Investigative

Wherever You Go, Just Take Enough Books.

Last weekend I spent a night at my mom's house, as she is getting older and sometimes needs a little additional help.

It actually turned out to be kind of a nice night without the Internet (she doesn't have it at her house) and TV (which I didn't want to watch because I didn't want to be too noisy). Luckily I had planned accordingly and taken enough books. What was in my travel bag?

Edward Snowden's memoir Permanent Record, which I have read before but wanted to read again because, hello, Edward Snowden, I could read about Edward Snowden for a thousand hours and still not get bored.

Terry Brooks's The Elfstones of Shannara, because even us nonfiction kids need a little fantasy every now and then, and it's a good nostalgia read, since I haven't read any Terry Brooks since I was about twelve.

Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, because I'm reading it for background info for a novel project I'm working on, and might I just say, goddamn, Jane Jacobs even makes sociological writing interesting.

Kathy Aarons's Truffled to Death: A Chocolate Covered Mystery, because sometimes lately I just need a cozy mystery.

The essay collection Table Talk from The Threepenny Review, because I just subscribed to The Threepenny Review in print and have really been enjoying the short essays I find there. (And, let's face it, I am trying to learn how to write essays because I had a lot of essay rejections this year and I'm desperate to know what I'm doing wrong.)

Daniel Berrigan's Essential Writings, because the actor John Cusack responded to me at Twitter and suggested I read Berrigan and also Noam Chomsky. And when Lloyd Dobler talks, friends, I LISTEN.

Last but not least: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, because I want to live blog reading this bad boy next year. I'm ten pages in and it has basically explained America to me.

I also wrote in my journal and did some other work and a few hours after she first went to bed my mom woke up and had kind of a surreal conversation with me, in which I learned a few details about my own birth.

Wild times in CR Land. My hope for you this holiday season is that, wherever you are, you have enough books.*

*In other news, title links now go to my affiliate store at Bookshop.org; anything you buy there after entering the site through these links sends a small percentage of the purchase price my way. Thank you!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Happy Anniversary, Knapp Commission Hearings.

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

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

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

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

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


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

So, lately I can't sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Labor Day 2021: Need a good book on work?

Hey, everyone, and welcome to the 2021 edition of my favorite holiday of the year: Labor Day! Now, avoid your family, skip church, don't go to work, and do all the other things that make this holiday so great.

As you may or may not know, I love books about work, and each Labor Day I round up all the job- and work-related nonfiction I read in the prior year. I'm off to look through the year and see what I've got...and here it is:

And that, friends, represents a lot of the books I wrote about here in general. Work is one of my favorite subjects to read about, perhaps because reading about work is so, SO much easier than doing work.

The books above were all really good reads; the links go to my reviews. I would particularly recommend Fulfillment, because if you need the incentive to break yourself of your Amazon habit, that might help. Amazon is killing us. It really is. And it's no good for the climate, either. Which is also killing us.

In other Labor Day news I read a stupendous book last week titled The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. I read large chunks of it at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning (I can't sleep anymore, thanks to perimenopause, and might I just ask why every stage of womanhood has to be horrifying?), which is a very surreal time to reading, and it was a very surreal book: fascinating and sad and crazy and thoughtful. More on that later. It deserves its own review.

So, Happy Labor Day 2021. And here, in case you want to see them, are our Labor Day lists from previous years:  2020, 2019 part 1 and part 2. 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.


I know it's easy to shop at Amazon, but please stop shopping at Amazon.

Over the last few weeks I spent some quality time reading Alex MacGillis's new book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click AmericaIt is about Amazon, but more broadly, it is about how Amazon is ruining many aspects of American life. It is a super-depressing read.

Fulfillment jpgI absolutely adore journalism, history, and sociology books that help me see what I call the "big picture"--how specific actions, policies, and habits contribute to large-scale cultures and situations. To me the gold standard of this kind of writing is Brian Alexander--whose investigative books Glass House and The Hospital showed me how capitalism and health care, respectively, both suck in America. If you didn't want to call these books "big picture" books, I suppose you could call them "journalistic accounts that help you view the macro through the lens of the micro," but I would never say that because I hate the phrase "through the lens of..."

