Eve Zibart

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For several years now, the holiday batch of wine books has become increasingly divided between the “elitists” and the “populists.” The former are the critics, who toss out bushel baskets of flavors (tar, black fruit, chocolate, licorice and old leather) and anthropomorphize wines. The others are the proud wine amateurs (aka “wine lovers”), whose diatribes against the “Parkerization” of wines—the reliance on numerical scores for wines and the trend toward bigger, fruitier, mine-is-bigger wines preferred by Wine Advocate founder Robert Parker—can be as stringent as their own self-promotion.
This polemical tug of war can easily bewilder those looking to give a wine book as a gift (which side are your friends on?), but there are some new volumes that can safely be delivered to any wine lover. Along with a bottle, of course.

Many guides to appreciating wine veer from cutesy to condescending, but food mag columnist Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s Drink This: Wine Made Simple, finds a happy medium, keeping the catchphrases to a minimum while gently prodding wine newbies through the nine varietals that dominate American shelves and restaurant lists. Each chapter winds through the pros and cons (what’s to love, what’s to hate) of each varietal, a brief history, major taste markers and a comparison of bottom-shelf and top-shelf styles. Each chapter ends with a quick cheat sheet and suggestions for gifts, from inexpensive to “knock-their-socks-off” labels.

Entertaining sidebars (what really causes the famous “cat pee” smell in Sauvignon Blanc?) and interviews with respected winemakers, along with sensibly straightforward tips on hosting low-key wine tastings (example: put a tablespoon of peppercorns or some shaved chocolate in a wine glass and sniff before tasting a Zinfandel or Pinot Noir), make this a solid primer. And, unlike most guides, Drink This occasionally includes pronunciations of wines (rhyming Shiraz with pizzazz, for instance).

Can’t-miss bargains
It’s a serious sign of the economic times that Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate team have produced Parker’s Wine Bargains: The World’s Best Wine Values Under $25. It’s a paperback, described as Zagat guide-sized, though in fact it’s a little hefty for the pocket. It reveals a little about the magazine’s biases—France is divided into eight regions, while all the regions of Italy are lumped together; and only California, Oregon and Washington wines are covered in the United States. Nevertheless, this might be a great book for someone looking to acquire collectable wines without breaking the bank. Wines are marked by price ($ for under $10, etc.) and relative dryness.

The guide’s other concession to more modern wine culture is its emphasis on the fact that less expensive wines need much less aging than the big names, so that most whites and rosés listed should be consumed within a year or so and the reds within three to five years. In other words, you can stop fretting about laying it down and start drinking it up.

A browser’s delight
The third sort of wine book—after the how-tos and the must-haves—might be called the bedside wine book: collections of anecdotes or literary references or ruminations on wine, generally short enough to be consumed a few at a time (presumably over a nightcap). Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine by Kathleen Burk and Michael Bywater is one of those, a combination of fact (what is corkage?) and fiction. What color “wine-dark sea” did Homer really see? Could the Duke of Clarence really have been drowned in a butt of Malmsey? And what is Malmsey, anyway? The Bible, Beaujolais Nouveau, Omar Khayyam, Napoleon, Jane Austen, Pliny and (of course) Robert Parker; phylloxera, absinthe, unami, foot-stomping, silver wine goblets and the dreaded “winespeak”—these and scores of other characters and controversies cohabitate comfortably in this chatty little collection.

A classic returns
Grumdahl’s guide notwithstanding, it would be ungenerous not to toast one notable perennial on these lists: Kevin Zraly, onetime wine director at New York’s Windows on the World, who turned his master classes for the staff into a course that eventually graduated 19,000 people. (When the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11, it had nearly 100,000 bottles in the cellar; Zraly himself had taken the day off to celebrate his son’s birthday.) Zraly has been updating his eminently sensible and accessible Windows on the World Complete Wine Course on a pretty regular basis, but he’s just released the 25th anniversary edition. For someone who’s already a little more at ease ordering wine and wanting to expand his palate, or for a sentimental New Yorker, this might be the perfect choice.

Eve Zibart is a former restaurant critic for the Washington Post.

For several years now, the holiday batch of wine books has become increasingly divided between the “elitists” and the “populists.” The former are the critics, who toss out bushel baskets of flavors (tar, black fruit, chocolate, licorice and old leather) and anthropomorphize wines. The others are the proud wine amateurs (aka “wine lovers”), whose diatribes […]
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New wine books used to be a holiday staple, but these days, wine talk has been replaced by sophisticated (and occasionally cultish) culinary chat, haute beer debates and retro cocktail repartee–all easily indulged tastes when it comes to your gift list.

TOUR THE TABLE
Though playful in tone, and packed with the wordplay that (among other critical tropes) he both tweaks and enjoys, Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food is no mere “The Man Who Ate Everything and Then Considered It Philosophically.” It is more a sort of literate confessional, a series of meditations on cooking and, inevitably, consuming. Locavores, carnivores, gourmets and gourmands, historians, commentators, chefs and cooks all have their say, alongside Gopnik’s epigrammatic musings. What distinguishes dining from eating? What is morality (i.e., “who” or what should we eat) and is indulgence a sin? What is taste, the importance of the table or the value of tradition? And how did the restaurant, a relatively modern invention—created in Paris, just before the Revolution—become not simply a cultural icon but a kind of cult?

Much of The Table Comes First originated as pieces for The New Yorker, where Gopnik has glittered for a quarter-century, so this is a feast best consumed in discrete courses. Gopnick’s encounters with London snout-to-tail maven Fergus Henderson and the great Catalonian innovators behind elBulli, Ferran and Albert Adrià, are fascinating; his quixotic mission to prepare an entirely locavore, only-in-New York dinner is unexpectedly funny. His comments on food and wine critics are at once acute and sympathetic. And, of course, the writing is a pleasure (“the chastened, improved look of the egg yolks mixed with sugar”).

