Alexandra Petri: Nothing is Wrong and Here is Why

“ I think of writing as a way of trying to make eye contact with people and say, are you seeing this too?, and in that way it is sanity-affirming,” she says. “It helps me feel less alone and remember that other people agree that this is not the way we would like our world to be.”

         Before she turned 30, Alexandria Petri was the winner of the O. Henry Pun Off World Championship (I bet you didn’t even know such a contest existed) where she made puns on the names of every U.S. president  in chronological order such as “if Andrew jacks an automobile” and the loser on Jeopardy! Now Petri, a columnist for the Washington Post has written her second book, Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why (W.W. Norton & Co. 2020; $17.99—Amazon price), collection of more than 50 new and adapted essays from her Post columns.

         If you think someone with a resume like this was a nerd in high school, you’d be right. The only child of a U.S. Congressman from Wisconsin, she wrote a Shakespeare and feline comic book at age eight. Now that is seriously nerdy.

         Petri now has taken her humor to a more modern stage. She loves to skewer politics and the somewhat frightening and nonsensical actions our politician’s take.

         Is it hard, I ask her, to transform the horrible news we hear into satire and is it a way for her to keep sane?

         “I think I tend to be a relatively cheery person and this almost maniacal devotion to hunting for a bright side in gloomy situations can manifest as a kind of satire,” she says in describing the way she writes such columns as “America, please don’t put bleach inside yourself like the president says” and “Know The Signs: How to tell if your grandparent has become an antifa agent” in response to President Trump’s musing that maybe the 75-year-old protestor pushed to the ground in Buffalo was actually an ANTIFA agent trying to block police communication.

         It’s a way, she says, of looking at the way your thinking would have to be deranged to see today’s particular monstrosity as great news.

         “ I think of writing as a way of trying to make eye contact with people and say, are you seeing this too?, and in that way it is sanity-affirming,” she says. “It helps me feel less alone and remember that other people agree that this is not the way we would like our world to be.”

         Sometimes even people who can win national pun contests run out of ideas. What does Petri do when this happens?

         “I will usually go for a walk or pick up a book or something that isn’t the news and see if fresh inputs will help my brain along, but sometimes that doesn’t do it and my editor is nice enough to think it’s better only to write when you have something to say,” she says. “I am also grateful that I don’t always have to write jokes; sometimes I will just write a more straightforward column. If I can’t think of anything funny to say, I know I don’t always have to. And the flip side of this is that there are some days when I want to write three columns and have to be restrained from doing so.”

         Asked if there is anything else she wants people to know about her book, Petri has a quick answer.

         “I hope they will buy it and enjoy its cover,” she says, adding, “everyone please wash your hands and wear a mask and stay safe.”


Who Murdered the Supreme Court Candidate: Mental State, a mystery novel by Law Professor M. Todd Henderson

The murder of a good friend and fellow law professor inspired M. Todd Henderson to write Mental State (Down and Out Books 2018; $17.95), his first mystery novel.

“He was a professor at Florida State University and had just dropped of his kids and was pulling out of the driveway when he was shot,” says Henderson who teaches at the University of Chicago’s law school. It turns out the friend, Dan Martel, was murdered by two hitmen hired by his ex-wife’s family to gain full custody of their children. Henderson considers himself a storyteller and using those skills he channeled his feelings into an immensely readable mystery involving the deadly political machinations put in place to hide the past of a sexual predator in order to secure a place on the  Supreme Court. It’s an interesting premise and certainly timely though this book was written well before the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and besides, Henderson’s judge is liberal.

“My interest in law at a policy level is about power and what people are willing to do to achieve their ends,” says Henderson.

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In Mental State, Professor Alex Johnson, a professor at a renowned law school on Chicago’s southside (think University of Chicago) is murdered before he can reveal that the man being considered for the Supreme Court sexually abused him when they were both young. The death is first thought to be a suicide but FBI agent Royce Johnson, the victim’s brother, doesn’t believe his self-centered, narcissistic sibling would do such a thing. Once Royce proves it was murder, the next frame-up goes into place (the bad guys are good at backup plans) pinpointing the murder on one of the professor’s law students. But Johnson’s inability to quit trying to solve the crime soon puts himself on the wrong side of the law,  his comrades at the FBI and an array of federal officials determined to make sure the president’s pick for the highest court in the land goes through without a hitch. If that means a few murders and ruined lives to achieve this, well, it’s for the greater good.


What: M. Todd Henderson discusses “Mental State.” He will be joined in conversation by Jeff Ruby. A Q&A and signing will follow the discussion.

When: Thursday, October 18, 2018 – 6:00pm – 7:00pm

Where: 57th Street Books, 1301 E 57th St., Chicago, IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (773) 752-4381;

Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism–From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond

“The history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal,” writes E. J. Dionne in his latest book Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism–From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond (Simon & Schuster 2016; $30).Why the Right Went Wrong Jacket Art

In a recent phone interview, Dionne, a senior fellow, Brookings Institution; columnist for The Washington Post, described how Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. and George W. Bush have had to make promises they couldn’t keep, perpetuating a cycle of disillusionment that has pushed the GOP steadily rightward.

“If you want to understand where Trump came from it’s from the anger and the resentment of white blue collar workers,” says Dionne. “There is a nostalgia for the 1950s where the structure of the economy and the family was stable. But all those were underwritten by an economic value forged by the unions that allowed working class people to support their families. If you care about the family, you have to care about the underpinnings of the family. Part of my book is a plea and argument to those who are less progressive that there are economic reasons for the breakdown.”

Dionne, who describes himself as a strong supporter of unions and the way they created a thriving middle class, says that conservative leaders have made promises that simply can’t be kept.
“They promise to reduce the size of government but no Republican has been able to reduce the size of government—it was the same size at the end of Ronald Reagan’s two terms as at the beginning. They talk about deregulation but most Republicans want safe water, less air pollution and regulations that ensure safety.”

In writing his book, Dionne draws upon his more than three decades of writing political commentary as well as intensive research. As tEJ Dionne_credit Paul Morigihis election year advances, he sees many of his ideas reflected in what the candidates are espousing as they try to out-do each other on conservative views including immigration (“you’re not going to be able deport 11 million people,” he says about their promise). He also counters the right’s anti-government rhetoric.

“Medicare may be a government entitlement program but we earned it,” he says. “I think that is a proper form of conservatism—societies hold themselves together by changing when they need to, Medicare made it so that people have health care.”


What:  Author E. J. Dionne discusses “Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism–From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond”

When: Thursday, February 25, 6– 7:15 p.m.

Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, lower level, Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 747-4300



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