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.  


Friday, March 31, 2017

Jardine Libaire Misses Jack London

New York at the end of the 80's, before the Disneyfication of Times Square, before Black Monday decimated Stock Markets, when grit was glam and Twin Towers held sway - this is the setting and the time of Jardine Libaire's violent novel, White Fur.

I've called this novel tragic, dangerous, and sexy AF - and it's all that, but so much more.  It's Romeo and Juliet without punches pulled - which says a lot, or is should, because Shakespeare didn't do much in the way of pulling punches himself.

It's Elise Perez meeting Jamey Hyde - Hello irresistible force meeting immovable object.  Their affair is white hot, but the problem with a flame that's blinding and incendiary is that it's impossible to sustain without serious damage being inflicted on all comers.

Unfortunately, I am embarrassed to say that I have misplaced my tasting notes - the explanations for why I chose the flavors and scents that I did to create Ms. Libaire's drink.  When I find them, I will add my reasons.  Until then, you'll have to take my word that this is inspired by White Fur in all its New York glory.

White Fir for Jack London:

3.5 oz. gin
.5 oz. vermouth
1 spritz Fir Essential Oil - (Aftelier Perfumes)
Cocktail onion for garnish

Combine gin & vermouth with ice. Stir well. Strain into chilled glass. Spritz with Fir Oil. Garnish with onion.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Richmond Float

The first time I met Michelle Richmond was around the time her debut - The Year of Fog - arrived.  Ten years?  At least.  Have you read that one?  Go read that one.  I was a newish father when I was introduced to it - and it was an incredibly difficult read for that reason - but Ms. Richmond's prose is so rich, the story (about the disappearance of a child) so brutally seductive, that it's grip won't loosen until you're done.

So go read that because you'll have to wait until July for her latest novel, The Marriage Pact.

The Marriage Pact is deliciously creepy with ominous tidbits strewn artfully about that make you immediately worried for Alice and Jake.  Newly married, deliriously happy (at least Jake is - Alice is more guarded.  Happy?  Yes.  Verdict is out on the delirious thing).  Each is successful in their professions.  They live in the Bay Area, so they also have that going for them.  Happy days, right?

But then there's the Pact.

They're invited to join a jet-setting community of interesting souls who all share one thing:  they want their marriages to be successful.  What's the harm in that?

Did I mention the ominous tidbits?  The bracelet Alice is forced to wear because some members of the Pact question her commitment?  The warning Jake receives from an old friend about the dangers of the Pact, and oh yeah, he notices a nasty and fresh wound that she tries to hide?

Did I mention that the novel begins with Jake regaining consciousness, bloodied, the only passenger on a plane headed back to the bay area?  So yes, there's all that.

Time for a drink?  I think so.

Ms. Richmond was kind enough to comment on an earlier post and, because that cocktail had chocolate and heavy cream, she was all in.  Which gave me an inkling for where I might head for her own drink - and I ended up going there and then, perhaps, I went a little further (cue atmospheric / haunting music).

The woman who gives Alice the bracelet is caught off guard when, while she's introducing Alice and Jake to the idea of the Pact, they ask her to answer one of her own questions.  What's your favorite drink?  Vivian responds without hesitation:  Green Spot Irish Whiskey, 12 year, neat.

Ok, I have a bottle of Green Spot at home, but it ain't the 12 year.  I think they only bottled two hundred of those and they are long since gone for a very princely sum.  But I can work with it, because the Green Spot I have is good.

The bracelet I mentioned earlier?  Alice is told it'll be monitoring her, and so Jake lies and speaks into it, saying that he was so happy that Alice brought him vanilla bean ice cream (the lie being that he bought it for himself).  Vanilla bean ice cream?  Hmm.  Did Ms. Richmond indicate that she liked an earlier concoction of mine because of the heavy cream?

Are we seeing a trend?

More importantly, can I mix good whiskey with ice cream?  Of course I can.  Grab a spoon kids, and get ready for a Richmond Float.

Richmond Float:

2 oz. Green Spot Irish Whiskey
Root beer
Boozy Vanilla Bean Ice Cream*
Bourbon Maple Syrup

Drizzle maple syrup inside glass.  Add two scoops ice cream.  Fill glass with root beer - leaving room for the 2 oz. of whiskey.  Drizzle more maple syrup on top.

