A Few Words on Anthony Bourdain

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Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past few days, you probably know that Anthony Bourdain was found dead in a hotel room in France on Friday morning. He’d killed himself at 61.

I have been bummed about a lot of celebrity deaths.

But Bourdain’s death by suicide is different, and I find it as haunting as I did Robin Williams’s death in 2014. It probably doesn’t help that Bourdain, like Williams, was one of my favorite people that I never met. Carrie Fisher is another one. But Fisher didn’t actively kill herself, and that makes her death devastating, but different.

As with Williams’s death almost four years ago now, I never met the guy, but I feel like I lost a friend. My world is a little less complete, beating back the darkness is a little harder.

I also don’t have anything I can add to the discussion about suicide, the same way I didn’t have anything to add four years ago. I don’t have any ideas on ways to better the care for people with mental health struggles, and can offer no insightful point of view about the pain people with that level of depression are going through.

I listened to two of Bourdain’s books last year. I liked them both. I’ve been watching ‘Parts Unknown’ and his other shows on and off for years. Bourdain was an incredible storyteller. He went places with an open-mindedness that I envy, and wish I could summon (I can’t make myself want to go to China, for example). He made me want to go places (not China, obviously, but elsewhere, like South America). He was authentic and genuine, and he was smug about a lot of things, but never about the people he met or the cultures he was getting to know.

He showed me the world and its cultures through food and drink, and he was smart and funny and brave as he did it. He was self-aware, and self-deprecating, and ran circles around the establishment he exposed in terms of making the public want to experience new adventures, culinary and otherwise. He was empathetic and honest, and the most ironic thing about his death is that this was a guy who was showing us how to live. Be curious, seek travel and movement and other ways besides your own, and don’t be afraid of things that are different from what you know.

The most astonishing part about his death, to me, was how other people loved him as much as I did. Maybe it’s because when he was making headlines it was for the outrageous things he said and then everyone was condemning him instead of talking about how great he was, but I also think people embraced him more as time went on. I have seen certain commentaries from people that they have never seen people of color so affected by the death of a white man, and that is another testament to his storytelling: he didn’t just tell. He listened. It was as if the people in each story were the most important people in the world and he shared those stories with understanding and respect, without acting as if he was uncovering something. He was simply sharing it, not discovering it.

As I said, I have nothing real to add on the discussion of suicide and mental health, and I’m not someone who feels the need to add to the white noise by contributing nonsense. I don’t know what Bourdain was thinking, or how he was feeling, or what inside him was so dark that it could convince him to leave his daughter, who he seemed to love more than anyone (not surprising or unusual).

All I can say is this: Anthony Bourdain was colorful, and bright, and we need more people like him. He left an incredible legacy of learning about cultures and meeting people through travel and food and storytelling. I will miss him.

Finally, if you are thinking of taking your own life, or suspect someone you know is considering it, please call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. They can help.

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A Tale of Two Cities

I’ve read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities before. In high school, sophomore year.

This would be an excellent example of a teacher you have destroying a book you read.

A Tale of Two Cities is not a book that you look to for statements about the objectification of women. It’s not a book where you talk about how the hero of the story is secretly selfish because he hopes, one day, to be remembered.

A Tale of Two Cities is a book where you talk about the redemption of human beings, and love, and symbolism, and fabulous prose. It’s a book where heroes are heroes and villains are deliciously evil.

It’s a book where, if you’re reading it in high school with an English teacher who sells herself as an intellectual but pedals pseudo-intellectual bullshit, you ignore everything your English teacher has to say and just enjoy the story.

There is something to the criticism that the characters here are a bit flat; Lucie is loving and supporting and never changes and it’s borderline cringeworthy in. The Marquis is evil and unabashedly enjoys it. The most developed character is easily Sydney Carton.

I love Sydney Carton. I didn’t know it in the 10th grade, but I knew this time through, that he was suffering from depression and self-medicating with alcohol, and he let his law partner get the credit for his true legal brilliance because, basically, he just didn’t care. He was selfless, and smart, and I adored him.

