Book Giveaway: Contours

Hi everyone!

So I really need to get reading some new nonfiction, but I've taken to re-reading Anne Tyler novels instead, and being horrified anew with each title I re-read. Characters who once seemed so OLD to me (when I was in my twenties) are now YOUNGER than me.

Ye Gods.

But that is all neither here nor there. What we have today is a Book Giveaway! I've got an extra copy of Contours: A Literary Landscape, New Work Collected by the Driftless Writing Center (which includes an essay by yours truly, but which also includes a ton of great essays, stories, and poems by writers who life in the "Driftless Area").

First person to email me at sarah.cords@gmail.com gets it!

And yes. I know we're all trying to pretend autumn and winter and Continuing Coronavirus are not happening. All the same: Happy September.


And now for something completely different: Raymond Feist's fantasy novel "Queen of Storms."

I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was younger, and every now and then I still like to read a good fantasy book. It doesn't happen very often, because I don't really have a good way to tell what fantasy I'll like just by looking at it, and there is too much fantasy published each year for me to plow through. But when I saw Raymond Feist had a new series out, I decided to go for it.

Queen of stormsWhen I was younger, Feist was one of my favorite fantasy authors. I still fondly remember his books Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master, featuring his main character Pug. I tend to read primarily because I like good characters (as opposed to needing a page-turning story or real comprehensive world-building, as you might see in Tolkien) and I thought Feist did a nice job of developing real characters and including some humor in his books.

The first book in the new series is King of Ashes, and I blew through that a few months back, so quickly that I barely remembered any of it when I finally got the sequel, Queen of Storms, from the library a few weeks ago. (Mr. CR liked the book too and was interested in getting the sequel as well, so hey, look at me, still playing librarian at home.) The story was pretty basic: One power-hungry king destroyed a neighboring kingdom (and bullied other nearby rulers into going in on the "betrayal," the invasion, as well), but the youngest member of the killed king's family was spirited away. Later in the book we see him growing up and being trained to be an assassin/spy, before...well, traveling somewhere.

I wasn't kidding when I said I really couldn't remember much of it. But it doesn't really matter. I remembered enough of the characters' relationships to one another that it was pretty easy to step right back into this world. The hidden heir, named Hatu, is now running an inn with a woman that he trained with when they were children (Hava). But all is not well in their world: an invading army, led by nobody knows who, is destroying cities left and right, and generally trying to send the message that they mean business. Meanwhile, Hatu is kidnapped by people who know who he really is, leaving Hava to try and find him. In the course of trying to do that, she herself is captured and sold as a slave, but she manages to take over the ship she and a bunch of other slaves are being transported on.

Yeah, I really liked Hava, if you can't tell.

It's a fun series. Good escapism of the sort I really kinda needed right now.


Doing Time Like a Spy by John Kiriakou.

Doing time like a spyI really should not have read John Kiriakou's memoir Doing Time Like a Spy: How the CIA Taught Me to Survive and Thrive in Prison.

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 Crime reader 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.


How did I miss this? July 30 is National Whistleblower Day!

Evidently July 30 is National Whistleblower Day; it commemorates the day in 1778 when the Continental Congress passed a resolution that "honored ten sailors and marines who spoke out against their commander’s abuses of his office."

I have recently gone down the rabbit hole, reading about whistleblowers, and it is FASCINATING. Fascinating sad, but still fascinating. Here are a few things I have learned about whistleblowers:

  1. First off, what is a whistleblower? Definitions vary, but seem to agree on the points that a whistleblower is someone who witnesses and can document illegal or dangerous behaviors or policies, and who then reports that wrongdoing through the proper channels set up to do so. In some cases, when they receive no response from the proper channels, they take their information to the press or to special government officials called Inspectors General.
  2. We all hear the word "whistleblower" a lot, but I do not think we are aware of the many services whistleblowers perform for us. Consider many of the automotive industry insiders who first got word to Ralph Nader that many cars were manufactured in the 60s and 70s (and before that, of course), with absolutely no safety innovations. Do you think seat belts help save lives? You have whistleblowers to thank for those, and too many other laws and safeguards to count.
  3. Most of us know a few famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, the guy Russell Crowe played in the movie The Insider, whoever turned Trump in for his Ukrainian phone call, Serpico. But we hardly ever know any of the details or nuances of their cases. If Edward Snowden, for example, ever returns to the U.S., he will be charged under the Espionage Act, and his penalty could be death. So, fine, say the hard-liners. Let him return and defend himself. But here's the sneaky little bit about the Espionage Act: Snowden is not allowed to testify, at his own trial, about why he released the information he did (or about how he tried to bring his concerns about the government and its contractors violating the Constitutional rights of every American citizen to his superiors). The only thing he will be tried on is whether or not he released information, and he is not contesting that. See? That's the barest bones of the tiniest bit of the Snowden story, and it's complicated.
  4. There are a lot of whistleblowers. A lot a lot. I recently set up a Google Alert for the word "whistleblower" and I get a lot of results every day, about a wide variety of whistleblowers in all sorts of industries and in government. Seriously. It's both amazing and appalling how many whistleblower stories there are on a daily basis. Amazing because, thank you, whistleblowers, for speaking up. Appalling because wow, there is a lot of wrong shit going on everywhere, every day.
  5. Whistleblowers often tend to have very complex personalities, in the best possible way. They are fascinating people. But here's what I find unbelievable, in the the very best way: They tend to be successful people who are good at their jobs. And yet they often lose their jobs, their health insurance, their pensions, their community connections, their marriages, everything, because the main hallmark of being a whistleblower is that whoever they blew the whistle NEVER says, hey, thanks for the info, let's fix it. What they do instead is they DESTROY the whistleblower.

And that's the crux of the matter. THAT is why I find whistleblowers fascinating. As previously noted, one of the big fears of my life is that my family and I will lose our health insurance. I can't even imagine being a person who just wants to tell the truth about something going wrong, only to find that you are the person who is going to lose your job and your insurance and your employability. Don't think that can happen? Ask Thomas Drake, a senior NSA official who was disgusted that the agency was spending billions of dollars on Operation Stellar Wind, an operation that both mined the personal data of Americans and also didn't work to increase national security*, how the government crushes people it wants to silence (he lost his job, his pension, and had to go to work in an Apple store to support his family).

So: Happy National Whistleblower Day. Celebrate by checking out books like Tom Mueller's Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud; Mark Hertsgaard's Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden; or the classic Serpico by Peter Maas.

*See? Complicated. Every whistleblower story is like that. You have to understand how something should be working, how it's not working, how the whistleblower tried to prove isn't what working, and on how many levels the whistleblower's life is being destroyed, it's a lot to try and follow.


I still like Meghan Daum.

The problem with everythingI've said it before, Meghan Daum is one of my favorite essayists.

I like her because she's smart but not pointlessly intellectual (I'm looking at you, David Shields), thoughtful but not sentimental. As per usual, I enjoyed her latest collection, The Problem with Everything: My Journey through the New Culture Wars. It's an essay collection that started out as a treatise on feminism and the perhaps unintended directions it has traveled. In short, feminism in the 2010s bothered her:

"What bothered me was the way the prototypical young feminist had adopted the sort of swaggering, wise-ass persona you see most often in people who deep down might not be all that swaggering or wise.* This young feminist frequently referred to herself as a badass." (p. xiii.)

I enjoyed that because I particularly hate women calling each other and their daughters "warriors," like being a wager of war is a good thing.

But then she got distracted because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election: "But the way things turned out, there was no subtlety to be found. There was no room left for left-on-left critique of any variety." (p. xiii.)

Well, if that doesn't just sum it up, I don't know what does.

Daum is also balm to my Gen X soul, because we're roughly contemporaries in age (although our lives diverge wildly in the fact that she is successful and skilled). This entire essay spoke to the way I feel lately, like I'm old even though I'm not that old. It also becomes increasingly clear to me that I am not very good at interacting with millennials (and god help us if I'm trying to communicate with anyone even younger, including my own small children) and, here's the rub, I'm not particularly interested in interacting with millennials.** Or, as Daum puts it, much more elegantly:

"Meanwhile, the pace at which the digital revolution was moving had me feeling old before my time, even physically dizzy*** on a near-daily basis. At my computer, the tweets and memes and hot takes scrolled down my screen so fast I could scarcely comprehend a fraction of them...This book still has a lot to do with the conflicted and tortured state of liberalism generally and feminism in particular. But it's now also a personal story of feeling existentially unmoored against the backdrop of a country falling apart. It's a story about aging and feeling obsolete as the world spins madly--and maddeningly--on. It's also, by dint of my age, about the particular experience of Generation Xers, the last cohort to have experienced both the analog and the digital world as adults."

