Category Archives: Book Reviews

Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler

When I mentioned to a friend Reid Mitenbuler’s  Bourbon Empire is my favorite history of bourbon, I got a raised eyebrow in response. You’ve read more than one?

Well, there’s King’s County Distillery Guide to Moonshining, which is a nice guide to production processes and the contemporary landscape of the American spirits business, but doesn’t have the narrative flow that I wanted it to. Max Watman’s Chasing the White Dog is thrilling and does a great job with illegal alcohol from the Whiskey Rebellion on through the present day, but doesn’t talk all that much about the stuff that we actually drink. And of course there are David Wondrich’s books Imbibe and Punch,  which are excellent general histories of drinking culture.

Last year brought us a candidate in the form of Dane Hucklebridge’s Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit. It’s informative enough, but the writing style is somewhat annoying and the perspective too boosterish to really provide objective value.

If you want to know your American whiskey history, Mitenbuler’s book is the one to read. Anyone else would have begin the story with the Whiskey Rebellion, but he goes to the 20th century. Yes, he starts with the 1964 lobbying triumph in which Congress was persuaded to pass a law defining bourbon as distinctly American. Why does this matter? Well, it kept foreign manufacturers from elbowing their way into the category, undercutting prices. (Then he goes back to the Whiskey Rebellion. You can’t skip it entirely).

Later on, he explains that the wide availability of 12-year-old bourbon resulted from a combination of poor demand forecasting, excellent lobbying, and tax-deferment policies which allowed distillers to age their stocks longer before having to pay taxes on them. It is a testament to Mitenbuler’s talent that he can explain industrial tax policy in a way that makes it seem like a fascinating tale of liquor-soaked intrigue.

What Mitenbuler does that’s particularly good here is root his history in the conflict between Thomas Jefferson’s and Alexander Hamilton’s conceptions of the American economy – should it be centered on yeoman farmers and small producers, or an industrial powerhouse with capital and leverage? In other words, he has written a history of bourbon which gives the reader a window into the overall development of American industry and society. It’s as good an explanation as I’ve ever seen for the fact that liquor and many other American industries are dominated by a handful of large producers, all marketing themselves as small-time humble craftsmen with homespun wisdom.

End of the Year Post

Sorry for the silence around here. I started a new job in November—I’m now a Field Sales Manger for Penguin Random House, selling Penguin books to the independents here in New England. I’ve been busy setting up a home office, getting to know my accounts, and reading Summer 2015 books.

While adding a few books to my Reading List, I noticed that I’m almost at 100 books for 2014. I’m not pressuring myself to hit 100, but sere’s hoping I do it. I’m about to get on a 6 hours flight to San Francisco, so I’m sure I can get at least 1-2 read. It was interesting going my reading list. There were definitely a lot of books that I forgot that I had read and clearly didn’t stick with me. But then there were the ones that did. Here, in no particular order, are my favorite books of 2014.

  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
  • Another Great Day by Geoff Dyer
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • Nobody is Every Missing by Catherine Lacey
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
  • Neverhome by Laird Hunt
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
  • All 3 of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante

One of my resolutions for 2015 is to write more here. I’m hoping to review some books, post about cooking projects, and perhaps write some observations about the life of a sales rep. I’m pretty sure I make the same resolution every year, but now that I’m working from home, with no boss looking over my shoulder, I can post as I please! And it’s work-related, so there.

Happy holidays folks. See you in the new year.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

If you’ve read World Made By Hand, you get the feeling that James Howard Kunstler is smugly waiting for the apocalypse in his bunker just so he can say “I told you so.” Of course, this is also true in almost any other end-of-the-world fantasy, from Dawn of the Dead and its warning of rampant consumerism to Justin Cronin’s The Passage and its parable of military experiments with vampires.

In Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel manages to avoid that trap entirely. Her novel is divided between post- and pre-apocalypse scenes, each populated by fully realized characters shot through with wistful desires for what it cannot have. A paparazzo wishes for more meaningful work. A successful actor realizes he has been horrible to all three of his wives, and it has in fact been his fault. A woman struggles to remember if both light and coldness came from refrigerators in the world before. A survivor picks through an abandoned library in search of celebrity gossip magazines and Justin Cronin novels.

In Mandel’s world, a particularly virulent flu comes from nowhere to wipe out most of humanity. The survivors cobble together what they can – a museum in a former airport. A newspaper published monthly and disseminated by horse-drawn cart. A traveling orchestra and theater troupe. A cult.

And the villans, if villains there be in this tale, are those who seek to put a moral on the disaster. Who leads the violent cult? A man whose mama always told him “things happen for a reason.”

No they don’t. Nature doesn’t care about you. Only humans care.

Mandel has a masterful novel here. Not just in its narrative structure, or in its language – although it is beautifully built and beautifully told. But it is also a masterpiece in the way it illuminates the flaws of the current world and the folly of our wishing for apocalypse and the simplification it might bring.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

I don’t remember when I first read William Gibson’s landmark Neuromancer, but it would have been the early 1990s, and I was entranced. That book defined, a decade before “internet” was a household word, the possibilities and dangers of an online or virtual life at least as compelling as the present flesh-and-blood one.

With The PeripheralGibson returns to the theme of operating a virtual body remotely, and the metaphysics of life being a little too close to gaming.

Flynne is a young woman scraping together a living in a dying town whose main industry is illicit drug manufacture. Sometimes she works as a supporting character in rich people’s video games. Paid to fly a security drone around a virtual London, she witnesses a murder. It looks real. It may, in fact, be real.

The linkage between the world Flynne lives in and the world where the murder occurs blurs the line between who’s a real person and who is merely an AI or a character in a game. What happens when a disabled former Marine uses a neurological interface device to operate a prosthetic body in another location, leaving his legless original body in a back room in a warehouse? What if the warehouse is in another universe? What if the software that runs that universe isn’t 100% secure?

What is life, after all, but a completely realistic, totally immersive, massively multiplayer game with very real stakes?  And what happens if some of the players are cheating to get ahead – manipulating the fabric of the universe as though the world were merely another virtual reality server?

Rings by Jasmine Dreame Wagner

Jasmine Dreame Wagner uses abstraction, typography, and occasional injections of subtle humor to illuminate the junctions of landscape, humanity, and industry in Rings, her first full length book of poems.

There’s a recurring motif here of unclosed parentheses. Implying that there’s more. What is the statement of a poem beginning  with “(” and ending without punctuation? That there is an open ended silence? That the poem goes on without the reader and without the poet and without the book?

That even when we move on to the next piece, the prior one is still there, overlaying this one, overlaying the one beyond it, overlaying the landscape it describes, a landscape of layers of geology, settlement, industry, collapse, redevelopment, gentrification…?

“Ruin is a cultured pearl” she says. In the rust, the weeds, the buried rivers and abandoned mills and rebuilt stadiums and casinos she describes, Wagner finds  the way humans have turned life into art, and the sometimes funny ways that art and life mix the profound and the completely superficial:

(It turns out, it was advertising. There was no higher calling.

It turns out, some things speak truth inaccurately, like a light wash over a jpeg of my dinner on Instagram.

Wagner scatters aphoristic clarity in with lines you have to read four or five times, parse and re-parse, to realize that they aren’t meant to have one meaning, that some things (some poems, some places, some people) are puzzles that don’t always have solutions. It can be confusing, at points. But reading and rereading this book, I am certain I am in the presence of real talent.


Atwood Reminds Me

Stone MattressFor some reason I think that I don’t like reading short stories. Perhaps it’s the curse of being a fast reader, but I need to remind myself that I DO like short stories. There’s no better book to remind me of this than Margaret Atwood’s recent collection, Stone Mattress: Nine Stories, out last month.

