A league of their own — May 17, 2023

A league of their own

There’s an old saying that we should never meet our heroes. As I don’t have heroes, I can’t speak to that. But having met one of my two favorite living authors last week, I can say that meeting someone I admire was pretty expletive awesome.

This saga begins a couple months ago when my bestie texted and asked if I had time for a chat. She had a proposition that would be best explained on the phone. Intrigued, I told her to call.

On the phone, she explained that author Ann Patchett – aka one of my two favorite living authors – would be interviewing Tom Hanks – yes, the Tom Hanks – in Nashville in May about Hanks’ novel. Said bestie had purchased two tickets, but her husband had a conflict and wouldn’t be able to accompany her to the event.

I exclaimed something like, “I’m in!”

The ticket was embarrassingly inexpensive, especially given the opportunity to listen to a conversation between Tom Hanks – yes, the Tom Hanks – and Ann, as my bestie and I refer to Patchett. I would have been stupid to pass up that opportunity. Besides, attendees would receive a copy of Hanks’ book.

So, on the day of the event, I drove three hours to my bestie’s house and hopped in her car, and then we drove another three hours to Nashville. We arrived at the venue an hour and a half before the start time. By the way, when our Uber driver learned why we were in Nashville, he asked, “You came down here for that?”

Yes, my dude, we did.

Anyway, the event was wonderful. Ann, an excellent interviewer, sat back and allowed Hanks to talk. And talk he did. He was charming and hilarious as he discussed his book, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, and shared anecdotes from his career. I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so much in a 90-minute timespan. I believe Hanks would have continued talking all night if Ann hadn’t reminded him of the time.

By the way, when he said, “A movie is made for an audience of one,” I felt like he was speaking to an audience of one.

The next morning, I rolled out of bed at the hotel, took a shower, dressed, looked at myself in the mirror, said, “Good enough,” and hit the road. After all, we were just going to Ann’s bookstore, Parnassus Books, and then heading home. Who was I going to see?

Ann expletive Patchett! That’s who we saw!

Let me back up. Even before we met Ann, I had enjoyed my visit to Parnassus Books. As my bestie and I perused books, a lady from Ohio, who had also come to Nashville for the event, overheard me talking about Richard Russo, my other favorite living author, and approached me. She said she doesn’t run into many Russo enthusiasts. Neither do I, so I’m glad I got to talk to another one.

Back to meeting Ann…as the employee at Parnassus Books helped with my order, my bestie ran up to me. With wild eyes, she cried, “Ann is here!”  

She told me she was going to try to arrange a meeting. A few minutes later, I heard my bestie laughing. I said to myself, “Self, she did it.”

I nearly ran to the back of the store where I found my bestie chatting with Ann.

Yes, the Ann Patchett.

Here’s what our friends at Wikipedia say about Ann, “She received the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in the same year, for her novel Bel Canto. Patchett’s other novels include The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), Taft (1994), The Magician’s Assistant (1997), Run (2007), State of Wonder (2011), Commonwealth (2016), and The Dutch House (2019). The Dutch House was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.”

I’ve read all those books, except for Taft, which as it turns out, I had already planned to start next week. Ann seemed surprised that my bestie and I heaped praise on earlier works like The Magician’s Assistant. She might also have been a bit overwhelmed by us. I think at some point, I called her, “Sis.” I also told her I started Commonwealth in my gynecologist’s office. She simply replied, “As one does.”

Ann was delightful and gracious, agreeing to pose for photos with us. When she heard I was a Russo fan, she told me he would be at Parnassus Books in July. She also hugged my bestie.

My bestie earned that hug. If not for her, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to spend an evening laughing with Tom Hanks or a morning meeting Ann Patchett.

Yes, the Ann Patchett.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

What a waste — March 29, 2023

What a waste

Let’s circle back to a subject I touched on last week – folks who consider reading fiction to be a waste of time.

Although the person to whom I alluded in last week’s post is fictional, actual human beings share his opinion.

That perplexes me.

To be clear, people can read – or not read – whatever they want. Indeed, one of my besties isn’t a reader. Another bestie wants to read more for pleasure, but the volume she has to read for continuing education prevents her from doing so. Another friend says nonfiction bores her.

