Happy Trails: The Tour de Beasts Comes to a Very Successful End

Sculpture of a rocket ship on San Francisco's Embarcadero

Sculpture of a rocket ship, on San Francisco's Embarcadero

The Tour de Beasts has come to an end, more or less, and I leave the great road to authors whose books are just now coming out. It’s been a pleasure meeting readers face to face, and getting a chance to shake hands and sign books. This one, In the Garden of Beasts, hit the top of The New York Times hardcover bestseller list in its third week of publication, and now lingers in the number 2 slot and at or near the tops of major lists around the country. I could not be happier. Every book is like a child. You send it out into the world and want only nice things to happen to it. So far, no bullies!

Book tours are strange things, a combination of great fun and great drudgery, punctuated with lovely moments and peculiar encounters. One nice thing is that at various points along the way you run into old friends, who suddenly turn up in the audience or in a signing line. This is always a bit of surprise, and can be quite jarring. You see that face, you know that face, but who the hell is it?

High points:

–Portland, Ore. I was privileged to be a guest on Portland’s “Live Wire! Radio,” a charmingly homespun version of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. The theater was packed—not because of me, that’s for sure, but rather because the show is just plain fun, full of energy and good humor.

Chaotic image of action on stage during Live Wire! Radio show in Portland, Ore.

Live Wire! Radio, Portland

–Chicago, Ill. I always have a grand time in Chicago. I stayed at the Hotel Palomar, and loved it—a new hotel, with a cordial staff, well-appointed rooms, and a good bar. One night I went out for steaks with a friend to Gene & Georgetti, at 500 N. Franklin in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, under the elevated tracks, where I had a filet the size of a cannonball, but a whole lot more tender. The place is classic Chicago. Very simple decor. Okay, no decor. But lots of ambience, like from the set of The Godfather. It’d be an honor to be whacked here, if in fact that were one’s fate.

Image of Chicago, taken from a bridge over the Chicago River

Ah, Chicago!

Another Chicago treat: The Bongo Room, in Chicago’s South Loop, where Roosevelt meets Wabash. It’s quite possibly the best breakfast place in the world, though I suppose that could be a bit of an exaggeration. Unknown to touristas, the place is packed with Chicagoans. I only learned about it because one of my daughters goes to the University of Chicago, and thus knows everything. We make it a stop whenever I visit, along with a restaurant near the Art Institute called Russian Tea Time, on Adams. Of course I had to try one of the restaurant’s many flavored-vodka flights, my favorite example being horseradish-infused vodka. I had the pleasure of dining here with my daughter and two of her friends. It is always nice to be in a Russian restaurant with three beautiful young women. There was something very Dr. Zhivago-esque about it, I think. All that was missing was a sleigh and some snow.

–Iowa City, Iowa. I gave a talk at the new public library here, sponsored by the famous Prairie Lights bookstore, and stayed at an excellent hotel next door, the Hotel Vetro. My room was one of the most interesting of all the two dozen hotel rooms I occupied during my tour—polished concrete floors covered with handsome rugs of what seemed to be jute, or maybe sisal; edgily modern but comfortable furnishings; soothing colors; overall, a kind of cool Scandinavian feel, like something from a Henning Mankell novel. Utterly unexpected, actually.

Gorilla pounding its chest, in display at Museum of Natural History, in New York City

Everybody's a critic (gorilla at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan)

–New York, N.Y. Whenever I go to New York it always takes me a couple of hours to catch up to the city’s pace, but once I’m caught up, I love it. I was one of several authors who gave brief talks during a Book Expo breakfast, and in the green room just before it, I had the honor of meeting Roger Ebert and his wife, who shared the podium to talk about his new memoir. As always, I had dinner with my friend and agent, David Black, who really knows how to pick places to dine. This time we went to Maialino, one of famed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s establishments, and got treated like royalty. It’s in the Gramercy Park Hotel, and is Meyer’s take on a Roman trattoria. Nick Anderer, Maialino’s chef, asked whether we wanted to order off the menu, or if we’d like him to cook for us. Twist our arms! What a treat—dish after dish, each a surprise, each wonderful. Two tables over we spotted Tom Hanks, and—bless New Yorkers—no one got up to bug him for his autograph or tried to sneak an iPhone photo. Earlier in the evening, Lady Gaga had dined here as well. Whether she was wearing her meat dress or not is unclear, and I’m almost certain that she arrived in a car rather than an egg. By the way: For great drinks, in great glasses, in a very sleek Manhattan milieu, try the first-floor bar of the hotel Setai. Very posh.

–San Francisco, Calif. I’ve lived in San Francisco twice in the last several decades, and each time I return I fall in love with the city all over again. Even now, though overrun with webnocrats, there’s still room for people and places that you tend not to encounter in other cities. Case in point, my media escort David Golia, who when he’s not squiring authors around town plays bass in a polka band with his wife, “Big Lou,” who plays accordion. I closed the tour with a couple of drinks with a friend at a bar I’d never been to before, the Persian Aub Zam Zam Club, on Haight Street. The drinks are great, but the thing that’ll make me keep coming back is the mural behind the bar.

Image of an elaborate mural, vaguely medieval, over the backbar in a Haight Street bar called Persian Aub Zam Zam

The Persian Aub Zam Zam, on Haight Street in San Francisco

In Corte Madera, 45 minutes north of the city, I gave a talk at Book Passage, where I got a major surprise. The daughter of the Dodds’ landlord in Berlin came to my talk along with her husband, son, and assorted family members. Ruth showed me a couple of photographs of herself and her brother, Hans, when they were children in Berlin in the 1930s, one of those lovely little moments where present touches past and books come alive in unexpected ways.

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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