Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chris Cleave's Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Because this post is more self-serving than most, I must first implore you - if time is of the essence, skip this and just go and purchase Everyone Brave is Forgiven, the new novel by Chris Cleave that was released today.

I'm not joking - just go.  These words will be here when you get back.

Ok - this then is for those who already have the book in their hands.  Good on you.

Every vocation has its perks.  Bookselling is no different.  Each day, new books come in the door.  Each day, new authors and old are vying for attention - which, of course, if you're a reader, would be heard as a little shout from heaven.

The only potential problem is the sheer weight of the words.  Was it Coleridge who was supposed to have been the last person to have read every book available to him?  Impossible now, of course - and during any week in a bookstore one can feel - sometimes - the burden.  There simply aren't enough hours.  It's like having the barkeep from The Waste Land interrupt your day with HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.

I know it's time.  And I know there's never enough of it.  I know there are thousands of books I'll never get to - so deciding what to read can itself become burdensome.

Ok, ok, if you're not a reader, you don't understand.  But if you're not a reader the only reason you're here is for the booze, and I'll get to that, I promise.

Because so much constantly vies for our attention - family, friends, work, music, movies, status updates - publishers sometimes go out of their way to grab you by the lapels.  Buttons will arrive with books.  We're sent pens, flashlights, sunglasses (hint to publishers - chocolate always works).

We've gotten a pie.  That was a good one.  Heck, once I was sent some booze.  God bless Michael Chabon's PR team.

We're always receiving letters.  Testimonials from the editor who picked up a book that arrived over the transom and was then up until three in the morning because the submission was so good.  The brief notes explaining that even though we might not usually pick up a book in a particular genre, we should crack open this one because it's so special.

The only problem with the letters again has something to do with volume.  I would love - love - to be able to read each book where an editor or publisher took the time to write a pitch.

*cue the violins*

It's just that there are so many.  Books and letters.

So many.

*let music fade*

Publishers try their tricks.  We get letters with our names at the top - as if they're written to us, like something from Publishers Clearing House.  They're not, of course, how could they be?  Like last September when I received a package from Marysue Rucci.  She happens to be Vice President and Editor-In-Chief of Simon & Schuster.  It was an advance copy of Chris Cleave's Not-Yet-Released novel.  Lucky me, he happens to be a favorite author of mine.  Have you read Little Bee?  Incendiary?  Gold?

Go do that.  I'll be right here.

So - I saw the "Dear Nick" at the top of her letter, poking out of the book, just under the S & S logo, and I thought, Wouldn't that be nice!

But then I saw other pages - a long author's note and something handwritten on Chris Cleave letterhead.  That second note - I thought it was done up like some junk mail companies do, using faux handwriting to make you think that a person wrote the letter, when of course they didn't - haven't I already said, How could they?

At this point I'm thinking - what an extravagant ruse, especially since no arm-twisting is necessary when it comes to a new novel by Mr. Cleave.  But then I saw a mention of my blog in the fake letter, and that's when I turned the letter over and noticed some of the ink had bled through the page.  I felt the bumps on the underside where the pen had made indentations...

I went back to the letter from Ms. Rucci, and it wasn't quite what I thought it was.  She explained that she could wax on about the powerful novel she had sent me, but instead she was passing on a note from Mr. Cleave.  And then she signed off with her thanks.

This was, to quote Monty Python, something completely different.

Mr. Cleave's note was warm and funny.  He let me know that his first novel was titled Tequila Mockingbird and that he was honoring me by not including it.  He hoped I might have time to read his latest and he too signed off.


I do not often receive letters from Editors-In-Chief or from authors I admire, and I'm easily flattered, so to receive both in the same package...

I immediately set to reading.  One worry I had was, What if I didn't like it?  To quote my nine-year-old, Awkward.

But did I mention that the author was Chris Cleave? And that I shouldn't have worried?

When I began reading, it was like I was in a movie theater and someone dimmed the lights.  All distractions went away, hidden by the dark that descended, and suddenly I was on Mont-Choisi, skiing down the slope with Mary North, finally given a good reason to be rid of finishing school.  It's September of 1939, and Ms. North and I will soon be rushing to London.  Lovely Mary North who signed up via telegraph with the War Office 45 minutes after hostilities were declared.

Then I would meet Tom Shaw, mouth full of blackberries, commanding the little people of London to learn - but this commandment would be given to an empty room because the schoolchildren of the great city had all but abandoned it.  Then on to his flatmate, Alistair Heath, stuffing Julius Caesar full of newspaper.

Caesar, the poor bloke, was their dearly departed - and formerly randy - cat.  They had hoped to have him stuffed so that he would still be inside their hallowed halls.  With the outbreak of war, though, he had been returned, unfilled, from the taxidermist

While thinking about where those newspapers were going, could I smell the tobacco from Alistair's pipe?  Or the blackberries that Tom set to simmering in a pot to make jam?  Later, when Mary went out into London after the first bombs had been dropped, and she described the bejeweled streets covered in the broken glass from building after building - could I see the sparkling shards?  Feel them underfoot?

