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National Road part two

On January 22, I published the first of a planned series of blog posts about the National Road. I never dreamed that it would be more than a month before I would publish the next one. Hasn’t this been a winter? Cold, snow, snow, snow – and black ice, on which I

slipped and broke my wrist. It felt amazing to get back out on the road again this week.  Warm breeze, melting snow, sunshine – and the sky! After a month of looking at the same four walls, the sky looked so BIG!

Wharton Furnace

Al and I focused on the Uniontown area on this week’s drive. First, we stopped at the Wharton Iron Furnace, one of the many furnaces that operated in the area during its iron and coal heyday.  One of twenty iron furnaces in Fayette County in the mid-nineteenth century, the furnace operated from 1839 to 1873, and produced cannonballs for the Civil War in the 1860s.

The Fayette County iron industry went into decline in the later nineteenth century. Pittsburgh steelmakers built bigger, more modern furnaces, and their mills were closer to railroads and cheap river transportation. The drive to the furnace, along Wharton Furnace Road, right off Route 40 near the Summit Inn, was beautiful on a sunny day in late winter. Bare trees cast tangled purple shadows on the pure white blanket of snow, and a little black creek meanders in parallel to the road for a couple of miles.

Left: Wharton Iron Furnace. Right: Pretty stream near the Furnace in Forbes State Forest

Searights Tollhouse

Next, we visited another National Road tollhouse, the Searights Tollhouse.  Its design is very similar to the Addison Tollhouse that we saw on our last drive, but this one is built of brick instead of stone. The tollhouse was built near the tavern of William Searights, who just happened to be the state commissioner in charge of the roadway. Searights earned $730 a year for his job as commissioner. Between that and operating a tavern conveniently located to the tollhouse, he became one of the wealthiest men in Fayette County in the 1830s. Addison and Searights are the only remaining of the original six tollhouses along the Pennsylvania section of the National Road. The Searights Tollhouse now operates as a museum, open Tue-Sat 10-4 and Sun 2-6, mid-May through mid-October.

Left: The Searights Tavern, early 20th century. Right: Searights Tollhouse

Thanks to the rates still posted on the tollhouse, we know what this guy would have paid to transport his sheep: six cents for every 20 sheep.

The National Road in Uniontown

Our next stop was the Fayette County seat, Uniontown. At the Historic National Road Headquarters in Uniontown, we learned more about commerce along the National Road. Many stage companies competed for the fastest times between cities, and the ride wasn’t comfortable for any passengers. The road was rough, muddy and poorly graded in many places. In spite of the rough road, stage coaches sometimes covered as many as sixty-five miles in a day, changing horses about every fifteen miles in the mountains.  Drivers earned about $12 a month plus room and board at inns contracted to their stage line.

In those early days of our national postal service, the government often contracted with private coach operators to deliver mail over long distances. In 1836, L. W. Stockton’s National Stage Company got a four-year contract. The contract was worth $63,000 per year, a huge sum on money at that time, but only on the condition that he could carry the mail from Wheeling at a speed of four miles per hour or faster.

A Little Uniontown History

This was our first stop in Uniontown in many years, so we had a lot to explore and a lot to learn.

Founded on the historic date of July 4, 1776, Uniontown was originally named Beesontown, after its founder, Henry Beeson.  Beeson purchased the land from the Six Nations in 1768 and built the town’s first log house at the approximate site of present-day Mount Vernon Towers apartment building. Beeson built a grist mill along Redstone Creek and started selling lots.

Another early settler, Thomas Gaddis, built the area’s second log building in 1769. Gaddis served in the American Revolution and later took charge of defense for the Uniontown area. His home was also known as Fort Gaddis because it was a site for meetings and shelter in time of emergency.

Settlement increased after the end of the American Revolution, and the growing town soon boasted a cabinet maker, cobbler, blacksmith, tailor and doctor, as well as two small log churches: Baptist and Methodist.

Uniontown blossomed with the coming of the National Road, and grew further when the railroad from Connellsville and Pittsburgh came through in 1860. But the real boom started when a seam of coking coal was discovered nearby in the 1860s. By 1906, 40,0000 Fayette County men worked the coal mines.

The H.C. Frick Company alone mined over 19 million ton of coal that year, and Uniontown was the home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States.