I didn't love the whole book, but I read it and appreciated (as always) Daum's skill with words. It made me feel a little less alone and lonely, missing not only the pre-Covid world of routines**** but also the 1990s world of the movie Crossing Delancey, with a less-angry New York City and the idea that a smart beautiful woman could make it in Manhattan while working in a bookstore. I'm just so sad, y'all.

But I am thinking of you. Have a good weekend.

*In other words: men.

**This seems to me to be the beginnings of the cranky old person mentality of someone who can't be charmed by younger people, and I really don't want to be that cranky old person.

***Well, actually, if she's at all like me in her forties, maybe this is perimenopause. Still annoying.

****Although I'll be the first to tell you that I feel the routines of our pre-Covid world were largely bullshit and led directly to our Covid world, and we should strive to do better in the future.


Watch out for rich people on the roads.

So for years, as I have been trying to teach the CRjrs how to safely cross roads, I have often told them to watch out for BMWs and Lexuses because the rich jerks driving those cars don't stop for children or pedestrians. Mr. CR has suggested that this is perhaps an unfair blanket assertion.*

But yesterday I was happily reading an article titled "Why Are Rich People So Mean?" and I came across this little tidbit:

"Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff monitored intersections with four-way stop signs and found that people in expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers, compared to folks in more modest vehicles. When the researchers posed as pedestrians waiting to cross a street, all the drivers in cheap cars respected their right of way, while those in expensive cars drove right on by 46.2 percent of the time, even when they’d made eye contact with the pedestrians waiting to cross."

HA! Vindicated! But wow, that is sad, to see it proven. Explains a lot, though.

Now go enjoy summer and if you're walking, for the love of all that's holy watch out for rich people on the roads.

*To be fair, I make a lot of those. Like the time the eldest CRjr asked why bike-riders often wear special clothing while biking, and I told him it was because they were usually wealthy people with a lot of money and time to blow on shopping**. I didn't think much about it until I heard him telling that little "fact" to his dad the next day, which got me in trouble, because Mr. CR is a much nicer and better person than I am, who doesn't want the boys to grow up to be bitter pills like their mother.

**Apologies if you ride a bike with the special biking clothes, or drive a BMW or Lexus. I'm a jerk.


60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Madison.

So this is what I discovered this weekend: ice cream, topped with Nutella, topped with cashews.

Now I can die happy. I will also be dying soon, with packed arteries, as well as carrying at least 100 extra pounds.

Seriously. The minute I tried that combination and realized it was the best thing ever, I also realized that I can never have it again, or my weight will finally spiral beyond control. My weight already has spiraled out of control, because I'm an emotional eater and there is no emotion that I haven't had in the past twelve months. Sad? Let's eat. Worried? Let's eat. Bored? Let's eat. Disgusted with myself for eating all the time? Let's eat.

60 Hikes Within 60 MilesWhich is a very awkward way to back into this review of Kevin Revolinski's 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Madison*, but there you have it. Pretty soon small children will make the truck-backing-up noise when they see me backing into anything, so it is clearly time for me to get outside and get active.

I am not a hiker or a camper or a user of state or county parks, for the most part, so I didn't know what to expect from this book. But my overall first impression was a good one: The book is meaty but not overly hefty; you could definitely chuck it in your backpack and haul it around pretty easily. It's got a ton of beautiful pictures, most taken by the author, which are not only fun to look at just as pictures, but which also help you picture the landscape and interest points of the hike being described. It's got a ton of handy charts for "hikes by category" (including such attributes as "busy," "solitude," "wildflowers," "bird-watching," "historic-interest," "kid-friendly," "dog-friendly," etc.).

When you get to each of the sixty hikes, you won't be disappointed; for each one you can see at a glance how long it is, how difficult it is, how much of it is shaded, how much the elevation changes, and whether there are facilities or wheelchair access.  The author neatly takes you through each hike, in a surprisingly comprehensive way. The trails are described so well that I'll admit I'm actually thinking about skipping the hiking and just reading the book.

I was also extremely pleased with the prose in this guidebook, which is anything but the dry, informational writing I was expecting. I particularly appreciated information in the front of the book, in a description of the Kettle Moraine State Forest:

"The most recent period of the Ice Age is known as the Wisconsin Glaciation. It came to its dwindling end in a jagged line across the state about 10,000 years ago. Thanks to the land-altering efforts of an ice sheet that was as much as a mile thick in some places, there is no better spot to see the dramatic effects of continental glaciers than in Wisconsin. Two massive lobes of glacial ice left behind two ridges approximately 120 miles long in the southeastern part of the state. Melting ice buried within glacial deposits left kettlelike depressions that have since been overgrown with hardwood forests and, in some cases, filled in with bogs. The very ground beneath your feet is strewn with sand and broken rock, some of which may have originated all the way back in Canada." (p. 1.)

