Books of the Bluegrass: 10 must-reads by Kentucky writers from 2015

Jan 13, 2016 at 4:50 pm
Books of the Bluegrass: 10 must-reads by Kentucky writers from 2015

Fans of Wendell Berry, Hunter S. Thompson, Bobbie Ann Mason and Barbara Kingsolver — to name just a few — know that Kentucky’s bluegrass is just as vital a source for language and stories as it is for thoroughbreds and cash crops. Our annual book review begins with some familiar Kentucky products. Katherine Black’s “Row by Row” takes an expansive view of gardening in her collection of essays, as bourbon expert Fred Minnick dives headfirst into our native spirit. Tom Kimmerer looks to Kentucky’s trees as a way of understanding our history. Local activist Gerry Stribling brings his military experience to bear on his study of Buddhism. Two writers from Ohio County draw on their Western Kentucky childhoods to very different ends: what Ron Whitehead and his mother Greta share as oral history and poetry, Kirker Butler excoriates in a beauty pageant satire. Emily Bingham, of Louisville’s storied newspaper family, also looks to the past and recounts the experience of the family’s rebellious Henrietta, who fled the media empire to cavort with the Bloomsbury set. From the legendary Chelsea Hotel in New York, Kentucky native Ed Hamilton wrote his first fiction collection, a meditation on gentrification and the “chintzy” age we all inhabit, whether that be the Highlands or the East Village. Louisville’s Butler Books, known for their gorgeous coffee table books, published a poignant coming-of-age novel by Fred Schloemer, who takes his inspiration from the local theater scene, while Spalding University MFA professor Fenton Johnson takes inspiration from the local pot growing scene, pitting his characters against the Reagan-era War on Drugs. The year 2015 was fertile indeed for Kentucky writers, proving again that our local literary scene is just as vibrant and vital as our culinary and bourbon scenes … with just as much local flavor. Enjoy this literary flight — a sampling of nonfiction, fiction and poetry published recently by writers from Kentucky.

Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners By Katherine J. Black Swallow Press; 208 pgs., $20

Katherine J. Black’s previous career as an archivist for the University of Kentucky led her through 18 Kentucky counties over two and a half years to archive the rich histories of both rural and urban gardeners, from Paducah to the hills of Appalachia.

Through 27 stories, Black muses on the different lives each gardener leads, but through their common relationships with the earth. Some are native Kentuckians growing food on land their families have owned for generations. Others are immigrants who’ve weathered hardships and landed in Kentucky by chance. Still more recount racial injustice throughout the 20th century and its negative effects on African American farming that still exist today. Two are urban farmers in Louisville. Diversity throughout the book highlights our collective connection to food, land and the human experience.

Despite life’s uncontrollable circumstances, like illnesses, deaths, unemployment and distance from loved ones, each of Black’s storytellers maintains a chosen happiness and the tenacity to control subsistence by growing and preserving food. Each tale is just intimate enough for the reader to feel a connection to the gardener, but brief enough to anticipate the next.

Peppered with Appalachian colloquialisms, southern charms and progressive food politics, the sage Kentuckians reflect on their connections to family and the past, they make peace with hardships, and they plan for the future. “Row by Row” evolves into a gardening manual, without giving a single instruction. Within the stories are secrets and inspirations that readers can apply to their own gardens, even if they’re digging for the first time. —Rachel Hurd Anger

Venerable Trees: History, Biology, and Conservation in the Bluegrass By Tom Kimmerer University Press of Kentucky; 230 pgs., $39.95

An interesting recent trend — on the cultural map, it seems, located at the intersection of environmental study and local history — is the popularization of identifying and appreciating big trees. Not just sequoias with car tunnels through their trunks, we’re talking about oaks and hickories that predate the first European settlers. They’ve lived through times when firewood was how everyone stayed warm, and they avoided the ax when building materials were acquired without driving to Home Depot. As is happening in other regions, Kentucky now has a nonprofit organization devoted to more fully understanding these huge and hearty survivors, keeping them alive as long as possible and encouraging the development of suitably majestic descendants. This book functions as the group’s rationale, rallying cry and recommendations. It turns out that the Bluegrass region is particularly blessed with these trees, owing to both culture (as big old shade trees have often been valued on horse farms) and nature (as the right kind of limestone-based soil can help keep certain species strong for centuries.) It’s all well set out in Kimmerer’s book, which aspires to rope in the interested general reader as well as those who are already in the know. At times you can feel the strain of fitting it all in (including a compare-and-contrast secondary focus on the Nashville Basin region), but this is a subject that can’t be done justice by a listicle, and there are more than enough high-quality photos for anyone needing a break.

Land developers are one potential villain in the story, but chapters here show some righteously helping the old behemoths. Most chapters zero in on certain trees that are given names, which is clever — but “Woody C. Guthtree”? If you’ve never taken a botany class sometime this worthwhile book might challenge you just a smidge.

