Investigative

Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers.

Mr. CR despairs of me, but I am right back on my Depressing Nonfiction Reading Kick, and I couldn't be happier!

Raw dealLast month I spent quite a bit of time with Steven Hill's Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers. It's a journalistic work of my very favorite type--the author pokes his nose into all sorts of assumptions, like how the "sharing economy" is helping us all save money and "monetize" the assets we do have, and how the tech companies really have all our best interests at heart...and then proves that the underlying story isn't quite as rosy as all the pundits would have you assume.

I won't lie to you, this is a dense book and it definitely takes some time to get going. But even if you only read half, or bits, of this book, you will learn more than enough to make you start to wonder about where all the money in our economy is flowing, and why. I'll give you an example of an early jam-packed paragraph that appears on page 3 (page 3!) and should suffice to give you much of the lay of the land of the book:

"Sitting here in San Francisco, I have a front-row seat at the epicenter of this latest earthquake. But as the future that the tech geniuses have planned for us comes slowly into view, it looks increasingly alarming. It's not just the many people evicted, including elderly and disabled tenants. to clear entire apartment buildings to make rooms available for tourists via Airbnb, even as Airbnb has disputed its obligation to pay local hotel taxes; or the desperate workers scrambling like low-rent braceros--'arms for hire'--on jobs found via TaskRabbit, Elance-Upwork, CrowdFlower and other job brokerage websites, sometimes for less than minimum wage (according to some workers); or the middle- and low-income households being forced to leave the Bay Area in a tech-driven 'Trail of Tears' because they can no longer afford the escalating costs; or that Uber, which is valued at $51 billion--larger than Delta or United Airlines, and approaching General Motors and Ford--has incorporated more than 30 different foreign subsidiaries, many of them no more than mailboxes in the Caribbean, as low-tax havens to greatly reduce its US tax obligations."

Yeah. The entire book is like that. It takes a little while to read.

But you should definitely give it a look. The idea of "monetizing" stuff I have by giving strangers rides in my car or a room in my house has always made my skin crawl, but this author also points out that these tech "sharing" companies are making massive profits at the same time they are refusing to play fair with their workers (not their workers, technically, their "freelancers," to whom they give no benefits and provide no sick time) and with tax and local zoning laws in general. The sharing economy might have a nice name, but what exactly is it costing all of us in the end?


Reading notes: July 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Garret Keizer: Getting Schooled.

I'm having a little love affair this summer with the author Garret Keizer.

Originally I found him when I checked out a small book titled Privacy. I read a lot of that book while watching the CRjrs bike and shove each other around (and sometimes shove each other around on bikes), but then I put it away for a while because I want to read it all the way through, someday when I can fully concentrate on it.

Getting schooledSo then I went looking for something else of his I could read, and found Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher. I hadn't remembered the title, but as soon as I picked the book up at the library, I laughed: I recognized its cover. I'd actually had the book in my house last year when I wanted to write a list of good books to read on education, though I'd never gotten it read.

Well, this time I got it read. And it starts off with a bang:

"In the fall of 2010, after a fourteen-year hiatus from the classroom and at the unpropitious age of fifty-seven, I began a one-year job filling in for a teacher on leave from the same rural Vermont high school that I'd entered as a rookie thirty years before. I signed on mainly because my wife and I needed the health insurance."

Here's what I know about Garret Keizer: he lives in Vermont with his wife and has one daughter. By his own admission he is in his late fifties. Also, I've read enough of his writing now to know that he crafts a beautiful sentence. And his author blurb states that he is the author of several other books, he is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. So my only thought upon reading that first paragraph is really? Even contributing editors at Harper's Magazine have to work for the health insurance? This country is MESSED UP.

But I digress. This book is primarily the memoir of a teacher who liked teaching but who quit it because he liked writing more, and what he found when he went back to teaching in a high school. None of it is particularly earth-shattering or even particularly depressing (I find most things written and said about education these days to be depressing), but it is such a nice, thoughtful memoir. He covers such topics as the technology teachers have to use to keep up with student record-keeping; the technology they're expected to use in the classroom; his lesson planning; his outreach to students and his interactions with them; and broader educational trends.

I'll admit my enjoyment of this book was a very personal thing. Primarily because Keizer has a habit of writing out loud things that I am thinking, like this: "Citing statistics from a famous study, the superintendent notes that students from the lower strata of society reach the age of three having heard 30 million fewer words than their middle-class counterparts...In vain I wait for someone to remark that if our students are subject to such appalling inequalities, even before they enter school, then educational reform is a pathetic substitute for social revolution." (p. 39.)

I know from experience that saying anything like that (only less eloquently) around suburban mothers gets some odd looks.

So, Keizer worked his year, and he wrote this memoir, with each chapter given over to one month of the school calendar. It's a wide-ranging, incisive, and yet still strangely gentle look at the education system, our broader culture, and of course the individual high schoolers and courses that he taught. Yeah, I know it's summer vacation. But your homework this summer is to read this book.


Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies, by Hadley Freeman.

Well, thanks a lot, Hadley Freeman. Not only did I spend the time reading your book, but then I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of "Say Anything" clips. My productivity this week is not high.

But you know what? Sometimes it's not about high productivity. Sometimes it's just about reading and enjoying a book, and if that book is about watching and enjoying eighties movies, well, then, so much the better. I very much enjoyed Freeman's book Life Moves Pretty Fast. Who should read this? Anyone who's ever enjoyed an eighties movie, for one thing, and that includes people who were too young to see eighties movies on their first pass around, and who instead found them on VHS, DVD, or on YouTube or any streaming service in any decade since. But you know who else should read this book? Anyone who would ever like to see a movie again that is NOT about superheroes or big explosions.

The most obvious and enjoyable part of Freeman's essays are her unabashed love for and knowledge of these movies; also very enjoyable are the "lessons" she draws from them. In her chapter on "Pretty in Pink" she suggests that she learned the lesson "awkward girls should never have makeovers." From "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" she learned about social class. From "Baby Boom" she picked up the fact that successful women are "sexy as hell." I loved reliving some of these movies through her eyes (and was completely pleased that she focused a lot of attention on "Baby Boom"--I saw that one with my mom when it first came out and we both enjoyed it, although I was a bit young for it, and now whenever I see it on TV I can't NOT watch it) and came away with a desire to watch them all again.