If I can get through an entire paragraph about geology, it's good writing.

I've not had the chance to go through the whole thing, because Mr. CR has stolen it and is planning hikes for our family for the summer. It'll be good, but I'm kind of tired just thinking about it. Tired? Does that count as an emotion? I should go eat something.

It's a lovely book. Buy a copy for yourself if you're in Wisconsin, or if you know any Wisconsinites, consider buying them a copy as a gift. If there was ever a summer when it would be a good time to get out there and hike, far from other people who may or may not believe in wearing masks, this is the one.

*Full disclosure, because I can't not disclose. I know the author. And I'm mainly sharing that because I want you to know that after reading it, I asked him how long this book must have taken to write, because it's really detailed, and really cool. He admitted it was a lot of work. It shows, in the best possible way.


Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon.

As previously noted, I am fascinated by whistleblowers.

And you can only read about whistleblowers for so long before you bump up against another person who loomed large in twentieth-century culture and history: Ralph Nader.

I knew his name, of course, but I really knew very little about Ralph Nader before I tracked down a 1972 publication of his: Whistle Blowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility. It's actually a compilation of presentations given at a conference Nader sponsored in January of 1971. It's a fascinating read in its own right, and it proves that there was a lot of corruption and bullshit going on in the 1960s and 1970s, which should prove once again that there is no such thing as "the good old days." The more you read about whistleblowers and corruption, as a matter of fact, the more you see the human race's overwhelming contributions to the world: corrupt institutions and bureaucracies that may or may not be corrupt but which are still bumbling (at best) and evil (at worst). Well done, humans!

But I digress. I wanted to learn more about Ralph Nader. So, because I am lazy and because my clunky right eye continues to make it difficult for me to churn through books the way I used to, I went and watched the documentary An Unreasonable Man:

You must go watch this movie.

And then, because I was still fascinated, I went and got the book Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. And it's really, really interesting. Regardless of how you feel about Nader (particularly his contentious run for president in 2000), it's a good biography. The author himself admits that he had no shortage of material: most people, particularly those who have worked with him, have strong opinions about Nader. Here's how the author describes his research work for this book:

"My job became easy. All I really had to do was say, 'I understand you know Ralph Nader' and then sit back and listen. What I gleaned most of all from these interviews was that in speaking so expansively, so candidly, so fervently, people were working to deliver up whole the complex story of someone who had played an incredibly important role in their lives and in the country's history. They wanted to do justice to a true original." (p. xv.)

Just like it was pleasurable to spend time with Edward Snowden, I found it very pleasurable to learn more about this unique (and complex, and more than just a little difficult) person.


Citizen Reader in the New York Times!

I wouldn't say that Mr. CR and I are living in a romance novel, but sometimes we have the same thought, and that's always nice. So I wrote about it for the "Tiny Love Stories" feature in The New York Times (it's the last story on the page*):

Tiny Love Stories

Hope you are doing well, and that your life involves some golden raisins today, if you enjoy that sort of thing.

*I also really enjoyed the first story, about siblings, one of whom is a transit worker, because transit workers are getting a raw deal.

 


All I really know.

Well, the world is having quite a time of it, isn't it?

This is emphatically not a current events blog, but it occurs to me that I would like to be helpful in some way. The other day I read that many stores in our area had their windows broken, and merchandise stolen, except for a small used bookstore. The story about that stated that the bookstore had their windows smashed, but no inventory was taken. I emitted what can only be described as a "chuckle cry" (or "sob guffaw," whichever you prefer) at that news, because it was both so sad and yet so strangely funny. And then decided I only know a couple of things in this world fer sure. Here they are:

  1. I want more people to read.
  2. Bookstores are one of the few things on God's green Earth that I love unreservedly and I want to support them as long as they are still here to support.

So this is my ask for, and my pledge to, you. Here's the ask: Share this blog with as many friends as you can. (I've even got a snazzy new design that shows up a lot better on mobile devices! Lookit me, catching up with the 21st century!) And this is my pledge: my new small charitable mission in life is to send people books from independent bookstores.* The catch is that I get to choose the books, and they will mostly be nonfiction. The rules are simple: the first person each giveaway to send me an email at realstory@tds.net will get the book.