FRENCH FEAST
If Gopnik’s book is the menu de degustation, Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture with Honoré de Balzac is a lovely trifle. Written by the Paris-born, New York-based biographer Anka Muhlstein, and translated from French by Adriana Hunter, it uses quotations from the writer deemed a French Trollope (a pun he would have enjoyed) to portray a city and culture evolving alongside the restaurant. (Muhlstein and Gopnik disagree on a few facts, but they have historical sentiment in common.) Balzac’s characters eat in real-life cafes or in private homes, and the provenance of the fare, as well as its quality, reflect the new egalité (or not). The book’s French title is “Garçon, un cent d’huitres” (Waiter, a hundred oysters”); though Balzac ate almost nothing while working, between novels he could have given Diamond Jim Brady a run for his bivalves. Lovers of France, food and literature will find this a welcome gift.

IN SEARCH OF SUDS
The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover’s Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation, by Christian DeBenedetti, is an exuberant, if arbitrary, “Route 66” of a jaunt through brewpubs and craft breweries. It is also a series of snapshots of brewers (including the famously unruly and charming Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head) and worthy but beer-less landmarks (New Orleans’ Central Grocery of muffaletta fame)—a sort of beerlover’s verbal Viewmaster. There are detours into history, regulatory scuffles, brewpubs lost and found and more. The descriptions of various brews are almost amorously tasty, and will doubtless inspire lovers of microbrews to add some names to their “must try” lists.

CHEERS TO COCKTAIL HOUR
Brian D. Murphy’s See Mix Drink: A Refreshingly Simple Guide to Crafting the World’s Most Popular Cocktails is a Mr. Boston’s for beginners that looks like the prototype for a smartphone app. Each recipe is loaded with “intuitive icons” (shapes of the bottles, implements, garnishes and glasses required) that act out the drink-making process, plus an illustration of the glass filled with proportional layers of ingredients (see illustration). The additional pie charts—a Black Velvet clearly illustrated as three ounces of stout and three ounces of Champagne in a flute is also displayed as a 50% brown, 50% tan circle—have the virtue of displaying a calorie count, 96 in this case. While most of the ­recipes are classic, some are perhaps more “app-propos.” His rendition of a Ramos Gin Fizz uses egg white powder and makes no mention of orange flower water, its characteristic flavoring. And while Murphy feels the need to explain what a blender does, he doesn’t define many of the additional ingredients, such as orgeat syrup or orange bitters, that may be less familiar to newbies. Still, the lively presentation is likely to help wean the junior “Mad Men” off chocolate martinis—a worthy cause.

New wine books used to be a holiday staple, but these days, wine talk has been replaced by sophisticated (and occasionally cultish) culinary chat, haute beer debates and retro cocktail repartee–all easily indulged tastes when it comes to your gift list. TOUR THE TABLEThough playful in tone, and packed with the wordplay that (among other […]
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The book, or the bottle? That’s the question that arises when considering holiday gift books for partakers of particular potables. All sorts of spirits are the subject of increasingly elaborate tomes arranged by region, style, historical influence and even literary reference. And inevitably we wonder: Would our friends rather have the potion than the prescription? (And isn’t a coffee table book about whiskey a contradiction in terms?)

Nevertheless, here are a handful of offerings, from savvy to showy and pert to practical. As to bottle vs. book, we recommend giving both: With luck, your friends may share.

SUDS AND STEMS
Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont each have a number of previous books under their belts, and their latest, The World Atlas of Beer, is an unusually successful hybrid of travelogue and catalogue. Styles of beers (ales, porters, stouts, et al.) and their brewing are explained in detail but not exhaustively; brewery maps of regions around the world spotlight prime examples of styles; and a fairly remarkable number of beers are profiled and taste-tested. Though you may have to travel (or live in a very metropolitan importing area) to taste many of these brews, the book includes tips for travelers about local mores in each beer’s region of origin. There’s also a succinct list of food-to-beer matches, from hamburgers and IPA to foie gras and golden ale.

Wines of the Southern Hemisphere by “World Wine Guys” and journalists Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, covers New World wines by country and region, major varietals and producers. While most wine drinkers will be generally familiar with the wines of Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, the chapters on Chile, Brazil and Uruguay might spark a treasure hunt at the wine store. (As with beers, availability could be problematic.) The book occasionally falls into the TV talk show “we had lunch with” trap, but the tasting notes, though vintage-specific, are very good.

HIGH-END TASTES
Whiskey Opus, a catalogue of the “world’s greatest distilleries” by longtime spirits writers Gavin D. Smith and Dominic Roskrow, devotes 120 of its pages to the whiskys of Scotland (which, despite that country’s preference, are referred to by the authors as ­“whiskeys”). But as the brown-spirits market in the United States continues to expand, and bars offer more small-batch and cult labels, it can be fun to discover (before your other friends) how many countries around the world—Pakistan, India, Taiwan, Lichtenstein, etc.—produce fine versions. The histories are occasionally over-detailed, but the tasting notes are good, and of course, as with most DK titles, the visuals are excellent: With its comprehensive photo collection of bottles and labels, this book almost demands a ready-for-framing ad poster.

To those of the retro (rather than neo) cocktail generation, Lesley M.M. Blume’s Let’s Bring Back: The Cocktail Edition offers a mix of anecdotes, speculations, wordplay and recipes. Subtitled “A Compendium of Impish, Romantic, Amusing, and Occasionally Appalling Potations from Bygone Eras,” and decorated with Edwardian typography and the odd woodcut, it seems a sure bet to resurrect the grenadine industry. Blume sometimes gets so involved in the decorative bits that she shorts the useful stuff (several recipes refer to French and Italian vermouths, older terminology which may be confusing to amateur mixmasters); but there is humor of all degrees of subtlety, so it’s an easy pick-me-up.

