Investigative

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.


Every single thing about video games bores the shit out of me.

I'm sitting here wondering how to start this post because even just thinking about video games, or playing them, makes my mind wander.

So I'll keep it short. I keep checking out books about video games and gaming, because it seems like the subject comes up a lot (especially when you are the mother of young boys). But I never actually finish reading these books. To me it's literally like reading the instruction booklet for doing your taxes. The latest book I've tried and can't read is Greg Toppo's The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter.

Here's some of the jacket copy, because even though I dipped into this one in a number of places, and read about 50 pages of it, I can't remember a thing about it, except that it was VERY DRY:

"What if schools, from the wealthiest suburban nursery school to the grittiest urban high school, thrummed with the sounds of deep immersion? More and more people believe that can happen--with the aid of video games and simulations. Experts argue that games truly do 'believe in you.' Games give people a chance to learn at their own pace, take risks, cultivate deeper understanding, fail and still want to try again--right away--and ultimately succeed in ways that too often elude them in school."

Sigh. I won't be reading this one. I didn't make it through Tom Bissell's book on the subject either, and that hurt, because I LOVE Tom Bissell. Anyone out there ever read an interesting book on video games? Does such a thing exist?


Mark Schatzker's The Dorito Effect: A food book worth reading.

There are a lot of books being written these days about our food.

I've read a lot of them myself, but somewhere along the way I burned out on them. Partially this was because I worry about my family's diet, but not enough to do the massive amounts of work that are necessary to grow your own food, or even preserve or freeze it.* Partially this was also because I have the world's least sophisticated palate**, so telling me about how healthy food can also taste great is largely a waste of time.

But I must say that I found Mark Schatzker's investigative book The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavor to be a new take on a very overdone subject. Schatzker examines food from the viewpoint of flavor--most importantly, how the majority of our food doesn't have any, because it has mainly been produced by a huge agricultural system that must sacrifice complex flavor in order to maximize hardiness and yield.

One thing I really appreciated here was Schatzker's lean journalistic writing and emphasis on scientific studies done on the relationships between flavors in foods and their nutritious compounds. Here's your sample of the book, in which the author describes one of the reasons modern chickens taste so bland:

"In the late 1940s, a new and important feed was unleashed upon poultrydom: the 'high-energy diet.' For chickens to grow twice as fast as their recent ancestors, they needed to mainline carbs.

There was. however, a tradeoff that no one thought much about in the 1940s, or today. What the high-energy diet gains in calories, it loses in flavor. The feed is typically a blend of seeds--corn, wheat, millet, soybeans, etc.--and while some seeds (nutmeg, for example) are flavorful, the seeds we feed chicken are not. And, unlike tomatoes, a chicken doesn't make its own flavor. The taste of animal flesh is strongly influenced by what an animal eats." (p. 35.)

It's an interesting read, and even includes an appendix with a few basic suggestions for starting to improve one's diet. Sigh. I should really follow some of those.

*If I seriously gardened or preserved food I'd have even less time to read! Not. Gonna. Happen.

**For nearly ten years after I graduated from college, I ate a S'mores Pop-Tart and coffee for every breakfast, home-made meatloaf for most at-home meals (hamburger is my true medium), and candy and ice cream in massive, massive quantities. Don't tell my mom, okay? The poor woman raised me on milk my father's dairy herd produced, beef and pork my family raised itself and an awe-inspiring amount of homegrown fruits and vegetables. She was kinder to me for my first eighteen years than I have been to myself since.


Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker: True crime you simply must read.

I know, I know, nobody really wants to read True Crime.

And yet, people do. I do. And when I come across True Crime books that I think you should read, even if you have an aversion to the genre, I feel I have to tell you about them.

One such book is Robert Colker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.

The book originally began life as an article in New York Magazine, about the Long Island serial killer and his victims. It's a complex story, making it a complex book: Kolker opens the narrative by describing five of the killer's victims (the four whose bodies were found on a New York barrier island off the shore of Long Island, in similar burlap sacks, and another victim, whom authorities can't confirm was or was not killed by the same perpetrator) and their lives, most of which were filled with details of complex and abusive family relationships, struggles to find "honest" work, eventual turns to escort services and prostitution to make money, addiction problems, and a host of unstable relationships. I found this part of the book the most challenging one to read; all of the women advertised their services as escorts under different names, so keeping their stories straight was a bit of a challenge.

Kolker structures his narrative a bit differently than most True Crime narratives, which tend to be very straightforward and story-driven. In this book he starts with the character portraits and narratives of the victims, and from there he works outward to consider their family circumstances and how their bodies were eventually found. In the latter half of the book, he examines the community life in the gated community of Oak Beach, on Jones Island, near which the remains (and the remains of several other unidentified individuals) were found, focusing particularly on the residents who have come to be viewed with suspicion by other residents, the police, and the media.

