A Book Mentioned In Another Book

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers, published in 2010, is a memoir by Jennifer Mascia. It was mentioned in the novel Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green.

The first sentence is: “I was five when the FBI came for my father.

Never Tell Our Business to StrangersWhen Jennifer’s father was arrested the first time, her cousin explained they were just filming a movie. When he was arrested a second time, a few months later, her cousin tried to keep Jennifer distracted in the bedroom, but the “filming a movie” story couldn’t be used a second time.

Jennifer and her mother traveled from Irvine, California to the correctional facility in New York to visit her father. Then Jennifer and her mother moved to Miami Beach, Florida, where Jennifer was told her father was in a different kind of facility – one where Jennifer couldn’t visit.

Jennifer had been told that her last name is Cassese. Then she was told her last name is really Mascia. She was told that her father’s first name was no longer Frank, and that people will be calling him John. Later, she was told that her father had been arrested by mistake – the FBI had been looking for another man named John Mascia.

Jennifer was warned by her parents: “Never tell our business to strangers.”

Jennifer and her parents moved frequently, across Florida, California, and New York. They always rented an apartment wherever they lived. They kept to themselves, trusting only family and a few close friends. As she got older, Jennifer began to notice some unusual behavior, like the fact that her mother and father were both using someone else’s Social Security numbers.

When Jennifer pressed her mother for the truth, her mother told Jennifer that her father had been in prison before Jennifer was born. He served a twelve-year sentence for racketeering with a criminal organization. When he was arrested, back when Jennifer was five years old, it was for a minor violation of his parole.

When Jennifer Mascia was 22 years old, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer, and was given a year to live. In that same year, Jennifer discovered, by chance, that records of past and present convictions were available online at the New York Department of Correctional Services web site. That’s how Jennifer discovered that her father had served a twelve-year sentence, not for racketeering, but for murder. (This isn’t a spoiler. This information is given on the inner flap of the book jacket.) This happens on page 139 of this 380 page book.

Jennifer confronted her mother with what she’d discovered. Her mother told her the truth: John Mascia shot a man who had planned to inform on the crime organization. Jennifer’s father didn’t want to kill anyone, her mother told her, but he’d been ordered to do so. John Mascia was arrested and went to trial at a time when there were no degrees of murder. There was only the crime of murder, and the only penalties were life imprisonment or execution. He pleaded guilty only to avoid the death penalty.

While John Mascia was serving his life sentence, laws were written to include degrees of murder, and he was paroled after serving twelve years in prison.

John Mascia died in 2001.

Four years later, Eleanor Mascia (Jennifer’s mother) was diagnosed with lung cancer. Shortly before she died, she told Jennifer the rest of the story. (That’s also included on the inner flap of the book jacket.) That happens on page 230. Jennifer Mascia learned the story behind all the secrecy, the moving, and why they never told their business to strangers – and the book still had 150 pages to go.

During all the lies and half-truths, and finally the truth, it’s clear that Jennifer Mascia loved her parents, and that her parents loved her, through it all.

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers didn’t grab me.

I’ve made a rule for myself that I will finish every book I start for the Reading Challenge. (It is a challenge, after all.) I had a tough time sticking with this book, but I did finish it.

There’s a fascinating story in this memoir, but I felt it would have made a better magazine article than a book. I wanted to read John Mascia’s story – that’s what made the memoir unique. I didn’t want to read about Jennifer’s boyfriends, or her jobs, or her apartments, or how much her rent was. I didn’t want to read chapter-long tales of medical treatments, and entire conversations with doctors.

Why I chose this book:

“A book mentioned in another book” is a tough category for me. I don’t know the best way to find such a book. Internet searches haven’t been successful.

I stumbled into this same category last year, when a mention of For Whom the Bell Tolls showed up in the pages of All the Bright Places. And, just like that, I also stumbled into this category this year.

This is a passage from page 116 of Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green. Aza Holmes is reading notes from the missing billionaire’s phone.

It went on like that for pages, just little memos to himself that were inscrutable to anyone else. But the last four notes in the documents interested me:
Maldives Kosovo Cambodia
Never Tell Our Business to Strangers
Unless you leave a leg behind
The jogger’s mouth

Aza does some research on these notes. The first item is a list of three countries with no extradition treaty with the United States. The second item is the title of a memoir by a woman whose father was on the run from the law. A search on the third item leads her to an article about how white-collar criminals live on the lam – the quote is referring to how difficult it is to fake your own death. A search on the last item leads to photos of joggers with their mouths open. Aza doesn’t know what that last item means.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on my own. I was surprised to discover that Never Tell Our Business to Strangers is an actual memoir, and not just an invention of the author (like An Imperial Affliction was, in The Fault in Our Stars). I realized then that I’d once again stumbled into “A book mentioned in another book”.

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