ALCOHOL OPTIONAL
There’s even a treat for the teetotalers on your list: The Artisan Soda Workshop, a cheery little paperback that aims to turn your seltzer bottle into an old-fashioned soda fountain (and health bar—no high fructose corn syrup or preservatives here). Although the 75 recipes require a little effort (boiling and straining, mostly), author Andrea Lynn has come close to reproducing many old standards, such as Coke and Dr. Pepper, cream sodas, root beer and cherry cokes, while also creating some lovely herb and fruit concentrates and seasonally flavored fizzes and tonics—all of which could, of course, easily be topped off with a little alcohol.

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Recipes from Let's Bring Back and The Artisan Soda Workshop can be found on our blog.

The book, or the bottle? That’s the question that arises when considering holiday gift books for partakers of particular potables. All sorts of spirits are the subject of increasingly elaborate tomes arranged by region, style, historical influence and even literary reference. And inevitably we wonder: Would our friends rather have the potion than the prescription? (And […]
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Holiday spirits are supposed to be high, not haute. But if the proliferation of cocktail “creations” and infusions and artisan mixers has you and your friends flummoxed, here are a handful of drinkers’ delights that could either adorn the coffee table or—just in time—restore your hostly confidence.

WINE-ING DOWN
Once upon a time, wine drinkers aspired to be connoisseurs. Then came the wine wonks—those who carried calculators for vintages and futures—and the geeks, who bought by the ratings. Now we have entered the age of wine nerds, who buy the wine equivalent of self-help books.

For example: Hello, Wine: The Most Essential Things You Need to Know About Wine by Melanie Wagner, a self-confessed former wine “bumpkin” turned Certified Sommelier. Like most such books, it begins with a confessional, then runs through a catechism of allure and reassurance to bring the reader resoundingly into the converts’ fold. Once Wagner hits her stride, her descriptions of varietals, tips on restaurant wine lists, tasting, hosting and food-matching, etc., are very good. And her picks for dependable producers—particularly those whose wines are under-$15 steals or fall in the “sweet spot” of $26 to $50—are spot on, so to speak.

This season’s best gag gift, perfect for pairing with a bottle, is the unexpectedly entertaining The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit: A scant dozen spreads illustrate the pithy tips from Master Sommelier Richard Betts. (A Certified Sommelier ranking is Level 2; a Master is Level 4, the highest.) “Wine is a grocery, not a luxury” is Betts’ mantra. He demystifies in guy-pal style: “In this case, size does not matter: We’ve all got a great schnoz.” The cartoons by Wendy MacNaughton contribute so much to the book that she really should have been acknowledged on the cover. Betts includes a pullout map to the “whole wine world” that attempts to match mood to olfactory method. While the scratch-and-sniff technology is in need of a little tweaking—the leather may be the best simulacrum—the illustrations, both literal and figurative, of the aromatic elements are memorable.

SIPPING SUDS
Although the title is a little man-cave chic, The Complete Beer Course: Boot Camp for Beer Geeks, From Novice to Expert in Twelve Tasting Classes is an accessible and impressively informed dissertation on beer styles and best labels. Longtime beer journalist Joshua M. Bernstein has traveled, tasted, interviewed and researched centuries of brewing lore. Like nearly all his colleagues, Bernstein is prone to the pun (“yeast of Eden,” “all is not white in the world,” etc.). His picks of breweries and beer-centric restaurants and festivals make this a consumer’s guide in both senses.

For those who want to go straight to the good stuff, World Beer: Outstanding Classic and Craft Beers from the Greatest Breweries, by veteran British beer critic Tim Hampson, disposes of brewing techniques, history, beer styles, tasting techniques and flavor pairings in a few high-gloss pages and launches headlong (sorry—the punning is contagious) into profiles of more than 800 fine craft beers organized by country and region. And Hampson does mean “world beer”: Who knew Namibia was a big microbrewery center? This is a serious coffee table book that could be the co-star of a fine beer-tasting party.

WHISKEY RIVER
Drinking mirrors pop culture, and having passed through the “Mad Men” martini renaissance, Americans are testing the “Breaking Bad” waters—which is to say, whiskey, derived from the Gaelic for “water of life.” In Drink More Whiskey: Everything You Need to Know About Your New Favorite Drink, Daniel Yaffe, founder and editor of Drink Me magazine, covers the wide world of whiskey from the U.S. to the U.K. to Japan (and beyond), from single malt to small batch to honey whiskey to moonshine. Like Wagner, he can flourish a bit too often: “If a single malt is a group of violinists with a brilliant tone, a blend might be the full orchestra.” “Like people, peat mellows with age.” (Clearly, he and I have not met.) But if the flash is weak, the spirit is indeed willing: Yaffe mixes history, trends, ingredients—both within the barrel and in the glass—and technique into a truly tasty cocktail.

Holiday spirits are supposed to be high, not haute. But if the proliferation of cocktail “creations” and infusions and artisan mixers has you and your friends flummoxed, here are a handful of drinkers’ delights that could either adorn the coffee table or—just in time—restore your hostly confidence. WINE-ING DOWNOnce upon a time, wine drinkers aspired […]
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After decades of transforming everyday life into a service industry, Americans are embracing DIY as a second language, with whole industries devoted to restoring the lost garden of earthly delights.

BRING HAPPY HOUR HOME
Organic produce and farm-to-table dining, artisan cheeses, small-vineyard wines, etc., are badges of the newly educated palate. There are more has-beens wielding knives and renovating houses on cable TV than on “Dancing with the Stars.”

And now we are in the age of the mixologist. You read it here first: The next Cooking Channel will be the Cocktail Channel. While drinkers’ manuals to consuming wine, whiskey, beer and so on have been flourishing for years, the trend now calls for how-to books designed to reinvent happy hour as home entertainment.

Among the most useful, and admirably unpretentious, is The 12 Bottle Bar: A Dozen Bottles. Hundreds of Cocktails. A New Way to Drink. by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, which leads you gently from buying the basics to making the best of them—a friendly offer made even less threatening when you realize that the dependable dozen includes two vermouths, two bitters and orange liqueur (i.e., Cointreau, Grand Marnier, etc.). Even more admirable, it reminds readers that being a good host has more to do with joining your guests than trying to impress them.