 Like so many other Pennsylvania towns, Uniontown declined along with the decline of coal and steel. Its 2010 population was 10,372, about half of its 1940 peak.

When Al and I started our stroll through Uniontown’s historic downtown, it seemed unimpressive at first. Just another dreary old industrial town long past its glory days, lined with unused streetcar tracks and rows of sad, grimy nineteenth-century buildings. But, if you are patient, Uniontown slowly opens your eyes, not just to its architectural gems, but to its heroes.

Coming soon: Uniontown’s hidden charms and heroes


New Meadow Run School; Mountain Pike; Farmington, PA: Bruderhof Foundation, Inc., 1990.,the%20historic%20National%20Road%2C,_Pennsylvania,right%20when%20traveling%20west%20on%20East%20Main%20Street.

The National Road – part one

Have you ever driven between Pittsburgh and Ohiopyle State Park? Then you’ve travelled one of the oldest roads in the United States and our nation’s first federally-funded highway.

Today’s US 40 was, in the early nineteenth century, The National Road, an important route for traders and settlers. Conceived by Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and built between 1811 and 1818, the 600-mile National Road started in Cumberland, Maryland. It then crossed present-day Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana, before arriving at its terminus in East St. Louis, Illinois.

You can still drive the whole length of the road today. We may do that someday, but, for now, Al and I decided to drive just the Pennsylvania section. Today’s blog post covers the eastern section of the road between Addison and Confluence. Future posts will cover other sections of the road.


We started on a snowy January day in Addison, PA, near the Maryland border. Long before the arrival of white people, Indians hunted along the nearby Youghiogheny and Casselman Rivers. Signs of Indian encampment and burial ground exist on Fort Hill, but there is no evidence that a fort ever stood there. The earliest white settlers named their little town Turkeyfoot. Later town leaders renamed it Peterburg after Peter Augustine, who laid out the town.

Six thousand Federal troops camped out on Augustine’s farm in Addison in 1794, on their way to stop the Whiskey Rebellion. Augustine himself was Whiskey rebel, so the troops apparently didn’t feel much remorse about eating his produce and trampling his fences. The Augustine family sent the government a $500 invoice for damages. It was never paid.

 The town’s name changed one more time, in 1831 when it was renamed Addison, after Judge Alexander Addison. Ironically, Judge Addison had defended the law during the 1791-4 Whiskey Rebellion. So, the renaming of the town was another, posthumous defeat for the Whiskey rebels.

The Addison Tollhouse

the tollhouse

Addison is a tiny town, with a pretty little park across the street from its main claim to fame: the Addison Tollhouse. The toll house dates to 1835, when tolls were first collected on this part of the road. It has been rebuilt and repaired to reflect its 1835 appearance.

A sign hung on the tollhouse wall shows the 1835 toll rates: twelve cents for a chariot or stage coach, four cents for a horse and rider, six cents for every fifteen hogs, and so on.

The town is also known for its National Chainsaw Festival every year in June.

Nearby Pumers Pub looked to have a good menu, and we hoped to get some lunch, but it was closed – apparently due to the pandemic – and we were freezing, so we got back into our car.


Our next stop on the old National Road was the Somerfield Dam and Bridge, a few miles west of Addison on Route 40. 

The drowned town of Somerfield had an interesting history. Like most of Western Pennsylvania, the area was originally inhabited by the Monongahela people. Later, the Shawnee, Seneca, Delaware and Erie camped and hunted there.

In 1753, George Washington and Christopher Gist crossed the Youghiogheny about half a mile upriver from the future site of Somerfield. Washington was on his way to warn the French to vacate southwestern Pennsylvania. The ignored warning led to the French & Indian War, and in 1755 General Braddock also forded nearby on his march to Fort Duquesne.

White settlers started to arrive after the Fort Stanwix treaty of 1768. One of the first settlers in what became Somerfield was Jacob Spears. Spears bought a piece of riverfront land on the east side of the Youghiogheny in 1789 and named his homestead Nobbley Nowl (or Knobby Knoll).

The National Road Comes to Somerfield

The construction of the National Road brought the first bridge to Somerfield. Great Crossings Bridge, a three-arch stone bridge, commemorated Washington’s and Braddock’s crossings. The bridge was dedicated on July 4, 1818, with President James Monroe in attendance.

