Blood & Whiskey #24
B&W turns 2. Donna Tartt narrates True Grit; Grace D. Li's Portrait of a Thief; Carl Hiaasen's Squeeze Me; Laird Hunt's Zorrie & more. Including: a Fernet cocktail and a swaggering playlist.
Hello friends and readers,
It’s Blood & Whiskey’s 2-year anniversary. Thanks for sticking with me as this project evolves. As always, I welcome your suggestions and feedback.
I’d mentioned last month that my wife and I were headed to Boston for the summer. We’ve landed here (Cambridge) safely after an intense, rain-soaked and windy cross-country drive. My son and I made the journey in a loaded-up SUV, listening (as we passed through Spokane) to Jess Walter’s excellent 2013 story collection, We Live In Water, and many episodes of Brian Koppelman’s brilliant interview podcast, The Moment, which digs deep into the moments that sparked the careers of writers, comics and other creators. We pulled off for many coffee and smoke breaks, visited my wife’s hometown, did a fast-walk micro-tour of Chicago, and ate chicken wings in East Aurora (outside Buffalo), while listening to Donna Tartt’s pitch-perfect narration of Charles Portis’s classic, True Grit — and at times accompanied by a perfectly menacing sky.
Portrait of a Thief, by Grace D. Li — My favorite book of the month was an Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel, longlisted for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize, and named a New York Times Best Crime Novel of 2022. It’s a tightly controlled, multi-POV story about five Chinese American college kids recruited to steal five zodiac heads from the museums that had come into the possession of these looted-from-China works of art. The heisters are convinced they’re honoring the country of origin, the land of their people, by snatching them back. The story begins in a dorm room at Harvard, just a few blocks from where I now sit. Like all good crime novels it’s about much more than the heist. Li is a precise (and precocious) writer and the themes of colonialism and identity loom large. But it was the page-turning hooks and character/relationship building I admired most. Any time I wanted to roll my eyes at the absurdity of amateurs stealing from the world’s top museums (watching Ocean’s Eleven and Fast & Furious flicks for tips) — “they were students, not thieves” Li reminds us more than once, albeit top students (like the author) at America’s top universities (Harvard, Duke, Stanford) — I just rolled along with the catchy and compelling storytelling. Li gives voice to a generation of immigrants’ kids who feel like they “could never be Chinese enough for China … could never be American enough for here.”
Squeeze Me, by Carl Hiaasen — I picked this one up in New York last year during my book tour for The First Kennedys (thanks Amy and David!) but just started reading last week (on the advice of my wife: see below) — and gobbled it the F up. So fun to be in the hands of a pro like Hiaasen. You could file it under “escapist reading” but Hiaasen is more than just an absurdist. The story of a widowed Palm Beach supporter of the unnamed (Trump!) president — her body found inside the belly of a Burmese python, but blamed on an illegal immigrant — rings too timely and true. Hiaasen has mined his home state’s ridiculousness for decades now, but clearly has no shortage of material. As the Irish-Syrian Secret Service agent — slash secret lover of the First Lady (aka Mockingbird) — puts it: “We’re in Florida. These things happen.”
[Side note: I briefly worked alongside Hiaasen’s brother, Rob, at The Baltimore Sun, in the late 1990s. This June marks five years since Rob and four co-workers were killed by a gunman at the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. Rob was 59. Among the wonderful shoutouts to Rob’s many talents, Laura Lippman’s homage in the New York Times stands out.]
Zorrie, by Laird Hunt — Scored from a Little Free Library (I'm a big fan and a major book donor), this slim and lovely story (a National Book Award finalist in 2021) tells the decades-long saga of the remarkable Zorrie Underwood, a force of nature who, in her small Indiana community, overcomes every imaginable and unimaginable hurdle life can throw at a person. A gem.
The Last Word, by Taylor Adams — This should’ve been up my alley, featuring an overly sensitive author infuriated by a one-star Amazon review of his book, who threatens to kill the reviewer. It’s set on the wild coast of Washington, where the reviewer/protagonist lives alone in a spooky house, clearly hiding from some bad shit that crashed down on her life. It was an interesting and clever set up, but just not for me. I skim-read it. But I did enjoy lines like this, from the offended author: “It’s so grotesquely unfair that some people will now be discouraged from reading my hundred-thousand-word novel because of your hundred-word review. With two minutes you got to cancel out a year of my hard work.” There’s a lot of that. This guy is pissed.
