Summer Reading


From time to time, I write about a cocktail and recommend drinking it on the porch. Or the deck. Or, in extreme cases, sprawled out on the lawn, struggling with ambitions of getting up to get a chair, because you are pretty sure something just crawled up your leg, but ultimately deciding that that would take more emotional dedication than you can muster at the moment. I stand by these recommendations.

But what should you do while you are sitting there with your cocktail? You could take up a new hobby. Or learn a new language. You want something in your back pocket, so you can say, “I’m afraid I can’t right now, I’m [fill in the blank]-ing. I need a few minutes to myself.”

The classic Summertime go-to, of course, is reading.

So, here’s the plan. Pick one of these books. All three are superfantasticspectacular. You have probably never heard of any of them. No one you know has ever heard of them. Any of them will suck you in and keep you on the porch, self-caring. You will have something to talk about with your friends and family. If they aren’t interested in your book – and frankly, if they aren’t, you should probably reexamine your social priorities – there is a good chance that they will nod politely and leave you alone with your reading. And a cocktail.

Everyone wins.

You are not likely to find any of these books at your local, independent bookstore (I checked), but all are readily available online – new, used, as audiobooks, and as e-books.

Book #1 – Memoirs of a Sword Swallower by Daniel P. Mannix, ©1951


This is exactly what it sounds like – an author’s autobiographical account of traveling around Depression-Era America with a carnival, learning the arts of fire-eating and sword-swallowing. You know how, when you’re at the State Fair, and your kids hammer away at you about going on rides until your will snaps? You know the heavily tattooed professionals – maybe missing surprising body parts – operating the machinery? You may have said to yourself, “THAT person probably has some stories!”

Trust me, she does.

This book is full of those stories.

Like the one about the Human Ostrich, a professional regurgitator, whose act was swallowing things, then bringing them back up individually, on request. Apparently, this particular carnival had a guy who would swallow live rats, then bring them back up, unharmed and not even particularly upset about the experience. Mannix, tells a story about how the carnival was flattened by a storm, and the trained rats escaped. The regurgitator was heart-broken by this and couldn’t perform, so the owner of the carnival replaced the rats – not with professional, trained rats, but with wild ones that he caught raiding the concession stands – then presented them as the originals. These new rats were, to say the least, not enthusiastic about being swallowed, and even less so about being brought back up.

Or traveling around the Jim Crow South in the 1930s. The carnival trucks pulled into one of their favorite truck stops for dinner. One of the new roustabouts, who was Black, and wanting to avoid trouble with the locals, prepared to wait in the truck and asked someone to bring him back something to eat. He was essentially told, “You’re traveling around with carnies! You are the most respectable person here!” I really hope this story is true.

The Passage that Will Hook You In:

“I probably never would have become America’s leading fire-eater if Flamo the Great hadn’t happened to explode that night in front of Krinko’s Great Combined Carnival Side Shows. The tragedy – if such it may be called – took place at eleven o’clock when there’s only time for one more show before the carnival closes for the night, so all the concessions compete for the late crowd at the same time. The side-show had a bad location, being next to the Oriental Dancing Girls (‘Fugitives from a Life of Shame in the Sultan’s Harem’) and it’s pretty hard to compete with ten naked girls for the public’s interest.”

What to Listen to While You Read This


The Cocktail – The Sword-Swallower


2 oz Bourbon (I used Evan Williams, which I remember because it sounds like a guy who sat behind me in Algebra in high school)

1 oz Fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 oz Serrano syrup (see below)

1 oz Freak Show Cabernet Sauvignon

  1. Combine bourbon, lemon juice, and serrano syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake enough to introduce the team to each other.
  2. Strain into a rocks glass, over ice.
  3. Float the wine on top. If it does not make a neat layer, but drifts around in the rest of the drink like blood during a shark attack, so much the better.

This is a riff on a riff on a New York Sour. You would think that the combination of bourbon and syrup would make this too sweet, but the acid from the lemon juice and the wine more than balance it out. The bourbon demands to be taken seriously. The serrano syrup gives the drink an edge. Because the wine swirls unevenly through the drink, no two sips will taste exactly alike. This is a very adult-tasting cocktail.

John Fladd / Heavy Table

Serrano Syrup


150 gr.. Granulated sugar

150 gr. Water

3-4 Serrano chilies, coarsely chopped

  1. Combine all three ingredients in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
  2. Boil for 15-20 seconds to make sure that the sugar is completely dissolved.
  3. Remove from heat, cover and let steep overnight.
  4. Strain and bottle.

Using jalapeños for this makes a delicious tasting syrup, but jalapeños are fickle – you never know how hot they’ll be. Serranos are more dependable for giving this particular cocktail the authority it needs.

Book #2 – Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India, by Alexander Frater, © 1991


Most of South Asia has two seasons – wet, and dry. The Rainy Season comes each year with the Monsoon winds, which blow in from the southwest, and gradually work their way up the subcontinent. Not surprisingly, the coming of the rains is a Very Big Deal in India. Alexander Frater took a fairly straightforward idea, then followed through on it in a moving and surprising way – he traveled to Trivandrum, in South India and joined a crowd on a beach to welcome the annual Monsoon rains. Then he spent the next several weeks racing ahead of the weather front, to the dry, tired parts of India, and experienced how the rains were welcomed there.

