For bookish types, August—not April—is the cruelest month, as it usually means few new releases and less book chatter than usual. I often counsel readers to save a big fat novel for these literary doldrums, like The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. However, if you’ve been there, done that or (blasphemy!) decided to skip the Pulitzer-anointed third Tartt novel, I’ve got a great list of books out this month—and they’re nearly all by Washington area writers. When you’re tired of reading (more blasphemy!), you can check your local literary calendars and come out for readings and signings by these authors.
As usual, by “Top 10” I don't mean that I’ve read all the books and deemed this group The Best; I mean that I’ve read a lot of the books and these are excellent and well worth your time. If you know of a book you believe should be on this list and isn’t, please tell us in the comments, or email me at email@example.com. I hope your August is filled with lots of reading time.
Woodroof’s debut is one of those books you might easily pass by in the bookstore, with its humble title and simple (though vibrant) jacket art. Do not pass Go; pick up Small Blessings and prepare for a delight. When Tom, a small-town academic, experiences two lifechanging events in two days, one of which involves a new ward who arrives with a money-stuffed backpack, things start to happen in his sleepy environs—including some odd adventures told with great mordant wit.
In the Russian city of Petroplavilsk, night and day are eradicated by growth-enhancing “space mirrors.” Are you still with me? Never fear, new novelist Weil quickly involves you in his near-future vision, where the citizens of Petroplavilsk become “ceaselessy productive,” including twin brothers Yarik and Dima. One man will become disenchanted with the 24/7 status quo; the other will grab a billionaire’s brass ring. Seeing their fates unspool is a timeless trope made fresh by Weil’s excellent writing.
Rita Carmichael and her 13-year-old daughter Ruthie wind up in small Pennsylvania town after their car breaks down en route from California to Boston. Rita has big dreams: She wants Ruthie to wind up at Harvard, and so she gamely engages with life in Fat River, taking a waitress job and making friends. This isn’t a Gilmore Girls tale, however; Weatherwax (an accomplished visual artist) throws bombs in her characters’ paths, bombs that flash and illuminate the lives of today's working poor. A must read.
Huddy Marr, proprietor of the Bluff City Pawn shop in Memphis, wants to move to a better part of town (although he believes his shop should remain on the “seedy side”). He sees a big opportunity when a widow offers to sell her husband's gun collection—but to take advantage of it, he needs help from a family member. Before long, another relative is involved, and chaos ensues. The method in Schottenfeld’s madness is to use this chaos to talk about social class, property, and the nature of value.
Elizabeth Gaffney’s second novel is all about place, World-War-II-through-Korean-War Brooklyn, to be exact. Nine-year-old Wally Baker lives in Brooklyn Heights with her mother, and her maternal grandparents, although she is closest to her family’s African-American maid, Loretta, and Loretta’s son Ham. Wally’s father is fighting in WWII, and when a male boarder moves in and takes a kindly paternal interest in her, Wally doesn’t realize what else this might portend.
We know that our social lives have changed with the rise of social media—but have we considered how detrimental that change might be to our nationhood? Marc Dunkelman has, and even if his book could use more statistics in support of our diminishing “second circle” of community members, his points about how this can affect everything from innovation to eldercare have their merits. Losing touch with the people next door isn’t just about losing bridge partners; it could change the fabric of our society and government.
Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge should be required reading; it’s that big, that comprehensive, and that incisive. The title comes from a remark President Nixon made to Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” This saying explains something about conservative politics in the USA. Perlstein explains almost all of the rest; highly recommended.
Burgeoning waistlines and thundering thighs affect more than our heart health and glucose levels; fat takes a toll on love and sex, too. Journalist Sarah Varney’s XL Love is about much more serious stuff than plus-size lingerie; according to Varney, our country’s obesity epidemic also takes a toll on our sex and love lives. Excess weight leads to everything from the horrific-sounding “buried penis syndrome” to early puberty in girls that can result in early sex and a host of physical and emotional consequences.
