Sunday, May 19, 2019

Shooting Ghosts for Karen Abbott

I've long felt that historian Karen Abbott was writing to an audience of one - namely me.  When the dialogue of a book commences, and an author is suddenly talking to you, and you feel that each time the page is turned the writer has taken another sip from their drink there on the bar to enable them to continue with their story - well, for this reader, that's exactly what I want.  The author's voice inside my head, talking just to me.  And when they're good, any peculiarities of voice fade into the background and you're left with a friend telling you a story over a few drinks.  That's what happens with me and Karen Abbott - the words on the page fade away, and I'm not so much reading as listening.

The first book of Ms. Abbott's that I read was Sin in the Second City.  I was drawn to it because of the lure of Chicago, the salaciousness of brothels and booze - catnip for me?  Sure, absolutely.  But I was immediately struck by her trenchant use of language and how she was able to introduce information seamlessly.  Some historians do their research, and then, by God, they are going to cram every detail they learned into their work.  This leads to clumsy writing and the gratuitous elements are as easy to spot as peppercorns in a bowl of sugar.  It's better to have necessary and illuminating details rise up from the story, not to be thrown down from on high - and this is exactly what Karen Abbott does time and again.

That first book I read explored the creation of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and in her latest work, The Ghosts of Eden Park, you can hear echoes of Sin in the Second City because the Bureau is again at play.  This time, the Bureau's concern isn't enforcement of the Mann Act, but rather the folly of Prohibition.

In The Ghosts of Eden Park, you'll read about one of the greatest bootleggers of all time - no, not Al Capone, but George Remus.  A year after Prohibition began, Remus owned more than a third of all the alcohol in the United States.  This allows him to throw a New Year's Eve party for more than 100 guests where he would light cigars with C-notes, where each guest would find a $1,000 bill under their plate, where the men were given diamond encrusted stick pins and gold watches - and for the women?  A set of keys to unlock one of the gleaming and new 1922 Pontiacs parked all in a row outside the Remus mansion.

The lavish lifestyle, of course, can't go overlooked, and soon Remus will find himself hunted by the First Lady of Law, Mabel Walker Willebrandt.  She's tenacious, smart, and quick.  During a meeting to discuss the possibility of becoming only the second woman to receive an appointment to Assistant Attorney General, she "had only one discernable shortcoming, joked President Harding...her youth.  Laughing, she assured him that she would soon outgrow it."

That detail?  That let's the reader know that Remus is indeed up against it.

Abbott draws her cast of characters, gives each personality - from the pugnacious Remus, to his doomed wife, Imogene, to the investigator sent by Willebrandt to probe Remus' empire, Franklin Dodge.  You'll find booze here, naturally, licentiousness of the first order, and guns.  And since we're of course talking about one of Chekhov's guns, you just know it's going to murderously go off.


In addition to all this high drama are those details that Abbott ingeniously peppers her story with - amputees filling hallowed out wooden legs with good whiskey; Charles P. Taft II, the Hamilton County prosecutor, son of a President, who would charge Remus with murder, described by his mother as having "quicksilver in his veins," the quicksilver fueling her son's boundless energy; or the "raid on a soda parlor [that] uncovered squirt guns with a two-drink capacity."

So Abbott found herself a story full of Sturm und Drang but never allows the spectacle to spiral into the melodramatic.  She lets the fantastic actions speak for themselves, displaying a piece of history I knew nothing about, laid against the backdrop of Prohibition (which I thought I knew about but there's so much here that's new), all told with wit and charm and Abbott's characteristic devotion to accuracy.

Have I said yet that you need to mark your calendar for August when you'll be able to make the story your own?

The characters you'll meet are all ghosts now.  Some shuffled off our mortal coil, others were pushed.  And of course, it's not easy to shoot a ghost - unless it's conveniently filling a glass.  I decided to use absinthe in that glass.  This seemed right considering its own history (nefarious and wrong) and the fact that it was banned in the United States some years before Prohibition, and most importantly that the Ouzo effect would provide me with all the ghosts I needed.  When Remus exits the Atlanta Penitentiary, full of "threadbare swagger," two marshals ran across the street - I hope to one of those soda fountains with the squirt guns filled with mystery - and returned with a chocolate soda to further energize their charge.

I thought that little dose of chocolate would play nicely with the licorice of the absinthe, and since we're just talking about a shot, that's about all we're going to add.  So, for Karen Abbott, an easy Ghost Shooter:


1 shot absinthe
1 tsp simple syrup
1 dash chocolate bitters
Cold Water

Combine the absinthe, simple syrup and chocolate bitters in a shot glass.  Drip cold water into the glass, allowing the absinthe to louche.  Then, shoot that ghost.  

