I cover most of the reasons why you should read it in the review, but let me just say on a personal note that Budd's book made me learn and think about a lot of our national immigration "policies" that I hadn't previously. Did you know, for instance, that the Border Patrol reserves the right to patrol any territory 100 miles from any land or maritime border? Look that up. That rule covers two-thirds of the American population.
Really. Go look at that link (the two-thirds one). Brings this issue a little closer to home, doesn't it?
I won't lie. The book is a really tough read. Budd details her rape (perpetrated against her by a fellow agent in training) as well as a million other ugly racist and sexist things that go on in law enforcement.
But at its core it is still a hopeful book. It is also the story of a person living their life, trying to understand their own history and choices, and questioning why things have to be this way. In that way it reminded me of Debora Harding's superb Dancing with the Octopus, another superlative true crime book that was hard to read but really held out hope that humans can learn from and heal with one another.
Budd has also pledged that a minimum of 10 percent of any profits she receives from the book will be donated to organizations assisting migrants.
So I was thinking about Labor Day, my favorite holiday ever (no family gatherings, no war celebrating, no religious component), and realized, D'OH! I have been shamefully neglecting the labor of updating Citizen Reader. So I thought, I need to put up my annual list of my favorite nonfiction books about work for the holiday, and then I paused. It literally seems like I JUST did that. I don't know where the time is going any more.
But, without further ado, my favorite nonfiction books about work from the past year:
Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic, by Marianna Crane. Written by a nurse practitioner, this one's a bit rough around the edges but still an engrossing memoir about Crane's experiences helping (primarily) elderly, very sick, and very poor people in Chicago.
Here's its opening paragraph: "Corporate leaders often tell their charges that hard work will lead to success. Indeed, this theory of reward being commensurate with effort has been an enduring belief and a moral imperative in our society, one central to our self-image as a people, where the main chance is available to anyone of ability who has the gumption and persistence to seize it. Hard work, it is also frequently asserted, builds character. This notion carries less conviction because business people, and our society as a whole, have little patience with those who, even though they work hard, make a habit of finishing out of the money."
American Made: What Happens To People When Work Disappears, by Farah Stockman. A good book, but if you're going to read a work on manufacturing and what happens when you devalue the people who do it, you should read Brian Alexander's Glass House. But there were interesting things here too.
From my review: "Stockman followed three workers over the course of several years, in Indiana. One was a white woman named Shannon, one was a black man named, and one was a white man named John. She interviewed and got to know them and learned about their work at the Rexnord plant (a plant that made industrial and ball bearings)."
From my review: "Let me just tell you right now, I don't know how people live and work in oil boom towns. I mean, I do, because I've now read Smith's book on the subject. But I don't know how (mostly) men move to North Dakota, live in close quarters with one another in tiny apartments and squalid houses (because there's not enough housing for all the men trying to find jobs), and then work ten to twelve hour days in North Dakota weather while moving around huge and dangerous machinery."
Those are the books about work that I read last year, and that is also the list of books that I blogged about, meaning that when I read nonfiction, it was almost exclusively nonfiction about jobs and work. I adore labor books, and I adore Labor Day. I wish you a very happy one.
It has been a wonderful spring for reading. (Not so much for doing anything outside; we're expecting another rain/snow mix tonight. That's okay. All I really like doing outside is reading, too, and I can do that just as easily inside!)
I've been in a bit of a mood, and when I'm like that I sometimes enjoy re-reading things I've enjoyed. So I re-read Peter Manseau's disturbing but very, very thoughtful and interesting memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son, and if that title alone doesn't make you want to read it, I give up. (If you're more of a fiction reader, Manseau also just published the The Maiden of All Our Desires, a historical novel about a nun in the fourteenth century. I really like Manseau and want to support him as an author, so I bought a copy of that at Bookshop, but haven't read it yet. Also thinking I need to give some money to one of the numerous groups trying to prod the Catholic Church into allowing women and married clergy. Talk about a lost cause, but traditionally I am a huge supporter of lost causes, so that seems about right.
I also revisited Michael Lewis's The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, after watching and LOVING the movie of the same name. (Also: You need to go watch the movie right away; it explains a lot about how money is made--and lost--in this country.) Re-reading the book after the movie was fun; I thought they did a fantastic job of adapting the movie from the book, so it was fun to look at them together and look at what they changed. One of the few instances I've ever seen where the book and the movie are equally fantastic, for different reasons. (Another example of that is Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. Great book, great movie, for entirely different reasons.)
When I was done re-reading, I picked up a few new titles, namely Matthew Stewart's The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture and Sarah Vogel's The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm. The Farmer's Lawyer is a totally fascinating memoir and history of farm economics in the twentieth century, and most particularly of Ronald Reagan's (and his minions') shameful role in foreclosing on every single farmer they could possibly do it to in the 1980s. I grew up on a farm in the 1980s, so that subject was near and dear to my heart.
Spring has been a bit of a wash (literally; it won't stop raining or snowing or rain-snowing here) otherwise, but I'm at the point in my life where, you throw a few good books at me, that's about all it takes to keep me happy. Happy Spring to all of you as well.
I took a break from reading about the horrors of management and bureaucracy to read a nurse practitioner's memoir about managing a senior health clinic in a Chicago subsidized housing building.
Mr. CR says I just don't know how to relax but the joke's on him, reading depressing nonfiction IS how I relax!
Oddly, although there are many depressing things in Marianna Crane's memoir, Stories From the Tenth-Floor Clinic, it is not really a depressing book. It is exactly what its title promises, a very straightforward memoir of Crane's experiences helping (primarily) elderly, very sick, and very poor people in Chicago.
"My mind drifted back to the day I had first met Stella. I had been alone in the clinic when she rolled her wheelchair off the elevator and stopped in front of the open door. She peered inside, saw me, turned around, and careened down the hallway. Where the hell was she going? I took off after her. She braked at the end of the corridor. Trapped in a dead end, she sat in her chair, silent.
I bent down so I could see her face. 'I'm Marianna Crane, the nurse practitioner. What can I do for you?' I said.
Stella concentrated on her hands gripped in her lap.
'Is something wrong?' I asked.
A dirty blond wig sat askew on her head. Only one leg, which was covered with a wrinkled cotton stocking, extended past the skirt of her housedress, and her foot was encased in a heavy black orthopedic shoe. She reeked of a sharp ammonia smell. Urine?
I remained crouched, determined to wait her out. Finally she raised her head, and said, 'I don't feel good.'...
I later found out that Stella had been a diabetic for many years. Because she didn't keep her blood sugar under control, she had developed peripheral neuropathy, a loss of sensation, in her legs and feet. She didn't realize she had stepped on a dirty tack while walking barefoot until her foot turned black. After she lost her leg, she was fitted for the prosthesis and then participated in just enough rehabilitation to be able to get around on her own." (pp. 144-155.)
There are a lot of stories like that in this book, which really is quite a fascinating read.
It's not quite as polished a memoir as I might like, it just kind of moves from one chapter to another without developing a real story arc, but it's very sincerely and well-written. I read the whole thing and I'm glad I did.
Last weekend I spent a night at my mom's house, as she is getting older and sometimes needs a little additional help.
It actually turned out to be kind of a nice night without the Internet (she doesn't have it at her house) and TV (which I didn't want to watch because I didn't want to be too noisy). Luckily I had planned accordingly and taken enough books. What was in my travel bag?
Terry Brooks's The Elfstones of Shannara, because even us nonfiction kids need a little fantasy every now and then, and it's a good nostalgia read, since I haven't read any Terry Brooks since I was about twelve.
The essay collection Table Talk from The Threepenny Review, because I just subscribed to The Threepenny Review in print and have really been enjoying the short essays I find there. (And, let's face it, I am trying to learn how to write essays because I had a lot of essay rejections this year and I'm desperate to know what I'm doing wrong.)
Daniel Berrigan's Essential Writings, because the actor John Cusack responded to me at Twitter and suggested I read Berrigan and also Noam Chomsky. And when Lloyd Dobler talks, friends, I LISTEN.
I also wrote in my journal and did some other work and a few hours after she first went to bed my mom woke up and had kind of a surreal conversation with me, in which I learned a few details about my own birth.
Wild times in CR Land. My hope for you this holiday season is that, wherever you are, you have enough books.*
*In other news, title links now go to my affiliate store at Bookshop.org; anything you buy there after entering the site through these links sends a small percentage of the purchase price my way. Thank you!
I really struggle with having any kind of group identity.
I kind of want to be part of a community, and I want to contribute something to the greater good, but I am not physiologically set up for it. The minute I set foot in any institution, be it school, a government building, church, anything others might "belong" to--my skin just crawls. I took the eldest CRjr to look over his new middle school on Back to School Day this year and got one look at the cinder block, the fluorescent lighting, and the institutional flooring, and all I could think was LET ME OUT OF HERE RIGHT NOW. It's distracting.*
But there is one group of people with whom I think I will always identify, and that is the Book People. Not just readers, mind you. I love readers too. But mostly I love the Book People. Like Shaun Bythell. Bythell, author of the superlative diaries The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller, has a new(ish) book out called The Seven Kinds of People You Find In Bookshops.
It's not as good as his first two books, because, let's face it, those books were fabulous and it's hard to do that every year. It was still a very funny and very enjoyable read and just reading the writing of someone else who handles actual physical books and loves them was very comforting to me.
If you can't tell, I'm a bit frapped these days, so I've also been treating myself to some Helene Hanff re-reading. Every couple of years or so I get all her books from the library (I own several of them but they're out on loan to other readers, or I just keep giving them away because everyone must read Helene Hanff RIGHT NOW) and read through them again and they never fail to make me happy. I just re-read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street(her follow-up to her classice 84, Charing Cross Road) and Letter from New York, and I'll be re-reading Q's Legacy this weekend. Helene loved books and loved writing and she died having never made enough money but wow, I think while she lived, Helene lived the perfect bookish life I would like to live.
Speaking of books as physical objects, the library copy of The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the exact same book I took to the hospital with me when I had the youngest CRjr. (I know it's the same copy because it's very distinctive and its Dewey Decimal number is handwritten on the spine.) Yup, that's what I packed in my hospital bag for when I had a baby: Fiber One bars, stool softener, and the complete works of Helene Hanff.** I remember very clearly sitting in my hospital room, blissfully eating a tuna sandwich I hadn't made off dishes I wouldn't have to wash, looking at my beautifully sleeping new baby, and reading Helene Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. It is one of my most sacred memories.
People who love books, you are the only community I have left. Thank you.
*I was happy last Monday night to see the Packers win against the 49ers, and thought, hey, I still periodically care about the Packers, there's a little bit of group identity, isn't that nice.
**I didn't even bother packing my own nightgown. Screw it. I wore their ratty hospital gowns for three days so I wouldn't have to wash my own nightgown when I got home. Hospitals gross me out, so any clothes I wear into them I usually just want to burn afterwards.