There was only one, gaping plot hole in this book that I either didn’t hear because I missed it while I was simultaneously doing something else, like driving (entirely possible), or because there was just one, gaping plot hole that was never explained:

how did Carton know to show up in Paris? After reading the plot summary, I guess it’s because the family was gone from London for so long? Anyway, if anyone knows for sure, I’d be glad to hear it.

If you hated A Tale of Two Cities in high school, I highly suggest revisiting it, particularly as an audiobook. It’s still wordy AF. It can still be a bit slow in spots. But I appreciated it so much more this time. In contrast to my newfound warmer feelings for Sydney Carton, were my much stronger repulsive feeling to Madame Defarge. I somehow missed the first time through exactly how evil she was. She’s great to hate. And I hated her so much more this time.

Dickens has his reputation as one of the greatest writers the English language has ever produced, and I get it. I get it now. I hope you give yourself the chance to get it, too.

Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged The Armenian Genocide

Ah yes, a return to the World War I era, but something only tangentially related to the war itself.

There is a lot of “controversy” surrounding the Armenian Genocide, mostly in that it isn’t recognized as a genocide by most of the world, and the rest of the world has only been recognizing it in increments. Shamefully, the United States does not recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide, although 48 states do. Also, the UK and Israel (yeah, Israel, no joke) do not recognize it as a genocide.

From about 1915-1923, the Ottoman Empire, particularly Ottoman Turkey, systematically targeted the Armenian population for physical and cultural extermination. First, they deported the intellectual community leaders (most of whom were eventually murdered) from Constantinople, then removed the able bodied male population by straight massacre and forced labor, and then the deportation of women, children,  infirm and elderly people by forced death marches to and through the Syrian desert. The general consensus is that about 1.5 million Armenians were killed during this time.

Turkey, to this day, either says the numbers were grossly exaggerated or that the these events didn’t take place at all. Yeah, right.

One, and (to me) possibly the biggest, indication of the fact that it was, in fact, a genocide was it was used as a model for later genocides (looking at you, Hitler).

And so, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), from 1920-1922, engaged in an assassination campaign which eliminated Ottoman political and military leaders responsible for the massacres, including the “Number One” (primary target), Talaat Pasha.

Eric Bogosian’s book, Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged The Armenian Genocide, expands extensively on this history lesson. Bogosian starts by explaining that he didn’t feel much connection to his Armenian heritage, partially because it wasn’t talked about much. He went into the fact that his grandfather, usually so mild-mannered and gentle, said things like, “If you see a Turk, shoot him.”

Bogosian then explains the history of the Armenian population of Eastern Europe and within the Ottoman Empire with other communities of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, etc…and explains, basically, how the circumstances for this genocide came about.

Bogosian uses Soghomon Tehlirian as a lens through which to focus the story of the Armenians. Tehlirian lost his family to the genocide, suffered from what sounded like PTSD, and went on to assassinate Talaat Pasha. He was eventually acquitted, because his lawyers successfully put the Ottoman leadership on trial, rather Tehlirian, who described the trauma of seeing his family murdered (although he never actually saw this). He claimed to have dreams of his mother who demanded he avenge the her death, and the deaths of his brothers and sisters. Including extended family, Tehlirian lost about 85 members of his family in the genocide.

Operation Nemesis was a really interesting book that I recommend. I learned a lot about a topic that I knew almost nothing about and I got to be disgusted by the fact that my country fails to correctly label a genocide as a genocide. It did a really good job laying out everything for the reader (or, in my case, listener) so that everything was clear.

PS: since only 48 states recognize the Armenian Genocide as a genocide, I looked up which ones didn’t. Anyone who knows or understands the United States at all will not be surprised to know those states are those bastions of education and enlightenment, Alabama and Mississippi.

The Minotaur

I took Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur out of the library. It happened to catch my eye and the blurb on the jacket sounded really interesting.

As soon as Kerstin Kvist arrives at remote, ivy-covered Lydstep Old Hall in Essex, she feels like a character in a gothic novel. A young nurse fresh out of school, Kerstin has been hired for a position with the Cosway family, residents of the Hall for generations. She is soon introduced to her “charge” John Cosway, a thirty-nine-year-old man whose strange behavior is vaguely explained by his mother and sisters as part of the madness that runs in the family.