Friday, May 10, 2019

Boil & Bubble for Augusten Burroughs

I may be a witch, and that's a pretty great thing to discover on your birthday.  This happened more than a week ago, but you'll have to forgive the delay.  Besides, since I'm a witch - maybe not a very gifted one, but one nonetheless - yes, please, I'd err on the side of caution and go right on and forgive me.

Let me explain.  I read the new Augusten Burroughs - the memoir comes to you in October, just in time for Halloween - in preparation for a dinner I was lucky enough to attend for the author.

As is my wont, I start looking for cocktail ingredients as soon as I open the book, ingredients to set me on my path toward a particular type of drink, one that'll compliment the words.  I was delighted when I saw Toil and Trouble had three epigraphs - especially delighted by the third one, from Macbeth:

Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

God bless Shakespeare for that last bit, the boil and bubble. Reading it was like turning on an overhead light in a dark room - I knew exactly what I would do.  It's doesn't happen often, a lightning strike that illuminates precisely where I'll be going, but sometimes it does.  The clarity of it has always been a little - spooky?  We all have these moments, though, right?  Where you see something that hasn't happened, then it does - hear a phone before it rings - turn to greet someone with the certainty that they are there before they've announced themselves.

So I knew I'd be making a drink with boil and bubble as its genesis.  (And its name!  Boil and Bubble is a perfect cocktail name.)  What I could see clearly was a poker going into a glass, the redhot metal making the cocktail hiss and sputter.  Living now in New England, I knew about the old-timey cocktails they used to make in taverns in the long ago, on those winter nights when you wanted something powerful and warm to chase away the cold.  They'd mix your drink, usually a simple concoction - water, a little sugar, some booze - then remove a poker from its nest of hot coals and spear the brew, making it shudder and steam.

That's where the words were leading - into this Colonial Kingdom of cocktails where the drinks could be hot, created as if by a witch toiling and troubling over her pot.  Did I know Burroughs' book was about witches? And that he'd soon be discussing Salem?  I didn't - no one told me this was so and I rarely read jacket copy or listen to what other readers have to say before I've read something - I want it new, all for myself, unsullied by anyone's opinion because I'm a selfish bastard that way.

So it was - interesting - that suddenly Burroughs was indeed describing witches and colonial Salem on page one.  This made me feel I was on the right track, and didn't strike me as peculiar because I did have those words from Shakespeare as a hint, so I didn't think much of the coincidence.

Instead, I went looking for the ingredients I needed in the book.  With any luck I'd find some scotch. I wanted scotch because in David Wondrich's seminal work, Imbibe!, he spends time talking about those venerable, hot cocktails that I was on the trail of, and he suggests that scotch is one of the better types of whiskey to hold up to the introduction of heat.  So scotch - I wanted it, could see it being added to the drink, and so would hopefully find it within the book.  As far as the instrument for conducting the heat, for some reason I was envisioning a railroad spike, but what were the chances that Burroughs would mention one?

But the book, the book!

To say it was not what I expected would be an understatement because Burroughs tells us on the second page that witches are real.  That the work they do - their craft - is also real.  And then, very quickly, he let's you know that he himself is a witch.

Honestly, I'm thinking, how has this not come up before?  If you consider a book like having a date with an author, and I do indeed believe that, how the hell has this not been disclosed?  Ok, maybe you don't drop this on someone on your first date - but how about the second, or third?  I mean, we've gone out six or seven times - and this information hasn't been put out there?

The realization comes as a surprise, both to him and his mom.  To him, because, like me, and maybe you, also, Burroughs didn't think witches were real.  It surprises his mom, too, because even though she also is a witch, she had never seen anything out of the ordinary with her son, and so had assumed that he had not received the Gift.  It seems inherited to a degree - his grandmother had the Gift, as had her own father.  Also, like I said, his mother.  His aunt.  And his uncle - though his uncle refuses to believe.  

His mother tells him that witches have certain - powers - that others don't, like the ability to focus on something, some outcome, with such strong conviction that the thing may come to pass.  They may also have preconceptions of knowledge that they shouldn't possess - knowing, for example, of the outcome of something before it occurs.  This?  This interests me, a lot.

But for now, again, the book.  It's excellent, in that way that is so singular to Burroughs' writing.  The ability to be poignant but not cloying.  Funny but never slapdash.  He's an old-fashioned storyteller that many would have crowded around in a Salem tavern as he spun tales - at least if he concealed his witchiness, something his mother assures him is true.  "...none of our relatives were suspected of being witches, naturally, because they were witches and could elude detection."