I got about 75 pages into MacGillis's book, when he was talking about how Amazon the company and Bezos the head of Amazon impact housing costs, manufacturing, and even the massive amounts of money to be found among the upper-class in Washington, D.C. The book at that point was so "big picture" that it was actually a little hard for me to follow, but I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, because it is really a comprehensive and well-researched book.

It's gross. Amazon is gross from start to finish, and so is Jeff Bezos. I can't even pull out a representative quote for you because all of the book's stories rest on other stories and numbers and research and it all kind of has to be absorbed together to be believed. But trust me: the lengths to which this company will go to sell you absolutely everything--at a fairish price now but most likely at a nightmare-ish price later--are astounding. Forget about all of us citizens being fucked at both the national and state levels of politics, where money rules. Amazon reaches right down into local governments and seeks to remove all of your rights at the level of where you live.

So here are my suggestions:

  1. Read the book (of course). It's a challenge but stick with it.
  2. Stop shopping at Amazon. If you can't stop cold turkey, at least delete your Prime membership or don't sign up for one. More than anything, Jeff Bezos wants you to sign up for Amazon Prime. Don't do it. I'm begging you.

I have been trying to avoid shopping on Amazon this summer and year and I have mostly been successful. Sometimes you are going to pay more and wait a bit longer for merchandise, but you can do it. Sometimes you might actually find things elsewhere a little cheaper or nearer by you. Here's a little story to get you started:

The eldest CRjr needed a watch because we are trying to let him take baby steps to independence and walk with a friend to a nearby park. To do that, I had to be able to tell him a time when I needed him back, and he needed to be able to know the time, so, presto, he needed a watch. We looked at some on Amazon for $23, but I am now completely just sickened whenever I hear the word "Amazon" so I told him we'd go look at a local hardware store that has a time center/watch shop in it. And we found a watch that actually fits him better (the face is smaller) for $30. The guy was super nice and set the time and date for us, and the younger CRjr of course also then wanted a watch, but they didn't have any similar ones for a similar price (there was a fifty-dollar one but I am not strapping a fifty-dollar watch on a grade-schooler). So then we came home and found a very similar watch on Timex.com.

Results? We spent a little bit more, but we got better watches and better-fitting watches (I think the $23 ones we were looking at on Amazon were Amazon knock-off brands of their branded better sellers, something Amazon does a lot to get you coming and going). We had a fun outing. Me and the CRjrs had a nice chat on the way out about how it was nice to spend $30 in our town, in a store where local people were working.

It felt good. It won't save the world but it's 23 more dollars that will not be added to Jeff Bezos's billions.


How did it get to be July 30, 2021?

It seems like just yesterday I was posting about July 30 as National Whistleblower Day, and here we are again.

Happy National Whistleblower Day!

I wish I could report better news on the "let's be more humane as a society to the people who tell us about all the illegal and immoral secret shit going on" front, but I don't. Whistleblower Daniel Hale, who revealed information to The Intercept about how America's "precise" drone warfare strikes were not really so precise and killed a lot of innocent people, was sentenced to prison for 45 months this past Tuesday for doing so.

The Biden administration was asking that he be sent to prison for nine years, so I guess 45 months in prison is to be considered "good news." It's still wrong.

It feels like I am reading all the time, and yet I don't have much to report here. For one thing a good chunk of my reading has been about how to implement a plant-based diet, as Mr. CR has developed more heart disease symptoms and I'm interested in keeping Mr. CR as healthy as possible for as long as possible, because I like him a lot. The other day we were chatting a bit about people who love to carry guns, and I said, Why would you need to walk around with 80 pistols? (because I like to exaggerate but also because it seems like some people want to walk around with a lot of guns) and Mr. CR answered, Well, what would you do, Miss Smarty Pants, if the first 79 you were wearing didn't work?

That's Mr. CR's sense of humor, and you can see why it's important to keep him on the planet.

In other reading news I am re-reading Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which knocked me over the first time I read it and is knocking me over again. Also, I started George Orwell's 1984, because I never read it. Have you? Has anyone? It's interesting.

I'm also trying to write a lot more. And got this published at The Progressive, in honor of July 30: "Shining a Light on the Tales of Whistleblowers." It's a review of director Sonia Kennebeck's trilogy of fascinating documentaries: National Bird, Enemies of the State, and United States vs. Reality Winner. They are excellent films and nobody shows you how tricky (and important) it can be to ask questions and try to figure out the truth better than Sonia Kennebeck does.

So how is your summer going? Whatcha reading?


My summer of cheerful reading commences.

Mr. CR frequently tells me that periodically I should, perhaps, just maybe, consider reading nonfiction or fiction that isn't "as depressing as hell."

It's a fair point, and I want to work with Mr. CR, but the only book on my shelf I want to read right now is titled Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Evidently it's about rising death rates among middle-aged (mostly male) individuals who don't hold college degrees, and what about our current American system might be encouraging those rising rates. Or, as the authors say:

"Along the way, we had discovered that suicide rates among middle-aged white Americans were rising rapidly. We found something else that puzzled us. Middle-aged white Americans were hurting in other ways. They were reporting more pain and poorer overall health, not as much as older Americans--health worse with age, after all--but the gap was closing. Health among the elderly was improving while health among the middle-aged was worsening...

To our surprise, 'accidental poisonings' were a big part of the story. How could this be? Were people somehow accidentally drinking Drano or weed killer? In our (then) innocence, we did not know that 'accidental poisonings' was the category that contained drug overdoses, or that there was an epidemic of deaths from opioids, already well established and still rapidly spreading. Deaths from alcoholic liver disease were rising rapidly too, so that the fastest-rising death rates were from three causes: suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver disease...We came to call them 'deaths of despair,' mostly as a convenient label for the three causes taken together." (pp. 1-2.)

So there's that. And when that's too depressing I have, on deck, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which I will actually be re-reading because it blew my mind the first time:

"Jessica was good at attracting boys, but less good at holding on to them. She fell in love hard and fast. She desperately wanted to be somebody's real girlfriend, but she always ended up the other girl, the mistress, the one they saw on the down-low, the girl nobody claimed. Boys called up to her window after they'd dropped off their main girls, the steady ones they referred to as wives. Jessica still had her fun, but her fun was somebody else's trouble, and for a wild girl at the dangerous age, the trouble could get big." (p. 3.)

Ahhhh. Summer beach reading, the Citizen Reader way. What's on your TBR pile for the summer?

 


Citizen Reader Elsewhere: On the wrongful imprisonment of whistleblower Daniel Hale.

Who wants to start their week by reading about a travesty of justice?

Of course you've come to the right place.

I really want you to read this whole post, so I'm going to keep this whistleblower story as short and as simple as possible (which whistleblower stories never are).

Right now there is a man named Daniel Hale sitting in jail.

If you follow national news at all, do you recall hearing about America's policy of pursuing drone warfare? That is, the art of using drones to drop bombs on suspected (mostly "war on terror" type) enemy targets? If not, much of the history of this policy, which began under George W. Bush and has continued, can be explained in relatively short order in the series of articles known as The Drone Papers, published by The Intercept.

Basically, military and intelligence personnel watch targets of interest by using drones, decide that they are the targets America's commander in chief has decided need to be executed, and then drop bombs on them (again by drone) to execute them.

There are some problems with this system. The data can be faulty and the wrong person can be killed. It can lead to death by stereotype; basically, in areas like Afghanistan, any "military-age male" is considered an enemy target. A lot of civilians get killed just because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.*

How do we know this? At least in part to whistleblower Daniel Hale, who was in the Air Force from 2009 to 2013, and then worked as a contractor in the intelligence industry. He knew this was happening, and he revealed some classified information to the Intercept. For this, he has now been charged with multiple counts against the 1917 Espionage Act. Each count against Hale carries the threat of serious jail time. On the advice of his public defender lawyers, Hale recently pleaded guilty to one count and is awaiting sentencing this July. During the past few weeks, Hale was already arrested and jailed, supposedly to keep him from being a danger to himself. He has been put in solitary confinement in a Virginia jail and is there now.

This story makes me so furious with the unfairness of it all that I just don't know where to turn. Whistleblowers are going to jail to tell the American public information they need to know--regardless of who I vote for, I am complicit in our country's (racist?) war machine. It is not fair that people just walking around in other countries, living their lives, were killed or lost limbs because they were in the wrong place, near someone WE (yes we; it's being done in my name as an American) decided needed to be executed. So then someone came forward to inform the American public, and he is being punished. Severely.

