Bernadette Peters Hates Me, by Keith Stewart

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Anybody can be funny once, right? Tell a joke at just the right time, hit a line with perfect comic timing, unintentionally craft the perfect sentence. Well, Keith Stewart is not just anybody.

How I Met Keith

I had the pleasure of meeting Keith at the Appalachian Writers Conference last summer and he is the kind of guy who just immediately makes you smile. I knew no one; Keith immediately introduced me to a few people and checked in on me a couple more times to make sure I was doing well. So when I found out his book, Bernadette Peters Hates Me, True Tales of a Delusional Man, was set for a book-signing and release party at the Morris Book Shop, I put the date down in red on my calendar and I’m so glad I did.

Bernadette Peters Hates Me is a book of short, comic essays that frankly, has just about the best cover art I’ve ever seen (Dwayne Booth) and causes me to laugh out loud every time I pick it up, no matter how many times I’ve read the essay. I’m in the midst of some gritty work for my everyday job as of this minute, so Keith’s book is providing me some essential medicine.

Hot Yoga

During the signing of Bernadette Peters Hates Me, Keith read from an essay called Hot Yoga or How to Self Administer Your Own Stroke. Little did the poor man know I would nearly fall out of my chair laughing in recognition, having been subjected to the same two-week torture by my best friend as a birthday present.

Once there [at the Bikram yoga studio], though, what I discovered was far from a glorified new way to lose weight. What I discovered was the Devil himself has decided to tap into the multi-million dollar fitness industry with his own special workout.. . .After changing, I confidently opened the door to the studio. What hit me next was a wall of heat that can only be explained by preheating your oven to five hundred degrees and sticking your head inside it. . . . I tried to keep up with the different stances and not be self-conscious of how I looked doing them. This became much easier to do as the 105-degree heat and the bright, fluorescent lights and the annoying teacher’s voice all kept smashing into me. My last conscious sight was  (my friend) Jeff on his back with his leg in a position that looked like he had been mangled in a car wreck of a skiing accident. He mouthed to me, “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have come.”

hot yogaThen, what I call Bikram Tourette’s Syndrome took over my body. I think it was my body’s only way of getting through this trauma. I started occasionally yelling out random curse words as I tried to twist and contort my body in ways just not possible.

I’m laughing too much to type the rest. Bernadette Peters Hates Me spares no one, least of all the author, in its quest for a great chuckle. Just what I needed today!

Return to Sender

I particularly enjoyed the essay titled, Return to Sender – The Letter File. Here, Keith shares with us a smattering of the letters he wished he’d sent: offering his services to Rutgers University’s graduation; to the gentleman sitting in front of Keith at a Judds Concert; to the winner of the “Worst Blind Date Ever” award. And Talk Derby to Me is irresistible on this Preakness Saturday.

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Bizarro

Lasix is a common drug used in the racing industry. It prevents a horse’s lungs from hemorrhaging blood due to the stress of exercise. . . . [I]t is marked in the racing program with a (L) beside the horse’s name for full disclosure.

I had no knowledge of any of this. The only Lasik I had heard of was the out-patient surgery that miraculously corrected one’s vision.

I started noticing almost every horse in the race had an (L) beside its name. “Wow,” all these horses have had Lasik? I had no idea horses were that near-sighted,” I announced to my friends. Everyone stared at me. Not noticing, I started wondering out loud, “Has anyone seen a near-sighted horse who was not lucky enough to have the Lasik procedure? Has anyone seen a horse with horse-sized sports goggles strapped on so it could see? Do they manufacture horse contact lenses, and how in the world would you put them in the horse’s eyes?”

MENU

Keith Stewart provided his suggestions for a book club menu, and a recipe!

Some favorite food for book club that would go with the book: a combo of classy and redneck, just like me! Perhaps thinly sliced pickled bologna served on saltines, along with sausage stuffed mushrooms. The mushrooms are really simple, but delish:

Ingredients: 35 large fresh mushrooms 1/2 pound bulk pork sausage 1/2 – 1 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese 1/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs

Directions: 1. Remove stems from mushrooms and finely chop; set caps aside. 2. In a large skillet, cook sausage and mushrooms over medium heat until meat is no longer pink; drain. Remove from the heat. 3. Stir in cheese and bread crumbs. 4. Fill each mushroom cap with about 1 tablespoon of filling. 5. Place on foil-lined baking sheets. Bake at 400° for 16-20 minutes or until mushrooms are tender. Yield: 35 appetizers.

Sounds great to me.

MUSIC

So this will be a huge shock: Bernadette Peters! Keith Stewart was kind enough to offer his favorite Bernadette song list:

Rose’s Turn, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, Tell Me On a Sunday, Unexpected Song, and

Bernadette

Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun by Al Hirschfeld

Children Will Listen. My favorite song that I thought Bernadette sang, but it was Madeline Khan instead: I’m Tired, from Blazing Saddles.

