Neal's 'Blood & Whiskey' #17
Percival Everett, Chloe Gong, David Grann, Joyce Carol Oates, a fall books roundup, and Bad Sisters. Also: a "freezer door" Manhattan.
Hello friends and readers…
Fall is here (aka decorative gourd season) and that stupid clock reset is coming, so this month I’m featuring more whiskey than blood. Scroll down to learn how to make a giant Manhattan that should last until Thanksgiving. As for books… I don’t have anything to full-on rave about this month, but below is a mixed-bag of crime-y novels and true crime that I’m happy to share with intrepid readers.
But first, a quick cover reveal: a sneak peak at the all-new jacket for the paperback of THE FIRST KENNEDYS, coming in Feb, with a new afterword from (RFK’s daughter) Kerry Kennedy. Preorder: HERE; or snag the hardcover: HERE.
Dr. No (Graywolf Press) — Percival Everett [publishes Nov. 1]
Challenging and weird; fun and trippy; occasionally hilarious. But, man… weird. Math professor Wala Kitu (his name translates to nothing, nothing — in Tagalog and Swahili) studies nothingness. A billionaire bad guy, John Sill, wants to be a Bond-style supervillain (a la Dr. No) and needs Kitu’s help to steal a box of “nothing” from Fort Knox. Sill plans to do very bad things to the world, using nothing as his weapon. Get it?! Says Kitu, in sample of the book’s wit and weirdness: “He wants to make America nothing again!”
If you're an Everett completist — or an adventurous or curious reader — go for it. I finished it, enjoyed a lot, eye-rolled some, but can’t give a full throated endorsement. I remain a fan. I reviewed his previous book, The Trees, last year. (It was named a Booker Prize finalist — the winner should be announced soon. The New Yorker called it a “mordant hillbilly comedy, Flannery O’Connor transposed to the age of QAnon.”) The book before that, Telephone, won the Pulitzer. My favorite remains So Much Blue, which NPR also called his best.
Foul Lady Fortune (Margaret K. McElderry Books) — Chloe Gong
A quirky mix of historical murder mystery, international spy thriller, political drama and far-out fantasy, Gong’s story is set in 1930s Shanghai and features a spy — code name: Fortune — who’s been medically altered (don’t ask) to be ageless and immortal. While the young adult tone of the novel didn’t work for me, I appreciated the historical details, the time period and setting. Terrible things happened in parts of China in the early ‘30s, and Gong doesn’t shy away from those horrors, even as she crafts something of a love story amid the chaos.
Killers of Flower Moon (Doubleday / Vintage) — David Grann
In true crime, I re-read this National Book Award winner by New Yorker writer David Grann about the 1920s murder of Osage people in Oklahoma. As someone who’s currently researching FBI history and reading through many 100s of pages of FOIA-requested documents, I found myself awed by Grann’s ability to turn what was clearly a meticulously researched project into a page-turner of a book. Having been chased off their land and corralled into a small, mostly barren block of north Oklahoma, the Osage people discover oil beneath their new homeland, many of them becoming rich in the process. (Although, the side story of white men being appointed “guardians”, controlling how the Osage received and spent their own earnings, was disgusting.) Grann goes deep into the FBI investigations into various murders, and along the way uncovers a widespread plot far more deadly that the official toll of 24 murderds and mysterious deaths.
Last month I mentioned I’d been asked to contribute to a short-run newsletter celebrating mystery writer Louise Penny. Notes From Three Pines is up and running, with a few posts in the can. My contribution is coming in November, when I’ll explore the role of poetry in Penny’s Inspector Gamache books.
Meanwhile, check out these explorations of art in Penny’s books, and an attempt to rank the best of the series (whose 18th installment is coming 11/29):
Update: I’ve refreshed my Blood & Whiskey bookstore at Bookshop.org, so you can now find/buy all books mentioned in previous posts: HERE. If you’re not familiar, Bookshop.org helps independent bookstores sell their books online and shares profits with indie bookstores.
Here’s a roundup of other notable and buzzy and newish (or soon to publish) books that I’m reading or plan to read:
Lots of love for Celeste Ng’s latest, Our Missing Hearts, and much anticipation and buzz for Dani Shapiro’s forthcoming Signal Fires.