It's a challenging read, and it's a really sad read, but I still think you should look into it. Just to look through this window of how so many people (women, in particular) live their lives constantly at the edge of despair and bad luck and no good choices is educational, and important. Here's one thing that struck me about the book: Kolker (and many others) make the point that serial killers often target prostitutes and other individuals at the edge of society, because they have such tenuous connections and are often "not missed." To me this always made it sound like sex workers had no connections. But what is really clear in this narrative is that they DO have connections to other people--a ton of them. They've got parents and stepparents; siblings and step-siblings; often they have babies or children of their own; they've got friends; they often have pimps or boyfriends or guys who drive them to jobs. The greater problem is that those connections often exert pressures of their own: at least one of these victims was working to give her mother and family money; they are trying to support and raise children, and this job seems to offer the most pay for the fewest hours; they develop drug problems because of friends and pimps and dealers they know, and because johns often request drug use at the same time as escort services. So they're not really alone--they're just with all the (arguably) wrong people, all the time.

For some reason that gave me pause.

I also liked Kolker's writing style. It's direct. And I thought one of his conclusions was about as much as you could hope for:

"The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on." (p. 381.)

Yes, it's hard to read. It's a heartbreaking story, and a heartbreaking book. You should read it.


So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson: Compulsively readable, but somewhat unsatisfying.

I have always been a big Jon Ronson fan.

So when I heard he had a new book out, titled So You've Been Publicly Shamed*, I of course had to go get it. And I was not disappointed. Or, if I was, a little bit, I wasn't disappointed enough to not enjoy the read.

This time Ronson takes as his subject "shaming," particularly the type that happens online these days. As in, someone might post an ill-advised or just poorly worded joke or comment (or completely innocent, but easily misconstrued) on Twitter or their blog, and pretty soon every troll on the Internet rains down fire and brimstone (not to mention more overt threats of violence). The book is ostensibly his look at "shaming as a form of social control."

I'm not going to describe each chapter, because if I did, I think you'd be totally confused. (And also because I read this a few weeks ago and I've already almost completely forgotten the points and flow of the book--which should indicate to you that this is not the best Jon Ronson book ever.) If you'd like a more thorough review of this book, please consider this one, at the AV Club.

The stories here are wild and weird--Ronson always does a very good job of locating stories and people that make you say, "wait, what?"--but I felt that just as each chapter got interesting, Ronson would end it, never to make any conclusions about it or its subject again. (Hence: "unsatisfying.") And (the AV Club review) points out that Ronson as a journalist does some ever-so-slightly dodgy things to get people to speak with him, which makes me vaguely uncomfortable, even when he lets you know he's doing it.**

The part of the book that really struck me was Ronson's work with Lindsey Stone, who was ostracized when she a photo of her acting disrespectfully behind an Arlington National Cemetery sign that asked for quiet and respect, and who was basically destroyed online and threatened numerous times.*** Ronson enlisted an online reputation repair firm to help Stone "clean up" her search result pages. Learning about how Reputation.com goes about trying to fix your online reputation (which, horrifyingly, keeps showing up forever) was fascinating. At one point the firm suggested she not refer online to her experiences working at Walmart as "soul-suckingly awful." Here's the anecdote:

"'Are you sure you want to say that Walmart was soul-sucking?' Farukh said.

'Oh...what? Really?' Lindsey laughed as if to say, 'Come on! Everyone knows that about Walmart!' But then she hesitated.

The conference call was proving an unexpectedly melancholic experience. It was nothing to do with Farukh. He really felt for Lindsey and wanted to do a good job for her. The sad thing was that Lindsey had incurred the Internet's wrath because she was impudent and playful and foolhardy and outspoken. And now here she was, working with Farukh to reduce herself to safe banalities--to cats and ice cream and Top 40 chart music. We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland." (p. 266.)

I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks of this one, frankly, or of Jon Ronson in general.

*And of course I think I first heard about it when Jon Stewart interviewed Ronson on The Daily Show. Where are we going to turn for nonfiction books coverage when Stewart retires? I hope Trevor Noah keeps up the books tradition.

**Ever since I read the superlative True Crime book A Rip in Heaven, and heard about how one of the victims in the story was questioned by the police as though he were a suspect--and how the police lied about certain things to him to try and confuse and trip him up--this sort of thing has made me really, really nervous. I actually have a lot of respect for the police and I'm sure that's how they sometimes have to do their job, but it still gave me the total heebs. In short: read A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, and always lawyer up.

