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.

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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.