Jenn Budd's Border Patrol memoir "Against the Wall."

WallYesterday I got another book review published at The Progressive. This one was of Jenn Budd's memoir Against the Wall: My Journey from Border Patrol Agent to Immigrant Rights Activist.

You really need to read this book.

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.


Happy Labor Day 2022!

Labor Day weekend snuck up on me.

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:

Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti. From my Citizen Reader review: "Here's the neat trick, though: the essays are not so much about the fire as they are about how the fire affected its survivors, victims' families, and countless labor activists since 1911."

I also reviewed this book at The Progressive. I liked it a lot, and I enjoyed speaking with its editors.

The Farmer's Lawyer: The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm, by Sarah Vogel. This book blew my mind. Almost my entire review: "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."

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis (a re-read). About the financial crisis of 2008, which seems almost quaint now but which is still fucking us over in various ways. Just go read it or see the movie or both.

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.

Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by Robert Jackall. Can you believe I've not made it through this book yet? AND YET I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

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."

Fucking Amen, Robert Jackall.

This year is the year I am finally going to make it through this whole book. I swear it.

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)."

They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption, by Michael Armstrong. Read this one after you read Serpico, by Peter Maas. And if you don't know who Serpico is, go learn.

The Good Hand: A Memoir of Work, Brotherhood, and Transformation in an American Boomtown, by Michael Patrick F. Smith. Smith went to a North Dakota oil town to see if he could make some money as a skilled laborer in the oil fields. It's kind of a tough book to read--it drops you in a masculine world I may not have been ready for (and I live with three guys)--but I think it's important to read it for that reason.

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.

And here, in case you want to see them, are our Labor Day lists from previous years:  2021, 2020, 2019 part 1 and part 2. 2018. 2017. 2016. 2015. 2014. 2009.


Citizen Reader on YouTube: My Year In Gardening Books

First off, many thanks to Ann and the McFarland Public Library for hosting my talk titled "How to Read True Crime and Still Sleep at Night"! It wasn't hugely attended, but we had a lot of fun and we talked over a lot of books, so that makes for a very successful evening in my opinion.

That said, if you'd like to share any great True Crime titles you've been reading or have read, please share them in the comments!

In other news, I also taped a YouTube segment for the library, about the different gardening books that I read in a year. This was my first experience recording anything for YouTube,* and it was a lot of fun! Please be aware that Ann has made a ton of these awesome book talks for the McFarland Library, called "Browse the Stacks."* Do check them out when you need something new for your TBR list.

*It should be noted that before I taped this I drove to the library with my windows down and yes, I probably should have run a brush through my hair when I got there. If it rarely occurs to me to actually garden (rather than just reading about gardening), it even more rarely ever occurs to me to run a brush through my hair.

**Librarian Ann is AWESOME and seriously knows her books and reading. My very favorite kind of person!!


How to Read True Crime and Sleep at Night

Good morning!

If anybody who reads this blog is anywhere near McFarland, Wisconsin, you are cordially invited to attend my presentation there, titled "How to Read True Crime and Still Sleep at Night."*

Mr. CR thinks it is totally weird how much True Crime I read, but I gotta tell you, I like True Crime because it is honest. I don't think we will ever conquer our cultural love of violence until we look at it more often and much more analytically. I firmly believe the first way to make a problem bigger is to ignore the problem. Reading True Crime is one way I feel I am trying to look at one of society's biggest problems.

There are also some phenomenal True Crime books out there to read, among them Stacy Horn's The Restless Sleep and Sarah Perry's After the Eclipse and Debora Harding's Dancing with the Octopus.

The program will be at 6 p.m. at the E.D. Locke Public Library in McFarland, on Thursday, June 23rd. Hope to see you there!!

In case you can't make it, here's the website to go with the talk: How to Read True Crime website

Here is a bibliography of True Crime titles to read: True Crime Bibliography

and

Here's something I wrote a while back to try and explain why I read a lot in this nonfiction genre: Why I Read True Crime.

*I actually make no guarantees that you will be able to sleep after the talk or after reading any True Crime titles. So much for truth in advertising.


An Essay a Day...

...won't keep the doctor away, or anything, but I still say a daily essay can make your life better.

How handy there is a website called "Essay Daily" to help you get your fix!

Over at Essay Daily, they periodically run a feature called "The Midwessay," featuring essays set in the Midwest, and I am extremely excited to say that they published an essay of mine last week: You Can't Go Home Again.

I've read a lot of the other Midwessays there, and they all provide a slightly different look at a region that doesn't often get a lot of love. The entire site is highly recommended!


New book about the Triangle Fire.

Talking to the girls"On Saturday, March 25, 1911, at 4:40 p.m., as the workers prepared to leave with their pay in hand, an alarm bell sounded at the Triangle Waist Company...The factory was located on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the modern Asch Building (now the Brown Buildings). Workers produced shirtwaists, an iconic item of clothing for the 'new' American woman inspired by the Gibson Girl, created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson..."

This is a fairly sedate introduction to the Triangle Fire in 1911 New York City that wound up killing 146 workers, the vast majority of them women, and a lot of them teenagers. This, however, might come nearer the mark of what the terrible fire was actually like:

"...the Triangle fire was impossible to ignore. It assaulted the senses of middle- and upper-class New Yorkers. People saw smoke, bodies plunging out the windows, to be smashed on the ground below, firemen standing around helplessly with broken nets. They heard fire bells, screams from the victims, gasps from the gathering crowd, and the awful sound of bodies hitting the pavement, recorded with stunning clarity by [William Gunn] Shepherd: 'THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD, THUD-DEAD.'" (pp. 5 and 7.)

