Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton

This personal history of Canada’s craft beer movement, from a distinctive and accomplished participant, amuses as well as instructs.

brewing-revolution

Books on craft beer and the craft beer movement abound, and readers may feel underwhelmed at the prospect of another. But Frank Appleton’s memoir, Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement, is different. For one, his focus is on British Columbia, rather than the much-discussed scene in the United States. And Appleton’s unapologetic, lively personality communicates a story both personal and national, even global, in scope. Brewing Revolution also expands into an impassioned indictment of mass-market adjunct lagers, as well as a manual for the next generation of brewers.

Appleton, a native of Manchester, England, applied his studies in microbiology to food science and later, after immigrating to Vancouver, B.C., to brewing. His science background, appetite for innovation and uncompromising insistence on quality in food and drink led him through an unplanned but inspired career. He began in one of Canada’s “Big Three” brewing conglomerates, where he developed a scorn for adjunct ingredients (or “added junk”) like corn, rice and corn syrup, where traditional, quality brews use only malted grains like barley.

Retiring in frustration to a cabin in the woods, he learns that an article he’d written comparing adjunct lagers with “tasteless white bread and the universal cardboard hamburger,” and calling for a do-it-yourself response, has drawn the attention of an ambitious pub owner. From there, Appleton’s career as a consultant begins. After helping to open the first craft brewery in Canada–which required lobbying for a change in legislation–he consults on the design and launches of dozens of new breweries in Canada, several in the United States and one in France. Along the way, he trains new brewers, invents new equipment and creatively tackles problems in brewing-related architecture, physics, sanitation, welding, human resources and more.

While Appleton is occasionally acerbic in railing against brewing practices and certain former employers, he stops short of bitterness. This distinctive voice may be off-putting for some, but his readers will likely share his disdain for adjuncts and his passion for the details of malt, hops, yeast and water. Enjoying the irreverence of Appleton’s fervent campaigning, craft beer fans will find his character amusing, quirky and sympathetic.

Brewing Revolution tells the story of a country’s craft beer movement and of the author’s life work, but it doesn’t stop there. In his enthusiasm, Appleton can’t help but offer troubleshooting advice for ambitious brewers, and a healthy review of brewing techniques, including the niceties of equipment, yeast cultivation and malting. Humorous asides include Appleton’s dodging of U.S. customs agents and his exasperation with the hired help in Lyon, France. As a history of a movement and a personal memoir brimming with zeal, Brewing Revolution is educational, entertaining and, perhaps most of all, thirst-inducing.


This review originally ran in the November 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 liters.

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

Extra-long review for an extra-interesting work; thanks for hanging in there.


My buddy Tassava sent me this book.

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I featured its book beginning, so we all know that it begins in Guantánamo. That fact is perhaps a little misleading, though. Let me explain.

drawing-bloodDrawing Blood is a memoir by Molly Crabapple, a visual artist who has created posters, comics, illustrations and murals; her favorite medium is ink, and she tends toward highly detailed, lush, saturated work. Among her influences are Where’s Waldo? and Toulouse-Latrec. (My attempt to encapsulate, not hers; and encapsulation will always fall short, anyway.)

This is her life story: from childhood, which she rather hated for its helplessness, to world travel, various forms of naked modeling and activism for sex workers, a long struggle to make it as an artist, a political awakening, and a more or less successful (and ongoing) artistic career. She has done a laundry list of strange, improbable and brave things, from living on a bunk in Paris’s storied Shakespeare & Company bookstore, to organizing and event promotion in New York City’s elitist art scene (she founded Dr. Sketchy’s), to covering Occupy Wall Street, London and Greece street protests, and, yes, Guantánamo, with her pen and ink: that is, as a journalist as well as a visual artist. Part of my criticism with her opening lines is just this: she’s done so much odd and impressive stuff that she didn’t need the sensationalism. Also, by the time she makes it to Guantánamo in her book’s final 20 pages, we can feel the story wrapping up. (She’s still a young woman. I just mean that the book wraps up. Her life is going strong.) The Guantánamo storyline is just a snippet at the end; the meat of the thing happens elsewhere, so I felt the opening lines were misleading in a few ways. And ultimately, they sell short what all else she has to say.

That was a long tangent. Let me start over: I really enjoyed this book. Molly Crabapple (a chosen name, not the one she was born with) is a large personality. She had big ideas from a young age. She traveled Paris, Spain and Morocco alone as a teenager. Her emotions loom large, resulting in entanglements and the inevitable hurt feelings; but she lives, sucks all the marrow of life, et cetera. Once we got out of that odd and contextless glass cage at Guantánamo, I remained spellbound for the book’s entire length.