***Her picture was not really that shocking. It's the equivalent of going behind a fence with a "No Visitors Beyond This Point" sign on it and having someone take a picture of you beyond that point--which I'm pretty sure anyone who has ever been a teenager has done.


Depressing nonfiction: Robert Putnam's Our Kids

Mr. CR was right, I've been reading a lot of depressing nonfiction books.

One of them was Robert Putnam's Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. I checked this book out because of its author: Putnam is best known for his 2000 title Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. That book, although I read it so long ago that I can barely remember it, spawned a particularly nerdy reading habit of mine, when reading any kind of investigative, historical, economic, or sociological work of nonfiction. I almost always play "Find Putnam"--or, more specifically, look through a book's text, notes, references, and index for references to Bowling Alone. And you'd be surprised how often you find it; it surely has to be one of the most quoted books of the late twentieth century (which is why I started noticing it and playing the game).

So when I saw he had a new book out, I thought I'd try it, although with a title like that you know it certainly isn't going to be a happy read. Putnam explores what he calls the growing "opportunity gap," by which kids from different economic classes face a lifetime of different opportunities in their families, education, community, and personal economic lives. To do this, he relies not only on a ton of research (the notes section in this book is 83 pages long), but primarily on qualitative research and the personal stories (garnered through many personal interviews) that he uses to tell his story. Such as:

"David was a scrawny 18-year-old in jeans and a baseball cap when we first encountered him in a Port Clinton park in 2012. His father had dropped out of high school and tried in vain to make a living as a truck driver, like his own father, but as an adult has been employed only episodically, in odd jobs like landscaping. David apologizes for not being able to tell us more about his father. 'He's in prison,' he explains, 'and I can't ask him.' David's parents separated when David was very little, and his mother moved out, so he can't tell us much about her, either, except to say that she lives in the Port Clinton area. 'All her boyfriends have been nuts,' he says. 'I never really got to see my mom that much. She was never there.'" (p. 27.)

I can't really say that anything I read in this book was a surprise. There's an overwhelming amount of evidence showing that there is increasingly a class-based (perhaps even more than race-based) divergence in not only current living conditions between poor kids and rich kids, but a divergence in future social, educational, and economic mobility. This is particularly disheartening in a country largely built on the principle that if you simply work hard, you can succeed.

The two most disturbing parts of the book (to me) were the paragraph that said "high[test]-scoring poor kids are now slightly less likely (29 percent) to get a college degree than low-scoring rich kids (30 percent)." (p. 190.) That's gross. And this paragraph, in the last section explaining the authors' research methods: "Just the simple act of scheduling an interview with working-class respondents--who lacked reliable transportation, money for gas, stable work hours, and child care--showed us how hard it is to plan for the future amid constant insecurity and uncertainty." (p. 270.)

It was a thought-provoking book (although I don't think it will have the reach that Bowling Alone did), and I was glad that the author concluded with a "What Is to Be Done?" chapter in which he tried to make a few suggestions. But it was sad, and I worry that of course it will only be read by people who already agree with its premise. But there you have it.


Only One Thing Can Save Us, by Thomas Geoghegan

I have two main things to say about labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan's interesting book Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement.

First, when I started reading it, I was really digging it. It made total sense to me. It's a book about how things stand for "labor" (organized and not) in this country right now, and the author strikes a tone that seems, to me, totally reasonable:

"Of course it's for the young I feel sorry: after all, it was on our watch that a labor movement disappeared. Am I wrong or do they seem intimidated? So far as I can tell, at least on the El [in Chicago], they seem to shrink from one another. They stare pitifully down at their iPhones, which stare up pitilessly at them. Their own gadgetry sits in judgment of them.

But why pick on them? Everyone seems demoralized...More and more I have clients who have signed away their rights to be considered 'employees' at all--which means there's no minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, no Social Security, nothing. Years ago they should have said something when the HR people said: 'You're no longer employees here--but cheer up, you'll go on working for us as independent contractors.'...Sometimes I think: one day, every American worker will be a John Smith, Incorporated, every cleaning lady, every janitor, every one of us--it will be a nation of CEOs in chains. 'How did I let this happen?'

At some point, maybe 2034, it won't even occur to us to wonder. We'll just be too beat." (pp. 4-5.)

Now, the only thing I can argue with in the above is that I don't think it will take until 2034, or anywhere near it. So I enjoyed this book for the author's matter-of-fact tone. In fact, it didn't faze me in the least, until I left it in the bathroom, and Mr. CR said, "Holy cow, that is one depressing book you've got in the bathroom."

