Now I'm reading books about "The Wire."

If you knew how much of my mental energy in the past few years has gone to thinking about the collected works of David Simon (including his fantastic True Crime classic Homicide, his more personal and sociological book The Corner, and of course, the TV show he wrote and produced, The Wire) you would probably be a little appalled.

All the pieces matterI can't help it. When somebody knows their business--and I think David Simon knows his business of reporting by going to where people are and hanging out with them--I am powerless to look away. So a few weekends ago I plowed through the oral history All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, by Jonathan Abrams.

It's a great book, and if you're interested in how great TV is made, it's a great primer in that too. Actually, if you know any youthful aspiring drama club members or actors, this would be a very handy book about the actors' (and writers', actually) craft to give to them.

Abrams went and interviewed a lot of the star's main actors, writers, directors, and crew members, so the result truly gives you a picture of the TV production world (as well as of Baltimore, where the series really was filmed). Although I enjoyed the whole thing--and drove Mr. CR nuts by reading pieces of it to him all weekend long--I really enjoyed the interviews with David Simon and Ed Burns, who were the creators and main writers of the show. I also enjoyed the interviews with George Pelecanos, a crime writer who also wrote many of the show's most infamous episodes.

So, consider this quote from David Simon, in which he is talking about a discussion he had with one of the actors, about the possibility of reforming systems:

"I had told him it was much harder to reform a system. The things that reform systems are trauma. Great trauma. Nobody gives up status quo without being pushed to the wall. I believe that politically. The great reformations of society are the result of undue excess and undue cruelty." (p. 68.)

This came up at least once as he was explaining to the actors that the show itself was going to be a cruel world, where nothing was going to get fixed systemically. "I was going to promote all the wrong people, and the same policies were going to go on...that's how the show ended." (p. 65.)

And that's why The Wire is so hard to watch, and why it's so great.

I think I was reading this one too fast to even stick bookmarks in at every part I wanted, but I'm going to read it again someday. On this first pass it was just totally a much-needed and much-appreciated pleasure read.


Dancing With the Octopus, by Debora Harding.

Last week my laptop crashed, so I took it to be fixed, as I am never in the mood to buy a new laptop.

OctopusSo 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.

 


Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City, by Rosa Brooks.

Tangled up in blueI'm a total sucker for police procedurals, in both book and TV form (hello The Wire, best TV program ever), so it should come as no surprise that I found Rosa Brooks's new book Tangled Up In Blue: Policing the American City, to be a fascinating read.

Brooks, a journalist and Georgetown University professor, decided to apply to become a reserve police officer in the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to try and understand what policing a community looks like. Although the job is a volunteer, unpaid one, it is no small undertaking; reserve police officers with the MPD go through the same police academy and eventually become sworn, armed police officers with full arrest powers (which they keep, as long as they fulfill their end of the bargain: working at least twenty-four hours of patrol each month).

Brooks's narrative takes you through her application process, her academy training, and what she learned on patrol. It wasn't my favorite book ever, but it was certainly engrossing. I wasn't really surprised by most of the problems Brooks faced while patrolling or the types of calls she dealt with (that's what happens when you read a lot of depressing nonfiction and police procedurals), but I was interested to hear how difficult it can be to get in and out of your uniform and juggle all the things you have to juggle, like driving while plugging information into your car's police computer, or how many different phones and radios you have to juggle because they police-issued phones that work with the radio don't make calls, so you have to have your personal cell phone with you at all times.

In another interesting twist, Brooks is also the daughter of investigative author Barbara Ehrenreich (who I sometimes enjoy reading but who is not one of my favorite NF authors), so I enjoyed the brief insights into Ehrenreich's thoughts on the police and how Brooks reacted to them.

An interesting read and a sometimes enlightening one. With all the focus on what police work can be and should be, now might be a good time to read it.


Live Work Work Work Die, by Corey Pein

Mr. CR saw this book, Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley, by Corey Pein, on the end table and he said, "Kudos to you, another depressing nonfiction book."

Which I think is rich, coming from Mr. CR, who is my partner in our natural (if not ideal) habit of always imagining the worst-case scenario. He's way more bleak than me, but he hides it better, mostly because he's very, very quiet.

I know. You totally want to hang out in our cheerful, laugh-a-minute home, don't you?*

Anyway. He was right. This book was super depressing.

PeinIt's been on that end table for a week now, because that's where I set it when I finished reading it, had a little cry, and then moved on to whatever homeschooling, caregiving, or freelancing stuff I had going on that day. I've been trying for a week to get myself to post about this book, because I actually do think you should read it.

Pein set out to live and succeed in Silicon Valley, figuring there's tons of start-up cash available there for whatever kind of start-up he might be able to dream up (and then kind of vaguely start, and then cash out of). In other words, and as the jacket copy proclaims: "To truly understand the delirious reality of the tech entrepreneurs, he knew he would have to inhabit that perspective--he would have to become an entrepreneur himself."