Other shoutouts — and books I’m looking forward to reading soon I swear…
Beware The Woman, by Megan Abbott — The latest from one of my favorite writers comes out next month and a beautiful pre-pub copy sits by my side. It’s up next and I’m psyched to spend time with this master of closed-space mysteries — in this case, a creepy cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Such Kindness, by Andre Dubus III and Yellowface, by R.F. Kuang
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, by Claire Dederer — It’s still on my stack. The NYT gave it a well-deserved rave (“part memoir, part treatise and all treat”) — on the front page of the Sunday book review, no less!
The Exceptions, by Kate Zernike — Last year, for The First Kennedys, I did a fun Zoom interview with Kate (Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the New York Times) at the awesome Watchung Booksellers, in my old NJ neighborhood. Kate told me then about the book she was writing, which came out in late February. The Exceptions tells the story of the women who forced a reckoning at MIT (and beyond). The Times gave it a rave.
Prom Mom, by Laura Lippman — Coming in late July. And I learned (from Laura’s well-named newsletter, Shaved Meats, Piled High) that she has an long personal essay out, The Summer of Fall, in part about the end of her marriage to David Simon. You can read it at Scribd (with a 60-day trial): here.
More than two decades ago (okay, fine, three) I was working at The Roanoke Times & World News, at a bureau in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I befriended a crew of Virginia Tech alums, including my buddy Lou, a long-haired, chain-smoking guitar shredder who introduced me to the Boston-based band, the Blake Babies. (Lou plays a co-starring role as fellow skate dad in my memoir, Kickflip Boys — and this summer marks the 12-year anniversary of our cross-country road trip to US skateparks with our respective skate-rat sons.) I loved the Blake Babies (still do), and have ever since followed the career of lead singer Juliana Hatfield, who has started a Substack newsletter featuring chapters from a work-in-progress book:
What my current wife is currently reading: She plowed through the Hiaasen before me, on the heels of Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, which I hope to read this summer. Now she’s barreling toward the end of The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sajata Massey (a fellow Baltimore Sun alum). The woman reads.
What we’re watching: The Investigation (excellent Danish series on the murder of a Swedish journalist); John Mulaney’s Netflix special (awesome); Silver Streak (old school). Tried and bailed: Love & Death and White House Plumbers.
Cocktail of the Month
With my liquor bottles back home in Seattle, I only had a few ingredients to work with here in Boston. But I found a tasty combo, a mashup of two whiskey + Fernet cocktails (the Fanciulli and the Dare I Say), which I call…
2 oz. Irish whiskey (bourbon or rye works, too)
1/2 oz. Fernet-Branca
1/2 oz. Aperol
1/4 oz. sweet vermouth
a squeeze of lemon juice
Stir all ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe. Gently pinch the lemon over the glass to express a few drops. Garnish with maraschino cherry.
(This is similar to the Manhattan-ish Fernet-and-rye Toronto, which I love. Another take is The Smoking Gun, using scotch instead of whiskey and 1/2 tsp brown sugar instead of Aperol and vermouth)
Playlist of the Month
I’ve always thrived on music that feeds my writing. Past books have benefitted from the assorted sounds of The Replacements, The Drive-By Truckers, Brian Eno, among many others (including, more recently, Khruangbin). For the past three years I’d been listening to a shit-ton of ambient, groove, and flow music. A writer I admire, Jami Attenberg, had introduced me to the Substack newsletter, Flow State, which sustained my musical needs for a long time — maybe too long. Spotify tells me my top artists of 2021 and ‘22 were bands I don’t even recognize.
But each book project insists on a certain artist, genre, sound. During Covid, it made sense that my last book — despite my efforts to force The Pogues on it — wanted something moody, sullen, occasionally dancey or manic. (Btw, I loved this NYT piece on ambient music pioneer, Tim Heckler.) Welp, I’m onto a new book project (or two) and I (they) needed a new soundtrack. Years ago, when we lived in Asheville, NC, I went deep into a sound that used to be called “alt country.” I thrived on it. I can still get choked up flashing back to live shows by the Avett Brothers, The Everybodyfields (sadly, RIP), Lucinda Williams, the Drive-By Truckers, and… Steve Earle. That’s a long way of saying: I think my new writing has found its musical groove.
Thanks for reading. Until next month…
Find me @ Instagram; sometimes Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads
And it's a battered old suitcase To a hotel someplace And a wound that will never heal No prima donna, the perfume is on An old shirt that is stained with blood and whiskey… -Tom Waits, “Tom Traubert’s Blues”
Portrait of a Thief looks fascinating! Small world: I graduated from Radford University in 1992.
Your wife and I have similar taste! If you want another Florida caper, Dave Barry's new one is great. Made me laugh out loud.