New Bar Room Reads


Although I haven’t added to my Recommended Reading section in some time – I’ve been chewing through several non-drinking-related books this spring and summer* – a few new works on boozing may soon change that fact.

Over the last week or so, I’ve learned of three new books (two just published) that I’d like to add to the informally categorized “Food and Drink” section of my library.

According to Max Watman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, The Audacity of Hops, by Tom Acitelli, is an “exhaustive chronicle of the American beer revolution” beginning with Anchor Steam Beer’s creation during the summer of 1965. The book tells the grand story of American micro-brewing: “all of the major players are here—Sierra Nevada, Geary, Bell’s—and many readers will flip through in search of their favorite brews or their favorite anecdotes.”  Just as importantly, the book traces how Americans decided they wanted better beer, telling “the story of the maturation and increased sophistication of the American palate.”

Unfortunately maturation and sophistication can sometimes lead to excess. And the association between drinking and literature (i.e., sophistication) might not as be as rosy as we often think; so surmises Ian Crouch in a New Yorker blog entry discussing The Lost Weekend, by Charles Jackson. There are no jokes or clever comments to be made of alcoholism, and Crouch disconnects the allure of reading while drinking by mistakenly choosing to read Jackson’s novel over a pint.

“On this weekend, Don [Jackson’s protagonist] suffers cruel hangovers, tremors, hallucinations, and a terrible, maiming fall down the stairs that leaves him in the alcoholic ward for the night…As his body falls apart, the novel tightens into a frightening psychological claustrophobia, and the reader is faced with all the little lies that Don tells himself and all the disappointments that no amount of alcohol can blot out.”

Counterbalancing Jackson’s fictionalized account of his own tragic experience with the bottle is Dwight Garner’s New York Times review of The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey, by Lawrence Osborne. Tippling on multiple continents is Osborne’s clever method of considering “East and West, this supposed clash of civilizations…to think of them as ‘Wet and Dry, Alcoholic and Prohibited.'”

Based on Garner’s few quotations, Osborne’s British wit shines while conversing with locals over tea, chatting with Lebanese warlords who moonlight as wine makers, or mocking “certain lifestyle editors” (of which Garner appears to take gleeful delight in).

Yet humanity is the key to understanding both our non-drinking fellow man as well as those who struggle to drink within their limits. “Mr. Osborne is aware that it is possible to take drinking too far, and he has sympathy for those who have become its victims. He is grateful not to be among them, to mostly be able to regulate his desires…as a real human being indeed – a complicated man mixing complicated feelings into fizzy, adult, intoxicating prose.”


* For the curious, or those with an interest in history, I’ve recently enjoyed the following books:

K Blows Top, by Peter Carlson – A comedic look at Sergei Krushchev’s 1959 tour across the U.S.

The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes – A deep look into the little-known mid-19th Century Eurasian conflict.

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti – An overview of several notable counterterrorism operations of the past decade.

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vassily Grossman – A short chronicle of the Soviet author’s few months in Central Asia.

Published in: on July 25, 2013 at 11:20 pm  Comments Off on New Bar Room Reads  
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Barbara Holland’s Wasn’t the Grass Greener?

Author Barbara Holland’s books are frequently referenced here at The Hip Flask. Most importantly, her words were the inspiration for this blog’s inception, which builds in no small part on her philosophy on the importance of drinking and lamenting. Today, I recommend another book by Holland titled, Wasn’t the Grass Greener? Thirty-Three Reasons Why Life Isn’t as Good as It Used to Be.

This book (the latest entry to my Recommended Reading page) takes the form of a list: 33 people, activities, places, and home furnishings that represent a by-gone and sorely missed period of American history. Among these, and most importantly, are those items and ideas concerning drink, which thanks to Ms. Holland’s love of the bottle, are plentiful.

Most notably her book addresses the absence of taverns and liquor cabinets, which are each increasingly difficult to locate. Holland’s initial thoughts on taverns – in her sharp-witted prose – begin with Andy Capp:

“In Andy’s world there are only three scene changes—his pub, his living room, and the street in between. Sometimes he tries to entice a lass at the bar. Sometimes he brings his wife, to swap acid comments with the bartender. Sometime she awaits him at home, in curlers, with a rolling pin. The story line has a mythic simplicity, and endlessly repeated escapes to conviviality and returns to domesticity.”

Andy’s British attitude on booze, passing only between home and tavern, encapsulates perfectly Holland’s desire for America, the relationship a serious drinker should have with his favorite pub, tavern, or bar. And once you arrive at your favored location – if such a place still exists – Holland believes (as I’ve previously argued) that the television is largely responsible for ruining a quiet drink, alone or with friends.

“Television is noisy. It makes casual conversation an effort and confiding in bartenders too loud to be confidential. Even with the sound turned off, television is distracting. Images squirm around on the screen. A row of people at the bar, confronted by television, tend to ignore each other and stare at the set. The whole purpose of the tavern fades: why be here at all?”

If you choose or must drink at home, a well-stocked liquor cabinet is therefore necessary. Yet even this is becoming a vestige of another time, one that doesn’t center on fitness, efficiency, or productivity. A liquor cabinet was once a symbol of hospitality, where conversations began and acquaintances became friends. And it’s not only liquor cabinets that have disappeared in today’s modern houses, but pianos, desks, radiators and porches, even playing cards and other “old things” – whose sole purpose centered on relaxation, socialization, and deliberation.

Although I enjoyed Holland’s extensive reflections on all things alcohol, my favorite passage from this book was found in the chapter titled “Cities,” which provoked a chuckle when considering my family’s recent addition: “New York was where we wanted to live when we were finally grown up, and drink martinis and stay out past bedtime, not where we wanted to take the toddlers for a weekend of family values.” The God’s honest truth to be sure.


