Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Christmas Treasure Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, my goodness! Oh, my gracious!

A year has passed, how outrageous!

Treasure Hunts used to be 

Something to count on, don't you see?

But now, more than a year has passed.

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

It is, indeed, rather unfortunate

So let us go hunting for some ornaments!

First will be Mommy's, because mommies rule

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

But what ornament for someone who's never loudest?

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

But golly, where should you both look?

You won't find the answer in a guidebook

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

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

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

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

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

So fast you both are, your parents you outdid

Who follows Mommy? you ask eyes aglow

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

And since the first treasure had to do with music

Let's keep going with something acoustic

What kind of music does Elizabeth bring?

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

She should sing more, her voice is so beautiful

Proving quite easily that the girl is musical

The treasure this time is not hiding nearby

Go look in the forest upstairs so high

A forest, impossible! you both do decree

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

Kristina has one, Elizabeth does, too

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

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

The next that you find will continue good tidings

Kristina's is next, so full of good cheer

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

So graceful she moves, 
with happiness with glee

Over the snow she does slide shouting whoopee

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

Her love of gymnastics we're sure will endure

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

Doing something that's fun and hearkens yuletide

To find it please look in a room that is freezing

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

Look in the yellow, and inside you will find

Kristina's ornament, placed by design!

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

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

All the ornaments so far have been cute have been pretty

Daddy's will not, as decided by committee

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

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

So his treasure will expose not his ease or his grace

Instead it will show him falling flat on his face!

It has been put inside a stocking with care

Hanging with the others, yes hanging, I swear!

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

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

Are there more hunts in the months that do wait?

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

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

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Slow Burn for Megan Abbott

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

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

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

A lot, I said.

Enough, he said, to introduce her tonight?

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

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

Her novels, naturally, are richer for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slow Burn:

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

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Largesse of Denis Johnson

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

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

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

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

This is true.

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

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

Mr. Johnson is never sickly sweet.

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

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

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

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

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

Tony's Best Friend

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

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