The second thing about this book is that I am not smart enough to read it right now. I really want to; I think the author has a lot of interesting things to say about where we've been with labor in this country and where we might want to think about going (rather than mindlessly following the path we're on), but this is a book that requires some concentration and some knowledge. There's a whole middle part, for instance, where the author discusses the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes, and he seems to assume a level of knowledge that I don't have.* So for now, I'm going to put this book down...but only due to my failings, not the author's.

In the meantime, here's a more thorough review, from the New York Times.

*As the years pass I become more furious about how my time was wasted in public schools for 12 years, and about how I wasted my own time in college for nearly six more. Really? Nearly 18 years of school and nobody could give me a quick rundown on Keynes and basic economic theories?


Men Explain Things to Me: Take Two.

Okay, I was just working on a horrifically long post about Rebecca Solnit's essay collection Men Explain Things to Me.

I'm not going to post it.

Instead, here's a little anecdote I'm going to tell you. I so badly want to try for a third little CRjr, just because I have been so lucky and the first two little CRjrs are so great. But I have what Mr. CR and I call my "hierarchy of fears" on that subject. My fears about a new baby are, in this order:

  1. Down Syndrome (because I am OLD);
  2. Autism;
  3. Twins (because I am OLD, and I don't know how even young people handle that);
  4. Girl

Let's just say I don't think it's easy to be a girl. I am the mother of sons and I think it was meant to be that way.* And I say that even as someone who has been phenomenally blessed in her interactions with male family members, friends, and partners, as well as unbelievably lucky in her avoidance of violence at anyone's hands.**

So yeah, you know what? Just read Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me. (In fact, you can even read the title essay online, if you want to give it a try first.) If you like it, recommend it to other women and men. However else I felt about it, this passage, in a later essay, really got to me:

"When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling all the women students not to go out alone after dark or not to be out at all. Get in the house. (For women, confinement is always waiting to envelope you.) Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man." (p. 77.)

Just think about that paragraph for a while. I did. I'm not saying it's a perfect book, but there's a few paragraphs like that, that should start to make it clearer why I'd fear having a baby girl. And that's just not right, I don't care how you look at it.

*Which is not to say I don't worry about my boys. I am a Champion Worrier, and if I told you the long list of worries I had for and about my boys this week alone, you would think I'm absolutely nuts. If you don't think that already.

**Really. If my mother knew some of the places I went by myself after ten p.m., she would keel over dead. I almost keel over dead sometimes remembering some of my risky choices. Luck. Pure dumb, good luck.


Matt Taibbi, back at Rolling Stone.

All last summer and fall I was bereft, because Matt Taibbi had left Rolling Stone to write for a new, unknown publication, and there were some months when I couldn't find any new writing of his online to read.

But: he won't be writing for the new publication after all.

That's sad, and I hope he's okay with it, but the great takeaway here is, he's back at Rolling Stone! YAY! Now go read him there.*

*I was going to link you to his most recent article, on Scott Walker, the oh-so-charming governor of my home state of Wisconsin, but I don't think it's his strongest work. For one thing, he seems to think the Democratic Party has their act together sufficiently to defeat Walker in a presidential election (God help us, that's a scary line to write), and I don't personally believe that they do (and there's an even scarier line to write).


I'm only sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

I really, really enjoyed Helaine Olen's investigative business book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

I first read about this one ages ago on Savvy Working Gal's blog, and I was immediately attracted by its cover. I wondered a bit about its subject matter; I'll admit I was skeptical that an entire book was necessary to explore the "dark side of the personal finance industry."* That's right. An entire book critiquing not the broader business atmosphere of the U.S., not the entire stock market, not capitalism, but literally critiquing ONLY those finance gurus who are well-known enough to have their own publishing, radio and TV programs, and seminar businesses. Olen began the book with a bang, giving the history of one of the earliest pundits, S. F. (Sylvia) Porter, who wrote financial advice columns and books from the 1930s through the 1970s. But I really started to enjoy myself in Olen's second chapter, on popular money guru Suze Orman:

"If there are any other personal finance gurus who are capable of arousing this much passion, I have not discovered them. Everybody knows Suze, the woman whose personal appearance is in itself nearly a caricature, with the neon-bright jackets, deep tan, big, bright white teeth, and ultrablond, ultrasculpted hair. She winks broadly at her audience, seemingly flirting with them, calling them 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' in her over-the-top flat Midwestern accent. Orman has more than half a dozen bestselling books to her credit and a CNBC show, which despite being placed in the Saturday night graveyard hour still gets better ratings than anything in the cable giant's weekday lineup." (p. 28.)

