ON THE AVENUES: The books I’ve been reading during the winter months.


ON THE AVENUES: The books I’ve been reading during the winter months.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

I keep telling myself that if I can get back to writing about books and music while the memory is fresh, it’s better than waiting until year’s end. As such, here is a quasi-quarterly recap of reading to date in 2018.

Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, by Maureen Ogle

The middle 2000s were years of retrenchment in the revolutionary struggle for better beer. The “microbrew” boom of the late 1990s receded during 2000-2002, the same period when the dot com bubble popped.

To many observers at the time, it seemed that better beer had been exposed as a fad, rather than a trend. I was never among the naysayers, and in my mind the “craft” beer explosion of the two-thousand-teens has served as malty-sweet vindication, although the now ubiquitous India Pale Ale category embraces the bitter side of the flavor spectrum.

Ogle’s book was published in 2006, and is to be viewed as a summary of American beer history prior to the contemporary “craft” blitz, which she didn’t see coming – although in fairness, very few among us foresaw the intensity of the impending explosion.

Her book is a solid introductory text, entertainingly written, and covering the major American beer history themes: Colonial upbringings, German immigration, the triumph of lager, Prohibition, the recovery of brewing amid major post-war socio-economic changes, and finally a gradual grassroots revolt against conformity, beginning in the 1960s and coming to fruition in the 1990s.

Gabriele D’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Jon Faith and I crossed paths at the Public House a quarter-century ago, and it’s safe to say we bonded over books and reading. The occasional pint of beer merely served as a coincidental, unintended metaphor.

He recommended this biography of d’Annunzio (1863 – 1938), and we read it concurrently in February.

As Americans, we simply don’t possess a personage to compare to the Italian poet, journalist, soldier and erotic raconteur, and I doubt my ability to convey the extent of his singularity. It’s a very mixed bag.

Apart from an undoubted skill at the literary arts, d’Annunzio was among the first to grasp the utility of social media stardom. The period of his life coincided with the rise of increased literacy in Europe: mass-circulation newspapers, reasonably priced books and periodicals, motion pictures and radio. He understood these avenues, and milked them mercilessly for self-aggrandizement.

As a fervent and plainly unhinged nationalist, d’Annunzio melded thuggish rhetoric with grandiloquent operatic stagecraft, obviously presaging the advent of Benito Mussolini, who was a rapt but coldly calculating observer of d’Annunzio’s life as performance art.

The poet-turned-warrior’s seeming star turn came after World War I, when he joined a motley band of nationalists and freebooters in seizing the disputed city of Fiume (Rijeka), turning the Italian population against intermixed Slavs, and assuming control of what passed for a government.

The results were tragi-comic, like “Duck Soup” by the Marx Brothers folded into Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” However, it isn’t funny; people were injured and killed as a result of d’Annunzio’s learned pretensions, and his susceptibility to being used by opportunists.

After a few months, the Italian military expelled d’Annunzio and his increasingly anarchic legions, and the poet retreated to a ramshackle estate in the southern foothills of the Alps. Marginalized, aging and afflicted with brain-rotting venereal disease, the fading writer was tolerated and subsidized by Mussolini’s ascendant fascists.

Fittingly, d’Annunzio’s adult existence was carefully curated public fodder, from lascivious, serial philandering to genuine heroism in wartime. Eight decades after his death, he remains a divisive figure in Italy – and surely this would please him immensely.

Act of the Damned, by António Lobo Antunes

I was looking for a book by a Portuguese writer to take with me to Portugal, did a bit of googling, and came up with this short novel. It could not have been a better choice.

It helps to know that in 1974, Portugal shook off more than 40 years of right-wing, authoritarian dictatorship. Isolated and impoverished, the country set about divesting itself of colonial remnants like Angola and Macao, and devising a strategy to re-integrate into Europe. The ensuing instability and dislocation raised the specter of a Communist takeover.

Where would Portugal land?

This time of uncertainty is the setting for Lobo Antunes’ novel, which chronicles the rapid disintegration of a dysfunctional, formerly prosperous landowning family. The patriarch is on his deathbed; in fleeting moments of consciousness, he catalogues the shambles of his personal life.

