The best fiction of 2016, according to me

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?

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.

Travels With Mitch

Stalking Mitch McConnell through coal country, one thing is clear: When I say Mitch, Mitch says nothing. 

Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn

Story From Louisville Magazine

It’s 9:35 in the morning on Aug. 7, and I am late. There isn’t a soul in the office at Whayne Supply. Desks empty, papers abandoned in mid-scrawl, phones silent. It’s as though the Rapture has sucked heavenward all the good people of Corbin, Kentucky, about 40 miles from the Tennessee border. Nobody mans the front desk. That alone feels like an invitation, so I wander in. As I advance, I see two men to my left. I expect them to yell, “Get out of here!” They don’t. They don’t seem to care. I push through a door and into a warehouse. And now I hear voices. The farther I walk, the louder the voices. The farther I walk, the brighter the light. Finally, I reach a large room at the end of the warehouse.

I am entering the presence of Senator Mitch McConnell.

Maybe 100 people, mostly men, stand around a chunk of coal the size of a pygmy hippo. It catches the light and glitters seductively, displaying a dazzle every bit as beguiling as that other carbon product, although this one is not quite ready for an engagement ring setting.

A young woman yells (young women, I’ll come to learn, are always yelling), “When I say team, you say Mitch.





“When I say Kentucky, you say coal. Kentucky!”




That night, when I bed down in an overpriced Holiday Inn Express in Hazard, the chant will ring through my dreams. I will have heard it 100 times or more. Maybe 1,000, with occasional variations:

“When I say Mitch, you say coal!”





No chants are unprompted. No enthusiasm is unaided by the ample voice of some young female campaign worker.

I ponder starting my own chants.

“When I say ketchup, you say tomato!”




But I don’t. There are more serious matters at hand.

READ THE REST: fullmitch

Man Booker Short List Predictions, sort of

I still haven’t read all the Man Booker long list entries, but, for the hell of it, here are the six I’d put into the short list if I was the one making the announcement on Sept. 9 — if anyone was mad enough to  let me have a say. This isn’t a prediction — despite my misleading headline. My track record at predicting this prize could not be worse. Last year, the short list book I hated ran away with the prize.

And of course, the best book may still be among the short stack of entries I haven’t yet read. I need to quit my job and catch up with my reading.

My list, in no particular order:

The History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Us by David Nicholls

Orfeo by Richard Powers

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt


Risque Business: Hail to the Queens


Terri Vanessa Coleman at the Connection. PHOTO BY JOEY HARRISON

No time to write a proper intro this morning. Here’s my latest story, in the June issue of  Louisville Magazine, about the drag queens of the Connection nightclub and the businessmen behind this growing entertainment — well, maybe not an empire, but at least a sub-empire. You can also read it here. Joey Harrison shot the above photo, but photos in the story are by Mickie Winters.

It’s midnight, Saturday, April 5, at the Connection nightclub on South Floyd Street downtown, and Terri Vanessa Coleman is singing. Her muffled voice comes through the walls from her dressing room. It means she is in some kind of a bother, a ferment that’s been building since the first show at 10:30 p.m.Another performer says Terri Vanessa bumped her out of the way during the opening production number, leaving her to flounce onstage unescorted. Then Terri Vanessa had angry words about who-knows-what with the guy who cues the music, and now he’s upset. And she’s been singing ever since. That’s never a good sign.

She doesn’t want to talk about it. “Not now!” she says, poking her head from her dressing room door and waving a long pink fingernail. “This is just not a good time, honey. Maybe Thursday.”

In a dressing room at the other end of the narrow blue hall, Mokha Montrese shivers, a small white towel draped over her shoulders. Apart from a G-string and tape over her nipples, she wears only jewel-red lipstick, her No. 301 false eyelashes and gold jewelry. Her wig is off, her own hair crushed into a tight cap. She cannot get warm, but she does not get dressed. Next door, Cezanne Blincoe is nearly ready for the next set, her makeup perfect, her dress picked out. She moves like a woman with all the time in the world.

Mokha shouts to Cezanne through the wall. “Cezanne, I really need to go home.”

Cezanne walks in, taking in the scene.

“I’m feeling worse as it goes on,” Mokha gasps. “I really need to go. I feel so weak. And I’m so f–cking cold.”

“Put some clothes on,” Cezanne offers. Instead, Mokha puts her head down and closes her eyes, each breath coming with a tiny catch.

