Blood & Whiskey #21
Rebecca Makkai's murder mystery; Margot Douaihy's bad-a** nun (and an interview); Sterling Watson's country noir; William Landay's missing mom. Plus a neighborhood cocktail and Neal's new paperback.
Hello friends and readers,
This is the newsletter in which multiple project deadlines disrupted my schedule, so here’s a February newsletter coming to you in March…
First up: two excellent books that came out last week (as did, if you must know, the paperback of The First Kennedys — more on that below).
Rebecca Makkai’s brooding, literary boarding school murder mystery, I Have Some Questions For You, is getting heaps of well-deserved attention. This one veers from her sweeping 2018 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Great Believers. Bodie Kane is a film professor and podcaster who’s been invited to teach for a semester at her alma mater, the Granby School, where she was a goth and grumpy outcast. She’s now semi-famous, with a semi-famous ex-husband artist back in L.A. with their kids. Bodie’s return to the campus of her youth forces her to revisit the murder of one-time roommate, Thalia Keith. The “You” of the title is a former professor, who Bodie adored — and who adored Thalia. The school’s former athletic trainer is prison for the murder, but… did he really do it? Or is the wrong man behind bars? Of course, there’s much more to it: old friendships revisited, old memories tested, plus a #metoo-ish side story about Bodie’s husband. Here are a few things I scribbled in the margins: It’s a slow burn. Both simple (whodunnit?) and very complex. It goes deep. It’s about murder, memory, adolescence, friendship, privilege, race. In her Substack (here), Makkai calls it “the literary feminist boarding school murder mystery you didn’t know you needed.” It’s a fantastic read, and not just cuz the New Yorker says so.
Scorched Grace is a fun and edgy debut mystery from poet Margot Douaihy. Also set at a school (Catholic; New Orleans), also featuring a murder (and arson), this one features a queer, chain-smoking, tattooed former punk rocker who’s been taken in by the Sisters of the Sublime Blood. She’s now known as Sister Holiday, and when fire ravages the school that’s become her home and safe space, she investigates. Of course, she discovers more along the way than expected — about her fellow sisters, about herself, her past. The story nicely avoids, or plays with, the tropes of the genre. And as a product of Catholic schools myself, the themes — sin, forgiveness, redemption, guilt — resonated, even if the nuns made me a little uneasy. For me, Douaihy’s language carries the book. The poet is on every page, and her depictions of grimy, sweltering, loveable New Orleans are sublime.
I chatted with Douaihy by Zoom. I trimmed out some of our exchanges about playing guitar (or not), meditating, and our mutual connections to Scranton, Pa. (Margot grew up there; I went to college there). She was a joy to talk to…
Night Letter, by Sterling Watson — I really enjoyed this one. Great characters, dialogue, mood, language, and just the right amount of strange and dark. It’s the full package. Eighteen-year-old Travis Hollister has just been released from juvie in Nebraska, and makes his way home to Florida’s Panhandle. His goal is to reconnect with his aunt Delia, for reasons I won’t disclose. He sets himself up at a motel (the boozy proprietor, the Widow, is a hoot), works at a fried fish joint, meets a teen beauty who’ll bring nothing but trouble, while trying to avoid his wealthy lawyer father. It ends up being a lovely coming of age story, with a lot of blood and fire and Southern Gothic thrown in. Side note for you writers: Watson is the former director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburgh and co-founder of its writers conference, which has featured the best in the business (Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, Michael Koryta).
All That Is Mine I Carry with Me, by William Landay — I loved his 2012 novel Defending Jacob. This one is a bit slower and odder. It’s the story of a family, really, built around the disappearance of mom, Jane Larkin, in 1975. Dad is a Dan Larkin, a successful, cocky criminal defense lawyer, who remarries a year later, and is the chief suspect in Jane’s disappearance. The kids, Alex, Jeff, and Miranda, all nurse hopes that Jane will return, and they’re all messed up in assorted ways. Landay made some interesting choices on shifting points of view that didn’t all work for me. But the tensions and loyalties — to either or both parent, to the truth — drive this story of loss and doubt and family secrets.
What we’re watching: The Last of Us. I resisted at first. A TV series based on a video game? But wow, so well done. Also, we’re late to the game, but we (in fact, me more than my spouse) started binging Better Things. Pamela Aldon is a national treasure.
What my wife is reading: Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton — Says Mary: “A gripping thriller that takes place in Thorndike, New Zealand. The story revolves around the (unlikely) interaction between a mercenary and secretive American billionaire and a guerrilla gardening group. The polar opposites of their values makes the character explorations interesting. We all have something in common. Survival.”
