The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Precious Liquids
Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It by Paul Simon - In recent years, many books have been published about water issues, but back in 1998 there were few. Since I've read extensively about the subject, I figured I wouldn't learn much from this book. All the same, I was interested in Simon's perspective. Much of "Section I: The Problem" covers familiar territory (alas, the problems haven't gone away), but "Section II: The Answers" is surprisingly informative, particularly the chapter about desalination. As a senator, Simon was a huge proponent of desalination, and this book includes historic quotes from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy endorsing the need for desalination research. The U.S. was at the forefront of desalination technology until government funding was cut drastically during the Reagan years, which Simon felt was a serious policy failure. He offers other solutions as well, calling for realistic pricing, reduced pollution, and population control. Despite its age, Tapped Out is still an excellent introductory text about a crisis that has only intensified in the years since.

Return to Thunder Road by Alex Gabbard - Almost two decades before Bruce Springsteen invited Mary into his car, another "Thunder Road" was part of American pop culture.* Robert Mitchum directed and acted in the 1958 movie Thunder Road about running moonshine, plus he wrote and sang the theme song:
Thunder, thunder, over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine and
White lightnin' was his load.
Moonshine, moonshine, to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him,
But the devil got him first.
This book is a joy to read. Gabbard explains the origins of homemade whiskey and the motivations of the men who risked their lives to deliver the illegal goods across the rural South. Much of Return to Thunder Road is presented in oral history form with extensive recollections from moonshiners, whiskey runners, and ATF agents. The 'shiners talk about the distillery process and how they built and concealed their stills. The drivers describe dozens of heart-racing midnight escapes in souped-up cars with big motors and heavy-duty springs. The U.S. Treasury agents recount raids and chases, along with the frustrations of a never-ending battle. In fact, moonshining came to an end not because of enforcement, but because of new economic opportunities (in the case of legendary Wilkes County, NC, a Holly Springs chicken plant). Gabbard discovers that the movie Thunder Road was likely inspired by the real-life final run of a certain driver. In the book's climax, he leads the reader along the fateful route, interlacing his narrative with the lyrics of the song. Anyone interested in fast cars, whiskey, the South, and/or 20th century American history should enjoy Return to Thunder Road. I'll have to bump the movie to the top of my Netflix queue.

Current tally: 87 books finished, 82 books acquired

* There is a Springsteen connection to this book, not in his "Thunder Road" but in "Cadillac Ranch." When he sings of "Junior Johnson runnin' through the woods of Caroline," he's talking about the famous moonshine runner turned NASCAR racer/owner. Junior and his family are quoted and mentioned many times within these pages.

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Monday, August 17, 2009
The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.
After I reviewed News Junkie by Jason Leopold, Chris went looking for it at Barnes & Noble. When he got home, he e-mailed me to say that he had purchased the wrong book, The Night of the Gun by David Carr. Who would have thought "junkie journalist memoir" was such a popular genre?

Chris suggested that I compare the two. Although I had plenty of other books to read, I replied, "Maybe I'll check out The Night of the Gun when it hits the bargain shelves." Eleven days later, I found a single hardcover copy for $6 at a Waldenbooks.

Addiction/recovery memoirs are pretty common, and they seem to follow a pattern: share titillating tales of "the Life" including drugs, sex, and crime to pique the interest of the white-bread masses (myself included); hit bottom and go into rehab (this part of the story often repeats); become a clean model citizen for some stretch of time; inexplicably relapse (in Carr's case, with booze rather than cocaine); repeat the recovery process; and swear it's not going to happen ever again. The most striking difference between the two books is how the authors approach their stories. Leopold's book is a traditional, confessional memoir while Carr reports on his life by interviewing people from/about his past, acquiring police and medical records, etc. In addition to the main addiction/recovery plot, Leopold's story is bolstered by his involvement in breaking the Enron story while Carr's memoir adds the challenges of battling cancer and raising twins as a single father.