At the other end of the hall, Hurricane Summers and Franco de la Rosa can still hear Terri Vanessa’s indistinct warble through the wall. They look at each other, and Franco, aka the  Puerto Rican Papi, goes back to sizing up his physique. He’s the male lead in the drag show, LaBoy LeFemme, escorting the girls through production numbers. They tower over him in their impossible heels. … READ THE REST OF THE STORY


Here is a selection of articles I wrote for Medscape Medical News

The Medscape stories are directed towards a medical audience. If your PhD or medical degree is at the cleaners this week, you might not find them the most scintillating stuff. They’re heavy on statistics and jargon, and the titles of researchers and physicians go on forever, per Medscape style.  I like writing them not because they challenge my writing chops — chops don’t seem desirable here — but because they challenge my brain and demand a lot of care to execute. Since my PhD has been at the cleaners for — well, forever — I dare not mess around with them or take shortcuts. Writing them is a regular lesson in careful thinking.

Oh, and I keep getting a little message from WordPress that there might be an ad on this page. I doubt that will happen, unless there’s an advertiser out there who wants to reach my five friends. But let me know if you do see an ad; I’m curious who would be desperate enough to use this space.

Easy to Swallow

Into the Bowels
of Bowels
with Mary Roach

MOUTHIf someone took a notion to ask author Mary Roach to perform, say, stomach surgery, she would probably also remove much of the large intestine, the gall bladder and at least one kidney, all with the excuse that it was just so interesting.

That’s the kind of crazy logic that holds together Roach’s newest book, “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” as it comfortably slides from a meditation on cat food tasters (“The average rating, I am gobsmacked to report, fell between ‘liked mildly’ and ‘neither like nor dislike’ “) to accounts of explosive colonoscopies, to a discourse on cow farts (they don’t), to a product that keeps flatulence from smelling, which somehow also manages to include the story of how the photograph of a friend’s 1980s band reemerged on a greeting card years later with the heading, “Greetings from the Dork Club.”

Like the perfect dinner guest full of entertaining conversation — or wait, given the subject, lets delay this until dinner is over — Roach rolls out one surprising story after another. She matches the dinner wit’s great timing with her impressive mastery of the comic footnote. Take a discussion of megacolons, a phenomenon caused by something called Hirschsprung’s disease. Hirschsprung’s robs the lower digestive tract of its ability to keep things moving, forcing the organ to distend to painful proportions. The megacolon of a man named J.W. grew so large that, upon seeing it at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Roach thinks, “It wears the same size jeans as me.” It left poor J.W. looking like “the bastard offspring of Humpty Dumpty and Olive Oyl,” she says.Roach tells us J.W. spent part of his life as “The Balloon Man” in a freak show exhibit in Philadelphia’s old Ninth & Arch Museum, alongside such oddities as the “Minnesota Wooly Baby.” Then this footnote: “Oddly, the exhibit chosen for billboarding on the building’s exterior was ‘Young Women Basketball Players.'”

 Here’s the rest of the review.

Dead Horses Have Babies, Clones Compete, Superhorse Has Arrived

How to get a baby horse by any method except sex. I wrote this story for the April issue of Louisville Magazine.

The colt was born this morning. Now shy and spindly, it clomps lightly on supermodel legs, a bit dazed beside the mare that birthed him. Up and down the barn aisle are other mares with newborns or mares fatly pregnant. One Morgan mare, a month overdue, her body swollen and heavy, seems to slosh and sway in her stall.

The mares are all surrogates, the hothouse incubators for champion embryos. While the show-mare mothers continue to prance in the ring, their progeny take up residence in the wombs of genetic strangers who play mother and wet nurse. The privileged champion, like a well-bred Victorian lady, hands off the messy parts without missing a hoofbeat.

A short walk away , in the main veterinary building at Equine Services in Simpsonville, it is fretful filly day. Seaforth’s Bonnie Lass stands in a red metal stall, sensitive to every movement in the room. Her ears point straight up and flick nervously, like receivers snatching at stray signals. She is sedated, but you wouldn’t know it. She could not be more watchful.

Behind her, Scott Bennett pulls on a clear blue plastic glove that goes all the way up to his armpit.

He’ll need it.

Bennett, the veterinarian who owns Equine Services, is about to retrieve an embryo via the back end of the antsy mare. 


Horse Cloning Story COLOR

The Tao of Poodle


Tula was a black standard poodle who embodied the notion of irrational exuberance.

For her, everything was exciting and worthy of comment. A ride in the car was the most fun thing in the whole world. A walk in the neighborhood was the most fun thing in the whole world. The chance to catch a tennis ball was the most fun thing in the whole world.

You get the picture.

If I had her out for a walk, and she saw someone she knew, it was pointless to try to hang onto her. I’d let go of her leash and she would race to her friend and greet them like the last time she saw them they were dying and she had not expected them to make it. She loved our neighbors.

She knew our names and if I said, “Go get Joey,” she knew to run to my husband. “Go get Gramma” sent her to my mother-in-law.

We took her on trips and she would spend five, six hours or more standing in the back of the SUV, looking out the window to see what was coming next. She greeted cows with a lowing sound. Horses too brought an excited moo.