I really enjoyed that, even though, personally, I like watching Suze Orman when I see her programs on PBS pledge drives. It's not so much that I like her financial advice, but I'm interested in public speaking techniques and Suze is nothing if not a MASTER of public speaking.

I'm not doing a great job of describing this book; do click on the link above to Savvy Working Gal's blog, where she gives a much better synopsis of Olen's main points. I will say it took me a while to read this book--it's quite detailed--but in a good way. A great read, particularly if you are oh so tired of hearing TV financial pundits blather on about how we can all save a million dollars by brewing our own coffee at home.

*Not because there isn't enough dark side there, but I thought it might get dull to read about. It did not.


I love hearing authors on the radio.

So yesterday morning the little CRs and I were munching through our Cheerios* and listening to Wisconsin Public Radio, and a guy was on talking about football. And normally, I'm not all that interested in football as a subject. So we listened for a bit, and I thought if I got bored we'd turn over to one of CRjr's favorite CDs (he's still on his Jackson Browne kick). But then I just started enjoying the author.

Which was perfect, as it turned out the author was Steve Almond, of whom I have always been very fond. He's got a new book out called Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto.

Of course it was a timely topic, because the Packers played their season opener on Thursday night. And I must say, I have always been a Packers fan. But the last few years? I just haven't felt like watching. I always thought perhaps a bit of the thrill went out of the game when Brett Favre was done quarterbacking. And frankly I can't really enjoy watching players crunch into each other anymore, after all the concussion news. But I'm not really militant about not watching football, or telling other people they shouldn't.

And neither is Steve Almond. I won't be reading this book--he'd just be preaching to the choir with me and I don't have the time--but you should consider it, if you're interested, or at least listen to the radio program. He's well worth a listen.

*Okay, I was having Fiber One cereal, because I am old, and pretty much the only thing that I really believe in anymore is regularity.


Labor Day: a reading list.

I love Labor Day. Love it, love it, love it. Summer's on the way out,* it's a day off work,** there's no family gatherings, and we're not celebrating war.

I also love it because I love reading about the subject of work. I love reading about work about a million times more than I enjoy working, but that's another story for another day. I was looking back through old blog posts and found a list I made of work-related readings; I've pasted that at the bottom of this post. But I thought today I'd add a few newer titles to the list (links in this top list go to my reviews of the titles):

1. Michael Lewis's Flash Boys, about high frequency trading, which contains great insights into modern trading and the role of computer programmers in that world.

2. Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel, about being a doctor in San Francisco's Laguna Honda hospital.

3. Rose George's Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes On Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. That title is self-explanatory, but I will say this: Rose George is fantastic, and you should be reading her.

4.Ray Huling's Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen. Another self-explanatory title, and much more interesting than it sounds.

5. Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work, by Jeanne Marie Laskas. A great, page-turning nonfiction read.

6. Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs, edited by John Bowe. An oral history about work. And oh, I LOVE John Bowe. See my note about "Nobodies," below.

7. Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do, by Gabriel Thompson. Thompson worked (among other jobs) as a migrant agricultural worker and in a butchering plant. I promise you you'll never look at chicken the same way.

And here's the 2009 list:

1. Gil Reavill's Aftermath, Inc., in which the author joined a group of workers who clean up death scenes and accidents (particularly those which involve any kind of biohazard). Not for the faint of heart, but a good rollicking read nonetheless.

2. Scott Rosenberg's Dreaming in Code. Hands down one of the most interesting and illuminating books I've ever read about computer programming. I still don't understand it but I have a better understanding of what I don't understand.

3. Ted Conover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Good lord, I hope I'm never convicted of anything. I couldn't handle being a prison guard, much less being IN prison.

4. William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea. It is William Langewiesche, writing about modern-day pirates. Ask no questions, just read.

5. Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep; discussed at length earlier this week but an unbelievable look at those who work around murder victims, particularly cold case investigators.

6. John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, in which he makes trucking and the profession of trucking fascinating.

7. John Bowe's Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. Well, it's about work, unfortunately the work isn't really voluntary. I quoted this one to my poor mother again just the other day: I continue to be floored by Bowe's brilliant, and brilliantly simple assertion that (I'm paraphrasing, but this is fairly close) "the system isn't broken--the system is working exactly the way the system was set up to work." Holy Christ. Think on that one for a few minutes.

and

8. The Working Stiff's Manifesto, by Iain Levison. I don't agree with this author's rather casual attitude toward stealing from one's employer (although I'm no innocent--I still have and use the apron I was provided with as a Country Kitchen waitress--and I'm not giving it back!), but it's still a great book.

Happy Labor Day, all. Now go take a load off.

*Whenever the temperature gets above 60 degrees I get testy. Summer is not my season.