But the subtitle of the book is "(And Why We Don't Learn Them Anymore)," and that part of Freeman's thesis is not nearly as fun to read. To wit:

"So now studios will only back films that are easy to sell and will work around the world because this then guarantees they will make their money back. This also means that they want movies that appeal to as many demographics as possible, or 'quadrants,' as film marketing staff refer to people: men, women, old people, and young people. This is turn has led to the demise of traditional women's movies, because they wouldn't appeal to enough quadrants (according to a Hollywood theory that has been around only for the past thirty years, women will see movies starring men and women, but men will see only movies starring men). It also means that films become less interesting because whenever anyone says they want to make something appeal to everybody, they inevitably blandify it to such a degree that it is loved by nobody." (p. 13.)

God, we're in a sad state, aren't we?*

Anyway. It's a fun book. Read it. But be aware that after you're done you're going to have to drop everything and go watch a John Hughes movie or some early John Cusack. Don't say I didn't warn you.

*This wouldn't have been SO depressing, except I read almost exactly the same book this month in actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar's memoir Mustache Shenanigans: Making Super Troopers and Other Adventures in Comedy: "The idea factory that was the American film business from the seventies through the late nineties can't function if the expectations on each film are that it make $250 to $400 million or be judged a financial failure. Corporations bought film companies, in part, because they were 'fun investments.' But when corporations took control of the studios, they took all the fun out of them by forcing film presidents to hit incredibly high profit targets...So, my dear corpoations, make your grand-slam profits on some movies, and also on computers, phones, cars, and insurance. But get back to making the $30 to $50 million theatrical film that makes enough of a profit. Do that, and there will be a creative rebirth that will propel a whole new generation of maverick filmmakers." (pp. 282-283.)


Joan Didion's South and West.

Friends, I am in a bit of a MOOD.

Do you have times like that? My house is a mess and yet I'm not happy when I'm out of it; I feel overwhelmed by the very few adult responsibilities I have; I kind of wish I weren't feeling like a broken-down heap in my early 40s. I think Mr. CR sensed I'm very close to going off the rails last week when I went on a tirade about CRjr's swimming lessons. I don't swim, I hate pools, I'm annoyed at the pool where we go because they can't decide when they open or when you should be there to get in line to sign up for lessons. Or, as I said to Mr. CR: "Jesus God, if we spent half as much time in this country teaching everyone a second language, as we do teaching them to swim, we'd all be bilingual by now."*

Mr. CR is a smart person and did the nonverbal equivalent of "Yes, dear," and then got the hell out of the room.

South and westSo. Where was I? Oh yes, Joan Didion's new collection of notes (it's literally subtitled "From a Notebook"): South and West. Well, of course I read the whole thing, even though I can't finish anything lately. I finished it because it's short and I love Didion and even Didion not at her best (which she is not here; they're just notes, although Didion's notes are like a million times better than most people's finished product) is always a very intense reading experience for me. These two pieces, on the American South and West, were written in 1970 (for the South) and 1976 (for the West, or, more specifically, during the Patty Hearst trial in California).

You really just have to read the whole thing to get the flavor of it, particularly if you are at all interested in the American South. But here's one of my very favorite tidbits, it just seems so quintessentially Didion:

"NOTE: On being asked for identification when I ordered a drink in the rural South. Before I came south I had not been taken for seventeen in considerable years, but several times in that month I had to prove I was eighteen. It is assumed that grown women will have their hair done, is all I could think." (p. 61.)

I just love that. It made me remember a trip I took to Houston when I was blown away by the hair, make-up, and clothing (all very carefully done for maximum effect) of all the women there.

This isn't really specific to this collection, but my favorite thing about Didion is how she gives you what seems like a lot of personal information and a lot of glimpses into her psyche, and yet you still come away feeling like you don't really know Joan Didion at all. She can surprise you. This is one of my very favorite aspects of my closest interpersonal relationships: when people I know really well surprise me. (And it's not always with good surprises.) But still. I find it oddly thrilling to be surprised. I'm explaining it poorly, but gosh, Joan Didion is interesting. I don't ever have any idea what is going on in her head but I always, ALWAYS want to hear about it. Right down to her pictures: why is the author picture on the back of this book, for instance, of her and her daughter Quintana, when Quintana was only a small girl? Why put that picture here?

See? Interesting.

*Come on. Does the majority of the population ever go swimming again, once they're out of high school? No they don't--until they have to take their kids to water parks and lessons. So then they do that, and after that they never get in the pool again. It's a totally silly system. See? This is the MOOD I'm in.


Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods.

It's been a couple of weeks since I read a book I wasn't able to put down. The last book with which I had that experience was Michael Finkel's investigative/character portrait The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.

Stranger in the woodsFinkel relates the story of Christopher Knight, who walked away from his job, car, and life in 1986, and did not really reappear among society until he was arrested for multiple thefts in 2013. Where did he go? Well, into the woods in central Maine, but the fascinating part of the story is that he didn't really go very far; there were numerous cabins and people within walking distance:

"...Knight chose to disappear well within the bounds of society. Towns and roads and houses surround his site; he could overhear canoeists' conversations on North Pond. He wasn't so much removed from humanity as sitting on the sidelines. From the nearest cabin to his hiding spot is a three-minute walk, if you know where you're going." (p. 53.)

So how did he survive nearly twenty-seven years sleeping outside in Maine, when he had walked to his campsite carrying nothing? Well, he stole. A lot. His tent, his tarps, his supplies, his food, his clothing, everything came from the cabins and a summer camp facility not far away. He even stole National Geographics and used them (and other magazines) as a sort of floor for his site. He did not hunt or grow any food; that probably would have drawn notice long before his other activities. Nonetheless, the residents of the nearby cabins were more than a bit spooked about break-ins and supplies gone missing over the course of more than twenty-five years.

So what did Knight do? Well, in addition to stealing enough food and other necessaries to eat, he sat by himself and enjoyed the woods. A lot. This is a man who has sheer dedication to living outside, and to living apart from other people. You can see that when you read about how he survived some of the Maine winters:

"It's natural to assume that Knight just slept all the time during the cold season, a human hibernation, but this is wrong. 'It is dangerous to sleep too long in winter,' he said. It was essential for him to know precisely how cold it was, his brain demanded it, so he always kept three thermometers in camp: one mercury, one digital, one spring-loaded. He couldn't trust just a single thermometer, and preferred a consensus.