Atwood, much like Alice Munro, packs a great deal, sometimes whole lifetimes, into 20-25 pages. I particularly liked that several of the stories feature overlapping characters. In “Alphinland,” a recently widowed author of a bestselling fantasy series battles an ice storm with the help of her dead husband’s voice. The following story, “Revenant”, features an early ex-lover of the widowed author, a man who went on to become a well-known literary type. Featured in his dottering years, there’s not much left to respect as he reminisces on his early years.

Overall I enjoyed each and every story. Atwood’s inventiveness and keen eye for nuances of human behavior have shown how hollow my idea that short stories are somehow less enjoyable than a longer novel. Atwood’s stories show me over and over to never underestimate what can happen in such a short amount of pages. Perhaps it’s time to give flash fiction a try.

Mr Bookdwarf Reviews: Who is the great novelist you’re missing?

A few weeks ago my parents asked us for reading recommendations. Specifically, they said, “so, who’s the greatest living English-language novelist I haven’t heard of?”

Because that’s the kind of question my parents ask. It’s not an easy one to answer, though.

Meanwhile, my mother loaned me a copy of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. She said she loved it, but I gave up less than halfway through. The constant asides and on-the-fly reinterpretations reminded me of David Foster Wallace, and not in a good way. The novelist and the narrator both seem to have an inability to simply be or mean something, replaced by obsession with the performance of being or meaning. My mother admits that she’s got a soft spot for “narcissistic young men who are enchanted with words,” which explains why she liked that book, and is probably also how she put up with having me for a teenaged son. But since I didn’t give birth to Ben Lerner’s protagonist, I don’t feel obligated to love him.

In other words, I don’t think Ben Lerner is the great novelist you’ve been missing.

I think it’s Marlon James. I haven’t read The Book of Night Women yet, but based on John Crow’s Devil and the new A Brief History of Seven Killings, he’s a genius we’ll be coming back to for decades.

Seven Killings spans thirty or so years in the history of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora, an attempted assassination of Bob Marley,  political parties funding criminal street gangs, CIA involvement in foreign politics, the rise and fall of rock journalism, and the crack epidemic. Most of the characters are fictional, but a lot of the events happened, more or less &endash; the epigraph of the book is the Kingston saying If it don’t go so, it go near so.

These novels are not perfect little gems. They sprawl. They have more characters and more settings than are strictly necessary. You may need to consult your Urban Dictionary to make sure you know the difference between a batty man and a samfi man. But the style alone is worth the ride: the rapid code-switching as different people talk in different ways to each other, to themselves, and to strangers, is masterful. And beyond the style, James seems to have created an entirely believable window into the minds of dozens of people.

James does include the occasional ghost or inexplicable happening, and that will probably draw comparisons to García Márquez, because tropical climate and the spirit world always do. It’s not an unfair comparison, because there’s a hallucinatory sort of quality to some of these scenes, but his work isn’t just some dreadlocked version of magical realism.  It’s an entirely different animal, and it’s amazing.

A Death In Summer by Benjamin Black

It seems almost unfair, sometimes, how talented John Banville is. He’s a truly excellent novelist under his own name, and then he also writes crime novels as Benjamin Black. And they’re not lazy crime novels, something tossed off just for fun. They stand on their own as thoughtful explorations of justice, love, duty, and honor.

In A Death in Summer, protagonist Dr. Quirke takes on one of the most heinous crimes of 20th century Ireland. Not the titular death in summer, of course. That’s just a murder, but it’s a lead-in to the greater crimes and sufferings of postwar Dublin, and those of the war and before it as well.

Banville barely mentions the nature of this greater crime over the course of the novel. It’s implied, lurking in the shadows. But we all know what happened. And Dr. Quirke knows it, because he experienced it as a child himself. But even experiencing it doesn’t help him identify it when it’s happening to someone else.