**Well, not for me currently, as a freelance schlub, but I have fond memories of gainful M-F employment and legal holidays.


The latest Michael Lewis: Flash Boys

Flash Boys
by Michael Lewis

Powells.com

Here's a shocker: I enjoyed Michael Lewis's latest investigation into financial malfeasance, Flash Boys.

You'd think a book about an acronym as bland as HFT (high frequency trading, as in trading a lot of stocks a million times and very very fast, in order to make money) would not be all that fast-paced. But you would not be reckoning on Michael Lewis: he has, and has always had, a real touch with writing about boring and often very complex financial machinations and making them somewhat comprehendable to people whose eyes tend to go blank when they hear phrases like "trading derivatives."

Lewis first became interested in this subject when he followed the case of Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian computer programmer who worked for Goldman Sachs but, after leaving them to take a new job, was charged with (and convicted of) stealing their proprietary computer code. This led Lewis to investigate exactly how the stock market is manipulated in a multitude of different ways, all day every day, and millions of times a second.

That is not a typo. A microsecond is one-millionth of a second, and it is a unit of time (along with milliseconds and nanoseconds) in which high frequency traders deal. I won't go into all the details--if you want a better synopsis of the book, listen to a brief Michael Lewis interview about it--but I will say I really, really enjoyed it. And it was kind of a hopeful story, for a change: he found some people who were using their smarts to try and plug loopholes and make the market "make sense." Much of the narrative focuses on Brad Katsuyama, a high-level finance professional and Canadian who tried to figure out why the market fluctuations he was seeing didn't make sense, and what I enjoyed most about this book were the descriptions of the smart and different people Katsuyama found to help him understand things like HFT and dark pools. I particularly liked gaining little insights like the fact that there are a lot of Russian programmers in the finance world because Russians have become extremely good at looking for and finding loopholes in systems--simply from living in their country, where it is often necessary to game the system just to get by.

It's not a long book and I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending--I think even Michael Lewis is starting to phone them in a bit--but it was still a good read, and you don't really need much financial background to understand it.


John Green: 0 for 2 on reading recommendations, thus far.

I hardly ever seek out reading recommendations, particularly from people I do not know personally. Partly this is because I almost never have a problem finding things I want to read (I currently have 59 books checked out from the library, I'm on the hold waiting list for nearly that many more, and I've always got books that I own that I still need to read). Mainly I have a problem finding enough time to read books that I just seem to keep tripping over, and that doesn't even take into account that I know several great and interesting readers who often make suggestions to me in person.

So why I was watching John Green's entire YouTube video on the 18 books you probably haven't read but which he thinks you should, I couldn't really tell you. Yes, I do like John Green. Yes, of course I enjoy listening to anyone and everyone talk about books. But how I found that video I don't know, unless it's because I somehow heard that he also recommended Tony Hawks's travel books Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, which are two of my all-time favorite nonfiction books.

On John's recommendation (librarians: please see John Green for how to make books sound interesting; he can do so in very little time), I checked out Joshua Braff's* novel The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green and Alice Domurat Dreger's One of Us : Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal. I am actually very sorry to report that neither one of these books really worked out for me.

There really wasn't anything wrong with Braff's novel; it seems to be a fairly standard male coming-of-age story, featuring an extremely complex relationship between Jacob and his father, but I just wasn't in the mood. (Or, I should say, I kind of just kept picking it up and reading it when I couldn't decide what else to read, but I never really WANTED to go back to reading it).

The One of Us book was a bit of a different story. It's actually quite interesting, and you wouldn't believe that a book about conjoined twins would have so much to say on so many different topics, among them what we consider to be "normal" where our bodies are concerned, and how much doctors and medical professionals are involved with helping us judge and "fix" our appearances. I thought it was a bit dry, at first, but I spent a bit more time with it today and it's actually quite the fascinating little book. Again, I'm just not quite in the right mood for it. It reminded me of Amy Bloom's superlative Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, which I would heartily recommend to anyone.

On the whole, though, I wouldn't say these were bad suggestions. And I'm going to give Green another try; he mentioned several other titles in his "18 books" video that sounded interesting. Happy weekend, all.

*Yes, he's the brother of actor Zach Braff.


I'm still going to fall apart in a disaster...

...but after reading Amanda Ripley's fantastic nonfiction book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - And Why, at least for now I'll have the comfort of thinking I've learned something about surviving "the unthinkable."

I found this book because I enjoyed Amanda Ripley's more recent investigative title The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. After reading it, I looked to see if she had written anything else, and up popped this title. So, because I am, in some small way, always expecting the worse*, this was a book I really wanted to read.

