Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Drain the swamp, I dare you

Karen was out early early for work today, so it was a Daddy morning.  I went up into our daughters' dark room and sat next to my youngest - first making space by adjusting the legs of the six-foot-tall bear that also occupies her bed.  She's a quiet waker - so when she felt the bed dip when I sat, she rolled over there in the dark and slowly opened one eye.

Daddy, she said in a quiet voice to match her quiet room. Is Trump President?

I could have said a lot - but I didn't. I just whispered, Yes.

And she closed her beautifully brown eye and sighed. And I'm glad both eyes were closed because she didn't see me cry, just a little, there in the dark.

Kristina, who was so excited yesterday morning.  For Kristina right now, so many of her thoughts revolve around gymnastics.  She practices it, watches it, lives it - it's her prism.  So much so that she asked Karen:  Mommy?  Is Hillary the first girl to get to the Finals?

Right now, I don't much care to hear what either side is saying in the light of yesterday's result. Here's the thing - if you opposed the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, yeah, whatever, you think she's the lowest of the low. I'm not sure you understand what a real crime is, what real illegality is.  Malfeasance?  Go look it up - and yes, that's me being condescending because I think I'm always the brightest person in the room (as long as Karen's not there because she outclasses me in virtually everything).

But go ahead, hold on to your belief that Secretary Clinton is a criminal. If that comforts you, makes you feel superior, knock yourself out.

For me - I don't know, I'm pretty basic at heart.  Just a guy who runs a bookstore.

Let's start there.  When I'm hiring, I look at the person first. I used to prioritize book-knowledge over everything.

But here's the thing. If you're bright, and open-minded, I can teach you about books, but I can't teach nice. I can't teach personable. I can't teach empathy. So those qualities come first, because the atmosphere I'm trying to create in the bookstore is warm and inviting. That begins with the people I hire, not the books I stock.

This morning? As I unlocked our front door at 9 o'clock? My first customer was a woman about my age, looking as haggard as I did, and she walked in and said:

Thanks for being here. I needed a peaceful place to visit.

And that was sad, but satisfying, because it let me know - in her eyes at least - that atmosphere I was talking about had, yes, been created for her.
If you're running for the highest office in the land...what's the number one thing for me?  Character.  The quality of a person's nature - because everything follows from that quality, that aspect.  It's that quality that's important - the thing you can't teach. And if you're a good person, then I'll look and listen to your beliefs and see if they align with my own, and the more that they do, the more likely it'll be that I'll vote for you.

Do I think Mitt Romney is a good person? I do, I do. Do I admire George H. W. Bush? Indeed. Do I disagree with the politics of both those men? Often, yes. But if I had the opportunity to meet either, I'd gladly shake their hand and talk to them about their views on this country of ours.

I don't think Mr. Trump is a good guy. I don't think you do, either.  Not if, for one moment, you were completely truthful.  You heard the vile things he said. You heard those things, right?  You were embarrassed by his words, right?  If you were embarrassed, you know that it wasn't banter - those were the statements of a crude, narcissistic predator. You drain a swamp in the battleground state of Florida and that's exactly what you'll find slithering there, Trump covered in mud.

That's not a man I'd be interested to meet. Not a person I'd shake hands with. Ever.  For me, it starts with the person, and that's why I wouldn't have considered him as my candidate for one moment.

If you want to talk to me about character - about his character - I'd be eager to do so.  Let's talk about how he stiffs his contractors just because he can.  Or his failures as a businessperson - losing hundreds of millions of dollars - and how you've paid for those abysmal failures.  How he mocks people with disabilities - and thinks it's funny.  How he wants to curtail the rights of a free press, freedom of assembly.  How he prefers addressing mobs because rabid, slavish, and moronic followers can easily be incited to violence, to physically attack his critics because he can't accept criticism.  Would you like to talk about his views of women?  His views on minorities or those who don't believe in his God?  Do you want me to go on?  I can go on.

You know he's morally stunted.  You know he's concerned with one person - and one person only.  Want to know why kids can take one look at Trump and see him for the bully he is?  Because kids deal with bullies every day and that's exactly what Trump is, and more.  Not just a bully.  Not just a spoiled, rich kid who's also a bully.  A spoiled, rich-kid bully whose narcissistic arrogance now threatens to endanger our country.  There's your President-Elect Trump.

If that's your guy - knock yourself out.  Go live with that.  Me?  I'd rather have a President I can look up to, someone that I admire more than I don't even if we sometimes disagree.  Not some cretin who, when a news-story broke about his loathsome words concerning women - and my daughter asks from the back seat:  Daddy, what are they talking about? And I can't answer her with any specificity because Mr. Trump's words were so vile - yeah, if that's your guy, knock yourself out.