The more cynical think Carr treats his life like a newspaper story in the wake of challenges to the veracity of James Frey's recovery tale, but the reason he gives is that his own memories too often run contrary to those of others. Carr discovers that many events, even some of the most pivotal in his life, may not have happened as he recalls. The discrepancies are not minor like "what color shirt I was wearing" either -- the book's title refers to an event in which Carr and his friend have different memories of who was pointing a gun at whom.

Unfortunately, it doesn't take long before the gimmick gets in the way of telling the story. Carr bounces back and forth between his past and his current information-gathering process. Sometimes he even rearranges the main story for the convenience of describing his interviews, which strikes me as the opposite of how a book should be written. Carr should have merely incorporated information gleaned from the interviews into the main story rather than making so many chapters into "where are they now?" episodes (while Carr may care how his junkie friends turned out years later, most readers probably won't).

Like most junkies who survive the Life, Carr is extremely lucky. He's lucky he didn't overdose (his coke addiction progressed from snorting to smoking to injecting), he's lucky he didn't kill anyone, and he's very lucky to have had the support of family and friends who helped him hold his life together.

Carr's use of only first names is annoying. I understand that he wants to protect the privacy of friends and fellow addicts, but when he refers to a Minnesota Vikings quarterback named Tommy and a story-fabricating New York Times reporter named Jayson when their last names are easily Googled, it's unnecessary and irritating (not to mention oddly un-journalistic).

Like this review, The Night of the Gun is too long, and Carr's style interrupts his story too much. The reporting approach puts some distance between author and events, which doesn't come across well in a memoir -- it's like watching life instead of living it. Any memoir is narcissistic at some level (which Carr acknowledges), but in this case I think he really wrote the book more for himself than for readers. Although Carr has posted videos of interviews and other material online, I cannot imagine anyone finishing this lengthy book and yearning to know even more about his ugly past.

Back to comparing the two junkie journalists, while I find Carr's approach interesting in concept, Leopold's book is more readable, more engaging, and more enjoyable. But after reading the addiction stories of two journalists and a rock star this summer, I am burned out on addiction/recovery memoirs. Too much drama, too much depressing shit, too many people hurt by addicts being assholes. This is dreary stuff, and I feel like a rubbernecking motorist passing a horrific accident when I read it.

Current tally: 65 books finished, 61 books acquired

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Lyrics of the Day
In "Women Without Whiskey", Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers ponders love and liquor:
If morning's a bitch with open arms, then night's a girl who's gone too far.
Whiskey is harder to keep than a woman and it's half as sweet,
but women without whiskey?
Women without whiskey?
Whiskey is hard to beat.
Whiskey is hard to beat.
Much to the dismay of 12-steppers everywhere, the booze wins.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Economically Stimulated
This morning: Received economic stimulus rebate via direct deposit.

Tonight: Hookers and booze!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Advertising Age notes that the greatest impediment to selling absinthe may now be its strongest selling point:
Aspiring absinthe marketers spent the last few years trying to convince government regulators that the mystique surrounding the long-banned liquor -- cited as the cause of Vincent Van Gogh's madness and even linked to murders -- was mostly urban legend that ought to be disregarded.

Now that the wormwood-based liquor is being marketed legally again, look for those same marketers to raise that mystique at every opportunity.
The spirit was banned in 1912, but the newly approved imports "have levels of thujone -- the hallucination-inspiring chemical that derives from wormwood -- that are below the long-held government limit." I'm sure the importers don't want you to know that.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Grab a 40!
This morning I've been researching 40-ounce malt liquors (you're probably wondering where I come up with these ideas; I wish I could say it's for a copywriting job, but it's not). Wikipedia is a good place to get the basics. In fact, this is the sort of topic where Wikipedia excels -- when it comes to pop culture, the Encyclopedia Brittanica usually falls short. For anyone who doesn't get the "point" of 40-ounce malt liquors, this spells it out:
While ordinary beers in the United States average around 5% alcohol by volume, malt liquors typically range from 6% up to 9% alcohol by volume... American domestic "malt liquors" tend to be very inexpensive, although this is not necessarily true for foreign imports that are also labeled "malt liquor".
That's it -- a cheap buzz. For that reason 40s are associated with ghetto drunks, but that's an unfair stereotype. Kihm Winship's excellent, detailed history of the 40 explains
...While black Americans comprise 12-14% of the population, they consume 30-33% of the malt liquor brewed in the U.S. The statistic is important for two reasons. First, it shows why brewers of malt liquor advertise more heavily to black people: As a group, they buy more malt liquor. The second important fact is that if a third of all malt liquor is consumed by black Americans, two thirds are consumed by people who are not black.
The bottom line: cheap drunks come in all races. Further down that page is a lengthy discussion of charges that malt liquors are some sort of conspiracy against the black community.

