Monthly Archives: April 2018

Book Review — A Short History of Drunkenness

A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth is a humorous and informative look at alcohol and man in history and geography. Forsyth is a writer whose work concerns the meaning and etymology of English words. He is the author of best-selling books The Etymologicon, The Horologicon, and The Elements of Eloquence, as well as being known for his blog The Inky Fool.

Before man started drinking, animals found alcohol in rotting fruit. Early man may also have had a nose for alcohol too. Not so much for the buzz but for finding carbohydrates in the fruit… or maybe as encouragement to find fruit.  Beer came into existence with the coming of agriculture.  Grain was allowed to ferment in water and drunk with a straw.  It did not resemble modern beer in that it was almost a gruel.  The straw was used to get to the liquid at the bottom without having to eat or drink the clumps of grain.  In the Middle East beer became a popular drink.  In Egypt, a god died beer red so another (evil) god drank it thinking it was blood. He passed out and was done in by the good god saving mankind.

Greek and Rome brought wine to the world.  The Vikings fermented honey into mead. The British added juniper to grain alcohol to make gin.  The Aztecs fermented agave but were very strict with their drinking laws and harsh punishments. There is plenty of humor in the stories of each culture as well as information.  In American Westerns, no one ever asks the price of whiskey.  It seems strange, but it is true.  Drinking establishments were either one-bit or two-bit bars.   Two-bit bars had the floor shows.  One bit bars were the dive bars.  One bit, twelve and a half cents, bought one shot.  A quarter bought you a long shot and a short shot.  Prohibition was not as unpopular as it is made out to be. Al Capone’s gangs shooting up Chicago were not as violent as the city is today; the murder rate is almost three times higher now as it was then.  The mixed drink of today has its roots in prohibition.  Bad rye was mixed with ginger ale. Bad gin was mixed with tonic water.

A fun and enlightening read on a topic that has a history as long as man.  It helped, it hurt, it was banned, it is celebrated.  The next time you enjoy a beer, glass of wine, or your favorite liquor you can reflect on its history and its roots in the past.

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Book Review — The Terror

The Terror audiobook cover art

The Terror is the fictional story of the Franklin expedition through the Northwest Passage in 1845. HMS Terror did exist and did have some previous fame attached to it. The ship newly commissioned in 1813 was one of the bomb ships at the Ft McHenry that Francis Scott Key wrote about in the Star Spangled Banner. The bomb ships were built extra sturdy to withstand the launching of mortars. This sturdiness made the ships prime candidates for Arctic and Antarctic service being better able to withstand the pressures of the ice. HMS Terror served in the Arctic in 1839 and Antarctic service in 1840-1843. Captain Francis Crozier was given command of the Terror in 1839 and sailed with The Erebus both in the Antartic and in The Northwest Passage exploration known as the Franklin expedition after the captain of the Erebus. Both ships were seen entering Baffin Bay in August of 1845. This was the last sighting of the ships until The Erebus was discovered in 2014 and the Terror in 2016 underwater near King William Island. Here the history ends.

The story jumps around a bit at the start introducing characters and character histories.  The Captains are real as are some of the crew.  How much liberty was taken with the biographies or how many characters were simply made up is unknown to the reader.  The ships and crew are weathering their second winter trapped in the ice west of King William Island.  With Winter temperatures dropping well below -50F both physical and psychological effects play on the men.  The ships are cramped and essentially unheated.

Terror comes in many forms.  It is the isolation with little hope of rescue.  Terror is the endless winter nights and the groaning of the ice. It is in canned food.  Three years provisions were secured at a cut-rate price for the expedition.   Some canned swelled, some provisions were not properly heated/sterilized before canning.  Botulism and lead also provided threats.  Cold was always a threat.  Layers of clothing helped but made life difficult. The clothes were bulky and remained unwashed.  Some advancement in medicine were known such as carrying lemon juice to fight scurvy.  The only animals on the ice were polar bears, a threat in themselves.  Finally, as an added terror, something is killing the men.  Only glimpses of the creature are seen by the survivors.  The best description of the creature is a polar bear of unbelievable size.  This is where the novel drifts into a more supernatural thriller than historical fiction.

I did enjoy the realism of the early expedition.  The hardships were well written as well as the role of the captains.  With limited or no communications the ship’s captains were the law not only for the crew but as representatives of their nation at times creating national policy in faraway lands. Scurvy remained a dreadful disease and Simmons documents its effects extremely well. Also represented in the story are the Royal Marines.  Their role in ship security and as a land force is noted.  Although little is known about the actual happenings aboard these ships, the life aboard a British ship is documented well.

A well written and lengthy account of early arctic exploration, hubris, and terror — Part historical fiction, part thriller.

 

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Poetry Review — Best Evidence

Best Evidence: Poems by Mark S. Osaki is a collection of poetry about being Asian in America. Osaki was born in Sacramento, California. He attended the University of California, Berkeley as an Alumni Scholar and went on to do graduate work in International Relations and Security Studies.