The novel as a whole is really an indictment of the Church, the government, the police, the families, of everyone, of all of Irish society. It’s infuriating. And it makes you wonder how it could possibly have happened. How any of it could have been hushed up for so long. But in the same way that Banville manages to write a novel about child abuse without actually saying “child abuse” at any point, we know. We’ve experienced it ourselves.

Just like Quirke’s childhood didn’t open his eyes to what was happening to other children, knowing it happened in Ireland in the 1940s doesn’t make it any easier to identify it in your own backyard.

The Hairpin had a post this past week about how stories—true stories, in this case—can act as passwords, unlocking other secrets, one after another. And after reading that post, and reading A Death in Summer, I understood the way these things remain hidden even more.

And it reminded me of something. When was ten or so, I was at a summer day camp with a boy nobody liked. I don’t remember his name, but he was awkward even by the standards of gawky tweens, and was prone to making up stories. He said had a girlfriend who lived in Canada, his dad drove a Ferrari, he was a black belt in a secret martial art he was sworn never to demonstrate, that kind of thing. He also claimed a degree of sexual experience that was improbable for a child his age. None of us believed a word of it.

Guess what part of his story I believe now?

Lessons in Book Reading

Don’t attempt to read Marlon James’s astounding new novel A Brief History of Seven Killings in short bursts on the train to and from work each day. You won’t be able to absorb all the intricacies of the novel and you’ll find yourself at your desk wishing you were anywhere but here as long as you here involves reading the book.

Don’t start looking up information about Jamaica as you will find yourself climbing out of an internet hole hours later especially after looking at these amazing images of rude boys. What’s a rude boy? What does all this have to do with Bob Marley? Get ready to fall.

Definitely don’t look up words like ‘batty boy’ or ‘rass cloth’, not because they’re offensive, but again see above.

Don’t forget to mark the page listing the cast of characters at the beginning. You’ll need to refer to this constantly.

Don’t let the size or heft of the book scare you off. It was worth straining my wrists and arms trying to read with one arm on the train.

Do realize that Marlon James might be one of the most gifted writers out there. Proceed to your nearest bookstore to buy his previous two books The Book of Night Women and John Crow’s Devil and read them immediately.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Not for the faint of heart, Caitlin Doughty’s memoir of her road to becoming a mortician, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, features dead bodies–or decedents as we learn they’re properly called–on almost every page. As Doughty reveals, she came to think about death at an early age, witnessing a young girl fall to her death at a mall. The sound of the girl landing still haunts her.

The book opens as she starts her new job as a crematory operator at a family-owned mortuary, something she moved to San Francisco specifically to do. She learns the tricks of the trade from how to properly shave a dead body to how to make sure the body gets turned in the crematory machine so that the lower half of the body has its chance to burn. The chest, you see, takes the longest to burn as it’s the thickest part of the body. We meet Mike, her boss; Chris, the driver who picks up the bodies; and Bruce, the part-time mortician. It takes a certain kind of person, it seems, to work in the death industry. Doughty manages to not reduce them to caricatures. In fact, in her notes on sources, she mentions that she had the support of her coworkers and didn’t even have to change their names.

Doughty studied medieval history in college, specifically how that era approached death. This proves rich territory and each chapter has some sort of historical nugget that helps move along her point. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes succeeds precisely because she blends the blunt realities of what a body smells like after spending two days in the river with a thoughtful analysis of the culture of death, mixing in historical mores with the current. Doughty questions a  great deal about the culture of death beginning with the modern funeral process. For too long, she says, the funeral industry has imbued us with the idea that we must embalm the dead, i.e. make them look like the living. There’s a separation from death in our culture that didn’t exist even a hundred years ago  when one might die at home, be washed by a family member, and be buried in a simple box.

Some people will find this book and its subject matter appalling and the chapter titled ‘Dead Babies’ will be hard going for anyone. But Dought raises excellent points about what has become of our death culture. With the largest segment of population over 85 ever, we’re going to have to face some difficult questions. Luckily for us, Doughty and others like her, have already begun the discussion. One caveat, maybe don’t eat dinner while reading.