Today, mostly, I'm embarrassed.  Embarrassed because I didn't say anything about this election.  A coward because I feared angering family and friends.  I don't pretend to have much of a platform, but when I do stand on my soapbox I'm selling books and booze.  Sometimes I share pictures of my girls, my sensitive and smart girls.  I didn't do politics because I was scared.  Forgot the poetry of Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

That's me in a nutshell.  A coward.  Too worried to say what I think because what will, in turn, people think of me?

This morning, after I went downstairs to finish making breakfast, my girls followed a few minutes later - having taken the time to dress for school.  I looked over to tell them again that I love them - I do that a lot, the telling - and I saw that they were both dressed in black from head to toe.

I must've looked at them quizzically because Elizabeth answered a question I hadn't asked.

Because it's important, Dad, she said.  So people will know how I'm feeling just by looking at me.

That girl isn't a coward.  She takes more after her mom.

Because it's important, indeed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A Nasty Woman Cocktail

(This post, originally published on 11/08/16, has been updated with new information on 11/09/16.  What has been added is italicized - anything deleted has been struck-through)

Soon, our long, national nightmare will be over just be getting started.  After the election results are in tonight, I know I'll need a drink - and yes, I'll be having a Nasty Woman.  I prefer this to the Mazel Tov Cocktail (what a wonder, that both of these drink names should be lobbed at the country during the course of the campaign by the most unqualified candidate in the history of these United States and/or by his idiot advisers) only because I'm not in the mood for Manischewitz or Slivovitz.  Sue me.

Actually, I take that back.  It sounds like lots of people will be getting sued starting tomorrow, and I don't want to throw my name into the mix like the winner of last night's election who is involved in a civil fraud trial with relation to Trump University that is set to commence in just two weeks.

For the Nasty Woman, we're going to start with that bad hombre, tequila, because naturally I would've used Trump Wine since there isn't a worse hombre than Donald "I'm an Idiot, Sad" Trump, but his wine has been called Botox-y and pungent, so no.  And then, and then...

Well, there are certain men who only credit woman with being first one time in the history of the world.  And that would be for...wait for it...

Original Sin.

Yup, these guys like Donald "I'm an Idiot, Sad" Trump will give women credit for that, and not much else, so travel back with me to that dangerous Garden - and what was it that caused Eve to get us guys expelled from paradise?  That Goddamn apple.

I figure it's ok to say Goddamn in this instance because, well, He did, didn't he?  Also, today, I could give a fuck.

So, I'm going to add some apple to the hombre who already resides in our glass, and apple brandy does the trick. because we need as much alcohol in this cocktail as possible.

Things, though, get a little tricky when we talk about apples in the Garden, because according to many biblical scholars, the apple in the Garden was actually a pomegranate - which is just fine by me because grenadine (real grenadine) is made from pomegranates, and now I'm picturing myself seeding the crushed ice in our Nasty Woman with plump, juicy pomegranate seeds because they're tasty and it'll look fabulous and we'll add grenadine to make this SOB go down easy because we're gonna need more than one.

I want to toss some bitters in there, and Bittermens has a terrific one - Burlesque Bitters.  C'mon, what else am I going to use?  These Burlesque Bitters are billed as a spicy little tart, and Donald "I'm an Idiot, Sad" Trump likes spicy little tarts, by all accounts, so Burlesque Bitters fit the bill, and I know she plays well with that tequila hombre, so in she goes.

Are you with me?  Good.  Let's get to it. because I don't remember the last time I needed a drink as bad as right now.  Maybe that time they had to saw my leg off in the Civil War....

Nasty Woman:

2 oz. tequila
1 oz. apple brandy
Soda water
.5 oz grenadine
2 dashes Burlesque Bitters
pomegranate seeds for garnish

Combine tequila, apple brandy, and bitters.  Stir until cold.  Layer a collins glass with ice, seeding the ice with pomegranates as you go.  Carefully pour in the grenadine, then add the tequila-brandy-bitters mix.  Top with soda water.  Then, toast our country and wish for better things for all of us.

Monday, September 26, 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.

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 a mountainside and were resting at the Mackinnon Pass.  The Pass overlooks the Clinton River Valley. That valley?  If you've been to the Yosemite Valley, think of that. If not, think of 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. Flowers bloomed everywhere.  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 all around. 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.

The first words we sang that glorious day 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 smoky and sweet. In that darkness, there is a single flicker – a candle held in the hands of the priest. He leaves the altar, cupping that single flame, and approaches the congregation. We wait, in the dark, holding our own 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 and our faces, lit with warm candlelight, light up even brighter with smiles. Other faces
Mary with her child, St. John the Baptist, the Archangel Gabriel they all begin to issue out of the dark from icons now glowing gold and red as we all sing.