But I offer a few more. Many of Keith’s essays allude to songs.

Luck Be A Lady Tonight, Frank Sinatra

Great Balls of Fire, Jerry Lee Lewis

Return to Sender, Elvis Presley

The Future’s So Bright, Timbuk3

Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours, Stevie Wonder

Seasons in the Sun, Terry Jacks

Born to be Blue, The Judds

Happy Reading! (Now, back to my work . . .thank you Keith for the giggle break!)

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Crossing the Tracks: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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     I was browsing my local book sellers a week or so after New Year and picked up a hardbound book on the fiction shelf. The cover was bright, green and black with blurred lines of type:  The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins.  “Ah yes, I think I heard of this, NPR, maybe?” I said to my buddy, Proprietor Wyn Morris.  “It’s supposed to be the new Gone Girl,” Wyn nodded sagely.  “Really?”  “Indeed.”  I plonked down my cash and took it home, vowing to place it at the top of the “to read” pile.

     Here’s a link to the NPR review:  http://www.npr.org/2015/01/13/376167043/girl-on-the-train-pays-homage-to-hitchcock.

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     Much like Gone Girl, there are exceedingly unreliable narrators though in this case, two women.  One the girl of the title.  She, Rachel, is on the train because she’s riding it into London, pretending to go to her office from which she’s been fired for getting wasted during a client lunch.  The train trip also allows her to spy on her ex-husband’s house and the nearby home of a young married couple (Megan and Scott) around whom she has created a elaborate fantasy.  As Rachel sips from yet another canned Gin & Tonic (yuck by the way), or pours herself a glass of wine from the brown paper bag on her tray table.  I couldn’t help but think train travel must be quite a bit different in the UK, but then again, I’ve only travelled by train in the US once that I can think of so for all I know loads of people are carting canned G&T’s with them all over the place.

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     Megan is the second narrator of the novel.  When Megan disappears, Rachel over-involves herself in helping Scott to find his wife.  Unfortunately, since Rachel was near the scene of Megan’s disappearance and in a dead-drunk blackout, her help is mostly in name only.

     It would be impossible to describe much more of the plot without ruining your read.  I will say, for those who were disappointed in the conclusion of Gone Girl, you will not find the same frustration here.  There is quite the corker of an ending.

MENU

     Other than a breakfast of eggs and bacon, I don’t recall anyone eating any food in this book.  There was an incredible amount of alcohol however.  So I’ve taken that as my cue for menu planning:

DRUNKEN CHICKEN

Ingredients
1 (3-pound) chicken
Seasoned salt
House seasoning, recipe follows
1 (12-ounce) can beer
1 sprig rosemary

Directions
Preheat a charcoal grill over high heat. When the coals are hot and glowing, carefully push them over to the sides of the grill, leaving an open space in the middle of the grill. Wash and drain chicken. Coat the chicken inside and out with seasoned salt, pepper, lemon pepper and/or garlic powder. Open the can of beer and carefully insert a sprig of rosemary. Then, place the beer can into the body cavity starting at the rear of the chicken. Carefully place the chicken on the center of the grill, facing 1 of the banks of the coals, making sure not to spill the beer. Cover the grill and cook until chicken is done, approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour, turning the chicken as necessary. The chicken is done when the juice runs clear.

PASTA WITH GIN SAUCE

You’ve heard of vodka sauce?  Well, Macheesmo says his Gin Penne Pasta is even better.  I’m going to try it.  It would go well with the Drunken Chicken and the book theme.  Here’s the recipe link:  http://www.macheesmo.com/2012/01/gin-penne-pasta/

BOURBON BALLS

You CAN make them, but I’d rather buy them from Old Kentucky Candies or Rebecca Ruth.  http://www.oldkycandy.comhttp://rebeccaruth.stores.yahoo.net

Another great dessert would be POACHED PEARS

Peel (carefully) pears.  If you want to serve whole, leave the stem intact.  If you want to serve halves, core them and halve.

In a stainless steel pan, mix four cups red wine with one cup of sugar until sugar dissolves.

Place the pears in the pan, then cover them with a plate to weigh them down and ensure even cooking.  Heat at simmer for ten minutes, then check doneness with a fork.  Continue to simmer to taste.  Remove the fruit with a slotted spoon and serve warm or store in the poaching liquid until ready to serve.

MUSIC

You’re Not Drinking Enough, Don Henley

Crazy, Patsy Cline

Crazy, Gnarls Barkley

Family Tradition, Hank Williams, Jr.