Also present at the dedication of the bridge was Philip Smyth, who had bought out Jacob Spears and renamed the town Smythfield. The name of this town also changed later. In 1830, the town applied for a post office and discovered that there was already a Smithfield post office elsewhere in Pennsylvania. They renamed the town Somerfield in honor of a local reverend.

Relay station houses still dot the National Road, in various states of repair

The National Road brought prosperity to the little river town. Drivers needed to change horses every 10-12 miles when travelling over the mountains, and we saw the remains of many relay stations along Route 40. Somerfield was home to one of these: a stone tavern with an inn and stables,

built by the bridge contractor, Kinkead. A Virginia tavern keeper named Thomas Endsley bought the tavern from Kinkead in 1823, and apparently ran it with the help of eight enslaved people he brought with him from Virginia.  

The National Pike declined with the coming of railroads, and Somerfield declined along with it. By the 1880s, only 80 people lived in the town.

The Drowning of Somerfield

Mabel McKinley

But, as the railroads take, so they also give. By the early 20th century, a rail line came through and Somerfield began to grown again. The town transformed itself into a resort area for sportsmen: fishermen, hunters, boaters. President William McKinley spent six weeks in Somerfield each summer. He had relatives in the area, including a niece, Mabel Mckinley, who later became a renowned singer and composer.

Somerfield’s next change of fortune was less lucky. In the 1930s, local governments and the Army Corps of Engineers became concerned about flood control along the Youghiogheny. The Corps determined that the river should be dammed. Somerfield would be drowned by the river that had first given the town its life.

Somerfield in the 1930s

The dam and bridge project started in 1939, halted temporarily during World War II, and finished in 1946. By then, Somerfield had been torn down and all 142 (some sources say as many as 176) residents relocated.

A new bridge spans the lake today, and new marinas, camp grounds and inns house our century’s sportmen and their boats.

But in dry years, when the Youghiogheny Lake is especially low, the foundations of Somerfield’s houses and the remains of the old three-arch stone bridge re-emerge like ghosts.

The remains of the three-arch stone Great Crossings Bridge, uncovered during a drought

My 5-Star Books of 2020

I review every single book I read on Goodreads, and review occasionally on Amazon and Book Bub as well. And I’m very stingy with 5-star reviews. I’m an old-fashioned reader. I love skilled use of the English language, but I don’t enjoy books that use language so creatively that it feels show-offy, and beautiful language isn’t enough for me. To earn five stars from me, a book must have a disciplined, well-paced plot, fascinating or relatable characters, and an overarching theme that I find inspiring or at least very interesting. I read over fifty books this year. Here are the five that warranted 5-star reviews.


Well-plotted historical novel

England, in the year 997. Edgar is a young boatbuilder who barely escapes death when the Vikings raid his harbor town. His family loses all that they have in the raid, and they migrate further inland, to scratch out a living farming in a town dominated by a lazy ferryman and a corrupt priest. 

Normandy, the same year. Ragna is a smart, headstrong, beautiful noblewoman. She could marry the wealthy French baron chosen for her by her doting parents, but chooses instead a dashing Englishman nobleman, Wilwulf, who visits her father to seek a treaty that will protect the English coast from the Vikings.  Ragna finds friends, enemies and danger in her new life in England.

I’ve often found that prequels are disappointing. But this prequel to Follett’s masterful The Pillars of the Earth is very worthy. Ragna, Edgar, the principled monk Aldred, Wilwulf’s wicked brothers, the slave girl Blod, and others, are all vivid characters with passions and motivations of their own. Their conflicts are expertly developed, and keep the reader turning pages.

As in Pillars of the Earth, Follett takes the side of the people who are builders and dreamers, lawmakers and rule-followers, people who help others and make the world a better place. They often are punished by men who want power for the sake of power, and who thrive on chaos and disorder. But, at least in the world Follett creates, they prevail in the end. A comforting tale for our times – and a warning of what a lawless world can be like.


A classic worth the time investment

Owen Meany has a birth defect that left him with unusually small stature and a grating falsetto voice. His story is narrated by his best friend, Johnny Wheelwright.

