How to Order My Books

My latest book, WHISKEY, arrives in May 2016, from Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton. WHISKEY covers the history of the venerable brown beverage, the differences between — say — bourbon and scotch, and the abundance of cocktail applications for all the many different whiskeys of the world. Preorder here:

My first book, SHRUBS, premiered in September 2014 also from Countryman. In SHRUBS, I look at the history of the beverage called shrub, from its origins in the Middle East up through to its modern use in the trendiest cocktail bars and restaurants. Order here:



Fasciotomy! Fash ee oh to me, my X-Men!

So today, I finally finished Stephen King’s ON WRITING, which got lost in a tote bag for months. And I learned that after the traffic collision that nearly ended his life, King had fasciotomies to his right leg. What this entails is cutting into the connective tissues around the leg muscles, to relieve pressure caused by swelling and tissue damage. If you don’t do this, the pressure in the limb can cut off circulation, leading to tissue loss and possible amputation.

Why is this interesting to me? Because after I broke my leg in high school, I had a fasciotomy on my own leg. I fractured that fucker so hard that I very nearly lost that leg at the knee. In my case, they cut open my leg and left it open for about 10 days so it could drain. (It was covered with a sterile dressing, but it was open so fluid could drain out.) Every day, someone came around and poured saline into it, to clean and sterilize the wound. One day, the cleaning happened at the same time my physical therapist came in. Since I couldn’t really feel my limb below the knee at that point, I always had to watch as I did my PT exercises, to make sure I was doing what they asked of me. So I watched as I flexed my ankle and a silvery clump of tissue in my leg expanded and contracted. Have you ever seen your own muscles move? I have. It’s fascinating and sickening all at once.

Incidentally, if you visit the wiki link I’ve posted here, you’ll see some gnarly photos of people recovering from fasciotomies, after skin grafts have been applied to the wound. Click the pictures, if you dare, and blow them up really big. That’s what my leg looked like for months my graft was applied. Pretty gross. I didn’t get laid much in high school.

2013 in Reading

I started 2013 with a simple reading goal: Read one book a week. My daily schedule at the year’s beginning was such that it should have been pretty easy. I had one deadline a week for Serious Eats, and I took care of Julian during the day. So I’d take him out to a playground in the morning, do a little SE writing or personal writing in the afternoon, and then read when I wasn’t writing.

I actually like this kind of structure in my day. Often, when Julian and I go out, we walk a mile and a half to a playground in Prospect Park, run around like madmen for an hour, and then walk a mile and a half home. That’s good physical exercise. And then with the writing and reading, I’d get my mental workout. Evenings were for meals, drinks, and catching up with Jen, and possibly a little television.

I keep track of my reading at Goodreads. (Here’s my account.) Goodreads has a reading challenge every year, and I challenged myself to read 55 books in 2013. I figured that’s one a week, plus a little motivation to go farther. I did pretty well in the first quarter of the year, averaging a little over a book a week. Had I kept up that pace, I probably would have ended up reading about 60 or 65 books in 2013. I didn’t quite make it. I rounded out the year at 25 books, or about one every two weeks.

What happened? Well, to put it simply, the book deal happened. Once I committed to writing a book, my afternoon hours were entirely, uh, booked up. And sometimes my evenings. And often my weekends. My original deadline was ambitious: approximately 30,000 words in 3 months. I hit the ground running, started my research, and wrote like crazy.

But my reading suffered. Of those 25 books, I think the first 15 happened in the first 12 weeks of the year.

Once my deadline loosened up, I was able to get back into reading. The other 10 books happened in the last 15 weeks of the year. Not quite the same pace as before, but not bad, either.

Now that the manuscript is nearly done, I’ve set myself another goal for 2014: 50 books a year. I’ll have edits on the book to tend to, and other writing obligations, of course. And I have some ideas in mind for future book proposals, at least one of which I hope to start work on after I turn in my manuscript. But I want to carve out time to read, even when I’m writing feverishly.

Now, some thoughts on 2013’s list. I won’t talk about everything; not all of it’s worth discussing. I’ll just hit the highlights.