So we have witches, yes, but also the wonderful, disquisitive observations that only Burroughs could make. There's a delicious example where he's describing the idea of purchasing John Cheever's house, except there's some worry that the house has been ignored, perhaps allowed to deteriorate.  An appointment is made to investigate, and when they arrive, Burroughs and his husband - boy howdy, Burroughs describes the scene as only he could.
"Once we pull into the driveway, I know right away:  this house is a vampire.  It will want all our neck blood and then the blood of our unborn parallel universe children.  The neglect is rampant.  A neon sign may as well be flashing above with an arrow pointing below:  OWNED BY AN ALCOHOLIC."
This book, then, already full of witches, is also full of those sentences you're looking for - a little cynicism here, a dash of irreverence there.  Burroughs basically back in wonderful form with his story of being a witch.

And then the ingredients begin to pop up.  When he's thinking about the Cheever house, Burroughs brings up online photos of the home, and there, on a bookshelf, is a bottle of scotch.  "How great," he writes, "would it be to write a book about relapsing on John Cheever's actual liquor?"  Convenient for me, right, that I visualized the scotch and there it is.  And just a bit earlier, while thinking back to a conversation he had at recess with a classmate, Burroughs describes sitting on a planter made out of railroad ties.  Not a great leap to go from railroad ties to railroad spikes - again, how convenient is that?

But actually I'm beginning to think it was a little too convenient.  I wanted scotch to be in the book because that would make the cocktail better - and I kinda knew it would be there and, yes, there it was.  But ok, whatever.  And then the railroad spike thing, which is extremely unusual, but there it is, too?

And then?  Then I'm really stopped in my tracks when I come across an image that Burroughs describes when he's talking about his meeting with Miss Regina.

Miss Regina was a friend of his aunt - and more importantly, Miss Regina was a rootworker.  This meant she practiced African folk magick in the shack where she lived, the shack that was "made out of wood scraps, cardboard and prayers."  She talks to the very young Burroughs as an equal, and they get to talking about candles, and wax, and the ability to divine meanings through the shapes that hot wax makes if dropped into cool water.  Trust me.  This is fascinating.  But I want to talk about Miss Regina having to put a candle out.  Do you know how she does it?

She takes the lit candle and thrusts it into water where it sputts and goes out.

And here I am thinking - what the AF?  That is the image I had envisioned before really even starting the book.  I didn't hope for it, I just knew that the drink I would make required this, the stabbing of heat into the cool drink, knew it like I know my birthday.

The prescience is unsettling.

Just another coincidence?  Coincidence after coincidence after coincidence is no longer coincidence.  And then I think back to what Burroughs already described, how one of the powers that resides within a witch is the ability to know something, to actually know it, when of course you shouldn't.  Yeah, yeah, I wanted scotch and there it was.  Yeah, yeah, I needed a railroad spike and he gave one to me.  But really?  I had seen in my mind's eye the hot poker thrust into liquid, sizzling out.  And here it was, shown to me by the hand of a rootworker.  I'm going to say that this is next level coincidence and that this happens to me so often, too often.

Ipso facto, I am a witch.
Like I indicated earlier, not a very good one, not talented, but a witch nonetheless.

And - a witch that needs to start going round about his cauldron.  Double, double, toil and trouble, indeed.

I need some things to make this happen - that railroad spike we talked about, or some nice hunk of iron to glow good and red.  I mean, half the fun of this one is going to be the presentation, right?  I'll need heat - maybe a butane torch?  I have the booze, of course.  So I head down after work to the hardware store close to the Booksmith.  It's almost closing time and customer service doesn't appear to be high on the clerk's agenda.  He practically sighs when he sees me walk in, glances at the clock, sees that, alas, technically he is still open - for a few minutes at least.
I explain my needs quickly and before I'm done he's shaking his head and making his way to the door, looking like he's going to close up.  "We don't have anything like that here," he says.

"You don't even have the torch?"

"Well, yeah," he says.  "I can show you those, I guess.  But we don't have the other thing you're describing.  We don't really have anything metal here."

I look at the sign at the register.  It does in fact read True Valley Hardware.  I look around at the items around me, the putty knives and the nails.  "What are you talking about?"  I say.  "You're a hardware store."

"Well, yeah," he says.  "Just nothing like you're asking.  No oversized nails, no big bolts.  Just no, uh," and he kinda smirks out the words "railroad spikes."  And he holds open the door.

"How about," I'm scrabbling now, dinner is tomorrow night with Mr. Burroughs, if I don't score something I won't have time to concoct anything beforehand.

"How about, um, chain?"

"Chain?" he says.

"Yeah," I say.  "Rattle rattle?  And I do my best Jacob Marley, pretending to hold my arms up even though they are so weighed down.

The clerk just looks at me.

"You know," I say.  "'I wear the chain I forged in life,' and like that?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he says, "but yeah" - grudgingly now - "we have chains."

"Then how about a foot of your biggest and finest?  Oh, and I need to look at your torches."

