Investigative

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.


Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud.

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

I am not a Republican or a Democrat, but one of my pet peeves is when people lament to me what an American hero Barack Obama was and how much better off we were when he was the president. In the future, when they do that, I am going to read them this paragraph from Mueller's book:

"After years of endless war and institutionalized financial fraud had destabilized America, Barack Obama took office promising change, yet proceeded, through both acquiescence and action, to normalize the abuses Bush had introduced as wartime exigencies, and add a few of his own. He confirmed the de facto role of Wall Street as the rule of the US economy, and war as America's default condition. He staunchly defended Bush's torturers, kidnappers and other war criminals from prosecution, or even from opprobrium. He endorsed extralegal drone assassinations as an appropriate policy of a nation of laws, and mass surveillance of innocent US citizens as the right and the duty of the US government. And throughout, he attacked, relentlessly and vindictively, the few national security insiders (and several journalists) who questioned his betrayals of the Constitution and the people." (p. 838, large print edition.)

Boom. That's what I'm going to say when I have to offer proof for why I believe Obama was a terrible person, and Bush was a terrible person, and Clinton was a terrible person, and the first Bush was a terrible person, and so on and so forth, back to, I don't know, maybe Abraham Lincoln.

Awesome book, if you want to read a book and cry every time you're done reading a chapter.*

*Or, as Mr. CR says, "Reading more depressing nonfiction, are we? Of course you are."


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

Okay, I think I'm ready to talk about watching The Wire.

The Wire, which is an HBO television drama that aired over five seasons, from 2002 to 2008, was created and largely written by David Simon. It is one of those shows you constantly hear about, often in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Simpsons and Breaking Bad as some of the best TV ever made (or at least those are the TV shows you hear about from all the male TV critics, of whom there are more than female TV critics). For that reason, and also because I have a severe British television addiction problem, I never got around to watching it. I knew I would get there eventually, but I wasn't in any hurry.

So what tripped the wire in the fall of 2019 and made me think, hey, it's time to watch The Wire? I don't know, really. Back in 2017 I read David Simon's nonfiction True Crime masterpiece Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and that knocked me over. It's a classic. And it briefly went through my mind then to watch The Wire, or even Homicide: Life on the Street (which was the TV show based on Simon's Homicide book). But again. Never got that far. What can I say? Freelance jobs needed to be done and CRjrs needed to be fed, taken to various enriching activities, and hosed down once in a while.

But last fall my littlest CRjr. went to school, meaning that I now had marginally more time during the day to work, and had a whole free hour of time (time I would have spent working in previous years) between 9 p.m., when the eldest goes to bed, and 10 p.m., when I go to bed. So Mr. CR and I, crazy kids that we are, decided to fill that hour with episodes of The Wire.

I don't think we're ever going to be quite the same.

Here's the deal. The Wire is about Baltimore. To say it is a show about cops and drug dealers misses so, SO much. Cops and drug dealers may be the majority of the characters, particularly in the show's first season, but The Wire, at its heart, is about Baltimore. It is about everything that is going wrong in Baltimore and has been going wrong in Baltimore for decades. But it's not even that narrow. The Wire explores so many characters and storylines and themes and tenets of basic human behavior that it's actually a show about America. But it's even bigger than that. The Wire is a show about people. The end. Everything is on showcase here: people you like, people you don't like, people being shitheads, people being pragmatic, people being sweethearts, people being weak, people starting out trying to do something good but ending up being shitheads, people being shitheads who in small moments try to do something good, people being hilarious, people being obnoxious, people being racist, people not being racist, people being really really dumb and people being really really smart. In its insistence on strong and complex characterization, The Wire is a lot like the very best of British TV: you never quite know what's going to happen. But then when it does, it makes total sense. And then, the next day when you're out living your life, you see someone doing something great or mean or stupid or hilarious, and you can think of a corresponding scene from The Wire that reminds you of what you're out in the world looking at.

If you can't tell, I loved this show a lot. I loved this show with the whole fiber of my introverted being that loves and needs television just a little bit more than the average well-adjusted extroverted person.