That day on the Milford Track, with keas flying overhead, Karen and I sang.
Christós anésti ek nekrón 
We mimicked the sounds of that hymn.  Perhaps we didn't know how each of the words translates.
thanáto thánaton patísas 
But we did know the hymn was full of hope. As we descended into a fern-filled valley we joined up with fellow trampers.  Some of our favorites, a walking club from Japan who had traveled together, were already smiling because they had heard us approaching.
ké tís en tís mnímasi 
"Here come the Singers!" they laughed.  We had become the Singers to them.  That day they of course didn't understand the Greek words coming from American mouths, but they liked our enthusiasm, laughed with us as we passed, laughing already at the Singing Americans.
zoín charisámenos
We sang Christos Anesti because it's simple, but brilliantly simple, and the location demanded – New Zealand deserved – brilliance, so we gave what we could.

Tuesday. 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.
Tuesday. 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.  Then another plane.  Another crash.  More smoke.  More fire.  Flight 11.  Flight 175.  Flight 77. And Flight 93, the one that should have been heading to us in San Francisco. Vassilios keeps running away from them all, 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.  New Yorkers are running like Vassilios runs.  Through the smoke and through the screams, away from Ground Zero.  Away, away.
That day, we're left with an endless video loop. Smoke billows, towers crumble. Billowing, crumbling.  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 needed a distraction, something to allow us to stop talking about it, so we left San Francisco's Marina District and drove out to the Avenues where we bought tickets to see Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming in 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.

A week later, baseball restarted its interrupted schedule.  Karen and I had 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 from all the gates at Pac Bell Park on September 18th.  I bought a red Giants cap, the closest thing I could find to red, white, and blue.  Everybody wore ride, white, and blue.  We headed to our 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, 40,000 remembered 3,000, and we sang.
We sang and patriotism gave way to sorrow. Then ushers walked down aisles lighting candles.  Flames touched wicks as neighbor turned to neighbor, 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 and the park glowed.

Church was also an interrupted routine.

San Francisco’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral was destroyed by the 1989 earthquake.  It was only then, more than a decade later, being rebuilt.  On that first Sunday after the attack, we sat in folding chairs in a chapel taking the place of a cathedral.  We prayed in a cathedral taken down by an earthquake for those in the Twin Towers taken down by planes.  We 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, these old Greek women, maybe not knowing what each word meant (and guide her) but, like Karen and me in New Zealand, they appreciated the power and beauty of the song. As we passed the tear-streaked faces of women born in another country but celebrating their adopted 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.

Wednesday, September 7, 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.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Jay McInerney, Rudyard Kipling, & Carrie Starr

When Jay McInerney's Bright, Precious Days was released this month, my only regret was that I wasn't creating cocktails for novels as earnestly in 2006 as I am now.  In '06, I was lucky enough to host Mr. McInerney in my store, but I didn't have a cocktail to toast him with, a cocktail to celebrate the release of The Good Life.

Regrets?  I've had a few, and like I said, that's one.

While I wasn't able to have the privilege of Mr. McInerney's presence in the store this go around, I do have a cocktail, the Carrie Starr. The drink's genesis was a scene in the book where two couples find themselves in a secret restaurant in New York - secret like speakeasies were when they first came back on the scene; think New York's PDT or San Francisco's Bourbon and Branch.

So, Russell and Corrine (last seen in The Good Life) are on a double date, and some of the foursome are more adventurous eaters than others.  It is, after all, New York, and shirako is on the menu, so if you're the one feeling adventurous and if you've ever had a hankering for fish sperm, then you simply have to find yourself a secret restaurant that'll prepare it for you.

One of the cocktails on the menu that night was the Rudyard Kipling.  This is an East meets West drink - bourbon mixed with Umeshu, a Japanese plum liqueur.  Kipling, in The Ballad of East and West, wrote that the two would never meet (as they do in this drink).  His poem begins and ends with:

0h, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

I'm not often presented with a cocktail to play with inside the pages of the books I'm reading, so I jumped at the chance to twiddle with this one.  I don't know Mr. McInerney personally (if you do, please ask!), and wasn't able to determine if the drink is one he concocted or if it came from some fabulous New York joint - so I'll just say the inspiration was his and I messed with it, absolving Mr. McInerney of all blame.

Messing with it meant leaving out the bourbon and using gin.  Kipling, born in British India, was quite the Englishman and what finer English liquor is there than gin?  Gin, though, seems in this setting to make the drink more feminine than it was with the bourbon, so I thought it was better to name it not for Kipling, but for his wife, Carrie Starr.

So, please, go get the book, mix yourself a drink, and enjoy.

Carrie Starr

 2 oz. gin
.5 oz Umeshu
2 dashes plum bitters
Ume (Asian Plum) peel for garnish

Line a chilled cocktail glass with the ume peel.  Stir the gin and Umeshu with ice.  Strain into the glass.  Dash with the bitters.

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.