Sunday, September 25, 2016

A coyote laughs at Joe


It begins with a letter and ends with a drink.  There's some reading and mixing in between those two, but there's your Alpha, there's your Omega.

The letter would introduce me to the new novel by Joe McGinniss Jr.  That novel, Carousel Court, is bleak and powerful - if I could get away with it, I'd also say it was au courant, but I can't get away with dropping French phrases into my writing, so I'll just say it confronts issues that will resonate with you right now.


I hope that I would have found the book on my own, but there are just too many books every year, and I want to read them all but of course I can't.

Time's a cruel, limiting bastard, and we're left to make our own choices on how to use it.  Sometimes, though, that choice is made for us - and if we're lucky, the choice is a good one.  Enter People's Exhibit #1, the Letter.

Every writer wants a great editor (at least any smart writer does).  Who wouldn't want Maxwell Perkins to encourage you in dark times?  To bring out the best you have to offer.  To sing your praises if you feel uncomfortable doing that yourself - or to try and keep you from singing too loud if you're often off-key.

That's where the Letter comes in.  Jofie Ferrari-Adler is one of the best editors in New York, and yet he took the time to write me a note because he knew how good Carousel Court was.  Knew that it was so good he wrote to a bookseller 3,000 miles away just to say - maybe don't miss this one.

We're all busy, right?  But when a book's personal solicitation lands on your desk, you might take more notice than if the book came in a bundle.  Don't get me wrong.  When booksellers get a box of advance copies, we pick through them like crows picking at shiny objects on a blacktop.  But a handwritten note?  In this age of email?  It'll get my attention and should get yours, too.

It helps, of course, when the editor is correct - and in the case of Carousel Court, it was everything he promised.  In Mr. Ferrari-Adler's words, the novel is "fierce, timely, sexy and scary."

Imagine a young couple back east giving up the security of their jobs and their homes because one of them gets an offer too good to be true on the West Coast.  And then imagine that job falling through before they've even left.

That's the conundrum for Nick and Phoebe, but they decide to try and leave behind the scars they've inflicted on themselves and head west for a new start.  Part of that start is pouring every penny of their savings into buying a house in Southern California.  They'll load it up with every amenity - granite counters, an indoor rock climbing wall, an outdoor pool - so that when they flip the house, the payout will be huge.

What could go wrong?

Besides the housing bubble bursting that summer?

Mr. McGinniss Jr. uses the weather in Southern California to set the tone.  The heat's "insane."  "The sun's a beast," it's "blistering."  And in this unrelenting environment, there's smoke everywhere and the threat of wildfires everyday.

We've been prepped for this, though, because the author let us know that the second time Nick took Phoebe out, it was the hottest day of the year.  So they've been in the fire since they began.

All the heat, of course, is enough to make you thirsty, and that's when I start looking for clues, for what the cocktail's going to be.  Early in the novel, we watch as Phoebe texts her mentor, a man who's given and taken much from her.  She's fantasizing about what he's wearing, what he's eating, and what he's drinking.  A mint julep, perhaps?

There's a lot more booze in Carousel Court, from vodka, beer and wine, to martinis, mimosas and mojitos.  And the mojitos?  They come to mind when Phoebe remembers her orientation from six years before.  Phoebe will be selling drugs, to doctors, and a happy doctor, she's told as the mojitos keep getting poured, will prescribe her drugs to his patients.  And that was the lesson.  Keep your doctors happy and you'll keep your bosses happy.

So those late-night mojitos resonated.  While they were from her Past, they haunted Phoebe in her Now.  But a mojito is too refreshing, and in this novel, with threats everywhere - from fires, homicides, and home invasions - a mojito was too soft.  If ever a book demanded a stiff drink, Carousel Court was it.

I'd steal the lime out of the mojito and throw it in with - what?  Two of the threats that run throughout the novel are the fires and the suffocating heat.  From their early date, on the hottest day of the year, to the end of their current summer, where they find themselves fighting and lost during the hottest week since they arrived in California, the heat's everywhere.  Wildfires in nearby canyons, with the wind carrying that smoke - and smoke from joints and cigarettes, even from next door where their neighbor sets fire to his couch.  So I'd add the lime to some smoke, and the easiest place to find smoke is in any number of wonderful scotches.