My problem, of course, is that the galvanized steel of the chain isn't going to glow red with only the butane torch I buy.  Maybe it wouldn't ever?  And maybe the torch wouldn't have been able to make even a good poker of iron glow.  Oh, well.  I'm up against it and what I have will have to do.  So, this then is for Augusten Burroughs:


Boil and Bubble:

Water and sugar
More water

Combine water and sugar.  Mix until sugar is dissolved.  Add scotch.  Add a skosh more water.  Then add your heat, letting the cocktail cook for a bit.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Christmas Treasure Hunt

Back home - the girl's first home, we're talking about Alameda - we used to do Treasure Hunts.  I'd leave a silly start to a poem lying around to be found by Daughter #1 or #2.  The poem held a clue - it showed you where you could find the next verse if you could figure out the hints.

There would be three or four stanzas.  At the end of each, the girls would have to decipher where the next lines lay.  Upstairs or down - basement and outside.  Garage and bush - the words would lead the girls hither and yon.  The point, mainly, was just to have fun.  But there always was Treasure to be found - a pot of gold at the end of my poetic rainbow.  Sparkly crystals, antique sleigh bells - the Treasures were baubles, hopefully with a bit of whimsy attached.  It was ridiculous - but the girls looked forward to the next Hunt.

Then?  Then we moved and it's been busy.  Finding a new job, getting the girls settled in new schools, setting up a new home - that all took time, dreaded time.  And the Treasure Hunts disappeared.  Were a thing consigned to our California past.

Until last night.  When the bad poetry came back - forced rhymes or where sometimes the meter doesn't quite sound right.  But the quality of the poems was never the defining feature of our Treasure Hunts.  It was for the fun - fun was the reason.  And we needed some fun around here.

Below, I offer you the words that the girls followed - of course, you won't get all the clues because you don't live here in this house in Newton, Massachusetts.  But I think you'll get the point if not all my direction.

Oh, my goodness! Oh, my gracious!

A year has passed, how outrageous!

Treasure Hunts used to be 

Something to count on, don't you see?

But now, more than a year has passed.

Daddy, I'll tell you, is simply aghast!

It is, indeed, rather unfortunate

So let us go hunting for some ornaments!

First will be Mommy's, because mommies rule

And, as you know, Mommy's gorgeous and cool

But what ornament for someone who's never loudest?

I don't know - perhaps something cute like a flautist?

But golly, where should you both look?

You won't find the answer in a guidebook

Well, since it's winter, heat is what you're after

So run to its source, but leave time for laughter!

And of course since you're laughing while on the run

Be careful, don't fall, because the heater holds fun

Oh, look, you found it!   The first treasure that was hid

So fast you both are, your parents you outdid

Who follows Mommy? you ask eyes aglow

If you say 'Elizabeth' you'll be in the know

And since the first treasure had to do with music

Let's keep going with something acoustic

What kind of music does Elizabeth bring?

Piano, of course, but oh, how she sings!

She should sing more, her voice is so beautiful

Proving quite easily that the girl is musical

The treasure this time is not hiding nearby

Go look in the forest upstairs so high

A forest, impossible! you both do decree

Well - how about then in the branches of a tree?

Kristina has one, Elizabeth does, too

Which one you look in I'll leave up to you!

Well, you've now found two of the four that were hiding

The next that you find will continue good tidings

Kristina's is next, so full of good cheer

There's no doubt in store is a marvelous year!

So graceful she moves, 
with happiness with glee

Over the snow she does slide shouting whoopee

If there's an athlete among us, it's Kristina for sure

Her love of gymnastics we're sure will endure

Her treasure, I felt, should show her strong active side

Doing something that's fun and hearkens yuletide

To find it please look in a room that is freezing

If you stayed there you'd end up so cold and wheezing

Look in the yellow, and inside you will find

Kristina's ornament, placed by design!

One treasure is left, yes, one more has been hidden

It's for poor Daddy whose back has left him bedridden

All the ornaments so far have been cute have been pretty

Daddy's will not, as decided by committee

Because he's not gorgeous, nor beautiful as a rule

And if he tried to move like Kristina he'd appear quite the fool

So his treasure will expose not his ease or his grace

Instead it will show him falling flat on his face!

It has been put inside a stocking with care

Hanging with the others, yes hanging, I swear!

So go now and find it and be done for the year

Yes, bid '18 adieu with all your good cheer!

Are there more hunts in the months that do wait?

I promise there will be – let's make it a date!

And that, my friends, is how we do a Treasure Hunt in the Petrulakis House.  Cheers to you and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Slow Burn for Megan Abbott

Almost two years ago - talking on the phone with George, bemoaning the fact that his store got to host Megan Abbott that night for her sly, insinuating novel, You Will Know Me.  I told him I'd be making the trek from my Books Inc. store to his, traversing the big water that is the San Francisco Bay in order to see her that night.

I had ulterior motives, I usually do.  That August night the motives were a stack of books, all written by Ms. Abbott, that I wanted signed.  I have a bad first-edition habit, and an even worse predilection for books that are signed.  And if they're signed by someone I admire?  Be still my fast-beating Greek heart.