See? Not simple. But if you are interested in some further reading:

A Drone Whistleblower's Quest for Justice (this is an article I wrote for The Progressive, a quick overview of the case)

Daniel Hale Blew the Whistle on the US’s Illegal Drone Program. He’s a Hero, Not a Criminal, by Chip Gibbons, at Jacobin. A longer and better article.

Watch National Bird, a heartbreaking 2016 documentary featuring Hale and other military personnel, as well as civilian victims of our drones.

Visit Stand with Daniel Hale and learn ways you can support Hale.

Sorry to go on so long. I just can't stand it when bullies win, especially when they win against decent people who are just trying to tell the truth. And it's starting to feel like they win all the time.

*On civilians being killed: "Since 2001, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as the Predator and General Atomics’ larger and more capable MQ-9 Reaper have completed thousands of missions, sometimes with unintentional consequences. While 2016 statistics released by President Obama revealed that 473 strikes had accounted for between 2,372 and 2,581 combatant deaths since 2009, according to a 2014 report in The Guardian, the civilian death toll resulting from drone strikes was, at the time, in the neighborhood of 6,000." Source.


Now I'm reading books about "The Wire."

If you knew how much of my mental energy in the past few years has gone to thinking about the collected works of David Simon (including his fantastic True Crime classic Homicide, his more personal and sociological book The Corner, and of course, the TV show he wrote and produced, The Wire) you would probably be a little appalled.

All the pieces matterI can't help it. When somebody knows their business--and I think David Simon knows his business of reporting by going to where people are and hanging out with them--I am powerless to look away. So a few weekends ago I plowed through the oral history All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, by Jonathan Abrams.

It's a great book, and if you're interested in how great TV is made, it's a great primer in that too. Actually, if you know any youthful aspiring drama club members or actors, this would be a very handy book about the actors' (and writers', actually) craft to give to them.

Abrams went and interviewed a lot of the star's main actors, writers, directors, and crew members, so the result truly gives you a picture of the TV production world (as well as of Baltimore, where the series really was filmed). Although I enjoyed the whole thing--and drove Mr. CR nuts by reading pieces of it to him all weekend long--I really enjoyed the interviews with David Simon and Ed Burns, who were the creators and main writers of the show. I also enjoyed the interviews with George Pelecanos, a crime writer who also wrote many of the show's most infamous episodes.

So, consider this quote from David Simon, in which he is talking about a discussion he had with one of the actors, about the possibility of reforming systems:

"I had told him it was much harder to reform a system. The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty." (p. 68.)

This came up at least once as he was explaining to the actors that the show itself was going to be a cruel world, where nothing was going to get fixed systemically. "I was going to promote all the wrong people, and the same policies were going to go on...that's how the show ended." (p. 65.)

And that's why The Wire is so hard to watch, and why it's so great.

I think I was reading this one too fast to even stick bookmarks in at every part I wanted, but I'm going to read it again someday. On this first pass it was just totally a much-needed and much-appreciated pleasure read.


Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, by Rosa Brooks.

Tangled up in blueI'm a total sucker for police procedurals, in both book and TV form (hello The Wire, best TV program ever), so it should come as no surprise that I found Rosa Brooks's new book Tangled Up In Blue: Policing the American City, to be a fascinating read.

Brooks, a journalist and Georgetown University professor, decided to apply to become a reserve police officer in the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to try and understand what policing a community looks like. Although the job is a volunteer, unpaid one, it is no small undertaking; reserve police officers with the MPD go through the same police academy and eventually become sworn, armed police officers with full arrest powers (which they keep, as long as they fulfill their end of the bargain: working at least twenty-four hours of patrol each month).

Brooks's narrative takes you through her application process, her academy training, and what she learned on patrol. It wasn't my favorite book ever, but it was certainly engrossing. I wasn't really surprised by most of the problems Brooks faced while patrolling or the types of calls she dealt with (that's what happens when you read a lot of depressing nonfiction and police procedurals), but I was interested to hear how difficult it can be to get in and out of your uniform and juggle all the things you have to juggle, like driving while plugging information into your car's police computer, or how many different phones and radios you have to juggle because they police-issued phones that work with the radio don't make calls, so you have to have your personal cell phone with you at all times.

