Books and Booze a la Mode 

At this Boise book club, what you drink tastes like what you read

No matter what day it is, The Mode cocktail lounge has a way of making it feel like a Saturday evening, with its dim lighting and parade of well-dressed patrons seated in leather chairs, speaking in low voices. Sixteen of them, members of the Books and Booze book club, sat in a semicircle in a sequestered area of the bar and spoke glowingly of the August/September selection on Tuesday, Sept. 11, but closed their remarks with what became a common refrain: The book simply didn't entertain.

"I thought the book, at first, was beautifully written. I thought it was slow in places. I enjoyed the immigrant experience," said Kit McMaster, a retired English teacher and one of the club's members.

The club was discussing Mohsin Hamid's novel, Exit West. On the second Tuesday of every month, it meets at The Mode to drink cocktails inspired by that month's selection and hash over the book. There are appetizers involved, and at the end of the evening, members pay $25 for a ticket to the next month's event, which includes a copy of the book and two craft cocktails.

Exit West made it onto The New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books list in 2017. The story of two lovers fleeing a war-torn city somewhere in the Middle East, it dips its toes into magical realism, refugee politics and reactions to displaced people in places like Greece, England and the United States. It checks a lot of boxes and includes beautiful, simple language, lively and heartfelt discussion of timely topics, and plenty of drama.

The club appreciated those aspects, but found the book's pacing jarring and distracting. Members found the magical realism element—doorways that allow people to pass instantly through countries and across continents—unwieldy. When asked by Books and Booze club organizer Paige Thomas who they would recommend Exit West to, several of them said it would be good reading for critics of a generous immigration and refugee policy.

It's always a little nerve-wracking, Thomas said afterward, when the group doesn't particularly like a book, but she added that merely liking a given book isn't the point of the club.

"I really feel the pressure. These people trust me; I hope this is a conversation," she said. "I'm thrilled that we're having a conversation, and I'm always enthusiastic about the 'whys.'"

Books have been a major part of Thomas' life since, well, forever, and she's living the dream holding down jobs as a bookseller for Rediscovered Books and a library assistant at the Boise Public Library's Collister branch. She brings years of experience with books to what she called a "safe conversation about a book where, I hope, the curation is appreciated."

click to enlarge HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry

Purchasing a book isn't required to participate—there are plenty of copies of most of the selections at the library, Thomas said—and neither is imbibing, but drinking is in the club's name, and before the conversation on Exit West began, most of the participants had one of two themed cocktails in front of them. By far the most popular was Red Light Lover, a wine-red concoction made principally from mezcal and sloe gin. The other cocktail was the fragrant The Lives We Left Behind, made with black coffee and cherry bitters.

For the book club's first read, Emily Ruskovich's novel Idaho, Mode Manager/Bartender Sara Behunin, who's also a member of Books and Booze, foraged for cocktail ingredients in the woods in keeping with the book's North Idaho setting. Exit West posed a different challenge: Its characters are Muslims, and don't drink alcohol. Behunin said she took a pencil to her copy of the book, underlining passages depicting colors, the things characters ate, any kind of sensual detail that could inspire her behind the bar. Red Light Lover and The Lives We Left Behind had low alcohol by volume, at least compared to other cocktails, and strong fruit notes. Coffee has an extensive history in the Middle East, and sloe gin was a bit of wordplay on Behunin's part, a nod to the long decay of a key relationship in the book.

"Their relationship kind of slowed, which was why I added the sloe gin," she said.

On the docket for October is Roald Dahl's collection of short stories, Skin. Dahl is famous for his children's books, which are marked by their lavishly realized fantasies and dark themes. A bookseller at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles picked Skin out for Thomas, who said she "fell head over heels" and "figured [Skin] would be good in October to have something a little creepy." Behunin said she was sold.

"I'm always looking forward to the next book," she said. "This next one seems like something I would pick out for myself."

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