At once the wittiest and most comprehensive of new spirits encyclopedias, The Thinking Drinker’s Guide to Alcohol: A Cocktail of Amusing Anecdotes and Opinion on the Art of Imbibing, by Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham, arose from a theatrical lecture at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011, but it’s more than wordplay. It’s a succinct but surprisingly sound romp through the history of spirits, their great proponents (Jack Kerouac for tequila, Thomas Jefferson for wine, Hemingway for rum), a bit of myth and culture (the Wild West) and even some great movie moments as well as a restrained selection of famous labels. Oh, and did you know? Jesus was a beer guy. (Toga party, anyone?) It may also be the first such tome with a Kickstarter pedigree, making it a truly populist publication. The collage-style illustrations and graphic timelines are equally admirable.

AN AMERICAN CLASSIC
Although it might sound painfully stodgy, Michael Dietsch’s Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times is a fine introduction to artisanal ingredients you actually can make at home. A shrub is simply a beverage combining fruit and herbs or spices with vinegar, or in some cases citrus fruit. It’s a style of drink that goes back millennia, and was a staple of Founding Mother pantries; one of the recipes comes from Martha Washington, another from Ben Franklin. Such beverages are still common elsewhere—I have a bottle and recipe book from the wife of a highly regarded Japanese winemaker—and are immensely soothing by themselves as well as in mixed drinks, which makes them perfect for mixed-ages parties (or, as per Dietsch’s wife, for the pregnant or indisposed). Most of the 40 or so shrub recipes here have only three or four ingredients and don’t even require cooking; what a lovely weekend project!

FOR COCKTAIL NERDS ONLY
At the far end of the accessibility spectrum is molecular mixology, and only true cocktail geeks (or those looking for gifts for them) will get the full frontal benefit of Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail Momofuku’s resident mad scientist Dave Arnold, who is to cocktails as Richard Blais is to home cooking (doesn’t everyone use liquid nitrogen in the kitchen?), discourses at length on the correct size of ice cubes for specific concoctions, quick-cooking bitters, countertop distilling, eutectic freezing (look it up), comparative percentages of ethanol in mixers and so on. Fortunately, there are a few recipes that don’t require a vacuum machine, so maybe you and your Significant Nerd can bond over those.

SPIRIT GUIDES
Matt Teacher’s The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival begins with a foreword by Arrigo Cipriani, son of the co-founder of the legendary Harry’s Bar in Venice, and includes interviews with distinguished bartenders and producers, but sometimes there’s a little too much Teacher in the talk. It is, however, a lush and beautiful book full of what might be called cocktail porn—full-color photographs of concoctions, shakers, bars, etc. (Nearly 40 percent of the book is entitled “A Catalogue of Gin Distillers,” and what with the pictures of various producers’ bottles, it starts to feel a little like a sales brochure.)

Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, by Heather Greene, is modeled on the now-familiar wine manual style, combining history, terroir (bourbon vs. Irish, and that pesky “e”), science and technology (distilling methods, barrel aging), education (deciphering labels) and storage and entertaining tips (recipes and glassware). Greene, who teaches a whiskey course at Manhattan’s Flatiron Room and was the first woman to serve on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting panel, plays up the chick-liquor schtick a little too much, but she’s particularly good on tasting elements and flavor and aroma descriptions. As she points out, women seem to have better noses.

Now, if someone would just outlaw the subtitle, we could save a forest.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

After decades of transforming everyday life into a service industry, Americans are embracing DIY as a second language, with whole industries devoted to restoring the lost garden of earthly delights.
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Americans discover, and rediscover, trends in drinking just as they do in dining. A few years ago, the holidays were afloat in variously erudite or encouraging tomes on wine-tastings, great regions and terroirs, and beginners’ ways to “express” beverage flavors, not to mention a slew of wine guides especially for women.

Then the evangelicals of beer hopped up to defend that equally ancient and venerable tonic, followed by the prophets of whiskeys, shrubs and, well, tonics. Not to mention the numerous re-inventors of the cocktail.

All this alcohol-inspired abundance may explain why beverage experts are looking more into niche and novelty approaches this year.

PROPOSE A TOAST
Paul Dickson has written 65 nonfiction books on a variety of subjects, including cocktailing and toasting, language and baseball—often in combination (i.e., a history of drinking in baseball). Dickson’s latest, Contraband Cocktails: How America Drank When It Wasn’t Supposed To, began as a fascination with Prohibition-era recipe books that along the way naturally snowballed into an engaging discourse on classic cocktails replete with trivia, recipes, a list of -alcohol-related slang of the period and a fair amount of Golden-Era literary and celebrity gossip. As Dickson points out, the years of Prohibition coincided with some of the most flamboyant drinking in literature and on Broadway and the Silver Screen (think The Great Gatsby and W.C. Fields). 

Although not exactly unknown, the asides are entertaining: Henry Craddock, who fled Prohibition Manhattan for London and compiled the still-revered Savoy Cocktail Book, told an interviewer in 1926 that he was then mixing up at least 280 cocktails—a number that did not include juleps, fizzes, punches, highballs, etc. Dickson defends the use of vodka in the Bloody Mary, though he does dispense with the common misconception that it has anything to do with the onetime Queen, and goes with the often-disputed version of the drink having been created at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris. (A disproportionate number of famous bartenders and recipe writers were named Harry, possibly giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “hair of the dog.”) 

THE PUN'S THE THING
More self-consciously “literary” is a stocking stuffer for unrepentant punsters (actually, the sort of entertainment that used to be found in the bathrooms of the well-read). In Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas, populist Shakespeare professors Caroline Bicks and Michelle Ephraim have pulled out all the stoppers, condensing the plots of the Bard’s plays into “riotous prose” and then naming slightly twisted cocktails for long-suffering characters. Consider the Lady Macbeth’s G-Spot (something like a Lear-ing bastard offshoot of a whiskey sour and a Rob Roy); Much Ado About Frothing (pisco sour with heart-shaped sprinkles) and chapters entitled “Shall I Campari Thee to a Summer’s Day?” 

