Book 16 of 52: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

As I plan this summer’s cross country road trip, I’m figuring out with National Park Service units (there are more than 400!) I want to see along the way. I read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (and her husband James D. Houston) as Book 22 of last year, which puts the Manzanar National Historic Site in Independence, California on the list.

Actor and activist George Takei may be the most public face of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. They Called Us Enemy is the graphic novel version of his story. And while he was sent to different sites than Manzanar, these two books feel like companion reading.

Where Houston’s perspective is more of a child experiencing what she did, this graphic novel is from the perspective of an adult looking back at what happened, and the reverberations of that across his whole life, using a discussion Takei had with Kermit Roosevelt III at Hyde Park in 2017 as the starting point (fun fact: one of the first authors I ever profiled was Kermit, when he published his first book, In The Shadow of the Law).

I used “incarcerated” instead of “interned” […]

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Book 15 of 52: A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena De Blasi

As I mentioned a the end of last week’s Friday Folio, I have been querying agents for a new book I want to write, and part of the process is telling them what very successful book you think yours will be like. At the same time, I was also reading A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena De Blasi. I’m guessing it was pitched as the next Under the Tuscan Sun, which was Book 34 last year. It even has recipes.

Good marketing if that’s the case, though I don’t think this book is quite at the level.

De Blasi is an American chef and writer who traveled to Italy often to write about food. She meets a stranger (who she often calls The Stranger) while in Venice, and he convinces her to give up her home and her restaurant in the U.S. and move with him to Venice to be his wife — right then and there. Despite her friends telling her no, she does it anyway.

I picked up some bad vibes from the Stranger, including but not limited to he seems to dominate her life, and tries to make her a kept woman, so much of the book […]

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Book 13 of 52: Corrections in Ink by Keri Blakinger

When Keri Blakinger first made big headlines, it wasn’t for a good reason. She was a former figure skater turned heroin addict, charged with a second-degree felony for having about $50,000 worth of the drug.

She’s now a staff writer with the Marshall Project, covering prisons and jails.

So how did Blakinger get from point A to point B? Or, really, from point A (skater) to B (felon) to C (respected journalist)?

That’s what she writes about in her memoir Corrections in Ink, which came out last year. She details her skating career (she reached nationals in pairs skating), eating disorder, attempted suicide, drug addiction, life behind bars, and how she found sobriety and journalism.

Parts of the book, especially about Blakinger early life, reminded me of the work of Caroline Knapp (RIP), specifically Drinking: A Love Story and Appetites: Why Women Want. All three books address trying to fill a gap in their lives with someone else, whether that was alcohol, drugs, or trying to wrest control of something by beating up their bodies through food or lack thereof.

They’re all engrossing but tough reads, and I don’t recommend them if things like descriptions of food rituals and/or disordered eating are […]

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Book 7 of 52: The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey by Derick Lugo

Around the holidays, with COVID exacerbating already elevated levels of stress, I started reading about hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,198-mile foot path from Georgia to Maine. About 750 people hike the entire length every year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, out of around 3,000 who attempt it.

I’d read two books about it already: the classic A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (twice), and Called Again by Jennifer Pharr-Davis, about an attempt to set a record in how long (or short) it takes a person to complete the whole thing. I didn’t want to revisit those books. Instead, I fell into a Reddit group about it, and found a discussion of books about regular folks who became thru-hikers.

First up: The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey by Derick Lugo.

By “regular” I mean people who aren’t top flight athletes like Pharr-Davis, or already well known writers, like Bryson. Lugo is a runner from Brooklyn who decided to give it a go in 2012, almost on a whim, despite having never hiked or camped before. The book is a spiffed up version of his trail blog/diary, where he shares his worries and qualms, his successes […]

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Book 62 of 52: The Secret Apartment: Vet Stadium, a surreal memoir by Tom Garvey

Tom Garvey came home from a the Vietnam War with PTSD, and was trying to figure out what’s next while going to college and working for his uncle helping to manage parking at sporting events in South Philadelphia. When said uncle gave him the business to manage — and after he and his friends crashed at Veteran’s Stadium the night before the Pope’s visit, so they would be on site early to help manage parking — Garvey decided to move in.

In The Secret Apartment: Vet Stadium, a Surreal Memoir, Garvey finally tells a story that he said was only known by a small group of friends (including some professional athletes). He claims that from 1979 to 1981, he lived in an unused concession stand under the slope of section 354 at Veterans Stadium. He took full advantage of his living quarters, making friends with professional baseball and football players and coaches, going to a zillion games, roller skating around the stadium at night, and sometimes sleeping under the stars from the fabled 700 level.