  • COLUMBINE, by Dave Cullen. I started this in December 2012, and finished in January. I also started reading Lionel Shriver’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, but I hated the narrator so much, I threw the book across the room. Yes, there’s a theme: Sandy Hook. I have an idea for a novel, and because I’m not sure I’ll ever do it, I’m giving it away here. There’s a guy named David Kaczynski; you’ve heard of his brother. What fascinates me about David is that, when there’s a mass shooting, he reaches out to the family members of the shooter, who, in a very real way, are victims too. What a deeply, fundamentally humane thing to do. I wanted to understand what it feels like to be David, or Adam Lanza’s father. I think there’s a book to be written about David, either fiction or non-, and I thought I wanted to write it. But COLUMBINE gave me nightmares, and the narrator of KEVIN was so self-absorbed, I hated her more than I did her son. And Jen looked at me one day while I was reading COLUMBINE and said, “I can’t sit here every night and talk about dead children.”
  • HUNGER GAMES. Speaking of dead children… I sort of hated these books, and yet I read all three of them. Quickly. Very quickly. There’s something about the prose that makes them so easily readable. I read all three because I wanted to try to unpack Suzanne Collins’s prose style. Why do I sort of hate the books? First, I think the breezy prose is at odds with the violence and nihilism of the world she’s built. I also think it’s crazy that the books are coy about “Will Catniss fuck whatsisname or won’t she?” when it’s clear she’s killed and will kill again when she needs to. Sex? Let’s play coy. Graphic violence? Here you go, on a platter. But even the violence is written in such an ephemeral style that it seems dreamlike and fake. There’s much more to say about these books, but I suspect I’ll be damned if I ever read Collins again.
  • DEATH OF BUNNY MUNROE, by Nick Cave: Man, speaking of nihilism. This was both a fun book to read and a fun antagonist to hate. I felt terrible for the kid, though. I might read another Cave novel, but it’ll be a long damn while.
  • FOREVER WAR, by Joe Haldeman: This book is so good, I’ve read it twice now. It’s the story of soldiers fighting an interstellar war against an alien species. Because of the effects of time dilation, a trip to a distant battle may take only weeks from the perspective of the soldiers, but a dozen of years or even several hundred years from the perspective of people on Earth. In their time away, the soldiers find that humanity has dramatically changed, and they have trouble fitting in. The novel was written as a Vietnam allegory, but it works as a commentary on war in general and its effects on the psyche. It’s a haunting novel, full of rich characters and believable scenarios. It’s good even if you’re not normally into science fiction.
  • TENDER IS THE NIGHT: The Fitzgerald classic. I reread it for the first time since college. Dick Diver is a moron and an asshole, but he’s a tragic figure nevertheless. I always find myself very sad about how he ends up in this book.
  • DRUNKEN BOTANIST: Fantastic book about the botanical origins of our favorite drinks: beer, wine, spirits, and even a mixer or two. I reviewed it for Serious Eats in April of last year.
  • THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, by P. K. Dick: An alternative history in which the Nazis and Japanese win the Second World War, splitting up the United States and the rest of the world among them. The victorious powers are plotting against each other, in much the same way the United States and NATO entered a cold war with the Soviet Bloc after winning WWII on “our” Earth. A central element of MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is a book several of the characters are reading, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is an alternate history novel in which the Axis Powers lose the war, and the United States and the UK enter into a cold war. Fascinating book, with well-drawn characters and a twisty plot. It’s also, you’ll be surprised to hear, the only Dick novel I’ve read.
  • STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: My second Patricia Highsmith novel. I like it less than I like the movie version, and I like it less than I like the first Ripley novel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Bruno is somehow even creepier in the book than he is in the film, which is saying a lot. I think I’ll probably hit the rest of the Ripley novels before I try any other Highsmith.
  • THE CUT, by George Pelecanos. Really enjoyed this one. It’s nothing more than a private-eye procedural, basically. The main character is Spero Lucas, an Iraq vet who’ll recover stolen property for you, no questions asked, for a 40% cut of the value of the stolen goods. This is the first of a new series for Pelecanos, and I liked the Lucas character enough that I’ll come back for the second. Which surprises me. I have RIGHT AS RAIN, the first in his Derek Strange series, and I didn’t like it enough to read any of the others. It took me a long time to give Pelecanos a second chance.

Right, well, there we have it. My 2013 reading highlights. Like I said, I hope to do better this year.

Child-Proofing Books

Man, I’m starting to wonder why the Motherlode blog at the Times has such a jones against reading. After the blog’s weird snark toward RIF and McDonald’s, Motherlode then published a piece by the novelist Lynn Messina, in which she admits to dumbing down the Harry Potter series so that it won’t disturb her 5-year-old. But wait! There’s more! Messina even censors children’s books–for example, a scene in Pinkalicious where a character has an aversion to vegetables.