When frigid weather descended, he went to sleep at seven-thirty p.m. He'd cocoon himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags and cinch a tie-down strap near his feet to prevent the covers from slipping off. If he needed to pee, it was too cumbersome to undo his bedding, so he used a wide-mouthed jug with a good lid. No matter what he tried, he couldn't keep his feet warm. 'Thick socks. Multiple socks. Boot liners. Thin socks, thinking it was better to have my feet together, using the mitten theory. I never found a perfect solution.' Still, he did not lose a toe or a finger to frostbite. Once in bed, he'd sleep six and a half hours, and arise at two a.m.

That way, at the depth of cold, he was awake...The first thing he'd do at two a.m. was light his stove and start melting snow. To get his blood circulating, he'd walk the perimeter of his camp..." (p. 118-119.)

The author, Michael Finkel*, originally made contact with Knight by writing a letter to him in prison (Knight was convicted of several felony burglaries--although it is estimated that he performed more than a thousand break-ins over the course of his self-exile) and was surprised when Knight wrote back and agreed to let Finkel come to Maine to speak with him in jail. It's not a perfect book; at times I found Finkel's voice and persona a bit irritating, and I was never quite sure why Knight was allowing him to tell the story. But overall it was a good read. And I liked that Knight didn't really offer any explanation or justification for what he did (although Finkel tries to tie his story to historical examples of hermits and solitude-seekers); it seems that he really just wanted to sit around by himself, a lot, and that's what he went and did. Anyone looking for greater understanding than that will not really get it from this narrative, because Finkel didn't really get a whole lot of introspective answers from Knight.

I liked it. It's drawing a lot of comparison's to Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild, but that one was a lot longer and the main character died, so I much preferred this very odd story.

*Finkel admits to Knight and in this book that he has erred in his journalism ways; he was fired by the New York Times for creating a "composite character" based on interviews with numerous individuals.


David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

I read a lot of True Crime books, and I've tried to research True Crime classics, so how on earth did I miss David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets?

Simon is perhaps best known for being the creator, head writer, and show runner for the TV show "The Wire"* (or, before that, the TV series "Homicide: Life on the Street"), but before he took on TV, he was a journalist working at The Baltimore Sun. While there he got the idea to shadow several homicide detectives on the Baltimore police force, and after a year of doing that he published this book.

HomicideAnd it's a really, REALLY good book. I had difficulty putting it down (the younger CRjr was not best pleased that I was reading it at breakfast, until I went and got him his own book to look at while he ate his Cheerios--I know, I know, I'm a terrible mother, but I'm going to call that our "modeling the enjoyment of reading" for the day) even though it was not a lighthearted read. Mr. CR was also not best pleased because I simply had to tell him some of the stories in this book--and they were not cheery stories. There is something about what I think of as the "cop sense of humor" (read: DARK) that I really, really enjoy. Like how the detectives in this book called a riot and round of looting that took place in Baltimore during the winter of 1979 simply "the Winter Olympics."

I'm sorry. That's funny.**

But most of this book is NOT funny. And years before there was as much conversation about race and community policing as there is now (the book was published in 1991), the reader can quite clearly see where some issues between the police and the policed are going to come to a head.

Simon does a good job of introducing his characters, primarily homicide detectives and their many bosses, and he does a very good job of describing their investigative techniques and the heartbreaking details of the cases involved (including the rape/murder of an 11-year-old girl, as well as numerous shootings, knifings, a prison riot, and any number of other tragedies). But the structure of the book is what's really something to behold; Simon relates what he saw in a linear fashion throughout each chapter, but each chapter/month of the year also showcases a broader theme. How a case can get away from you and go cold, even if it's a high-priority case. Interrogation techniques. Investigating when cops are shot and when cops engage in "bad shoots." What happens at the morgue. How the legal system works. If you forget the details involved, this is really quite a stunning work of nonfiction reportage and writing. And that is rare. Many journalists tell fascinating stories well; many nonfiction authors put their larger narratives together beautifully. David Simon does both things at once.

It's not a happy read. But it is a fascinating one; I think it'll end up being one of the best books I read this year. (Although I'd like to do you this favor: if you do read this book, and you should, just skip pages 547-548, or the first few pages of the section headed Thursday, December 15. It is very, very hard to read, and you don't actually need to read the details there to understand the bigger narrative.)

*Actually, I've always kind of wanted to see "The Wire," but this trailer makes me feel like I don't want to. After reading this book, I don't think I'm in the mood to see these stories "dramatized," complete with soundtrack. The trailer makes me feel a little dirty, like the drug war and cop investigations are being played for my entertainment. Hmm.

**This is my other favorite story--on one case the main suspect actually called in and confessed, and one of the detectives thought another detective was playing a joke on him:

"'This is James Baskerville. I'm calling to surrender to you for killing Lucille.'

'Goddammit Constantine, you bald-headed motherfucker, I'm up here trying to do a crime scene and all you can find to do is fuck with me. Either come up here and help or--'

Click. Mark Tomlin listens to a dead phone line for a moment, then turns to a family member. 'What did you say was the name of Lucille's boyfriend?'

'Baskerville. James Baskerville.'

When the second call comes, Tomlin catches it on the first ring. 'Mr. Baskerville, listen, I'm real sorry about that. I thought you were someone else...Where are you now?'

Later that night, in the large interrogation room, James Baskerville--who would later agree to life plus twenty years at his arraignment--offers no excuses and readily initials each page of his statement of confession. 'I've committed a serious crime and I should be punished,' he says.

'Mr. Baskerville,' asks Tomlin, 'are there any more like you at home?'" (p. 164.)


Getting rather tired of Difficult Men, actually.

After first starting it, I actually didn't think I would end up reading Brett Martin's Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution--From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Difficult menBut I did. I'm helpless when it comes to books about television. I did read the whole thing, although I'll admit to skimming quite a bit as well. The basic idea is this: TV has been evolving to the point where we are seeing a wide variety of characters that are really not that likable. And this is a good, nuanced thing. Here's some of the jacket copy, to give you a better idea of what this book is all about:

"In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. While the networks continued to chase the lowest common denominator, a wave of new shows, first on premium cable channels like HBO and then basic cable networks like FX and AMC, dramatically stretched television's narrative inventiveness, emotional resonance, and artistic ambition.

A new breed of auteur--given the chance to make art in a famously maligned medium--took full advantage, sometimes proving to be nearly as conflicted, idiosyncratic, and 'difficult' as the complicated protagonists that came to define the genre."

Everything I read about television lately seems to suggest that we are currently in a great age for high-quality storytelling. (And after getting sucked in to re-runs of "MacGyver" on MeTV the last couple of weeks, okay, I can see their point that there was a lot of dross TV in the 80s and 90s. Although I still find Richard Dean Anderson super-cute, even with a mullet.)