This week's book? Geoffrey Canada's memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun, which I have read twice. Geoffrey Canada is super interesting. Who wants this book? Let me know at realstory@tds.net. Please note: if you don't hear back, you haven't won. I'll email the winner to get their address info and I promise I'll never use your email addresses for any marketing purposes or anything barfy like that.

Now. Thank you for sharing. Go read and take care of yourselves.

*Amazon can go fuck itself. I will be buying the books through bookshop.org.


Show the Post Office Some Love!

Today I saw this article:

UPS to Raise Delivery Costs.

And this reminded me that, although this post is not about a book, I would like to ask you to consider showing the United States Postal Service some love.

Now, I'm totally down with UPS charging more, especially if they soak Amazon, which would make me very happy indeed. (I know we all have to shop on Amazon sometimes but do try to keep it down if you can, Jeff Bezos is one of the worst people in the world.) On the other hand, I still remember an occasion about ten years ago when I had to ship some book proofs back to a publisher, and they demanded that I use UPS rather than the post office. So I took my package in, a package that at that time would have cost about four bucks to ship two-day priority, and was told that it would cost $35 to ship it within a similar delivery window by UPS.

I never went back to UPS again.

John Oliver actually covered this very well in one of his recent shows, and I would totally recommend watching it (below). He also has set up a fundraiser for the post office through Stamps.com; if you want to help the post office, consider buying these stamps there. I think it runs through May 31, which is Sunday.

That's all. Keep on keeping on and stay healthy, my lovelies.


My vote for President.

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.

Permanent RecordAs 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.

My hope for all of you is that you have health insurance and you are currently healthy and you have the time to read Permanent Record by Edward Snowden.

*This is neither here nor there, but I hate the cover of Snowden's book. Wonder who picked the picture, and why.


Bingeworthy British TV: Now an ebook!

Well, what do you do with yourself when the kids refuse to let you do their online school with them*, you're stuck at home, and you refuse to clean?

Well, if you're me, you figure out how to offer your book Bingeworthy British Television: The Best Brit TV You Can't Stop Watching as an ebook, as well as a print book.

So, starting on May 16, you can buy the Bingeworthy British Television ebook, or read it through Kindle Unlimited. Enjoy, and then go use whatever extra quarantine time you have to watch some more great British TV. Might I suggest the utterly unique cop drama No Offence (written by Paul Abbott, who also wrote Shameless)? I just started it, and WOW. It can be a bit over-the-top, but here's how I described it to Mr. CR: Paul Abbott writes these dark worlds with dark characters that I definitely do not want to live in, and yet his characters are also really interesting people who care for each other in surprising ways. (Shameless was a lot like that too, about a family of kids basically raising themselves because their alcoholic father couldn't be bothered. I watched the first couple of seasons and then I just couldn't take it anymore, even though it's a good show too.) No Offence is easier to watch than Shameless because it's an actual crime show, so you go in expecting some level of yucky, but there's also fewer children involved, which makes it slightly less horrifying. Also, the lead actor, Joanna Scanlan? She's AWESOME.

Have a good weekend all; hope you are all well, and staying in as much as possible with lovely books and TV shows.

*The CRjrs are getting through their online school, but man, they are whiny students. I totally didn't buy their regular teachers big enough Target gift cards during the holidays.


A sad anniversary.

Fifty years ago today, on May 4, 1970, National Guard troops shot at a crowd of students at Kent State University (in Ohio) and killed four of them.

For whatever reasons, I was recently speaking with a friend about the history of the 1960s and 1970s, which I have, after a lifetime of largely ignoring, have suddenly decided was a fascinating period of US history. This is a sure sign of aging. All sorts of historical stories that I was never interested in before are starting to appeal to me. Maybe because I'm learning in my own life that, no matter what happens, mostly, there is nothing new under the sun. That's almost equal parts appalling and comforting.

Anyway, my friend said something about the Kent State incident, so I took myself off to Wikipedia to get the thumbnail (and probably wrong) sketch of what happened. And I was surprised to discover (I first looked this up two days ago), that today was going to be the 50th anniversary of the shooting. It's not been getting much media play, of course; Corona is King.

I am not going to get a book on the subject, primarily because my library is closed right now. Also, a new graphic novel about it is coming out in September, by none other than Derf Backderf, who is an author that I absolutely love. I will actually probably overcome my cheap nature and just buy a copy of it, because Derf Backderf should be able to make a living. So I will wait and read that.

