Non-Fiction

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…

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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…

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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…

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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…

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Book 41 of 52: Unmask Alice: LSD, the Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson

I don’t remember how old I was when I read Go Ask Alice by Anonymous, but I do remember where I was. Until I went to college, I spent most of my summers in a campground at the Jersey Shore. My mom would take us to the beach in the morning, then drop us off at the campground pool on the way back and tell us to stay there until dinner. It must have been July or August because the pool was packed, so much so that all the chairs were all taken, and the only place I could sit was my beach chair. That’s where I stayed was on a beautiful summer day, enraptured by the “diary” of Alice, a drug addicted teenager. I hadn’t thought about the book in years, until I listened to an episode of the You’re Wrong About podcast that featured Rick Emerson, author of the…

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Book 37 of 52: Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan

I read Streets of Gold: America’s Untold Story of Immigrant Success by Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan for work, so I’m not going to go too much into it here right now. When the piece is out, I’ll add a link to this post, and also write a new one so those of you who read this chronologically don’t miss it. [JEN NOTE on November 6, 2022: Here it is] But you can get a very good idea of what’s in the book via this recent New York Times piece that distills their research and data, showing via interactive graphics that a lot of the fear mongering about today’s immigrants is just false. Instead, I’m going to share how a piece of this book is related to one of my side projects. For two completely different reasons (and no I’m not telling you those reasons), I’ve been working on histories of both…

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Book 35 of 52: Where the Deer and the Antelope Play by Nick Offerman

I have so many thoughts about Where the Deer and the Antelope Play by Nick Offerman that I’m going to number them. 1. It’s not uncommon for celebrities to partner with ghost writers for their books. I don’t mind this — in fact, I think it’s a good thing. A celebrity has a story to tell and hires a professional to help them tell that story in the best possible way means we get a better book, and a pro writer gets paid. However, that’s not the case here. Offerman calls himself a “humorist” and is a pretty good writer. I listened to and loved Paddle Your Own Canoe and also The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, which he co-wrote with his wife Megan Mullally (Good Clean Fun, which is about woodworking, fell flat to me, though I listened to it while running a 24-hour race, so that vibe might be…

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Book 34 of 52: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

My plan to go back to Italy in 2023 or 2024 proceeds, as does reading books about Italy. So Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes it is (or was since I finished the book last night). This 1996 blockbuster memoir is by Mayes, a professor of creative writing who takes her divorce settlement and buys an abandoned villa in Tuscany. Through the course of the memoir, she and her pal Ed (who eventually became her husband) fix up the place, and spend all their summers there (which seems to be a thing that has only been disrupted by the pandemic). It’s a home renovation story, a second love story, and, probably more than anything else, a food story. I’ve spent some time in Tuscany in early fall, which is when Mayes usually returns to San Francisco, but even after the rush of summer, the food is unbelievable. In 2008, I…

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Book 30 of 52: Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life by Alan Cumming

I’m a big fan of taking long road trips. Since I flew to Texas to buy my 2002 Jeep Wrangler TJ and drove it home to New Jersey without really knowing how to drive stick – and didn’t die in the process – I’ve found the appeal of taking a very long drive. But those long drives are often boring. Music alone doesn’t cut it for me, and NPR repeats itself after a while. In 2014, when I took that long Texas drive home, we didn’t have as many podcasts as we do now. So before my flight, I went to my library and checked out a “book on tape,” which was then a CD. I was so intensely focused on trying to drive a new to me car in a new to me way that I didn’t think I could concentrate on whatever the book was about (something historical,…

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Book 26 of 52: The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil by Tina Brown

I’m not going to write a long review of Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor — the Truth and the Turmoil for two reasons. First, it’s been hashed to death already, as anything about the royals is, by people who are far more invested in this whole thing than I am. And second, I’m in the frantic “do I really need a jean jacket AND a windbreaker” level of packing before a long trip. I can say that I didn’t mind listening to this nearly 18 hour audiobook while the rest of the world is on fire, although of course they are not insulated. We can pretend that the Royal Family lives in a bubble, but they are enormously influential; touched by the same issues of race, class and gender; and Queen Elizabeth II is one of most influential politicians of modern times — and she is…

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