Both of these descriptions of this workplace disaster come from the introduction to a new anthology of essays titled Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti (and published by New Village Press). Here's the neat trick, though: the essays are not so much about the fire as they are about how the fire affected its survivors, victims' families, and countless labor activists since 1911. At first glance (especially if you're not fascinated by the Triangle Fire, as I always have been) that sounds like it might not be real exciting--but it is. Giunta and Trasciatti have both referred to this collection as a "labor of love" that they've been working on for years, and it shows. There's a wide variety of stories here--from artists who have written about and agitated for the Triangle Fire to not be forgotten and who themselves are now being gentrified out of their New York homes (which used to be tenements), to labor activists who worked with Chinatown's striking garment workers in the 1980s, to Frances Perkins's grandson, to a wide variety of people who either remember elderly relatives' stories about surviving the fire or who find out much later in their lives that their elderly family members were somehow touched by the fire or worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist company but then never, ever talked about it.

I've written a much fuller review of the book over at The Progressive, but I thought it was a really neat book and you should know about it. Also, if you've not read much about the fire to begin with, I can highly recommend both David von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire That Changed American and Leon Stein's The Triangle Fire.


So Many Great Nonfiction Books, Such a Lazy Nonfiction Books Blogger

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.

Farmers lawyerI 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.


Do you know what's going on at your favorite tech company?

Take your pick: Tesla, Meta, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Microsoft, and especially Apple. What do those companies have in common? There's a lot of sexual and racial harassment and discrimination going on at all of them.

I got to speak with Apple whistleblower Cher Scarlett, and I am grateful she is out there advocating for such companies to be more transparent, and also to allow workers the rights they already have under current law. To read about what she has to say, please read my latest at The Progressive magazine:*

Blowing the Whistle on Big Tech

*And yes, I am always aware of the irony of complaining about big tech while using big tech products seemingly every minute of my life. Their very ubiquity in our lives is just one of the reasons we should be watching them a lot more closely.


What it takes to care for the human body: Marianna Crane's "Stories from the Tenth-Floor Clinic."

CraneI 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.

Consider:

"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.

 


Moral Mazes: Chapter 1 (continued).

Yup, I'm still working on the first chapter of Robert Jackall's business classic Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.

Last time, I shared some quotes from the book in which Jackall very briefly explored the history and psychology of the Protestant work ethic, and its place in our American system of business and bureaucracies.

Basically, the Protestant work ethic combined religion and business. The religious work ethic gave workers the idea that you could glorify by God by working really hard, and, further, by living simply and denying yourself, you could also save up resources and capital to have for your family. Jackall also shared the enlightening thought that, over time, the accumulation of capital led to conspicuous consumption and the assumption that "good people did good"--if you worked hard and invested wisely, you could not only do well financially, that also made you a smart and good person.

Enter: Bureaucracy. Specialization. The increasing organization of business and society along hierarchical lines.

It was kind of a lot to take in, and Jackall covered all of that in (literally) three pages.

No wonder this book is exhausting. But wow, is it good.

So here we are, still in chapter one, now up to the twentieth century. Or, as Jackall explains, our recent history (and by recent I mean the early 1900s through now) in which:

"Mass distribution required greater administrative coordination for its success, and mass production demanded the centralization of operations to achieve efficiency..."

Think big corporations and big schools. Big complicated supply chains. All in the name of efficiency.

And this didn't just happen in business. Here's a Jackall quote from this chapter to strike terror into your soul (or at least it should):

"The tide of bureaucratization spilled over from the private to the public sector, and government bureaucracies came to rival those of industry. The chief forces here have been the erection of the massive apparatus of the welfare state during the New Deal, the militarization of American society during World War II and the subsequent importance to key economic sectors of administered military spending..." (p. 9)

I maintain that kids in high school should be allowed to skip at least one year of American history classes if they just promise to read this book. If that paragraph doesn't sum up what military spending does to a society and your entire economic system, I don't know what does.

So: If we were smart, we've all gotten specialized and found our places in the bureaucracy.

But what is the special character of American bureaucracy? This is what Jackall has to say on the subject:

"But bureaucratic impersonality in its pure form lacks affinity with the American character. Our frontier experience emphasized individualistic solutions to problems, even if they were illegal; in any event, the law was often remote...Moreover, big city bosses based their quasi-feudal regimes on personal loyalty and on the delivery of personal services. By the time American corporations began to bureaucratize they instituted as a matter of course many of the features of personal loyalty, favoritism, informality, and nonlegality that marked crucial aspects of the American historical experience. The kind of bureaucracy that developed in America, especially in the corporations but even in the higher reaches of government, was a hybrid; it incorporated many structural features of the pure form of bureaucracy but it also resembled patrimonial bureaucracy.

Patrimonial bureaucracy was the organizational form of the courts of kings and princes. There, personal loyalty was the norm...Of course, in America, kings and princes were unavailable as objects of personal attachment. But the hierarchies of bureaucratic milieux allow the hankerings for attachment generated by the intense personalism of our historical experience to be focused on chief executive officers of corporations, as well as on certain high elected and appointed officials." (p. 11.)

Basically, we replaced our need to suck up to kings and princes with a need to suck up to CEOs, and in America, we also combined that with a weird frontier belief in avoiding the law and believing that we were all rugged individualists.

Yikes.

Here's why I believe this book. Here's why it's freaking me out. It was published more than thirty years ago, right? So think about that paragraph: a cultural belief that laws were made to be broken, and also a desire to be ordered around by strong leaders. And then look at headlines from this past week:

"Tesla recalls autos over software that allows them to roll through stop signs"

and

"New York is a corporation. I'm the CEO of New York City." (Said by new NYC mayor Eric Adams.)

Yeah, we've really come a long way, baby.

Want to read our Moral Mazes Read-Along from the very beginning? Here you go: