What I Don't Know Yet

Governor Praying for Kentucky

In Uncategorized on June 8, 2017 at 9:59 am
after jesus

After lightning struck the Touchdown Jesus statue that was visible from I-75 north of Cincinnati.

By Jenni Laidman

Gov. Matt Bevin recently announced a plan to end violence in Louisville via walking prayer groups.

Gov. Matt Bevin announced his With Prayer All Things Are Possible initiative this week, beginning with the Faith Over Fracking March to end the dominance of low-cost natural gas, which is doing so much damage to Kentucky’s coal mining.

“We’re going to pray that all those fracking wells dry up so that we can restore one of Kentucky’s traditional industries. Our prayers have already pretty much destroyed the Environmental Protection Agency, so we’ve got that covered. Now we just need to get rid of other lower cost fuels,” the governor said Tuesday.

The governor’s office announced that the Faith Over Fracking Prayer Walk will be followed by the Tell God to Stop Moving Those Windmills Walk. A governor’s spokesman said the plan is to go after all alternative fuel methods. “We probably have to leave solar alone,” the spokesman said. “The governor is not convinced that asking God to blot out the sun will be good for our farmers. So it’s a compromise.”

In another sweeping series of cost-saving prayer initiatives, the Governor plans to shut down health departments around the state, and will instead send out prayer teams to every restaurant, so that no Kentuckian be sickened by contaminated food.

“The bible says we can take up serpents and drink poison and not be harmed if we have faith,” Bevin said. “So, if the ground meat is dripping onto the lettuce, and there are mouse turds in the tuna casserole, we believe prayer will make the food safe for Kentuckians to eat, and at a tremendous cost savings.”

Needle exchange programs administered by health departments will be replaced by regular laying on of hands to addicts who report to the needle exchange sites. “At least initially, a daily laying on of hands of the addicted will be required before we eventually put an end to the heroin problem hurting so many of our counties,” the governor acknowledged. “But eventually, we should be drug free.”

The governor’s plan is being applauded by many community activists. Said one activist who asked not to be named, “I’m so glad to see the governor applying faith to the problems of white people. When he introduced his West End prayer walks, I thought that was because he used all Kentucky’s money solving white community problems, so prayer was the only solution he could afford for murders in our community. I mean, if prayer is powerful enough to solve a murder crisis, maybe it’s powerful enough to cover the governor’s mortgage payments. Oh, wait, yeah, now that I think about it, I guess he’s already done that.”



The best fiction of 2016, according to me

In Books on January 2, 2017 at 9:43 pm

Where is it written that one must have 10 items in any list of favorites?  Here are my picks for the nine best novels of 2016.  What a great year for readers.

1. Moonglow

by Michael Chabon


In this fictionalized memoir, author Michael Chabon sets out to solve the mystery of his grandmother’s life, and creates a masterpiece with unforgettably vivid characters, as solid and substantial as anyone you know. These are  people who I longed to see again the moment I finished the book’s final line. There is the grandfather, wandering Europe during World War II, hunting for Nazi rocket scientist Werner Von Braun; the beautiful, troubled grandmother with the blue tattooed numbers on her wrist; the rascal rabbi-turned-pool-shark uncle. Chabon is imaginatively precise. Of his grandmother leaving the mental hospital, he writes: “She emerged from that first time at Greystone in a fragile and quiet state, holding herself like an egg balanced on a spoon.” A girl’s lips are “painted red as Bicycle hearts and diamonds.” A late-model Mercury Cougar is “the color of a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk.”  A German woman apologizes for her brother: “… having been born a baby and finding he enjoyed it, he never bothered to stop.“  And then: “My grandmother’s embrace was something implacable and impersonal. It was like an undertow or the impact of a concrete sidewalk.”

2. Nutshell 

by Ian McEwan

nutshell-coverIan McEwan’s smart, daring, and funny “Nutshell” includes a contender for the best opening line ever published: “So, here I am, upside down in a woman.” The speaker is an erudite baby, tucked snuggly in the womb of his mother, Trudy. He’s already feeling nostalgic for the days when, “I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults…” But now, nearing the end of his stay, he has a problem more significant than his tight quarters. His mother and her lover are plotting to murder his father, a poet at the helm of a struggling publishing house. What’s a pre-born infant to do?