As Shakespeare was already an inveterate punster, the book is almost too much of a muchness, best consumed in small quantities. Maybe it could serve a peculiar book club—one reading, and one round of drinks, at a time.

AN APPLE A DAY
Longtime beer-book author and blogger Jeff Alworth has temporarily swapped suds for cider, which he believes is the next specialty brew, and which he pointedly defines not as the insipid fruit juice of childhood but a whole family of artisan beverages including Calvados and Lambig. In Cider Made Simple: All About Your New Favorite Drink, Alworth travels from apple farms in the U.S. to Canada, England, France and Spain, talking and tasting with artisan cider blenders. He discusses the roles of aromatics, acidity, sweetness, tannins, fermentation, florals, “funkiness”—and if this sounds reminiscent of a wine primer, it’s no accident. Craft cider can range in alcohol content from 3 percent to 10 percent. It may be blended from a carefully curated balance of apple species, like vine varieties. Some of the best cider is even riddled and disgorged, à la Champagne, although with a somewhat different technique. 

Alford may be jumping the gun a little on calling cider the next favorite beverage, but he isn’t too far ahead of the curve: While its following is small compared to that of craft beer, the cider market is estimated to double every three years. 

A CLASSIC MIXER
The glossiest book of the bunch, and the one best suited to the cocktail obsessive, is Adam Ford’s Vermouth: The Revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture. It’s part love letter to what has become his actual profession—he’s the founder of Atsby, a groundbreaking vermouth producer—and a bit of a vanity production, as it’s hard for him to resist specifying one of Atsby’s vermouths in his recipes.

Either way, it’s a passion project. Ford has dived deeply into drinking history—about 10,000 years’ worth—to show that herb- and spice-infused alcohols have been recognized as medicinal and recreational potions since Neolithic times nearly everywhere around the globe. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty broad definition of vermouth, but he has a point.) He strolls through decades of America’s evolving cocktail culture: the New York Exhibition of 1853, when four different Italian “vermout” makers poured a liquor that Charles Dickens admired; the wild and wicked post-Civil War Manhattan; the “Mad Men” era; etc. 

Oh, along the way, Ford brings up two more famous Harrys: Harry Johnson, famed author of the 1882 New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual, Or: How to Mix Drinks of the Present Style; and Harry Hill, owner of one of Manhattan’s first Gilded Age “concert saloons.” Maybe it’s a secret society.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

An alcohol-inspired abundance has led beverage experts to look more into niche and novelty approaches to drink-themed gift books this year.
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We have become a nation of not only conspicuous consumers, but vicarious ones. Watching The Food Network won’t make you a chef, probably not even a better cook; but millions of people oohh and aahh over garlic and hot sauce (and massacre the pronunciation of “bon appétit”). Similarly, the pop culture-fueled craze for craft cocktails, “artisan mixers,” tinctures, digestifs, etc., has produced a parallel to the celebrity chef-inspired home cook: the happy home bartender. Everyone’s an expert, and these books promise to make you an expert, too. 

WINE DOWN
Jancis Robinson is one of the preeminent wine critics in the world, a Master of Wine since 1984, author of (among dozens of erudite wine books) the definitive The Oxford Companion to Wine and advisor to Queen Elizabeth’s cellars. In The 24-Hour Wine Expert, Robinson ventures into the stocking-stuffer-sized wine primer field—and knocks her competitors on their heels. Her forthright book is clever without being cute and concentrates on the terms (like “nose”), regions and storage and handling tips that will enhance the experience of the amateur or semi-pro wine drinker. She is happy to dismiss the “critic behind the curtain” effect: “You should feel quite at liberty to free-associate” about aromas and flavors rather than swallowing the boilerplate descriptions of “tired old professionals.” If not a 24-hour course, it’s a perfect weekend party.

COCKTAIL HOUR
Dan Jones’ Gin: Shake, Muddle, Stir is also a small but likable handful of information, which doesn’t break much new ground but has a cheery readability. Jones kicks off with positively Dickensian hyperbole—“Not so long ago, gin was the crack of the capital, the unlimited fun-juice guzzled by cackling, wooden-toothed wastrels, pox-ridden poets and general London lowlifes”—and concludes, rather neatly, with an approximation of the hot gin punch in David Copperfield. The book is divided between gin’s history and recipes, some of which are intriguingly robust (a green tea and bay-infused gin martini), and the guide to making your own syrups and gins might lure you into the home-mixing world. Daniel Servansky’s graphics of layered cocktail glasses displaying the recipe proportions are particularly useful. 

SCIENCE OF SIPPING
Although it takes a little while to hit its stride, Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions by cocktail instructor Brian D. Hoefling is less pompous than the title might suggest. Hoefling is Bill Nye the Science Guy for the barfly, explaining the chemical and bacterial interactions that result in everything from fermentation to hangovers. He debunks myths, like the hair of the dog, and explains facts, like why alcohol makes you dizzy. And thanks to handy cross-references, you can skim or swim through the information. The graphics, by Leandro Castelao, are simple but striking. 

FOR LABEL LOVERS ONLY
There are gift options for the label geeks as well. Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs by Brad Thomas Parsons is a hefty, high-gloss love poem to the bitters, aperitifs and digestifs of the world. Parsons includes interviews with makers and bar owners, as well as tasting notes and nearly 80 cocktail recipes, before ending with some bittersweet dessert ideas.