She loved to make noise. No salesman ever remained on our front stoop when she answered the door with her deep bark and long white canines. Had the visitor simply stepped inside, she would have brought him a tennis ball. But she looked intimidating.

Her only enemy was UPS, and she would sound the alarm not only when the brown van came to the house, but when we passed a UPS van in the car.

Near the end of July I noticed a funny wheeze in her breathing. I figured I was over-reacting when I took her to the vet.  I was not. He sent us straight to the animal hospital. There Tula stayed, the victim of a hole in her lung that allowed air to leak into her chest cavity. Trapped there, the air compressed her lungs to the size of paperback novels. The vets put in chest tubes so the air could escape, and we waited for her to heal. Every day they would measure the air in her chest cavity. Each day there was a little less. She was getting better. I was glad she was in good hands, but leaving her in the hospital was wrenching.

She wanted the family together at all times. I called her our Family Values Dog. If I left her food bowl in the living room, and Joey and I were in our offices, she would run out to the living room, grab a mouthful of food, and pick an office to chew in. She didn’t like the separate offices.

I am an early riser, and my husband sleeps later. So she’d get up with me, and when she heard sounds of stirring from the bedroom, she’d stand at the bedroom door to be let in to see Joey. If I didn’t go in with her, she’d stand in the bedroom and stare back at me in my office until I got the message.

A week into her hospital stay, the air stopped escaping. When no air accumulated two days in a row, they let us take Tula home. I had to keep her quiet, so I kept her in the office was me, where she couldn’t see out the window. One day she started barking and growling, begging to get out. Puzzled, we walked to the front door together. Parked two doors down? The UPS truck. She had heard her enemy approaching. No question, I thought, she’s getting better.

But by the end of the week, she was wheezing again. This time our vet withdrew the air with a syringe. “Take her home,” he said. “Maybe this will do the trick.” In a day, I could tell it wasn’t working. The next morning, when I didn’t follow her into the bedroom to wake Joey, she came back to my office, grabbed me by the wrist, and led me to the bedroom. We should be together, she said.

Two days later, the wheeze was back.

That evening we took her for a ride in the country to see the horses and cows. At bed time we put couch cushions on the floor and slept beside her. I called the vet in the morning, but before we took her in, we went to the park where she and I spent so many Saturdays and played a little fetch. She still wanted to play. Nothing could stop her. Then we took her to the vet and said goodbye. She would have been eight in October. We are still grieving.

But I’m also conscious of the lessons this large-hearted dog taught me with her unmatched joie di vive. I want to share them with you.

The Tao of Tula

1. Everything is funner when everyone is together.

2. Making someone else very happy is the best way to make yourself very happy.

3. Each morning, remind everyone around you how special they are to you.

4. Greet all friends with great enthusiasm.

5. Sometimes, when everyone else is busy, it’s nice to just sit and feel the sun on your back.

6. Drop everything if you might catch a bunny.

7. When you love someone, you can say anything with just a few gestures and sounds.

8. When choosing between toys, always select the one that makes the most noise. Everyone will want to hear you enjoy yourself.

9. Running is better than walking. Walking is better than sitting.

10. Don’t miss an opportunity to play.

11. Now is everything.

On September 7 we adopted four-year-old Phoebe from Carolina Poodle Rescue. Like Tula, she’s a black standard, but a good fifteen pounds smaller. Unlike Tula, she is quiet, and loves to wind her body around my legs like a cat. She has her own spirit, her own rules for living, her own lessons to teach us.

I just hope we’re smart enough to learn them quickly. We’re working on it. I’ll let you know.

(photos by Joey Harrison)

Man Booker Predictions

Here’s a link to the story I wrote for the Chicago Tribune with my Man Booker predictions. I’ll know in a few minutes how wildly off-base I was.

By Jenni Laidman10:28 a.m. CDT, October 16, 2012

Some literary awards are like Christmas presents. They simply appear under the tree. We’re all thrilled by the surprise — or in the case of the 2012 Pulitzer for fiction, not so thrilled by the missing present. The Man Booker Prize — for books written by citizens of the U.K. Commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe — is different. No one need run downstairs on Tuesday when the winner is announced to see what’s waiting and hope it fits and isn’t hideous. It’s more like the Oscars. The judges announce the dozen or so books considered prize contenders in July. A month before the award, the Man Booker folks release a short list of finalists, the half-dozen books from which the winner will be selected. It’s a reader-participation opportunity. I could use another month to read them all, but if I’m diligent, I can be part of the process. I don’t get a vote. God help us, we do not need a People’s Choice Award for literature. (We already have one — the best-sellers list.) But I do earn debating rights and the smug satisfaction of being in the literary know. In England. Where they have those smart accents.

(the rest of the story:,0,5097917.story?page=1 )