Fan Letters: A Collection

Here, you can find the excellent Fan Letters our subscribers have sent in. If you want one of your favorite things featured in an upcoming newsletter, just email us at We are looking forward to reading about the things you love!

Oct. 23, 2016

Dilmah Ceylon Tea
By Alex Belth (@alexbelth)

A few years ago I asked a British friend of my father’s what the best kind of basic tea (Orange Pekoe) was—PG Tips, Barry’s, Typhoo? He recommended Dilmah, a Sri Lankan company (you can’t find them in stores but can get their stuff through Amazon).

Trouble is, most English breakfast teas, or Ceylon tea (even PG Tips, etc.) are cut up with other blends. Mass harvested commercial blends at that. Dilmah’s Ceylon is the pure thing and the tea is mellow and rich and doesn’t leave a dry aftertaste. Hate to say it, but for a committed tea drinker, it was a game-changer.

Oct. 30, 2016

Polar Nightcap
By Joe Sexton (@thejoesexton)

I learned to drink at 14, as a Tenderfoot in the Boy Scouts. Who knew there was a Budweiser merit badge? I’ve been an episodic drinker since. A solid couple of drinking stints in Wyoming and Dublin, Wisconsin and Brooklyn. Then 11 years off to raise my first two daughters. I sustained myself in the dry years with coffee and the rather bizarre habit of drinking a dozen or so non-alcoholic beers in a night. Just typing that sentence makes me shake my head.  But wtf. I eventually recovered my taste for beer and found true love while at it. That—the love and the beer both—produced two more daughters and a return to the drinking sidelines. If twins at 51 aint enough to scare you sober, not much is apt to. Which is a long way of saying Seltzer nows plays the role of non alcoholic beer—the cold thing I hold in my hand and over-drink. I fell hard for La Croix, and came to learn it’s a big hit with 12 steppers. But I’ve now discovered Polar Seltzer. Something about being addicted to a seltzer made in Worcester, Mass., feels right to me. Watermelon Margarita. Pomegranate Cherry. Winter Citrus & Berry. What the fuck is a winter citrus? Anyway, it don’t matter. The stuff works for this aging Boy Scout.

Nov. 6, 2016

What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
By Joe Posnanski (@jposnanski)

At the moment, I am writing a book about Harry Houdini, and so magic is very much on my mind. In a sense, I think What it Takes is the most magical book I’ve ever read. I mean it in this way: A good magic trick will leave people wondering, “How did he or she do that?” But a great magic trick will leave those same people awed by human possibilities.

This was the difference that makes Houdini matter 90 years after his death. Is there another dead magician who stays in the public mind? Thurston? Slydini? Blackstone? No. And Houdini was not a great magician in the traditional sense; Dai Vernon, the preeminent card magician of his time, thought Houdini a hack. No, Houdini was, instead, an escape artist who defied death (literally and figuratively) and through self-promotion, intense training and boundless determination and drive made people believe in the impossible.

That, I think, is what Richard did with What it Takes. On the surface, the book is a good magic trick. He decided, through the most dogged and patient reporting imaginable, to dig deep into the 1988 Presidential Race, not to find news but to find the heart of these men. This, of course, is impossible now. And it wasn’t especially possible then. In a way, presidential candidates’ very purpose is to NOT reveal their true selves. They have a story. And it’s that story that they tell.

So as a reporter, seeing what Richard did from a technical standpoint—getting behind the countless walls that surrounded these candidates and finding something real—remains mind-boggling. Teller says that “sometimes magic is just spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” That, Richard told me, was his secret too. He simply outlasted them. He made clear that he wasn’t interested in the political lines filling the morning paper nor the gotcha that could make someone’s name. He was after bigger game.

And when they realized that and realized that he wasn’t going anywhere anyway, they begin to open up.

But pulling off that reporting magic, as amazing as it is, doesn’t get to the wonder of What it Takes. The wonder is in the humanity. It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, this has been a depressing election. They’re all depressing in varying degrees, but this one with its daily scandal sheet, with its partisan fury, with the certainty each side feels that the other candidate would mean the end of America as we know it, this one hits harder.