And then I went to Half Price Books and was lucky enough to find a copy of The Corner, also by David Simon. Then I read that while I watched The Wire and dear readers, then my mind was well and truly blown.

More to come.


Trying to find the thread.

The CRjrs are both in school now, and dear friends, I am bereft.

They like school, and I'm glad for that. Likewise, it's been exciting to make ten years' worth of doctors' appointments, haircut appointments, car appointments, and house-repair appointments. But other than that? I really miss the Jrs. Sure they're enough to make you crazy, but whatever other nonsense I was doing with my day--freelancing, visiting Grandma, baking, etc.--when I was watching the CRjrs too it felt like I was actually getting something done. Doing a job I enjoyed, and was good at. I am a bit lost without that.

But, enough fooling around. I have plenty to do and am trying to write more, and I am trying to think what to do with this blog that will make it into more of an "author website." (Fingers crossed I get something published and can really lay claim to the "author" part of that equation.) I feel like I am spinning my wheels though. Would you like to hear about my current wheel-spin?

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

I know, weird list. But I have collected them purposefully and as I re-read them together, it seems to me they are all related. When I first started reading nonfiction, it felt like my mind blew up and I could see the connections between everything, like I wanted to tape a string to a passage in one nonfiction book, and then when I chanced across another nonfiction book that related to that passage (that starts to happen a lot when you read a lot of nonfiction), I would tape the other end of the string to that book. Bright orange string, and the nonfiction collection would be tied together with great big bunches of string. To this day when I walk into a library I don't see nonfiction shelves; I see books in a tapestry of orange string, just waiting for me to dive in and follow the leads and become enmeshed.

So how do those books relate? I don't know. It's something about being a woman, and how our ability to live and create and endure is beset on all sides with the thwarting of our wills to control; by violence; by poverty; by the weaknesses of our bodies (and the constant dealing humans have to do with shit and blood and bodily fluids, which, let's face it, is a lot that falls mainly to women). Except for the Hanff book. The Hanff book represents solely joy, and chutzpah, and the overwhelming will of women to do what it is they want to do, and how that's part of the experience too.

Yeah, I know. It makes no sense. But I'm going to keep on trying to work it out anyway. Otherwise I will notice that no CRjrs are around fighting about Legos to the point of throwing punches (the adjudication of which fights take up most of my time when the CRjrs are here) and be sad all over again.

You ever spin your wheels? Let me know how it's going with you.

*Mr. CR knows about my Stacy Horn fixation, but every time he sees me re-reading this book, he has to ask, "How many times can you read that book?" (Mr. CR is not really a re-reader.) And I say, "I'm not dead yet, so we'll just see, baby."


Labor Day work books: Just a few more.

Right after I finished compiling the list of books about work and jobs that I read last year, I realized that this week I've kept fairly busy reading more books about jobs, so here's the Labor Day List part two!

Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee. Okay, I didn't actually get this one read, but I started it a number of times. It's written by a former Facebook insider, and details all the horrible stuff Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, et. al. are doing to destroy our sanity, our lives, and our democracy. I couldn't get into it because I don't care a whole lot about how Facebook influences elections, because I think politics is a waste of time. But I do care that Facebook and tech in general are destroying our lives and how everyone seems mostly happy to let our lives be destroyed. (Please note: All the big money tech execs out in Silicon Valley are now paying to send their kids to "tech free" schools. What does that tell you?) Still: this book was too dense for me and I already know Zuckerberg and Sandberg are jerks. Moving on.

Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much, by Robert Daley. Okay, this one's a classic, first published back in 1978. I'm on a cop kick lately (it all started with Serpico), and this title did not disappoint. It's the story of a detective named Robert Leuci who decided he could no longer go along with some of the corruption that was happening at the time in the New York police force, as well as in other levels of government and the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, Leuci thought he was going to inform only on corrupt people who weren't connected to him--but of course he ended up informing on friends, cop partners, and family members, because that's just how it goes when you get started unpeeling the onion (you know, like how you go to the doctor's office for one little thing and pretty soon you've got 18 follow-up appointments that you really don't want but now feel like you have to go to). An okay read, but it's very hard to understand what Leuci's real motivation was throughout the story.