Johnny and Owen grow up in New Hampshire in the 1950s and 60s. The story opens with a tragedy: Owen’s one good hit in Little League strikes Johnny’s mother in the head and kills her. This sets Owen and Johnny on a years-long quest to discover the identity of Johnny’s father, which his mother never revealed. Meanwhile, Johnny is raised by his grandmother and his loving step-father.

Owen’s family is odd, and Owen has an odd aversion to them, so Owen is also taken under the wing of Johnny’s grandmother and step-father. His height and voice aren’t the only strange things about Owen. He is exceptionally smart, self-confident, and bossy – and he is eerily prescient and wise. Fairly early in the book, he starts insisting that he has foreknowledge of the date of his death and he has a recurring dream that he believes foretells how he will die. And it develops that his father has a startling notion about how Owen was conceived.

This story takes some patience. First, it’s a long book, so it is a commitment. Second, it isn’t told quite chronologically. It bears careful reading, to keep track of what happened when. Third, it is just odd. It was hard for me to tell what it was even about until half-way through. I thought maybe it was a coming-of-age story, but it is so much more than that. My patience was well-rewarded. I absolutely loved this book by the end.

A truly great novel is either timeless or perfectly of its time. This one was a little of both. Taking placing in the 50s and 60s, and written in 1989, it also uncannily foresees our own time.

FOR THE LOVE OF IRELAND edited by Susan Cahill

A tribute to Ireland

A friend in my Irish dancing group lent this book to me.  It’s a literary travel guide to Ireland, highlighting Irish authors from pre-history through current day, from each of the nation’s provinces and counties.   Cahill prefaces each piece with some background on the author, and follows each with a small travelogue to places of significance either to the author or in their work 

As with any anthology, I didn’t like every single work that was included.  For example, I will just never be a James Joyce fan.  But the pieces I did like, I really, really loved, which is why the book rates 5 stars from me.  Although I love the English language, I don’t generally read for beauty of language, which is probably why I’m not a big poetry reader, even though I am the mother of a poet.  I like story; I read mostly for character and plot.  But the language in some of the pieces in this book literally took my breath away:  how Roddy Doyle just nails the lilt, cadence and quirks of Dublin’s dialect, the crystal beauty Seamus Heaney brings to the simple memory of his father digging peat, Joyce Cary’s dreamlike description of the landscape of his childhood. 

I added several books to my reading list, thanks to this sampling, and feel inspired to return to Ireland to see some of the wonders that we missed on our first trip there in 2014. 


Very appealing heroine

Adunni is a 14-year-old girl growing up in a village in Nigeria.  Before she died, her mother gave her a strong sense of her value and a passion for education.  But let’s just say that her father is not quite as energetic and devoted to his children as her mother was.  When the family’s finances deteriorate, Adunni’s father ends her education and sells her in marriage to a much older man, Mofufu, who already has two wives.

The senior wife, Labake, treats Adunni cruelly, but she finds a friend in the second wife, Khadija.  When tragedy befalls Khadija, Adunni is involved and must flee both Mofufu’s house and her home village.  An unscrupulous broker sells her into domestic servitude in Lagos in the house of successful businesswoman Big Madam and her useless alcoholic husband, Big Daddy. 

Adunni is a true heroine.  She never loses her strong sense of self-worth.  Her work ethic and her cheerful, friendly disposition win her friends who can help her in spite of her seemingly hopeless circumstances.  

Adunni’s magnificent voice is the heart of the novel.  Dare made the risky choice to write in the sort of pidgin English that a Yoruba teenager like Adunni might actually speak, and it was a brilliant choice.  Her unique use of language both strengthens the reader’s sense of entry into a different culture and supports Adunni’s vibrant personality. 

The disgraceful treatment of women in a Nigerian culture transforming from traditional to modern is unsparingly portrayed.  Even Big Madam and Adunni’s mentor, Ms. Tia, are not immune to its blows. It is a testament to Adunni’s inner strength and goodness that she recognizes this, has compassion for it, and wants to dedicate her life to changing it. 

A wonderful book, with one of the most unique, likable and admirable heroines I’ve read in a while.



London in 1925.  Britain is still stunned and reeling from the catastrophic loss of life in WWI, and a new generation of Bright Young Things is determined to cast off the failed conventions of the past and heedlessly live for the moment. Selina Lennox is among the Brightest.  Her life is changed one spring night by a chance meeting with a poor young artist.