And I was not disappointed. I liked it even better than her book on education. Ripley set out to discover how people really DO behave during disasters (not how they THINK they'll behave), and to explore the psychology behind our survival tactics and fear responses. Her book is organized in the same order as we tend to respond to disasters: Denial; Deliberation; and the Decisive Moment.

Sadly, oh so sadly, I only read this book a few weeks ago and I've pretty much forgotten everything I thought I learned. Oh wait, I do remember something. In case of an emergency, try not to mill around aimlessly (as many people who survived the 9/11 attacks remember doing, and watching other people do). Do NOT go back for your personal belongings or load up on them, just get out. And don't be hurt if airline personnel scream at you to get you to exit the plane after an emergency landing or crash. They're doing that because they've been trained that people do actually need to be yelled at to get moving.

It's a fascinating book, if a bit sobering. And let's face it, these days it's probably not a bad idea to try and imagine how you'd react in a disaster (and consider even more efficient or helpful ways of responding). I'm two for two with Ripley; can't wait to see her next book.

*Although when bad things happen, I often find myself surprised. It's like I do all of that worrying for nothing!


Part 2: God's Hotel

So this week we are talking about Victoria Sweet's superlative memoir, God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine.

As noted yesterday, this book is about Sweet's experiences as a doctor, working in a San Francisco hospital specifically designed to aid the poor. She also discusses her postgraduate studies of medieval medicine, and most particularly how taking care of the needy and the sick was approached by the well-known historical figure Hildegard of Bingen.

I stuck so many bookmarks in this one that they just look like an extra set of pages, sticking out the top. Let's see what I marked, shall we? (And here's an interesting note about this book: it's complex and interconnected without being a particularly challenging read. For most of these quotes I have to give you a little context.)

In one story, she is faced with a patient with a huge and horrendous bedsore, and she talks about how she views the sore not as something for her to fix (surgeons had already tried and failed) but something for her to help the patient's own body fix on its own. So this is what she says: "To see what else was needed, I had to start with a vision of Terry whole, complete, and healthy, in a future when all that was missing from her complete health was a pair of glasses. And walk my way back from that. Which I did. I walked past the repair of her teeth, the strengthening of her body, the strengthening of her will, the resolution of her depression, and the healing of her bedsore. I walked all the way back from the perfect future to the imperfect no, and then I organized my strategy forward." (p. 95.)

I love that. Not only do I wish all doctors did that, I wish I could do that in my own life, as a goal-setting technique. To see the whole person, or myself, in a state of wellness, and methodically list and (this is the important part) DO the hard, sometimes unpleasant work of getting there.

A bit more tomorrow. I feel like I am not doing this book justice--it is not one that really lends itself to the quick and pithy quote--but I will try.


Part 1: God's Hotel.

Apologies for once again going off the radar for an extended period of time. Now that the weather is nicer it's harder to convince the Little CRs to stay in and watch Peg + Cat while I type away. I can read in the backyard while I ignore them, but it's hard to drag the laptop out there to work.

In honor of the short week, I'd like to spend the next few days on an absolutely fascinating book that you definitely should read. Yes, I am recommending this one, not just "suggesting" it, as they teach you in library school. Whatever. Screw you, library school. If I want to tell someone they should read a book from now on, I'm just going to own it and tell someone to read a book. Hilariously enough, this book was recommended to me by my sister, and even though my sister is one of my best friends and our tastes are nearly exactly the same, I still put off reading this book for a while because I am just THAT independent when it comes to my reading choices. So that's fine. Don't read this one right away just because I told you to. But read it sometime.

The book is God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, by Victoria Sweet. As its subtitle says, it's a book about one of the last "almshouses"--hospitals designed solely to care for the sick poor--in America: San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital.

Sweet is a doctor, but is one with more than just a passing interest in the history of medicine. While working at Laguna Honda, she also pursued a Ph.D. in the History of Medicine, with a special interest in the medical knowledge and practice of the Christian mystic and nun Hildegard of Bingen. In this memoir, which encompasses a large chunk of her life, she relates her experiences working at the hospital, what she learned in her Ph.D. studies, and her take on the landscape of health care has changed over the last couple of decades.

And that should be enough to pique your interest for now; if you've had any sort of dealings with the health care "system" over the past few years, I'd imagine you have some thoughts on it (and how it's been changing) yourself. More to come...


What if you don't have the energy to be radical or a homemaker?

I was rather annoyed by the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.

Author Shannon Hayes, herself a radical homemaker and author of organic meat cookbooks, took upon herself the task of meeting and interviewing numerous individuals and families who were "pursuing homemaking as a vocation for saving family, community, and the planet." (p. 1.) She then wrote this book, in two parts: the first half, in which she gives a brief history of homemaking and a short critique of our American economic system and culture, and the second, in which she shares insights and lessons learned from her interviews with multiple individuals seeking to live their lives "off the grid" (to differing degrees).

