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Summer Books & Drinks

Pour yourself a cool one and savor some tips from a distinguished panel of bookworms. 

By From the July/August 2014 issue

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Helen Andrews

European history is easily tailored to suit the seasons: France in spring, the Balkans in winter, German-speaking nations in autumn, and in summer, Greece. I therefore held off reading Roderick Beaton’s new history of the Greek War of Independence, Byron’s War, until the sun was shining bright enough for me to imagine myself on the Kalamata waterfront, dragging a café table into the knee-deep waves like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who pioneered this dining arrangement in the 1950s in cooperation with a singularly unflappable Greek waiter.

Alas, in Beaton’s book the high adventure of the Philhellenes’ story is crowded out by a great deal of close analysis of Romantic poetry. A far better book is William St Clair’s That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the Greek War of Independence (1972). St Clair relegates Lord Byron to the walk-on role he deserves compared with the more active members of the London Greek Committee, who far from being Romantics were radical Benthamites almost to a man.

These doctrinaire utilitarians were lowercase-R romantics in their way, perhaps even more so than Byron. It surely was starry-eyed of them to dispatch endless revisions of their draft Greek constitution to native warlords who, even when they were literate, cannot have had much time to contemplate provisional bills of rights with the revolt against the Turks still raging. The Benthamites’ man in Missolonghi, Colonel Leicester Stanhope, insisted on unloading the printing press from his London-sponsored shipment of supplies before unloading any food or arms. When questioned about his priorities, he accused skeptics of wanting to “censor the press.” With such buffoonery running high from first page to last, keep ouzo handy.

Helen Andrews (née Rittelmeyer) is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia.


 

W. James Antle III 

As the dog days of summer beckoned, one could discern the usual signs: longer hours of sunshine; ever-balmier breezes; a growing pile of review copies of the latest books, perilously stacked on the desk.

Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down is a wonderfully written brief for the benefits of failure. It’s part wonkish—McArdle makes a persuasive case in favor of America’s relatively lenient bankruptcy laws—and part personal, a memoir of sorts. I found her career trajectory easy to identify with. Like me, she came from an information technology background and more or less fell into journalism.

Ken Adelman’s Reagan at Reykjavik is the best, most comprehensive account of the 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev I’ve seen. He argues convincingly that it was a major turning point in the Cold War. But the passages about the defeated Soviets in the waning days of the Evil Empire—such as the 1991 suicide of military adviser Sergei Akhromeyev in despair over the USSR’s collapse—may give us more insight into what motivates Moscow now.

Daniel Kelly’s memoir of L. Brent Bozell Jr., Living on Fire, is a fascinating biography of a troubled but underrated figure in the modern American conservative movement. It traces Bozell’s rather unconventional life from National Review to Triumph to his final triumph.

I’m a firm believer in the separation of fruit and beer, but in the summer I relent somewhat. Bell’s Oberon Ale smells more of citrus than it tastes, though one can detect apricot, like a Magic Hat No. 9. And there is something appealing to the summer shandy, even Leinenkugel’s mass-market version, with its refreshing blend of lemonade and beer.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation.


C.J. Ciaramella

After D.C.’s two or three weeks of spring end, when weather becomes muggy and oppressive, I switch from brown liquor to gin. Gin is a low-class tipple that put on airs over the past century, so I prefer to pair it with low-class weather and literature. But not tonic water. The classic G&T was an invention of necessity. British troops stationed in equatorial regions found that getting drunk was the only way to make tonic water—an anti-malarial—tolerable. For those of us not living in malarial zones, I recommend the far superior gin and ginger ale. The gin and ginger possesses all the fine qualities of its more common relative—crisp, refreshing, simple—with a better balance of flavor.

The first summer I lived in D.C., when I didn’t really know anyone, I would sit on my stoop every evening after work with a sweating glass of the stuff, watch the fireflies, and read something sultry: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, maybe a hard-boiled local noir by George Pelecanos, Henry Miller once I was a few glasses deep: books about mendacity, sex, power, and downfalls. In retrospect, that was a terrible summer, but the books and the gin and the ginger ale helped.

C.J. Ciaramella is a reporter for the Washington Free Beacon.


Michael Brendan Dougherty

What’s on the nightstand? Larry McMurtry’s latest work, The Last Kind Words Saloon, seems like the obligatory novel to read this summer, despite some mediocre reviews. And I’m still waiting to get down to Walter Kirn’s part-memoir, part-true crime book Blood Will Out. I’ve been rereading the Old Testament with the help of good commentaries, and I’m anxious to use Peter Leithart’s A Son To Me as a guide for 1st and 2nd Samuel. Leithart’s A House for My Name, and The Four are the best introductions to the Old Testament and Gospels respectively that I can recommend to a beginner student. 