Five O’Clock Somewhere, Alan Jackson

Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett

Friends in Low Places, Garth Brooks

Paula Hawkins’ Facebook page featured a link to a playlist created especially for The Girl on the Train:  https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLG3OkdArBbNCi2C0f_s1XttGebLGWFiCI.

MOVIE CAST

This, by the way, has lots of potential for a movie.

Rachel — Kate Winslet

Megan — Sienna Miller

Anna — Carey Mulligan

Scott — Tom Hardy

Tom — Christian Bale

UPDATE: The movie version will come out later this year and I didn’t get a single actor right. The producers went with several American actors. Here’s a full list: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3631112/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

Happy Reading, Eating & Moderate Drinking!

For the Love of Literature: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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   A.J. Fikry has decided to drink himself to death.  His beautiful wife has died, his bookstore on isolated Alice Island (think Nantucket) is languishing and he has only one friend, a rare and valuable edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane.  So begins The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin’s love letter to books, book sellers and the corner bookstore.

    It took me less than 48 hours to read this book and I enjoyed every moment of it.  I enjoyed the main plot, the subplots and even the introductory pages, written in A.J.’s own hand about the short stories he particularly enjoys.  These notes are meant for his adopted daughter, Maya, who arrives very shortly after the book opens by being left in the bookstore.  Her mother leaves a note.

This is Maya.  She is twenty-five months old.  She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl.  I want her to grow up to be a reader.  I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.  I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her.  The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help.  I am desperate.

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     With Maya’s arrival, A.J.’s life and life view expand, as does his business.  Friends come to A.J., a new wife, opportunities and we these expansions and changes not only through the narrative but also through A.J.’s notes to his daughter.  He is a character we come to know by his thoughts on what he reads as much as by his own actions.  Gabrielle Zevin says that was an intentional component of her writing The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry:  

“I thought as a strategy it would be really interesting to describe people in terms of what they read and how they read,” she says. “I think you can do a lot, like describing people with their physical characteristics, things like that, but to me I’ve always found it to be a much more informative question to ask somebody what they read.”  http://www.npr.org/2014/03/28/294393870/in-storied-life-characters-come-with-a-reading-list

     In one of my favorite scenes, A.J.’s mother delivers a Christmas gift of three e-readers to the Fikry family.  Teenager Maya is secretly delighted, A.J.’s wife is neutral but A.J. himself is appalled.  He believes e-readers will spell the death of book stores such as his own and more than that, predicts dire consequences for the whole of literature.  “Everyone thinks they have good taste, but most people do not have good taste.  In fact, I’d argue that most people have terrible taste.  When left to their own devices — literally their own devices — they read crap and they don’t know the difference.”

    I, personally am in agreement with A.J.’s wife that there is room for both.  When I travel, I can take as many books as I want on an e-reader.  But at home, I much prefer a book.  Cover, paper, pages.  The smell and feel and experience of a book.  Thanks to my friends at the Morris Book Shop and many other book sellers, Sue Ann Allen, for one, I often find something I would never have found on my own.  Like Tana French.  Or Zadie Smith.

Morris Book

        In the end, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a story about stories and the people who read them.  “We read to know we’re not alone.  We read because we are alone.  We read and we are not alone.  We are not alone.”  And what could be better than that?

MENU

     I would replicate the meal Amelia serves to A.J. when he comes to visit:  lasagna and garlic bread with red wine.

Turkey Lasagna

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 chopped yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground turkey breast, browned
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes in tomato puree
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, divided
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound whole wheat lasagna noodles
15 ounces ricotta cheese
3 to 4 ounces creamy goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup grated Parmesan, plus 1/4 cup for sprinkling
1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees

Heat the olive oil in a large (10 to 12-inch) skillet. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes over medium-low heat, until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the turkey and cook over medium-low heat, breaking it up with a fork, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, the basil, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat, for 15 to 20 minutes, until thickened.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with the hottest tap water. Add the noodles and allow them to sit in the water for 20 minutes. Drain.

In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, goat cheese, 1 cup of Parmesan, the egg, the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Set aside.

Ladle 1/3 of the sauce into a 9 by 12 by 2-inch rectangular baking dish, spreading the sauce over the bottom of the dish. Then add the layers as follows: half the pasta, half the mozzarella, half the ricotta, and one 1/3 of the sauce. Add the rest of the pasta, mozzarella, ricotta, and finally, sauce. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling.

MUSIC

Since we are in the right place and time, I would play Carole King and James Taylor.

MOVIE CASTING

A.J. — Adil Hussain (Life of Pi)

Amelia — Lisa Kudrow

Maya — ?

Police Chief Lambiase — Woody Harrelson

Ismay — Holly Hunter-ish, but not quite right

Suggestions?

Happy Reading!