So far so good. But I find that I am tiring just a bit of all the glowing reviews and study of television programs that almost exclusively feature (and are created by) "difficult men." Perhaps I am not being fair to these programs, as I am largely uninterested in them. Of the shows listed in the book's subtitle, I know I had NO interest in "The Sopranos" because Mr. CR watched that series long before we had kids and I certainly would have had time to watch with him. I really don't want to watch "Breaking Bad," although I have loved Bryan Cranston since he played the hilarious dad Hal on the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle" (which was more my speed than a program about a teacher-becoming-a-meth-lord). "The Wire" sounds somewhat interesting but I think it's going to be as depressing as hell. I have seen most of "Mad Men" and it was okay, but I haven't seen the last two seasons and I can't say I'm in any hurry to correct that situation.

So I am not really the target audience for this book. I can't fault its writing; it's interesting and there's a lot of interview material and behind-the-scenes information about how these (and more) shows were created and filmed. It jumps around a bit and I don't really know what the author made his case that these "difficult men" are making TV shows about difficult men that are among the best ever made.

But at the end of the day I think I'm just kind of tired of everything that men touch and watch and create, particularly when such creations focus on such traditionally "male" worlds as crime, advertising, the mob, etc. (I'm also really tired of no one but men rating movies and doing TV writing.) And I really don't need to hear about such men complaining about their mid-life crises. Here's a quote from this book about Matthew Weiner, creator of "Mad Men," on how the show came about:

"As he told Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air, he remembered the thought that led him to first hearing Don Draper's voice: 'I was 35 years old; I had a job on a network sitcom; it was rated number nine...there's 300 people in the country that have this job, and I was one. I had three children, and...this incredible life--you know, I was like, 'What is wrong with me? Why am I unhappy? Why is there so much going on in my head that I can't express to other people because it's all awful? And what is enough? And I'm going to die one day.' And I'm looking at it and saying, 'This is it?'" (p. 242.)

And I'm looking at THAT and saying, yeah, Matthew Weiner, why were you so unhappy? If that's the impulse that led to the creation of that show (and may be leading to the creation of a lot of similar shows), well, I guess I can see why I'm not too interested. Let me close by quoting a truly great movie, "Broadcast News." It's the exchange between William Hurt, the hot but stupid news anchor, and Albert Brooks, the smart but decidedly not-hot reporter:

Hurt: "What do you do when your real life exceeds your dreams?"

Brooks hisses: "Keep it to yourself."

I guess that's where I am right now. Are your real lives exceeding your dreams, boys? Keep it to yourselves.


Reading notes from February 2017.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


More reading about TV: The Platinum Age of Television and The Daily Show (The Book).

Yup, I've decided that watching too much TV is not enough of a time suck for me, I'm also going to read books about TV. Or, I should say, MORE books about TV.

Platinum age of televisionFirst up today is a book I really, really loved: David Bianculli's The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific. I read this sucker from cover to cover and now I want to just completely throw in the towel, stop going outside, and just watch TV all the time. Bianculli, a longtime TV critic for NPR's Fresh Air, clearly knows his stuff (he's been writing TV criticism since 1975) and organizes his book into genre-ready sections, from soap operas and crime to family sitcoms and workplace sitcoms to animation and spies. Each section includes 3-8 page (or so) descriptions of five or so seminal programs in each genre (ostensibly charting the "evolution" of each genre, but I didn't read the segments in order, so that was lost on me), and the sections are written to be both informative and enticing. I've tried to write both literary and TV criticism, and trust me, it's hard to write program and book summaries that give you a flavor of the piece AND make you want to see or read it, all while trying not to give too much away. Take, for instance, "The Wire," which I have thought about watching, but never quite got around to. But now I think I might have to make time:

"The first season of 'The Wire' seemed to be a straightforward police investigation into drugs, a longer version of the sort of case [David] Simon might have dramatized on NBC's 'Homicide: Life on the Street,' the series that pulled the former Baltimore police reporter into the orbit of television production. But as the season went on, we learned at least as much about the drug kingpins and street hustlers as we did about the cops. We got to know the detectives all right, especially Dominic West's Jimmy McNulty and Wendell Pierce's Bunk Moreland. But we also got to know, quite well, the drug kingpin Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba), the street-level drug dealer Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), and the opportunistic street thief Omar Little (Michael K. Williams). Breaks in the case were made methodically and slowly, and given the bureaucracy and obstacles in place, the odds were against them making much of a dent at all." (p. 456.)

He also includes interviews with a lot of TV's big names (Matt Groening, Carol Burnett, Vince Gilligan, Louis C.K., Carl Reiner...they're all listed on the back) and a short history/description of each drama. Although Kirkus Reviews disagreed with me, I thought this was a highly readable book, and I was glad that a critic dispensed with the nonsense of rating programs by stars, numbers, or even by ranking them. I did, however, think this book had a terrible title: the "platinum age" bit and the long subtitle made it sound more dry and academic than it actually was. Give this one a read if you're interested in the writers and creators of some great TV, not to mention the TV programs themselves.

Daily showMy second TV read this month was The Daily Show (The Book), but I didn't enjoy that one nearly as much. It's a straight-up oral history, and there was very little context given for the conversations quoted. Plus, it was just more than I really needed to know about "The Daily Show." I only got to watch it online periodically when Jon Stewart was in charge (and I really miss that version, I'll admit) and I haven't seen it at all since Trevor Noah took over. This just wasn't the right book for me right now. Here's an example of how it just jumped right in, on the opening pages:

"JON STEWART, The Daily Show host, 1999-2015

At the time, I was obviously making my mark in such films as "Wishful Thinking" and "Dancing with Architecture" or "Dancing about"...Oh, no. They ended up calling it something else. "Playing by Heart," I think it was.

JAMES DIXON, manager for Jon Stewart, 1987-

After The Jon Stewart Show was canceled by Paramount, he was...not burnt on being on TV, but he wanted to kind of wet his feet with film. We had this nice deal with Harvey Weinstein, and Jon was down in Tribeca and he's getting to kiss Angelina Jolie in films."

Then there was another paragraph from Jon, about then working on "The Larry Sanders Show," and then the next speaker is Judd Apatow*:

"JUDD APATOW, standup comic, writer, director

Garry [Shandling] had the foresight to write about the talk show wars and this very subtle aspect of it, which is, you support a young comedian and slowly the network likes him more than it likes you, and then that younger guy, in ways that he understands and might not understand, slowly pushes you out of your job. Similar to what really happened with [Jay] Leno and Conan [O'Brien] and [Jimmy] Fallon. So there was a moment when Garry was considering continuing The Larry Sanders Show, and changing the name of it to The John Stewart Show, with an H so it wouldn't really be Jon. Everyone was excited about it for a while, but it went away." (pp. 1-2.)