What’s on the counter? I plan to open a few bottles of McKenzie Bourbon Whiskey and McKenzie Wheat Whiskey, both of the very lovely Finger Lakes Distilling in my home state. Either works neat. And the Bourbon works really well in a New Yorker: mix 1.5 ounces of Bourbon, with 1 ounce of lemon juice and .5 ounce of homemade grenadine (just cook down some pomegranate juice with sugar until it’s syrupy). Pour over ice and forget the week. 

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior columnist for the Week.


Daniel Foster

I drink cut-rate booze—and enough of it that it needs to be. 

This isn’t to say I’ll pass on a bottle of Montrachet if I’m expensing it, or that I’ve never cleaned a wound with a tumbler of iodiney Laphroaig 18. But for practical purposes (and drinking is my most practical of purposes) I’m looking for value in my hooch. 

I have had the following conversation at half the bars on the Acela corridor:

“I’ll have a bourbon, light on the rocks.”

“What kind of bourbon do you like?”

“Cheap.”

Now, there are rail bourbons and there are rail bourbons. I try to stay away from the inaptly named “Kentucky Gentleman” and his confederate the “Virginia Gentleman.” But—and you might want to write this down—the key is to chase bad bourbon with good beer. That’s why if I’m late to the bar or drinking with inveterate nursers, the conversation goes like this:

“I’ll have a bourbon, light on the rocks, and an IPA.”

“What kind of bourbon do you like?”

“Cheap.”

“Okay. We’ve got two IPAs on dra—”

“Pick your favorite.” 

You could chase turpentine with a well-balanced IPA and end up having a decent night.

“Hey Foster,” you might ask, “is there no way to get sippin’ bourbon flavor at rail bourbon prices?”

Reader, there is. Evan Williams. I get mine at $20 a handle from a Virginia gentleman (no relation).

As for books. I’ll be reading my friend Jim Geraghty’s romp The Weed Agency and my friend Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down (and so ought you). 

I’ll make a weakly resolved and ultimately abortive attempt to find the supposed genius in Allan Bloom’s Plato that I’ve been looking for for a decade. 

I’ll breeze through a thriller or two (like The Martian, a science-packed, funny one about a lone astronaut stranded on Mars that is already being developed as a Matt Damon vehicle.) 

And I’ll dip into Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy’s The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo

Creasy was an eminent Victorian and a functionary of the Empire, a fact about which it never occurs to him to apologize. Each chapter—with titles like “Victory of Arminius over the Roman Legions under Varus”—is a piece of a bigger story about the construction of Western Civilization. Creasy’s writes with a great command of the contemporary historical sources and a genuine affection (his garment-rending lament prefacing the chapter on Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga is a favorite).

And what military historian since Thucydides could write a sentence like this: “Arletta’s pretty feet twinkling in the brook gained her a Duke’s love, and gave us William the Conqueror. Had she not thus fascinated Duke Robert the Liberal of Normandy, Harold would not have fallen at Hastings, no Anglo-Norman dynasty could have arisen, no British empire.”

I have read and reread parts of the book over the years but dread the thought of finishing it all. So I consume Creasy slowly, ruminatively but with pleasure, and only once in a while. 

Sort of like expensive hooch. 

Daniel Foster is a consultant in Washington, D.C., and former news editor of National Review.


Freddy Gray

At the London Spectator, we have just established a “Cad of the Year” prize, to be awarded (we hope) by James Hewitt, the cavalry officer and serial rogue who seduced Princess Diana. We invented the prize partly in reaction to Country Life’s “Gentleman of the Year” award, but more as homage to the Flashman novels, which are enjoying something of a revival at the moment. 

Flashman, in case you didn’t know, is English fiction’s greatest anti-hero. He first appeared as Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays as the bully who torments Brown and his pious little friends, gets “beastly drunk,” and is then expelled from Rugby. George MacDonald Fraser then had the genius idea of taking on Flashman’s life and wrote a series of adventure novels, narrated by the bounder himself, Sir Harry Flashman. (Starter for ten: What’s the difference between a cad and a bounder?) Flashman gets into all sorts of scrapes, meets the greatest figures of the nineteenth century, and pulls one over all of them. He ends up a decorated military hero—even though he is always a coward, a liar, and a scoundrel.  

