Customer Reviews: The Joy of Drinking
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Civilization, said William Faulkner, began with fermentation.

This makes sense. You'll sweat carrying even a few bushels of fresh fruit. But if you let that fruit ripen and ferment, you can fill a bottle with the liquid, walk over to a friend's house and have a party --- and if that isn't civilized, what is?

Barbara Holland, a widely praised essayist, returns with a short, idiosyncratic history of alcohol. Whether you drink or not, it's a fascinating book on an important subject --- maybe an all-important subject.

I'm kidding? Not so. The impulse to leave this reality behind is hard-wired in most of us. For Dr. Andrew Weil, the desire for intoxication begins when we're kids, spinning around and around and around until we're thoroughly dizzy. Later, we graduate to substances. But the deal's the same: We want to get high. Or, as Samuel Johnson put it, looking at the dark side of drink, "He who makes a beast of himself at least rids himself of the pain of being a man."

For most of Holland's book, the beast is hidden. What we find --- to our certain astonishment --- is the ubiquity of alcohol in daily life. She starts with the Bible, moves on to Marco Polo, and digresses to muse about all those centuries when the only amusement was socializing:

Along with occasionally promoting drunken brawls, alcohol encouraged a more tolerant interest in one's fellow man. Note that today vodka-soaked Russia doesn't produce murderous fanatics like those of caffeine-soaked Islamic societies. Drunk, the suicidal Russian kills only himself.

The book kicks in for me in the Middle Ages, with the rise of the tavern, the Starbucks of its time. Beer, sack, mead --- gee, it's fun just saying those words. But then came gin, powered by the juniper berry. And with that poisonous brew, which made men violent and women unreasonable, we see, for the first time, the power of drink to ride like an apocalyptic horseman through an entire social class, wiping lives out by the thousands. In the mid-1700s, London's streets were a sea of drunks; "little girls took up prostitution to support their habit." Gentlemen were spared the gin curse, but only because their daily consumption was "four to six bottles of port, drunk slowly in small glassfuls."

The New World was no more sober. Christmas in the Colonies lasted three weeks --- but who remembered? George Washington bought votes with liquor. Not long after, Thomas Jefferson worried about alcohol consumption and proposed that Americans drink wine, a drink few had tasted and fewer liked.

You know about Vin Mariani, the cocaine-laced wine endorsed by Pope Leo XIII. But did you know Presidents Grant and McKinley adored it? And Queen Victoria?

Prohibition led to the rise of the Martini, which merits a chapter all its own. "Fred Astaire in a glass," someone said of it. Winston Churchill, a brandy and champagne man, made his by pouring gin in a pitcher and nodding at a nearby bottle of vermouth. And so on....this drink inspires anecdotes.

Alcoholics Anonymous. Hangovers (which can, apparently, be cured by a product called Sob'r-K). The best recipe for a Bloody Mary. The water-and-fitness craze. Red wine for health. Barbara Holland dances over every alcohol-related topic and trend, sprinkling each with some amusing tidbit or wry observation.

And she ends? Where else? A barstool. In the midwest. With the guy on the next stool asking, "How's your mom?"

Fun to read. And, even more fun: a great gift.
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on May 20, 2007
I never knew drinking could be so much fun (or that it used to be even more fun!) until I read Barbara Holland's new book, "The Joy of Drinking". Packing a wallop as good as some of the cocktails she describes, Holland compares how alcohol brought people together for the first time thousands of years ago to now.... the change in our own lifetime in the way we drink has been profound. It's as much a commentary on sociology as the booze itself.

Holland's humor is dry and when I found myself chortling at some of her lines, I knew I was hooked on the book. Early on she describes the percentage of daily nutritional needs that are met by a moderate beer drinker and then goes on to say, "should he go on to immoderate beer drinking, he becomes a walking vitamin pill." Now, THAT'S good stuff! She quotes Mark Twain as saying, "sometimes too much drink is barely enough". The book is (if I may say so), "laced" with these witticisms and it gives her work a distinct flavor for which even vodka lovers might yearn.

But "The Joy of Drinking" gets serious, too. Invading wine countries that defeated spirits countries found the local brew not to their liking. The drinking habits of the Founding Fathers, both singly and collectively, are covered here as well...the history books never told us that, as I recall. She has chapters on the gin of England, the not so pure Puritans, the temperance movement, Alcoholics Anonymous, hangovers, boozers versus coffee and water drinkers, etc. There's so much here in this 148-page prose and all of it is good.

