig and prick John F. Kennedy was until reading about his dealings with Sinatra and Hollywood (namely: women in Hollywood). Gross.

***Also, please note: Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't read music. How crazy is that? He learned the songs by reading the lyrics and having the songs played to him once or twice.


Really, doctors? Luke Dittrich's "Patient H.M."

Everything I read about Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets indicated it would be a good read. And you know what? It was.

Patient hmOf course, "good" is a relative term here. The story centers on one lobotomy, performed on one man, but the author does a good job of combining the many story points: the story of "H.M."'s brain injury, seizures, and eventual treatment by lobotomy (which made him into one of the most studied psychological subjects of all time, as his lobotomy affected his memory, and how we store and process memories is a ridiculously complex process to try and understand); the history of the lobotomy procedure in general; the biography of William Scofield, a pioneering neurosurgeon; and the author's family, including his grandmother, married to his grandfather (that same William Scofield), who suffered her own mental hospitalization and horrific mid-twentieth-century treatments. Dittrich also delves into the horrifying treatment of psychological subjects like Henry Molaison, and the possessiveness of one scientist he made famous, Suzanne Corkin, and her destruction of many of the files (the raw experimental data). This last part of the book has led to some controversy; MIT, where Corkin worked, has since questioned Dittrich's facts and reporting.

So it's an interesting book on a lot of different levels. I enjoyed the good journalistic writing, although I felt the organization lacked a little something, and the book sometimes bounced around a bit too much in time and subject for me. It wasn't poorly done--this is clearly a well-researched and documented (Dittrich, in his response to MIT's questions, even provides an audio clip of one of his interviews with Suzanne Corkin) labor of love. It just means you have to pay a bit of attention to it while you read it.

But I can find no faults with the prose. This is Dittrich's re-creation of his grandmother's state of mind before she became a patient of a mental hospital and her own husband:

"There were people in the cellar. My grandmother could hear them. She had thought she was alone in the house, except for her children, who were asleep in their bedrooms. Now it appeared she was wrong. The children were asleep and my grandmother was not and she could hear people in the cellar.

She was terrified.

It was late January 1944, in a comfortable single-family home on Frankland Street in Walla Walla, Washington. My grandfather, as usual, was at work, this time on an overnight shift at the U.S. Army's McCaw General Hospital, where he served as chief of neurosurgery. Just the day before, he had come back from a weeklong conference in Spokane. They had been married for ten years, and it had always been like that, his career constantly pulling him away." (p. 51.)

The medical descriptions of brain surgery and lobotomy are also compelling:

"Without him having to ask for it, the scrub nurse passed my grandfather a long, thin tool called a flat brain sptaula, reminiscent of a shoehorn, which he inserted carefully into the hole in the right side of Copasso's forehead. He levered up that hemisphere of her frontal lobes and peered inside. He was looking for the nueral fibers connecting the lower, orbital portions of the grontal lobes to some of the deeper structures in the brain. Once he spotted his targets, he inserted another tool, a suction catheter--a very small, slender, electric-powered vacuum--and sucked the fibers out. The he retracted the sptual and the catheter and moved to the other hole." (pp. 147-148.)

I'd like to say I read a lot of this book in a state of disbelief, but I know enough about the history of lobotomies and the ridiculous shit that doctors will try, that I didn't. It was completely believable, sadly. And even once you got past all the lobotomy stuff, the experiments H.M. (an individual named Henry Molaison) had to endure, the author's personal history, well, then there was still all the stuff about the ethical treatment (or lack thereof) of patients like Molaison, and the power squibbles and squabbles that go on between medical personnel, academics, and researchers.

I don't think this book will be the huge hit that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was, simply because it is more complex, and not quite as immediately personal (if that makes any sense). Skloot's book was a bit more of a page-turner, told with more righteous indignation. But I think Dittrich's book is even more chilling in its excision of all the layers of the story. One thing I do think this book should be used for is to discuss how "nonfiction" rests so much on personal accounts and personal storytelling, that it is almost impossible to announce what is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


Nancy Isenberg's White Trash.

White trashOkay, I did not get through all of Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. It's 321 dense pages long, plus notes, for the love of all that's holy. To get through that much serious nonfiction I would need at least another 321 years.

But I did read the first 100 pages thoroughly, and then skimmed most of the book from page 200 on. And I really, really liked it. It's a totally different look at America's history, and provides a nice "look behind the curtains" that are the ruling mythologies of our American experience. We're exceptional? Well, no, not really, a lot of our first settlers ended up here because other countries were looking to dump their poor and challenging citizens somewhere else. All our founders were here for the noble goal of religious freedom? Again, no. See the answer above. The histories of the colonies and how they came about, and the more targeted look at our Founding Fathers' writings (from Thomas Jefferson to Ben Franklin, along with a number of other not-so-well-known names), were quite detailed (and a little dry, sometimes) but still: v. v. interesting.

The latter half of the book is more about "white trash" and poor whites in modern history, including chapters about enforced sterilization and eugenics, Elvis Presley, Lyndon B. Johnson, integration, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. There was a LOT here to think about, in terms of race, economics, and social class.

So. Here's a bit from the introduction:

"In the most literal terms, as we shall see, British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste. The poor, the waste, did not disappear, and by the early eighteenth century they were seen as a permanent breed. This way of classifying human failure took hold in the United States. Every era in the continent's vaunted developmental story had its own taxonomy of waste people--unwanted and unsalvageable. Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal." (pp. 1-2.)

I don't read a lot of serious history and it shows; I wanted to give this one more time and attention. (Someone at the Atlantic did: here's their article.) If you're looking for some American history that is most definitely not "same old, same old," I would consider this one.


Link: Review of the new book "Empire of Things."

In Monday's New Nonfiction list, I said that Frank Trentmann's title Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First sounded interesting. And now here's a review of it that really makes me want to read it!*

*And this is not an April Fools joke. I always used to hate April Fools' Day, but last night CRjr was running around saying nonsensical (and to him, hilarious) things, and then shouting, "April Fools!" It made me feel a bit more warmly towards April 1.


Link: A Presidents' Day reading list.

Courtesy of Becky at RA for All, a great list of authors for books about American presidents, both fiction and nonfiction:

http://raforall.blogspot.com/2016/02/happy-presidents-day-ra-for-all-reading.html

Enjoy! Maybe if you keep busy reading any of those books you'll be able to ignore the rat race (and I do mean race of actual rats) of this year's presidential election season.