The books are, almost without exception, outrageously funny. It’s like P.G. Wodehouse, only filthy rather than innocent. So I’ll be re-reading the best Flashy novels in the evenings this summer—and getting pleasantly unsober on white port throughout. Only white port though. Like Flashman, I know better than to mix my drinks. ​

Freddy Gray is managing editor of the London Spectator.


Thom Hartmann

I’ll be sitting on the flybridge of our Chris Craft Constellation, where we live in the public harbor on the Washington Channel off the Potomac in downtown Washington, D.C., sipping my favorite wine from the Organic Wine Company, 2010 Saint Chinian Prestige Chateau Bousquette.

I’m re-reading Dan Sisson’s Revolution of 1800, about how Jefferson saved the republic (first published forty years ago, coming back into print late summer), the latest Ace Atkins version of Robert Parker’s Spencer series Cheap Shot, and an out-of-print but still easily findable copy of Peter Farb’s Man’s Rise to Civilization.

Thom Hartmann is host of the national syndicated radio show The Thom Hartmann Program and of The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann on RT.


Jeremy Lott

Summer in my own Washington, the good one on the West Coast, is the best and shortest season of the year. The sun stays aloft until well after nine. It doesn’t rain nearly so often or so much. The heat and humidity are moderate and tempered by a cool breeze. Events switch from cramped indoor affairs to wonderful parades, street fairs, dirt races, and softball games.

Reading for this too-short season thus needs to consist of books that you can absorb outdoors, preferably in a hammock in the back yard. A good rule of thumb for summer reading is: no politics. Sure that new biography of the Koch brothers might look inviting, but it can wait until Labor Day. A better bet is genre fiction. It’s easy to follow and is aimed at telling readers a story in an entertaining way, with minimal fluff.

First up for the season is the G.M. Ford mystery Chump Change, his eighth novel as told by Seattle PI Leo Waterman. My bookmark finds us at this perilous point in Waterman’s recollection: “I was naked. Don’t know why that was the first thing my senses detected, but it was. Seemed like they would have noticed how much my nipples hurt, or that my hands were shackled behind my back, or that there was something stuffed in my mouth that my tongue couldn’t dislodge. None of that seemed to matter to my central nervous system as much as did my lack of clothing.”

As I learn what happens next to our hero, I shall be sipping on my own concoction: a mix of spiced rum and unsweetened iced tea. In the backyard hammock, of course.

Jeremy Lott is an editor at Rare.


Katherine Mangu-Ward

Jesuits! In! Spaaaaaace! Humanity picks up the transmissions of an alien species. While the world’s governments fart around, the Vatican hollows out an asteroid and hurls a motley crew of scientists and missionaries off to make First Contact. The Sparrow is Maria Doria Russell’s first novel, but miraculously manages to touch on colonialism, faith, sex, and the law without being annoying, heavy-handed, or hackneyed on any of those forbidden-at-the-dinner-table topics. Come for the wacky space adventures, stay for the lyrical prose and bittersweet musings about what it means to be fallible and human.

They say space smells like burnt sugar, so I’ll pick Jacob Grier’s fussy but fabulous Smokejumper cocktail, which involves gin, lemon, Chartreuse, and smoky lapsang souchong tea. 

Runner up: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and a handful of mixed pills washed down with stolen vodka.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of Reason.


Wlady Pleszczynski

Turns out I have something in common with Wojciech Jaruzelski. An obit I saw of him after his death in late May had his daughter calling him an “abstynent,” which sounds rather more defiant than “teetotaler.” Not that my nondrinking is based on principle. It’s just that alcohol has never mixed well with my metabolism. But I do have some memories to fall back on, when summers and drink made their lasting impressions.

When my parents had company it was I who got to fix the drinks, not just high balls but whiskey sours and Tom Collinses. Back then I never could understand why adults felt the need to spoil the perfect taste of ginger ale and other Canada Dry mixers. I was maybe eleven. This was in Santa Barbara, where every day was summer.

Then right after high school I found myself in Europe, meeting not only the old world for the first time but also many family members. There was my cousin Andrzej, six months older than I, visiting Paris from Warsaw. There we sat, on the Champs Elysées. I ordered a Coke (to my sister’s disapproval), while he nonchalantly ordered a gin and tonic, which he might as well have termed “the usual.” On top of that, he spoke perfect French. We Americans, such rubes.

A few years later, I was of official drinking age and tasted my first gin and tonic, at an afternoon garden party in Montecito. It was wondrous, especially the lime. It was about this time that margaritas arrived in Santa Barbara, another summertime discovery during a vacation break from graduate school. The salted rim was the clincher here. The following summer I studied Czech in Prague. Everyone drank the local beer, the world’s best I kept hearing. I preferred a Slovak winery.