Spivack, who pens the Threaded blog for the Smithsonian, has collected short “sartorial memoirs” about clothing from figures like author Piper Kerman, artist Martina Abramovic, filmmaker Albert Maysles, and many others, creating a moving and visually arresting volume that will remind all readers of their own stories woven into various garments and accessories. The book also reminds us of how we create identity through costumes, whether simple (a father's shirt) or ceremonial (a Girl Scout sash).
Cognard-Black and her co-authors Melissa Goldthwaite and Marion Nestle have concocted a delicious salmagundi in this combination of cookbook and literary tribute. The volume includes poems, stories, and essays, along with recipes, and some of each are original. There are beloved bits, too, from Laurie Colwin’s classic piece on three repulsive meals to Maya Angelou’s caramel cake. The perfect gift for your summer hostess who loves to read, cook, and consider.
37: Conversations with Nixon about Watergate. Conversations with Nixon after being fired on April 30, 1973: 0.
4: Months served at Maryland’s Fort Holabird for conspiracy to obstruct justice, in a reduced sentence for cooperating with prosecutors.
540: Days spent in the US Marshals Service’s witness-protection program during Watergate. (Marshals guarded his home in Old Town.)
1,005: Conversations transcribed for his new book, The Nixon Defense. He still wants to know: “How could anyone as savvy as Richard Nixon make the mess of his presidency that he did? It doesn’t fit.”
30: Hours testifying before the Watergate Committee, despite which the FBI branded him the “master manipulator of the cover-up.”
80 milion: Approximate TV audience for Dean’s weeklong Watergate testimony.
5: Books Dean has published on Watergate, out of ten total. Following disbarment, he became an investment banker and popular speaker.
Chief White House correspondent, Fox News
My vacation is blazing-hot desert days in, say, Palm Springs—better than stifling DC humidity. I’ll play early-morning golf, then hit the pool to read. I’m starting to write a book about Jackie Robinson, and The Last Hero, Howard Bryant’s 2011 biography of Hank Aaron, is going to be my spark to finish it.
Restaurant Eve chef and coauthor of My Irish Table
When I’m working, I wind up reading the same three to four sentences over and over, so I usually stick to fast-paced CIA thrillers, like those by Vince Flynn. I like to read slightly more challenging books on vacation. This season I’m looking forward to Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin—completely different, which will be entirely welcome.
Executive director, Center for Responsive Politics
My reading will be a bit heavy at first. There was a recent 60 Minutes piece on members of Congress engaging in insider trading, so I’m going to page through last fall’s Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets by Peter Schweizer. After that, I have a list from my book club, in which I’m a perennial member in bad standing. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch I’ll never finish, but next up is Peter Heller’s novel The Dog Stars.
Washington bureau chief, ABC News
First I’ll read Next Life Might Be Kinder, a novel by Howard Norman, a Maryland author. I like mysteries and adventure in the summer, so I’m excited to have the latest books from two favorite mystery authors lined up: By Its Cover by Donna Leon and Vertigo 42 by Martha Grimes. For a two-week beach trip in August: Flying Shoes by native Washingtonian—and fellow Walt Whitman High School grad—Lisa Howorth, a fictionalized account of her stepbrother’s murder in the 1960s.
Washington Post foreign-affairs columnist whose latest spy novel is The Director
I’m encouraging people to read Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light), about World War II and among the finest military histories ever written. Everything the US touched nearly went wrong, so it ends up being a story of persistence as much as inevitable victory. I’m sort of a serial monogamist when it comes to authors, so once I started this, I had to finish.
Heather O’Beirne Kelly
Military and veterans’ mental-health advocate
Fiction is the perfect antidote to the journals and appropriations bills that constitute much of my work reading. I’ve preordered The Long Way Home by Louise Penny, who sets her mysteries in a village outside Quebec. I also just picked up the new memoirs by New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff (How About Never—Is Never Good for You?) and Roz Chast, one of his contributors (Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?).