Fearing the arrival of bloodthirsty and confiscatory (also, non-existent) Communists, his moderately well-to-do offspring have gathered to await the old man’s death – and it needs to happen fast, because they’re scrambling to take the money and flee to Spain or Brazil.

There is one small problem: the fortune is long gone, purposefully squandered over the preceding decades by the dying patriarch, who resolved to spend it all on gambling and prostitutes rather than leave it to his fractured descendants.

It’s serious business, indeed, but the skill of Lobo Antunes lies in managing somehow to inject abundant comedy into what is, for the most part, a horrific narrative.

All the while in the background, resembling a Greek (Portuguese?) chorus, are the lives and activities of ordinary people. As depicted by the author, they’re mostly unmotivated, larcenous, promiscuous and casually cruel – not entirely from malice, but owing to sheer boredom.

Whether urban or rural, these bystanders are hardly militant in the political sense. Rather, the Portuguese are exhausted by the pervasive time-stands-still stagnation of the country’s long period of patrimonial degradation.

I’m reminded of Vaclav Havel’s musings on the erosion of civic identity and responsibility in Czechoslovakia during Communism, and how the cancer might be reversed. Has it?

As a warning, Lobo Antunes deploys an experimental structure and dispenses a surplus of black humor. If you’re looking for a feel-good happy endings, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.

Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion, by Mike Levy

In 2005 or thereabouts, Levy begins a two-year assignment in the Peace Corps as an English language instructor. His destination is Guizhou University in the city of Guiyang, smack in the middle of China’s vast interior, where the rapid Westernization steamrolling the country’s coastal regions hasn’t yet completely penetrated.

However, enforced modernization is in motion, and given the relative isolation of the region, a clash of cultures and ethnic groups is underway. In both human and environmental terms, the cost seems immense.

Levy is both Jewish and an above-average basketball player, and many of the book’s finest moments revolve around these elements, which render him more exotic than the average, seldom-seen American. His students organize Jewish-themed gatherings, and he is recruited as a ringer for the university basketball team.

It is said in China that the Chinese will eat anything on four legs, and in certain regions, the dinner table itself isn’t safe. Consequently, Levy’s outing to Guiyang’s vast traditional market in search of cheese for pizza-making is an episode that vegetarians and the squeamish may wish to skip.

Through it all, the chaos and dislocation of rapid modernization is never far from the story; everything is in flux. While not a source for deeper truths, Levy’s account is fine for the genre, reminding me to read more often about non-European places and things.

Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time, by Adrian Miller

Miller is America’s “Soul Food Scholar, and in his award-winning book he explores a culinary art form with roots in the historic realities of slavery. It’s factual and celebratory, all at once.

“Soul food is really the interior cooking of the Deep South that migrates across the country. I think of soul food as an immigrant cuisine and ultimately a national cuisine, because black folks just landed in all parts of the country. But in terms of the difference between the two, soul food has more intense flavors. It’s going to have more spice. It’s going to be sweeter. It’s a matter of intensity.”

Unity through food and drink is an excellent place to begin, and reading a book like this one will make you terribly hungry.

Soul food is classic fusion, combining elements of West African, European and Native American traditions. I’ve learned about the origins of cornbread in the context of milling techniques; the evolution of catfish; how mass hog butchering led to chitlins in the “pay” packet; yam varieties versus sweet potatoes; which greens are preferred and whether pork’s inclusion truly is negotiable; and why “red drinks” are standard issue.

Next on the reading list is another book to be consumed in tandem with Jon: The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine.

According to the publisher, “On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, (it’s) the epic story of an enormous apartment building where Communist true believers lived before their destruction.”

The annual heavyweight summertime novel will follow Slezkine. It is The Combinations, a novel by Louis Armand, and I can barely wait for it, because I’ll always be that little kid standing in the library, gazing at the shelves, and wondering if there’d ever be enough time to read them all. Now that I know there won’t be, I must try even harder.

Recent columns:

March 8: ON THE AVENUES: Necessity was the mother of NARBA, a food and drink invention in need of re-animation.

March 1: ON THE AVENUES: Scoreboard daze of old.

February 22: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: Money is the ultimate bully (2015).

February 15: ON THE AVENUES REWOUND: No more fear, Jeff (2015).