I have to admit that when it comes to brand names, sometimes I confuse my cheap wines and malt liquors (look here for cheap wines). I guess I don't spend enough time perusing liquor stores. Adding to the confusion, some regular beers are sold in the 40-ounce size, including Budweiser and PBR. But when DMX raps about drinkin' 40s, he's not a Bud man.

Like everything else on this planet, 40s have inspired a community. Here's a guy who has collected 550 different bottles. The same site shows dozens of drinkers in their 20s enjoying their 40s and acting stupid.

Finally, I'll leave you with a favorite story. When I consulted downtown, I often went to White Hen Pantry (a convenience store) to pick up a quick lunch. One day I saw a man mosey up to the register and place his lunch on the counter: a 40-ounce King Cobra malt liquor... and a salad! Now that's healthy living!


Sunday, February 06, 2005
Drinking Yourself To Death - A New Variation
Leave it to The Smoking Gun to spread the latest techniques in alcohol ingestion. A frightening-looking Texas woman gave her husband a sherry enema and killed him. An article in the Houston Chronicle quotes a police detective: "I heard of this kind of thing in mortuary school in 1970, but this is the first time I've ever heard of someone actually doing it."

Upon further research, I found that alcohol enemas are just new to me (somehow the Internet always makes me feel naive). In a widely circulated article, Jay Wiseman
explains the danger, just in case you were considering this method for your next bender. Apparently, it's a great way to keep that pesky liver from weakening your buzz:

When we drink alcohol (or take medications) by mouth, and they are absorbed into our bloodstream, they are taken by a network of veins called the portal venous system directly to our liver and usually at least partially metabolized. This is called "first-pass effect." The veins of the stomach, small intestine, and most of large intestine drain via the portal venous system. However, there are two small veins at the very end of the rectum (called the middle and inferior rectal veins) that drain _directly_ into the veins of the systemic circulatory system -- thus, anything absorbed via this route goes directly into the main circulation without being subjected to first-pass effect.
If you are still itching to try this despite the risks, the same web site offers detailed instructions for both warm red wine and beer (what better way to enjoy the Super Bowl?). In fact, they give instructions for just about anything you could imagine putting in a bag and squirting in your bum, even Mountain Dew (more like Mountain Ewwww) . And while Mae West may have said, "When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I've never tried before," she apparently had a favorite enema that she tried again and again.

And If you are still considering this for your next frat party, be
advised that a man gave himself a vodka enema and got severe colitis.

Doing research for this blog entry has proven to be even more disturbing than the original story.


Wednesday, November 03, 2004
When my wife left for work this evening, I told her I was going to sit in front of the TV with a bottle of Scotch and watch the election results. I've had a bad feeling about Kerry's chances today (I did my part, of course), so I added that she'd probably come home at 2 AM to find me wallowing in a puddle of urine and vomit. Not a pretty picture, but this hasn't been a pretty campaign, either.

Instead of watching TV, I decided to track the results online as I worked on other things. Multi-tasking helped me keep my sanity. I made it to 12:30 AM before I had to open the liquor cabinet. With Bush frighteningly close to re-election, I cracked. I didn't even use a snifter; I just picked out the least favorite single malt in my collection (Tomatin--never buy whisky based on the unique shape of the bottle) and drank a healthy serving from a plain glass. This wasn't about savoring a fine malt--it was all about dulling my senses. I chased it with half a shot of 12-year Highland Park just for good measure. It worked. I'm ready for the next few hours, as long as I don't fall asleep. I just hope I don't have to do this for the next four years.


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