*For the Boozy Vanilla Bean Ice Cream:

2 cups heavy cream
1 cup milk
1 vanilla bean, split
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed
4 egg yolks
Pinch fine sea salt
3 Tbsp Green Spot Irish Whiskey

Set aside one cup of the cream in a metal bowl.  Place it in a container filled with ice water.
In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining cream, the milk, the vanilla bean, the sugar, and the salt.  Heat on medium until the sugar is incorporated and it just begins to boil.
Remove from heat.  Let sit, covered, for one hour.
Finely strain this mixture into the chilled cup of cream.
Add the whiskey and refrigerate for three hours.
Process in your ice cream maker.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Spoils of War

I don't often post multiple recipes on the same day, but I'm exceedingly fortunate to meet two authors this evening, along with the inimitable Lee Boudreaux, who just so happens to be VP and Editorial Director of Lee Boudreaux Books - the publisher of the novels we'll be celebrating tonight.  I already told you about the new work from Andrew Sean Greer, now it's on to the Spoils.

Spoils is the debut novel from Brian Van Reet.  Mr. Van Reet interrupted his schooling after September 11th, 2001, to enlist in the US Army.  He was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor as a result of his service as a tank crewman in Iraq.  And although war is devastating, and it's often difficult to see what good can come of it, I'm thankful that after his Honorable Discharge, Mr. Van Reet focused on writing.  Spoils is the culmination of his very long journey from America to Iraq and back again.

With his novel, Mr. Van Reet gives you the boots-on-the-ground view during the war in Iraq.  He doesn’t take sides – he ventures into much more difficult terrain by showing the war through both prisms, American and Iraqi.  The result is disturbing and grave.  Spoils is a powerful examination of the costs of war, both on a country and the people fighting for it.

Looking for inspiration for what to put into a drink for his book, I started with Abu Al-Hool, a mujahedeen with a past he'd like to forget - his passive father, who didn't believe that political power grew out of the barrel of a gun, but rather was something that a good martini could help bring about.  So I'd start there.  A martini is always a good place to start.  Then, everyone's drinking coffee - American and Iraqi - so I wanted that to play a part.

There's a calm-before-the-storm moment when Cassandra, the teenage gunner on an American Humvee, witnesses a group of Iraqi children happy to receive rations - especially chocolate - from the Americans in their country.  Chocolate, then, to round everything out.

Those ingredients create the Spoils of War.  Close to a White Russian, which seemed weirdly ok - though the Dude might not approve of how strong the Spoils actually is.

Spoils of War:

3.5 oz Hendrick's Gin
.5 oz white chocolate & coffee vodka ganache*
Coffee beans for garnish

Add the gin to the ganache.  Stir with ice.  Strain into a chilled glass and garnish with the coffee beans.

*For the Ganache:

8 oz white chocolate 
1 cup heavy whipping cream
4 teaspoons ground coffee
1/8 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
3 oz vodka 

Heat the cream and add the salt and coffee.  Add this, while hot, to the chopped chocolate, vanilla, and vodka.  Stir until smooth - adding heat if needed.  Refrigerate overnight.

What is Love?

Through some trick of how I process what I read, the first book that I encounter from a particular author invariably turns out to be my favorite.  I can love the books that follow, but for me, there's just something about the first.

That said, by all rights my favorite book by Andrew Sean Greer should be The Confessions of Max Tivoli.  It's not Mr. Greer's first novel, but it's the first one I read, and so that should still be #1.

It's not.

I just finished his newest novel, Less, and it's breathtaking.  You have to wait until the summer before it's released - so please, mark your calendars now for July 18th.

There's so much to love about this novel - not the least of which, of course, is its protagonist, Arthur Less.  And not just because Arthur is turning 50, as I just did, with all the baggage that number has to offer, but it's because Arthur, like many of us, is trying to do what's right for himself and for those he loves - and is making a mess of it like we're prone to do.

You'll read the novel for the brilliant way Mr. Greer makes his words leap from the page - there's a description of Arthur's older lover, receiving the phone call that let's him know he's won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and you'll reread that passage for the sheer energy and joy of the words.  If you're one of those people who underlines favorite passages, don't bother - it will become impossible to see the words for all the underlining.

Mr. Greer's novel is seemingly structured effortlessly, but each line is so pure, so crystalline in its placement, that any attempt to remove one would shatter it all.

July 18th, did I say that?

For Arthur's cocktail, it was easy to pick champagne as a start, because he and others drink it throughout.  Towards the end, when the clock is close to striking 50 for him, it's already struck for a friend, and she's drinking marc, a French pomace brandy.  It reminds her of times past, so that was a natural addition.  (And though I didn't have any French marc lying about, I did have the Cretan version, tsikoudia, and that was closer to what I wanted to use - marc de gewürztraminer - because both of these are clear whereas regular French marc is aged in wood and becomes tawny.  I didn't want tawny, I wanted clear.  So.

And, most importantly, Arthur's friend then asks the question at the heart of the novel, What is Love?  And bless her if she didn't also, then, name our drink.