The whole book was like that. It was ordered chronologically to cover the beginning of the show through Jon Stewart's retirement, but it was just too frenetic, with random people popping up throughout. I like oral histories, but I like them with a bit more organization and contextual information throughout. I basically skim-read this one, jumped about a bit, and then called it a day.

Two very different reads, and unless you're a hardcore (and I do mean hardcore) "The Daily Show" fan, I'd go with the Bianculli. Enjoy the rest of your week, all. I'm off to watch some TV.

*Yeah, it did not help this book's case that one of its first speakers was Judd Apatow. I am no Judd Apatow fan. I mean, yeah, Judd, sometimes your movies are funny and you know enough to keep casting Paul Rudd, but jeez, keep them to ninety minutes, would you? None of them are all that complicated plot-wise. Thanks much.


A serviceable read: Heads in Beds.

Okay, I really need to start writing down what book suggestions I get from where. I know I chose the book Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality from someone's blog, but now I can't remember where I found it. Anyone out there remember posting about this?

Heads in bedsIt is exactly what its title promises: a tell-all memoir from a long-time hotel employee, who worked in a variety of positions from valet attendant in a luxury hotel in New Orleans, to housekeeping management in that same establishment, to being front desk staff in a Manhattan hotel that he calls "The Bellevue." It's fairly rough and ready, in story and in tone. Here's how he was welcomed to his daytime shift on the desk by the bellmen, after being promoted from the overnight staff:

"The bellmen were the first to intimidate.

'Listen very closely to me, FNG [Fucking New Guy]. I see you handing guests their own keys, I'll stab you. You don't ask them shit. You call 'front' and hand the keys to a bellman. Let them tell me to my face they can take their own luggage and my baby girl has to starve. I catch you handing them keys, I figure you're the one who wants my baby girl to starve. In which case I will find out what train you take home and collapse your throat as soon as you step into your borough.'

New York pep talk number two! The first, from my roommate in Brooklyn, promising to throw me out if I didn't make rent, seemed like a pillow fight in comparison.'" (p. 103.)

So yeah. It's a lot of stories like that (although you should know that the author eventually became pretty tight with the bellmen, as he became pretty good at handing lodgers over to them with the personal touch, increasing the tipping all around), along with a few tips on how to improve your own hotel stays. I can't say that most of the tips will be that helpful to me, as I don't really want to eat things out of the minibar, even for free (it is important to note, though, that if there are wrong minibar charges on your bill, you should pipe up, as desk staff know nobody can actually tell what you've eaten out of the minibar and will remove the charges fairly easily) and I rarely stay at the types of hotels where upgrades are going to do a whole lot for me.

It was a quick read, somewhat informative, interesting enough to keep me reading the whole thing, but in the end I found it unsatisfying. Perhaps because there was absolutely nothing in the way of deeper thought or reflection here about how weird it is that we all go to hotels, and trust people we don't know to create our key cards, to clean the pillows on which we put our faces and the glasses out of which we drink. Among many other things. And I say this as someone who LOVES staying in hotels. Seriously. I traveled a few times for work and there was nothing I loved better than flopping on a hotel bed and turning the TV on to "Law and Order" (an episode of which is always on, somewhere, sometime), so I'd have been happy to hear any thoughts on the intimacy of helping hundreds of strangers bed down every night. I don't know what I wanted here, really. I just wanted something a little more.

I was also a bit annoyed with this opening statement:

"To protect the guilty and the innocent alike, I have deconstructed all hotels and rebuilt them into personal properties, changed all names, and shredded all personalities and reattached them to shreds from other personalities, creating a book of amalgams that, working together, establish, essentially, a world of truth. I mean, damn, I even change my own name."

And he did. Jacob Tomsky is his name, and he became, throughout this narrative, "little Tommy Jacobs." Why? Anyone else get that?


I was massively disappointed by Tracy Kidder's "A Truck Full of Money."

And that hurts me to say, because I am a huge Tracy Kidder fan.

In this nonfiction outing, Kidder provides a long-form character profile of Paul English, perhaps best known for selling his travel/search business Kayak.com to Priceline for 1.8 billion dollars. This of course made him, and his partners and investors, a "truck full of money." So what happens, English and Kidder seem to be asking, when someone makes a huge amount of money, when that may or may not have been their goal all along?

Well, apparently the answer to the question "what do you do with a lot of money?" is, nothing terribly interesting. At least, that is, if you are Paul English. I slogged through this whole book, and my only real question throughout was, why did Kidder think Paul English was interesting enough to sustain an entire book-long investigation?

So what did Paul English do? Well, he helped his partners and other longtime collaborators make enough money to make themselves secure. There's something to be said for that. And he gave a lot of money to charitable causes, but none of them terribly interesting or terribly personally strongly felt (to learn how to go about his philanthropy, he tried to learn from an older wealthy Bostonian who he viewed as a mentor and a friend, eventually giving money to many of the same causes as his mentor). There's definitely something to be said for that. And he started a new company, and spent money to try and help others achieve their company-starting dreams.

But in the end, a character profile needs, frankly, to be about a CHARACTER. Paul English is many things. Very, very smart. No one is arguing that. Very resilient. He grew up in a large family and worked a lot of jobs (including some that were less than legal), and he has struggled for many years with a diagnosis of both bipolar and hypomania, meaning he has tried to figure out how to live well while on medications. Not easy. But a character? I thought the most telling segment of the book, if one of the most boring, was the lengthy section on English's venture after selling Kayak: a company called Blade, basically meant to be an incubator for other tech businesses. Kidder details English's obsession with making his company and headquarters a nightclub (of all things) as well, called Blade at Night:

"You might have wondered if his plans for Blade's office were merely reproductions of his adolescence, the creation of a venue for his idea of fun, but he had a commercial rationale for Blade-by-night, which he put in a document addressed to Blade.team--that is, to Billo and Schwenk [two of his longtime work partners]:

Blade will run monthly meetup parties, invite-only, for selected members of Boston's innovation scene. Our goal is to make these parties one of the best places for engineers and designers and artists to meet...

[He also taught at MIT during this time, and knew a group of four MIT computer science graduates who had already sold a software company.] Paul had lunch with them one afternoon to catch up on their latest enterprise. First, though, he had to tell them his own news, his plans for the Blade office.