Owner, Miss Pixie’s Furnishings & Whatnot
I love New Orleans and wish for it to be my home one day. I gobble up all I can about it, and next on my list is Flood of Lies: The St. Rita’s Nursing Home Tragedy by James A. Cobb Jr.
Georgetown law professor, former deputy assistant secretary of State for human rights
When I get to Nantucket, I transition from legal tomes. My list includes David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, a brilliant, subtle depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian divide by an opponent of the West Bank occupation, and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia, which uses T.E. Lawrence’s story to explore the current conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Lastly, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a 700-page slog but indispensable for understanding the middle class’s decline.
Washington bureau chief, Wall Street Journal
I’ll tote the Timothy Geithner and Hillary Clinton books on vacation this year, and Robert Timberg’s Blue-Eyed Boy. I was a White House correspondent with him, and his memoir about his horrific injuries in Vietnam and the men he met, who formed the genesis of the book, is sure to be compelling.
To kick off the summer, I’m reading Robert Gates’s memoir of his time as Defense Secretary, Duty. I’m a military brat who only wanted to attend West Point, so it’s interesting to see how he got where he did and how haunting the job really was. On our family beach trip: Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner—the wi-fi at our place in Litchfield Beach, South Carolina, is terrible, so I plan to have a little something to exercise my brain.
Ruben Castaneda, who spent 22 years as a Washington Post reporter, uses professional and personal experience in writing a portrait of DC’s Shaw neighborhood during the early 1990s. When he arrived at the Post from Los Angeles in 1989, Castaneda was already an active crack addict who found ample sources for his substance of choice on S Street, as well as plenty of “strawberry” (sex for drugs) prostitutes. However, the subtitle foreshadows a happier ending: After Post-funded stints in rehab and developing a strong twelve-step support system, he winds up healthier and wiser.
In S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC, Castaneda tries to tie his own redemption to two other such tales, one of a courageous and determined police officer named Lou Hennessy, the other of the neighborhood itself seen through the lens of New Community Church. Hennessy is making a difference as Homicide Captain when he winds up thwarted and humiliated by a colleague, Larry Soulsby; his triumph is in weathering that ouster and making his way through law school and local politics until his 2005 appointment as a Charles County judge.
The story of New Community Church and its dogged pastor Jim Dickerson has the potential to be most interesting, especially as Dickerson decides not to fight the local drug trade but to cooperate with its kingpin, Baldie. Baldie is a weird, folksy character who spends his days in a lawn chair, hosts annual barbecues for his customers, and sends his two young daughters to the church children’s program. An entire book about these two men and the dynamic between their purposes would be fascinating, especially given the fact that Dickerson and his church continue an active ministry in Shaw today.
Castaneda, however, wants to weave a much bigger story, and winds up including lots of material about notorious DC mayor Marion Barry and how his addictions affected District politics for decades, material that doesn’t help the progress of the stories already told. The “decades” involved are a problem, too: While the 1990s are carefully covered, there is a huge gloss over the near decade and a half since then, as if S Street rose and then sat on a plateau. Overall, this book works best a memoir with reportage rather than a tightly focused piece of literary journalism.
Summer isn't always the best season for new books--but this year, a bumper crop has been released. I truly had a tough time choosing, and when I had to make tough choices, I erred on the side of those who call DC home. After all, this magazine is named after them!
As always, I've given five picks in fiction and five in nonfiction, and they are listed in no particular order. If I've missed one of your personal favorites, please let me know in the comments (you can also email me: firstname.lastname@example.org). There's truly something for everyone on this list: Environmentalism. History. Biography. A thriller. A series. A debut novel. And so on...
You're going to need a bigger beach bag!