3. The Little Red Chairs

by Edna O’Brien

A bearded foreigner arrives in an Irish town one winter evening in The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien’s 17th novel. Cloonoila is a small enough village that a new arrival is the subject of barroom gossip, even prompting one person to issue a warning about Rasputin during a rowdy discussion. The visitor, Dr. Vladimir Dragan, sets up a New Age healing practice. Slowly, townswomen trickle in, starting with Sister Bonaventure. But it is the town beauty, Fidelma, the draper’s wife, who truly falls under his spell, determining Dr. Vlad will be the man to give her what her own husband could not —  a baby.  O’Brien, 85 when this book was published, shows no more reluctance to buck conventions today than she did when she wrote her first novel, Country Girls, in 1960, when its frank treatment of sex prompted banning and burning in her native Ireland. The conventions she bucks here are writerly, employing rapidly shifting points of view, and giving away a major plot point by revealing Dragan’s dark backstory early in the novel.  In fact, Dragan is a hunted war criminal, not unlike the “Butcher of Bosnia,” Radovan Karadžic. Because the reader knows with whom Fidelma is noodling, the drama stays focused on her plight, the brutal and disturbing attack she suffers at the hands of Dragan’s former associates after his arrest, and her flight to London when her town and her husband turn on her. In the book’s second half, Fidelma lives among the victims of the world’s Dragans, the refugees who struggle to create a life in marginal jobs, as Fidelma must now, too. “In the mornings, after they clocked out, they ran, recklessly, they ran as if they were fleeing catastrophes. The fear that governed their whole lives was now compressed into this urgency to catch a bus or a train to allow a husband or a mother or a cousin to go to work.”

 4. My Name is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout

This book has been absent from many of the “best of” lists for 2016, and I can only conclude it’s because reviewers can’t remember all the way back to January 12, when it was released. I almost forgot it myself. But you shouldn’t. Lucy Barton lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters, and the shocking poverty she grew up with seems far behind her. Until she was eleven, her family lived in a garage with only a “trickle of cold water” from a  makeshift sink. In winter, it was always cold, sometimes too cold to sleep. The family was isolated and the three children shunned by their peers. When Lucy’s mother visits her in the hospital, it becomes  plain that the past has never lifted its hand from Lucy. She is childlike in her pleasure at this long-delayed reunion: “Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.” The book’s graceful, simple sentences in Strout’s fifth novel are an embrace, and the relationship of mother and daughter, and Lucy’s true self, unfolds like an opening bud.

5. Peacekeeping 

by Mischa Berlinski

Mischa Berlinski creates unforgettable characters in this tale of Haitian politics and corruption. At the center is Terry White, a former Florida sheriff’s deputy who became part of the United Nation’s police force in Haiti — which he pronounces Hades — after losing a sheriff’s race back home. As the narrator says, “People either liked Terry very much or could not stand him; and when people said they couldn’t take him, I understood. He was a know-it-all.” His stock phrase is “you gotta understand” or some variation used to dismiss all other arguments. “He told me how many people he had tased, and he offered to tase me to show me how it feels. …He called his wife his Lady. He was vain: I told him I got caught in a current down at the beach and came back breathless; he told me that his boat capsized in the Florida Keys, leaving him surrounded by sharks.”  For all his bluster, White tries to do the right thing, including helping  a local politician defeat a corrupt senator. But the weight of Haitian life is substantial for even the best intentions to carry.

6. The Nix 

by Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill’s debut novel is a hurricane that sweeps you up and dances you wildly, careening from suburban backyards in Iowa to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention to 2011 Occupy Wall Street and even to Norway. Several subplots spin around the main character, Professor Samuel Anderson, whose mother disappeared when he was a 11. He was already a frightened boy, given to weeping. As an adult, he is lost, squandering his small share of success as a writer by hiding in his college office playing an online game for hours, his only friends his fellow World Of Elfscape players, whom he’s never met. Now, a lawyer wants Sam to help his long-gone mother. She faces prison for pitching rocks at a gun-toting governor planning to run for president.

7. The Loney

by Andrew Michael Hurley

This book, another debut novel, is the opposite of The Nix. Where The Nix is reckless and wild, Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is quiet and controlled. Where Nix is multicolored neon, The Loney is as gray as the sea in winter and subtle as its shadings.  The Loney of the title is a “wild and useless length of English coastline,” where dangerous tides “come in quicker than a horse could run” so that only a visitor would play on its shores. The story’s narrator is a boy who is never named. He and his family visit the area as part of a small group of Catholic pilgrims hoping for a miracle that will restore to the narrator’s brother, Hanny, the ability to speak. But the priest who took them on this journey each year has died in unusual circumstances, and his replacement just doesn’t seem to be what God needs to supply the miracle. Hurley creates a beautiful portrait of the brothers’ relationship as he unwinds this disturbing tale.

(Unlike the other books in this list, The Loney was not published in 2016. If first appeared in 2014 as a limited edition, with only 200 copies. It was released by a publisher in 2015.  I put this list together thinking all the books were from 2016. I found out at the last minute this doesn’t really qualify, but I don’t much care. It’s my list, and I’ll do what I want. Besides, it’s just stuck in my mind so persistently, I couldn’t leave it out.)