Weeks go by at Lydstep with little to mark the passage of time beyond John’s daily walks and the amusingly provincial happenings that engross the Cosway women, and Kerstin occupies her many free hours at the Hall reading or making entries into her diary. Meanwhile, bitter wrangling among Julia Cosway and her four grown daughters becomes increasingly evident. But this is just the most obvious of the tensions that charge the old remote estate, with its sealed rooms full of mystery. Soon Kerstin will find herself in possession of knowledge she will wish she’d never attained, secrets that will propel the occupants of Lydstep Old Hall headlong into sexual obsession, betrayal, and, finally, murder.

Sounds great, right?

It was not so great. Whoever writes these blurbs does a better job than the author hyping the book. The concept was good, the execution was…meh.

None of the characters, minus the narrator, was very likable. Julia was the aging matriarch who disparaged her daughters and drugged her son, John, to control him. John probably had some kind of high functioning Asperger syndrome, or maybe schizophrenia. Ida was the oldest and, more or less, relegated to the role of housewife and caretaker of the family, doing all the cooking and cleaning. Ella and Winifred were, more or less, the same character but one – Winifred – was engaged to be married to the town vicar. Winifred was a caterer, Ella was a teacher. Both were shallow, superficial, and ended up in a sexual relationship with an “artist” who moved into town and who the narrator, Kerstin, nails as a playboy pretty much the moment she meets him. Zorah, the youngest, is a wealthy widow who flaunts money and uses it to hold power over the rest of the family. It’s revealed later why she’s so bitter, but in some ways, she’s much better than her mom and sisters, because she actually cares about her brother and tries to get him help that he needs, rather than just drug him to keep him docile.

The action proceeds much too slowly to be considered particularly interesting. I didn’t find it particularly suspenseful. The characters were so annoying and horrible to Kerstin that it was hard to tolerate – only John pronounced her name the way she asked, as “Shastin,” which was the Norwegian pronunciation, apparently – and only Zorah’s story was worth it’s background, and I’m convinced it’s because she wasn’t in the book a lot.

There were a lot of Gothic elements – a old, crumbling home, a curse, “romance,” etc… – but they were grossly exaggerated and a lot of them didn’t matter. Yes, there was tragedy and secrets and you did get a sense of claustrophobia, but it just wasn’t enough to make the novel worth it.

The climax of the book was also a total letdown, as well as completely infuriating and upsetting…at least to me, but I never liked bullies.

“Barbara Vine” is a pen name of Ruth Rendell, and under this pen name, she writes these “psychological thrillers.” I’ve heard a lot of good things about Barbara Vine, including from Stephen King. When I googled, I found he’d said of her, “best suspense novelist with undercurrents of horror.” I suppose her other novels must have been more effective. I started with this one. If I didn’t know that her other novels are widely admired, I’d feel no need to ever read another.

The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

You have to forgive me for this one. I listened to Joshua Hammer’s The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu as an audiobook. I didn’t read it. It took place in Africa – Mali, to be specific. Timbuktu, to be more specific. Because of this, many of the names of the people involved I am not familiar with and consequently don’t remember.

That said, I enjoyed this a lot. Throughout the centuries, Timbuktu was a center of learning and knowledge, and in the 1980s, a man whose name was, IIRC, Abdel, traveled across Africa collecting ancient manuscripts of all types for a government and grant funded central library, preserving hundreds and thousands of years of cultural knowledge and learning.

But then, Al-Qaeda showed up.

The rest of the book follows Abdel and his compatriots on their quest to preserve these precious manuscripts and keep them out of the dangerous, destructive hands of religious fundamentalists who would think nothing of destroying these thousands of years of human scholarship and history.

It was amazing listening to these guys smuggle these fragile writings through the desert to keep them from being destroyed by any means Al-Qaeda could come up with – fire, in particular.

Also, in an age where public education and public libraries are being defunded and looked past, where teachers and librarians and keepers of knowledge are being vilified for any number of reasons, it was nice to read a book about how important LIBRARIANS are. Guys, LIBRARIANS.

These librarians cold have been tortured. Killed. Brutally. By TERRORISTS. That’s how important their work is. Knowledge is what is going to save people from fundamentalist lunatics like Al Qaeda. And the lunatics know it.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and again, I apologize for not knowing the names of the people involved better.

Abdel did eventually save his library, along with hundreds of thousands of years of human thought and study. We all owe him and his fellows a debt that can never be repaid.

The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible

One of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling particularly masochistic is wade into the swamp of current affairs. I try to keep up as best I can, but I find it depressing and frequently tune out due to lack of mental strength. Listening to politicians talk, to me, is particularly exhausting, especially if I don’t subscribe to their ideological worldview and I find most of them to be raging hypocrites. Listening to bullshit cliches and never actually learning real information is both frustrating and infuriating.

And nowhere, nowhere, do you get more cliches with no information than the big highlight events: state of the union, inauguration, presidential debates, etc…

Anyone who has ever paid any attention at all knows that politicians on both sides of the aisle LOVE to invoke our Founding Fathers. It’s their all time favorite thing, and if they can link Jefferson, Adams, Washington, etc…to their causes, they do it.

I hate this invocation, personally. The men who founded our country had the foresight to give us an experimental, amendable (and so far, enduring) system of government but they lived in a world we would barely recognize as modern and would probably think most of our modern conveniences were witchcraft. Older Americans, and quite many younger ones, barely understand how something like television actually works. Do you think our founders would have any informed opinions on the damage Fox News does to our democracy? They’d barely be able to cope with catching up on our technology, let alone render a valuable opinion on its implications for American life.

David Sehat’s The Jefferson Rule: How the Founding Fathers Became Infallible and Our Politics Inflexible takes a look at just why our politicians do that.

It’s a popular myth, one that Sehat debunks thoroughly in The Jefferson Rule, that the political climate at the founding of our country was, somehow, less polarized.  Our most enlightened founders put aside their petty differences to come together and magically come up with a Constitution and system of government and somehow execute this new radical, never before done plan without any conflicts.

Even the newest student of history, one opening his/her first non-high school textbook, knows this is BS. Maybe it was less “polarized” but it was no less contentious. While Washington was unanimously elected twice and called for non-partisanship and warned against faction and political parties, his cabinet was constantly fighting with each other. In particular, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were not so secretly constantly at each other’s throats and tearing each other apart behind each other’s backs. Hamilton favored a stronger central government, Jefferson favored less consolidated power. Washington tended to favor Hamilton and his view, and Jefferson towards the end of his tenure and then after he left the cabinet, worked to undermine Hamilton AND Washington.

It’s important to understand Jefferson’s views (smaller, more limited government, weaker executive branch, etc…) because it’s Jefferson whose views and actions then become the most problematic. While Jefferson preached the glories of small government principles, his acts as President strongly contradict these things. To argue the Louisiana Purchase was anything but an exercise of federal power is to do the most high flying of mental gymnastics. And Jefferson’s protege, James Madison, eventually came around to Hamilton’s thinking on the national bank and strong-armed northern states when America began its first foreign war since the Revolution.

But Jefferson was the first to refer to the principles of the founding as the end all, be all of reasoning. He used phrases like “the true principles of the Revolution” and called his fellow countrymen heretics to “the holy cause of freedom.” He was the first to take “founding principles” and use them to back his own and ideas. It’s still done to this day, the rule of the title being, “Thou Shalt Not Betray Founding Principles.”

Sehat goes on to argue that politicians and ideologues who refer to founding principles are those who can’t make a more rational/contemporary argument for what they believe should be done, and appeal to the warm sentiment the American people feel for their founders and their founding.

Very few politicians of the modern age actively reject the idea of following founding principles. One of the most prominent was Theodore Roosevelt, who in his 1905 inaugural address, said, “Our forefathers faced certain perils which we have outgrown. We now face other perils, the very existence of which it was impossible that they should foresee.”