And so he does. The first hurdle, of course, is finding a place to live on a journalist's budget in Silicon Valley. It's pretty much impossible, and it involves either living with many, many other tech workers in tiny, tiny, tiny (and shared) living spaces, or actually in a tent that somebody is renting out as an Airbnb. The second hurdle is dreaming up an idea for a start-up, and then getting that idea in front of investors. Third? Try not to lose your soul.

I think I left this book sitting on the end table because I knew it was going to be hard for me to do it justice in a review. It's sort of a strange concept, but there's no doubt that Pein does a very good job of dropping the reader right in the middle of Silicon Valley culture, and WOW, I find that a hugely scary place to be.

The most disturbing story (for me, anyway) in a book of disturbing stories came at the end, when the author describes his and his spouse's life in India, where they lived in 2016. At that time, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, implemented a policy of "demonetization," because he wanted people to move to smartphone apps for all of their transactions. So Modi's government announced that two denominations of Indian currency--two denominations that comprised nearly 90% of all cash in circulation--wouldn't be considered legal tender and had to be turned in for larger bills.

That sounds fairly benign until you learn that the Indian government partnered with a tech company on a start-up app called Paytm, that was in no way able to handle the massive amounts of Indian citizens' daily transactions. It was a disaster:

"In the cities, many sick and elderly people died in the long ATM lines--in at least one case, a doctor refused treatment after demanding cash, which was, of course, what everyone was waiting in line for. It was easy to spend an entire day traipsing from one machine to another, only to find them all out of cash. But these problems were largely invisible to India's wealthy and middle class, who hired servants to do their shopping and thus escaped the battle of will and endurance that suddenly characterized routine commerce." (p. 290.)

Does that last bit sound like anywhere you know? Maybe everywhere, just recently when wealthier people paid desperate people (not enough) to go out and do their shopping or driving or other basic commerce for them? I thought, huh, I'm surprised no politician here has demanded that we all turn in cash and use only a Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos approved/created payment app.

Then I remembered, that just hasn't happened YET.

I know, it's depressing. Read this book anyway.

*Actually, we all do laugh a lot. First off, the CRjrs are hilarious little animals, and also, if you have an absurdist sense of humor, there is a LOT of material in our current world at which to laugh.


It's not everyone's cuppa for comfort reading, I'll grant you.

Over this past weekend, being completely out of Agatha Raisins, I turned my attention back to nonfiction.

On Friday night I watched a documentary titled We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which was about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. Bonus points: I learned that Assange is actually an Australian. Why this struck me as so strange I have no idea; but for some reason I had the idea he was from a Nordic country.

It was a good movie; WikiLeaks is a fascinating concept and Julian Assange, whatever else you think about him, is one strange and unique dude. The hardest part of the documentary was learning more about Chelsea Manning, which, I'm not going to lie, was mainly heartbreaking. She mainly tried to let people know how many civilians our drones were killing in Iraq, and her life has been never-ending torture ever since.

RadicalThen, on Saturday, for something a little different, I turned to the book A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, about four nuns who were murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Another light read. But wow, is it stupendous. A compelling biography of Maura Clarke, one of the women who was murdered, as well as a well-told history. It's by a journalist named Eileen Markey, and I'm not kidding: it's a compellingly told story in which nearly every single paragraph is footnoted and referenced. I don't even know how she did that. It is an amazing, and inspiring, book, and I do not throw those words around lightly.

On Sunday I treated myself to a refresher course on the My Lai massacre and one of the whistleblowers who revealed it, Ron Ridenhour, in order to write a story on Medium called "The Soldiers Who Told the Truth."

It wouldn't have been comfort reading for everyone, I know, but reading so many difficult and heartbreaking stories made me more determined to find the good in each story. Learning about Chelsea Manning makes me want to cry for Chelsea Manning, but WOW. Talk about a person who tried to tell other people about a massacre that was making her sick, and how she paid for it. Such bravery. Ditto with Sister Maura Clarke and so many others who tried to rebel against corrupt (and American-backed, ye Gods) regimes in Central America, in Nicaragua and El Salvador specifically. Such bravery. And of course any of the soldiers in Vietnam who chose to defy their superiors' orders and NOT kill civilians in My Lai, as well as Ron Ridenhour, who listened to soldiers' stories and wrote thirty letters to various politicians and top Army officers until somebody paid attention. Such bravery.

People both freak me out and amaze me. For some reason I like books and stories that show me that whole continuum. And nothing gives me that like nonfiction does.


Evolution of a reading obsession.

I'm still reading everything I can find about whistleblowers.

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."

