A retired minister looks at the world around him from a different perspective -- the back pew. From this viewpoint his restless mind is free to wander out the door to topics secular as well as religious.
Near the end of every month, residents of Westminster Village anticipate a special evening buffet dinner (our evening meal is normally served at the table) featuring the food of some special culture. Chef Breck has given us Italian, Polynesian, Caribbean and the food of a host of other cultures. Last night he came closer to home when he gave the black members of the kitchen staff the privilege of providing the kind of meal they would serve guests in their own homes. It was Soul Food night.
The menu for this Soul Food Buffet began with bacon and corn chowder and seafood pasta salad. On the main buffet line we found stuffed pork chops, southern fried chicken and slap yo’ mama meatloaf. Though I would never think of slapping my mama, I opted for the meatloaf and it was the best I’ve eaten since my own mama put her Yankee-recipe meat loaf on the table when I was a boy.
Along with my meatloaf I ate Louisiana dirty rice and green bean casserole. Both were excellent. I could also have had down home collard greens, Mississippi red beans or potato and crabmeat casserole. Between Betty and Jo and Richard, the couple with whom we ate, we sampled most of these things. All were pronounced good, even by Jo, a thin little lady who worried that such a menu might be loaded with hog fat.
Our dessert choices included sweet potato pie and hummingbird cake. I had never before eaten hummingbird cake—in fact, had never heard of it—but I’m going to ask our food manager to add that to the list of excellent cakes that appear on our tables with regularity. The cake looked something like pound cake, which I am fond of, but was more of a caramel color and had pineapple and nuts and who knows what all else in it.
Today I’m not going to go near that dining room. I’m still full of soul food, and feasting on the memory of it.
Last night I read the first 96 pages of Nicholas Sparks’s novel, The Lucky One. Sparks has become one of my favorite novelists, and as I read those pages I consciously asked myself why. First of all, I decided, because Sparks knows how to tell a good story. I’m not yet deep into his plot, but he aroused my interest in the first five pages, a requirement for any novelist who hopes to get published. So I’ll stay with this. I want to know where this story is going.
Beyond plot, however, Sparks has a way of introducing his characters that I find compelling. He tells us more about what they do than about what they look like. Yet, in my mind’s eye, I have a picture of Logan Thibault. Ex-Marine, he has walked from Colorado to North Carolina. He’s tan and fit. Tall and lean. Nothing striking about his features, except long hair like Tarzan’s. I can almost picture him, but it may not be the picture the next reader has.
Same with Beth. Good looking, but in what way? At almost thirty, she’s more sexy than the co-eds her ex-husband has surprised at the nude beach. Is my picture of her like anyone else’s? It will do for me.
And Deputy Keith Clayton. Apparently good enough looking to be a successful womanizer, and fit enough for his law enforcement duties and to think he might enjoy taking on Logan Thibault.
Chances are, by the end of this book, Nicholas Sparks will have told me more about these characters, but for now I’m doing well enough on my own imagination. I don’t have to know the color of Logan’s hair. This is writing worth emulating.
Although Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough has been available as a Kindle Book since early this year, and the paperback edition can now be ordered on amazon.com, this print edition will first be available for local sale in Spanish Fort on September 22. On that date Melissa Manjone, our leisure services director, will host a reading and book signing evening here at Westminster Village. It seems right to me to make that the local introduction of the book.
My talk on that occasion will be on the plot of the book, with selected readings from each of the three plot lines, and on how at the age of eighty I came to undertake the writing of this novel. I am open to opportunities to repeat this program in other venues.
I am beginning to think also of a second presentation, this time on the characters in the book, for use in circumstances when I have reason to believe there will be an overlap in my audience. I have such occasions already scheduled with a local church book club in October and my Westminster Village book club in December. The talk will center on Eddie and Myra Campbell, of course, and on Mr. Melon, the antagonist, with attention also to Mama Campbell, a Missouri realtor, and to Cy and Josephine Pennington, Myra's Bluegrass horse farm parents.