In broad strokes, here's the story: A group of students were protesting the Vietnam War (in particular the bombing of Cambodia) on campus at Kent State, in a protest that lasted for several days. Nobody actually knows who fired the first shot, or why, but after twenty-eight National Guard soldiers (who were there partially because over the prior weekend prior someone had set the ROTC building on campus on fire) shot at the students, four of them were dead and nine were injured (including some students who had just been walking to or from class, and weren't involved in the protest).

Yeah. Kind of a story that hits you in the gut, doesn't it?

P.S. In happier news, the CRjrs inform me that it is also "May the Fourth Be With You" Day. That reminds me, I have to stop typing this and get back to trying to teach those little punks their math. Ye Gods. The little Target gift cards I gave their teachers over the holidays should have been much, much bigger.


I learn by going where I have to go.

In a time of epidemic and crashing economic systems and human's unkindnesses to humans, I think the thing I read today that made me feel the worst was that the news that singer-songwriter John Prine has died, aged 73.

I am not sad because John Prine didn't lead a full life. I think he did.

I'm sad because John Prine occupied a special place in my heart and my memory, and because he wrote and sang beautiful music, and the world needs more of that, not less.

In July of 1995, I was young. I was in college, I felt good, it was the mid-90s and women were allowed to wear the grunge look and still be considered desirable women. Life was good. Of course, at the same time, it also wasn't. In July of 1995 I was beyond depressed. I thought I was majoring in the wrong thing in college (I was) and that nobody I had a crush on would ever date me (they would, but I couldn't know that then), and that I was fat (I wasn't) and a loser (the jury's still out) and I was in the wrong college at the wrong time and why didn't I feel better? About that time I had taken a light semester of courses, with an eye to dropping out, and was working full-time at a CD store (when such things still existed) for minimum wage, which was, at that time, something like $4.50 per hour. Actually I think I was better off than my co-workers; I got a quarter extra per hour for being a full-timer.

But the job had perks, no doubt about it. First of all was the world's most relaxed dress code, which has always been the most important consideration to me when taking a job. Secondly, I worked with nice (although crazy) people, and we all had different musical tastes, so in one eight-hour shift you went from punk to country to rap to whatever Americana I was into at the time, and beyond. You also sometimes got free concert tickets, and backstage passes. In July of 1995 I got free tickets and a backstage pass to meet John Prine at his show in town.

I had no idea who John Prine was. I went because the opening act was The Subdudes, and I loved The Subdudes. I also went because I had two free tickets, and this way I could ask my friend Joe to go along with me, because he was perpetually low on cash and was always up for free entertainment. I was also in love with Joe. Joe was emphatically not in love with me. It was frustrating to be in love with Joe, because I loved his laugh and for some reason he found me funny and when we were together we laughed all the time. If you can make me laugh, I'm basically in love with you. Didn't it work that way for guys, I wondered?

Over the next ten years or so I would learn, no, it doesn't work that way for guys. But that's the subject for a whole other book of maudlin essays.

Anyway. I loved Joe and still harbored sad desperate hopes that someday, when he was laughing at something hilarious I said, he would suddenly realize he actually was in love with me. So off we went to see the Subdudes and John Prine.

The Subdudes were great, and Joe totally enjoyed that part of the concert, which made me happy. We almost left before John Prine even played, but then I remembered, hey, I had a backstage pass, I kinda wanted to hear what he was about and go backstage afterwards. So we stayed. And here's what I learned: John Prine was the King of Awesome.

John Prine has a voice like nobody else, and although I'd never heard him before, and of course I don't remember the songs he played, I still remember how I felt at that concert. I even forgot about Joe sitting next to me. I sank into the music that I'd never heard before and I just totally, totally enjoyed the showmanship and skill of John Prine and his band. I loved every song. I remember feeling both totally awake and totally still in a way that I rarely am. If I am awake, I am moving. My mind is moving, my hands are moving, my feet are moving, something. Antsy is my primary state of being.

But for the entire time John Prine played I was still. I listened. The world was still while I listened. And then, when he was done playing, I dragged Joe backstage with me and I got to meet John Prine. Of course he had to say hello to a lot of other people who had backstage passes, and I don't remember that I even talked (I think I was still in a transcendent state where speech would have seemed superfluous). I do remember that he was completely gracious, and he was not exactly a big smiler, but he seemed very kind. He signed my backstage pass.

When I was young I had the habit of tucking ticket stubs and other ephemera into my CD booklets.* So, although I have not listened to it for a long time, I just went downstairs to the CD archives and found my lone John Prine CD. Tucked in the booklet is my ticket, and that backstage pass, and it says, "Thank you. John Prine."