My absolute favorite anecdote in it is the one where drug enforcement officers were trying to tap the phone line of a convenience store owner who they believed was involved in the drug trade. So then follow this chain of events: the mob called the convenience store owner and told him they were storing 300 (illegally procured) TVs in his store whether they wanted him to or not, and he needed to close for a few days. So he did, and the mob stacked his store with 300 TVs. An off-duty cop walked by, noticed the TVs, and called it in to the local precinct, at which point a whole bunch of other cops came over, took a TV, and then CALLED FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS ON THE TAPPED PHONE to come and get a TV for themselves. So then the drug cops had to get involved and tell them to put the TVs back, and for god's sake to stop calling their friends on the tapped phone. Good stuff.

Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, by Forrest Pritchard. This one is a memoir by a guy who grew up with a farm in his family (his grandparents lived on it, and his parents tried to keep it going with managers and workers while they worked full-time jobs) but didn't really plan on becoming a farmer. Eventually he decided to go all in and try to make the farm a paying concern--from selling firewood to raising grass-fed beef, to starting a pasta company with his wife. I liked this one because it was a bit less holier-than-thou than many "back to the land" memoirs are--Pritchard has a nice straightforward way of writing and isn't afraid to list his many missteps, like when he made a couple grand selling firewood but also caused $4600 worth of damage to his truck by hauling it around.

There you go! More books to read rather than doing your own work. You're welcome.

 

 


Happy Labor Day! 2019 Edition.

Well, if you know me at all, you know Labor Day is one of my very favorite holidays. No relatives, no big meals, no celebrating war...just a day off (if you're that lucky) to celebrate working.

Personally, not working is one of my very favorite things, but I can also appreciate a good book about the working life. Each year I try to do a wrap-up of the labor-related books I've read, and here they are all to date: 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.

So what did 2019 look like? Well, it looked like a lot of not reading. My difficulties with sleeping and my wonky eye continued, meaning that I can't regularly pound through hundreds of pages of nonfiction (interspersed with hundreds of pages of fiction reading as a palate cleanser) the way I used to. I also ran for my local city council, which was a super funny experience (well, funny sad, in that I lost, but also funny ha ha, in that I learned a lot about myself and the larger political process and also about how smart my son is: early on he saw my opponent's fancy yard signs and said "I think you're going to lose, Mom." In short, I wasn't my regular reading self. But I still found the time for some good books about work:

The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. Bythell is the proprietor of The Book Shop in Scotland, and WOW, is this book fantastic. A highly detailed but unbelievably engaging read about trying to make it in the used-book business, as well as his marketing activities and his appreciation of his Scottish hometown. One of the best books I read all year, and Vivian Swift liked it too. Even if I hadn't liked it, I'd have to respect it, because it is not easy to earn Vivian's love (just check out her comment at that post about a book by Mr. Bythell's love interest).

The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. Another superlative book about World War II (and earlier) codebreaking married couple Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman. A great history of codebreaking, a complex love story, and a well-done biography of a singular woman.

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh. I think all doctors are jerks, and yet I can't stop reading their books. I read this book by Brit author/surgeon Marsh right before my mom had a stroke last spring* and, honest to god, I actually felt I had a slightly better understanding of what her doctors were telling us about her brain because I had just read this book. Marsh is an interesting personality and although this book is detailed and sometimes frightening, it is nonetheless fascinating to consider that there are actually people out there who can hack into other people's heads and brains for their paycheck. That is amazing to me.

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

Huh. Every year lately I think, I didn't get to read many books about work/jobs this year. And it turned out again that I had read more than I thought I had. I definitely like reading about working more than I actually like working.

Happy Labor Day all, and happy September to you as well.

*She's doing quite well now, thanks for asking, but let me tell you this: aging is not for pussies.

 


Citizen Reader at Introvert, Dear.