And so reading What It Takes this time—it must be the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it—strikes a whole other chord. In Richard’s words, it doesn’t matter if you agree politically with George Bush or Joe Biden, Bob Dole or Michael Dukakis, you SEE them. Richard makes you see them. He tears away the glaze of caricature, the veneer of spin, and shows them not as presidential candidates with positions and applause lines and political baggage but as people, as the most talented person you knew from the neighborhood, as the one friends would tell “You’re going to be President someday.” He shows them as accomplished men, workers of deals, dreamers of achievable dreams, men who separated themselves through ambition, talent, empathy, calculation, connections, whatever, and then one day each came to realize: I should be PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

Richard made me like them all, even the ones that I don’t like. He made me like them because he was able, through that bigger form of magic, to make their stories take flight. You rooted for them, each of them, because of a connection, a connection that you didn’t know was there before.

Reading What It Takes now has been cathartic and wonderful; an escape from the news and from the overwhelming anger that surrounds it. I do wonder what Richard would have written about this election. He died three years ago, which (believe it or not) is before this election cycle began. My suspicion is that, though it seems impossible, he would have found the humanity somehow. No I don’t know how. The greatest magic dies with the magician.

Nov. 13, 2016

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
By Liz Froment (@lfroment)

I fell in love with Anthony Marra’s writing after A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, but I actually liked this a bit more. I’m not typically drawn to short stories, but Marra weaves together a seemingly disparate group of people living in the former USSR to present day. He does an incredible job of hitting so many emotions in his books. You laugh with them, cry with them, and shake your head at the absurdity of the lives they lead. I loved how NPR called the book “A Mixtape of Russian History.” You can’t really just read one story, they all weave in and out of each other, everyone feels connected. And at the same time the reader gets an overview of the massive changes Russians have lived through over the last 75 years.

Want more? Liz Froment sends out book recommendations every month.

Nov. 27, 2016

Presidential (A WaPo Podcast)
By Jacob Feldman (@jacobfeldman4)

My hourlong commute has turned me into a podcast nerd over the last 12 months (current podcast subscription count: 199), which in turn has led to innumerable bar conversations passing back and forth recommendations. I’ve developed a steady rotation of crowd-pleasers to offer (Reply All from Gimlet, NPR’s Only A Game, and of course the Longform Podcast) but the truth is I haven’t listened to any of those as religiously as Presidential, hosted by Lillian Cunningham.

The premise is simple: 44 episodes, each focusing on one American President, from George Washington to Donald Trump, and often consisting of conversations between Cunningham and various historians, librarians, family members, etc. It’s a relaxed show capable of hitting ‘funny’ or ‘moving’ as needed. And some of the lesser-known leaders end up providing better content than the greats (the Franklin Pierce and Grover Cleveland shows stood out for me). I think it’d perfect if you are looking to kill some time while traveling today or just searching for a moment of calm. Ultimately, Presidential left me with a sense of how young and vulnerable the American experiment has always been.

Dec. 18, 2016

Peace On Earth
By Lizette Alvarez (@lizettenyt)

This holiday season, I raise my glass to the unattainable: tranquility. I’ve spent a lifetime chasing it– silence, quiet, solitude, peace. And there is no question that it’s harder to find inside the modern-day vortex – Trump hysteria, Twitter intoxication, testy teenagers, to-do lists that tinkle and trumpet from iPhones and iPads twenty-four hours a day. Oh the noise noise noise noise.

I know I am not alone in this. An overwhelmed friend – Columbia professor by day, solver of all domestic problems by night – once pondered whether to blow off jury duty. “Maybe,” she fantasized, “they will hold me in contempt and I’ll go to jail for a day.” Not quite a spa getaway – but a getaway, nevertheless. Others defect to supermarkets or toilets. Once my kids asked me to draw up a list of other jobs I would have loved; I scrawled bridge tender and lighthouse keeper. Ouch, they said (especially the daughter who equates solitude solely to solitary confinement.)

Don’t get me wrong. I love the whirlwind of my life (most of the time). But this fetish for alone-time has been with me forever. As a child, I found it in trees, where I read “The Secret Garden.” In my early 20s, I found it on subway cars, where silent crowds cushioned me. In my 40s, it was my front porch at twilight. Now I find it on the beach, on a very occasional Sunday morning, where the only soundtrack I hear is the rhythm of the waves.

If I’m fortunate over this holiday season, before the husband and children wake, I’ll achieve a few moments of tranquility, over hot coffee, reading a great book. And, if I’m really lucky, I won’t think, even once, This bliss is bound to end any minute…