Yes to all that.

Yes because Mr. Cleave is a masterful storyteller who takes you by the hand and leads you on an adventure - a grim, funny, harrowing and thoughtful adventure.  Please - go buy it, because that's all you're getting from me.  You need to experience it yourself.

The trick, then, was to create a drink for the book.  If you've been here before you know that I like to find the cocktail inside the novel.  The ingredients are there, just waiting to be chosen.  But in his letter Mr. Cleave had pointed out one problem - drinks were hard to come by during the Blitz.

Still, if you knew people, or knew where to go (hello, Ritz), even this could be dealt with.  I also wanted to have the drink reflect some of those amazing characters that Mr. Cleave brought to life.  Mary - though she fought it - was decidedly upper-crust.  Tom, not so much.  This wasn't Pygmalion, though, not Eliza Doolittle vs. 'enry 'iggins, so gin just might be induced to play nicely with some champagne.

Do me a favor - don't knock it until you've tried it.  Because what I wanted to do was also give it a taste of something thrown together.  'Fancy a drink?'  What do you have?  'Let's see...'   The gin and champagne fit that bill nicely, but those two might need a wee something to round it out - which is when I remembered the blackberries.

And in the same way that Ms. North saw the beautifully bejeweled streets of a bombed London, in the same way that Mr. Cleave created a gorgeous testament to the lives lost and the loves won from the remains of that awful war, I wanted to mix up something a little English, something a little bit lovely.


Bejeweled Street 

1.5 oz. Plymouth Gin
.5 tsp. Blackberry jam

Add gin and jam to an ice-filled shaker. Shake. Strain into a chilled champagne flute. Top with the bubbly. Garnish with a dollop of jam. Silver spoon optional.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

An Hour of Glamour - The Summer Before the War

Did you love Major Pettigrew's Last Stand?  You did if you read it - so if you haven't, just go.  Go do that.  When you come back, I'll have a drink waiting for you in celebration of Helen Simonson's followup to that lovely novel.

Hour of Glamour
1.5 oz gin
.75 oz. Madeira
.25 oz Maraschino Liqueur
1 oz tonic
Cherry for garnish

Rinse a chilled rocks glass with the Maraschino Liquer.  Discard any excess.  Add ice.  Stir the gin, Madeira, and tonic with ice until cold.  Strain into the glass.  Garnish with cherry.

Ms. Simonson's next book, due in little more than a month, is another gorgeous tale set in England - this time just before the Great War.  When you're making a cocktail for a book - because you do that, too, right?  I mustn't be the only one?  But when you do, you hope that the author conveniently gives you a name for the drink within the book's pages.  

The Summer Before the War doesn't disappoint on this, or any, score.  In response to one cousin wanting to take another cousin down a peg, their Aunt Agatha is patient, explaining that the inflated sense of self that Daniel has developed since he'd been spending time with a friend from the aristocracy will soon be punctured because that's the way of things.  Why not, she insists, let him have his hour of glamour?  And if that isn't a perfect name for a cocktail, I don't know what is.  

Because Aunt Agatha usually enjoys a glass of Madeira in the evening, I began there.  It would be a compliment to gin, naturally, because there isn't a drink that says England more than gin.  Everything else adds to a cool sipper that's floral, earthy and herbaceous.  Cheers!

The Opposite of Death? This Too Shall Pass

When I picked up Milena Busquets' novel, This Too Shall Pass, I was charmed immediately.  Charmed by our narrator, Blanca.  Blanca who's struggling with an age in her life that she's never been able to imagine.

Thirty she had envisioned.  Sixty, too.  Even eighty.  At eighty she had pictured herself drinking whisky with her friends.  But forty?  Fifty?  Those ages had been shrouded, full of mystery - and suddenly she finds herself there with no sense of how she arrived.

I don't feel that way about fifty.  No, of course not.  Not at all. 

(cue the Talking Heads)

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house

With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself

Well...How did I get here?

So I was immediately smitten by Blanca.  But then?  Then things got a little steamy.  Actually, things got quite a little bit hot.  Blanca has - voracious appetites.  The only thing to do in that situation is to make a drink.

She named this one herself when she mused that the opposite of death is life, is sex.  Great - so I had the name.  Then I just had to wait for the drink - and in Blanca's world, Gin & Tonics soon arrived.

Many of them.

That was too easy, just a G&T, but then I was handed a conversation that Blanca has with one of her ex's (she only has two, it's not like she's Zsa Zsa Gabor).  Blanca and Guillem are talking about apples, and she says that the only kind she likes are the ones Snow White eats - Guillem's organic apples are home to too many worms and there's nothing sexy about a worm in your apple.

So for Blanca, I made a G&T, but I replaced the Gin with Applejack.  I also added some Burlesque Bitters because, well, I thought she'd like them.  She'd laugh at the company's description of their bitters as a spicy little tart who likes to flirt.  If she likes anything, Blanca likes to flirt.

The Opposite of Death

1.5 oz Laird's Applejack
4 oz tonic
1 stopper Bittermens Burlesque Bitters
Apple for garnish

Stir all with ice.  Strain into an ice-filled collins glass.  Garnish with apple slice.