In another interesting twist, Brooks is also the daughter of investigative author Barbara Ehrenreich (who I sometimes enjoy reading but who is not one of my favorite NF authors), so I enjoyed the brief insights into Ehrenreich's thoughts on the police and how Brooks reacted to them.

An interesting read and a sometimes enlightening one. With all the focus on what police work can be and should be, now might be a good time to read it.


Live Work Work Work Die, by Corey Pein

Mr. CR saw this book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, by Corey Pein, on the end table and he said, "Kudos to you, another depressing nonfiction book."

Which I think is rich, coming from Mr. CR, who is my partner in our natural (if not ideal) habit of always imagining the worst-case scenario. He's way more bleak than me, but he hides it better, mostly because he's very, very quiet.

I know. You totally want to hang out in our cheerful, laugh-a-minute home, don't you?*

Anyway. He was right. This book was super depressing.

PeinIt's been on that end table for a week now, because that's where I set it when I finished reading it, had a little cry, and then moved on to whatever homeschooling, caregiving, or freelancing stuff I had going on that day. I've been trying for a week to get myself to post about this book, because I actually do think you should read it.

Pein set out to live and succeed in Silicon Valley, figuring there's tons of start-up cash available there for whatever kind of start-up he might be able to dream up (and then kind of vaguely start, and then cash out of). In other words, and as the jacket copy proclaims: "To truly understand the delirious reality of the tech entrepreneurs, he knew he would have to inhabit that perspective--he would have to become an entrepreneur himself."

And so he does. The first hurdle, of course, is finding a place to live on a journalist's budget in Silicon Valley. It's pretty much impossible, and it involves either living with many, many other tech workers in tiny, tiny, tiny (and shared) living spaces, or actually in a tent that somebody is renting out as an Airbnb. The second hurdle is dreaming up an idea for a start-up, and then getting that idea in front of investors. Third? Try not to lose your soul.

I think I left this book sitting on the end table because I knew it was going to be hard for me to do it justice in a review. It's sort of a strange concept, but there's no doubt that Pein does a very good job of dropping the reader right in the middle of Silicon Valley culture, and WOW, I find that a hugely scary place to be.

The most disturbing story (for me, anyway) in a book of disturbing stories came at the end, when the author describes his and his spouse's life in India, where they lived in 2016. At that time, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, implemented a policy of "demonetization," because he wanted people to move to smartphone apps for all of their transactions. So Modi's government announced that two denominations of Indian currency--two denominations that comprised nearly 90% of all cash in circulation--wouldn't be considered legal tender and had to be turned in for larger bills.

That sounds fairly benign until you learn that the Indian government partnered with a tech company on a start-up app called Paytm, that was in no way able to handle the massive amounts of Indian citizens' daily transactions. It was a disaster:

"In the cities, many sick and elderly people died in the long ATM lines--in at least one case, a doctor refused treatment after demanding cash, which was, of course, what everyone was waiting in line for. It was easy to spend an entire day traipsing from one machine to another, only to find them all out of cash. But these problems were largely invisible to India's wealthy and middle class, who hired servants to do their shopping and thus escaped the battle of will and endurance that suddenly characterized routine commerce." (p. 290.)

Does that last bit sound like anywhere you know? Maybe everywhere, just recently when wealthier people paid desperate people (not enough) to go out and do their shopping or driving or other basic commerce for them? I thought, huh, I'm surprised no politician here has demanded that we all turn in cash and use only a Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos approved/created payment app.

Then I remembered, that just hasn't happened YET.

I know, it's depressing. Read this book anyway.

*Actually, we all do laugh a lot. First off, the CRjrs are hilarious little animals, and also, if you have an absurdist sense of humor, there is a LOT of material in our current world at which to laugh.


It's not everyone's cuppa for comfort reading, I'll grant you.

Over this past weekend, being completely out of Agatha Raisins, I turned my attention back to nonfiction.

On Friday night I watched a documentary titled We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which was about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Bonus points: I learned that Assange is actually an Australian. Why this struck me as so strange I have no idea; but for some reason I had the idea he was from a Nordic country.