Either I can't get to sleep, or I can't stay asleep, or I wake up early and can't get back to sleep. It annoys me no end, particularly as we are heading into fall and winter sickness season and the CRjrs are back in their regular schools (Germ Elementary and Germ Middle School, yup, they're in two different schools so basically when they come home it's like we're living with all the germs of the roughly 1500 other kids they attend school with) and I would like to get sufficient sleep. But it is what it is.
All summer I would just lie in bed, not sleeping, and stew about not sleeping. Now I am learning to just get up and go read something. It doesn't help me fall back asleep, but it also doesn't mean all those hours are wasted.
When he was in his thirties, actor and stage worker and playwright Smith decided he wanted to take on a North Dakota oil fracking boom town, and see if he could make some money working an oil field job. So he headed out to Williston, North Dakota, where he spent nearly a year trying to become a "good hand"--a skilled laborer in the oil fields.
Let me just tell you right now, I don't know how people live and work in oil boom towns. I mean, I do, because I've now read Smith's book on the subject. But I don't know how (mostly) men move to North Dakota, live in close quarters with one another in tiny apartments and squalid houses (because there's not enough housing for all the men trying to find jobs), and then work ten to twelve hour days in North Dakota weather while moving around huge and dangerous machinery.
Smith is very good at describing his surroundings; it's a vivid book:
"At lunchtime, I sat in the back of the work van and ate cold Chunky soup out of the can. Bobby Lee sat with the driver's seat kicked way back, his boots up on the dash. He wore a Resistol brand Diamond Horseshoe cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes. At one point the hat had been the color of pearl, but it was beat to shit, dirty, greasy, and floppy--incongruent with his studied look. 'Now you know why gas is so expensive,' Bobby Lee said.
I stared out the window of the van. The work site was cluttered with tractor trailers, pickup trucks, forklifts, a hydraulic crane, a lattice boom crane, rows of stacked piping, giant metal structures, and crews of men." (p. 3.)
The bad part about reading at 2 a.m. is that I wasn't with it enough to stick bookmarks in all the parts of this book that I wanted to remember. So I don't have as many quotes as usual to back this up, but you should read this book. You won't look at oil or gas or filling up your car or using any sort of plastic in quite the same way ever again, when you read how unbelievably hard it is to extract petroleum from the earth, and how many people break their bodies and their mental states and their families (since a lot of them move away from families to go where the oil work is) to produce it for you.
But it's not just about work. It's a very male book, and there are so many stories of men interacting with one another violently (even their affection seems to be shown violently) that it's hard, at least for this female, to read. Smith also tells a family tale about his large family and their abusive father (and also he and his siblings' unbelievable grace in dealing with that father), and discusses what he calls the "father wound"--how so many men he worked with had abusive or uncaring fathers whose approval they were still unconsciously seeking.
It's a great book, even (particularly?) when it's unsettling.
Hey, everyone, and welcome to the 2021 edition of my favorite holiday of the year: Labor Day! Now, avoid your family, skip church, don't go to work, and do all the other things that make this holiday so great.
As you may or may not know, I love books about work, and each Labor Day I round up all the job- and work-related nonfiction I read in the prior year. I'm off to look through the year and see what I've got...and here it is:
And that, friends, represents a lot of the books I wrote about here in general. Work is one of my favorite subjects to read about, perhaps because reading about work is so, SO much easier than doing work.
The books above were all really good reads; the links go to my reviews. I would particularly recommend Fulfillment, because if you need the incentive to break yourself of your Amazon habit, that might help. Amazon is killing us. It really is. And it's no good for the climate, either. Which is also killing us.
In other Labor Day news I read a stupendous book last week titled The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown. I read large chunks of it at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning (I can't sleep anymore, thanks to perimenopause, and might I just ask why every stage of womanhood has to be horrifying?), which is a very surreal time to reading, and it was a very surreal book: fascinating and sad and crazy and thoughtful. More on that later. It deserves its own review.
Last week my laptop crashed, so I took it to be fixed, as I am never in the mood to buy a new laptop.
So my laptop spent a week at the laptop spa, and I spent a week being forced to check my email and read the Interwebs on my phone, which never stopped being annoying and which led me to wonder, yet again, how everyone can stand to be on their phones every minute. I don't do any real complex reading online, but trying to follow the thread of any story I was trying to read while only being shown two lines of text at a time on my teeny phone screen was infuriating. I know why all citizens have lost the ability to see the big picture--and that is primarily because we all spend our days looking at extremely tiny pictures.
On the bright side, the week was a nice time to wean myself off my continuing and destructive recreational YouTube habit, which is cheap and doesn't require me to get a Narcan shot, but which wastes literally ALL OF MY TIME. I spent the week reading even more than usual, and it was glorious.
One of the stupendous books I read was Debora Harding's true crime memoir, Dancing With the Octopus. It is the story of Harding's abduction and sexual assault when she was a very young teenager. To make the story even harder to read, Harding also slowly reveals the abuse that was present throughout her life in her own home. Although she had a close and loving relationship with her father, and good relationships with her three sisters, her mother was, if not stereotypically physically abusive, psychologically cruel and neglectful. Although she could confide some of her and her siblings' problems with their mother to her father, he often worked away from home and usually refused to believe things were as bad as they said.
This, then, is a memoir of family trauma and crime trauma, so it's not easy to read.
But you really HAVE to read it, because you have to meet Debora Harding.
This is a woman who has survived several types of abuse and trauma, which she did for a long time by mostly not admitting to herself (or others, never to others), how much she was affected by everything that happened to her. Her focus throughout the early part of the book is how she started experiencing symptoms that she did not understand, and which she slowly comes to understand are her body's delayed response to her childhood and the kidnapping. I am a huge believer that our bodies hold all our secrets and can be a mystery even to our brains, so to watch her work through the process of understanding her own physical being was powerful.