As for me, I enjoy fiction and nonfiction. But whilst there is no right or wrong genre or subject to read, I needed to know more about these people who consider fiction a waste of time. For example, do they watch scripted TV and movies or do they stick with documentaries and educational programs? Because if a novel is a waste, then wouldn’t a scripted film or TV show also be a waste?

And what about serious literature like the classics? Are they a waste of time?

It turns out that there are essays, blog posts, and discussion board threads devoted to this subject.

This could have been true only for the sites I stumbled across, but I detected a theme among the fiction-is-a-time-waster folks. Although they read other types of books, they claim reading fiction is just too much of an investment of their time.

I asked myself, “Self, how long does it take these slowpokes to read a book?” Afterall, I can legit zip through a book in four or five hours. But more than one of them admitted that when they read fiction, it’s fantasy epics.

I’ve identified their problem.

Well, one of them. Anyway, perhaps they should branch out and explore books that could not be used as weapons.

The fiction haters I encountered also tout self-help books.

Oh, expletive no.

I want to make two things clear. I have learned more about myself and grown more as a person through some works of fiction and non-fiction than I could have from any self-help book. In fact, the general criticism against fiction is that it doesn’t teach the reader anything. It just entertains us. Firstly, what’s wrong with being entertained? Secondly, this reader learns from fiction all the time.

Also, if you ever recommend that I read a self-help book, just know that I will only do so if you give me the book free of charge and pay me more than minimum wage to read it. Except for one time, I have only read self-help books when required for work. The exception occurred when I started a book without realizing it was self-help. As soon as I realized my mistake, I downloaded another book.

One that didn’t waste my time.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Loafing around — March 22, 2023

Loafing around

Once again, I have gained fun and exciting knowledge from a book of fiction.

This time, the book is Jennifer Close’s Marrying the Ketchups, and the knowledge is the existence of something called sandwich loaf.

According to our friends at Wikipedia, “A sandwich loaf is a stacked savory party entrée made from a loaf of horizontally sliced bread. Typical fillings include egg salad, chicken salad, ham salad, tuna salad, and Cheez Whiz. While rare today, the food was quite popular during the mid 20th century in the United States.”

When I read Close’s description of a sandwich loaf, I couldn’t believe my eyes, especially when she explained that it was frosted with whipped cream cheese and resembled a cake. But then I found images on the Internet of various kinds of sandwich loaf, and they absolutely looked like cake, particularly when cut. It’s a sandwich cake, if you will.

My research also found that sandwich loaf was served at showers and luncheons. A character in Marrying the Ketchups considers sandwich loaf the “height of sophistication.” As most of the sandwich loaf I found were decorated to match a special occasion or holiday, she had a point. This character was part of my mom’s generation, so I asked her (my mom, not a fictional character) if she was familiar with sandwich loaf.

Mom looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.

My oldest sister said she knew what I was talking about and then mentioned pickle loaf and ham and cheese loaf. Pass the barf bag.

Anyway, I explained to my mom, my sisters, and my nieces about this fun and exciting discovery I had gained whilst reading fiction. (By the way, another character in the book regards reading fiction as a waste of time. What a dumb expletive. Readers of this-here column will know that this is the third piece of knowledge I’ve gained – and passed along – from a work of fiction in recent weeks.)

Regardless, my family did not share my enthusiasm for sandwich loaf. I sent them a link that featured 20 sandwich loaf recipes. Unlike me, I don’t think they pored over the recipes as if they would be tested on them later.

In fact, they seemed confused by my enthusiasm. That’s understandable. Except for the occasional tuna sandwich, I don’t eat cold sandwiches. Well, unless it’s an emergency. You know, like in the aftermath of an apocalyptic flood. What’s more, it would take too much space and time to explain my sandwich preferences, but let’s just say I would partake of only the bread and the cream cheese frosting if served a sandwich loaf.

But I enjoy exploring recipes, including those I will never make or eat, and looking at images of retro food. I think my sisters also worried that I would suggest we purchase a loaf or two of unsliced bread and create a sandwich loaf.

No worries there. I’m just sharing my fun and exciting discovery. However, if we were going to create a sandwich loaf, we’d chose these three meats – bologna, potted meat, and Treat.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Return of the trilogy — March 8, 2023

Return of the trilogy

As I settled down to watch TV one evening last week, I realized I needed something familiar, so I decided to start a rewatch of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Here’s some breaking news – I still consider the films, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga of the quest to destroy The One Ring and, in the process, the ring’s evil creator, to be fantastic.