It was a good movie; WikiLeaks is a fascinating concept and Julian Assange, whatever else you think about him, is one strange and unique dude. The hardest part of the documentary was learning more about Chelsea Manning, which, I'm not going to lie, was mainly heartbreaking. She mainly tried to let people know how many civilians our drones were killing in Iraq, and her life has been never-ending torture ever since.

RadicalThen, on Saturday, for something a little different, I turned to the book A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, about four nuns who were murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Another light read. But wow, is it stupendous. A compelling biography of Maura Clarke, one of the women who was murdered, as well as a well-told history. It's by a journalist named Eileen Markey, and I'm not kidding: it's a compellingly told story in which nearly every single paragraph is footnoted and referenced. I don't even know how she did that. It is an amazing, and inspiring, book, and I do not throw those words around lightly.

On Sunday I treated myself to a refresher course on the My Lai massacre and one of the whistleblowers who revealed it, Ron Ridenhour, in order to write a story on Medium called "The Soldiers Who Told the Truth."

It wouldn't have been comfort reading for everyone, I know, but reading so many difficult and heartbreaking stories made me more determined to find the good in each story. Learning about Chelsea Manning makes me want to cry for Chelsea Manning, but WOW. Talk about a person who tried to tell other people about a massacre that was making her sick, and how she paid for it. Such bravery. Ditto with Sister Maura Clarke and so many others who tried to rebel against corrupt (and American-backed, ye Gods) regimes in Central America, in Nicaragua and El Salvador specifically. Such bravery. And of course any of the soldiers in Vietnam who chose to defy their superiors' orders and NOT kill civilians in My Lai, as well as Ron Ridenhour, who listened to soldiers' stories and wrote thirty letters to various politicians and top Army officers until somebody paid attention. Such bravery.

People both freak me out and amaze me. For some reason I like books and stories that show me that whole continuum. And nothing gives me that like nonfiction does.


Evolution of a reading obsession.

I'm still reading everything I can find about whistleblowers.

When I finally finished every Agatha Raisin cozy mystery I could get (yes, the whole series, 31 titles, although I see there's a new one expected at the end of next year*) over the holiday season, I celebrated by going back to my typical fare: books that Mr. CR calls "depressing nonfiction."

BolkovacThe depressing book in question is The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman's Fight for Justice, by Kathryn Bolkovac, with Cari Lynn.

Former Nebraska police officer Bolkovac details her time spent in war-torn Bosnia at the end of the 1990s and early years of the 2000s, after she applied to and went to work for a private military contractor. She thought she would be spending her time helping support a UN peacekeeping mission in the region, but that turned out not to be the case, particularly when she began filing reports about how women were being trafficked into and out of Bosnia, and, more importantly, who was paying to use those victims.

Mr. CR was right. It was depressing.

Particularly when Bolkovac tells one story of how she started to realize that many members of the international forces (including her co-workers) were not so much helping in an already bad situation as they were taking advantage of it. Consider her tale about "Carl":

"That evening, as [Carl] drove me home, he was not his normal, happy self. He told me his girlfriend had left him. I figured he had been trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with a woman back home and she just grew tired of being so far apart. But then he sighed and said, 'Yep, she ran away.'

I did not understand. 'She's a local girl,' he explained.

'Did she go back to live with her family?' I asked, still confused, but thinking she was probably a language assistant or secretary who worked in our offices.

'Well, she's not exactly from Bosnia. I think her passport says Romania or Moldova or something...' His voice trailed off, and he looked helpless.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I looked straight at him. 'Carl, where did you meet her?'

'At the Como Bar.'

My eyes narrowed. 'Is it possible she'd been trafficked into Bosnia?'

'Oh, I don't know about that, Kathy,' he said dubiously. 'I bought her from Tanjo, he's the owner of the Como.'

I clutched my armrest, digging in my nails. I knew of Tanjo--he was one of the most notorious traffickers in the region. The Human Rights Office had been after this elusive man for several years--and all the while DynCorp's very own Carl had been having up-close-and-personal dealings with him?

'Tanjo gave her to me for 6,000 Deutsch Marks,' Carl continued as if he were talking about a puppy. 'I kept her in my apartment, and I wanted to marry her and brig her back to the States. But she ran away yesterday, and she took my mobile phone. I'd at least like my phone back.'" (pp. 148-149.)