Have I mentioned that Carousel Court is published by Simon & Schuster?  And that one of my favorite reps just happens to be from Simon?  And that we enjoyed Laphroaig one night after an event because it's Cheri's favorite?  And that Laphroaig is good and smoky?  So I'm using that.


Years ago, in Esquire, David Wondrich wrote that the correct proportions for a scotch and lime were three ounces of blended scotch to half an ounce of lime.  Mr. Wondrich?  I'll ask that you not mind too much that I'm going with a single malt, not a blend.  I hope you'll trust me.

I'm also going to flame a lime peel because in for a penny, in for a pound - and there's just so much smoke in this book that I want more of it in the drink, too.  When Nick and Phoebe first meet, he's lamenting his apartment, his life, and he wonders if he shouldn't just burn it down and start over.  Later, while Nick's out working (for his employer - EverythingMustGo - he and his crew clear out foreclosed houses of everything inside so that the bank can clean them up and start over) someone thinks that instead of going to work on the house, they ought to burn the place down.  And finally, finding themselves underwater, Phoebe's thinking about their own home and asks Nick:  "Tell me again why we can't burn it down?"

So that's why we're flaming the peel.

That still leaves me without a name, though - but here again, Mr. McGinniss Jr. does not disappoint.  I love when an author gives me the name of their cocktail, and, late one night, he does just that when Nick walks home through a wind that's hot and electric.  When he hears coyotes, he thinks they aren't so much howling as they are laughing, and if a laughing coyote isn't a perfect name for a cocktail, well, I don't know what is.

This isn't going to be a coyote like the four that will block Phoebe's path late on another night, growling, as she holds her young son in her arms, the coyotes growling and hungry - before gunshots crack the night, gunshots from their neighbor who sleeps in a tent on his front lawn, waiting for just such a moment that allows him to make coyotes bleed under a Southern California moon.  No, that's not the kind of coyote we want.  Not outwardly menacing.

But laughing.  Which just might be worse.  I have a feeling though, that, like Nick, after he's destroyed everything he could, you'll feel satisfaction in the moment.

Granite counters aren't necessary to enjoy the drink, but they help.
LAUGHING COYOTE:

3 oz. Laphroaig Scotch Whisky
.5 oz lime juice
2 dashes lime bitters
Lime peel and lime wedge for garnish

Stir scotch, lime juice, and bitters with ice.  Strain into an ice-filled old-fashioned glass.  Cut a round coin of lime peel.  Hold a lit match over the cocktail.  Squeeze the peel over the match.  Rub the peel around the rim of the glass.  Garnish with the lime wedge.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11th, 2001 - Χριστὸς ἀνέστη.


This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 9th, 2001.


It was Day Three of a four-day hike across New Zealand’s Milford Track. Karen and I had just zigzagged 2,000 feet up and were resting at the Mackinnon Pass overlooking the Clinton River Valley. Think Yosemite. Think the most beautiful valley you’ve been lucky enough to see and we’ll just let that stand in for this Valley, ok?

Rearing up at the valley’s head are the Nicholas Peaks, snowcapped year-round. Everlasting Daisies and Mt. Cook Lilies, both with petals white as those peaks, lined the Pass.

Keas – green mountain parrots – pecked Karen’s lunch bag and tugged on my bootlaces while we rested for the 3,000 foot descent.

After shooing away the Keas, we started down into the valley under the grey, granite eyes of the mountains. I don’t know why Karen and I wanted to sing, but we'd been singing all week while we tramped. We didn’t talk about it. It just felt right, so sing we did.

Our first words were “Christos Anesti.” They begin a hymn that’s sung in Greek Orthodox churches just after midnight on Holy Saturday, when that Saturday becomes Easter Sunday.  It's sung right after the lights go out in the church – all at once – and the congregation stands in darkness, the smoke from incense no longer visible but the air still smelling sweet. In that darkness, there is one light left – a candle in the hands of the priest. He leaves the altar, that single flame flickering, and approaches the congregation. We wait, in the dark, holding unlit candles.

Quietly, the priest lights the candle of one of the parishioners in the front pew – then those two lights touch two wicks, then four lights touch four wicks, then eight touch eight, and in San Francisco or New York or Athens, suddenly the church is ablaze, each face lit with warm candlelight. Mary with her child and St. George with his dragon, they loom out of the dark, their icons beginning to glow gold and red, and we sing “Christos Anesti.”