This is also a powerful story about restorative justice and what happened when Harding eventually met the man who kidnapped and assaulted her. It is a story of trying to come to terms with all of her own family members, at a time when she was trying to raise her own children.
I'm blabbing on pointlessly here. It's a beautiful book and you need to read it.
When I finally finished every Agatha Raisin cozy mystery I could get (yes, the whole series, 31 titles, although I see there's a new one expected at the end of next year*) over the holiday season, I celebrated by going back to my typical fare: books that Mr. CR calls "depressing nonfiction."
Former Nebraska police officer Bolkovac details her time spent in war-torn Bosnia at the end of the 1990s and early years of the 2000s, after she applied to and went to work for a private military contractor. She thought she would be spending her time helping support a UN peacekeeping mission in the region, but that turned out not to be the case, particularly when she began filing reports about how women were being trafficked into and out of Bosnia, and, more importantly, who was paying to use those victims.
Mr. CR was right. It was depressing.
Particularly when Bolkovac tells one story of how she started to realize that many members of the international forces (including her co-workers) were not so much helping in an already bad situation as they were taking advantage of it. Consider her tale about "Carl":
"That evening, as [Carl] drove me home, he was not his normal, happy self. He told me his girlfriend had left him. I figured he had been trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with a woman back home and she just grew tired of being so far apart. But then he sighed and said, 'Yep, she ran away.'
I did not understand. 'She's a local girl,' he explained.
'Did she go back to live with her family?' I asked, still confused, but thinking she was probably a language assistant or secretary who worked in our offices.
'Well, she's not exactly from Bosnia. I think her passport says Romania or Moldova or something...' His voice trailed off, and he looked helpless.
I could not believe what I was hearing. I looked straight at him. 'Carl, where did you meet her?'
'At the Como Bar.'
My eyes narrowed. 'Is it possible she'd been trafficked into Bosnia?'
'Oh, I don't know about that, Kathy,' he said dubiously. 'I bought her from Tanjo, he's the owner of the Como.'
I clutched my armrest, digging in my nails. I knew of Tanjo--he was one of the most notorious traffickers in the region. The Human Rights Office had been after this elusive man for several years--and all the while DynCorp's very own Carl had been having up-close-and-personal dealings with him?
'Tanjo gave her to me for 6,000 Deutsch Marks,' Carl continued as if he were talking about a puppy. 'I kept her in my apartment, and I wanted to marry her and brig her back to the States. But she ran away yesterday, and she took my mobile phone. I'd at least like my phone back.'" (pp. 148-149.)
Bolkovac's story followed the standard whistleblower plot: She noticed the problem, she tried to report the problem, her reports were covered up, she kept pushing because she didn't understand why her reports weren't being filed, and then she started to be retaliated against by her employer. It never fails to strike me as a really disheartening narrative, but she was (unlike many whistleblowers) vindicated in the end, although vindication did not really make up for her eventually losing the DynCorp job or the accusations she withstood during the entire process.
It was an interesting read, but dry at times. If you don't have the time to give to the book, it was also made into a movie starring Rachel Weisz; you might want to try that.
*The last Agatha Raisin I read was noted to be co-written by M.C. Beaton (the original author) and somebody named R.W. Green, and was published after Beaton's death in 2019. I stuck with it, but it sucked, and I can't say I'm too hopeful about the next installment, which I'm guessing will also be written by Green.
This is now the third time I've had Ellen Ullman's book Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, home from the library, and once again, I'm not going to finish it.
This is not because it's a bad book. I think it's actually a very good book. Unlike the last two times I've checked it out, this time I got through about 100 pages of it, and now it is overdue. (And it's perpetually on hold, so it's a popular book as well.)
Ullman (according to the book jacket), began her twenty-year programming career in the late-1970s/early-1980s. Evidently she is also the author of several novels and another well-known memoir, titled Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, which I'd never heard of. That makes sense, though; in 1997 I was still reading fantasy and studying film history, so the only nonfiction I read was biographies of James Dean and Montgomery Clift.
This book is a collection of pieces that have been written at various points in time; at the head of each chapter she tells you the year or the years when she first wrote it. This makes it a rather disjointed read (for me, anyway), but there's a lot here that made me go, "Oh, of course." A lot of things that bother me about our techie world, she talks about. She describes (in the 1994 chapter) how all programmers want to go "low," or "closer to the machine," so they can avoid the ridiculous work of creating systems for actual human users. She also describes a lunchroom conversation where all the techies try to figure out how long it would take to "wipe out a disease inherited recessively on the X chromosome." Eventually they get around to just killing every carrier. When she points out that that's what the Nazis did:
"They all look at me in disgust. It's the look boys give a girl who has interrupted a burping contest. One says, 'This is something my wife would say.'
When he says 'wife,' there is no love, warmth, or goodness in it. In this engineer's mouth, 'wife' means wet diapers and dirty dishes. It means someone angry with you for losing track of time and missing dinner. Someone sentimental. In his mind (for the moment), 'wife' signifies all programming-party-pooping, illogical things in the universe." (pp. 9-10.)
God. It's a good book. But you know the real reason I couldn't finish it? It made me so depressed I didn't think I could go on.
So I put it down and spent the rest of the weekend reading Agatha Raisin mysteries. I slept a lot better after those.
It's not as dangerous as driving while drunk, but re-reading books that I read as a young person, now that I am an old person, is turning out to be a bittersweet journey.