What is interesting is that this appeal to founding principles fades during and after the Civil War until about the 1920s (this time includes Teddy Roosevelt, as previously mentioned). This, according to Sehat, is because the Civil War rendered the American political landscape a complete disaster and that nobody wanted to touch founding principles. The Constitution was supposed to prevent armed conflict, instead the country went to war over what the Constitution meant.

What I find most interesting is that while the Founding Fathers were incredibly educated, enlightened men for their time and we act as if they had all the answers, they definitely didn’t have all the answers. Part of the brilliance of the Constitution is that  questions of power (federal vs. state, responsibilities not specifically enumerated in the document, etc..) are basically ambiguous and left unanswered. Argument over them is the answer. Things are taken on a case by case basis and we basically duke it out in elections and in courts to come up with answers to questions the Founders left no specific answer to. It’s actually brilliant, allowing the government of the people to change as the governed change. The brilliance of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton is that they planned it that way, even if they were arguing over interpretations of the Constitution before the ink was dry.

The Jefferson Rule was an interesting, intelligent read. Considering the current political environment in the United States, I highly recommend it for anyone interested in better understanding current affairs.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

This was another book I read in the spirit of Halloween, and it didn’t disappoint!

Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places is full of ghost stories. He takes us to prisons, abandoned mental asylums, old mansions, cemeteries, churches, “Indian burial grounds,” and the like.

There are some stories everyone probably already knows – like the stories of the Winchester house, Amityville, the LaLauries of New Orleans, etc… – are well known. Dickey does jump in to debunk some of these myths and legends. For example, the Winchester House legend – that Sarah Winchester built a house to confuse spirits murdered by her husband’s Winchester rifles after speaking to a medium – is stoked by even the caretakers of the home, but in reality, it just isn’t true. Sarah Winchester had a lot of money and a taste for unusual architecture. She wasn’t any more afraid of ghosts than anyone else in the 1800s.

Aside from jumping into (and in some cases, debunking) well known myths and legends of American culture, Dickey uses ghost stories as a critical lens to explore the American psyche. Ghostland takes a look at why we, as Americans, both use and need ghost stories to explain ourselves to ourselves. A ghost story may white wash history, or try to assuage our consciences about something that happened that we can’t justify. They can be used to calm fears and teach lessons to children.

Dickey says:

“Paying attention to the way ghost stories change through the years — and why those changes are made — can tell us a great deal about how we face our fears and our anxieties. Even when these stories have a basis in fact and history, there’s often significant embellishment and fabrication before they catch on in our imagination, and teasing out these alterations is key to understanding how ghosts shape our relationship to the past.”

I loved this book. Loved it. As someone who has always loved a good ghost story, it was fun reading, in depth, about lots of well known American hauntings. It was fun to listen to their backgrounds and what these stories tell us about ourselves.

Anyone interested in pop culture, hauntings, and history ought to read Ghostland. It’s a lens we don’t look examine ourselves through too often, and well worth a read (or a listen on audiobook, which is how I experienced it).

Evil Under the Sun

My annual attempt at reading “scary” stories in October actually worked out in 2017.

I actually read this book, and it was exciting because it was the first book I took out from the library in the town where I now live, so it was a big moment for me.

Anyway, Evil Under the Sun was one of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, one of the lesser known ones that doesn’t get much attention. This one, unlike a couple of the other lesser known ones I’ve read, was quite enjoyable.

Hercule Poirot is on holiday at a secluded beach hotel in Devon when a beautiful, flirtatious red-headed actress named Arlena is murdered. Poirot and the police go through the full investigation and questioning of witnesses and about their alibis.

In this particular case, Arlena was a well known flirt who had many affairs after her first husband died under suspicious circumstances and she remarried an honorable military man, who was in love with someone else who happened to be at the hotel. He also had a daughter who hated her step mother.

Other suspects include a young man that Arlena appeared to be having an affair with, the young man’s wife, and several other vacation goers with means and motive.

As usual, Poirot’s reasoning was flawless, and as usual, there is a piece of information the reader isn’t privy to until Poirot reveals it – in this case, a similar murder – which means the reader can’t solve the mystery but doesn’t render it unenjoyable.