When I arrived in San Francisco, I went to talk to George again, to ask if he needed any help.  Booksellers are always helping booksellers - straightening, putting out chairs, answering customer questions.  It doesn't matter if we're in our own store, it's habit.  George had a certain gleam in his eye when he asked, Just exactly how much do you like Megan Abbott's books?

A lot, I said.

Enough, he said, to introduce her tonight?

I don't think I hesitated, not much at least.  I looked at my phone, checking the time.  There were fifteen minutes until the event would start.  Time enough to put together an intro that wouldn't embarrass myself?  Maybe.  I had the advantage of loving the book, even though it was particularly terrifying and frightening for me as a reader, because, at its heart, the story revolves around the aspirations of a very talented and very young gymnast.

Her high-flying dreams circle around the hopes of parents and rush through the gymnast's own mind, all the while skirting the tragedy that leaves one young man dead.  As the father of a gymnast, the world that Abbott sketched - surrounding all the hours, all the gyms, all the injuries and achievements of the hard-working girls who devote hours to the sport - was eerily perceptive, because that of course is what Ms. Abbott has always done so well.  She chooses a world that's familiar and common, and then she infiltrates it - wrings out all the workaday - and only leaves behind the secrets that most of us work hard to keep hidden.

Her novels, naturally, are richer for it.

So I introduced Ms. Abbott, explaining why this particular novel hit a little close to home, but that I roared through it like I do all her books, and it was a lovely night in the city (especially since Ms. Abbott was kind enough to sign that stack of books I burdened her with).

Two years have passed, and now there's another novel that has just entered your local bookstore, and if you haven't yet picked up Give Me Your Hand, go do that first, and we can drink second.

Give Me Your Hand is another tight, chilling story where Ms. Abbott presents the reader with a young girl who isn't hapless, not someone waiting to be saved by a Prince on horseback - but someone who you in fact might need saving from.  Two girls begin the story, and it will be the same two, now women, who will finish it.  At times the air will seem to have been driven from the room as you read - Ms. Abbott is good at evoking oppressiveness, both in the relationships between characters and in the physical spaces those characters inhabit.  The book is terrifying in the best ways that books can be terrifying - laying bare the believable and cruel ways that two people can treat one another when they both want the same thing.

When I create a cocktail for a book, I'm always looking inside the pages to see what ingredients are lying in wait - to find the aromas and tastes that will add to the booze to fashion a drink that pays homage to the words.

I didn't do that this time.  This time, I went no further than the cover of Give Me Your Hand.

That was enough.  The burning rose brought a sweet smokiness to mind, and sweet and smoky on the rocks can be good indeed.  Rose liqueurs aren't easy to find, but if you do come across some, you might be inclined to add smoky scotch to your glass to balance it.  And if you do that, you'll have yourself a Slow Burn, much like the steady and penetrating anger that infuses Ms. Abbott's riveting novel. 

Slow Burn:

2 oz. Ardbeg 10-Year-Old Scotch
1 oz. rose liqueur
1 oz. simple syrup
.75 oz. lemon juice
Rose for garnish

Shake all with ice.  Serve over.  Garnish with a rose - in this case that means lighting it on fire (and this is made easier if you douse the rose with high-octane liquor - like Balkan Vodka - just before you touch it with a match).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Largesse of Denis Johnson

When Michele responded to my request (entreaty? appeal? plea?) for books, she did so in a grand way.  When I was home (and by home, I mean the Bay Area, because Boston is many things, but it's not quite home, not yet), and I needed books to choose from to make my next drink, I had only to go through the stack of advance copies that were always sent to me by the many terrific publishing reps or editors or publicity people that I had gotten to know after many years of slinging books by the bay.

New environs mean that I need to make new relationships with the good people on this coast, and I've been doing that - but not as well as I should, so it's easier (simpler? smoother? lazier?) to rely on my friends from home, so when Michele offered to send ARCs my way, I said yes.  But I was overwhelmed when they arrived.  Not only had she sent more than a dozen books to me, each had its own sticky note attached to the front.  "Great mystery, rich Cuban culture and recipes," "Her new novel, well done!" "This one is a gem....abt what a 'miracle' would look like in our cynical modern lives."   Each note a wonderful prompt to immediately open the book and start losing myself in it, in the terrific new world created by this author, that author.

Some of the writers were new to me, some old friends, but each book had that note, that accompanying description - except for The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson.  That one had a sticky note attached, like all the rest, but no words.  Just a single, emphatic "!"

Michele could not have known how inextricably tied Mr. Johnson's words are to me, to my writing group.  I told a friend once that Denis Johnson saved my life; specifically, that Jesus' Son saved it. Said friend indicated that I was inclined to melodrama.

This is true.