Have I really not posted here all summer?

Well, that's just ridiculous. Please forgive me. School let out and the first thing I knew it was CRjrs all day long, every day. Being with the CRjrs is my favorite thing to do, but between adjudicating Lego fights (because they both need EXACTLY that one Lego brick, right now, even though there are a million other Lego bricks laying on the floor), applying sunblock and band-aids, and supervising them while they play their version of American Ninja Warrior at the playground, well, it's been busy.

More later, because it's been a really good reading summer. For now I just wanted to share that I had a couple of articles published recently! One was titled A History of Miss Marple in Cinema and British Television, and ran at Anglotopia. The other, just published yesterday, was "Why Introverts Should Run for Public Office"* at a site called Introvert, Dear. I stumbled across that site earlier this year and LOVE it...tons of good information there. The author of that site, Jenn Granneman, is also the author of the book The Secret Lives of Introverts, which I am reading and enjoying right now.

How has everyone's summer been?

*Based on my experiences, last spring, of running for my city's Common Council. Please note this article is about running for office, not winning office, because I am a big loser. But that's okay. It was still fun. My favorite moment of the race was when the elder CRjr saw all my opponent's pricey yard signs (I didn't take any money, and therefore couldn't spend any, so any road signs we put up were homemade) and said, "Mom, I'm pretty sure you're gonna lose."


A re-reading kind of winter.

I am antsy this winter.

For months I've been feeling simultaneously like I can't sit still but also can't get up and actually get anything done. What is up? Is this the continuing midlife crisis? Anyway, whatever is causing it, I am finding it hard to start new books (or new anything, really). So I've been mainly plowing through comfort reading--Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff have been my twin Patron Saints of Antsy Re-Reading--but the other day I was talking to someone about Facebook and I found myself jonesing to re-read Ben Mezrich's thoroughly appalling* The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal.

It was about as horrible as I remembered. I still can't get over Zuckerberg wandering through the the computer files of all Harvard's "houses" and just downloading (stealing) everyone's photos so people could vote on the attractiveness of the women. And now he's one of the richest men in the world. In other news, Silicon Valley parents are now all figuring out that the products they make are terrible for children and are taking them away. Super. Meanwhile the rest of us are stuck with the Tech Hell they created.

So what's a representative quote? Well, this one, from the ending of the book, seems as appropriate as any.

"In one sense, the card represented nothing more than Mark Zuckerberg's personal brand of humor. But in another sense, the card was more than a joke--because it was true. No matter what else anyone wanted to believe, no matter what anyone else ever tried to do, the sentiment of the card would always be true.

Inevitably, indelibly true.

We can picture Mark reading the words on the card aloud to himself, the smallest hint of a grin twitching across his usually impassive face. I'm CEO--Bitch." (p. 249.)

And yes, they really did say that.

Gross. I'm back off to the comfort re-reading.

*On so many levels. I actually think Ben Mezrich plays a little too loose with the nonfiction form, but not many other people have written exposes of Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg, which is another fact I find appalling.

 


Labor Day Reading List 2018.

Good morning! If you'll remember, Labor Day is one of my absolute favorite holidays. I am determined to enjoy it today, although for some reason I cannot sleep at all lately and so stumble around all day like a zombie. Also, it is dark out there (I live in a new monsoon zone where it is constantly dark and rainy) and we will probably not be able to play much outside; major bummer.

So every year at this time I compile a list of books that I've read that have to do with jobs and work. (Here's the prior links: 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.) This is a category of nonfiction I really enjoy, so normally this is a long list, but not this year. I've read a lot less this year, so apologies for this short list. Better luck next year, right? I hear you just feel better and get lots more time to indulge in your favorite activities as you age*, so here's looking forward to 2018-2019.

Helene Hanff, Underfoot in Show Business. A re-read, but God, this book is so awesome. About trying to make it in theatah and i New York City in general.

Michael Perry, Population 485. Another re-read, about being a writer, volunteer EMT and firefighter, and all-around decent guy.

Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town. An investigative book about Ohio's Anchor Hocking Glass company, and how finance types and business people raped it for all the profit they could get, helping destroy its hometown in the process. In bold because it's one of the best books I read this year. READ IT, even if some of the financial fine print gets a bit dense and you have to skip parts of it.

Peter Maas, Serpico. About being a cop, and a whistleblower. Unbelievably great read.

Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. About Wilder's life as a farmer and author. Fantastic. Very important in these days when Wilder's reputation is taking a hit. Yes, the settlers were not nice to Native Americans. Maybe we should read about that and discuss why it was wrong rather than pretend it never happened. At least that's the way I feel about it.

Annie Spence, Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks. About books, reading, and being a librarian.

Rachel Arneson, No Apparent Distress: A Doctor's Coming-of-Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine. About becoming and being a doctor. It didn't set me on fire but was an interesting read.

NOW: Go forth, and have a Happy Labor Day. I wish you a good day celebrating work by not doing any.

*HA.


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?


Teeny Tiny Review: Tales of Two Americas.

I liked Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman, just okay.

If you'll remember, this one got a lot of press when it came out at the end of last year.

It's a collection of essays and short stories and includes contributions by Rebecca Solnit, Sandra Cisneros, Edwidge Danticat, Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oates, Roxanne Gay, and Ann Patchett (among many others).

Two things: I'm just kind of done with books like this for now. I can see the two Americas quite clearly from where I live (in my suburban town, I know people who lived in the ritziest sprawl neighborhoods around, who send their kids to a school where 17% of kids get free and reduced-price lunches, and I know people who live in decidedly not-ritzy apartments and send their kids to a school where 41% of the kids get free and reduced lunches. Also I've read a lot of books like this.

Secondly, this book mixed essays with stories, and I DO NOT LIKE THAT. And if you do that, here's what I need: at the head of each chapter, along with the title and author name, you have to list "Fiction" or "Essay." Because I am LAZY with a capital L and I do not like trying to figure out what each chapter is. It's not hard, based on author and style, but still, you should be able to pick up a collection like this and not have to know who all the authors are to figure out what they're writing. Very annoying, and it detracted from the attention I was able to give this collection.


Teeny Tiny Review: Glenn Greenwald's "No Place to Hide."

Briefly this year I toyed with the idea of signing up for Goodreads, because Readers I love and trust tell me it's a handy site for tracking their reading.

But Goodreads is owned by Amazon and therefore I don't want to touch it. I mean, I don't think jerkiness is catching, but the less I have to do with Jeff Bezos, the better.

So I'm going to keep listing what I read here, just because I'm getting increasingly old and sometimes it's nice to have a record of what one has read. And what I read last month was journalist Glenn Greenwald's investigative book No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.

Now, I love Edward Snowden, as I love all whistleblowers, and I'm neutral on Glenn Greenwald, although I like journalists who work with whistleblowers as well. But I just did not find that book this interesting. Although he does eventually get around to explaining some of the information Snowden revealed, and why it was so shocking, that seemed to be buried in the middle of the book. A lot of the first hundred pages dealt mainly with how Snowden found Greenwald and filmmaker Laura Poitras and identified them as the individuals he wanted to publish the documents he could provide. It's interesting in its own way, but mainly it's just too much Greenwald. Although I did enjoy how honest Greenwald was about how lazy he was when first contacted by the source who would turn out to be Snowden; basically, Greenwald couldn't be bothered to set up encrypted email, even though the source tried to teach him how to do it. Now, I couldn't do it either, but I am also not a world-class investigative journalist. Seemed a little weak.

In the meantime I would still like to see the movie Citizenfour, about Snowden. Has anyone seen it? I also want to re-watch his interview with John Oliver.

 


Looking for a name for our "Best of" Nonfiction list.