The New Single Malt Whiskey is a little bit harder to define. Heavy, heavily illustrated and packed with de rigueur interviews with distillers (a great excuse for a field trip), it includes essays by 40 writers, some of which are more intriguing than others. Though there is no definition of a single malt until quite a ways in, and some of the cocktail recipes do not call for any Scotch at all, what is “new” here is the global fascination with single malts. One surprising bit of trivia: The French drink the most single malt Scotch per capita. That just might put some winemakers’ “noses” out of joint.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

We have become a nation of not only conspicuous consumers, but vicarious ones. Watching The Food Network won’t make you a chef, probably not even a better cook; but millions of people oohh and aahh over garlic and hot sauce (and massacre the pronunciation of “bon appétit”). Similarly, the pop culture-fueled craze for craft cocktails, “artisan mixers,” tinctures, digestifs, etc., has produced a parallel to the celebrity chef-inspired home cook: the happy home bartender. Everyone’s an expert, and these books promise to make you an expert, too.
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This year’s holiday banquet includes a spread of books that are fit for feasting: two gorgeous coffee-table extravagances, a fascinating window into the culinary culture of 1940s Paris and a pair of visually appealing stocking stuffers.

Barton Seaver’s American ­Seafood: Heritage, Culture & Cookery from Sea to Shining Sea is a stunner. Seaver, a fine chef who was at the forefront of the sustainability movement, has published multiple cookbooks. His latest encyclopedic tome is part cookbook; part photo-journal studded with a variety of vintage ads, black-and-white photos and gorgeous full-color images; and, above all, a paean to the fishers and harvesters of one of America’s major food sources. Seaver, who lives in a Maine fishing village, makes a strong case for treating seafood and its procurers with the same respect as farmers and their heirloom tomatoes. The ancestors of these frontiersmen of the seas made the British settlement of the first American colonies possible. The two-page discussion of the often dissed catfish alone will convince you of Seaver’s passion for the ocean and its bounty.

TOAST OF THE TOWN
Peter Liem’s Champagne is for those who are seriously enchanted by the bubbly elixir. Billed as “the essential guide to the wines, producers, and terroirs of the iconic region,” this is an armchair oenophile’s delight. Liem provides a detailed description of the best champagnes from not only the better-known French areas such as Epernay and Reims but also the small villages and single vineyard producers. A former critic for Wine & Spirits magazine, Liem goes through the history and mechanics of champagne production (biodynamics, tank fermentation and crayères, the astounding chalk cellars 100 feet below ground dug out by the Greeks and Romans and now used for aging) and then dives into appreciating individual blends, vintages and their blenders. Liem doesn’t limit himself to the expensive sparklers, either; his evaluations range in price. As an extra bonus, the box set includes seven reproductions of vintage maps of the regions, the sort you could frame or decoupage onto the wine bar—or put travel pins in, if you’re really showing off.

PARISIAN FOOD
Justin Spring’s The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy is an erudite, extensively researched evocation of a moment in time when a half-­dozen brilliant Americans converged in France in the mid-20th century and illuminated the culture of French cuisine for audiences back home.

Spring’s subjects are a fascinating group: the already corpulent World War II correspondent A.J. Liebling; the secret CIA spy and cooking icon Julia Child; the self-effacing M.F.K. Fisher; the artist-turned-rustic food chronicler Richard Olney; the opportunistic Alexis Lichine, who was raised in Paris but had based his wine business in New York; and Alice B. Toklas, the longtime partner of Gertrude Stein who was, in a way, the liaison between these five characters and the famous Lost Generation of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Toklas’ knowledge of food had perhaps the most poignant beginning, because it was rooted in the shortages of the war and her straitened circumstances after Stein’s death; her cookbook was in part a task to shake off grief. It’s notable that none of the six figures featured here, with the arguable exception of Lichine, were food snobs; they celebrated regional, homey and haute dishes with equal relish. Spring has also layered in smart and pointed profiles of other writers, critics and contemporary celebrities, looking back on this period as a short-lived love affair between Americans and French fare that was curtailed by political unrest, new ethnic fads and, curiously, an infamous, unabashedly gluttonous $4,000, 31-course meal, replete with caviar and song birds, eaten by New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne in Paris in 1975 to the criticism of many.

COCKTAILS AND CATS
Around the World in 80 Cocktails by Australian bartender and writer Chad Parkhill packs in more fascinating historical trivia than most of the season’s cute cocktail book offerings, and the retro travel poster-style illustrations by Alice Oehr are a real pleasure. Head to Spain for a fruity Sherry Cobbler, which makes a cameo in a Charles Dickens novel, or read about Bolivia’s national spirit, the floral singani, while sipping a llajua cocktail. This would be a fine gift for a holiday host or well suited for placing atop a home bar tray.

(Reprinted with permission from Distillery Cats, copyright © 2017 by Brad Thomas Parsons. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Julia Kuo.)

More whimsical, and certainly more unusual, is Distillery Cats: Profiles in Courage of the World’s Most Spirited Mousers by James Beard Award-winning writer Brad Thomas Parsons, who offers up the tales of the felines who guard the grains in distilleries around the world, with lovely sketches of the cats courtesy of Julia Kuo and 15 delicious cocktail recipes as well. What is particularly sweet is the number of the cats that are strays, rescues and self-appointed welcoming committees. If you choose to pick up a bottle from one of the 31 American artisanal distilleries and breweries listed, you will have a first-rate feline host to greet you.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

This year’s holiday banquet includes a spread of books that are fit for feasting: two gorgeous coffee-table extravagances, a fascinating window into the culinary culture of 1940s Paris and a pair of visually appealing stocking stuffers.

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When it comes to this year’s wine and spirits books, everything old is new again, retasted and retold. After all, there are few subjects with more history behind them than booze. These five books touch on nostalgic and historic high points with some odd and entertaining side trips into potions, pot stills and poetry.

Blotto Botany: A Lesson in Healing Cordials and Plant Magic by herbalist and blogger Spencre L.R. McGowan is a sweet-natured throwback—a hippie-dipso catalog of restorative concoctions and medicinal cordials. These 40 recipes are sorted by season and include handy plant facts and trivia. Homebrewing with botanicals requires real dedication and may necessitate some specialty shopping, but luckily, McGowan’s colorful, collage-filled book with handwritten notes is a refreshing tonic itself. Recipes include a lilac-infused wine with the optional addition of rose quartz, an elderberry brew and various syrups, tonics and infused waters. Here’s a holiday tidbit for our toasters: Amethyst got its name, which essentially means “sober” in ancient Greek, because its winelike color was thought to counter alcohol. Good luck with that, merrymakers!