"The Joy of Drinking" may never outsell "the Joy of Cooking", but it should. Holland's narrative style is a delight and her book mirrors what has become lost in the transition to the electronic age. The main thrust of the book seems to be this....drinking for dozens of generations was a social merriment and now we have flavored vodkas, vintage wines and people drinking alone at home as they pore over their computers. Yes, "joy" is the key word in the title and Holland reminds us that things have indeed changed with regard to that social nature of drink... change that she sees not for the good. I highly recommend "The Joy of Drinking". It's a wonderful romp!
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on December 8, 2010
I am so used to reading dry self-help stuff that I found this book refreshingly glib, as well as wonderfully informative. So far I've learned the origin of the word "honeymoon," and that most wars throughout history were fought "under the influence." Also-- that the drinking age around the turn of the century was 10. It all makes sense now! This book really puts into historical perspective our society's puritanical attitude towards drinking. If you're in AA, I wouldn't recommend it!
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VINE VOICEon June 12, 2007
The Joy of Drinking is a delightful diversion for readers. Holland is witty, articulate, sophisticated and succinct, and even when she is educating us about the history of drinking, or the debt civilization owes it, she does it subtly.

Her writing is "read aloud" prose -- a perfect cocktail shaked to perfection and served with a flourish!

It's first rate conversational material on our cocktail table -- small enough that it doesn't interfere with critical drink space, but ready to spark a lively conversation about a pleasurable activity. She entertains us like someone we'd love to have drinks with, and reminds us that drinking is a social and sociable activity.

I read it through twice, and love to pick it up and read a few pages at random.

Buy two -- one for you and one for a friend whose company over drinks gives you great enjoyment!

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on June 26, 2007
This is a wonderful read. Ms. Holland produced a tightly written, humerous look at drinking. She even lets you know how to build a still.
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on April 15, 2013
A couple decades ago I picked up Holland's book Hail To the Chiefs, not realizing it was a humor book. At first I was disappointed but then I grew to love it, it's simply hilarious and a great reads. When I ordered this I was hoping she was going to give alcohol the same treatment she gave to our presidents, but it doesn't have the same sharp wit to it. There's a lot of what I'd call irreverent history of alcohol, but it's not laugh out loud funny.

Having said that, it's still an entertaining read. And it's so short that it is definitely worth the little time investment needed. You'll get a smile here and there, and may even learn a thing or two along the way.
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VINE VOICEon October 7, 2009
"THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION claims that a moderate beer drinker-whatever that means-swallows 11 percent of his dietary protein needs, 12 percent of the carbohydrates, 9 percent of essential phosphorous, 7 percent of his riboflavin, and 5 percent of niacin.

Should he go on to immoderate beer drinking, he becomes a walking vitamin pill."

In this, yet another wonderful, though too short (148 pp.), book, Barbara Holland again informs and entertains the reader. This time with arcane bits of information about drink, drinking, and drinkers from the beginnings of civilization's discovery of the warmly pleasant effects of fermented fruit and grains on the body and soul to modern man's search for the perfect martini, with her customary intelligence and wit.

I've only read two other books by Ms. Holland, WHEN ALL THE WORLD WAS YOUNG and ENDANGERED PLEASURES: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences, but have come to really enjoy her way with words.

I wholeheartedly recommend this little book to anyone who has ever enjoyed a drink of anything containing alcohol, from ale to the vodkatini.
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on June 11, 2007
Barbara Holland had me from the first sentence. This is wonderful writing reminiscent of the great essayists of the last century. I've purchased several copies of this book as gifts.
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on July 25, 2008
This makes for an excellent gift to anyone who you would consider a drinking buddy. It provides a snapshot of the history of alcohol and its role in civilization. Holland is a fantastic writer who will make you laugh with her research and wit. Things like the tab that the founding fathers racked up the night before they signed the declaration of independence are hilarious.
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on March 6, 2009
The part of the Book Club that actually read the book, enjoyed it and would highly recommend the book. It would be a documentary vs a movie. We would like to see it published in larger print as it make it easier to read when partaking in literary liberations.
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