I thought long and hard about what to title these new types of posts:

1. The Citizen Reader Worldview in 52 Books (Or, Become a Bitter Middle-Aged Midwestern Woman in Only 52 Weeks!)

2. 100 Game-Changing Nonfiction Books

3. Nonfiction for a Twenty-first Century Citizen Reader

4. 100 Nonfiction Books Deemed "Too Depressing" by Mr. CR

5. Great Nonfiction to Read While Watching Two Preschoolers Who Can't Stop Pushing Each Other Down On the Cement Driveway

But all of those seemed a little personal (well, not the second one, the second one just seems boring), and I would like this list of Nonfiction Greatest Hits to be more broadly useful to a wide variety of readers.

So what to call it?

...

First maybe I'll tell you a little story about how I really started thinking that it is time to change Citizen Reader, or perhaps just to start to go out with a bang. In the month of March I slowly read an investigative nonfiction/business history book titled Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town,* by journalist Brian Alexander. It was a great book. It was not the best book I've ever read, and in some ways it was a very run-of-the-mill example of the type of nonfiction I favor (namely, "depressing" investigative nonfiction on current economic and cultural trends in America), but it was a great book. It was a book I found on another list, elsewhere, and I was intrigued by the title, so I brought it home, and it sat around my house for a while. And then I took a little break from reading, but shortly before this book was due, I thought, "No, even if my eyes are tired, I want to read this book."

So I did.

I read it more slowly than I usually read these books, and I never really felt like I couldn't put it down, but all the same I kept being drawn back to it. It is the story, basically, of the city of Lancaster, Ohio, and how its main manufacturer and employer, Anchor Hocking Glass, began and (pretty much) ended. It is a story of community history, the business environment of America in the twentieth century through 2016, it is the story of individuals struggling to find meaning in their work and a living wage, it is the story of an insular town mentality, it is an individual business history, and it is also a story of opiate abuse and other crime (mainly petty, but also huge glaring financial crimes perpetrated by the 1% of the title).

It's got a lot going on.

I would like for you to read this book, but I know that a lot of readers would be turned off by the level of business details in it. Trying to understand the financial shenanigans of leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers (many of which have been going on since at least the 1980s) is ridiculous; I have to give Alexander credit that he could describe most of it as clearly as he could. Where the rubber really meets the road is in one of the final chapters, when he discusses the trend of pundits telling Midwesterners to leave their smallish cities and towns and rural areas if they want to avoid drugs and find better-paying work:

"For decades, politicians--Republicans and Democrats both--and pundits had all been spewing empty platitudes of praise for 'the heartland,' 'real America,' and 'small-town values.' Then, with shameless hypocrisy, they supported the very policies that helped destroy thriving small towns.

Corporate elites said they needed free-trade agreements, so they got them. Manufacturers said they needed tax breaks and public-money incentives in order to keep their plants operating in the United States, so they got them. Banks and financiers needed looser regulations, so they got them. Employers said they needed weaker unions--or no unions at all--so they got them. Private equity firms said they needed carried interest and secrecy, so they got them. Everyone, including Lancastrians themselves, said they needed lower taxes, so they got them. What did Lancaster and a hundred other towns like it get? Job losses, slashed wages, poor civic leadership, social dysfunction, drugs...

Telling Lancaster to surrender and call U-Haul made it easy for America to ignore its Lancasters. Sure, there was a lot of talk about such places and the people in them, but few wanted to spend much time learning about how they'd been left behind by the financialization and digitalization of American life. Silicon Valley kept promising nirvana but delivering new ways to gossip, even while disconnecting people from each other and their real communities. Politicians soothed the blows of globalization with promises to retrain and educate, but none of that happened for Lancaster's working class.

To so blithely dismiss the value of community was to pretend there was no loss. But there was, and the effects of that loss continued to ripple throughout the town." (pp. 291-294.)

So here's where my little story ends. I read this book, and I read that, and somewhat sharply it struck me that yes, that is a culmination of most of the nonfiction I've been reading since 2000. In my brain I could feel all sorts of threads coming together, and I felt for a moment like I had a clear picture of the time and place I live in. I have read A LOT of books to get to this place. And for the first time in a long time I thought, I don't need to read any more.**

I want to do something else.

