Monday, April 14, 2008

Rum: A Social and Sociable History by Ian Williams

Rum, NOT money, makes the world go 'round. That is the clear, simple, double-distilled message of Ian Williams's very tongue-in-cheek work on the delicious spirit. It's interesting how one can skew history by focusing on one aspect, viewing it through rum-soaked goggles and thereby turning history on its, head.

All the American text books will have to be re-written. For example, the American Revolution, dubbed the War of Independence by the British Williams, was not fought for freedom from English rule. It was to protest the high tariffs that the sugar lobby in London forced the crown into imposing on the colonies for rum, sugar and molasses imports and exports.

The Boston Tea Party wasn't to protest taxation on tea, or any other form of rebellion. "It was really all about the rum." (pg 166)

Paul Revere stopped at a tavern and threw back a few snorts of rum before setting off on his famous midnight ride. (pg 172)

Williams could not help but take a few shots (no pun intended) of George Washington, who according to the author loved rum SO much, he named his historic home after the man who introduced grog to the navy, Vice Admiral Vernon. By the way, the anniversary of that momentous occasion of the order for grog, August 21, 1740 is just a few short months away. You had better start planning for the big holiday now!

A few days before that, however, is the big bash for Black Tot Day, the day the Admiralty abolished the grog rationing, July 31, 1970.

Williams has other writing credits to his name, but his style of prose makes this book a difficult read. I had to re-read many complex and compound sentences to understand them. He drops in names, perhaps once, with no introduction or follow-up. The reader who may not have been exposed to as many annals of history as Williams is left wondering who he's talking about and why they were included. He digresses often, although I'm (so) sure the logic in these tangents made perfect sense to him and his editor.

He loves to throw in terms like "eleemosynary efforts", "Panglossianly optimistic" and "scofflawlishness". Wow. Flowery language. Yawn.

Stephen King once wrote the road to hell is paved with adverbs. That's all I'm saying.

It's hard to tell if Williams was taking himself seriously with this book, but the reader should not. Rum is worth a look or at least one to keep on the shelf as a reference guide to other references on rum in history.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Under Three Empires - The Thorns and Roses of a Life by Izyaslav Darakhovskiy

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Darakhovskiy in the gift shop at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC where he was signing copies of his book. I spoke to him for a few minutes and felt that he was a warm and personable man. He had a friendly and affable demeanor.

I thought his book would be a biography of his life under Nazi German, then Communist USSR and finally the United States. But it was more of a social commentary on life under those three empires.

It would seem logical that someone exposed to oppression under the Nazis and Communism would be bitter and jaded. That is not the case with Dr. Darakhovskiy. He gives an even-handed and mostly impartial glimpse into the political and social environments under the evil empires. One can forgive Dr. Darakhovskiy when he tends to step up onto his soap box, since even then he shows great restraint and professionalism when discussing the events that took the lives of his mother, sister and many other family members during the Holocaust. These horrendous events would try anyone's ability to persevere and move forward.

He paints a candid and interesting view of Americans when he covers his immigration to this country. He received a great cultural shock when realizing an American's obsession with wealth and how it clearly defined one class of people from another. Coming from a country where salaries were determined by a government scale to a country of free enterprise, Dr. Darakhovskiy found the disparity of the distribution of wealth to be almost incomprehensible.

Even this did not cloud Dr. Darakhovskiy's views of the United States. He talks for many pages on the wonderful Americans he met after settling in Rochester, NY who helped him adjust to a culture and a country that were vastly different from anything he had seen before and beyond his wildest imagination.

He wrote about the frustration and barriers to getting employed and the typical responses from potential employers he dubbed as "masterpieces of bureaucratic writing." But many people can attest that these remarks are not reserved for immigrants. We've all heard these same statements.

The only fault I found with the book was the editing. Dr. Darakhovskiy should consider another publisher for his next work. I have never read a book with so many spelling and grammatical errors. I understand that the editor may have wanted to keep Dr. Darakhovskiy's own words pure, but as he doesn't have a firm grasp on the American language, grammar and proper word usage are more important to the reader than verbatim. Some sentences just did not make sense, and this is where an editor can give us at least an idea of Dr. Darakhovskiy's message.

I'm glad to have met Dr. Darakhovskiy and read his book. It is a pleasure to read and if you're not careful, you might learn something. It is a must-read for scholars or anyone interested in the Holocaust or Eastern Europe and Russia.

(This article was previously published on