He was just getting started--'And it turns into a nightclub at night,' he was saying--when, in unison, all four young engineers burst out laughing.

'And you just unplug the desk from the wall. Probably in thirty minutes thirty desks will disappear.'

'That sounds awesome!" cried the young woman of the group.

'And when I put my hand on the puck, the Grey Goose and Kahlua will light up...'

Softly, pensively, as if to himself, one of the young men said, 'I want to hang out at this nightclub.'" (pp. 185-186.)

And this is when he was nearly fifty. Ye Gods. When all the "finest minds" of our generation (so-called) can come up with after making tons of money is to incubate new software companies and give them a place to drink after hours, well, that is just not terribly interesting. Perhaps even more telling is the spec sheet for the "Blade truck," which takes up nearly two pages of the book and includes items like "under-car purple lights for effect when parked in our alley at night, maybe color changing to the music. :)" (p. 188.)

Give this one a miss. There's a million better computer/technology books to read (including Kidder's own The Soul of a New Machine, which, though outdated, is still way more fascinating than this book) and there's certainly better character portraits out there (including Kidder's own Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World).


Alison Stewart's "Junk: Digging Through America's Love Affair with Stuff."

Welcome to yet another review of a book that I got from the library after I heard about it...somewhere. I really need to start making notes on where I hear about books. But right now that seems about 231 steps more organized than I am ever going to be.

JunkSo the book in question is Junk: Digging through America's Love Affair with Stuff, by Alison Stewart. I think I heard about it on NPR, maybe? It's exactly what the subtitle promises: an examination of exactly how much junk Americans have. What we call "junk" and why. How we get stuck living with our junk because we think it's important. And, perhaps most tellingly, how we deal with our junk when it gets out of control.

I read a lot of books about stuff, and consumption, and household management, simply because for some reason I find those topics interesting. (I am such a nerd that the other day I noticed there is a street near me named Veblen Way--I'm guessing after Thorstein Veblen, father of the concept of "conspicuous consumption"--and I thought, I should ask someone how that street got named.) Ironically, although I have a paper/books clutter problem (about which Mr. CR and my former roommate, my brother, have both complained, those darlings who are always complete angels to live with themselves), I am not a junk person. My favorite thing to do is go through closets and my basement and get rid of stuff. I have fond memories of my Grandma's house; she always had completely clean kitchen counters, very few knick-knacks, and a completely empty basement. What a woman.

Anyway. I enjoyed reading this book and I like Stewart's writing; it's good basic reporting with a twist of style. Take this opening paragraph:

"Agnes. Irene. Bertha. These three ladies are large, in good shape, and looking for some action. Agnes is the youngest and a fine choice to be a guide for a day of junk removal, Austin style. She's revved up and ready to roll by 7:00 a.m. with two handsome young men, Scott and James, along for the ride.

Agnes is a cab-over style truck that can hold eighteen cubic yards of whatever can fit in her..." (p. 59.)

So that's fun.However, it's not a perfect book. I feel that it definitely needed some editing in terms of flow--I don't really need my nonfiction to be narrative, but I do like to see that it is thoughtfully organized.* This book seems to go from the subject of hoarding, to junk removal companies, to definitions of what "junk" is (including some strange, but not uninteresting, forays into definitions of thinks like space "junk" and "junk" mail), back to different junk removal companies, to question-and-answer sessions with junk artists. See? Kind of all over the place. Several interviews are also presented simply in question-and-answer format, and it's not my favorite thing to read straight interviews in books. I don't mind that in a short magazine or Internet feature; but in a book I find it distracting.

Last but not least: there were so many typos in this book that it started to bother me. Although I have worked as a copyeditor and proofreader, I'm usually quite lenient about these things, because I know publishers are not spending a lot of money any more to get things proof-read, and even if an author has been through their work a million times, they're still going to miss some stuff (hence the need for proofreading). But there are just so MANY of them here, which surprised me. I'm a fan of the Chicago Review Press (the publisher here) and have never noticed this problem in their books before.

But I still read the whole thing and enjoyed many parts of it, particularly the chapters exploring different junk removal companies and how they operate in different communities. I'd class this one as kind of a nice, informative, lighter nonfiction read. Not a bad nonfiction book for the beach, all told.

*Stewart has organized this book: the sections are headed, respectively, "What Is It?", "Who Has It? And Why?", "When Did It Become Big Business?", "Where Should It Go?", and "How Can You Use It, Fix It, or Love It?" But within those sections it sometimes seemed like she repeated herself.


You've gotta read this: Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It.

I read a lot of nonfiction.

So yeah, this is not news. I read a lot of nonfiction, and a lot of it I find interesting, and a lot of it I enjoy. But sometimes I read nonfiction that, even if it isn't a particularly great book as such, still makes me go, holy fuck. Everybody should really read this.* One of the best examples of a book like that (for me), was John Bowe's title Nobodies. In addition to being a mind-bending read, that one was also a great book, well reported and written, so it was a twofer. But that's the book where Bowe trotted this little truth out for me (and yes, I'm paraphrasing, one of these days I have to get that book back and find the exact quote): people figure the system is broken and could be fixed. What they actually don't realize is that the system is working exactly the way the system was set up to work. (Italics mine.) As I said: Holy fuck. I'm still recovering from that devastating nugget. I can't decide if reading that was the exact moment I gave up on politics, or if that was coming for me anyway.

Future crimesBut I digress. Another one of these types of books that I read a while back was Future Crimes (paperback subtitle: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World), by Marc Goodman. This is a dense brick of a book all about the security vulnerabilities in the current version of our Internet and in all our online systems. It is also about the many ways that criminals can find and use our personal information (and how hard it is to prosecute them, particularly if they are executing crimes in different countries from the ones in which they are sitting at their computers--who has jurisdiction over a hacking job taking place in Russia when the victims are elsewhere, for example?), and, even worse, how perfectly legal companies collect and exploit our personal information as well. Oh, and let's not forget the information about how most programming and coding these days is done fast and sloppy (by design), which leaves big holes and vulnerable bugs in most software and online applications. Also: the chapter on the Dark Web, which still gives me nightmares.

Every page of this book was more horrifying than the last. I'm sorry I don't have any more concrete examples for you--I had a whole bunch of pages bookmarked but the youngest CRjr views it as his personal mission to pull all the bookmarks out of my books--but trust me, you don't have to read for more than two pages at any point in the book to be appalled.