—T.E. Lyons

Bourbon Curious By Fred Minnick Zenith Press; 240 pgs., $22.99

By now, if you’re a bourbon enthusiast, you’ve probably become familiar with the name Fred Minnick. A Wall Street Journal best-selling author for his 2011 book “Camera Boy: An Army Journalist’s War in Iraq,” Minnick has since established himself as one of the top bourbon writers on the planet. His ground-breaking book “Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey” (2013, Potomac Books) made him an icon in the industry, while his writing for Whiskey Advocate, Covey Rise and Whiskey magazine continue to position him as an authority.

The Louisville-based author also is well placed as the go-to bourbon aficionado for the Kentucky Derby Museum, with his Legends Series an ongoing reminder of just how important bourbon is to the Bluegrass. And yes, if you can name a legendary distiller or any major player in the whiskey industry, there’s a fair chance Minnick, likely donning his trademark ascot and blazer, has at some point sat down and chatted with that person over a highball glass.

His newest book, “Bourbon Curious,” is a beautiful, hardcover release that is packed with dazzling color photography, recipes, flavor profiles for more than 50 popular brands and a smattering of other curiosities, history and information. In the book, Minnick reveals what’s inside the bottle, dispels common myths and does his best to explain what a true bourbon drinker should know.

He also extols bourbon’s value not just as a distilled beverage with a heritage, but as something cultural that is far bigger than what’s inside the glass.

“Bourbon transcends ingredients and brand names,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “It embodies a culture, a feeling, and a sense of unity that draws friends together and brings foes to peace.”

Minnick puts forth “Bourbon Curious” as a guide for those who truly want to know the back story of their favorite adult sipper — and to those who don’t want to come across as an uneducated ass at cocktail parties. —Kevin Gibson

Buddhism for Dudes By Gerry Stribling Wisdom Publications; 123 pgs., $14.95

This book is for “dudettes” as well as dudes. It gives men and women a clear, concise, lighthearted introduction to Buddhism while helping women readers better understand the sometimes puzzling spiritual ideas held by the men in their lives. Its author served in the Marines in the 1970s and studied Buddhism, decades later, at the feet of a Buddhist master in Sri Lanka.

There are thousands of books about Buddhism. Why read this one? The title of the first chapter gives a clue: “Buddhism, No Bullshit.” This unvarnished look at Buddhism is as self-effacing as the religion itself, which tells us to question everything, including Buddhism’s key ideas.

Those ideas include Buddhism’s four “Noble Truths”: (1) That the major problem we face in life is suffering (rather than sin, as in Western religions); (2) that suffering has a cause; (3) that suffering can be stopped; and, (4) there are eight specific steps we can take to eliminate our own suffering and that of others.

It is the way Strib (as he likes to be called) explains the “Noble Eightfold Path” that gives this book its charm. He explains the Path in a way that can be understood — and embraced — by tree huggers as well as hockey fans. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Stribling emphasizes the roles of ethics and duty in Buddhism, where the individual must learn to take responsibility for one’s life and cultivate compassion.”

In his professional life, Strib has served people with developmental disabilities, mental illness, refugees, veterans, prison inmates and the homeless. Presently he is an “eleventh hour” volunteer for Hosparus of Louisville. His next book, due out in 2016, is titled “Tactical Buddhism: Negotiating the Noble Eightfold Path.”

Buddhism for Dudes places Strib among hipster Buddhist writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kornfield and Pema Chödrön. —Terry Cozad Taylor

MAMA: a poet’s heart in a Kentucky girl By Ron Whitehead and Great Whitehead Trancemission Press; 212 pgs., $16

When the reader first meets Mama, she’s wrenching a chicken’s neck, then using her shotgun to take down a Christmas tree for the kids. We soon learn that her dream is to become a writer after she’s raised her six children. This book, “MAMA: a poet’s heart in a Kentucky girl,” is the fulfillment of that dream.

The first 114 pages are filled with poems written by Mama, Greta Render Whitehead, and her son, Ron Whitehead, a poet himself who embraced his mother’s dream and supported her through its fruition. The two have a similar cadence, style, vocabulary and tone. Both are gifted storytellers. Their gift — expressed in unpretentious language freed of punctuation — channels the reader directly into their Western Kentucky life. The power of their poetry to transport the reader into their rural experience comes from a facility with language and storytelling that is entirely comfortable with the everyday and the familiar. Yet, while much of this book will feel pleasingly familiar to readers with similar roots, there is nothing cliched about it.

When Mama writes of the times she and her 12 brothers and sisters lived in a car or in “the chicken house” with their parents, it is no typical hard-knock-life tale. She recounts a bohemian life filled with laughter, songs, art and storytelling.