EDIT SOBER
A Sidecar Named Desire: Great Writers and the Booze That Stirred Them by artists Greg Clarke and Monte Beauchamp is a sort of Bartlett’s of imbibing anecdotes and illustrations, mixing tales of the great and powerful word wizards—F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Truman Capote, Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Charles Baudelaire and more—with recaps of the evolution of the great spirits and a dash of recipes. Hemingway claimed to have popularized two cocktails—the Bloody Mary (probably not) and the Papa Doble (perhaps)—but then, he was always something of a braggart. Many of these inebriated authors created surrogate characters whose habits they knew all too well, and for whatever reason, guzzling gumshoes and sipping spies were a popular conduit—think Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and, of course, James Bond. This is an entertaining little book for those whose love of literature is paired with a love of elicit elixirs.

PUB TALK
In Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint, longtime beer critic John Holl evocatively writes, “I once had a beer made with caramel malts and almond extract that reminded me of the cookies served by our local Chinese restaurant after dinner. It had been years since I’d eaten that dessert, and the taste of the beer took me down an unexpected memory lane of family gatherings.” Holl goes on to fearlessly debunk beer snobbism, pointing out that the pumpkin-spice craze (love it or loathe it) followed the long custom of autumnal pumpkin beers, not the other way around. Despite the traditional admonition “beer before wine, mighty fine, beer after whiskey, mighty risky,” Holl embraces “cross-drinking,” by which he means dabbling in beer, wine and even cocktails in order to enjoy their various virtues. But be warned, Holl is a pro—not everyone should try this drinking style at home. Inspired by the BBC’s “Sherlock” and Holmes’ description of a “mind palace,” Holl suggests a “mind pub” to help you identify and remember the characteristics of beers you like.

SIP UP TO THE BAR
Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland 
by Clay Risen is perhaps the most serious-minded book in the gift bag. The follow-up to his bestselling American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye, Risen’s beautifully illustrated book pays homage to the flavors, aromas and aging of 330 bottlings from more than 100 fine Scottish single malt whisky distilleries. (For those a little confused by spellings, “whisky” without the “e” is how Scottish, Japanese and Canadian spirits are spelled; Irish and American whiskies, including bourbon and rye whiskey, use the extra vowel. Perhaps we need the oxygen.) Risen is an editor at the New York Times, and his book’s introductory material on the brewing, fermentation, blending and barreling of Scotch whisky is clear and blessedly short on jargon. His equally brief and unpretentious explanation of Scotch whisky’s history—especially the market balloons and busts, reform movements and wartime strictures—is sharp and instructive, and his descriptions of labels, flavors and more are insightful and concise.

FINE VINTAGE
The delightful Wine Reads: A Literary Anthology of Wine Writing is an anthology of short pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, about discovering, delving into and debauching on wine. Bestselling novelist and wine columnist Jay McInerney (who includes an article of his own in the book, a Tom Wolfe-ish nip at “Billionaire Winos” that begs for a film adaptation featuring Leonardo DiCaprio) has assembled more than two dozen stories that are worth reading for pleasure, presumably with a glass in hand. Some of these pieces and persons are delicious to rediscover: the original wine critic, George Saintsbury, author of the 1920 Notes on a Cellar-Book, who dissed tasting notes as “wine slang”; a chapter from Rex Pickett’s novel Sideways, which was adapted into a film that gave pinot noir a boost and merlot the boot; “Taste,” a classic Roald Dahl story written for The New Yorker; and so on. A bit of synchronicity: Both “Taste” and McInerney are mentioned in A Sidecar Named Desire.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

When it comes to this year’s wine and spirits books, everything old is new again, retasted and retold. After all, there are few subjects with more history behind them than booze. These five books touch on nostalgic and historic high points with some odd and entertaining side trips into potions, pot stills and poetry.

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One of the nicest gifts you can give is wine and the version of wine that keeps on giving is a good wine book. Here are some of the best of recent publications, books long on information and short on showy obfuscation.

Oz Clarke's Introducing Wine: A Complete Guide for the Modern Wine Drinker, by one of the best wine journalists around, is, as it says, Just what you need to know. Clear, non-patronizing and practical, it covers how-to's, where-froms, buying, storing and affording, and is first-rate in summarizing styles. Clarke is frank, funny, balanced and just clever enough. The book comes with a wine wheel (reds on one side, whites on the other) that shows how Zinfandels and Shirazes meet at the black fruits and herbs/spices range, while California Pinot Noirs are lighter than Grand Cru Burgundy but outweigh Oregon Pinots.

Clarke also has a 2001 edition of his Pocket Wine Guide, which covers some 1,600 labels in snapshot form. More serious in tone, and organized with more emphasis on questions of taste, terroir and style (i.e., ordering from a restaurant wine list) is The River Cafe Wine Primer by Joseph DeLissio. However, despite some fairly basic information on educating the palate by tasting at home and so on, it would be better suited to someone interested in actually learning wines for long-term pleasure than Clarke's buy-it-tonight, drink-it-tonight tips.

The Guide to Choosing, Serving & Enjoying Wine is as visual as a Web site, colorful, novelty-sized and in a few places just too, too perky ( Are you uncertain about the difference between a wine grower and a winemaker, a vintner and a viticulturist, or about what a wine producer is? ). Once you get past that and the cartoon characters, it's a solid little primer, covering etiquette, business dinners, decanters, glasses, useful tools (stocking stuffer ideas?) and storage. It would be a very attractive first wine book. Appropriately, while winemaking patriarch Robert Mondavi wrote a foreword to DeLissio's book, son and modern-era mover Michael Mondavi writes one here.