BolkovacThe depressing book in question is The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman's Fight for Justice, by Kathryn Bolkovac, with Cari Lynn.

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.)

Sigh.

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.


Everything you ever wanted to know about running for local political office.

Back in 2019, when I was young and still had energy for such things, I ran for local political office, also known as a spot on my city's governing Council.

Spoiler alert: I lost.

But that turned out to be an okay thing, considering the fact that in 2019 my mom had a stroke and my husband had a heart attack, and in 2020 the whole world went down the shitter and I became a full-time homeschooler. I've really had enough to do without keeping on top of what the powers that be in my municipality are doing.

Okay, I lied. I still watch a little bit what my city powers that be are doing. As far as I can tell, they're continuing to subsidize already wealthy developers to build luxury apartment buildings (except they call it "workforce housing" to act like there's an altruistic method to their madness) and talking a good game about "sustainability" while spending a lot of money on amenities for rich people, which seems like an unsustainable system to me, but that's okay. It's just the way of the world.

But in a weird sort of way I really enjoyed running for local office, not least because I did a lot of walking around my neighborhood in the company of the youngest CRjr, who wasn't yet in school then. Those are good memories and will always be so.

But! I'm writing today to share the very exciting news that I wrote an article about HOW to run for local office, and it's been published by something called Better Humans at the Medium platform.* Here it is, if you'd like to peruse it: How and Why You Should Run for Local Political Office.

*Medium is a writing platform that will let you read some stories for free, but if you want to read more than just a sampling, you have to subscribe for $5 a month. I subscribed because I was finding some good stuff to read there, and it turns out you can also write stuff there and sometimes get paid for it, which is nice also. Anyone out there a subscriber or writer on Medium? Let me know in the comments and I would love to follow you on that platform.


What a very strange year.

I gotta be honest with you--2019 wore me out, and I was SO HOPEFUL that 2020 would be easier and more peaceful.

Or not.

Let's be clear: the virus is awful and I feel very badly for anyone who has had it, because a. feeling sick is terrible, and b. interacting with our health "care" system is a nightmare even if you have time and health insurance. I also know it is a nightmare for the service industry and as a former waitress, I feel deep-body sympathy for anyone caught in that shitstorm of a sector this year. On the other hand? If you could work at home and homeschool your kids, as we are lucky enough to be able to do in ChezCitizenReader?

Well, then, I'm not proud to admit it, but it's been my least anxious year ever. Mainly because it has removed interactions with other people and (mostly) with systems with which I don't agree and hate being a part of. If you think I missed social functions at the school of the CRjrs, you are way, way wrong.

If you think I missed any social functions at all, you are way, way wrong.

Are other anxious introverts feeling this way? I hesitate to even admit it because I know how tough and how ugly 2020 has been for many, many people worldwide.

No year-end round-up, because, truthfully, I hate those things. But I WOULD very much like to hear what you read and loved this year and why. Or just pop in and say hi and tell me how you're doing. Either way, and whatever havoc COVID-19 has wreaked in your life, I wish you and yours all the very best in 2021.


Ellen Ullman's "Life in Code."

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.

Life in codeThis 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.


Great News!

Whistleblower Edward Snowden and his wife Lindsay Mills are having a baby!

Yes, I know you probably thought I was talking about something else, but let's face it, unless it pertains to whistleblowers, I don't follow political news at all anymore. I don't want to get into a whole big thing about it, but I might just caution against thinking rural voters are a completely different species than anyone else. For a truly eye-opening look at the cultures, economics, and politics of living in rural America, I would highly suggest reading Paula vW. Dáil's excellent Hard Living in America's Heartland: Rural Poverty in the 21st Century Midwest.

But: that is all neither here nor there.

Moral mazesThis week I'd like to tell you about this SUPER book I've been reading all summer long: Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. It was first published in 1988, and I'm reading the twentieth anniversary edition from 2008, but I'm telling you, it reads like it was written this morning. Anyone who is feeling grossed out by our world of corporations and groupthink and organizational behavior (three things which all gross me out A LOT), is going to find a lot to read about in this book.

Ostensibly the book is about the "occupational ethics of corporate managers," and can also be considered a "sociology of the peculiar form of bureaucracy dominant in American business."

Now that makes it sound dry as hell, and I'm not going to lie to you, this is an academic book. It requires slow reading and attention, which is why I can only get through about 1.5 pages every day, in between yelling at the CRjrs to stop hitting each other so hard (I've given up on telling them to stop hitting each other full-stop). But if you put in the work, I think you'll be rewarded, because here is a quote from an actual manager that REALLY tells you what the book is about:

"As a former vice-president of a large firm says: 'What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man's home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That's what morality is in the corporation.'" (p. 4.)

And if that doesn't explain a lot of what is going wrong in the world today, I don't know what does.

More to come. Have a good week, all.