Several years later I spent three summer months in Kiev, half of that time baby-sitting the cats of two U.S. diplomats who were part of a small contingent setting up a U.S. consulate in Soviet Ukraine’s capital. (The effort would be cut short after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.) I can’t recall if I had a single drink my entire time there—but I did have access to the diplomat couple’s books, including a major collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories, brilliant reading for someone in his twenties. Local bookstores weren’t exactly stocked, but I still have the Soviet high school editions of To Kill a Mockingbird and A Farewell to Arms I bought and reread that summer. Say what you will about Hemingway, but that’s his greatest book ever, about the girl who got away, in the cruelest way. Fitzgerald never topped that.

Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator.


James Taranto

My drink of choice is a martini with the merest hint of vermouth and copious quantities of Chopin, a Polish potato vodka, chilled in the freezer. I realize there are purists who insist that a true martini must be made with gin. To them I say cheers, even though I prefer my spirits unadulterated by the taste of juniper berries.

The next book in my Kindle queue is Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family. According to the publisher, authors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn argue that “a stable two-parent home has become a luxury that only the well-off can afford. The best educated and most prosperous have the most stable families, while working class families have seen the greatest increase in relationship instability.” The latter point is indisputable, but I suspect Carbone and Cahn overstate the degree to which economic forces are driving social change as opposed to the other way around.​

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for wsj.com.


Larry Thornberry

As this is supposed to be a symposium on summer reading on the porch, full disclosure requires me to state that Central Florida summers—I live in Tampa—are long, hot, and oppressively humid, so most of my reading will be done inside, under the purring air conditioner (at least until Obama’s energy policies make my AC too expensive to operate). Only mad dogs and tourists spend much time outside hereabouts in July and August, and even they catch on pretty quickly. If one must read on the porch in this season, a bit of Sam Adams Boston Lager is refreshing and an aid to comprehension.  

As the climate here gets sultry, I’ll devote some of my reading time to A Climate of Crisis, Patrick Allitt’s history of the environmental movement in America. Allitt is a professor of history at Emory University who has had his academic ticket punched at such temples of progressivism as Oxford (England, not Mississippi), UC Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton. In spite of these obstacles to coherence, notices of the book assert Allitt is sensitive to the constant exaggeration and fearmongering of the environmental movement, which in its early years could take credit for some needed changes and real achievements, but in later years has become a feel-good exercise for Lexus liberals and a threat to the republic.

For both pleasure and enlightenment, it’s about time to re-read the late novelist Walker Percy’s compendium of non-fiction pieces, Sign-Posts in a Strange Land. Like his six novels, keen observer Percy’s non-fiction essays are enlightening, thoughtful as to first things, and often very funny. They’re also timeless. As for a libation to accompany the provocative Percy, I’m in full accordance with that other Southerner, Louis Armstrong, who taught us in his fine old song that “Life is a cabernet, old chum.”

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.


Jonathan Tobin

There’s a growing pile of books on my night table and I’m hoping to make a dent in it this summer. While sitting on my balcony, downing a lemonade in the afternoon, I hope to be delving into two complex yet very different historical figures with Lynne Cheney’s James Madison: A Life Reconsidered and Daniel Gordis’ Menachem Begin: The Fight for Israel’s Soul. But in the evening while seeking escape from the world of politics and punditry, I hope to be sipping cognac and devouring Fools Rush In, the latest collection of essays by Bill James, the god of Sabermetrics. And when even that doesn’t work to calm my fevered brow, I will, as I so often have, seek the solace of familiar friends and return to my favorite novelist Patrick O’Brian and his immortal tales of the sea about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and their adventures on the dear H.M.S. Surprise.

Jonathan Tobin is online editor of Commentary.


Eve Tushnet

Well, my favorite summer drink is probably still a Seabreeze. But if we’re talking about things I can still drink: homemade lemonade on the porch swing, as the tiger mosquitoes start their second shift and the fireflies clock in. Orange soda, because I like things that taste like colors rather than foods. 

And Coca-Cola in a can. Andy Warhol wrote, “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

Not all the Cokes are the same now. I’ve experimented with Mexican Coke, but you can only get it in glass bottles, and I’ve always loved the silvery Star Trek taste of the lip of a soda can. So I’ll have a can of Coke and curl up with something Japanese, I think: Tanizaki’s Naomi, Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, or Yumiko Kurahashi’s Adventures of Sumiyakist Q

Eve Tushnet blogs for the Catholic channel of Patheos. 

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