Non-Fiction

Book 25 of 52: Italian Neighbours: An Englishman in Verona by Tim Parks

How about a little travel to kick off the summer? I’ve been sticking to domestic trips lately for obvious reasons, but I’m hoping to go back to Italy in 2023 or 2024. I like it there. I’ve been twice, once to the Tuscany region, and another time to Rome with a jaunt to Capri, where I had sandals made for me, haggled in bad French with an Italian shopkeeper over a vintage Louis Vuitton bag, and bluffed my way into a nightclub that wanted me to pay a 40 Euro cover charge. I’ve also been doing a genealogy project and looking into my Italian roots (yes, really, don’t mind my last name), which was partly inspired by a trip to Ellis Island in December. I saw where my great great grandparents, Salvatore and Giuseppina, came into this country and, for better or for worse, you’re all now stuck with me…

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Book 22 of 52: Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston

In 2017, I took a four month road trip to see all the 18 states I hadn’t been to yet. On my first day, I picked up a Passport to Your National Parks, a blue booklet that lists all 423 locations that the National Park service oversees – not just the big National Parks, but also the national seashores, battlefields, historic monuments, etc. Along that trip – and on many road trips I’ve taken since since – I’ve tried to visit as many of these sites as possible, collecting stamps at each one. It’s a great way to figure out how to break up long drives – or pick targets, as I often plan trips around getting a few stamps. I’m scheduled to hit the upper midwest late this summer to do just that. I’ve been to more than 200 sites so far. This quest has of course lead me…

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Book 21 of 52: Miss Dior by Justine Picardie

I’m sure most people reading this book know Dior: the name, the brand, the fashion, the perfume, etc. But that’s not what Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture by Justine Picardie is about. After writing a biography about Coco Chanel, she considering doing one of Christian Dior. Instead, Picardie became much more interested in his sister Catherine. While Christian’s creations have captured the hearts and imaginations of generations of people (including myself – I nearly wept when I saw the Bar Suit in December at the now closed Brooklyn Museum’s “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibit, which is also where I found this book), Catherine was a true hero. A member of the French Resistance, she was caught, tortured, and imprisoned at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where the Nazis murdered at least 50,000 women. Picardie’s challenge was that very little is know about Catherine beyond the facts: birth and death…

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Book 20 of 52: The Bond King by Mary Childs

I have a friend who likes to say that money is fake. Some sums are so big that they don’t feel tethered to reality. Can you envision what a million dollars looks like? A billion? A trillion? Money is fake! I kept muttering “money is fake!” while listening to The Bond King by Mary Childs, which is about Bill Gross, founder of investing giant PIMCO. Childs starts with him leaving the firm and the shock it sent through the financial world. She then meticulously shows how he gained his fortunate and his Bond King title, and then how he lost the firm he created, to the point that I’m not sure why it wasn’t obvious to everyone that there was much strife in the house of PIMCO before he left. Childs has had a long career in financial journalism and is now a co-host and correspondent on the NPR podcast…

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Book 16 of 52: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris

I have generalized anxiety disorder and, on and off, dance with depression. I have done a lot of work to be able to not just function but live a full and rewarding life, including but not limited to therapy, medication, and running for hours at a time. However, in early 2020, COVID broke over those dams. I write about science and medicine, and I had panic attacks while interviewing doctors. That early March, I screamed at my dad to not get on a plane to Texas, and for my mom give up her tickets for the Philadelphia Flower Show – and then catastrophized when they did those things anyway. My friend said that I was a Casandra: shouting about the terror to come with no one believing me, until it was already here. In a gasp to find some relief, I tried meditation, first through the Calm app, and then…

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Book 13 of 52: You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

I first saw Kal Penn as many elder millennials did: as a supporting character in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, and then as the co-lead in the much better and way funnier Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. I heard that he’d taught at Penn and did…something in the White House? But that was about it. So I went into his memoir, You Can’t Be Serious, skeptical about what I would learn. A lot, it turns out. This guy can be serious. The memoir is funny, of course, but it’s Penn (whose real name is Kalpen Modi but uses Kal Penn as his byline, so I’m going with that here) retelling his Hollywood story, from growing up in a mostly immigrant community that didn’t understand why he went into acting and not the sciences, to having a very real job with the Obama administration, to his baby, the series Sunnyside, making it…

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Book 12 of 52: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi is an author and graphic novelist who grew up in Iran and, as a tween and teen, lived in the country through the Iranian Revolution before her parents sent her to Europe for school, and for her safety. As an adult, she wrote Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, a nonfiction graphic novel, originally in French. I read the English translation, which was published in 2003, three years after the original. It was a critical success, won a slew of awards, and became a movie. I haven’t read the sequel, Persepolis 2, but I hope to (you can also buy them in a set. I found Persepolis in a Little Free Library, or I’d have bought them combined). In the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which is about the author’s father talking to him about the Holocaust, Persepolis is a memoir of trauma told through a mix of images and words that when combined, combust…

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Book 11 of 52: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

In my travels, I’ve accumulated photos in what I call the “Plants Where They Shouldn’t Be” series. They’re of weeds, flowers and trees growing in places that look uncomfortable: poking out of lava that’s OK to walk on but warm enough to generate steam, growing around a mile marker on the road, sprouting on the back of a parking sign – that kind of thing. On the cheesy side, they’re reminders that we can flourish in the most unlikely circumstances. On a more realistic end, they show that humans are constantly battling back nature, and that someday we’ll probably lose the fight. I thought about those photos when I read book 8 of 52 Station Eleven (and watched the HBO Max adaptation), which show a world without 99.99 percent of our current human population. The story focuses on people, of course, but set them in a world where the things humans have created…

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Book 10 of 52: Putting the Rabbit in the Hat by Brian Cox

When I first started listening to the audiobook of Brian Cox’s Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, I wasn’t sure why I was there. I’ve watched Succession, sure, where he plays the media titan Logan Roy. I enjoy it, but but I’m not obsessed with it (I watched most of the show while running on a treadmill). But I’d listened to Cox do Wait Wait…Don’t Tell me, an NPR news quiz, and tell a story about how almost everyone at his first wedding got very drunk except for him, which was a bit of a problem since most of the guests were also starring in Romeo and Juliet, and they had a performance that night. Plus he and Michael Gambon (one of the drunk wedding guests ) also had a matinee performance of Othello. This might be worth giving him a few hours of my time, I thought, and then, when I was…

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Book 4 of 52: This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection by Carol Burnett

My audiobook consumption generally falls into three categories: Hefty historical books that I’d probably never sit down to read (like Book 2 of 52 in this series) Juvenile or YA fiction (the 2006 production of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet as read by Peter Coyote is the tensest audiobook experience I’ve ever had) Celebrities reading their memoirs Book four falls into that last category. This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection by Carol Burnett isn’t a straight memoir – Burnet wrote that, One More Time: A Memoir, in 2003. Instead, it’s a anecdotes that she often told in the Q&A sessions before tapings of The Carol Burnett Show, and then on tour. I say performances for a reason: listening to this book is like listening to her on stage. These stories have the polish of well practiced storytelling. And there’s nothing wrong with that of course! Burnett is supremely talented performer – I…

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