I might have liked this book a lot because, as I’ve mentioned before, I have an affinity for mysteries and stories where the isolated settings dictate a lot of what is possible for the characters. This book took place at a remote beach resort, and so there were a very specific set of suspects that must have committed the crime in a very specific set of circumstance.

This was an entirely satisfying mystery and a good one for Halloween.

 

Grown Up Egg Creams

Anyone who grew up in America the mid-20th century – or at least visited a diner – has had an egg cream. It’s fizzy and sweet, and technically contains neither eggs nor cream.

Made with milk, seltzer, and typically, chocolate or vanilla syrup, this sweet classic is thought to be developed in New York City by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. I love them and order them in lieu of milkshakes in an effort to be “healthier.” Hahahaha.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I consume sweet things less and less in a health effort and because my tastes have changed up a bit since I was a kid (not unusual).

But I still crave them from time to time, and the other night, I decided I wanted one…but I lacked chocolate syrup, milk, and the desire to go out and buy any. But I did have a chocolate cherry liqueur and heavy cream left over from a recipe. So I improvised.

I used these three ingredients:

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First, I poured in about 2 oz of chocolate cherry liqueur:

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Next, I added about 2 oz heavy cream. The cream looks like a lot more than it is due to the fact that the cream seems to smush the liqueur. I know. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation for this, something about density or buoyancy or whatever, but I don’t know what it is.

After that, I mixed them with a spoon:

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And finally, I added the seltzer:

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Look at all that foam!

Ok, I lied, I also garnished it with a sprinkle of cocoa powder…although, only because I didn’t have any maraschino cherries.

I’ve made these for my family and so far they really like them – like me, they like egg creams but wish for something slightly less sweet.

The really fun part of this is that you can pretty much use any liqueur you like. I used chocolate cherry liqueur, because 1. I love that combo, and 2. my seltzer happened to be black cherry. But you can use Kahlua, or a straight coffee or chocolate liqueur, or peppermint/mint, or whatever you enjoy.

Cheers!

Carrie

I read (listened to) Carrie as part of my ongoing effort to get through more of Stephen King’s prolific collection of published works.

Sissy Spacek performed the reading and I liked the touch because she played Carrie in the 1976 film.

Of all the Stephen King books I’ve been through so far, and admittedly, I haven’t been through that many, this was probably my least favorite. All of King’s books can be haunting and jarring and all deal with hints of the supernatural and that kind of thing, and Carrie is no different.

But I disliked it because it made me cringe. Carrie’s naivete is hard to deal with, although I guess without sex-ed and the internet you wouldn’t know what your period was. That said, I think I disliked it more because I hate bullies.

Carrie is bullied. Relentlessly. It’s clearly gone on for years before the the start of events actually chronicled in the story and goes on throughout the novel. For all my short comings (and believe me, there are many) I am not a bully, and reading about how every single kid picks on this girl just drove me crazy.

I get that not every kid is going to stick up for the kid getting bullied. But in my experience, there’s usually at least one. I don’t know where authors go to school (because it’s not just King, there are other authors I’ve read who write about kids being bullied and nobody ever stands up for the kid) but usually someone will stick up for the victim. At least where I lived and grew up. I can’t think of any kid who didn’t have any friends or, at the least, a sympathetic classmate. Carrie kind of gets one in Sue Snell, but Sue’s still a little too wishy washy publicly to make a real difference.

I also spent most of the book wishing I could beat Carrie’s mother to death. Carrie’s mom bullies her too, and I don’t particularly understand her religious views, which are basically entirely related to sex and how evil it is, even when you’re married to someone. She’s one of those people that, upon reflection, make you think that maybe there really isn’t enough to do for young people in certain parts of this country in their formative years. Like many of King’s stories, this one takes place in Maine.

I did like the (fake) scientific articles on telekinesis throughout the story. Something about fake science is a lot of fun for me. It sounds like it could be real.

Anyway, Carrie was a good story, but not my favorite. It’s also obviously one of King’s earlier works, and I enjoyed the references to things like payphones and paying a quarter for a burger and soda. Nostalgia is fun, guys!

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