Jesus' Son brought me the comfort of words, as good books do.  But it also brought me a group a friends, people who appreciated those words as much as I did.  My writing group formed a few years after Jesus' Son came out, and our charismatic leader dug Johnson, maybe more than I did - which is saying something - and it's not as if I used that book as a litmus test before I hitched my wagon to a new group of writers...but maybe I did. We were diverse, with diverse tastes, but there were a few books many of us appreciated together, and even though Jesus' Son was a relative newcomer, we knew then how important it was.  Our bonds, first held by the tenuousness of his words, would strengthen over time, bind some of us tighter than blood or vows, and Denis Johnson played a part in that.  I regret never having had the chance to meet Mr. Johnson, like some of my friends, like my friend Christian K., (of CK I'm especially jealous because he was friends with Mr. Johnson, writers both, on the same field) never had the opportunity to have him sign one of the many of his books that I own - but maybe it's better that way.  Denis Johnson, for me, will always be larger than life, and that's fitting because of the power his words hold.

If you haven't read Jesus' Son, go get yourself a copy.  I'll be here when you get back.  It's made up of 11 stories, bleak in setting, but so full of feeling, of that ridiculous something called heart, and even though heart is such a ridiculous cliche, go on, you read the words and tell me if I'm wrong.  The book is also full of drug and drink, and I've done none of the former but my fair share of the latter, and books drenched in drugs aren't usually hopeful, and if they are they often drip with saccharine

Mr. Johnson is never sickly sweet.

His last offering, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, arrives posthumously.  While so many books that are released after their authors have died feel incomplete because in fact they were incomplete, Largesse feels fully realized, a finished coda to a remarkable career.

I won't say that the stories are more mature than the ones you'll find in Jesus' Son, because that diminishes the earlier work.  But they do feel, rightly so, to have been constructed by an older hand.  The characters, like their author, have aged - marvelously so.

For his cocktail, I took inspiration from the title story.  It's separated into ten parts, and Tony Fido is featured in more than one of those.  Our narrator seems to believe that Tony is Armenian.  Of this he is certain.  He's also wrong.  Tony is Greek.  Don't believe me?  One of the five people who attends Tony's memorial also thought Tony was Greek (and that person was right).  The woman who informs our narrator that Tony took his life is named Rebecca Stamos.  And that's Greek.  Tony's house had been in his family since 1939.  He thought it was jinxed, though, and no one is more superstitious than a Greek.  Tony says:

        "First Spiro--Spiro watched it till he died. Mom watched it till she died.
        My sister watched it till she died. Now I'll be here till I die."

Spiro?  That first owner of Tony's house?  Show me a Spiro who ain't Greek and I'll buy you a drink - like our cocktail this evening, Tony's Best Friend, named for our narrator - though when he's informed by one of the woman attending the memorial that Tony considered him his best friend, the narrator is confused.  "Tony's best friend?  [He wonders.]  I hardly knew him." And that's the kind of off-kilter realization that peppers these stories, so pull up a chair, prop open your book, and get to reading.  I'll be over here mixing up your drink - awash with Greek ingredients in honor of Tony.

Tony's Best Friend

2 oz Metaxa
1 barspoon Ouzo
1 sugar cube
Lemon peel for garnish

Saturate sugar cube with Ouzo at the bottom of a glass.  Muddle until sugar is dissolved.  Add Metaxa and ice.  Stir until chilled.  Twist lemon over drink.  Rub peel on rim of glass then use as garnish.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A Bookseller in the Wilderness

When you've done one thing professionally for most of your adult life, that thing can become part of you.  For me that thing was bookselling, so yeah, if you cut me, I bleed books.

I didn't know I was going to be a bookseller.  Hell, sometimes, in my mind, it's still a placeholder.  I'm not really a bookseller, I'd think, I'm a writer.  But whenever I started thinking that way, I'd remind myself of a scene from Mad Dog and Glory.  That's a movie, early 90's.  Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Uma Thurman.   De Niro, as the cop, Wayne, is talking with Thurman, who plays Glory, a bartender.  He's trying to learn more about her background.  What'd you study in school, he asks?
Wayne:  History, real estate? 
Glory: Acting.  Like everybody and his cousin.  I gave tours to make the rent, but then I got into tending bar because it paid better.  Opened up my days for more classes, auditions. You ask a bartender or waiter around here:  "What do you do?" They say:  "I'm an actor," "I'm a singer," "I'm a writer."  After a couple of years, you have to be honest with yourself.  I'm a bartender, waiter...waitress.


It's a brief scene in a movie most people have forgotten, but that scene - those moments watching Uma Turman, Glory, being honest about who she was, what she was - that celluloid is in my head and I can watch it any time.  And I do. 

So I'm not a writer, but I was a bookseller.  I was okay at it.  I enjoyed it.  Enjoyed it so much that I thought Books Inc. was going to be stuck with me for a long time to come.