So, in light of our discussions a few weeks back, here's what we're going to do. Citizen Reader is going to place of action. Mine, and yours. We're also going to take things seriously enough to have a schedule; I'll post it soon. We're going to read some essays, and one month we're going to have an online book club, and in the middle of all that I'm going to write posts that list books I've read and helped me get to this moment of clarity, and this is what I'm going to call that list, because I am a Gen Xer and although I want to take things seriously, I also can't resist a pop culture reference:

Nobody Puts Nonfiction In a Corner (or, 100 Nonfiction Books I Couldn't Live Without)***

And #100 on that list is Brian Alexander's excellent Glass House. This list will not really be in order, but I'm calling this book #100 because I don't think you can start there. I want to tell you about the best, clearest, most helpful nonfiction books that I've read about living in this place and time. Won't you join me?

Oh, and don't worry. I'm still going to read. I'll still need something else to look at besides my little CRs pushing each other down in the driveway.

*This link goes to an excellent review of this book at Slate; concise, well-written, even very good about explaining briefly the financial mishaps wreaked on the Anchor Hocking company.

**I actually had this thought in quote form: in Anne Tyler's novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, elderly Pearl Tully is being read to by her son Ezra, out of her own childhood diary. At one point he reads to her an entry about a happy moment she had: "...'I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don't care what else might come about, I have had this moment, it belongs to me.'

That was the end of the entry. He fell silent.

'Thank you, Ezra,' his mother said. 'There's no need to read any more.'" (p. 277.)

That's exactly the way I felt. Thank you, Ezra. There's no need to read any more.

***With full props to the film Dirty Dancing, for giving us one of the most truly ridiculous lines of dialogue ever.

 


Forget true crime--environmental/science writing is the scariest shit out there.

For years now Mr. CR has been telling me to stop bringing home all the depressing nonfiction.

And I'd like to help him out, really I would, so then I started bringing home some more science/environmental books. And I'm damned if this stuff isn't scarier and sadder than all the usual true crime and investigative nonfiction that I usually bring home!

Water will comeOne totally scary science book I read in 2017 was Jeff Goodell's The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (which I found because Goodell had an essay in the also excellent Best Science Writing book that I read in October). It's a book about sea-level rise and climate changes, particularly as they pertain to low-lying cities like Miami, New York, Amsterdam, Lagos (in Nigeria), and Venice, to name just a few.

Although this book is terrifying, and the way that people are responding to rising sea levels and more powerful storms (largely ignoring all of it) is not heartening, Goodell manages to achieve a nice tone between matter-of-fact and awed. Meaning, it was nice to read a book on climate change that said, look, change is coming, maybe we can adapt, maybe we can come up with technology to save ourselves, but what is all of that going to look like?

Take, for instance, the dry journalistic tone in this exchange, when he goes into a Miami neighborhood where there's already flooding:

"While Briceno collected his water samples, I hopped and skipped over dry ground to a nearby apartment complex, where I found a woman named Maria Toubes staring at the incoming water from her second-floor doorstep. She was sixty-five and disabled, a hard life etched in her face. Inside, she had an eight-year-old niece whom she wouldn't let out of the house because of the high waters. Toubes explained that she lived on a fixed income and had moved into this neighborhood a few months earlier because it allowed her to save $200 a month on rent.

As we talked, the water continued to fise, pushing up the street in front of her house and into her driveway. It felt like we were about to float away.

'Have you seen the water this high before?'

'Sometimes it comes up even higher,' she said.

'What do you do?'

She looked at me as if I had asked a very stupid question. 'Stay inside,' she said...

A few weeks later, he [Briceno] emailed me results from the water samples at Shorecrest and around Miami Beach. The indicator that the EPA uses for fecal matter in the water is Enterococcus, which is a bacteria that is easily and reliably traceable. The EPA standard for acceptable contamination in water is 25 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water. According to Briceno's tests, the floodwater in Shorecrest had 30,000 CFUs." (pp. 246-247.)

No wonder Maria was telling her niece to stay inside.

It was a good read. Horrifying, but I think it's on a subject that's only going to become more apparent (and important).