Frankly, I agreed with a lot of her points in the critique of our system. You can't stay home with your kids these days without noticing that you do have choices, and these are it: go to work, and take your kids to daycare; stay at home and spend most of your day scheduling and attending your children's activities and playdates so they're "socialized" before they even get to school; or do neither and feel slightly off for about six years while you and your kids wander around your suburban neighborhood, which is a ghost town, because most people have opted for the first two choices. So yes. I think a lifestyle where money and over-scheduled children are the only goals is not real fulfilling. But still. Does that mean I'm ready to move back to the farm, grow my own food and build my own house?

No.

And I can't say that Hayes really convinces me otherwise. I'll admit, whenever I read a book on this subject, I always flip to the index and look for "health care" or "health insurance," because how an author treats that subject usually lets me know how seriously I have to take them. And this is what I found in this book:

"For many of the homemakers, locally produced, organic and nutrient-dense foods were more reliable guarantees for health than medical insurance. 'The way that we eat...keeps us healthier, so we're not spending a lot of money on doctors bills...or medicines,' says Eve Honeywell who, aong with her husband, became so passionate about good food that she began farming..." (p. 148.)

And if that's not enough of a humdinger, here's the next page:

"A sound home-based health insurance policy requires living a joyous, fulfilling and consequential life. Indeed, in their research on well-being, Ed Diener and Shigehiro Oishi have found that positive states of well-being correlated with better physical health." (p. 149.)

This is the radical homemaking answer to health care and the need for health insurance? Healthy food and a positive attitude? Well, let me just say, as someone who ate totally healthy food the first 18 years of her life, and whose extended family all eats healthy food, um....fuck that. I'm pretty sure my nutrition and attitude didn't have a whole lot to do with my huge old ovarian cyst that required major (expensive) surgery, and I know it doesn't have a lot to do with some other health issues in my family, even though we are basically healthy people.

Although, as you can tell, I probably don't have the required positive attitude that makes it possible to live without health insurance.

Anyway. Once I saw that was the homemakers' answer to health insurance, I rather gave up on taking this book seriously. But I did read the whole thing, and I think the author did put in quite a bit of work doing a lot of personal interviews. So my question remains: has anyone read a good book about trying to live a slightly different lifestyle, but one which still recognizes the absolute necessity of having health insurance in America today?


It's probably a good thing time is finite.

Because if I had infinite time, I would definitely have to read Jeremy Scahill's huge brick of a book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. However, because it clocks in at 642 pages (of which 521 are text; the rest is notes and index) and because I am chronically short on time, I will have to return it to the library after only making it to page 21. What I read, however, I liked:

"This is a story about how the United States came to embrace assassination as a central part of its national security policy. It is also a story about the consequences of that decision for people in scores of countries across the globe and for the future of American democracy...

This book tells the story of the expansion of covert US wars, the abuse of executive privilege and state secrets, the embrace of unaccountable elite military units that answer only to the White House." (p. xxiii.)

Now THAT, my friends, along with about one more page of text, is how you write an introduction (although here it is called "a note to the reader"). Short, meaty, to the point, with well-constructed sentences. And you don't have to read much farther to learn shocking things about what our government considers acceptable in terms of assassinations--of U.S. citizens, mind you.

As regards the subject matter itself, is this book bound to be depressing as hell? Well, sure. What isn't, these days? But it is also bound to be a cracking good read, and a fast one, for all its five hundred pages. As soon as we win the lottery and I can hire cleaning people and nannies, this is the first book I'm checking out (checking out? hell, BUYING, as long as I've won the lottery).


William Langewiesche alert.

I was listening to Marketplace* on NPR last night while I fed CR3 some baby cereal (about which he wasn't all that thrilled, truthfully) when suddenly, in the middle of an interview, I thought, this guy has a fantastic voice. And then I listened a bit more closely, and I thought, this is a really interesting story. And then, out of nowhere, a little bell went off in my head:

William Langewiesche.

And that's exactly who it was. Evidently all is not lost here; I still have my William Langewiesche radar. The story was about a huge employer, G4S, that provides mercenary soldiers to the UN and many other organizations across the world. You can read his entire article on the subject here.**

*I love Marketplace so, so much. I always learn something interesting. I don't get to listen to it every night--it's only fair if the boys get to pick what they want sometimes, and both CRjr's and Mr. CR's mealtime tastes run to music instead of NPR.

**I'm linking to this even though I haven't yet read it, although I hope to rectify that this weekend.