I enjoyed it because it meant talking, everyday, to customers - old and new - about books, both good and bad.  It was writing reviews for books.  Creating cocktails for books.  It was being invited to dinner parties, cocktail parties, for books.  Introducing authors for books - to crowds of five or five hundred.  It was being invited to hold seminars for books.  To talk to students about books.  To travel for books.

Did I mention that I did it for so long that it became part of me?  That I thought I'd run my store in Alameda well into my dotage?  Until the Offer?

The Offer was made to my wife, and it came not from the West, the West we grew up in and knew, but rather the East, the East we had visited and loved, but loved as tourists love places.  Karen was courted for the better part of a year - until the Offer was actually made.  And we had joked about it, mused over it, contemplated it, but didn't think it all the way through until then, until that Offer was made.  And here were two Californians, with two beautiful California kids, who had never believed they would live anywhere but the Golden State - who were suddenly presented with the opportunity to move cross-country.

So then we really talked about it.  We'd be giving up so much.  Family and friends.  Our careers here - one in books, one in law.  We'd be asking our beautiful California girls to leave everything they knew, everything, their friends, their schools.  My mom, Karen's parents.  All their family.  Their house, the only home they'd every known.

But the Offer was a good one.  Absolutely an advancement for Karen.  And hell, how many people are given a great chance to remake themselves, truly and absolutely, well after their molds had already been cast?  So we thought about it some more.  Massachusetts was Blue, like California.  Rich in history.  It has my favorite museum in the world, the Gardner.  Poe trod its cobbles.  Boston, like the Bay, has a thriving indie bookstore culture.  So many readers, so many writers.  And the Offer was, yes, a good one.

In the end, we decided to do it, to take advantage of a terrific opportunity in a terrific part of the country.  We'd be swapping one coast for another.  Maybe not a few hundred feet from the water, but close.

I could talk about the toll it would take on our children, but I'll leave that for another time.  I'll selfishly focus on me, training the spotlight on myself as is my hoggish habit.  Not talk about their tears, and their fears.  Not dwell on the comments after we'd moved--

Don't keep saying this was a family decision, this was your decision.

This isn't my home, this is just a house I live in.

--not dwell on those words, instead cling to the idea that kids are resilient, as we were told time and again.  I made a move like that, others offered.  I hated it at first, but ended up loving it.

It's a good age, it's not like they're in high school.

Kids are resilient. 

Kids are resilient.

Kids are resilient.

We decided, Karen and I, that the good outweighed the bad, and that the good was really really good, and so we'd roll these very important dice in this game of chance.  We'd keep our home there and try and find one here.

In all of our talking, and decision-making, I knew the impact I felt would be deep (there I go, narcissistic me), and I tried to envision its scope, tried to picture what it would feel like to give up talking to customers, going to dinners, introducing authors, working with a great team - for great people - all the perks that doing one thing for almost 20 years could bestow upon you...

I tried to imagine the crater that might result - and I failed righteously. 

So much of the person that I projected to the world was wrapped up in books.  I was that book guy on the streets and restaurants and bars of our Island City.  Cocktail party talk is often consumed with finding out what people do, and by "do" we all mean what is your job and how does it rank in the pantheon.  If I left all that behind, if I was no longer that book guy, then who was I?

Who am I.

Sure, it should be fine that I was the trailing spouse.  No one, that long ago, would question a wife following her husband if he had a better opportunity somewhere else.  But, please.  Let me be a cliché for just a moment, ok?  I'm a guy, I'm Greek, and yes, both of those things make it hard to accept that Karen is, in the eyes of many, more accomplished and certainly more successful than I am.  And don't tell me to forget a lifetime of being told otherwise.  Don't tell me to be progressive, to let go of the patriarchal trappings that are under such constant attack - please listen to me for just a moment, let your own ideas go, and admit with me that it's a sticky wicket my fragile male ego found itself in.

Cue the violins.

Maestro, I said, cue the violins.  We need musical accompaniment if we're going to get this crowd to feel anything for this schlep.

So I spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.  I got really good at it.  And then?  Then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, and it happened because of book people.

Book people can be wonderful people, and my book people came through in spades.  Phone calls to check on how I was doing - though most went unanswered.  Thanks, Michael #1.

Messages asking me if I still wanted that book, the one that Famous Author signed for me at a bookstore that wasn't my own, and if I did, then what the heck was I waiting for?  Pay for that thing and get it sent from West to East.  Thanks, Michael #2.  Thanks, Andy.

Emails saying, I still want you to do Drinks With Nick for us, so you'll do that, right?  Thanks, Margie.

Emails saying, Margie thinks you need books, so I'm sending a box your way.  Thanks, Elena.

Being told, Hey, I can get you into the Fall Conference for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, you should come - there will be friendly faces!  Thanks, Keith.