Admirals, activists, submarines, and dolphins--you can't make up a story like this, and Horwitz didn't need to: The saga of an attorney who discovered that a submarine detection system's high-intensity sound was driving whales from the water onto beaches is all true and completely shocking. The people involved are all passionate about their causes and beliefs--and at least one (I'm trying not to spoil the story, which is amazing) is caught between the loyalties of his past and the realities of his present. Forget toting the latest spy novel or horror story to the beach this summer; take War of the Whales instead. You don't need to be an eco-warrior to learn from this real-life thriller.
"But there's no danger/It's a professional career" sang Elvis Costello ironically in his song about hired guns, "Oliver's Army." Unfortunately for all of us, hired soldiers, or mercenaries, have become increasingly common in a world order dominated by the need for contractors. This isn't about ragtag guerilla groups or vicious cybercriminals; no, these "neomedieval" freelance military personnel are trained by and work for...us? Sean McFate was a contractor for US military contractor DynCorp International, and the story about Burundi with which he begins this well-researched book should make any reader think twice or thrice about how modern warfare and statecraft are conducted.
Gather 'round, mes enfants, and hear of a time in which ardent US patriots spoke la langue Française, not even trying to call delicious potato sticks "Freedom fries." It's true, c'est vrai, that back in Revolutionary War times, we Colonials had more in common with some Frenchmen than not. Author Furstenberg follows the New World perambulations of five wellborn, Anglophilic countrymen as they explore 18th- and early 19th-century America, demonstrating in the process how much Enlightenment thought brought to our young nation. This book might also remind us today that every group of immigrants has its influence on and role to play in the making of the United States.
Timothy Beatley believes that human beings should have a deeper relationship with the ocean, and that the best way to foster this relationship is for coastal communities to develop holistic lifestyles that both respect saltwater and harness its benefits. In Blue Urbanism, Beatley sets forth his ideas, which include aquaponics, tidal energy harvesting, and communal fisheries. He also describes current practices, such as Rotterdam's "water plazas," open city areas that allow gatherings when dry and collect and allow drainage of flood waters when sea levels rise. His phrase "ocean literacy" has interesting implications for the years of climate change to come.
"Uncle Billy," as William Tecumseh Sherman was known by the public, may have been the first celebrity general in the mold of Patton, Schwarzkopf, and even (dare I say it?) Petraeus, but according to Robert L. O'Connell he was a strategic genius whose head for logistics helped the North win The Civil War. Readers may or may not be convinced, but Sherman had so many incarnations that even without his military experience his life would make for fascinating reading. O'Connell calls his subject "the human embodiment of 'Manifest Destiny,'" which seems appropriate given his exploits from Florida to California to the Midwest. A great read on a man who deserves our attention.
From its cover readers might imagine this is a beach-y novel about female friendship. It is indeed about female friendship, and the two females involved do grow up together in Corona del Mar, California--but this is a book of muscular, brave grappling with the darkest corners of the female psyche, not a feel-good story in the slightest. Washingtonian Rufi Thorpe's debut promises great things ahead. Her characters Mia and Lorrie Anne deal with the scars of their lower-middle-class childhoods together and apart over several decades as Mia pursues academic success and war widow Lorrie Anne copes with a severely disabled son.
What do you call a novel that takes place entirely through emails? Is "epistolary" accurate in this case? Whatever the term might be for Alyson Foster's debut, God Is An Astronaut, the result is an affecting journey through a family's downward spiral after Spaceco employee Liam Frobisher is fingered with blame after one of the company's initial flights goes up in flames. Jessica Frobisher reports on the disaster and aftermath in emails to her former lover and colleague, Arthur, and her fumbling, fragile attempts to make sense of her life's crash and burn is well wrought by Foster (who lives in DC and works as a librarian at National Geographic).