When the first film in the trilogy – The Fellowship of the Ring – was released in 2001, I paid it no mind. This was, in part, because I confused it with Lord of the Flies, which I have never and will never read or watch. I still didn’t care when the second movie – The Two Towers – was released the following year. I still didn’t care when the third movie – The Return of the King – was released in 2003. After all, the only fantasy adventure that interests me involves my move to Cicely, Alaska.

But also in 2003, someone recommended I rent the first two LOTR movies. I don’t remember who made this recommendation, but it had to be someone whose judgment I trusted, because I made my way to the video store and rented a VHS tape of The Fellowship of the Ring that I played on my VCR.

Although I must have been skeptical, the movie captivated me within minutes. I enjoyed it so much that I returned to the video store as soon as possible to rent The Two Towers. Then, I waited impatiently for The Return of the King to be released on video because I had missed its theatrical run.

Through the years, I’ve caught the movies on the TV, but enough time had passed since my last watch that I felt I could view them with fresh eyes. As I mentioned earlier, they’re fantastic. I love the music and, with one exception, the cast, and the grandness. At times, it’s over the top, but it’s a story about mind-reading elves, an all-seeing eye that corrupts a wizard, and a self-aware ring that’s trying to get back to its master. If that story doesn’t deserve and demand theatrics then I don’t know what does.

Ultimately, though, as a friend notes when explaining why the trilogy constitutes her favorite movie, it’s a story about working together and helping one another for a greater good or simply for friendship. As a teary-eyed Sam tells Frodo, he can’t carry the ring, but he can carry him. And he does.

Here are more of my thoughts on the trilogy, in no particular order of importance:

  • The Shire is beautiful. It’s no wonder most Hobbitses don’t leave.
  • I love the way the elves don’t seem to move when they move.
  • Much like Éowyn, I fell in love with Aragorn on first sight.
  • I’m sure this is offensive to Tolkien fans, but I couldn’t finish the books. They were hard to follow and boring.
  • Whenever the characters worried about the lack of troops, I shook my head. They just needed Aragorn and his sword, Legolas and his unending supply of arrows, and Gimli and his axe. Well, those guys, their weapons, and a little of Gandalf’s magic.
  • This might be an unpopular opinion, but the Orcs are scary and creepy.
  • If I had the ring and that screaming wraith showed up, I’d throw it to him.
  • Smeagol makes me sick to my stomach, but he had some good lines. Indeed, stupid fat hobbit is one of the greatest insults in cinematic history. Poor Sam. Not only did he accompany Frodo on his perilous journey over Middle Earth, he did so without po-tay-toes, and he endured fat-shaming. It’s no wonder Tolkien considered him the story’s true hero.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Reading my thoughts, part two — January 11, 2023

Reading my thoughts, part two

Last week I named the best work of fiction I read in 2022. Now I shall share the title of the best work of nonfiction I read last year.

Before I do so, allow me to explain my process. I alternate between reading fiction and nonfiction books. Whilst reviewing my 2022 Goodreads book challenge, I realized that I didn’t care for most of the works of fiction on last year’s list. In fact, I didn’t complete five of them. Don’t tell Goodreads, though, because I marked them as completed. Do not judge me! The way I see it, I deserve the credit for the pain and suffering I endured whilst slogging through X percent of those boring books.

Last year’s nonfiction offerings were better. They were so good that I had trouble choosing among the best. I ultimately chose The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple.

Yes, it’s a book about politics. So, if that’s not your thing, maybe you should quit reading this-here space and return for more of my nonsensible ramblings next week. Then again, maybe you should continue reading for my nonsensible ramblings about the book.

Anyway, on Goodreads, a user asked if The Gatekeepers is biased. Although a debate ensued, most respondents agreed that Whipple produced an unbiased and balanced book. I agree. He shares the strengths and weakness of the presidents and how these attributes guided their selections of chiefs. In turn, the chiefs helped shape policy.

Published in 2017, the book starts with President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, regarded as the first modern chief. I was familiar with Haldeman so my education began with President Jimmy Carter’s free-wheeling first chief, Hamilton Jordan, who was better known as Ham. That nickname immediately endeared him to me.

