Book Review – A Sense of Place

The cover of the book A Sense of Place by Dave Broom, featuring a picture of whisky casks on the cover. In front of the book is a small glass with some amber whisky inside.

A Sense of Place: A journey around Scotland’s whisky
by Dave Broom
Photography by Christina Kernohan

I first saw this book mentioned on the author’s Instagram, where he used something like the phrase “sense of place, not terroir.” That is what grabbed me. The growing ubiquity of “terroir” usage in drink writing is puzzling to me, because it is such a wine-centric term. Its core meaning, “the taste of the land,” makes sense for grapes but not for much else. That has encouraged people to make it mean, basically, whatever they want if it helps them sell some kind of very expensive processed agricultural good—from chocolate to, well, whisky. I am immediately suspicious of any use of the term outside wine, because it’s just become a stand-in for “this is different for reasons” as part of a sales pitch.

A sense of place, though? That, I can get behind. It’s not trying to dress itself up in fancy clothes. It’s honest about being a story. A story about a place, which has room in it for all kinds of things. People. History. Water. Land. Plants. Rocks.

A place is what we make of it. What we say about it. It’s a story.

And that is what this book is all about.

In this incredibly beautiful book (and it is among the most beautiful I have ever held—Kernohan’s photography is glorious), Dave Broom writes two hundred and fifty-odd pages worth of ode to Scotland. Its people. Its history. Its water. And yes, its rocks. He writes about whisky, yes, but what this book truly does is delve into what makes Scotch special to him, and that is its position within the communities around each bottle.

It’s a celebration of Scotch as more than a drink, as something else than the icon of capitalism it has seemingly become: it is a product of a community bound by shared land, shared history, shared culture, shared language. A cultural artifact.

The book is lyrical. Rhapsodic. At times gloomy, and at times filled with hope. The language is unabashedly Scots English—I have to admit I was grateful for the glossary in the back—and that is a lovely thing. The book touches on that, on how Gaelic was taken from so many Scots and how that was part of the Clearances that not only scarred Scotland’s culture, but in so doing shaped modern Scotch whiskey and the places it is from, and also how words influence not just how we speak, but how we perceive. How we taste things.

In a way, this book has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. I have to admit that, as a thoroughly common person with stubbornly low-class tastes, the fetishization and hyper-valuation of whisk(e)y turns me right off. As a beverage, I like it fine. It’s a delicious, complex, nuanced and exciting thing to drink in and of itself. But so much of the modern placing of it is about image, status, and wealth. At both ends—production and consumption—whisk(e)y has become a rich man’s game. And I mean all three of those words. The history of whisk(e)y in Scotland and Ireland, in particular, is one of capital, empire, and the forceful transformation of a common culture to a private one.

But here, Broom pokes at the cracks in that, revealing the humanity and love that maintains in even the largest of distilleries. Yes, they’re still massive monuments to capital, but there is also a reverence for craft, and a (re)growing respect for the farmers that once would have been making the drink. I found myself actually wanting a sip of single malt on finishing this book, something I very rarely feel these days. (Sorry, Dave, but it was Miyagikyo. No proper Scotch in the house, I’m afraid).

And he did it with such style! What a writer the man is. I found myself snapping pictures of sentence after sentence, almost wanting to shout with glee at the beautifully made points.

Let me also add, I am so happy and in favor of his persistent cheerleading for blended whisky. The fact that “whisky lovers” persist in looking down on 98% of the market is not only silly, it reeks of classist arrogance. Never poo-poo the cheap stuff.

It is no exaggeration, not even a hint of a lie, to say this is the book I wanted (want?) to write about sake. I am not the writer Broom is, nor is the English-language sake book market mature enough to have room for such a departure, but maybe someday.

Until then, I am grateful for this wonder of a book.

Review – The Japanese Sake Bible

The Japanese Sake Bible: Everything You Need to Know About Great Sake – With Tasting Notes and Scores for 100 Top Brands by Brian Ashcraft

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


There are quite a few good books for sake beginners that introduce concepts like how it’s made, the different classifications, and the basic history. There are also very technical books that go into the chemistry and technical details of brewing and flavor.

This might be the only book that is both.

I’ve yet to encounter such a comprehensive discussion of sake-its history, its brewing, and the figures who have guided them both.

You can start this book from zero knowledge and end up with an admirable understanding of Japan’s national drink after finishing. It’s a truly well researched, nearly exhaustive look at sake. It’s not as technical (or difficult) as Gautier Rousille’s Nihonshu, or as intimate as John Gauntner’s Sake: The Hidden Stories, but exists as a bridge between them.

The tasting notes at the end offer a look at many of the most important modern brands, but tasting notes are always exercises in subjectivity so don’t get too caught up in them.

Overall, this is a stellar addition to the English language sake library.

Jump on it.



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Review – Penguin Highway

ペンギン・ハイウェイ by Tomihiko Morimi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Penguin Highway

This is a coming of age novel, a story of children facing reality bending mystery, and lots of talk about boobs.