Silva's Renaissance-man protagonist Gabriel Allon is a more cerebral Jack Reacher and a more dangerous Cotton Malone; in other words, this Israeli-spy-turned-art-restorer has it all. Silva's last Allon novel, The English Girl, was gripping and entertaining, and so is The Heist--no small feat for an author whose series started in the late 1990s and includes over a dozen titles. This time around, Allon is at work on a Veronese altarpiece when he learns that a London art dealer friend is being held as a murder suspect--and a Caravaggio masterpiece is missing. In a lesser writer's hands, that might sound convenient. Not so in Silva's. The world he's created for Allon is whole and wholly believable.
It's another debut novel--please don't stop reading this post! This one is from a non-DC author because it's so, so good. There's no mystery about the victim in this carefully crafted examination of a multiracial family's unraveling, as Lydia Lee's death is in the first sentence. But are there other victims? Lydia's blonde "American" mother, her Chinese academic father, and her siblings are all part of a web of secrets that both made Lydia who she was and affected how she died. From race to gender to culture to personhood, Ng plumbs the depths of what holds a family together, and finds that in them are also the forces that can force it apart. Truly stellar and not to be missed.
Breena Clarke, born in Washington, DC, now lives in Jersey City--but her first two novels (River, Cross My Heart and Stand the Storm) took place in Civil-War era DC. This new volume about 19th-century African-Americans brings her story north to New Jersey, where Underground Railroad passenger Dossie Bird is living in Russell's Knob, a community of "amalgamators," or people of mixed race living and working together (like southern New York's "Jackson Whites" and Virginia's Melungeons). The Smoot family, which holds sway, seems like an anchor to Dossie, until something happens that propels her to New York City. Rich, readable, and filled with authentic detail.
Forget everything you've read about Hillary Rodham Clinton's Friday night appearance at Lisner Auditorium to promote her new memoir Hard Choices (Simon & Schuster). While Clinton's conversation with her former speechwriter and communications director (now co-owner of Politics & Prose Booksellers) Lissa Muscatine was deftly staged, the real news wasn't communicated verbally, but physically. Hillary Clinton may not yet have formally declared that she's running for the presidency, but her body language and demeanor suggested that she's more than ready.
When the two women took the stage (after an introduction by Bradley Graham, an author and former Washington Post reporter who is Muscatine's spouse and co-owner of Politics & Prose), Clinton appeared happy and relaxed, dressed in black trousers, low-heeled black pumps, and a beautiful black-and-cream tunic jacket.
Her attire is relevant because it was the garb of a woman in full, a woman who has heard it all about her hairbands, pantsuits, and accessories. Clinton knows what becomes her best and she also knows what is most appropriate in all situations.
Knowing what's appropriate is not enough to make a person "presidential." Despite our national predilection for snark, most of us still believe that a national leader should combine experience, intelligence, common sense, and wisdom. Clinton's DC book event was carefully crafted to display all of the above and more. When Muscatine moved on to the "substance" of the book, Clinton related the rescue of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, a story from her tenure as Secretary of State that showed her to dazzling advantage.
The phrases "carefully crafted" and "dazzling advantage" are not left-handed compliments. Not at all. It is fascinating and instructive to watch a politician who is also a woman use the tools at her disposal to shape her future. One of the (sadly, only two) audience questions Muscatine shared with Clinton was "What do you want your legacy to be?" Clinton answered, "I don't think about my legacy. I think about my life!" Both temporarily quashing and fueling rumors about a presidential campaign, she added: "The future may not be clear, but it is full of promise."
Fortunately, Clinton also mentioned that she believes in something "American's don't have enough of," which is patience. She'll need a lot of it, whatever her future holds--the only certainty right now is the birth of her first grandchild this fall.
What do you think? Is Hillary Clinton presidential material?
Pray for Marion Barry. He’s headed to New York Tuesday for the release of his autobiography, Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry, Jr. Judging by the treatment he got Monday from the New York Post, the Manhattan scribes are going to feast on our former mayor.
Barry’s 336-page memoir is, as expected, a paean to himself. He paints himself as the heroic African-American leader battling the white power structure for the good of his people, rather than a promising politician brought low by his abundant human frailties, among them weaknesses for women, cocaine, and cognac.