I was skeptical upon reading Whipple’s description of Carter’s second chief, Jack Watson, as having movie star good looks. Let’s just say experience has taught me that men and women have differing opinions when it comes to men’s looks. But Whipple was not wrong about Watson’s looks. I consulted our friend Google for images of him and they reinforced my belief that Whipple was unbiased and balanced.

I also learned oodles about President Ronald Reagan’s chiefs. James Baker was the first and best, but Donald Regan – yes, Donald Regan worked for Ronald Reagan – was the most memorable. A drama king who loved attention, he feuded with first lady Nancy Reagan. In fact, he once hung up on her! Later, to exact revenge, he told people that she relied on astrology to plan the president’s schedule.

I didn’t think his antics could be topped … until I got to George H.W. Bush’s presidency. One of his chiefs kept coming to work after he was fired. The dude wouldn’t leave! I don’t have time or space to get into the reasons the president fired him.

And people say these kinds of books are boring!

Of course, I also learned oodles about policy and history. Although I dreaded reading about one significant part of recent history, when I arrived at that section, it was a page turner. It was amazing to read all the differing takes and see how Whipple wove everything together.

Politics might not be your thing, but if it is, Whipple’s book should be on your reading list.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.

Reading my thoughts, part one — January 4, 2023

Reading my thoughts, part one

Last year I shared the best fiction and nonfiction books I read in 2021. I shall now continue that newfangled tradition by naming my favorite (read) books of 2022.

The first book I read last year – The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett – turned out to be my favorite. Here’s the skinny: I don’t understand a gosh dern thing about magic or card tricks and I have less than zero desire to learn. Mimes and puppets are about the only things that interest me less than magic. If I hadn’t read six of Patchett’s other novels, I wouldn’t have downloaded a book that featured a bunny rabbit on the cover.

But my bestie introduced me to Patchett’s Commonwealth a few years ago. The book legit drew me in on page one and never let me go. As is my way, I dedicated myself to reading as much of Patchett’s work as possible. In addition to Commonwealth, I highly recommend Bel Canto and Dutch House. I loved Dutch House so much that I almost regret reading it. No. That is not a misprint.

There are a couple Patchett books I’m meh about, including the one set in Kentucky. With that in mind, as well as my unenthusiastic feelings for magic, I didn’t know how I would feel about The Magician’s Assistant, which was published in 1997. One more thing. By the time I began the book, I had also forgotten the synopsis, so when I started reading it, I was about as ignorant as a person could be.

Just as with Commonwealth, Patchett drew me in on the first page of The Magician’s Assistant. I stubbornly refused to return to the synopsis, which I think enhanced my enjoyment of the book. I was asking myself questions like, “Self, who is this lady, Sabine? What is her deal? Why is she at a hospital? Who is the man she’s with? Oh, he’s her husband. Oh, my stars! He died!”

That is not a spoiler as the synopsis – the one I had forgotten – lays out the fact that Sabine, the magician’s assistant, is widowed when her husband, the magician, dies. That’s only the beginning of the story. What follows is the rawest depiction of grief I have ever read. There’s a passage where Sabine takes people from her husband’s past (I won’t spoil it and reveal how they’re connected to him) to places he frequented. The way one of them reacts haunts me. She’s wrecked by guilt and grief and all she wants is a connection with a loved one she lost years ago. There’s another passage where a teenage boy asks Sabine if a trick really was magic. His need to believe hurts my heart.

I don’t want to make The Magician’s Assistant, which takes readers from Los Angeles to Nebraska, sound like a weepy. It’s not a laugh fest, either, but it is a book full of good people. I miss those people. One criticism I’ve read is that Sabine is a boring protagonist who doesn’t do anything. Things just happen to her. Well, that’s not exactly true. But even if it were true, so what? She’s not a superhero. She, like the book’s other characters, is just a woman dealing with life the only way she knows how.

My favorite character in The Magician’s Assistant is Dot. Dot is wise. She knows you can’t make people do what’s in their best interest. The best you can hope for is that you get that sewing room you’ve always wanted.

Tune in next week for the title of the best nonfiction book I read in 2022.

This post originally appeared in the Appalachian News-Express.