Fast-forward to 1936.  Selina’s shy daughter Alice has been left with her cold grandparents and Nazi governess in her mother’s ancestral house while her parents travel to Burma on business.  Her only friends are the family’s gardener Patterson and Selina’s former maid Polly.  Alice lives for the occasional letter from her beloved mother.  Selina has sent her on a treasure hunt, and each letter contains a clue.  But her mother has kept some secrets that don’t fit in boxes or jewelry cases.

The story is told on alternating timelines, between 1925 and 1936, with occasional perspective changes.  The shifts of perspective and timeline are very well-handled, and the secrets slowly and expertly revealed.  We are always just a few steps ahead of young Alice and at each step we are allowed the sad pleasure of watching her discover what we have already figured out.

An absorbing and heartbreaking read. 

Here’s to great reading in 2021! Here are some links to books that almost made my cut with 4-start reviews:

The Testaments

Why The Dutch Are Different

News of the World

Lady of the Rivers

American Dirt

My Interview With Author Armen Pogharian

Armen Pogharian is the author of the Warder and Misaligned young-adult fantasy series, originally published by SynergEbooks. The first book in the Misaligned series, Penny Preston and the Raven’s Talisman, was recently reissued by CamCat Publishing.  It’s a delightful book (see my Amazon review). Here is my recent interview with Armen.

KATHY: Did you always want to be a writer, Armen? What got you interested in writing?

ARMEN: I never considered becoming a writer. In college I did my best to avoid classes with heavy writing loads. I even took Medieval Times as pass fail because it was a ‘paper-based’ class. FWIW, I got an A in the class, even though it shows up as a P. Having kids who were bigtime readers changed things for me.

KATHY: Penny Preston and the Raven’s Talisman is a fantasy that includes multiverse theory and Welsh mythology. Where did you get the idea for this combination?

ARMEN: I wanted to do something Arthurian, but I wanted it to be original. I knew that Tintagel was often cited as a possible location for Camelot. After some research, I found that the King Arthur story has its roots in Welsh mythology. As for the multiverse, well, I’m a bit of a nerd and I thought it would be a neat way to ground the ‘magic’ of the myth in science.

KATHY. I thought your uses of the multiverse was very original. Is the notion of misalignment based on science at all, or did you completely make it up?

ARMEN: Very loosely, in the sense that string theory posits 11 dimensions that interact with each other through complex math. As for evidence that interacting with those dimensions offers solutions to paranormal activity, well let’s just say there’s not a lot peer-reviewed work on the subject.

KATHY: Both of your series, Misaligned and the Warder series are fantasy. What attracted you to this genre?

ARMEN: The Hobbit was the first book that really grabbed my attention. It kindled my imagination and I quickly devoured similar books in the genre. My children also enjoyed fantasy. Since they were the inspiration for my writing, it was a natural place to start.

KATHY: Do you have a favorite character in the story? Can you tell us what it is about that character that speaks to you?

ARMEN: I don’t mean to be a weenie here, but I really don’t have a favorite. There are aspects to each character that I really enjoy. As a writer, I enjoy the relationships between the characters. The Penny/Duncan relationship was a lot of fun to write, especially since it’s primarily from Penny’s perspective. I also really enjoy the Mr. Myrdin/Master Poe dynamic because it allows me to appeal to adult readers.

KATHY: I liked the relationship between Penny and Duncan, too. It seemed very authentic for a couple of 13-years-olds. Do you have any tips for anyone thinking about writing a fantasy/sci fi novel?

ARMEN: Nothing that hasn’t been said better by others. Although if pressed, I’d say the biggest pitfall is writing yourself into a corner and then inventing a magical trapdoor. Avoid that by outlining your story and leaving hints and clues to sharp turns.

KATHY: Which authors do you like to read? How did they impact you as a writer?

ARMEN: Obviously, I enjoyed Tolkien, but I also liked Raymond Feist, David Eddings, and Piers Anthony. Of the more ‘modern’ authors in the genre, I like everything I’ve read by Jonathan Stroud.

KATHY: I was a Tolkien fan, too, when I was young. Could you describe your writing process? Do you outline? Do you always know how the book is going to end?

ARMEN: I always begin with a 1-2 page outline. The points can refer to characters, plot, or even world-building, so they typically don’t conform to chapters. Then I start to write. I tend to write linearly from start to finish, but in almost every book I will do a little bouncing around. As for the ending, I have an idea, but the details are not set in stone.