Because Love's in the air and on the page - and especially because of the comment made late in the book ("Elegant Parisian women in black and gray sip garishly colored American cocktails that even a sorority girl would not order.") - I knew I had to give Mr. Greer exactly that, so I went with grenadine, the color of romance.  So sip this and (egad, I thought I would make it through without resorting to the most obvious cliche, but here it is anyway) you'll agree that Less is indeed more.

Postcript:  This evening I was lucky enough to attend a dinner celebrating two novels not yet released.  One was Mr. Greer's Less.  When I admitted to him, after too much wine, that the inspiration for his cocktail was partly just throwing a stick of dynamite at a French 75 and then, like Dr. Frankenstein, reconstructing it with found parts, Mr. Greer smiled, big.  "The French 75 is my favorite cocktail," he said.  Which made me think that the direction I took was the right one.

What is Love?

1.5 oz marc de gewürztraminer
.75 oz lemon juice
.5 oz grenadine
Cherry for garnish

Combine the marc, lemon juice, and grenadine in a shaker filled with ice.  Shake.  Strain into a champagne flute.  Top with champagne and garnish with the cherry.  Sword is optional.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

New Year, New Drink, For One Lucky Boy

It's about time to get back on the drinking horse - not that there's any one particular reason for that.  Nope, not at all.  Why would you think that I would particularly need a drink right about now?

My first book, then, for this, the Year of the Drink, is Shanthi Sekaran's Lucky Boy.

I had the good fortune to introduce Ms. Sekaran at a lunch kicking off the NCIBA's Discovery Show last fall.  We had a stellar lineup at that Buzz Lunch - all the books were amazing - so it was easy to select Lucky Boy, one of the first releases of the year, to kick off our 2017 newsletter

In Lucky Boy, you're introduced to Soli, who comes to the US across our Southern Border - oh, wait.  Does that make this book especially timely considering the events of the past few days?  Gosh, it does.  Does Ms. Sekaran also give a very real face to the people who are being used as the boogeyman-of-the-moment?  Well, yes, she does that, too.  It would behoove anyone who has questions about the reasons that compel some to enter our country by any means possible to read Lucky Boy.  It's a story that forces you to consider judgments that are all too easy to make.

The power of novels is simple - they compel you to spend hours with people and watch them make decisions you've never had to face, which in turn can make you think about the challenges in the lives of others.

We call that empathy, a quality that sometimes can be in short supply.

Anyway.  Please read Lucky Boy.  Like I said, you'll meet Soli, who, soon after her arrival in the States, will give birth to the lucky boy of the book's title.  Unfortunately, circumstances will cause her to be separated from her child by social services.

When this occurs, we've already met Kavya, an Indian woman living in Berkeley who desperately wants to have a child but is unable to conceive.  She and her husband will become foster parents for Ignacio.  The novel traces the paths of these two women - both wanting to be the mother of the same little boy.

The novel is heartbreaking - there isn't an answer that can make both Soli and Kavya happy.  That made me decide that a lot of alcohol was called for, so I went about creating a punch and began looking to the novel for its ingredients.

I begin with Soli, and when she meets the husband of the family she's a housekeeper for, he tries to ingratiate himself by speaking Spanish even faster than she can.  He also mentions that he has backpacked near where she is from, in Southern Mexico, and he thought the mezcal there was something else - so I'll start with that.  Also during that fist conversation, he's eating a scone rich with red berries, so our ingredients are coming along nicely. 

Then, to Kavya.  Early on, she takes a new job cooking for a Berkeley sorority, and while she does have to field concerns about the amount of garlic in one of her dishes, I've not been able to yummily incorporate garlic into a cocktail.

Thankfully, she also works with plenty of lemons, so I know that they'll take part, too. 

Finally, there's a party scene where Kavya is being grilled about the fact that she doesn't have a baby, that she's not getting pregnant, and when she can't take it anymore she runs from that group and to another, these women all in black, and one of them acknowledges Kavya's frustration by saluting her with a fresh glass of prosecco.  So we'll finish with that, especially since Kavya and her husband take a bottle of prosecco with them on a trip to Calistoga.  Clearly, it's something she would approve of.

I hope you approve of this.

Lucky Boy Punch

1 bottle red wine
½ cup mezcal
½ cup orange juice
½ cup raspberries
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1 lemon, sliced
1 orange, sliced
1 mango, sliced

Muddle and then strain ½ cup of the raspberries and a ¼ cup of the pomegranate seeds.  Combine this juice with the rest of the ingredients - except the Prosecco - in a large pitcher or bowl and refrigerate overnight.

Ladle or pour into cups.  When serving, top with the Prosecco.