Sigh.

Bolkovac's story followed the standard whistleblower plot: She noticed the problem, she tried to report the problem, her reports were covered up, she kept pushing because she didn't understand why her reports weren't being filed, and then she started to be retaliated against by her employer. It never fails to strike me as a really disheartening narrative, but she was (unlike many whistleblowers) vindicated in the end, although vindication did not really make up for her eventually losing the DynCorp job or the accusations she withstood during the entire process.

It was an interesting read, but dry at times. If you don't have the time to give to the book, it was also made into a movie starring Rachel Weisz; you might want to try that.

*The last Agatha Raisin I read was noted to be co-written by M.C. Beaton (the original author) and somebody named R.W. Green, and was published after Beaton's death in 2019. I stuck with it, but it sucked, and I can't say I'm too hopeful about the next installment, which I'm guessing will also be written by Green.


Great News!

Whistleblower Edward Snowden and his wife Lindsay Mills are having a baby!

Yes, I know you probably thought I was talking about something else, but let's face it, unless it pertains to whistleblowers, I don't follow political news at all anymore. I don't want to get into a whole big thing about it, but I might just caution against thinking rural voters are a completely different species than anyone else. For a truly eye-opening look at the cultures, economics, and politics of living in rural America, I would highly suggest reading Paula vW. Dáil's excellent Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest.

But: that is all neither here nor there.

Moral mazesThis week I'd like to tell you about this SUPER book I've been reading all summer long: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. It was first published in 1988, and I'm reading the twentieth anniversary edition from 2008, but I'm telling you, it reads like it was written this morning. Anyone who is feeling grossed out by our world of corporations and groupthink and organizational behavior (three things which all gross me out A LOT), is going to find a lot to read about in this book.

Ostensibly the book is about the "occupational ethics of corporate managers," and can also be considered a "sociology of the peculiar form of bureaucracy dominant in American business."

Now that makes it sound dry as hell, and I'm not going to lie to you, this is an academic book. It requires slow reading and attention, which is why I can only get through about 1.5 pages every day, in between yelling at the CRjrs to stop hitting each other so hard (I've given up on telling them to stop hitting each other full-stop). But if you put in the work, I think you'll be rewarded, because here is a quote from an actual manager that REALLY tells you what the book is about:

"As a former vice-president of a large firm says: 'What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'" (p. 4.)

And if that doesn't explain a lot of what is going wrong in the world today, I don't know what does.

More to come. Have a good week, all.


Happy COVID Autumn.

I used to enjoy living in Wisconsin. But it's not been the most peaceful of places just now.

I don't have any answers or any ideas and I'm actually kind of tired of listening to people who think they do. So, it's back to avoidance of life through reading, and friends, I EXCEL at that sport.

So what I have been reading?

First up: the Agatha Raisin cozy mystery series by M.C. Beaton. I was never really into Beaton before now, but then I watched the fantastic series Agatha Raisin, starring the always-underappreciated Ashley Jensen.

The mysteries are terrible, beyond simplistic, but I LOVE Ashley Jensen as Agatha Raisin, and it turns out in the books that I just love Agatha Raisin for all her middle-aged prickliness (which hides a soft gooey center of kindness and insecurity). I'm in the early part of the series still, before Beaton started to phone them in (I've read a few later entries and yes, they get a little more slapdash), so that's good stuff.

I also polished off a few illustrated biographies/histories by an author named Ted Rall, who I really enjoy. Previously I have read his biography of Edward Snowden*, titled simply Snowden, but this month I tackled Francis: The People's Pope and Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party, which was a fantastic American history book no matter what your politics.** I would highly recommend Ted Rall, and, as a special treat for these troubled, disjointed times, they are very quick reads.

Last but not least, for most of the summer I dipped into and out of Paula vW. Dáil's superlative Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest, which, no kidding, is a meaty buy for your library or for you at $29.95. If you are at all confused about what it's like living in rural America today, this book will lay it out for you with research, personal interviews, and economic numbers that will make a lot of things very, very clear. I'm from the rural Midwest, and I loved this book for the many ways it was right on, and for the many ways it pointed out how rural people who know things are continually screwed in our country, and also the pros and cons of their rural communities (and how they live within them). It's not easy to find a scholarly book that isn't condescending, but this one isn't, and I was endlessly grateful for that. I won't lie--it can get dry--but wow, I sure kept reading it. I would highly recommend it.