Garvey started posting his memories during the pandemic, for fun and the entertainment of other people, then self-published them in this book in 2021. And it’s […]

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Book 59 of 52: We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story by Simu Liu

Let’s take a trip with a very handsome man! Simu Liu, who is most known as the lead in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings. He has quite a story to tell in We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story. And most of it is not about Hollywood.

Liu is a Chinese-Canadian actor who spent the first four years of his life in China with his grandparents, as his parents scraped their way to establishing a new life for the three of them in Canada. When Liu was finally able to join them, it wasn’t a perfect reunion. Not only were his parents essentially raising a small child they didn’t know, but they also pressured him to succeed in sometimes cruel ways. No way around it: they beat him, and did things like lock him out of the apartment if he was bad. They made him feel worthless if he was not at the top of his class, and beyond, in everything.

I thought a lot about book 44 in this series, I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy. The big differences are that his parents didn’t want Liu to have anything to do with […]

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Book 54 of 52: I’m Not Really a Waitress by Suzi Weiss-Fischmann

I started doing my nails in 2018, at 38 years old, in a grasp at control. On the night before I was to run a 50K ultramarathon in 83 degree heat — in Pennsylvania, in October — I went to a CVS up the street from my hotel. I bought a bottle of base coat, top coat and Black Onyx by OPI. I was sick from dehydration for two days after the race, but my nails still looked pretty good.

I did my nails sporadically after, and I collected a handful of colors — enough to take up the front of a bathroom drawer. Then the pandemic hit, and I wrote story after story about the exact ways in which COVID killed people, and the systematic failures leading us down the path to mass tragedy. I couldn’t control that, but I could control my fingertips.

Since then, I have done my nails every week (usually on Wednesdays, since that’s my off day from running). I don’t wear makeup, and I don’t color my hair, but I now have more than 100 bottles of nail polish taking up two bathroom drawers. Not only have manicures been a way of covering up damage […]

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Priceless by Robert K Wittman book cover

Book 50 of 52: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman

Who doesn’t love a good heist story? And who doesn’t want to listen to a book about heists and exactly how FBI got back said heisted items while driving across the midwest?

I like both of these things, which is how I ended up listening to Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman on my recent road trip to the National Parks of Minnesota and Michigan. What a ride — both the book and that vacation. Turnpikes are convenient but wow sometimes very boring. It helps to have something interesting to listen to along the way.Wittman is a former FBI agent who created a niche for himself while still at the Bureau: art, antiques, jewelry and gem identification. While working at the Philadelphia bureau office, he retrieved a startling number of key works — more than $300 million worth, according to his website. Those include Geronimo’s War Bonnet, a Peruvian backflap that had been looted from a tomb, Rembrant’s Self Portrait, a Civil War battle flag carried by the 127th United States Colored Infantry Regiment, and an original copy of the Bill of Rights.

For each recovered piece of art, Wittman (and co-writer […]

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Book 44 of 52: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

I listened to the audiobook of Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died while packing for and then starting my road trip to the national parks of Minnesota and Michigan, and often had to stop the recording to process what I’d just heard.

It is one of the most harrowing celebrity memoirs I’ve ever read. It comes with every kind of content warning you could imagine. I’m going to share some of what she wrote about here, so if you need to click out of this one, I completely understand.

McCurdy was a child star pushed into show business by her mother, an abusive narcissist who taught her daughter how to be anorexic, did “exams” on her into her late teens, didn’t let McCurdy shower herself (and often showered her together with her teenage brother), and didn’t even let her wipe herself after she went to the bathroom until she was at least eight years old (she describes the behavior at that age but if she said when it ended, I didn’t catch it).

The book is about that life, and also what her mother pushed her into: a role in the Nickelodeon show iCarly, whose producer, Dan Schneider, has been […]

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Book 43 of 52: Fly Girl by Ann Hood

Fly Girl by Ann Hood is a “look behind the curtain” type memoir. After college, and before becoming a successful novelist, Hood worked as a flight attendant for TWA, “at the end of those glamour days,” she writes, starting her job a time when flying was something you dressed up for, and ending after deregulation started to shrink prices but also amenities, seats and leg room.

Those glamour days were also more sexist, where flight attendants couldn’t be married, couldn’t have children, were chosen in large part based on their looks, and had to maintain a specific weight (and could be fired for going over, especially in their first six months of “probation”). That didn’t discourage women though. At the time Hood applied, TWA had acceptance rates lower than Harvard. It was an in demand job.

It was a big change from when the role was “courier” and only open to men. In 1930, Ellen Church, a registered nurse, convinced United Airlines to hire her too, arguing that putting women on plans would make people feel more comfortable about flying them – because if they hired women, especially nurses, on it had to be safe, right?

The nursing requirement was dropped during […]

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