That day on the Milford Track, with keas flying overhead, Karen and I sang, mimicking the sounds of that song, not knowing how each of the words translates, but knowing the meaning of the hymn is full of hope. And as we descended into that fern-filled valley, with some of the Japanese trampers already laughing when they heard us approaching (here come the Singers, we had become the Singers to them, and they didn’t understand the words, either, but they liked our enthusiasm, laughed with us as we passed), laughing already at the Singing Americans, we sang Christos Anesti partly because it  one of the few songs we knew complete, but also because it’s a beautiful song and the location demanded – New Zealand deserved – beauty, so we gave what we could.



September 11th. 8:40 am. A beautiful and blue New York day. In Manhattan, Vassilios Torazanos works in the tiny Church of St. Nicholas. The little building stands all of 35 feet tall in the shadows of the Twin Towers. Byzantine icons – St. John the Baptist and the Archangel Gabriel – those icons, gifts from Russia’s last Czar, are just two among many watching over Vassilios as he collects hymnals.

September 11th. 8:46 am. Vassilios looks up, thinking he hears a thunderclap, but that can’t be – thunder doesn’t burst out of blue skies. But it's happening.  The plane.  The crash.  The fire.  The smoke.

It's happening.

Vassilios never considers his car, he just runs – away from his church, away from Manhattan.  Towards the Brooklyn Bridge, towards home. Behind him, the Twin Towers plunge from the sky, crushing all that's beneath them, his Church of St. Nicholas included.

Then the endless video loop. Smoke billows, towers crumble. Over and over and over. There is a collective intake of breath around the world, and it lasts for days.



By that weekend, like a needle being dropped onto a record, interrupted routines started back up.  Karen and I had to stop talking about it.  Needed a distraction.  We drove out to the Avenues and saw Anniversary Party at the Balboa Theatre. We traded scenes of New York for scenes from Hollywood and added Popcorn and Red Vines and Diet Coke.

Baseball even started up.  Karen and I planned to go to the first game following it all, but Karen decided she wasn't up for games, so I went with my friend, Andy.

Marines in Dress Blues handed out flags and candles at the gate.  I bought a red Giants cap, the closest thing I could find to red, white, and blue.  Everybody was in ride, white, and blue.  We headed to out seats, behind the visitor's dugout.  The singing of God Bless America hadn't yet become a cliché, so as the words scrolled down the Jumbotron, as 40,000 remembered 3,000, patriotism gave way to sorrow.

Ushers walked down the aisles lighting our candles.  Wick touched wick, neighbor turning to neighbor, flame touching flame, and as Andy lit my candle, all the park's lights went out.  The Giants' announcer asked for a moment of silence.  40,000 people held 40,000 flames, in silence, as the park glowed.


Church was also an interrupted routine.

San Francisco’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral was destroyed by the 1989 earthquake.  It's only now being rebuilt.  So on that Sunday, we sat in folding chairs in a chapel taking the place of a cathedral brought down by an earthquake and watched Father Steven, and listened to Bishop Anthony, and looked through the stained glass windows salvaged from the old cathedral on Valencia.

The only items salvaged from St. Nicholas in New York would be a charred cross and a twisted brass candelabra.

After the service, after Bishop Anthony eloquently addressed what had happened in New York and began handing out the antidoron  - the blessed bread we share at the end of the service - the choir sang God Bless America (land that I love) and after accepting the antidoron, Karen and I walked slowly towards the exit (stand beside her) past little Greek ladies stuffed into black dresses. They sang along, not knowing what the words meant (and guide her) but appreciating the beauty they made. As we passed the tear-streaked faces of women born in another country but celebrating their new home in song (through the night with a light from above) Karen and I held hands and cried and became The Singers once again.

Please take a moment to remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Flowers in the Metropol


Today, Amor Towles graced us with one of the most perfect books of the year - A Gentleman in Moscow.  It's my latest pick that you'll find in our September newsletter, available in finer bookstores everywhere - as long as they're ours - or of course online here.

I didn't think it possible for Mr. Towles to improve on his first novel.  That book, Rules of Civility, became a favorite of mine when it was released five years ago and not just because Mr. Towles has one of the best author signatures going. 