I don't know where Joe ended up. I can still remember his laugh, and I laugh thinking about it, and I laugh thinking about Joe and knowing what I know now, and understanding why he didn't love me back and how he was right about that, no way in hell would that have ever worked. And I'm no longer young, and the world is upside down, and a great singer is dead.

But once, long ago, I took a chance and did something new, and even if it didn't substantively change my life, it gave me a lovely feeling and a memory and an appreciation for going to see something even when I didn't really know why I was going. Or, as Theodore Roethke would say: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go."

Thank you, John Prine.

*Another reason to miss CDs.


Let's all just keep reading.

Everyone still there? How are you hanging in?

I read my first "introvert advantage backlash" article yesterday, so I'm glad to see people staying positive. Those stories go a little bit like this: 1. Introverts everywhere, to varying degrees (and also depending on how many extroverts they're stuck living with), largely shrug their shoulders about stay-at-home orders. 2. Introverts everywhere, to varying degrees, feel a small little thrill that they immediately quash because now is not really the time, that finally, FINALLY, a global order has gone out that actually kinda fits their personalities for a change, and 3. Some extrovert asshole tires of that after approximately 30 seconds and tells introverts to stop being smug about their abilities to stay inside their own homes.

To which I say, let's all try and get along before we die, huh? And also, fuck off, extrovert, my whole life has been about acting like I'm not an introvert, getting out there and smiling and networking and acting like you, so excuse me for feeling okay about myself and my peculiar "I love staying six feet away from people" skills, just this once.

So as you can see: the pandemic has not changed the two basic and competing tenets of my personality, which are "come on, let's have a bit of solidarity here, people" and "screw you guys, I'm going home." Confused? Don't worry. Mr. CR hasn't figured it out yet and he knows me as well as anyone.

But that is all neither here nor there.

Are you reading? Or are you finding you can't concentrate enough to read? I'm somewhere in the middle. I'd like to post something here about books to read in a time of crisis, but can't decide what tone to take. Mainly I wanted to pop in and say I hope you are all well and healthy and self-isolating like champs, and also I would like to hear what you are reading and why.

Take care of yourselves. We're all in this together.


Contours: A Literary Landscape, published by the Driftless Writing Center.

1contoursI am totally excited to announce that an essay of mine titled "Open Season" has been included in a regional anthology: Contours, A Literary Landscape: New Work Collected by the Driftless Writing Center.

The Driftless Writing Center is this neat place in Viroqua, Wisconsin, that "provides literary and educational opportunities, readings and discussions, writing classes and workshops, and an outlet for the presentation of original writing by area writers." They also do a lot of work helping homeschoolers, and for that I feel very warmly toward them, as I wholeheartedly believe in homeschooling.*

So the DWC has published this anthology, Contours, which includes poetry and essays and fiction and original artwork (from 64 contributors). I haven't read the whole thing yet, but every now and then I read a few chapters and just enjoy them. They truly do all have the flavor of my native state, and I enjoy that, because, let's face it, the wonders of Wisconsin are not over-explored in the national media or publishing industry.

Family members have asked me what my essay is about, and I have done a terrible job of answering them, because what my essay is about sounds vaguely stupid when I say it out loud. But I must really work on my "elevator pitches" and summaries, so here's what I'll tell you: My essay is about my brother Brian, who I loved and who was a golden god to me when I was little (he was fourteen years older than me).** He died in a farm accident in 2003, and I just realized recently that I'm older now than he ever got to be. This seems wrong, because in his outgoing way he really enjoyed the hell out of other people and out of being on earth in general. I am not like that. In short, he was a summer person, reveling in getting outside, and I am a winter person, reveling at getting back inside and locking my door behind me. But I find as I age that I want to be a little bit more like Brian, especially since he is not here to enjoy the world.

See? Terrible at summarizing. Here's an excerpt instead:

"In spring I often think of my brother Brian. Which makes no sense, because he died in July and his birthday was in November, so there's no particular reason my thoughts should turn to him more often in this season than in any other. This spring I thought about him, did the math, and realized that I am now older than he was when he died. I feel very old some days. My back is dodgy and I never stopped doing the sideways "C-section roll" out of bed in the mornings that they told me to do after my first son was born and I don't earn enough money and I feel I haven't accomplished anything even though I'm forty-two. And yet, if I were my brother, I would be gone."