According to the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Barry describes how, early in his career, he organized fellow black newspaper carriers at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis to demand the same perks as white carriers. He led students at LeMoyne-Owen College to protest a trustee who defended Memphis’s segregated bus system.
Barry congratulates himself for getting District teenagers off the streets in his summer jobs programs (whether they were paid or not). He describes how he elbowed aside white businessmen to force African Americans into city contracts, failing to mention that the same white businessmen financed his political campaigns.
The book, written with novelist Omar Tyree, glosses over the corruption that cropped up among Barry’s closest aides and his more recent problems with federal prosecutors for neglecting to pay taxes.
Instead, says DeBonis, Barry provide intimate detail about how a young woman introduced him to cocaine. He describes how the white powder went “straight to my penis.”
“What happened next?” Barry writes, according to DeBonis. “I had sex with her.”
At the time, Barry was married to his long-suffering third wife, Effi.
The book’s combination of legacy polishing and salacious detail makes Barry’s step into literature a curious move. If, as Barry claims, he wants to get past the infamous 1990 drug bust at the Vista Hotel, why give headlines to the New York press?
In Dream City, which I wrote with Tom Sherwood on the birth of DC’s political system and Barry’s rise to power, my co-author and I covered some of the events Barry relates in his new book. I want to set the record straight on a few important facts from the time that Barry seems to avoid.
• Barry says federal investigators alerted reporters to the Vista Hotel, where Barry was videotaped smoking crack. Sherwood was first on the scene. Neither he nor his station, WRC Channel 4, had been tipped off before the bust.
• Barry says the city was helpless to combat the crack epidemic that engulfed DC in the late 1980s. In fact, he ignored cops who warned him the city was unprepared for the coming of crack. Rather than support the police, he starved their budgets, which left the District more vulnerable to the drug wars that brought homicides close to 500 a year. And he was addicted to the drug.
• The former mayor, who now serves as Ward 8 council member, continues to give the FBI credit—or blame—for investigating his drug use and setting up the sting at the Vista Hotel in 1990. It was two DC cops, Albert Arrington and Jim Pawlik, who ran the painstaking investigation that gathered evidence for the bust. They brought Rasheeda Moore, his former lover, to DC to lure him into the room and encourage him to smoke crack.
• Arrington was the first lawman to reach Barry in the hotel room. Like Barry, he’s the son of sharecroppers. Arrington doesn’t show up in Mayor for Life.
Readers of Martha Grimes’s mystery series starring Inspector Richard Jury of Scotland Yard wouldn’t be blamed for thinking she’s British, instead of an American with deep ties to Maryland. Now in her early eighties, Grimes says her new Jury book, Vertigo 42, out this month, is “the hardest one I’ve ever written,” but she’s still experimenting. She recently spoke to us from her Bethesda home.
Vertigo 42 is unusual for you in that the mysterious death has already occurred at the start of the book.
The book is based on a suicide, and I wanted to make that character so interesting that her death could carry the book—but I couldn’t do it. I wound up with three murders instead.
Jury novels always seem to be named for English pubs—this one is a Champagne bar. How did the tradition come about?
I’m enamored of names and all they stand for—and conceal. My favorite is The Old Silent, the first chapter of which takes place in complete silence. I always have the name before I write. You have to start with something concrete—a touchstone, if you will. I’m a very slow writer, so having that keeps me moving.
That explains the pub names. But why England?
I went to England because of a man. That relationship didn’t work out, but the one with England did. I go over once or twice a year, first to pick a pub, then to get its environs right.
Last week, I was going over some old notebooks and found a story about the time I got to go inside Scotland Yard. I was in London, and a man came up to me on the street and asked where it was. He said, “I’ve got to get there because I’m being poisoned!” I was so intrigued by his story—he said his relatives were slowly poisoning him to gain control of his antiques business—that I thought nothing of following him to his car and driving up to New Scotland Yard so he could entertain a constable with his tale of woe.