So. What have YOU been reading?

*The only piece of news I've seen for months that really made me happy was this one: Edward Snowden has been given permanent residency in Russia. I'm sad because this means I'll probably never be able to vote for him for president, but I can also stop worrying every three years (that was how often they had been renewing his visa or whatever he had for staying there) that he'll be returned to this country and executed just for being a decent, thinking human being.

**Okay, Republicans probably won't like it, but I'm a Nothing (politically, socially, professionally) and I enjoyed it.


Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

This week I got the best thing ever in the mail: a book present from a friend.*

The book in question is Derf Backderf's new book Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio, and it is a nonfiction graphic novel about the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. That was when the National Guard was called in to restore order to the campus in the face of protests, and ended up firing into the crowd and killing four people (and injuring nine more). To this day nobody knows who gave the order to fire or why, and nobody knows who specifically did the shooting. If you don't know the story, you should immediately read this book, or read this to start with.

Kent stateAs my friend said, she hoped I enjoyed the book, although she felt that "enjoy" (considering the subject matter) was not really the right word to use.

The book is unbelievable. I'm not a huge graphic novel reader, but I find I enjoy graphic novel nonfiction in graphic form, particularly for historical or science stories that are interesting to me but on which I don't have the time to read a regular nonfiction book. What is perhaps the most stunning is the section of notes and bibliographical material; Backderf provides sources and information for every picture and page he draws, and it is fascinating to learn just how difficult it is to find the truth of this one story. History is anything but dry; excavating the layers upon layers of trying to find the facts of this story in different accounts and photos must have been quite a job.

I read the book in one breathless run (yes, I ignored the children, and the meals, and the house, and other work--you just have to do that sometimes). It also led me to do a little bit of poking around on YouTube to see what else I can find, and one thing I found was Glenn Frank's impassioned plea to the students to just leave the protest so they all wouldn't get shot. Frank was a professor at Kent State and you have got to go watch this recording of his scream. I've thought about this book (and that clip) a lot, this week.

This is what everyone should scream in the face of any violence: "Jesus Christ, I don't want to be a part of this."

Buy, and read, this book.

And thank you to my friend who sent it. You're right, "enjoy" was the wrong word. But it was the right book for me at the right time.

*Okay, we all know the best things to get in the mail are checks. Preferably large ones. But that doesn't happen very often, and actually, book gifts are so FUN they might even beat checks.


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.


Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, by Adam Minter.

I don't have a whole lot to say about Adam Minter's Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, other than that I found it interesting and I liked it.

Minter is a journalist/author who investigated a lot of angles of the secondhand economy; I particularly enjoyed his behind-the-scenes information about Goodwill and particularly the many vendors who move between the US and Mexico, buying lots at Arizona Goodwills and then selling them south of the border. The chapter on kids' car seats and their "expiration dates," in particular, was fascinating:

"Professor Kullgren [a Swedish regulator] concluded by writing that Folksam's recommendation is that so long as a seat hasn't been in a crash or otherwise doesn't exhibit any damage, it's fine to use. He also noted that seat designs are always improving, so a consumer buying a newer seat is likely getting a safer seat--especially if the old one exceeds ten years in age. But there's nothing illegal or unsafe in using an older one.

Kullgren's email wouldn't have shocked any of the bidders at the Goodwill car seat auction. Roughly fifty seats were up for sale, and all but three sold, in a matter of minutes. Prices ranged from 5 to 30 dollars. AS the seats disappeared, one of the bidders asked a Goodwill employee when the next ones would arrive. Thinking back on the auction, I think it's too bad that Target recycled those more than 500,000 seats over the years. They would've sold, and many children south of the border would be safer because their parents had access to a secondhand market." (p. 199.)

That chapter in particular made me think differently about car seats, recycling, and how differently resources are used and recycled around the world. The entire book also gave me a desire to buy even less (which actually might be difficult for me, as I own only two pairs of pants and am not inclined to buy any more, even though I probably should), and perhaps even start a business helping people downsize and clear out their houses. I could totally do that, except the carrying out the heavy furniture part. Anybody wanna start that business with me?


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.