One of those faces turning out to be a publishing friend who promptly bought me lunch and then introduced me to gads of New England book people.  Thanks, Karen.

Emails to let me know about a book person I had to meet, like now.  Thanks, Cheryl. 

Phone calls to let me know about job openings.  Thanks again, Michael #1.  Thanks, Oren.

Impromptu meetings to discuss job openings.  Thanks, Tim.  Thanks, Gillian.  Thanks Dana, Peter, and Lisa.  Thanks, Marshall.

More questions, like:  Do you need ARCs?  What's your address and I'll send you some of my favorite advance copies.  Thanks, Michele.

Still more questions:  Can I introduce you to some of the reps in Boston?  They'll take care of you.  Thanks, Wendy.

My mom who doesn't travel alone who traveled alone to cook us dinner.   For a month.  Thanks, Mom.

Texts - only somewhat book related - just to check in.  Thanks, Luisa.

Customers who had long ago become friends reaching out, letting you know they're visiting your old store, that it's in good hands.  Thanks, Jengiz.

Knowing the store's in good hands.  Thanks, Melanie.

Thanks, Tom.  And Josette.  Thanks, Larry.  Thanks, Elizabeth.  Thanks, Gene.  Thanks, Michelle.  Thanks, Ann.  Thanks, Joanna.  Thanks, Jessica. 

Other customers, who had long ago become friends, who sent you on your way, who sent you East after one last drink, with one last gift - a book, of course.  A gorgeous, beautiful, meaningful book.  Thanks, Jack.

Your old partner in books who became your editor writing to let you know that he'd created a radio channel to celebrate the anthology he edited.  Thanks, Jerry.

Another old cohort who took your call without hesitation to talk about the bookselling landscape in the east vs. the west.  Thanks, Calvin.

Two book friends letting you know that they missed you during the tradeshow that you so enjoyed, that you tried to help with every fall.  Thanks, Cheri, thanks, Carolyn.

Authors doing long-distance introductions of a west-coast bookseller to an east-coast publishing rep.  Thanks, Gabriel.

East-coast reps welcoming a west-coaster into their fold.  Thanks, Megan.  Thanks, Karl.

Authors taking time out of their own events celebrating their own book to talk to you about the good old bookselling days in Berkeley.  Thanks, Jonathan.

Customers who had long ago become friends checking in just to see, physically, how you're holding up.  Thanks, Julia.  Thanks, Patrick.

Midwest author friends busting your chops because they had arranged to appear at your west-coast store well in advance of you not being there, since you were now east.  Thanks, Gus.

Friends arriving from all compass points to attend that reading because that's what friends do to support each other, to support authors, and to see you, too, since you'll be flying west for that important event, how could you not?  Thanks, Jen, thanks, Bridget, thanks, Jenn, thanks Marika, thanks, Jeremy, thanks, Daphne, thanks, Ben, thanks, Jaddua, thanks, Christian.

Friends coming to the bar after because they knew you were in town for the reading and even though they missed the reading they figured you'd be at a bar nearby and of course you were, you all were.  Thanks, Dave, thanks, Stephanie.

Authors tweeting from across the pond, good-naturedly asking if I want to write a Drinks With Nick book.  Thanks, Chris.

That notion being seconded by an author on my side of the Atlantic.  Thanks, Bill.

Another asking when I'm going to open a bookstore/bar so he can drink and read to his heart's content.  Thanks, Amor.

Friends from west visiting the east soon, blessedly soon.  Thanks, Julie.  Thanks, Beth.  Thanks again, Jen.

Authors inviting me to join them and their father for drinks after their event, both author and father pretending for my benefit that this was perfectly natural.  Thanks, Ivy.

Constant, constant reinforcement that things were going to turn out all right.  Thanks, Karen.

Love.  And more love.  And a bunch of hugs.  Thanks, Karen.  Thanks, Elizabeth.  Thanks, Kristina.

Thanks, Karen.

And that's why I'm a bookseller.  It's an amazing group of people doing amazing things, and while books are at the center of it all, it's all those people doing all those things.  Writing the books, greenlighting the books, editing the books, designing the books, marketing the books, packing the books, delivering the books, receiving the books, stocking the books, talking the books, selling the books, reading the books, loving the books.

Loving the books.

Because when I said, I miss the bookstore, what I meant was - I miss the people.  All the wonderful people I had the chance to meet and work with for almost twenty years.

And so, being in Boston, instead of San Francisco, felt a bit like I was in the wilderness.  Silly, I know.  Because.

Because, of course, it was home.  We were home.  I was home.  Because of my family, because of the books, because of the people west and east who reminded me that I'd just turned a page, that's all.  The wild things were there, sure.  But so was every other fabulous thing I'd known, would ever know.  Just waiting to be remembered, or met, or made.