Last year, you published a joint memoir with your son called Double Double, about both of your battles with alcoholism. Is there any irony that people associate you with pubs?
I was what’s called a “maintenance drinker,” who never gives the appearance of being drunk. Even my psychiatrist didn’t believe me when I said I was an alcoholic. But I gradually realized something was in control of me, and I couldn’t have that. I couldn’t stop by myself, so I went to a clinic. Allowing my characters to indulge in cocktails, wine, or sherry is purely vicarious enjoyment on my part.
This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Adam Rogers calls it the “perfect moment”—“the moment when a bartender places a drink in front of a customer and the customer takes a sip,” he writes in his new book, Proof, The Science of Booze. The journey that leads to that sip—the science of making spirits, beer and wine—is the thread that takes readers from the primal roles of yeast and ethanol in its first chapters to a last chapter that tries to understand the mysteries of hangovers, a journey he says spans 10,000 years.
Rogers, a self-described “cocktail nerd,” and an editor at Wired magazine, based Proof on an article, “The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus,” which won him a science award. He will be speaking at a Smithsonian Associates lecture on Wednesday evening at 6:45.
On Monday morning, at an hour not typically associated with booze (though, to each their own), Rogers talked with us about drinking, over-drinking, and the dreaded morning after.
You say the moment a guy first walked into a bar and took the first sip of a drink was the “single most important event in human history.” Why?
Obviously I’m being hyperbolic, but that interaction, that moment, is a moment when we’re interacting with deep time, experiencing the weight of 150 million years of evolution and years of human industry and interaction with nature and engineering know-how and technology. In that single sip. It has the entire weight of human science behind it and in front of it, the universe revolves around it.
You quote Faulkner that booze is “civilization in a glass.” So what about the youthful trends of pounding and binging?
It’s true. People use it and abuse it, and the misuses are massively consequential. They cost in money, heartache, and health; it’s dangerous on the road, and people die because of misuse. Basically my book is about a drink and a half. It takes place when you are three sips into your second round. It touches only glancingly on addiction.
Is there a risk of overthinking it, making it too precious, taking the conviviality out of the experience?
That’s interesting. I come down in thinking that understanding mechanisms and underlying science is the way to appreciate things more. There’s certainly a strain of connoisseurship that overplays that hand. I find that to be especially true in wine. Mixology, bartending, that’s mixing. That’s recipes. I’m more about how it gets made and in the bottles.
Can it become too precious? Sure. I’m probably the single most annoying person in the world to have a drink with because when I am drinking with somebody I start to talk about how something is made and how it should be used and whether it shouldn’t be there.
Who makes the best booze in the world?
Oh. [long pause] You’re killing me with that. Okay. I’ll give you a few places.
First, the region around the river Spey in Scotland. Single-malt whiskey. Exquisite. It’s an area about as big as Napa, California. Gorgeous. They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. They make something that is just special.
Second, the grape- and apple-based digestifs of France—Brandy, Armagnac, Calvados. The individual varietals. Those are amazing, the depth of flavor. They are just starting to hit their stride at 20 to 25 years in a barrel.
Third, the American South, Kentucky and Tennessee. I would add in the US right now three small craft distillers who are making really interesting, really delicious, very characteristic spirits: St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, is making gin; Balcones Distilling in Texas is making whiskeys, and Clear Creek Distillery in Portland, Oregon, makes a wide range of stuff, but the one I love the best is their Slivovitz (blue plum brandy).
Do you have to pay premium prices for premium alcohol?
No. There are very, very good drinks for not a ton of money, but you have to be thoughtful. For example, right now it’s possible in the United States to get very good sipping rum, which is as complex as any single-malt whiskey, for $25 a bottle.