That in fact was one of the criticisms of this book that I read in several reviews: it is just too dense, and reads like a laundry list of examples. And that is true. There is not much of an overarching narrative structure here. But I found each example to have its own little storyline, and I read the book slowly, over the course of a few weeks (as noted: it is dense), so that was no problem. It's full of information, but none of it is particularly hard information to understand. Criminals? Here's how they take and use all of your information, sometimes including your identity. Companies? Here's what they are all collecting on you, and what that means (I DO remember one particular example of people who joined what they thought was an anonymous health web site/community, and eventually companies were able to track down their identities just by parsing the information they gave the site).

Oh, and the last little bit on things you can do to protect yourself from the vulnerabilities in the coming Internet of Things, and all the other ways in which our privacy is violated, is pretty laughable. "Use strong passwords" and all that jazz. So yeah. This book was not perfect.

But overall? I think you should read it. I think you should skip the chapter on the dark web, so you can keep on living without despair eating away at your soul, but still, at least give it a skim. One of my favorite outcomes of reading it is that I'm much more aware of privacy and Internet security articles and news items whenever I come across them, and I don't think that's a bad thing. Have you been reading the "Passcode" section of the online Christian Science Monitor? Great articles on this topic. Damn, I love the CSM.

*Yes, I'm assuming that everyone reads. And has ample time to do so. I am informed by many reliable sources that neither of those statements are really true.


Evicted, by Matthew Desmond.

EvictedWhen I saw reviews of Matthew Desmond's recent title Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, I thought, there's a title that I have to get. But then I remembered that Mr. CR has been very strenuously suggesting to me that I should start bringing home some lighter nonfiction, you know, "nonfiction that doesn't make you want to kill yourself."

Well. Fair point. I read a lot of depressing nonfiction.

But then I was in the library with the CRjrs, and I saw Evicted sitting out in the library's "Serendipity" collection, which is a collection of readily available, shorter-term-than-usual, titles for which there is usually a waiting list. Nicely played, library. So I gave in and brought it home.

And, depressingness notwithstanding, it was a really good read. In the course of doing graduate work in sociology, Desmond attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but lived and did his field work in Milwaukee. The experiences he had living there and research he has done on the subject of poverty and housing form the backbone of his book. He provides a window into the worlds of the truly horrifically poor, whether they are black and white, working or not, drug-addicted or elderly (and many times some combinations of those and more attributes). They are worlds of trailer parks with substandard trailers, and inner-city rental properties and homes with substandard everything. And for the honor of living in homes with backed-up toilets, insect infestations, no appliances, and many other problems, Desmond found that many residents paid 70-80% of whatever income they could accumulate, whether it was work salaries, government assistance, or a combination of both, to rent alone.

Now I don't care, really, what kind of "lifestyle choices" these people are making. But I can see and do that math and know that if you are paying 80% of your income to rent, that leaves you very little to buy food and other necessities (completely forget about health care). Desmond himself points that out, and backs up his numbers in lengthy endnotes. His style is good investigative writing; descriptive, but not overwrought, and clean but not really clinical prose:

"Lenny knew the druggies lived mostly on the north side of the trailer park, and the people working double shifts at restaurants or nursing homes lived mostly on the south side. The metal scrappers and can collectors lived near the entrance, and the people with the best jobs--sandblasters, mechanics--congregated on the park's snobby side, behind the office, in mobile homes with freshly swept porches and flowerpots. Those on SSI were sprinkled throughout, as were the older folks who 'went to bed with the chickens and woke up with the chickens,' as some park residents liked to say. Lenny tried to house the sex offenders near the druggies, but it didn't always work out. He had had to place one near the double shifters. Thankfully, the man never left his trailer or even opened the blinds." (p. 32-33.)

Yeah, Mr. CR has a point. But it was a interesting book.* And I think Desmond did a good job with it. He not only details the problems of the renters; he shadowed a landlord and showed the many challenges of that lifestyle (although it comes with a bit more money) as well. He also provides a simple epilogue in which he suggests there would be plenty of money in this country to start to address this very basic problem (and ways it has been addressed thus far, neither effectively nor cost-effectively), but we just have to decide that this is what we WANT to spend our money on. I for one think it would be a good idea. Because the thought of people raising babies in apartments with stopped-up toilets AND sinks is just too ridiculous for words.

*Although this reviewer didn't think it was depressing. Trust me: it's depressing.


Great investigative narratives written by women.

I'm stealing that headline from a Booklist article titled "What She Knows: Great Investigative Narratives Written by Women." I like the title; I like the article; I LOVE investigative works (you'll notice, please, I have a tag for "investigative" over in the right sidebar--that will take you to my reviews of investigative works), either by women or not. And I cannot resist a challenge. Booklist gave up five titles, including Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family (two of my favorites), so how many can I list? Go!

Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation

Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

Helaine Olen's Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry

Rose George, Ninety Percent of Everything and The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters*

Jeanne Marie Laskas's Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work

Amanda Ripley's The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why and The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

Emily Oster's Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong-And What You Really Need to Know

Really, Booklist? You forgot Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea?

Anything by Stacy Horn

Barbara Ehrenreich's now-classic Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America

Ten titles, without even breathing hard. Suck it, Booklist.

(Although, in all fairness, I too noticed a while back that I have a hard time finding investigative books that I enjoy that are written by women. If they're all being marketed as memoirs, as the Booklist article suggests, that might at least explain a bit of that. And hey--if you click on the link above, you'll find a lot of other great women investigative writers listed in the comments. You commenters are so great, and you know your stuff!)

*This book is so good. If you read only one title on this list, make it this one.


Link: All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister.

Has anyone read Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation yet? It's all over the review media and in blogs:

at EarlyWord;

the New York Times;

ShelfLove.

I'm trying to decide if I want to read it. I'm running out of time; I also want to read Peggy Orenstein's Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape and American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.


A little bit of love for Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance.

Modern Romance
by Aziz Ansari, Eric KlinenbergHardcover
Powells.com

I enjoyed the hell out of Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance.

Now, don't get me wrong. I didn't really find it uproariously hilarious, and it was definitely on the "social sciences lite" side of psychology. But I very much enjoyed the comedian's combination of personal dating anecdotes, thoughts on love and relationships, and a wide variety of poll findings and sociological data (which are also on display in his new Netflix series). It was a quick and somewhat informative read, and in my current distracted state, I find that's about all I can ask of a book these days.