Argh. Let’s not overcomplicate this, Motherlode. Here are the steps that you seem to misunderstand:

  1. Get books for your kids.
  2. Read to your kids.
  3. Let them read what they want.
  4. Trust your children.
  5. Help them develop bullshit detectors. Worried about product placement in McDonald’s RIF books? Help them spot it and learn from it.
  6. Help them develop their own sense of morality. Johnny isn’t going to stop eating vegetables just because a character in Pinkalicious thinks they’re icky.

Reading is Fundamentally for People Who Don’t Eat at McDonald’s

Oh, New York Times. You never fail to pass up a chance to be snooty.

Recent case in point, a recent post on the Motherlode blog, about RIF’s partnership with McDonald’s:

Starting on Friday, McDonald’s plans to give away 20 million books in its Happy Meals over a two-week period, while giving another 100,000 books to children nationwide through a partnership with the nonprofit organization Reading Is Fundamental, commonly known as RIF. McDonald’s would prefer that we focus on the positives of its campaign: RIF’s website notes that two-thirds of children living in poverty have no books at home, and 80 percent of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income populations have no age-appropriate books for their children.

You can probably guess that the Motherlode blogger is against it: “some of those households and classrooms will now have one or two books written in committee at a marketing agency, offering not just reading material, but a brand impression every time a child sees or reads them.” She concludes: “Children may pick up the book and clamor for a trip to McDonald’s. But what if, instead, they see McDonald’s — and clamor for a chance to read the book? It’s probably too much to hope that the result will be trips to the library rather than the drive-through. But I’m not sure I blame RIF for trying. Do you?”

I tried to leave a comment, but my response apparently didn’t make it past the NYT’s moderation queue. No matter.

Julian has one of these books, and yes, it’s from a trip to McDonald’s. I don’t know about you, but we’ve had two kids now, and there seems to be nothing more frenzied and harried than the last week or two before the baby’s due. On one such crazy-ass day, we took Julian to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. En route home, he had a bit of a meltdown, Jen was aching, and we were all hungry. McD was the expedient choice. It was also the first day of the RIF partnership.

This wasn’t Julian’s first RIF book, though. His first was Curious George, which he won because we had checked out four books for him that day, from McDonald’s. No, wait, McDonald’s doesn’t check out books to adults and kids. What does? Oh yes, the library.

The library. Unfortunately, right after my son got that book, the library discontinued its RIF programs for lack of funding.

That’s Brooklyn, by the way, right here in the Times’s backyard. Of course, the Times can’t be bothered to pay much attention to any parts of Brooklyn that aren’t Williamsburg and Brooklyn Heights, but whatever. If RIF can’t get into libraries, for Pete’s sake, how can the Times fault them for getting into a fast-food restaurant!?

What really offends me about the Times piece, though, is this assumption: “It’s probably too much to hope that the result will be trips to the library rather than the drive-through.”

I’m Michael Dietsch, father. I take my son to the library AND I take him to McDonald’s. According to the Times, though, I don’t exist.

Will someone please tell my aching back that it doesn’t exist, so I can get more rest tonight?


I’ve been reading the Carl Zimmer book Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, and I came across an amusing passage. He’s talking here about the defenses that organisms to fight parasites:

Any adaptations that can keep a host disease-free will be favored by natural selection. Leaf-rolling caterpillars, for instance, fire their droppings out of an anal cannon, so that they don’t end up creating a fragrant pile of frass that attracts parasitic wasps.

Anal cannon! Is it childish that I find that funny?

Speaking evolution to Christians

Sorry I’ve been absent this place for a while. I’m sure all three of you would like to see more content here from time to time.

The Evolution DialoguesOne interesting advantage of my job is that I come across announcements and reviews of cool new books. Today, for example, I was indexing the latest issue of American Biology Teacher and saw an ad for a book called The Evolution Dialogues, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

(The AAAS publishes the journal Science, so this don’t look like no Discovery Institute bullshit or anything, pushing ID in science clothing.)

According to the AAAS’s press release for the book, it was written for use in adult Christian education programs. The idea seems to be, Let’s explain evolution, genetics, and natural selection in layperson’s terms; examine the various Christian responses to these concepts over the years; and correct common misunderstandings.

A book like this will succeed more with mainstream Protestants and Roman Catholics than with hard-core fundamentalists, but I could see how moderate evangelicals might find it useful, to better understand the issues involved, whether they accept evolution or not. (Some evangelicals, in fact, do accept that evolution is true.)

I’m going to order a copy, give it a good read, and see what bloggers and critics think of it. I think directly engaging faith communities in a proactive way is a good thing, especially when poll after poll shows that Americans have little understanding of, and patience for, evolution and genetics.