KATHY: What have you done to market your books? Have you found any marketing strategies to be particularly effective?

ARMEN: Effective marketing is the hardest part of the writing business. For me interacting with readers works well, unfortunately, most YA and middle grade readers are not the buyers. It’s also hard, as a middle-aged man, to interact with that age group over the internet. I’ve had the best success with book signing or meet the author types of events. Of course, those aren’t really happening right now. If by chance you’re a librarian or teacher and interested in booking an in person or virtual visit, please let me know. My rates can’t be beat.

KATHY: Yes, this has been a hard year for writers who depend a lot on personal appearances for book sales. I hear you on that. Did you learn anything about yourself from writing Penny Preston and the Raven’s Talisman?

ARMEN: More than I care to share. I will say that sleep is an incredibly powerful creative tool. Apparently, my conscious mind throttles my creativity. My go to tool for a creative issue or writer’s block is a 10-15 minute nap. The key is to begin writing as soon as I wake up.

KATHY: More than you can share? Now I’m intrigued! Tell me something that your readers would be surprised to hear about you.

ARMEN: I’ve never watched the movies Titanic or Ghost.

KATHY: Wow, even I saw those movies, and I was knee-deep in raising children in the nineties and hardly ever saw a non-Disney movie! I know that the next two books in the Misaligned series will be published by CamCat in the near future.  Are you working on another series now? Can you tell us a little about it?

ARMEN: I’ve got a sixth Warders book, The Pyramid’s Puzzle, that got caught up in CamCat’s acquisition of my old publisher. After lengthy discussion with the publisher, we both agreed that the Warders wasn’t a good fit for them. So, I’ll be self-publishing the entire series, including the never released Pyramid’s Puzzle. Beyond that, I have several loose ideas for a seventh Warders book and a few completely new concepts, too. Basically, once I get through these launches and relaunches, I’ll hunker down and sort through things.

KATHY: Where can we find out about you and your writing?

ARMEN: The best place would be my website which also includes my blog, interviews with other authors, and book reviews. I also maintain a Facebook author page I have a Goodreads page,, which I sadly do not spend enough time on right now.

KATHY: Thanks, Armen. I enjoyed talking to you. Good luck with your projects!

ARMEN: Thank you, Kathy.

Christian Themes in The Saint’s Mistress

Saint Augustine of Hippo in old age

Readers sometimes ask me about the religious themes in The Saint’s Mistress.  I admit that I struggled with this aspect of the book.

I’m a Christian, but I didn’t write the book to evangelize for Christianity.  I wrote it to tell a story that I thought was interesting.

Augustine and Christianity

Of course, when you’re writing about Saint Augustine, you can’t avoid the topic of religion!  And one of the things that made me want to tell this story was that it takes place in at an interesting period in Church history, and one that is little-explored in fiction:  that turning point right after Christianity became the state religion, as the early Church established orthodoxy and battled the last vestiges of paganism, that hinge between the ancient and medieval worlds.

I took Augustine at his word in portraying his spiritual journey.  He well described in the Confessions how he was entranced first by the pagan philosophers, then by Manicheism, then by neo-Platonism, before accepting Christianity.  I portray him as a young man of enthusiasms, a passionate seeker of truth. He ultimately became the great leader he longed to be only when he attached himself to something larger than himself.  I’ll put it out there:  my position, as a Christian, is that God made use of him.  But you could also read my portrayal of him as a man who came into his own as he matured and subsumed his ego in a larger cause.  Again, I was not trying to evangelize.  I was trying to portray my character in a way that was true to my understanding of him.

My writing and Christianity

I could take Leona in any direction I wanted, since she left no record of herself.  And, as with Augustine, I tried to write her true to how I imagined her.

Inevitably, though, my Christian bias probably comes through, and I don’t apologize for that.  One of the things I’m interested in doing in my writing is to explore questions of faith.  Plenty of books portray Christianity in a cynical light.  And plenty of Christian fiction portrays Christianity completely uncritically:  Jesus fixes everything, The End. I plan a future post on my objections to Christian fiction.  What I try to do is write from the questions, not from either cynical or uncritical answers.

See previous blog posts on why I wrote my book:

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