Memoir

Update on Book 45 of 52

Readers! As promised, here’s an update on Book 45 of 52: It’s The Race to be Myself: A Memoir by Caster Semenya. I reviewed it for The New York Times Book Review. Enjoy!

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Book 48 of 52: The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily by Theresa Maggio

After a break, I am back on my quest to read every book written about Italy in the English language. Up at the plate: The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily by Theresa Maggio.

Maggio, like a lot of people I know, is the descendant of Italian immigrants who came to the U.S. and settled in New Jersey. Also like a lot of us, she felt a pull to go back to where her family came from. But instead of making just a visit or two, or buying a house there, she embedded herself in different towns and villages of Sicily, often showing up in a piazza with just a name, and asking if anyone in town could put her up (every time, it worked).

The Stone Boudoir is a collection of reported essays about these towns, told by someone who is both a lyrical writer, and who also has the research and reporting chops to go into great detail about these places, including the history, politics and people. Unlike Marlena De Blasi does in A Thousand Days in Venice, which I read earlier this year, Maggio doesn’t treat the people she meets like props. They’re real, […]

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Book 36 of 52: A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home by Frances Mayes

I’m going to break this post down into two parts: how I found A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home by Frances Mayes, and what I thought about it. Let’s start with how I found the book, because that’s a lot more fun than my thoughts on it.

I packed more than a few titles for my road trip, but made one glaring omission: I only packed fiction. By the time I was heading back home from California, I was tired of fake worlds and wanted to read something real. I traveled through a lot of very rural areas where I was lucky to find a gas station, so wasn’t holding my breath for a bookstore, until I got to Bismarck, N.D. The state capital had to have at least one, right?

Bingo! I stopped at Ferguson Books & More, a delightful place in what I assume is Bismarck’s downtown. They do have “and more” but mostly sell new and used books (and have a banner featuring an ad campaign John Duhamel did for his home state). They strike a bargain, too: if you buy a new book, you get a used one free, and mass […]

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Book 32 of 52: Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Troublemakers by Nick Offerman

Hello from [checks map] Oklahoma City! I am well into my road trip, and trying to reshuffle and repack my stuff for the next leg, so this review of Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Troublemakers by Nick Offerman will be brief.

Offerman is a good writer, but this isn’t his best work. It’s his second book, and may be my least favorite. He admits that he chose some of the people to profile here because he really wanted to meet them. It read (or sounded since I listened to the audiobook) incredibly self-indulgent. It also seems like more of an idea cooked up to capitalize on the success of his first book, Paddle Your Own Canoe, than something that he was burning to write.

The good news is he’s gotten much better (and has taken classes from George Saunders, one of the people he profiles). So if you’re looking for some Offerman, I’d recommend Where the Dear and the Antelope Play (which was Book 35 of 2022) or The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, which he wrote with his wife Megan Mullally, which is one of my favorite audiobooks ever, instead.

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Book 26 of 52: ¡Hola Papi! How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons by John Paul Brammer

John Paul Brammer got his start the way a lot of us freelancer writers do: we need to make a living, and we can write. So we do what we can to pay the bills until we figure out what it is we really want to do.

And then sometimes, the thing you do while you think you’re waiting for your big break becomes it. For Brammer, that was writing an advice column for Grindr. It became so popular that it lead to ¡Hola Papi! How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons.

I recognize a small subset of the beats of this story when it comes to his career: becoming a freelance writer, trying to figure out how to find good clients and stable work and sometimes slogging through assignments you’re just doing for the money (I didn’t write recaps of gay porn but I did write things that I’m relieved do not live in the internet). But everything else was a look into a world I don’t know. I’m not a gay Mexican-American man from rural Oklahoma. I didn’t have any of the same experiences he did as a kid then young man an […]

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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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