Seriously - authors?  Having a stamp - like that gorgeous red one, upper right - at hand to adorn your books when you sign them?  Genius move right there.  It of course helps when the book is brilliant, as Rules of Civility is, but the stamp doesn't hurt.

At all.


May we speak, for just a moment, about author signatures?  Some people don't care one way or the other.  I'm not some people.  I care a lot.  I have a book problem, that is actually a first edition problem, that is actually actually a signed first edition problem.  Here's the deal, scribes - if you want someone to commit hours, plural, to reading your book, then you can take a few moments to sign your book if someone asks.  If there are too many readers?  And it's going to take a while to sign each book?  Consider yourself lucky.  Very lucky.  Too often, big name writers can't be bothered to actually meet the public that has made them a Big Name Writer.  If they conduct a signing - of late they have fallen into the new habit of pre-signing their books.  This is what's known as an abomination.  Please - meet your readers.  Say hello.  Be gracious and offer them one second.  Or ten.  Remember - they're why you're a BNW.

Mr. Towles?  My apologies.  I didn't mean to interrupt the introduction of your drink with a screed.  But because you take such care when signing your books - care enough that you stamp them in addition to signing them - you put the issue in stark relief.

Anyway.  Sorry.  There's a drink coming, I promise.


Reading the novel in Russia certainly had its charms.
Where Rules of Civility was all New York highs and lows - beginning at the end, on the last day of 1937 - A Gentleman in Moscow is a different time, 1922, and of course a different place.  What both books share is an assured author who is able to put words on the page that are witty and graceful, who brings elegant characters to life but who isn't afraid to show the squalid motives we all possess. 

I propose a simple challenge:  pick up A Gentleman in Moscow.  Read the first three pages - a transcript of the Appearance Of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov Before The Emergency Committee Of The People's Commissiarat For Internal Affairs.  If, after reading those pages, you don't want to keep going, drinks are on me.

I have a feeling no drinks will be on me.

Those first few pages should be dry, right?  A transcript of a courtroom proceeding?  But I can guarantee that given those pages, you'll want to follow the Count for more than the 400 pages we're given.  You'll want to follow the Count as the years accumulate outside the Hotel Metropol - where he's been sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks.  And though the Count is forced to give up his suite of rooms for a cramped garret, he discovers more in his reduced circumstances than he could have discovered in his life before the revolution. 

I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Towles discuss A Gentleman in Moscow at a gathering in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.  To hear the author talk about that grand hotel as being a sister to the Metropol - spaces that were created around the turn of the century to cater to a new, moneyed clientele, spaces that shared some of the same amenities to allow those travelers to feel at home on different continents, gave the book an extra heft.  Allowed us to feel the Metropol because we could see the Palace.

Where Mr. Towles had wonderfully created an entire country within the confines of a hotel, he allowed us a glimpse into the process that led to that creation.

There were flowers all over the Palace Hotel that July night, and those flowers evoked the reminiscences of the Count as he remembered a time when there were always flowers in the Metropol, as he remembered Fatima Federova, the hotel's florist.  She would have been the one to provide the magnificent arrangements in the lobby of the Metropol, more grand than the display in the Palace's lobby. 

Those memories gave me the name of the drink, and the Count himself gave me the body.  He enjoyed brandy, so I wanted to start there.  But then the story introduced me to Konstantin Konstaninovich, an old Greek.  A lender by trade.  Summoned by the Count to turn hidden gold into money more easily spent.  And since Greeks have their own brandy - Metaxa - I'd substitute it for the Count's own.

So, if you have the time - get yourself a copy of A Gentleman.  If you're lucky, maybe you'll see and hear Mr. Towles read from the book.  If  you ask him to sign your copy, you'll be in for a treat.  He'll give you a moment or two, probably he'll thank you for coming, and then, he just might stamp the book near his signature.


Those red, Russian rooftops don't come with the book - they're placed there by an author whose attention to detail shows in the book and on the signature page.

Again, please buy a copy of this Gentleman, take a seat, and let me arrange some Flowers in the Metropol for you.


Flowers in the Metropol 
 
1.5 oz Metaxa
.5 oz rose water
.25 oz simple syrup
.25 oz lemon juice
1 drop Aftelier Perfumes Rose Chef’s Essence
Rose-petal ice sphere

Stir all - except the sphere - with ice.  Strain over the sphere.