The first section, Walking Back the Cat, contains several poems that reflect back on youth. The poem “Fish Heads” caught my attention mainly from the Saturday Night Live skit decades ago. Although not the poets intent it does seem to reflect the universal opinion of fish heads. This quickly changes to a tour of a Chinese labor camp and then the deeper “Salt”. The second section, Dying Arts, reflects on the violence in the world caused by national conflicts. “Turista” reflects on war for war’s sake, just a change of sides, much Syria today and the title is a good play on words. “Preserve,” tells of the children and their new playground that is adopted without a second thought. This is followed by “Family Reunion” the experience of an Asian-American infantryman serving in the Vietnam War.

The third section “Trade Craft” is a mix of poems and themes. The final section is the title section, Best Evidence. These last two sections do not seem to have the coherence of the previous two. The poetry is well written but the sections do not seem to be hard boundaries confining the writing. A well done but a short collection of poems seen from an Asian perspective of being an American. An interesting and enlightening collection.

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Book Review — Lovepain

Lovepain by Curtis Smith is a novel about life and the people and experiences that make it real.  Smith has published over one hundred stories and essays, and his work has been cited by or appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and in the Norton anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent presses to publish two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, four novels, two essay collections, and one book of creative nonfiction.

I have previously read Smith’s short fictions and his nonfictional personal examination of Slaughterhouse Five.  This is the first novel of his I have read.  Love Pain is the story of a short period of time in the life of Eli and his son Mark.  Smith opens the novel with a wonderful and densely descriptive scene that shows the writer’s ability from the start.  Eli is a social worker who truly believes he can help people and he does go out of his way to do it.  He does so in a natural way not trying to be a hero.  His role to his son is much the same.  He is patient and indulging of his son and his interests.  Things would be fine for Eli if that was the entirety of his life.

Unfortunately for Eli, and the rest of us, life is not so simple.  Eli has a sinkhole near his house, there is a wild animal on the lose, his wife has other goals, his client, Zoe,  has difficulty maintaining traction, and then there is the Christmas play.  Eli is faced with choices and with a destiny that does not seem to allow him peace and comfort.  Lovepain describes the competing forces:  The love for his wife and the pain of her actions, the effort into Zoe’s future and the slipping back, being everything he can be to his son and still be a responsible adult and father.  It is not only people that disrupt life.  Man’s own development leads to problems like sinkholes in the neighborhood.  Even nature itself faces threats and blame.  An escaped zoo animal suddenly is the center of blame as it tries to fit into developed society.

For a short novel, Smith manages several subplots with well-developed characters and maintains the ability to include detailed settings.  The plot flows along at a respectable pace absorbing the branches in the story and twining them together masterfully.  Smith’s talent in short and micro fiction helps create a novel without fluff or gratuitous filler.  Well written and meaningful prose examining the duality that is life.

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Poetry Review — I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip

 

I Hope My Voice Doesn’t Skip by Alicia Cook is the Poets second complete collection of poetry. Cook earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature in 2008 and her MBA in 2012. She is employed as the Associate Director of Communications at Saint Peter’s University. Cook is a freelance writer for multiple publications and a content writer for The Asbury Insider. She is also an activist fighting the heroin epidemic.

This is the second collection of Alicia Cook’s poems I have read. The first being Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately. Like that book, I found the first section much better than the first. The first section of this book consists of poems that are longer and better written than the current tended of “internet sensation poets” but have the same message that may seem a bit trite to mature readers and readers of poetry. To keep with the poet’s musical theme most of the first section, EP, is bubblegum pop music. That is not to say that they are all trite. “Sunday Morning Cartoons” and “I Am Sorry for Your Loss” carry a strong message but seem more like musings than poetry. “The ’90s Seem So Long Ago” is the hit in this first section. Although I am not nostalgic for the ’90s I feel the same about the ’70s.

The second section titled LP is the album rock of the collection and varies between rock and arena rock. What initially impressed me in this collection were the links to the poet reading of her poems. This is especially helpful in learning how the poet reads her poems, rhythm, speed, infections. However, the links that are active, before the release, are by cafe/folk style musicians singing the poem, or is it now a song? It’s a nice touch but not a poetry reading; it does, however, keep with the musical theme of Cook’s collections. The two poems that stood out were “Ten Little Girls”, which is the rewording of “Ten Little Indians”, and “Transitions”. “Transitions” stands alone as being a well written traditional poem in this collection.

Again, Cook provides hit and miss writing for me. Where she writes poetry she writes well. Most of the collection seems to follow along the lines of the current trend of young “poets” that write feelings without form. I understand the popularity of this writing with the younger generation’s preference for brevity in communications and society’s sound bite attention span. Cook can write poetry when she wants to. I just wish she would concentrate more on writing poetry.

Available June 5, 2018

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