8. Death and the Seaside 

by Alison Moore

(Most of this review is lifted from one I wrote for the Chicago Tribune.)

Bonnie Falls is a woman adrift in Alison Moore’s sly third novel, “Death and the Seaside.” She abandoned a degree in literary criticism and never found her way after. About to turn 30, she can’t distinguish friends from acquaintances, and can’t even muster resentment in the face of her father’s persistent and cruel teasing. Nothing she starts is ever finished; she puts off doing her laundry so long, she has to take a suitcase full of wet clothing on vacation. It seems inevitable that the short story she is writing will meet the same moldering fate. She abandons it for days and weeks at a time, until her landlady, Sylvia Slythe, takes an interest. Sylvia’s character is shrewdly constructed, with layers of personal history accreting gradually, revealing someone that the hapless Bonnie is unprepared to understand. The lonely young woman never stops to wonder why the elegant Sylvia has taken such an interest in her. She’s about to find out.

9. Dark Matter

by Blake Crouch

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a fun, face-paced jaunt for anyone who likes their thrillers with a seasoning of woo-woo physics. (And who wouldn’t?)  Crouch’s earlier mystery/thriller/science fiction trilogy, Wayward Pines, was turned into a Fox series. In his newest book, his main character, Jason Desson, is  a happy family man who teaches physics at a small college. Then he’s kidnapped, and spirited into a parallel universe, where he has the chance to live the road not taken as a wizard of quantum superposition. It was the road he left many years earlier when his girlfriend got pregnant. But Jason no longer prizes that science fame; he wants to get back to his family. That’s not so easy in this house of quantum mirrors, where he must leap from universe to universe, encountering ever-expanding numbers of Jasons, hoping to, eventually, land back in the universe where he belongs.

In lieu of a 10th book, here are some other titles I enjoyed.

Three young adult books:

Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley: A  high school girl decides she can rescue a former classmate with agoraphobia, even though he hasn’t left his house since junior high. Funny and tender.

Riverkeep by Martin Stewart: A son tries to save his father from a monstrous possession by taking him to confront a sea monster. It’s wonderfully creepy and often funny, although the plot is a bit too linear.

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy: A Russian boy genius comes to America to help NASA keep an asteroid from colliding with Earth and destroying California and his new girlfriend. Delightful and witty.

Two children’s books:

Pax by Sara Pennypacker: A story of a boy and his pet fox as war creeps ever closer.

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gabriel Savit: When German soldiers take Anna’s father, an encounter with a mysterious man who can whistle like a swallow is her salvation.

And two more grown up books:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing  by Madeleine Thien: The Cultural Revolution and Tianamen Square  steamroll through the lives of musicians at Shanghai Conservatory. Thien weaves magic in this tragedy full of large, memorable characters.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty: A scientist has an affair and ends up on trial for murder.

Man Booker: Is this the year of the sure thing?

In Uncategorized on October 13, 2015 at 9:16 am

I shall be bold and announce that this year, for the first time ever, I will agree with the Man Booker judges when, on October 13, they decide which book wins the annual literary prize for novels published in English. I am just that sure, and not only because everyone is betting on the same favorite. Frontrunners often lose. But I’m declaring the American Pharoah effect in honor of the horse that brought home the Triple Crown for the first time in 37 years. That seems an omen for frontrunners. I dare the committee to prove me wrong and pick anything other than A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Although A Little Life has a reputation for making grown men weep, it’s a story built on the warm friendships among four men
who met in college. From the start, Yanagihara’s unadorned prose transmits the inevitability of tragedy, with the gradual A Little Liferevelation of the horror-filled childhood of one character, Jude St. Francis. Yanagihara’s characters are, as adults, people of privilege and remarkable success — there’s an Oscar-winning movie star, a powerful attorney, a famous architect, and a celebrated artist. But that bit of unreality recedes in the face of Jude’s suffering, as he tries to manage a life plagued by childhood demons.

Why I’m right: It’s reported to be a 2-to-1 favorite, and who doesn’t like a good cry? The characters are likeable, the relationships deep and worth exploring, and the plot moving, unflagging and unforgettable.

Why I might be wrong: It’s a fairy tale of friendship among people who have it all.

