Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s Note: You liked the suggestions for novels and memoirs, sure, but let’s admit it: everyone has a dad who only wants to read non-fiction. Here’s your chance to avoid buying him yet another hack trade book about Abraham Lincoln or the financial crisis. Get something you might actually enjoy talking about. The Points staff recommends the following (and hopes you’ll add your own recommendations in the “Comments”):
God Save the King
Chuck Ambler:For those with large budgets and someone on your Christmas list who is strongly motivated to learn, I suggest Dmitri van den Bersselaar’s The King of Drinks: Schnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition (Leiden, Brill, 2007). As I learned at a gin tasting last summer in Berlin, Dmitri was born in the shadow of one of the Netherland’s most important distilleries, so he was destined from birth to tell this great tale of gin—from its emergence as a commodity in Germany and Holland, to its transformation into the most important commodity in the West African trade, to its eventual maturity as “the king of drinks.”
Joe Gabriel: Marcus Boon, The Road to Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard, 2005). A fascinating look at how literature has been influenced by the use of various types of drugs. Meticulously researched, a pleasure to read, and filled with unexpected and fascinating insights.
The Manuscript that Started it All
Brian Herrera: The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous (Hazelden, 2010). The PERFECT gift for the AA geek in your life. Designed as a coffee table book, it entrances even the AA-phobic.
Amy Long: Righteous Dopefiend (University of California Press, 2009): Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and doctoral student Jeffrey Schonberg spent more than ten years hanging out with addicts on the streets of San Francisco researching this thoroughly informed and eminently readable ethnography of the city’s injection drug users. Schonberg also took the arresting black and white photographs that appear throughout. Oversized and beautifully designed, Righteous Dopefiend doubles as a coffee table book if your friend or relative is brave (and righteous) enough to set an anthropological study of heroin and crack addicts out in the living room for guests to examine.
No Problem Drinking = No Drinking Problem
Michelle McClellan: Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (Three Rivers Press, 2006). This account of women’s changing roles in the 1920s is filled with engaging anecdotes and great illustrations, thoroughly immersing readers in the cultural landscape of the era. Zeitz covers a lot of ground, including popular culture, celebrity, fashion, and as one would expect, drinking customs. Several women figure prominently, including Zelda Fitzgerald and New Yorker columnist Lois Long, helping to weave together thematic elements across the book and personalize the issues Zeitz addresses. I’m not quite convinced that anyone has fully untangled the cause-and-effect of women’s drinking in the 1920s and “modernity,” but maybe it can’t be done since historical change is, after all, messy. In any case, I found this a very enjoyable and lively read, and it gave me a lot to think about regarding gender and drinking behaviors in this critical period. It is also a good demonstration of how drink and drug history can illuminate American history more broadly.
Ron Roizen: If you liked W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic: an American Tradition (Oxford, 1979) then you’re no doubt also going to admire Sarah Hand Meacham’s Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2009). If you need a preview, Meacham was one of the Points Interviews. What I found particularly fascinating in her book was the existence of something like the (far-flung) institution of the shebeen in colonial America. In The Language of the Heart: the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (U. North Carolina Press, 2009), Trysh Travis makes a solid effort to show how A.A. and the culture of recovery it spawned have percolated into the far reaches of American society. Brave and useful stuff, although well worth challenging some of her historical contentions at points too. Another crackerjack book: Jessica Warner, The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking: Why Abstinence Matters to the Religious Right (McClelland & Stewart, 2008). I wish it had a different and less grab-ya title, but this is a very interesting study of the idea of abstinence in American life and history. Highly recommended. And it you haven’t read it already, then you have a real treat in store with Geoffrey R. Skoll’s Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk: An Ethnography of a Drug Abuse Treatment Facility (Temple U. Press, 1992). Skoll combines ethnography with philosophy in a compelling analysis of the often counter-productive requirements of institutional recovery.
Joe Spillane: Tom Gjelten, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: Biography of a Cause (Viking, 2008). For friends or family who aren’t needing or wanting to spend time in the alcoholism/addiction universe, Gjelten’s book might be just the thing. Gjelten deftly narrates the intertwined histories of the Bacardi Rum Company, the Bacardi family, and modern Cuba. Readers interested to see how one family can seize and maintain their place in the rum business should consider the book for its fascinating insights into the political and promotional history of Bacardi. Or, if you’d like an interesting non-academic take on Cuban history, this works as well.
Trysh Travis: If you know someone who’s a fan of The Wire and/or enjoyed Philippe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect, but is always complaining, “where are the women?” then Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner, 2003) is the perfect gift. LeBlanc followed her subjects– two Latina women and their “random family” members– for ten years, and she charts their movements from the stoop to the street, through the criminal justice system and public housing and beyond in excruciating but always readable detail. Drugs are a key part of this story; crime and addiction somewhat less so. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of using and dealing, not to mention jail time. But like the best ethnographers, LeBlanc reveals the degree to which those categories, with all their moral baggage, are constructed in and meaningful to specific communities. In the world of Random Family, drug use and sales are part of getting along day-to-day. Try just saying “no” to that.
May Your Days be Merry and Bright