And yes, I know 46 is a little young to be feeling as old as I am. But frankly, the last few years BEFORE 2020 had aged me, and I think 2020 has aged us all. I think it's safe to say I feel about 84. On a good day. At least I don't have macular degeneration (yet).
The other day I was reading something about Anthony Bourdain (how I miss him) and I thought, I'd like to re-read Kitchen Confidential. So I did; but only in parts. This is what I found out:
I really miss Anthony Bourdain. I didn't re-read Kitchen Confidential all the way through, but I read it in little bits here and there and every single page I flipped to sucked me in immediately. And what a memoir. I'd forgotten just how meaty it was--literally and figuratively (the paperback copy I've got is slightly over 300 pages). He really had a way of making everything that he talked about interesting (even the parts that weren't that interesting to me, including some of his harder-living days). I usually don't have a lot of patience for "bad boys" describing their hijinks, but I have patience for Bourdain, mostly because when he's acting like a jerk he clearly knows he's acting like a jerk, and sometimes you can hear him striving for a more perfect state of being, through food or perhaps his skill with food. It's inspiring.
He was just 44 or so when this, one of his biggest and bestselling books, was published, it is shocking to me how old Bourdain used to seem (when I first read this book I would have been in my late 20s or 30) to me, and now that I'm 46, he seems ridiculously young. How can sixteen years or so make that big a difference in perspective? (And of course he died much too young.)
I just really liked this book. Take the chapter where Bourdain describes being the chef in a restaurant that the mob set up to give to a compatriot who had spent time in prison for not ratting them out. Although the man was not really fit to be in charge of a restaurant, Bourdain describes how many of the wise guys really tried to help him make it:
"When we finally opened, we were packed from the first minute. Orders flooded in over the phone and at the counter and at the tables. We were unprepared and understaffed, so the Italian contingent--including various visiting dignitaires, all with oddly anglicized names ('This is Mr. Dee, Tony, and meet a friend, Mr. Brown...This is Mr. Lang'), all of them overweight, cigar-chomping middle-aged guys with bodyguards and ten thousand-dollar watches--pitched in to help out with deliveries and at the counter. Gusy I'd read about later in the papers as running construction in the outer boroughs, purported killers, made men, who lived in concrete piles on Staten Island and Long Beach and security-fenced estates in Jersey, carried brown paper bags of chicken sandwiches up three flights of stairs to Greenwich Village walk-up apartments to make deliveries; they slathered mayo and avocado slices on pita bread behind the counter, and bused tables in the dining room. I have to say I liked them for that." p. 148.)
It remains a classic memoir. And even though it made me feel old to re-read it, it was worth it.
The minute I saw the word "prison" in this book's subtitle, I should have known to return it, unread, to the library. I have a wide variety of fears, and a fear of prison or anyone I know going to prison is one of them.* Although I am a voracious True Crimereader and have watched a lot of British detective and crime programs, I cannot read or watch anything that involves a prison storyline. I only checked out this book because John Kiriakou is a famous whistleblower, and I am fascinated by whistleblowers.
Kiriakou is a former CIA intelligence officer who, in 2007, became the first (former) CIA employee to confirm in a news interview that the United States was using torture on terrorism suspects like Abu Zubaydah, who was waterboarded. This really pissed off a lot of people, and in a truly breathtaking display of pricktastic and vengeful behavior, the FBI and the Justice Department investigated Kiriakou until they felt, in 2012, that they could punish him by charging him with "a.) three counts under the Espionage Act of 1917, an obscure World War I-era law aimed at prosecuting spies, b.) one count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), a 1982 law aimed at thwarting radical publications that intentionally tried to out covert agents, under which only one person had been convicted since the law’s passage, and c.) one count of making false statements."
Keep in mind, please, that John Kiriakou did not torture prisoners (and yes, torture is supposedly still illegal under the Geneva Conventions), and in fact, when he was an active officer, he turned down an offer to be trained in "enhanced interrogation techniques"--national security-speak for torture. And yet, for telling the truth about prisoners who were being tortured, HE was the one sent to jail for 30 months.
That paragraph, to me, is everything that's wrong with America right now.
But I digress. Although Kiriakou gives a quick rundown of his case in the first chapter of this book, it is mostly about his experience being incarcerated for thirty months. And the Feds didn't fool around; although he thought he would be serving his time in a minimum-security work camp, the second chapter is about how he instead got assigned to the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. (More payback, evidently.)
What follows is an entirely unsettling account of how Kiriakou used tenets he learned in the CIA (like "admit nothing" and "blend in with your environment" and "if stability is not to your benefit, chaos is your friend") to survive his prison experiment.** Jesus. Even a "low-security" prison sounds HORRIFYING. I commend Kiriakou for making it through, but his descriptions of deciding which table to sit at (segregation is the order of the day), the crimes and mental problems of his fellow inmates, and the machinations of both prisoners and prison guards to survive and even profit where they can was almost more than I can read (and it's certainly more than I can stomach rehashing to tell you about here).
In short: Why anyone in this world still chooses to become a whistleblower is absolutely beyond me.
If you'd like a flavor of the book before trying it, it is actually based in part on a series of letters Kiriakou sent to the media while in prison: Letters from Loretto. You could preview those.
It's a good book. I certainly didn't get any dumber reading it. But can I recommend that you read it? Not really. Too scary by half.
*Me--or you--or anyone--going to prison is not as far-fetched an idea as you might think. Kiriakou tells you why: "Harvard Law School professor Harvey Silverglate argues in his book Three Felonies a Day that the US is so overlegislated and daily life is so over-criminalized that the average American going about his normal business on the average day commits three felonies." (p. 206.) I try not to think about this too much or I'll never sleep again.