Please visit The Hip Flask’s Recommended Reading page for other books on drinking culture I’ve enjoyed.

Published in: on October 18, 2012 at 11:48 pm  Comments Off on Barbara Holland’s Wasn’t the Grass Greener?  
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Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Earlier this year, I wrote a few words about George Orwell’s novel, Down and Out in Paris and London, where I noted the prominent role booze played in the lives of the working underclass in Post-World War I-era Paris.  I turn now to discuss another book – set in Paris at about the same time – that highlights the role of drink in the lives of those at the opposite end of the social spectrum.

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s novel that first brought him to national prominence as an American fiction writer is, if nothing else, a meditation on perpetual boozing and rambunctious behavior, an ode to drunken arguments and the hurt feelings they cause.

Drinking is imbued throughout Hemingway’s novel with such ferocity and intensity that one may think the novel is a treatise on the subject.  Instead of the frequency, however, I’d like to focus more on the purpose – why the characters are perpetually drinking – especially considering the fact that while in Pamplona Jake and his cohort are nearly always drunk or in the process of becoming so.

Perhaps I focused more on “purpose” because I read this book shortly after finishing Orwell’s.  The bold contrast between the books’ characters – Orwell’s working man living hand to mouth and Hemingway’s group gluttonously misbehaving, carousing, and bickering – stood prominently in my mind.

Early in the novel, Hemingway’s protagonist, Jake Barnes, begins chatting with a Georgette, a “working lady,” while drinking at a Parisian café, shortly before meeting several friends.

“Well, what will you drink?” I asked.
“That’s not good for little girls.”
“Little girl yourself.  Dites garçon, un pernod.”
“A Pernod for me too.”
Pernod is a greenish imitation absinthe. When you add water it turns milky.  It tastes like licorice and has a good uplift, but it drops you just as far.  We sat and drank it, and the girl looked sullen.

Rather than scraping by on meager amounts of food for sustenance and drinking to dull the pain of such a Spartan existence, Jake, Brett, and Robert freely and carelessly spend on food and drink (and women).  This happens so often as to become commonplace and therefore, quite easy to miss.  A brief discussion over where to lunch quickly results in a full table: “How about Wetzel’s?  They’ve got good hor d’œuvres.”  In the restaurant we ordered hor d’œuvres and beer.  The sommelier brought the beer, tall, beaded on the outside of the steins, and cold.  There were a dozen different dishes of hor d’œuvres.

While the amount booze enjoyed by Jake and company in Paris is impressive, it’s nothing compared to the constant state of drunkenness endured while fishing outside Burguete and during the fiesta in Pamplona.  In this latter half of the story, it’s a challenge to find some activity that doesn’t center upon eating or drinking to excess.  The group, now joined by Bill and Mike, continually derides and argues with each other – occasionally coming to blows – all while imbibing endless amounts of beer and wine.  During one particular evening, Jake describes his condition following an evening early during the week of fiesta: “The country became very clear and the feeling of pressure in my head seemed to loosen.  I was very drunk and I did not want to shut my eyes because the room would go round and round.  If I kept on reading that feeling would pass.”

Jake, Brett, Richard, Bill, and Mike all seem to be out for a good time, and nothing else.  My earlier question of purpose seemed to have a simple answer: they drank for fun, because they could; nothing more, nothing less.

Interestingly, Hemingway provides some insight into the drinking philosophy of that day, perhaps tipping his own hand on his thoughts concerning the 18th Amendment’s prohibition of alcohol, in a short conversation between characters during their trip between Paris and Bayonne.

“You know how the ladies are.  If there’s a jug goes along, or a case of beer, they think it’s hell and damnation.”
“That’s the way men are,” his wife said to us.  She smoothed her comfortable lap.  “I voted against prohibition to please him, and because I like a little beer in the house, and then he talks that way.  It’s a wonder they ever find any one to marry them.”


In related news, Maria Popova – Atlantic contributor and creator of Brain Pickings –  recently wrote an excellent summary of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922, “a fascinating new volume that peels away at a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works.”


Please visit The Hip Flask’s Recommended Reading page for other books on drinking culture I’ve enjoyed.

Published in: on October 25, 2011 at 11:17 am  Comments (3)  
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Reader’s Block

Although it’s slightly off topic, I’ve recently realized that finding the time for leisure reading is becoming increasingly difficult.  After work has ended, the evening hours following dinner are typically reserved for family, and following that, a drink to inspire these thoughts.  At day’s end, picking up a book after a drink or two is usually a certain recipe for immediately dozing off on the couch.

On the occasions I find both time and energy to read a few pages, I sometimes begin a new book rather than finishing the book in hand.  My reasoning, at least in theory: a different book makes the original appear fresh again, the break creating renewed interest in the original.  Unfortunately, my plan has failed.  I’m now stuck in the middle of three books:

One about eating – An Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage

Another about drinking – How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice, by Jordan Kaye and Marshall Altier

And another about smoking – Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization, by Iain Gately

I started this last book immediately after finishing Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not while on vacation this spring in the Dominican Republic; the two were selected because of the Caribbean’s prominence in both books.  Yet I was only able to get 100-plus pages into Gately’s work before returning home to my daily routine of professional and familial responsibilities.

So now I sit, smack in the middle of three books all discussing the history and pleasures of various gastronomical endeavors and vices.  Hopefully I’ll break through the block soon and post one or two of them as Recommended Reading.  Or perhaps I should take a temporary break from reading altogether and instead focus on finding another bottle to open.