Tassava did not have an entirely positive experience, though. He writes,

Molly Crabapple’s memoir of living on the rough edges of American society in the early 21st century is full of engrossing stories of sex work and social protest, of pointed critiques of the haves by a have-not, and of incredible drawings, both journalistic and artistic. But I (admittedly, a fairly square, middle-aged white guy) thought that the memoir was overall too eager to shock and to scold and too reticent to draw satisfying conclusions about her own life at the micro level and about America as the macro level. Perhaps I am sinning by critiquing the book I wanted or expected to read instead of the book as written. But I don’t think that Drawing Blood delivers on her promise, or her capacity, to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.

As I see it, some of Crabapple’s central points include… the difficulties of being a woman, including the enormous extent to which our bodies precede us and we struggle to be heard over them; the difficulties of making it as an artist without funds, expanded to the difficulties of making it as anything without funds; global economic injustice; and the beauty of art and love. I found her most articulate on the issues that were specific and personal – for example, how women are treated by men, based on her own experiences – and a little less so on the economy of Greece in 2011. By which I mean, she’s only human. And she articulates the difficulty of documenting Greek financial breakdown as an individual woman from the United States: she sees her shortcoming there, which for me to some extent excuses it. (She’s trying harder to understand these things than many of us are.) This memoir does use shock value to get our attention, to a degree. But I think Tassava is wise to acknowledge that mileage may vary: we are all shockable to different degrees, and I suspect I found a few of these details less shocking than he did (others maybe more so, who knows). To be clear, Crabapple has sexual affairs with both men and women, not all of them monogamous. There is no graphic description of the sex she has. There is plenty of discussion of the work of sex workers, and burlesque performances, some of which is described rather more graphically. Frankly, the only place where I felt she used sensationalism to her detriment was as mentioned, by opening with Guantánamo Bay.

In a word, I sort of feel like Tassava and I read the same book and reacted to it in two different ways – rather than feeling that we read two different books, which sometimes happens when two people disagree in their reactions. The only place he lost me a little is in regards to Crabapple’s promise “to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.” I guess I didn’t perceive that as a promise at all. I thought this was a memoir: one woman’s life story, with commentary on what she sees around her. Maybe it’s just that I sympathize with her inability to draw conclusions. I, too, find it easier to see what’s wrong than how to make it right.

And now I’ve ignored the visual aspect of this book for far too long. The text memoir is accompanied by Crabapple’s illustrations, some journalistic, as Tassava noted (illustrating what happened, rather than photographing it, which in some cases is impractical or disallowed, ahem Guantánamo), and much of it artistic. Unsurprisingly, since she’s now largely “made it” as an artist, her work is lovely: expert, detailed, realistic and stylized to different degrees, and clearly expressive of a personal style. Before her political interests took her farther out into a high-stakes real world, her subject matter tended toward the Victorian, fantastic, pin-up, or p0rn-ish. I freakin’ love it. (In fact, I’ve already purchased a print of one of the illustrations featured in this book. You can consider doing so here.) It bears noting that the illustrations here are necessarily smaller and thus have less room for fine detail than the large, intricate pieces that form her later work. What I found in the book served to tease me: I hope one day I get the chance to see some of her grander scale original art someday.

Tassava would like to note that he also loved the art: “Every illustration was great, and I too would love to see her work up close.”

I’ve also failed to note one of the more surprising achievements of this book: for all that Crabapple defines herself as a visual artist, her prose writing is startlingly crystalline, exact, probing and lyrical. “His letters were as fine as spiders. They looked like they might crawl away.” “The bar was blood dark, the walls covered with graffiti and band stickers glazed with beer.” “When I hung the drawings, they seemed like crude little things, staring back at me from the gallery’s walls. Feather-clad homunculi, malformed but proud.” “My step-mother saw me get off the school bus one day and described me as a little black smudge against the bucolic forest leaves.”

A fascinating strange story, an important if imperfect critique of one woman’s life and of the larger world: Drawing Blood is an honest effort gorgeously rendered. This book and its author are not perfect. Who is? I finished this book feeling like I’d made a friend, something only possible with human beings, not saints. The Molly Crabapple I felt like I came to know off these pages is vulnerable, self-doubting, loyal and loving, smart and stylish. I love her, and I love this book.


Rating: 8 nibs.

Gone ‘Til November: A Journal of Rikers Island by Lil Wayne

Lil Wayne’s prison diary gives a day-to-day account of his time in Rikers Island and a taste of the rapper’s offstage voice.

gone til november

In 2010, Lil Wayne entered New York’s Rikers Island Prison Complex to serve a yearlong sentence for illegal possession of a firearm. The New Orleans rapper was in the midst of a record-breaking career: multiple platinum records, Grammy Awards and financial success. In the eight months he spent in Rikers, Wayne kept a slim journal, published as Gone ‘Til November.