**Please note: as he expounds upon these rules and how he survived, Kiriakou actually sounds like a bit of a prick sometimes. But the man refused to learn "enhanced interrogation techniques," and he went to jail because he wanted to tell the truth, so overall I still find him interesting.
Here's my stance on Election 2020: I will only vote for President if Edward Snowden is on the ballot.
That's awkward, considering that Snowden is living in exile in Russia and if he ever sets foot in America he'll be prosecuted to the full extent of the law for treason, but hey, I figure, everyone who can is already working from home. Snowden could work from home in his Moscow apartment and be President of the U.S., surely, it's not like he doesn't know how to work tech.
As a fan of privacy, I am of course of the opinion that Edward Snowden is a whistleblower who tried to highlight illegal activities of the government and the NSA as they spied on American citizens and collected all of the data from their phones and devices (as opposed to a leaker who committed treason). Nothing I read or see about Snowden indicates to me that he is anything other than an intelligent, thinking person, who is perhaps less motivated by money than he is by other motivations. I say that because I don't actually know what motivates Edward Snowden, even after reading several books about (and now one by) him.
You know what motivates me, and I'm guessing, about 95% of most Americans, or whatever percentage of Americans who still have jobs that they are clinging to? HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. This is a constant drumbeat in my head. This is the drumbeat that would make it impossible for me to work as a freelancer if I didn't have a spouse who had HEALTH INSURANCE. This is the drumbeat that was in my head when I was a young kid, fresh off the farm, knowing I would have to go to college and get some sort of career that would provide HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.
You see how the all caps is distracting? It is. It's a never-ending fear-inducing back-of-mind-awareness anxiety that is always with me. Last fall, when Mr. CR had a fairly serious health crisis? Yeah, I shit bricks. Mainly because he's my buddy and I would miss him and I don't want to even think about what the CRjrs would do without him, but also because, there it was again, without Mr. CR and his job how in fuck would I get HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE?
You know who I think gets that? And what a problem it is? Edward Snowden, that's who. I just saw the interview (below) with him, and this is what he says, a whole 3 minutes into it:
"And the thing that I find grotesque about this situation is that now, the people who are being asked to sacrifice the most, are the people who are in the most precarious positions, who have the least to give."
He also says this: "Where are our resources? When our hospitals say they need ventilators, where is all this great technology that is being used to surveil everybody down to the tiniest toenail, when we need it to create things that actually save lives?"
Those two statements, friends, are two of the most sensible questions I've heard asked about the pandemic, or America, so far.
This post has a book point, I promise.
Recently I read Snowden's memoir, Permanent Record.* It was entirely strange, because I think Snowden is an entirely strange person. It's not a feel good, "get to know Snowden better personally", type memoir. It's a pretty straightforward recounting of his youth, his different school experiences, his work for the government, his procedure for whistleblowing, and what happened to him in Hong Kong (as well as to his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, in this country).
It was a fascinating read, in its own weird way, and I would highly recommend it. If nothing else, it felt like I was spending time in the company of Edward Snowden, and I enjoyed that. I think a lot about Snowden, and about whistleblowers in general, because I can't believe anyone actually blows the whistle on anything. Which brings us right back to HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE. Personally, I can't believe anyone endangers their own access to health insurance and care, no matter what they're blowing the whistle on. And that is wrong. We already tell creative types and freelancers and everyone in the overrated ridiculous "Gig Economy" (just another way of letting our Corporate Overlords keep more of their own cash, after all) that their work is invalid because it is not linked to a corporation or an institution, and that they don't deserve to live because they have little access to affordable HEALTH INSURANCE. Now we also tell whistleblowers, basically (or our government does, when it prosecutes whistleblowers for various infractions) that yes, they should tell us what bad and illegal things are going on, but they should be prepared to lose their jobs.
Which also means, of course, that they lose their HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE HEALTH INSURANCE.
So why on earth would anyone tell the truth about all the stupid crap going on everywhere, at all times? Yeah, I don't know either.
Okay, the copy I have is overdue from the library, so here's your extremely short review: I liked Henry Marsh's memoir Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon. His work is fascinating, his take on the bureaucracy of the British medical system is also fascinating, and even when I don't like Marsh very much (mainly because I don't like doctors) I find most of his honesty refreshing. I could have done without his advocating for euthanasia, because (as previously stated), I just don't think we have the right to kill ourselves or others, but that mostly comes in the last chapter so it's easy to skip it if you're so inclined.
So this is the memoir of a woman who fell in love with a man who wanted to farm, and I mean old-style Farm with a capital "F." So much so that by the time I quit the book, on page 97, they were getting their own farm in shape, buying draft horses, and looking for equipment to use with those horses to break and plant sod on the land they were renting. I have zero interest in horses, so that seemed like a good place to stop.
You know, to each their own. I can respect Kimball and her (eventual) husband, and their desire to grow their own food. But this author had all the earmarks of a certain type of person/personality that I just don't get. First, there was this, when Kimball went to interview her husband-to-be for a magazine article and first met him:
"He introduced himself, shook my hand, and then he was abruptly gone, off on some urgent farm business, the screen door banging shut behind him, promising over his shoulder to give me an interview when he got back that evening. Meantime, I could hoe the broccoli with his assistant, Keena. I recorded two impressions in my notebook later on: First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. This one lived in his body. Second, I can't believe I drove all this way to hoe broccoli for this dude." (p. 10.)