Finally, for the new obsessive, or the sort who gets sidetracked and enjoys it, there's the ultimate resource, The Oxford Companion to Wine. It's really a desk encyclopedia, covering not only chemical attributes and specific varietals and producers but gold rushes (which inspired alcohol-making booms), the lyre (not the musical instrument, but a vine-training apparatus resembling one) and gobelet (also a vine frame, this one goblet-shaped), Baga (the most popular grape in the Bairrada region of Portugal), Rutherglen (Australia's answer to Oporto) and even Soviet sparkling wine (don't even go there).

The 2001 Edition of Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: A Lively Guide is a broad, approachable and, yes, lively handbook, with the basics outlined first and helpful notes in the margins along the lines of, If you can see through a red wine, generally it's ready to drink! There are also tips on pairing food and wine and FAQ assembled from his real-life classes: what to do with leftover wine (like me, Zraly belongs to the clean-bottle club), what sort of corkscrew to use (he sweetly admits to breaking a dozen corks a year), and what he thinks of ratings (not much another virtue). The biggest drawback to this book is that it's Franco-heavy. Australian wines and wineries get only three pages the entire Wines of the World: Italy, Spain, Australia, Chile & Argentina chapter (note the omission of New Zealand) is only 27 pages long, and that counts the maps. New York State gets about a page and a half; the Pacific Northwest only one (no British Columbia, either). Still, you might argue that it's the French who make wine so mysterious, so maybe it takes more time to explain.

Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.

 

One of the nicest gifts you can give is wine and the version of wine that keeps on giving is a good wine book. Here are some of the best of recent publications, books long on information and short on showy obfuscation. Oz Clarke's Introducing Wine: A Complete Guide for the Modern Wine Drinker, by […]
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Ah, the summer novel, the literary vice that must hold serious publishers to their other virtues the rest of the year. Usually intensely ambitious, sweepingly sentimental, historically panoramic, or just down and dirty, summer novels provide an intellectual escapism designed to mirror the gleeful surrender of responsibility that a oil-slicked flop on the sands requires.

Joanne Harris's Blackberry Wine is a classic of a beach book—which is to say, you have been warned. A wishfully poetic pastiche of magical realism and travelogue-by-surrogate, it may lure the more extreme romantics into sun-drugged suspense.

Jay Mackintosh is the classic great-soul-in-a-prison-of-his-own-making, a poor little rich Brit who as a teenager is sent off to his grandparents in coal-mining country while his parents parade about with their next mates. There he is befriended by an old man who makes potions and talismans, plants by lunar cycle, guards his perimeters with colored ribbons, grows peculiar-looking apples, makes homemade wine, enjoys astral travel, and speaks in erratic dialect. Jay also becomes the pal of a mysterious gypsy girl named Gilly, has a long feud with a gang of toughs who finally catch him, and feels abandoned when Joe vanishes even though he turns the colorful old codger into a best-selling novel. Twenty years later he's still whining about the unfairness of it all, living with a smart and pretty woman who should know better, churning out sci-fi novels under an alias, and drinking when he's supposed to be writing. You get a fair amount of this florid history right up front, since Harris likes to jump back and forth between the mid-1970s and the present every three or four pages, which is good for reminding you to turn over if you're tanning but has a rather annoying predictability about it. In Harris's hands, the gentle tug of the past is like a tsunami.

By page 14, the foreshadowing has hit hurricane force. There was something going on in the cellar, after all. He could almost hear it, like the sounds of a distant party. Beneath his feet the bottles were in gleeful ferment. He could hear them whispering to him, singing, calling, capering. Not only that, but those capering, catcalling bottles barely shut up for the rest of the book.

Before long, Jay has been captivated by a picture of a rundown French country chateau up for sale, and the bottles in the cellar have subsided into eerie, expectant silence. And off we go, to the sort of pastoral village where the postmistress is pansy-faced and plump in a red sweater; the cafe owner knows everything; and the woman next door is beautiful, widowed, mysterious, and controversial. Jay has all the material for a brilliant new novel, which has the agents in a bidding frenzy, but the garden and the roses are calling him. . . . Will he find his soul? Will he embrace his ghosts? Will the TV crew uncover the widow's secret?

French-English writer Joanne Harris won fans in the United States when her debut novel, Chocolat, was published here last year. As the action in her new novel unfolds, you have to hope she is actually doing this for fun. For instance, consider that the main character is a novelist who had his one serious literary success as a very young man and has been seeking to rediscover his inspiration ever since, but then winds up warming his heart through the pleasures of gardening (with long-lost heirloom seeds that appear as if by you-know-what). Is the name Jay Mackintosh a comment on Jay McInerney? Or just an organic seed joke? Did I remember to tell you his eyes are Pinot Noir indigo ? Then there's Gilly, presumably short for Gillyflower, and Rosa, who is her double; the florist named Narcisse, the red-haired man named Roux even Jackapple Joe's real name is Cox, another apple variety. It could go either way. Me, I need a drink.

As it happens, I have a bottle of real blackberry wine in my refrigerator, the gift of a West Virginian named Squirrel whose homespun practicalities are probably more amazing than Jackapple Joe's (and who wields a mean butcher knife.) His 1998 blackberry Bang is a true potion, thick with the flavors not just of berries so ripe they're almost turned but also burnt caramel, damson, dark honey, and the oddest aromatic searing of cork and rosemary. While you're not likely to partake of Squirrel's special, you can easily get, for only $18 or $20, a real magic carpet ride: Lindeman's 1997 Padthaway Shiraz, which opens with a burst of rich blackberry and black cherry flavors, broadens into plum, deepens into wild mushroom and chocolate and tobacco, and tops off with a soft, lightly peppery finish and a hint of walnut. (And don't worry if your store has already moved into the 1998; it may even be better.)

Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.

Ah, the summer novel, the literary vice that must hold serious publishers to their other virtues the rest of the year. Usually intensely ambitious, sweepingly sentimental, historically panoramic, or just down and dirty, summer novels provide an intellectual escapism designed to mirror the gleeful surrender of responsibility that a oil-slicked flop on the sands requires. […]

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