The rush to get the [trendy bourbon] Pappy van Winkle is a fad. It might be justified in terms of how Pappy tastes, but there’s a brand of bourbon called Bulleit. It is the most industrialized and commercialized bourbon you can imagine, but it’s cheap and it’s delicious.
When and where was the first cocktail made?
The standard story is that it was the Sazerac in New Orleans—rye and an absinthe rinse. But now I think that date has been pushed back and I don’t know how far.
How do you go about ordering a drink?
My favorite way to order now is to tell a bartender or sommelier, “Give me something weird.” You will get such an interesting drink or bottle of wine.
There’s that other thing: I walk into a bar, and I have this whole checklist in my head. For example, is there fresh fruit? Don’t go drinking with me; I have this algorithm.
Is it fact or myth that mixing different types of alcohols—say, having a vodka cocktail, followed by wine, and then maybe later a beer—is a recipe for having it all come back up?
It is a myth. It might contribute to some stomach upset, but you’re throwing up because you had too much ethanol.
There are a lot of theories—brown versus clear, white wine versus red—but what’s the best alcohol to drink to minimize the chance of a hangover?
I hate to be a downer. [The theories] are wrong. The reason people think red wine is going to give them hangovers is the sulfites, but white wine has a lot of them too. Bourbon will give you a hangover, and vodka will, too. If you drink a lot of drinks, you are going to be hungover.
There are some compounds that researchers are looking at to minimize hangovers. I tried many of them, and they haven’t worked for me.
How many hangovers did you suffer in the process of writing the book?
Three years of writing the book, one whopping hangover I write about. I don’t actually drink much when I’m working—but more than I should have. The hangover to me has become a signal I screwed up. I work very hard to have it not be part of my life.
Author and DC resident Mark Stein (How the States Got Their Shapes) has a new book called American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why out this month. In it, he traces the history of panics in our country from the 1692 Salem Witch Trials to recent gun-control debates, explaining the similarities between such disparate events as anti-Catholic fervor, segregation hysteria, and fear over same-sex marriage rights. In a telephone interview, Stein revealed some of his findings about the patterns of panic through the centuries.
Did a panic trigger this book?
I was going to New York to meet my agent, and I knew he was going to ask what was next—and I didn’t have anything! I went into a bookstore and was struck by how many of the nonfiction titles were expressing rage with one issue or another. I mentioned that to my agent and he said, “Look into that.” As I began doing so, I was amazed to see how many similarities there were in the arguments, both in their structure and in their wording. The similarities in the wordings were striking some real common denominators.
How does panic breed panic?
Panic starts from the top down or the bottom up, I found: An example of the first is the 18ht-century panic over Freemasonry, which began in the media; an example of the latter is the 19th-century panic over Chinese railroad workers, which began with their colleagues.
But I’d best define panic: It’s something that causes people to get so upset that they do the very thing they’re afraid is happening. It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-life or pro-choice—when groups advocating the sanctity of human life engage in murder (as has happened eight times between 1993 and 2012), it is a panic-fueled activity.
Is American panic different from other panics?
No. Panic is behavioral, it’s human. The one difference we do have in the United States is that our Bill of Rights protects hate speech, which is prohibited in some other countries.
You note that many panic-fomenting groups invoke the Founding Fathers. Why is that?
When people panic, they’re calmed by absolutes. Invoking the Founding Fathers makes it seem like there’s something that can be relied on, but the fact is, the Founding Fathers agreed on very little—the only thing we can be sure that they all believed is that the Colonies should not be part of England.
Absolute language used to vilify is one of your key points. Let’s talk about examples of that today; it isn’t just quaint hyperbole.
Here’s an example from the pro-choice side: In a 2012 Washington Post piece about a book by Christina Page, the idea that all women should stay at home was referred to as a “bedrock pro-life idea.” Panic is when emotion prevails over reason. There is no way every pro-life advocate believes that, but pro-choice advocates fear the absolutist tone from the pro-life side . . . and so, in that case, someone panicked and used an absolutist tone.