(Doubleday; 720 pages; $30)

Another pairing of tragedy and the bonds between males, in this case boys, is my No. 2 pick for the prize, The Fishermen, a first novel by Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma. Four sons form a tightknit tribe who do everything together. The story, told from the perfectly tuned perspective of 9-year-old Benjamin, feels like a slow motion tumble, where every possible rescue comes into sharp focus The Fishermenjust as it slips beyond reach. The brothers are warned to stay away from the nearby river, but when their father has to leave his family behind to work 1,000 kilometers away, the river calls. They go fishing, and it’s fun. They declare themselves “The Fishermen,” even making up a song to accompany their labors. Returning from a fishing outing one day, the boys encounter the local madman who prophesies the death of the oldest boy. “Ikena, you will swim in a river of red but shall never rise from it again,” he shouts. The boy will be killed, the man says, by a fisherman. The malignant words burrow into the 14-year-old’s thoughts and take over. Ikenna tries to protect himself from the prophecy, and by doing so, unravels all. (304 pages; Little, Brown and Company; $26)

Why I might be wrong and this could win: It has the power of a tragedy and the vividness of a boy’s voice.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Jamaican author Marlon James, is No. 3 on my Man Booker list. To read it is to be A Brief Historybombarded with violence, assaulted by a horde of voices, and buried in stories—stories that left me desperately searching for a narrative. Several characters act as narrators—a dead politician, a CIA agent, an obnoxious Rolling Stone reporter, several Jamaican gangsters, young men transformed into coke-addled bloodthirsty thugs, and a woman caught in the storm when she shows up just as gang leader Josey Wales and company shoots The Singer. The book is based on events in Jamaican history, including the shooting of reggae star Bob Marley in 1976. It also incorporates the rise of a Jamaican gang that, by the 1980s, controlled the crack trade in New York and Miami. Reading it is a challenge. It’s exasperating and confusing, raw and violent, and overrun with wicked, empty people. It’s also smart, daring, and as things finally — mostly — come together, breathtaking.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Few writers take such gambles. Fewer still can pull them off.

My No. 4 pick for the prize, The Year of the Runaways by British novelist Sunjeev Sahota, is about men living on the margins, and one woman, Narindar, whose act of compassion ruptures her tranquil life and destroys her faith. The men, Tochi, Randeep,Year of the Runaways and Avtar, are illegal Indian migrants in Sheffield, England. They live in circumstances so desperate, friendships are too costly to keep. The men run the hopeless treadmill of underpaid, physically brutal or menial jobs, for employers who view them as interchangeable pieces, and sometimes, property. The litany of hardships is awful and riveting. Yet the book lacks a sense of intimacy for much of its length, and does not find its heart until its final chapters, when Narindar and Tochi, an “untouchable” whose family was brutally slaughtered in sectarian violence in India, are forced together by circumstances, an event that marks the turning point in both lives.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Well-developed characters with wrenching stories make an almost political statement about what it means to be a migrant in the West.

I won’t lie. I have no idea what my No. 5 pick is about. In Satin Island, author Tom McCarthy, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010 for his novel, C, is telling us something about modern life. He says many clever things, and explores several intriguing Satin Islandobsessions — parachute accidents, oil spills—to no clear end. I’m so uncertain about all this, I’m going to tell you how the book ends: His character, U — and there’s really only one character — decides not to take the Staten Island Ferry. That’s it. Staten Island is —have you guessed it? — Satin Island. It came to U in a dream, appearing as a giant and beautiful trash incineration plant amid mountains of garbage, representing the true expression of our culture. I think. U makes this discovery while working as an in-house ethnologist for a big, anomalous company where he’s assigned to write, “The First and Last word of the Age,” as his contribution to the firm’s nebulous project of earth-shaking importance. And then other things happen. If I’ve given away too much, I apologize.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Many, many people are much smarter than I am and may understand this. It offers all kinds of tidbits to think about, and some moments buzzing with insight.

Anne Tyler’s characters don’t change so much as dig themselves deeper in A Spool of Blue Thread, my No. 6 pick for the Man Booker. The story revolves around an unexpected homecoming by misfit son, Denny. Denny has skipped years of holiday Spool of Bluegatherings, blames his parents for most everything wrong in his life, and resents his siblings. No surprise that no one quite believes him when he announces he’s returned to help the folks, Red and Abby. Red recently suffered a heart attack, and Abby’s memory is on the fritz. The problem is, Denny’s brother Stem has already moved in. Family tensions bubble along until boiling over in a fistfight between the brothers. Tyler is a master at finding the unhappy underside of family life and portraying the loveable, or in Denny’s case, the unlovable, loser. Yet somehow these parental anxieties, sibling resentments and sly observations of both don’t add up to much. Tyler’s familiarity with family foibles feels just too familiar, and there’s not much new to say about the fact that Mom liked you best.

Why I might be wrong and this could win: Tyler is admired as a deft observer of the intricacies of the American family. More compelling to me, for the past two years, Man Booker judges have picked the book I liked least as the winner. They could do so again, American Pharoah be damned.

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