Wayne repeats himself: what he eats day to day varies little (the theme is burritos filled with chicken, rice, noodles, Doritos or Ruffles, beef jerky), and each night he does pushups, prays, reads his Bible and listens to ESPN. This monotony is to be expected in a prison diary, and is broken by the minor dramas of Wayne’s visitors, fellow inmates and the corrections officers he befriends. While the odd mention is made of violence occurring in other wings, the celebrity rapper has a relatively safe experience, plagued mostly by boredom. Entries are undated, requiring close attention to mark the time Wayne was incarcerated, from March through November. His slangy, informal tone shines vibrantly throughout.

A diary in which not much happens may sound less than gripping: this memoir will appeal most to Wayne’s many fans, who will find references to other rappers, future projects and Wayne’s lovers and children. But as an account of daily life in prison and its discontents, and as an exhortation to avoid incarceration, Gone ‘Til November offers a rare perspective for general readers as well.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 burritos.

Teaser Tuesdays: Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

I am reading a beautiful, sad memoir about a love affair and the death of the beloved to AIDS. Juan was a Cuban refugee living in New York City and training as a dancer when he met John, an Australian history professor.

take-me-to-paris-johnny
John Foster tells this story with some lovely lines, like these.

I have one other memory of that November afternoon: the wind. It whipped off the river sharp and mean, and we were glad to step down from the street into the musty warmth of the subway on our way home. Juan was still living out of the bag of summer clothes that he had deposited, and since retrieved, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Deceptively simple; but can’t you feel the wind? Whipping off sharp and mean really gets it there, for me. As I read this book, I feel like the tone of the title suits it: dreamy, sad, with some whimsy. Look for my review closer to the December pub date.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

book beginnings on Friday: Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

A little departure here from paid reviews of pre-pub books: Drawing Blood was published nearly a year ago. A friend asked me to comment on this memory with visual art included.

drawing-blood
It begins:

I was drawing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

I sat in the courtroom at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, watching a pretrail hearing for the 9/11 military commission in a room bisected by three layers of soundproof glass.

Well, that’s certainly attention-grabbing, and starts us off with the immediate question: who is this person and why is she where she is? I’ll let you know what I learn.

Happy Friday, friends.

A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son Investigates His Trailblazing Mother’s Young Suicide by Jeremy Gavron

The legacy of a mother and her suicide reveals the story of both a woman and a social movement.

woman on the edge

Jeremy Gavron grew up with the faintest of impressions of his mother, who died when he was four years old, in 1965. He didn’t know that her death was a suicide until he was 16, and only decades later did he embark upon an exploration of her life and reasons for ending it. A Woman on the Edge of Time is a record of his examination and tentative conclusions.

Gavron’s mother, Hannah, is a tantalizing character. A talented, magnetic youth, she excelled in acting, equestrian sports and poetry; had an affair with the headmaster of her boarding school; married at 18; earned a doctorate in sociology while raising two young sons; and wrote a feminist text that would be published shortly after her death. In an echo of Sylvia Plath’s suicide two years earlier, she gassed herself in a flat just one street over from Plath’s. And, like Ted Hughes, Gavron’s father all but erased her presence from the lives of her two children.

In chasing this shadowy figure, Gavron corresponds and visits with Hannah’s friends, colleagues and family, and studies letters, diaries and photographs left behind. Along the way, the reader is exposed to English cultural history, particularly in Gavron’s investigations of Hannah’s book The Captive Wife, a qualitative study of young homebound mothers. As he concludes, there can be no thorough comprehension of a suicide or of a mother he doesn’t remember. A Woman on the Edge of Time ends with Gavron’s attempted “narrative verdict,” which though incomplete does offer him some closure.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 gurns.

The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker

This vivid, immersive memoir describes an innocent childhood in a terrifying religion.

world in flames

The Worldwide Church of God taught that the Great Tribulation would begin in 1972 and end three years later in a river of fire from which only the Chosen Ones would be saved. Jerald Walker grew up with these teachings looming over his head. In 1975, at the predicted end of the world, he would be 11 years old. In The World in Flames, Walker relates his unusual upbringing in Chicago as the sixth child of blind African American parents, in the black wing of a church that preached segregation as well as fire and brimstone.

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue offering a glimpse of the adult Walker, the whole of this fantastical true story is told from a child’s disarming perspective. Jerry is six when his memoir opens in 1970, and his days are filled with fear. Preoccupied with the coming events and concern for a friend who is not Chosen, he struggles to navigate family secrets, severe corporal punishment and a religion based on threats. As narrator, Jerry is matter-of-fact and innocent about the improbability of his home life. This narrative voice renders an incredible story accessible. Perhaps the most heartbreaking detail is Jerry’s guileless devotion to his church.

Walker (Street Shadows) recounts his growth from wide-eyed child to hapless teen, and finally to skeptic, with immediacy and feeling and without offering judgments. His personal history verges on the absurd, but his telling of it is earnest and unadorned, never sensational. The World in Flames is a difficult story simply and gracefully told.


This review originally ran in the September 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 lines of scripture recited.
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