I am very honored to be part of this publication. I particularly like the DWC's advertising copy for the book: "Explore the Driftless with 64 of your friends."*** Nice.

*Although I don't get to homeschool the CRjrs, because they actually like other people and seem to enjoy going to school. If someone had offered to homeschool me while I was in grade school? Holy crap. I would have been in heaven.

**Once when I was little, a neighborhood bully I rode the bus with stole a wheel off my toy car, which I was taking to school for show and tell, and which I had taken out of my backpack to show off because I was so proud of it. When he heard this story later that night, my brother Brian drove to the bully's house and demanded he return the wheel. The bully didn't have the wheel anymore, so it didn't help my car, but the bully certainly left me alone after that. No matter what faults my brother had, and he certainly had them, I will love him to my dying day (and hopefully beyond) for that act of older-brother kindness and chutzpah.

***The "Driftless" refers to the southwest corner of Wisconsin (and corners of other states), where glaciers didn't grind the landscape down, and there's a lot of beautiful ridges and woods and river valleys.


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

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

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

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

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

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


So let's talk about David Simon's "The Corner." (Part II.)

I tried to write this post all last week. But each time I sat down to do so, I just felt I wasn't bring sufficient energy to the task. It's February in Wisconsin, and because I have a phobia about driving in snow (it's time to just say it out loud, because that will make it go away, right?), a lot of my energy goes to worrying about winter weather. I'm not completely nuts--it's not just driving. Last week the little CRjr came home from school and reported "We had to go back in school after recess by a different door because someone slipped on the ice and hit their head on the slide and hurt himself really bad and they didn't want us walking by him," and that's just the sort of remark that keeps me nice and worried about playground safety for both CRjrs. Anxiety is exhausting.

Which is one of the reasons I really love TV. For me it functions as a low-cost coping mechanism and way to shut down my brain. I love good stories in written or TV form, and the TV series The Wire, based on David Simon's and Ed Burn's books The Corner and Homicide, is stupendously plotted and jammed with outstanding character acting performances.You've seen why I loved The Wire. So why did I love The Corner?

Well, for one thing, it's one of my favorite types of books. I love investigative and journalistic accounts of people whose lives are very different from mine. (Like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. Have you read it yet?) David Simon calls this (in his Authors' Note) "stand-around-and-watch journalism." I love this, because I like to stand around and watch too, but don't often get the chance. Reading these types of books allows me to watch from the privacy of my own home. I also like these types of books because they are often long-term labors of love; Simon points out that they stood around in a west Baltimore neighborhood for more than a full year before even starting to write the book. Their main characters eventually became a fifteen-year-old named DeAndre McCullough, his parents Fran Boyd and Gary McCullough, a variety of drug runners, dealers, and touts with names like "Fat Curt," and a neighborhood resident and parent named Ella Thompson who works in the neighborhood rec center.

This is how the book starts:

"Fat Curt is on the corner.

He leans hard into his aluminum hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival. His fattened, needle-scarred hands will never again see the deep bottom of a trouser pocket; his forearms are swollen leather; his bloated legs mass up from the concrete. But then obese limbs converge on a withered torso: At the heart of the man, Fat Curt is fat no more." (p. 3.)

If that doesn't say a whole world in one paragraph, I don't know what does.

Most of the action in the book follows the drug trade, of course. But there is also a lot of information about family histories and relationships; love affairs gone wrong; Ella Thompson's (heartbreaking) continuing battle to help the kids in her rec center find something, anything, beyond drugs to do; the history of the city and community of Baltimore; and above all, the never-ending struggle to make money with one scam or another,* to score drugs, to find mere moments of release.

I am doing a terrible job of writing this review. I'm going to stop for now. Please: just consider reading this book. Or Homicide, which is another mind-blower. Or watch The Wire. Or maybe do all three, and then watch the documentary Charm City just for good measure.

*Consider the life of the drug addict who needs cash, as described on p. 193: "Every day you start with nothing, and every day you come up with what you need to survive. And day after goddamn day, you swallow the pain and self-loathing, go out into the street and get what has to be got. Who else but a dope fiend can go to sleep at night with not a dime to his name, with not a friend in the world, and actually think up a way, come morning, to acquire the day's first ten?"

I am awful at making money, really terrible at it, although I actually used to like the hustle and surprise of waitressing and selling vegetables, seeing how the day would go. But still: I know it is HARD to hustle money from nothing. My biggest piece of luck is that I am way too lazy to even think about becoming involved with drugs.


Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud.

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

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

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

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

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

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