When Ron writes of Mama, one of the first memories he shares is finding the torn envelope where Mama had written a note to daddy: “it said/when all the children leave home/i’m going to become writer.” Like Mama, Ron decided to be a writer, and as he explains, “it requires more/than a little nerve to leave the tobacco fields, run past 9-to-5 … and be a poet.” Long after he had become a bonafide poet with books, accolades, degrees, publications, both ears pierced and his faced tattooed in Estonia, where he was the keynote figure at an International poetry festival, Ron realized that he knew almost nothing of Mama’s early life.

What follows (the last 91 pages of the book) is an oral history, a transcription of a four-tape interview Ron conducted with Mama — with his sister Jo Carolyn joining in too — in which he set out to fill this gap. The immediacy of the conversation gives it a StoryCorps feel. It’s almost as though you can hear their voices, which close the book with Ron thanking Mama for doing the project with him and Mama agreeing that it’s been a joy, just as it will be for the reader lucky enough to share this beautiful book with them.

—Laura Snyder

Irrepressible By Emily Bingham Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 369 pgs., $28

A photograph in the first pages of “Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham” shows a very young Henrietta Bingham, just a child of 5 or 6, a cigarette hangs from her pursed lips. She’s dressed as a cowboy, wearing riding chaps, a heavy coat with fringed-sleeves and boots that must be too large for her feet. Her great-niece and biographer, Emily Bingham tells us that from an early age Henrietta was not too keen on girly things.

Beyond a few photographs and letters, Henrietta left little record of her inner life for her biographer to explore: a handful of letters, another woman’s monogrammed tennis clothes, a pair of finely made underpants. As close as Emily Bingham gets to her great-aunt’s life we never get a really good look. It’s as though the lights are dimmed. We know she had lovely features and a round face, startling violet-blue eyes and a magnetism that rendered poets, athletes and professors dizzy with longing. For all her charisma though, she remains a ghost.

I think that Henrietta, who loved who she loved and got away with as much as she possibly could, would be pleased. She might have even preferred it this way — for the readers of her biography to be entranced by parts that we can see, just as we are left to wonder about the parts that we cannot.

Bingham writes, “I have not presumed to speak for Henrietta. Text between quotation marks comes from historical sources. Readers may close this book feeling like one of Henrietta’s admirers who had the sense of ‘catching a glimpse of you at the end of the street and not being able to overtake you.’ True history, true life is often that way.” And so it is with Henrietta. —Kate Weiss

The Chintz Age By Ed Hamilton Cervena Barva Press; 284 pgs., $18

Gentrification isn’t a new story, but Kentucky native Ed Hamilton, no relation to the Louisville sculptor of the same name, has a new collection that approach the question from inside the artistic persuasion.

Best known for his non-fiction work, “Legends of the Chelsea Hotel,” which approaches similar themes, Hamilton has lived in the legendary hotel for years.

In his first fictional work, Hamilton again applies his wry tone and gift for human insight to New Yorkers. Comprised of seven short stories and one novella, “The Chintz Age” draws on Hamilton’s strengths, and allows him to stretch his wings and step away from the truth.

The titular story takes a more generational approach to the guttering candle of the Age of Aquarius, as a mother prepares to give her Avenue A apartment up to her daughter and son-in-law, who has a job at some new fancy company called “Google.”

The novella, “The Retro Seventies Manhattan Dream Apartment,” is the most thematically ambitious tale here. Hamilton gives these characters a wish, a wish no doubt shared by many New Yorkers, but the ending of this tale could be seen as happy or horrifying.

Most of the stories are told in third-person, and one could almost believe Hamilton is still working in creative nonfiction, chronicling the lives of his fellow East Villagers. The stories are just long enough for the reader to relax into the characters, but Hamilton rightly changes focus before we can grow tired of his subjects.

There is a good dash of romance to be found in these stories, although the love tends to lean toward second chances, and long simmering affection that gently blooms more than explodes.

The tales in “Chintz Age” are often simultaneously elegiac and hopeful. The bohemian New York of our collective imagination is dying, but Hamilton suggests that maybe something new can be born in its place, if we are brave enough to imagine it.  —Eli Keel

Behind the Footlights By Fred Schloemer Butler Books; 301 pgs., $16.95

In the introduction to “Behind the Footlights,” Fred Schloemer — a career psychotherapist who lives in Louisville — writes that the kernel for this novel was the experience he had sitting in the audience of a production of “The Sound of Music” by the Hayswood Theater in Corydon, Indiana. “There’s a story here,” he thought, “about the importance of regional theater in America’s vibrant arts scene.” Schloemer set out to tell it, and just as he was surprised by the quality of the small-town Indiana production, readers may be surprised by the skillful and engaging narrative Schloemer weaves in this coming-of-age novel.

