Non-Fiction

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 44 of 52: The Pet Loss Companion by Ken Dolan-Del Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez

When Emily, my first dog, died in 2017, I wrote about her death for The New York Times. In the process of putting it together, someone recommended that I read The Loss of a Pet: A Guide to Coping with the Grieving Process When a Pet Dies by Wallace Sife. The book started out okay, reassuring me that the profound grief I was under was normal. Then he veered into misogyny, particularly when writing about to child free women and grief about the death of their pets. I was so mad I almost threw it across the room.

When I went to put Annie down, I was lead into a room the animal hospital has set up for that purpose. And there it was, on the shelf: The Loss of a Pet.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” I yelled through my tears.

I’m not happy to report that The Pet Loss Companion by Ken Dolan-Vecchio and Nancy Saxton-Lopez is a much better book,  because that means I needed it. Losing one dog did not prepare me for going through it again, especially because it happened far sooner than I ever imagined. Emily was 15 years old when she died. Annie […]

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Book 39 of 52: Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud by Ben McKenzie with Jacob Silverman

In my freelance business, I do a lot of work for colleges and universities. Sometimes that includes attending virtual seminars, then writing up a summary of what was said.

One such 2021 seminar included a panel on cryptocurrency. As I dutifully took notes on what each of the four men (because of course) were saying about how crypto was going to change the world, I was glad I kept my camera off. I could not stop rolling my eyes. It all seemed like a scam to me.

A few months later, it all fell apart.

Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and The Golden Age of Fraud by Ben McKenzie with Jacob Silverman, is that story, told by an unlikely duo who tracked that downfall in real time.

McKenzie is, yes, the actor from The O.C., who had lost money to Theranos, and was troubled and perplexed at celebrities jumping on board to promote cyrpto and NFTs. Silverman is an investigative journalist who was also writing about crypto., and how it looked like a house of cards. The two met up and decided to work together. That lead to a joint investigation, pieces of which were published in Slate, and eventually this book […]

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Book 37 of 52: Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s by Raphael Cormack

In my last post, I said that I had two more reviews that would touch on my travel. Here’s the one of those.

I downloaded the audio book if Midnight in Cairo: The Divas of Egypt’s Roaring ’20s by Raphael Cormack for my road trip. I like to either listen to celebrities reading their memoirs, or books about slices of history that I might not sit down to read in physical form otherwise.

I knew about the Egyptology craze that took over the Brits (and Australians) in the 1920s because I’ve seen it depicted in historical shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. But I didn’t know why, exactly, and a part of that was the vibrant nightlife that existed in Cairo between the world wars, mostly on Emad al-​Din Street. Cormack shows that story by writing about the lives of women who worked in the clubs, theaters, and dance halls at the time, for better or for worse. It’s striking that some of their struggles, like bodily autonomy and financial freedom from men, is the same that many women face 100 years later. And of course depressing too.

Sounds fascinating right? But thee […]

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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 30 of 52: The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke by Sallie Bingham

Last month, a friend and I met up at Duke Farms, a 2,700-acre environmental center in Hillsborough, N.J. We spent the morning biking around the its car-free roads, looking at orchids, talking about…whatever, and then had a nice lunch in their farm’s cafe.

Then last week, I stopped by my dad’s house in Avalon, N.J. and saw a copy of The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke by Sallie Bingham in the give a book/take a book pile. I know I’d left it there (the publisher had sent me a copy in 2020). But hadn’t realized that this Duke was the name behind Duke Farms — or even that Duke Farms existed.

If you’re an NPR listener, you probably know of her too. She’s the Doris Duke of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. She was also the heiress to a tobacco fortune. Her father, James Buchanan Duke, created the kind of cigarette manufacturing and marketing that lead to the global rise in smoking and everything bad that came after it (and a lot of other stuff, but this is book about Doris, not “Bud,” as he was known)

Doris Duke inherited that fortune at 13 years old. The Silver […]

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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 19 of 52: A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism by Caroline Moorehead

Yes, folks, I am still at it, trying to read every book about Italy in the English language before my trip in November. But not everything written about the country is about beauty, food and wine. Italy is not utopia and right now, things there are politically grim. A lot of that goes back to the country’s fascist rule during WW II, a movement that was never really stamped out.

But let’s get to the book first: A House in the Mountains: The Women Who Liberated Italy from Fascism, the last in Caroline Moorehead’s resistance quartet (I’ve read two other ones: A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France; and Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France). In this non-fiction work, she tells the story of the staffette, the women couriers of the Italian resistance that fought a Guerilla war against the Germans and their Italian fascists collaborators. The house of the title is in Turin, a town I’m trying to add to my fall trip itinerary.

I listened to this one and didn’t take notes (because I was often driving!), so if you’d like to know more details,

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