Yeah, I can't believe it either. I grew up on a farm where the work always came first and everything else came second. It's not charming. It's brutal, and it grinds you down, particularly if you don't really enjoy working 20 hours out of every day. Secondly, fuck this "this is a man" shit just because he does some physical work. I really do believe all people should do some physical work, whether it be cleaning their own home or doing a garden or something, but quite frankly I like a good cerebral man. When I watch Mr. CR work Excel like a champ, which is a skill that has taken time and brains and a lot of patience to develop, I get turned on. Doesn't mean I run around telling people, "Wow, Mr. CR is a man." Thirdly, why are you hoeing the man's broccoli? You don't have your own work to do? You can't find a man who maybe recognizes that you scheduled this time for an interview and he could abide by that appointment if he respected what you do?
And then there's this, when Kimball went back to see/date Mark and hunted for deer with him. They ended up eating the deer's liver with herbs, white wine, and cream:
"The texture reminded me of wild mushrooms, firm but tender, and the flavor was distinct but not overpowering, the wildness balanced between the civilized and familiar pairing of cream and wine. And there was something else about it, something more primal, a kind of craving, my body yelling, EAT THAT, I NEED IT. That was my first hint that there's a wisdom to the appetite, that if you clear out the white noise of processed food and listen, health and delicious are actually allies. We are animals, after all, hardwired to like what's good for us...That might have been the same deep part of me that first told me to love Mark. Don't be an idiot, it said. The man hunts, he grows, he's strapping and healthy and tall. He'll feed you, and his genes might improve the shrimpiness of your line. LOVE HIM." (p. 28.)
Ugh. Where do I start with this? At the beginning, I guess. I grew up on unprocessed farm food (we butchered our own meat, milked our own cows, etc.) and you know the only time my body has ever screamed EAT THAT I NEED IT at me? The first time I drank coffee and ate S'mores Pop Tarts. I've eaten healthy and I've eaten for shit and honestly I can't tell you that I've FELT a lot different either way. I can grant you that I can see the effects of healthier eating in less weight gain, but other than that? I'm certainly not feeling any epiphany when I bite into local meat vs. whatever the hell it is Costco sells. I feel about this "your body will melt with orgasmic thrills if you just feed it better food" crap the way I felt at the farm market once when I overheard a woman telling the vendor that her kids won't touch any processed stuff since they'd had farm market food. I wanted to clock her. My children have had farm market food since birth and they would gladly give it all up for a steady supply of Welch's fruit snacks (or kiddie crack, as we call them around here).
And don't even get me started on the lack of information about how one gets health insurance or sees the doctor when both parts of a couple freelance/farm. Kimball and her husband have two kids now, I think, so obviously someone saw a doctor at some point. I'm curious how they paid for that? I hate it when farm/freelance/work memoirs leave out the scariest part of our current economy: what you do without health insurance.
I guess maybe I'm just bitter that I'm obviously not hardwired to love real strapping MEN or organic meat. Either way, back to the library with this one.
So I got to page 200 of Arlo Crawford's memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year before I admitted to myself that I just don't like this Arlo kid or his book, and I'm going to stop reading it now.
I know. I really have to get both more efficient and honest with myself and stop reading things that I dislike before, you know, I get 200 pages in. On the other hand, I feel like I have read enough of this book to say, yeah, don't bother.
Crawford grew up on a vegetable/farm marketing farm in Pennsylvania. His parents had moved to the farm in their late twenties/early thirties and made a going concern of it, and the actual descriptions of the farm and the marketing work are vivid and interesting enough.
But overall, although Crawford admits he enjoyed his upbringing and is proud of what his parents have achieved, he wants to do something else with his life. He wants to do something artsy or literary or whatever else it is well-educated and good-looking urban millennials do with their lives these days. And that's okay. But, if I'm telling the absolute truth, I was a little annoyed that an agent was able to sell a publisher on this not terribly interesting, not really back to the land memoir, in hardcover no less.
Right after I finished compiling the list of books about work and jobs that I read last year, I realized that this week I've kept fairly busy reading more books about jobs, so here's the Labor Day List part two!
Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, by Roger McNamee. Okay, I didn't actually get this one read, but I started it a number of times. It's written by a former Facebook insider, and details all the horrible stuff Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, et. al. are doing to destroy our sanity, our lives, and our democracy. I couldn't get into it because I don't care a whole lot about how Facebook influences elections, because I think politics is a waste of time. But I do care that Facebook and tech in general are destroying our lives and how everyone seems mostly happy to let our lives be destroyed. (Please note: All the big money tech execs out in Silicon Valley are now paying to send their kids to "tech free" schools. What does that tell you?) Still: this book was too dense for me and I already know Zuckerberg and Sandberg are jerks. Moving on.
Prince of the City: The True Story of a Cop Who Knew Too Much, by Robert Daley. Okay, this one's a classic, first published back in 1978. I'm on a cop kick lately (it all started with Serpico), and this title did not disappoint. It's the story of a detective named Robert Leuci who decided he could no longer go along with some of the corruption that was happening at the time in the New York police force, as well as in other levels of government and the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, Leuci thought he was going to inform only on corrupt people who weren't connected to him--but of course he ended up informing on friends, cop partners, and family members, because that's just how it goes when you get started unpeeling the onion (you know, like how you go to the doctor's office for one little thing and pretty soon you've got 18 follow-up appointments that you really don't want but now feel like you have to go to). An okay read, but it's very hard to understand what Leuci's real motivation was throughout the story.
