First Monday Book Day: Dram-atic Adventures

Programming Note: This is a Very Special Episode of First Monday, as it features contributions from both bS and Daneekas Ghost. Enjoy!

Book bS
Man, these are tough times around the Nation. Tough times require tough action. Fortunately, I chose a book this month that fits the times -- a book about whiskey.

I picked up a hardback copy of Kate Hopkins' 2009 book, 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist's Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink for a song at my local used book store recently.

What is whiskey, you ask? Why, whiskey is mediocre beer made over into nobility.

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
--Noah S. Sweat, Jr., 1952

I'd dare say that we need a song in our hearts right about now.

Kate Hopkins is the author of the food blog Accidental Hedonist. Like last month's reviewed book at the old basement (Stefan Fatsis' Wild and Outside), this was her first book. Her most recent blog post directly addresses some of the "lessons learned" from her experience writing 99 Drams:

From a publishing point of view, not everyone needs to be a Dave Eggers or John Updike. For many outlets, the ability to sell books is far more important that finding a writer who has command of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. This is an unfortunate, yet very definitive aspect of the publishing world. Self-proclaimed expert writers from around the world can voice their displeasure at this, but it is not going to change this fact.

But from my perspective, I have to improve my writing technique. I have to leverage what I do well (which is "Voice", and research skills) against what I feel needs improvement (language structure, grammar), while at the same maintaining the schedule I need to hit that deadline. In the end, I want to be a better writer, but I also want to meet my professional obligations. Somewhere between those two points is where the reality of "professional development" sits. And if I want to write book three, book seven, and book twenty, it is in my interest to get better.

All this is a long-winded way for me to introduce my reactions to the book.

I won't argue with her self-criticism. This book is not a paragon of great writing, stylistically. But it is fun and fact-filled. The capsule whiskey reviews alone make it worth the price of admission.

Hopkins also demonstrates a competent hand at research. I learned a lot about whiskey making from this book.

Unfortunately, she also felt compelled to write a travel book, complete with a cutesy side-story of her interplay with her traveling companion. I could have done without about 75 percent of that sideline. It definitely leaned toward "written in my mom's basement" quality prose. She is on much firmer ground when she focuses on the whiskey.

Part I of the book focuses on Ireland and Scotland; Part II on North America. My favorite chapter involved an abortive attempt to visit Islay, a tour of Oban, then a trip to Glasgow and a glorious tour of the lowland distillery, Auchentoshan, which holds a special place in my heart, as it produces one of the first single-malt Scotch whiskies that I'd ever explored.

This book isn't great reading, but neither is it bad. It's entertaining and informative enough to be worth your while if you are interested in whiskey and would enjoy learning more about brands, styles and whiskey history.

Daneekas Digest
The Hugo nominees were announced this week, recognizing some of the year’s best science fiction. Here’s a list with links to the material that’s freely available. I have already read a couple of the nominated books (those by Chiang and Willis - in both cases I highly recommend their earlier work, the nominated books were good, but not outstanding), but every year I try to hunt down the short story nominees and give them a look.

This year, there were four nominees (all are linked below).

"Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn
This is my favorite of the four. I really enjoyed this one, in part because of the overall tone of the whole piece was just a bit different from what I think of as the standard science fiction style (it almost feels like a fantasy story instead).

"For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal
This one was pretty straightforward I thought. It tells a pretty good story, but nothing made me sit up and say “wow” like a couple of the other nominees.

"Ponies" by Kij Johnson
Almost too short to really get into the world it portrays, it still left me feeling not quite right (which is the goal of the writer, I think). The shortness makes it feel a bit heavy-handed, but overall a pretty good story.

"The Things" by Peter Watts
Very much liked this one, despite the fact that I haven’t seen the source material (John Carpenter’s The Thing). The last line caused quite a bit of discussion, but I think it really fits the entire story and delivers a huge punch.

I didn’t want to give away too many plot points, so I kept my thoughts brief, but if people have read them and want to discuss them more, I would love to offer my two cents below.

What are you reading?

30 thoughts on “First Monday Book Day: Dram-atic Adventures”

  1. I've been reading a lot more books in 2011. It's been a great reacquaintance with my love of the written word. If anyone is on Good Reads, I'm here.

    Anyway, I'm 2/3's through Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I can't really say enough great things about it, being it's considered the greatest book by this Nobel Prize winner. I've never read a Morrison before (Gloria Naylor doesn't count, right? :), but I'm sure to get to the other two of her books on the shelf soon.

    One point ... the term of endearment, Milkman, is used a fair bit around these parts. Entirely different meaning for me now that I've read this book. 🙂

  2. I was really excited to share this space with Daneekas Ghost this month. Thanks, dude, for pointing me toward that free reading from the Hugo folks.

    1. Ain't no thing.

      I wish I spent more time reading short stories. Every year when these nominations come out, I get inspired to check out some collections, but inevitably I forget to follow up on them until the next batch comes out.

      1. I pick up lots of sci-fi year's-best-type anthologies at used bookstores and library sales. Even if I only like a couple of the stories, I get to check out a bunch of different authors that I might not otherwise run into.

    1. The Things has that killer last line that makes a story memorable (in a vastly different emotional direction from the famous closer to The Nine Billion Names of God) but it's essentially fanfic, which can be okay, but loses points for me on the originality front.