A Fraction of Sherry for Ethan Canin

Ethan Canin.  I can't stress enough how much he shaped the ideas that the young version of me - Nick 1.0 - began to have about writing, about fiction.

About what works and what doesn't.  About what's important, what'll last.

His first collection of stories, Emperor of the Air, was released right after I graduated from high school.  Even if the lights were flashing in my rear view mirror, I wouldn't be able to make out the colors from 1984 - they're too far back, too much traffic is between the now and the then.

But - I easily remember being floored by those stories.  It was one of the most perfect collections I had ever read - and still is one of the best ever written.  

I get to meet him tonight at a cocktail party with a glorious handful of authors.  The best perk about being a bookseller?  It's the occasional but always wonderful parties that are sometimes held to celebrate an author and that author's work.

Because, of course, we should celebrate authors more than we do.

The even better news is that Mr. Canin has a new novel coming out in just a few days - A Doubter's Alamanac.

It's phenomenal.  And - it was easy to make a cocktail for it because there’s plenty of drinking going on.  At the start, sherry and bourbon flow freely, so that provided an easy pairing.

Then there’s the brilliant mathematician, Milo Andret, who looms over the novel’s pages.  Since he was as good at souring relationships as he was at solving theorems, I rounded out the equation with a startlingly tart kumquat.

A Fraction of Sherry

1.5 oz bourbon 
.75 oz dry sherry
.25 oz simple syrup
1 kumquat

Muddle the kumquat with everything.  Shake with ice.  Finely strain into a chilled glass.  Slice a kumquat to garnish.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A High Mountain for Yann Martel

Yann Martel has written an exquisite novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, that called out for an exquisite concoction that would begin and end in Portugal in much the same way that the novel does.  While you can find the book in the finest shops, you can find the book and the drink in the Books Inc. newsletter and online.

Port would have been the easy choice for his drink, but it didn't make the cocktail sing like it should, so I used Madeira instead and the Portuguese fortified wine proved robust enough to play in a glass with the whiskey.  I used rye instead of sweeter bourbon because the Madeira is plenty sweet.

Martel's novel begins with a 1904 Renault that's packed to the gunnels for a trip into the title's High Mountains, so I wanted to pack his drink as full of flavors as the Renault was.  Chocolate and orange bitters mingled easily with the Madeira, and a cinnamon-stick garnish added a wonderful bouquet.

I wrapped the cinnamon stick with an orange twist to echo the orange bitters - and because it looked pretty.  Pretty never hurt a drink.  Cheers!

A High Mountain

2 oz. Rye Whiskey
1 oz. Madeira
1 dash orange bitters
1 dash chocolate bitters
Cinnamon stick and orange twist for garnish

Stir all drink ingredients with ice. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Twist orange peel around cinnamon stick for garnish.

Friday, January 1, 2016

For American Housewives, All That Glitters Is Not Gold

To say that a book made me laugh out loud is a cliché ‎ - and I hate clichés.  I hit them with shovels when I find them, then I bury them after using the shovels a second time to dig their graves.

But guess what?  Put your shovels down because Helen Ellis' collection of stories, American Housewife, made me laugh out loud.

After I was done laughing, I knew these stories would lead off 2016's selections of Drinks With Nick in the Books Inc. newsletter.

The wives in American Housewife won't be confused with Mrs. Cleaver or Shirley Partridge.  Although, after reading Shirley Jones' memoir, maybe she and Keith (David Cassidy) would be at home in Ellis' pages.


The book is funny and caustic and a little bit jaded - just the thing to go with a nice strong drink.

I'm always looking for a hook for the drinks I make, and in the case of American Housewife, the hook came when I read about one woman who weeps because she's lucky enough to have an entire drawer devoted to glitter.  For that unnamed narrator I created this.

Happy New Year - now get to reading!

All That Glitters is Not Gold

1.5 oz Campari
1 oz Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom vodka
.5 oz Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Soda water
Glittery sprinkles - silver or gold - for garnish

Rim a tall glass with sprinkles.  Fill with crushed ice.  Stir all ingredients - except the soda water - with ice until chilled. Pour into the glass.  Top with soda water.  Drink with a fancy straw.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Twelve Books of Christmas

Drinks With Nick?  Twelve months, twelve books, twelve drinks, all in 2015.  So those books aren't on this list - though of course they could be.  This list, then, shows the other Best Books of 2015 according to, you know, me.

It's all fiction except for one.  If I put a wonderful explanation of why these are the best - for each of the books - I'd never get it done.  So it's here, abbreviated.  Just know - if it's here, you should read it.

If you have any questions, please, just ask. 

Sellout, Paul Beatty

A Manual For Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg

Between the World and Me,  Ta-Nehisi Coates
And this one makes it a baker's dozen,

Fates and Furies, Lauren Goff

City on Fire, Garth Rish Hallberg

Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra

Hotels of North America, Rick Moody

The Whites, Richard Price

Book of Aron, Jim Shepard

Dragonfish, Vu Tran