My absolute favorite anecdote in it is the one where drug enforcement officers were trying to tap the phone line of a convenience store owner who they believed was involved in the drug trade. So then follow this chain of events: the mob called the convenience store owner and told him they were storing 300 (illegally procured) TVs in his store whether they wanted him to or not, and he needed to close for a few days. So he did, and the mob stacked his store with 300 TVs. An off-duty cop walked by, noticed the TVs, and called it in to the local precinct, at which point a whole bunch of other cops came over, took a TV, and then CALLED FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS ON THE TAPPED PHONE to come and get a TV for themselves. So then the drug cops had to get involved and tell them to put the TVs back, and for god's sake to stop calling their friends on the tapped phone. Good stuff.
Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, by Forrest Pritchard. This one is a memoir by a guy who grew up with a farm in his family (his grandparents lived on it, and his parents tried to keep it going with managers and workers while they worked full-time jobs) but didn't really plan on becoming a farmer. Eventually he decided to go all in and try to make the farm a paying concern--from selling firewood to raising grass-fed beef, to starting a pasta company with his wife. I liked this one because it was a bit less holier-than-thou than many "back to the land" memoirs are--Pritchard has a nice straightforward way of writing and isn't afraid to list his many missteps, like when he made a couple grand selling firewood but also caused $4600 worth of damage to his truck by hauling it around.
There you go! More books to read rather than doing your own work. You're welcome.
Well, if you know me at all, you know Labor Day is one of my very favorite holidays. No relatives, no big meals, no celebrating war...just a day off (if you're that lucky) to celebrate working.
Personally, not working is one of my very favorite things, but I can also appreciate a good book about the working life. Each year I try to do a wrap-up of the labor-related books I've read, and here they are all to date: 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.
So what did 2019 look like? Well, it looked like a lot of not reading. My difficulties with sleeping and my wonky eye continued, meaning that I can't regularly pound through hundreds of pages of nonfiction (interspersed with hundreds of pages of fiction reading as a palate cleanser) the way I used to. I also ran for my local city council, which was a super funny experience (well, funny sad, in that I lost, but also funny ha ha, in that I learned a lot about myself and the larger political process and also about how smart my son is: early on he saw my opponent's fancy yard signs and said "I think you're going to lose, Mom." In short, I wasn't my regular reading self. But I still found the time for some good books about work:
The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell. Bythell is the proprietor of The Book Shop in Scotland, and WOW, is this book fantastic. A highly detailed but unbelievably engaging read about trying to make it in the used-book business, as well as his marketing activities and his appreciation of his Scottish hometown. One of the best books I read all year, and Vivian Swift liked it too. Even if I hadn't liked it, I'd have to respect it, because it is not easy to earn Vivian's love (just check out her comment at that post about a book by Mr. Bythell's love interest).
The Woman Who Smashed Codes, by Jason Fagone. Another superlative book about World War II (and earlier) codebreaking married couple Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman. A great history of codebreaking, a complex love story, and a well-done biography of a singular woman.
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh. I think all doctors are jerks, and yet I can't stop reading their books. I read this book by Brit author/surgeon Marsh right before my mom had a stroke last spring* and, honest to god, I actually felt I had a slightly better understanding of what her doctors were telling us about her brain because I had just read this book. Marsh is an interesting personality and although this book is detailed and sometimes frightening, it is nonetheless fascinating to consider that there are actually people out there who can hack into other people's heads and brains for their paycheck. That is amazing to me.
Huh. Every year lately I think, I didn't get to read many books about work/jobs this year. And it turned out again that I had read more than I thought I had. I definitely like reading about working more than I actually like working.
Happy Labor Day all, and happy September to you as well.
*She's doing quite well now, thanks for asking, but let me tell you this: aging is not for pussies.
I loved this book. It's just that simple. I read it in a couple of days, and then I turned back to the front page and read it all over again. Then for another month I read different pages of it while I ate my old-lady breakfast of Fiber One cereal* and coffee.
What surprised me most about this book was how dense it was. A lot of times when you get bookish or reading memoirs, or even retail memoirs, they're rather light on text. This book is a solid 300+ pages and the type is surprisingly small. Bythell is the owner and proprietor of The Book Shop in Wigtown (designated the National Book Town of Scotland), and this is the diary of a year in his life running the used bookstore, getting along (kind of) with his employees, his life in the community and among his friends, and taking part in the town's annual Wigtown Book Festival. He begins each entry by noting how many of the store's books were ordered that day through various online channels, and ends each one by noting how many customers were in that day and what the "till total" was.
All the highlights of the used book trade are here--people thinking they own very valuable first editions when they want to sell them, and thinking all used books should be cheap when they want to buy them; dealing with eccentric help when you're a bit eccentric yourself; driving hither and yon to assess and buy book collections in all manner of conditions. Bythell also clearly enjoys his environment, both the shop and the natural one; he includes entries about the difficulties of heating the shop and trying to keep the rain out, as well as about the sunny and not-so-sunny days when he ducks out to do a little trout fishing.
This should give you an idea about Bythell's tone, which I thoroughly enjoyed:
"Opened the shop five minutes late because the key jammed. The first customer of the day brought two Rider Haggard first editions to the counter, 8.50 each. At the same moment the thought 'Those are seriously underpriced' entered my head, he asked, 'Will you do them for 13?' When I refused to knock anything off them, he replied, 'Well, you've got to ask, haven't you?' so I told him that no, you do not have to ask." (p. 115.)
What a great read. It took me right back to my job in a used bookstore, which I loved and loved and loved, and would be doing still if I hadn't needed health insurance and if the owners hadn't eventually closed the store and taken other jobs because they needed health insurance too. If you have sold books or love books, read this one. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
*Don't get me wrong. I love my Fiber One honey flakes cereal. It makes my life better. But it doesn't really make for the most exciting breakfast eating ever, which is why it's so nice to put them together with a very strong cup of coffee and a lovely book.