The novel opens in 1953 in Palmer’s Ridge, Indiana, where readers are introduced to a 5-year-old D.W. Singer, who has mesmerized his classmates with a daring climb into the highest branches of a schoolyard tree. Throughout much of the novel, D.W. goes on to mesmerize — with the exception of his hateful mother — all around him, including the reader and a fellow summer camper in one of the book’s strongest chapters.

After a stunning performance in the high school production of “Our Town,” D.W. heads to Indiana University to pursue acting, and it seems he’ll put the small town on the map with his considerable talents. However, the Vietnam War and other realities thwart, or at least defer, D.W.’s dream of becoming an actor, and rather than Hollywood or Broadway, he finds himself back home again. The authenticity with which Schloemer plumbs the depths of D.W.’s battle scars and resentment makes one wonder if another kernel of this very worthy novel didn’t come from experiences the author has had sitting behind his psychotherapist desk. Whatever the case, the outcome is therapeutic. —Laura Snyder

Pretty Ugly By Kirker Butler Thomas Dunne Books; 294 pgs., $25.99

Born and raised in Hartford, Kentucky, Kirker Butler achieved success as a writer for Fox’s Emmy-winning animated sitcom “The Family Guy.” During a writers’ strike, he turned his attention to his rural youth as fodder for a novel. He zeroed in on the year his mother — who served as director of the county fair beauty pageant — set him to the task of choreographing the contestants’ dance routine to Neil Diamond’s “America.” And this is the world inhabited by the characters in “Pretty Ugly.”

Miranda Miller, former Miss Daviess County Fair, 1991, has one driving ambition — to spawn a pageant contestant so successful the family is awarded its own reality TV show, which she pitches as “The Princess and the Queen.” While Miranda is the ultimate monomaniacal stage mother, her 9-year-old daughter, Bailey, has had enough, so much so that she’s forcing an early retirement from a lifetime of pageant successes (128 wins and 96 runner-up titles) by secretly binge eating. In response, Miranda, who’s seven months pregnant when the novel opens, turns her focus to soon-to-be-born daughter Brixton.

As Miranda writes in her memoir: “I was famous, which meant I was special. And in a world that reveres such things, why wouldn’t I want the same for my daughter.” And that is the crux of “Pretty Ugly’s” satire — what David Brooks has recently called “the culture of the Big Me” — billions of narcissistic worlds, each one revolving around a starring character whose primary goals are self-promotion, self-celebration and — in the case of the book’s patriarch, Ray — self-medication. Ray takes full advantage of his nursing profession to fuel his pharmaceutical “hobby”: indiscriminately popping random pills and guessing what they are based on the side effects. Among the side effects is Ray’s 17-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Courtney. The plot culminates with the whole family (Courtney too) at the Chattanooga Christmas Angels Pageant, where Miranda’s mother, Joan, is conspiring with Jesus on murder.

Butler’s writing skewers its comedic targets with surgical precision. The satire is merciless and truly cutting as he operates in this Southern world of beauty pageants. Ray doesn’t share Miranda’s dream of starring in “The Queen and the Princess” because he “had never seen a reality show that treated its subject with a shred of dignity.” That goes doubly for the Miller family’s being written into the “Pretty Ugly” world. The humor is at their expense and the reader’s immense (if guilty) pleasure.

—Laura Snyder

The Man Who Loved Birds By Fenton Johnson University of Kentucky Press, 328 pgs., $24.95

Fenton Johnson’s third novel, “The Man Who Loved Birds,” is a study of time, place and character. Set in the late 1980s during the Reagan administration, Johnson’s novel pits his characters against The War on Drugs with its ramifications on county politics and corruption.

This is a layered and quiet novel that begins with an infraction — a Trappist monk, Brother Flavian, dallies in a bar where local outlaw, Johnny Faye, teaches him to play pool. But small infractions develop momentum. Johnny Faye, the titular character, is a significant member of a pot growing collective who evades the law much to the chagrin of the county attorney and the amusement of the county judge. He is a trickster character whose homespun wisdom charm not only Flavian, but also the town’s new doctor, Meena Chatterjee, a woman running from a mysterious past in Bengal, India. For all of Johnny Faye’s smooth talking charisma — his closing argument in the county’s case against him is masterfully manipulative — his one-on-one interactions with both Flavian and Meena in the monastery woods reveal a vulnerable man searching for connection. This connection, Brother Flavian and Meena soon realize, will irrevocably change their lives.

Johnson, who teaches in the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville. writes prose that is languid, sensual and sprawling. He develops his three main characters with pensive and subtle details that lead to startling connections and revelations.Their conflicts are believable and heart-wrenching, leaving the reader desperate for one or two more chapters to soothe the ache they leave behind. —Amy M. Miller