It’s a very practical idea, and Frater certainly discussed the practical concepts of weather prediction, travel, and even being mugged on a beach, but his prose was often dreamy, even poetic. His stories of drinking mango juice, or flirting at a party are balanced with descriptions like this:

A Passage to Hook You In:

“At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started. Two hours, fifty minutes later racing cumulus extinguished the sun and left everything washed in an inky violet light. At 4:50, announced by deafening ground level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist opaque as hill fog. In the coffee shop the waiters rushed to the windows, clapping and yelling, their customers forgotten. One, emerging from the kitchen bearing a teapot destined for the conference room, glimpsed the magniloquent spectacle outside, banged the teapot down on my table and ran to join them crying, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’”

If you find yourself at a loss to ever discuss anything but the weather with your aging relatives, Chasing the Monsoon may open a window of opportunity to more interesting conversations.

What to Listen to While You Read This


Cocktail – Rain in Kerala


  •  3 ounces (88 ml) gin (This week, I’m using Wiggly Bridge)
  •  3 ounce fresh lemon juice
  •  1½  ounces Garam masala syrup (See below)
  • 3 Extremely bubbly seltzer (I like Topo Chico Mineral Water)
  1. Combine gin, lemon juice and Garam masala syrup in a shaker, with ice. Shake vigorously.
  2. Pour, with ice, into a tall Collins glass.
  3. Top with seltzer, and stir gently.

This is light, slightly sweet, and delicious, with a spicy aftertaste. Spicy, as in, “What is that I’m tasting? Is it cinnamon????” way, not as in, “Dude! I dare you to chug this!” kind of way. The gin lets you know that it’s there. Vodka, would hide in the background and go, “Don’t mind me; nothing to see here…”. The gin makes good eye contact and offers you a firm handshake. Lemon plays extremely well with Indian spices, sweet things, and of course, gin. It is the bridge that holds this drink together.

John Fladd / Heavy Table

Garam Masala Simple Syrup


Equal parts (by volume) – Sugar, water, whole garam masala.

  1. Combine all ingredients, and bring to a boil over medium heat.
  2. Boil for 15-20 seconds, to make sure that the sugar is completely dissolved.
  3. Remove from heat, cover, and steep for 30 minutes.
  4. Strain and bottle.

Because every mix of garam masala is slightly different, each batch of this syrup will be slightly different. Be sure to include at least one small piece of cinnamon in your batch, but not too much, because it can be a bit of a bully and take over.

Book #3 – Super Powereds: Year One, by Drew Hayes, ©2013


I had a job interview recently, and as the hiring committee took turns asking questions, certain themes emerged – How good was I at thinking on my feet? How patient was I with dealing with difficult people? – that sort of thing. Finally, the last guy on the team hit me with a very different question – What was I reading, right now?

I think the idea was to get an insight into how intellectual I am (Answer – not very; I have the emotional depth of a parking lot puddle), or my political leanings (Answer – Far Left, but I know better than to say that in an interview), but I don’t think my answer was what any of them expected. I went into how much I like Superhero Fiction. I went into something of a rapturous tangent about this particular series by Drew Hayes. The premise is, what if superheroes needed to be certified and had to go to college?

The cool thing, I told the committee, was to think about where young adults are at that stage in their emotional development and play with that as a background for exploring the idea of superpowers. It was hard enough for most of us to negotiate adult behaviors and independence for the first time without being able to punch through walls or reading minds – how would someone with those extra challenges bear up?

I didn’t end up getting the job, but two members of the team wrote down the title.

A Passage to Hook You In:

“Vince woke up an hour or so later in the healing clinic. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the lighting and stretched slowly to banish the discomfort that had accumulated in his back after sleeping on the hard bed.

‘Oh, thank God, you’re finally awake,’ said a female voice to his right.

Vince pulled himself up to a sitting position and looked over. Resting on an identical bed was a tall girl wearing a black uniform similar to his. She had the lean, firm look of a track star and held herself, even while sitting, with a sense of poise and control. The most striking feature about her, though, were the bright pink streaks running through her otherwise dark hair.

‘Was I out long?’ Vince asked.

‘Given that you were pretty much a hunk of solid ice when they brought you in, no, I’d say you slept an appropriate amount,’ the girl replied as she smirked.”

What to Listen to While You Read This


Cocktail – Secret Identity

There are a couple of different directions you could go in to develop a superhero-themed cocktail. You could use blueberry juice and acai berries and other “super fruit”. You could make it glow in the dark, or give off smoke, or infuse it with scorpion peppers.

This drink takes a different tack.

If you had the ability to animate plants, or shoot lasers out of your eyes, or transform into a ’72 Buick, what would you drink to hide behind? What could you order at the Metropolis Bar & Grill that would emphatically not whisper “tough guy”?


John Fladd / Heavy Table


2 oz White rum

½ oz Triple sec

1 oz Fresh-squeezed lime juice

½ oz Hibiscus syrup 

Scant ¼ oz Rose water

  1. Combine all ingredients, with ice, in a cocktail shaker. Shake thoroughly.
  2. Strain into a coupé glass

While this is the least threatening-looking drink ever invented, it is delicious. It combines sweet, acidic, and floral notes in a lovely way. The hibiscus syrup gives it a delicate, rosy color and background floral notes. The rum and triple sec play beautifully together, as do the lime juice and rose water. 

A note of caution about the rose water – like the superpowers you are trying to hide, rose water is deceptively powerful stuff. One drop too much, and your cocktail will taste like grandmother soap. A quarter of an ounce is the absolute maximum a civilian should use the first time around.