      1. Nine Billion is one of Clarke's best. And that's saying something.

        to mention a few others of his worth checking out:

        The City and the Stars
        Childhood's End
        The Fountains of Paradise
        Imperial Earth

        Tales From the White Hart
        The Nine Billion Names of God

        1. Rendezvous with Rama, dude. And Morgan Freeman still wants to see a movie made, although it's not a novel that deserves to be turned into an action flic.

          1. I skipped over the really obvious ones -- Rama, and Space Odyssey. The former is awesome. The latter...was a good short story.

  3. I will be finishing my journal article this week, so hopefully I'll be able to get back to reading fun stuff soon.

  4. Based on citizenry recommendations, I picked up American Godslast Friday and was sucked in immediately. Haven't read any fantasy/sci-fi in years but I could not put this thing down. Unfortunately, I had a duathalon on Saturday, the MS walk with Will & Sheenie's on Sunday and today was the first day of more Gaiman until the 13th at the earliest.

    Also took in the Robert Parker novel Appaloosa over the past few weeks. I hadn't heard of Parker before - hadn't read any of his crime/mystery novels, but I love westerns and am always interested when a "modern" author tackles a "Mr. L'Amour" style project. I really enjoyed this one. The main characters were well written and compellingly human. The storyline was your usual "law-man cleans up the town", but the story around that theme was pretty unexpected and the ending was pitch perfect.

    1. If you're liking Gaiman, the story "A Study in Emerald" I linked to above is by him. That's the only work of his I've read, so I can't make any comparisions, but I liked it plenty.

  5. I'm reading Machine of Death, a collection of short stories about people who know how they'll die. Mag made me aware of this compilation, which started as a simple premise online followed by a call for submissions. Over 700 were written, and about thirty were published.

    Otherwise, I'm just reading a bunch of writing and screenwriting books, which is the usual.

  6. I just started reading It Feels So Good When I Stop, by Joe Pernice. A bit heavy on the indie rock allusions, but otherwise a decent read so far. I'm going to have to check out his music now, I guess.

  7. I didn't participate last month so consider this a double dose:

    A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan -- Recently awarded the Pulitzer, and with rightfully so. A series of loosely connected short stories that deals with youth and aging, sin and redemption, as well as sex, drugs and roll. Did not want it to end. My highest recommendation.

    Night of the Gun David Carr -- Former Twin Cities Reader editor takes a reporter's approach in an attempt to find out what really happened during his decade plus of being a drunken drug addict in Minneapolis. Harrowing stuff, sometimes bitingly funny, though perhaps a bit repetitious, as recollections of an addict tend to get monotonous. Still, very well written, and in my humble opinion a much better read than James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Full disclosure: I personally know/knew a number of the characters in the memoir, drank in the same bars he describes and suffered one or two flashbacks during the read. I also knew David, though not as a friend. Frankly, his recklessness frightened me, and I was pretty damn reckless at the time, my own self. As such, that he survived (and thrived--he is currently staff writer at the NYT) is rather amazing.

    Shop Girl
    Steve Martin -- Yes, that Steve Martin. Breezy little novella about a twenty-something counter worker at Neiman's who is wooed by a rich and mysterious businessman twice her age. Silly, at times, but tinged with melancholy. An enjoyable read, but hardly what one might consider deep.

    I also read three more Elmore Leonard books--all of them film adaptations which I had seen: Get Shorty, Be Cool, and Rum Punch (which was the basis for Jackie Brown.) If you are into well-written, off-beat crime fiction, few do it better than Leonard.

    Presently 70 pages into David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. So far it concerns the travels and travails of a Dutch East Indie clerk in 18th century Japan. While the initial going was somewhat slow--in part to the vernacular of the times, it is starting to grab me. Mitchell might be my favorite contemporary writer, and his previous four books have all been stellar: Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, and the autobiographical Black Swan Green. Citizens would be wise to seek them out.

    1. I should probably try to read more of Elmore Leonard's novels, I tend to like the movies based on them. Jackie Brown is easily my favorite Tarantino movie.

    2. to clarify (I think), Get Shorty (another excellent selection) was a novel that was later turned into a movie, not (as kinda-sorta implied) a film script that was novelized. I dunno about the sequel Be Cool.

  8. I just finished The Dragon Reborn. Nice bit of character development of Mat and I always enjoy stories about multiple groups of characters converging to one climactic spot.

    Up next is The Shadow Rising.

  9. "The Things" by Peter Watts

    gets my vote for tops, even as a not-original piece.

    I read Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., as part of a greatest science fiction anthology a while back. I was surprised that it was the basis of The Thing, and how closely Carpenter stuck to the entire novella when he filmed it. This short story is great, both as the flip side of that story, and for that last line.

    Amaryliss and For Want of a Nail were pretty good, but Ponies didn't do a lot for me. What I thought was the climax was about five paragraphs before the ending, which doesn't fit my idea of a good short story.

    1. The Thing is way up there on my horror movie list, so I should probably give the story a read to see what this last line is all about.

        1. Either seeing the movie or reading the original story would definitely add to this story. The original reads more like a horror mystery that happens to have an alien, while this story has much more modern sci-fi feel to it. The difference is kind of jarring in retrospect, but it works for me since they are from completely different points of view.

    2. That was one of the reading requirements for my Science Fiction in Film and Novel class in college (and the original The Thing was one of the films; Carpenter's wasn't even a glimmer in his eye yet) -- excellent short story.

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