There is a third layer of characters on the Parson Campbell stage with minor or cameo roles that I may save for a third talk. I think of Elberta Gettys and Mrs. Hutchinson, and of Alma, Myra's once-a-week household help, who knew just what to do with cast-off longjohns. And then there's Murphy, who was Alma's canine partner in crime. These characters are the salt and pepper in the Pear Valley soup.
If you’re hungry for a good read, order Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough from amazon.com. There’s a handy link on my website at www.bertjohnston.com with a sample chapter to dip into.
The amazon.com site for this book also offers a “Look Inside” feature through which you can read random passages and examine the covers up close. Just like in a bookshop, but you don't have to drive there.
Though I have lived along the Gulf Coast for most of the past thirty-five years, I grew up in West Virginia and still think of those forested mountains with a wistful memory. My ridge running days have left their mark upon my soul.
I think of those mountains often in these latter days of my life when I have turned to writing. It took me over two years of day and night effort to write Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough and more than another year to get it polished and published. Each of these accomplishments was like scaling a literary mountain. But I don’t yet have the view I had in mind when I began the climb.
It’s like hiking in the Appalachians – always, it seems, another peak ahead of you. So, I’ve stopped just a moment to rest and enjoy an energy bar, and now I’m moving up the steep slope toward the third peak. It’s called “Mount Marketing.” I won’t reach my destination as a wannabe author until I attain the high end of this trail.
Give me a little push, if you can. Tell your friends they’ll surely want to read Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough. A guy named Bert Johnston wrote it, and he set it in the Virginia highlands.
Read a sample chapter at: www.bertjohnston.com. That site marks the top of your first foothill. Click on “Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough” and be transported to the order page at www.amazon.com/books.
Our bi-monthly book club met this month on the first Monday evening. Sorry, it has never adopted a name other than “the book club,” but now there’s a second book club meeting at Westminster Village, this one on first Monday afternoons. For the moment the two groups are identified simply by reference to the time of day they meet.
The format for the new club is different, however. Instead of an assigned book, the afternoon club shares brief descriptions of what each participant is currently reading. It’s a good way to compile a “must-read” list. Several of our residents are participating in both clubs.
Our book for the Monday night group in August was Dianne Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife. We agreed that this true story of courage and imagination amid the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw has been beautifully told. All of us had lived through World War II, but still found this book a shocking revelation. Who, after reading it, could ever deny the Holocaust? Who, also, could ever deny the reality of human compassion?
For our October meeting we will return to fiction, with Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants. It has been two years since I read it. I will happily read it again.
Our group usually does not choose its books more than one meeting ahead, but at this August meeting my fellow members honored me by choosing to read Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough for our December discussion. I’m pleased, of course.
It’s a daunting thought, however, to follow Diane Ackerman and Sara Gruen. I think I’ve written a good book. I hope it’s more than a sand lot game, but I don’t fancy my work to be in the same league with these modern classics.
For a sample chapter of Parson Campbell’s Breakthrough, go to my website: www.bertjohnston.com.
To order from the website, click on my title to go directly to the book on: www.amazon.com.
A few days ago I introduced Walter Mitty, the large tiger cat who shares our apartment at Westminster Village. I didn’t tell you that he prays. I don’t mean “preys.” Mitty came to us six years ago without front claws, and couldn’t chase down a crippled cricket.
Moreover, if he prayed in those first days with us, it was privately, in his closet, and we weren’t aware of it. It’s a habit he has picked up from Betty and me in the time we have had him. Most evenings somewhere between nine and ten o’clock, we share a Bible reading along with the reading of a selected devotional writing and a prayer.
It’s a bit of a stretch, of course, to say that Mitty prays with us. Only God could confirm that. But he has come to understand that we want no attention from him during these fifteen or twenty minutes, so he waits us out, sitting on the floor between our chairs, relaxed but upright and, we’ve noticed, most often with his eyes closed.
When the Amen has been said and the Bibles placed back on the table, Mitty comes to life. It’s treat time, and he is rewarded for his stillness. The kibbles are probably what he’s been praying so patiently for.