A shorty: Walter Kirn, There’s Bear in the House! — This Kindle- or audio-only short, memoir-ish story is fantastic, weird, deeply moving. Kirn spends time with his dying father at a remote Montana cabin … and there’s a bear lurking outside. Trust me. (I think it’s free on Kindle if you have Amazon Prime.)
Cocktail of the Month
I know it’s March now, but belated congrats to those who “won” Dry January, and honorable mention to those of us who, like me, settled for Dampuary. Welcome back to the wet side… This one is an adaptation of a drink from my excellent local cocktail bar, Baker’s, named for the nearest intersection…
65th & 32nd
2 oz Old Forester bourbon
3/4 oz Nocino (Italian walnut liqueur/digestif)
1/2 oz sumac simple syrup (recipe: here)
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Stir, strain and serve up with a lemon twist for garnish.
*And if you end up buying a bottle of Nocino for this, you can also use it to make an Alpine Rabbit (bourbon, carrot juice, Nocino, lemon juice, simple syrup) or an Italian Sidecar (brandy, Nocino, Cointreau, lemon juice). Or add a bit to your Manhattan or Old Fashioned. Or on ice with soda. Or whatevs…
Also… I shared this on the socials and thought I’d share here, too — a few words about persistence and humility in the writing life, about writing as survival. The paperback of The First Kennedys came out last week and this book, like the character it features (JFK’s great-grandmother Bridget), is a true survivor. In late 2019 I sold the book to a well-respected editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (aka HMH — RIP). I quit my corporate job to write the book. Then my editor quit and my book was orphaned. Then HMH was orphaned — sold to Harper Collins. Although the Covid lockdown kept me from traveling for some final research, I managed to finish the book, submitted it to my new editor and my new publisher (HMH became Mariner Books). Six weeks before the hardcover was published last year, my publicist quit. And about two months ago, my new publicist joined the strike against Harper Collins and then quit. Mariner Books decided not to do any publicity for the paperback. There’s no moral to this story except that writing is resilience. I love this little book. I’m proud of the people it brings back to life. (And I love the new afterwod from Kerry Kennedy, RFK’s daughter.) Am I disappointed about all the churn? You bet. But I also feel lucky to be able to tell stories for a living, grateful that people actually buy and read my books (six and counting — books, not readers), fortunate to have a wife (and agent) to support me, and lucky to even be in a position to say: please buy my book! (No, seriously: click HERE or HERE — it’s just $9 on Amzn right now.)
Every writer gets shoved around by the churn of the publishing business, some more than others. Sometimes it’s hard not to let it get you down. But I’m finally emerging from a recent period of WTF? and am back in the game, working on two books and writing scripts for a podcast. (You can listen to my first attempt, from late last year: here.) Also, every now and then I get an email like this one, which landed in my inbox last week: “Dear Neal, I picked up your book yesterday, and read the entire thing in one setting. Thank you for telling the story of Bridget, PJ & Mary. In telling the story, you also gave me a glimpse of what the journey to America was like for my great-grandmother, who left County Waterford at age 17 in search of a better life. I could not put the book down.”
Finally, here are some recent or forthcoming books you might want to know about — not too bloody or boozy, but definitely buzzy…
Kerri Schlottman, Tell Me One Thing — This one’s atop my stack, a debut novel from a Detroit-to-New Jersey writer and pal.
Jenny Jackson, Pineapple Street — editor at Knopf (Peter Heller, Emily St. John Mandel, Chris Bohjalian — so, no slouch), just profiled in the NY Times Of the book, says Vogue: "A delicious new Gilded Age family drama... a guilty pleasure that also feels like a sociological text."
Sonora Jha, The Laughter — from Seattle prof - and pal. Getting great reviews.
Jane Harper, Exiles — wish I had time to get to this; loved her last two.
Peter Geye, The Ski Jumpers — rec from a lit-world friend
S. E. Boyd, The Lemon — rec from an old college friend
Salman Rushdie, Victory City — David Remnick’s New Yorker profile was amazing, too.
Will Scwalbe, We Should Not Be Friends — Will is a treasure. You should read all his books.
Until next month (or, honestly, maybe the month after that)…
Find me on Instagram; sometimes on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads
Two of my faves of the year so far — I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU and SCORCHED GRACE.
I need to read I Have Some Questions for You but thinking of saving it for a road trip at the end of the month. Hats off for your persistence. Sometimes it really sucks being the one essential human in a commodity-driven business.