Aziz moved from a discussion of how we used to date and marry people (we mainly met them where we lived) to how we meet people today, how we ask for dates, how people search for love internationally, when and why people settle down, and what happens when sexting and cheating tear apart relationships. Some of the information was enlightening, and some was funny, but most of what Aziz found horrified me:

"Today, if you own a smartphone, you're carrying a 24-7 singles bar in your pocket." (p. 31.)

That gives me the all-over shudders.

"The issue of calling versus texting generated a wide variety of responses in our focus groups. Generally, younger dudes were fucking terrified of calling someone on a phone." (p. 39.)

That just makes me sad. I don't really like using the phone either, but come on, just to talk to someone? Someone you might like? Overall I am just wowed by men's fragile egos. I had one great male friend who told me he didn't mind rejection a whole lot, because he thought "every no just brought you closer to a yes." Simple and upbeat. Please note that this friend married an unbelievably attractive woman. And they're still married.

"A woman who came to one of our focus groups discussed how she got so fed up with text messaging that she cut off her texting service and could only be reached by phone calls. This woman never went on a date with a man again. No, she actually started dating someone soon afterward. She also claimed the guys who did work up the courage to call her were a better caliber of man and that she was, in effect, able to weed out a lot of the bozos." (p. 40.)

So yeah, I enjoyed this book, even though it made me feel old. Those crazy kids these days.

This just in: Ansari's book won Best Nonfiction in this year's GoodReads Choice Awards.


Deanna Fei's Girl in Glass: Some good stuff here.

Girl in Glass
by Deanna FeiHardcover

Powells.com

Periodically I get emails from authors or publicists asking if I will review certain books here. I keep my review policy pretty simple: I don't accept books for review. I do this for several reasons: 1. I cannot handle the thought of more mail coming into my house that I have to open and try to organize, and 2. I really want to be free to say what I don't like about books, and I am often uncomfortable doing that when someone has sent me a free book. I also really don't like feeling like I "have" to read something, and my local public library is excellent. I never have any problem finding things I want to read and I never have any shortage of reading material.*

That paragraph got away from me a bit, but the point is, sometimes authors or their publicists contact me to read certain books, and that happened with Deanna Fei's Girl in Glass: How My "Distressed Baby" Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles. When I receive those emails I often do let the author know that I will read the book, if I can get it at the library and if I feel like it, and this was one of those books. It also got quite a bit of press attention when it was published.

And it was okay that it did; it's a fairly interesting book. The glimpse inside a natal intensive care unit, and the feeling of how utterly horrifying it must be to give birth at roughly 5-and-a-half months pregnant, makes it a worthwhile read on any level. (Although I wouldn't recommend it if you're expecting yourself, or have just had a baby and are still worrying about anything that can go horribly wrong at any second.) Sometimes it got a little melodramatic for me (the author is a graduate of the Iowa Writer' Workshop, after all), but one thing I really appreciated was the author's bravery in sharing how she often wondered if it wouldn't be better for her daughter (and easier for her) if her daughter simply didn't make it. That's a horrifying thought, but it's an honest one, and I appreciate the author's willingness to share it.

Where I feel the book struggled a bit was in organization. The first half is about the premature delivery and the author's time with her daughter in the NICU; suddenly the author shifts in tone and narrative to the story of her struggles with their health insurance and her husband's employer's (he worked for AOL and the CEO at the time was Tim Armstrong) blaming of "distressed babies" like hers for running up the costs of health care. Again, this story is told well. But the two halves of the book seemed so distinct and so different, it was like they were different books. Personally I would have preferred a bit more integration of the stories. But perhaps that's not the way it went: I can certainly picture if your baby is in the NICU, that would blot out all other concerns.

Speaking of being all over the shop, I'm sorry for the disjointed nature of this review. I'm disjointed lately. This was an interesting book; do give it a try if you can handle the sometimes gut-wrenching details of helping tiny, tiny little babies live.

*TIME to read, on the other hand, I still find distressingly hard to come by.


Labor Day Reading List: Better Late than Never

Labor Day snuck up on me this year, which is ridiculous, considering that a. Labor Day was at late as it could possibly be this year, and b. Labor Day is my favorite holiday of the year.*

In past years I have been doing some lists of great books about work. This year I thought I'd look over my last year of reading (roughly) and see if any of the books I read had anything to do with work, jobs, labor, etc. Here's what I came up with. Links go to my posts about the books, when available. Must-reads are in bold.

NONFICTION

Catherine Bailey's Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England. About coal mines, the miners, but mostly the people who once got rich off those coal mines.

Michael Gibney's Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line

Megan Hustad's More than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments Hustad's parents were Christian missionaries.

Sandeep Jauhar's Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician.

Michael Lewis's Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. Book about finance and flash trading by one of my favorite authors of all time.

Judy Melinek's Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

Mimi Pond's Over Easy. Graphic novel; waitress/artist memoir.

Ronald Rice's My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop

Brigid Schulte's Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

Gina Sheridan's I Work at a Public Library

Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel. Doctor's memoir.

Lizz Winstead's Lizz Free or Die. Winstead is a comedian and one of the original creators of The Daily Show.

The following titles are about homemaking and parenthood, both of which certainly strike me as work.

Shannon Hayes's Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture

Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue

Jennifer Senior's All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood

FICTION

Susan Gloss's Vintage. Women's fiction about a woman who owns a vintage clothing shop.

Stuart Rojstaczer's The Mathematician's Shiva. About math, and math professors and theorists. So great. One of my favorite novels of the year.

Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members. About academics, written entirely in the form of recommendation letters. A great book; a million times better than I'm making it sound.

Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Oh my God, what a terrible book. Set in the American South during the 1960s; about African American women who worked as "the help" in the homes of white women. I read it when I was reading about civil rights. I was going to say something (at length) about how I thought reading this book actually made me dumber, but I won't. Oops. Just did.

Daphne Uviller's Super in the City. Chick lit set in New York City; about a woman who becomes the super of an apartment building her parents own.

Michelle Wildgen's Bread and Butter. A story of brothers, set in the restaurants they own.

Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I was not a fan.

TERRIBLE MYSTERIES. REALLY, THEY WERE JUST AWFUL.

Cleo Coyle's On What Grounds. Mystery set in a coffee shop.

Chrystal Fiedler's Scent to Kill: A Natural Remedies Mystery. A crime-solving aromatherapist. (Really.) Honestly, I got these two titles just because I love reading about jobs, so I'm always suckered into these mystery series that focus on specific jobs, and they always turn out to be horrible.

HAPPY LABOR DAY!

*No religious ceremonies, no celebration of war, no enforced family gatherings, heralds fall (the best season of the year). The perfect holiday.