New from my former Baltimore Sun colleague, Rafael Alvarez, Don't Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend's Miraculous Recovery. Bruce White’s ragged life of alcoholism and addiction began in grammar school. Alvarez gives us not only the shitty turns of life that dragged White down but a rare and improbable story of someone who found a way up and out.
The Wheel of Doll, a new one from Jonathan Ames, whose debut, A Man Named Doll, I’d read, enjoyed, and mentioned back in May.
Shifty’s Boys, the latest from Chris Offutt, whose previous book, The Killing Hills, I’d reviewed last July. This is a writer and a series to watch.
In The Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Coverup, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press, from former AP reporter Katherine Corcoran, about the brutal murder of an investigative journalist in Mexico. Chilling, well reported.
Lastly… Every once in a while I go down a self-help rabbit hole. I was at my local library picking up an inter-library loan book for research and spotted a few books on the self-help shelf, including Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari. Next to it were two others that called out to me: The Power of Regret by Daniel Pink and From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks. I half-read, half-skimmed them, the best of which, Stolen Focus, taught me just how much my phone (part of the “attention economy”) is controlling my life. Bad phone. Bad Meta. Bad Twitter.
What we’re watching: Bad Sisters! The Garvey sisters hate their mean-spirited, petty, spiteful brother-in-law, aka “The Prick.” To save their (Stockholm Sydrome-afflicted?) sister, Grace, they decide to kill the prick. He’s dead in the opening episode (that’s not a spoiler), and like most viewers we rooted for his demise in every episode. Set in dreamy, waterfront, ex-urban Dublin, the show has a fantastic cast — boozy, damaged, funny — and the conclusion was a knockout.
What my wife is reading: A new novel from sharp, witty, southern-ish writer Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang, Nothing to See Here), Now Is Not The Time to Panic (out Nov. 8, Ecco). Says wifey: “Intriguing story of a teenage experience that catalyzes a kind of zeitgeist moment that affects and influences the lives of the characters. Great story.”
Assorted Book News:
I recently saw/heard Joyce Carol Oates speak here in Seattle, discussing her new serial-killer novel, Babysitter (at the excellent, first-ever Town Hall Writers Festival). Here’s a great interview with the brilliant, frighteningly prolific (more than 70 books, four last year alone) 84-year-old author, runner, professor, and Twitterer, at Bustle. And another at The New Yorker.
Related: We watched half of the Marilyn Monroe movie, Blonde, based on Oates’s novel. Couldn’t stick with it. Too much of a bummer.
RIP Hilary Mantel. A couple remembrances from NPR and NY Times.
James Patterson donated $2 million to PEN America. He’s become one of the biggest individual donors to writers, free speech, bookstores — at least $100 million. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his books, but I admire his commitment to the literary community. "I've focused the entirety of my career on championing literacy," said Patterson. "And that starts with ensuring that all people have access to all different types of books--books with different viewpoints and that celebrate different ideas." Amen to that.
Cocktail of the Month…
Freezer door Manhattan
How had I never heard of this idea before?! I came across J.M. Hirsch, author of the newly released Pour Me Another, on Instagram, where the James Beard Award-winning editor/writer/mixologist taught me this gem:
Start with a 750-mililiter bottle of bourbon or rye (I used Bulleit Rye), and pour off 4-1/2 ounces to make room for the vermouth and bitters…
Using a funnel, pour 4 oz sweet vermouth into the bottle; amaro works, too…
Add a couple teaspoons of bitters, and 1/2 ounce of marischino cherry juice…
Shake and store in the freezer until needed.
When needed: re-shake and pour over ice, add a maraschino cherry.
Playlist of the Month…
Instead of a Neal-curated list, this month I’m sharing NPR’s ever evolving compilation of “music that makes us dance, smile, and weep.”
Thanks for reading! As always, please comment or share, and let me know if you have suggestions for this work-in-progress newsletter. Until next month…
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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”
Hi Neal! congrats on the Kerry Kennedy afterword! That seems like kind of a big deal! ;]
Totally enjoying the newsletters... the honesty is awesome. ["I don’t have anything to full-on rave about this month" -- we all have runs of that... can't wait to hear about the next book you LOVE!]
Hi Neal! Wanted to say thanks for recommending The Local. It scratched a Grisham itch for me. Good thing too because Grisham hasn’t scratched that itch in years.