Akireta Aoyama is a young boy with an analytical mind and an obsession with breasts. Not exactly in a prurient way, but in the confused way of a young boy on the cusp of puberty who knows he’s interested, but not exactly why.

One day, his small Japanese town is set abuzz by the sudden appearance of penguins… And that is only the beginning of the weirdness.

I read this novel as a bit of exploration of Japanese SF, and I fear it did little to deepen my understanding of the first. This is a shallow, wide ranging look at all kinds of things: friendship, death, reality, love and so on. The topics can be heady, but they’re all destiny with by children, so nothing goes very far-topics are touched on, then left to wander as the children go about their adventures.

The climax mixes utter predictability (there is very heavy foreshadowing of a certain event) and utter nonsense in a vaguely unsatisfying way. The characters are memorable and enjoyable, though, and there is enough going on to keep interest going.

But in the end, this felt like a pretty rote “kids in small Japanese town have weird adventures and grow up a little” kind of story, complete with Summer festival yukatas and the bully who ends up helping the heroes when they need it.



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Review – Revival

Revival

Revival by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


What a long, strange trip it has been. I have been reading Stephen King for probably 30 years. When I was in Jr. High I used to sneak away from my mom at Wal-Mart to buy paperbacks, and hide them in my pockets until I could get to the privacy of my room. My mother was not a fan, you could say.

I loved those books. I loved the goriness, the crafty little turns of phrase, and the depiction of rurality that I recognized (being from rural Kansas, I guess there’s not that much difference between little prairie towns and little New England towns). Over the years, I came to see what King himself called his “salami-making.” These were fine, creepy yarns, sometimes even gutwrenchingly sad (Oh, Henry…). But they weren’t “Litrachure.” King had no pretensions of deep exploration of the human condition, he wrote scary stories to read in the dark.

But now, as I approach middle age, I’m starting to question that truism. Because there are stories like Hearts in Atlantis, or The Body, or this one, Revival, that seem to transcend the rough-ground spiciness of, say, Christine. It might just be the decades of life that have come to inform the writer’s thinking. Or it might be the decades of life that have come to inform this reader. But somehow, I think King is tapping into a deeper vein these days.

Revival is at the same time a memoir of a life not wholly unlike Kings, a love letter to the origins of a certain brand of horror, and a look at what makes the first so good, and the last so bad.

For roughly the first half of the book, we read the story of Jamie’s life as something not entirely unusual. There are the purely human pains of tragedy and disillusionment. There are also the more mundane growing pains of rough big brothers, feeling your way through first love, and addiction. There is little that could be called supernatural or ominous, apart from what Jamie himself alludes to in hindsight.

This is a slow burn. It builds a living character, a life of complexity and reality that other writers would rush through. But King does not rush here. He takes his time, because this weaving is what makes the latter half punch so hard.

In the latter half, the ominous shadow of Charles Daniel Jacobs (Charlie Daniels and the Devil in Georgia, huh?) grows heavy, and the threads of the weave begin to darken with the taint of Lovecraft, Derleth, and Machen (three names mentioned right at the top of the book…). For this book is as pure an expression of cosmic horror as any you’ll find. Jacobs, the reverend of Jamie’s youth, is desperate to tap into the powers that run the world behind the world, no matter the cost…

And the cost is great. Because this ending gathers up those threads of youth woven so slowly in the beginning of the book and brings them back to the end to come full circle. The joys of youth become the pain of age, now tainted with darkness from beyond the veil.

It’s masterful.

And yet, there is still some salami here. Because King does what other cosmic horrors often avoided: he made the implicit explicit. He describes in detail what lays behind the veil, and in so doing removes much of its more lingering power. There is still dread here, but I can’t help but think its was blunted by that choice.

I still think that this is one of the best expressions of King’s strength, his characters, and leverages that strength to make a genuinely unsettling horror story. Revival is maybe the best of King, and a transcendence of the limits he placed on himself so long ago.



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Review – The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry #1)

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is the first book in the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, a “portal fantasy” about five Toronto University students taken to a magical fantasy realm. There they are sweet up in a war of dark and light, cavort with gods and goddesses, and plumb both the depths and heights of life and loss.

Guy Gavriel Kay established his name as a fantasy author with this series, and it possesses all the Hallmark if great Kay fantasy. It plumbs real world history and mythology to root the vivid word he builds in it, this time the Celtic myths of Wales, and revels in the artistry of language and creation that have rise to those ancient stories.

We also see the deep humanity that always information his writing,v as characters are moved more by admiration, joy, and empathy than the usual fantasy motivators of fate, rage, or vengeance. Thought there is some of that, too.

Perhaps the only misstep for me is the rather clumsy “portal” element. This book never really shows why Loren needed to take five people from Earth back to Fionavar, and I’m honestly kind of bemused at how smoothly and quickly the Canadian kids side into their roles in this utterly alien world.

But Kay’s writing is as masterful add it is today, and the world as enthralling as any in fantasy, so I’ll forgive that minor stumbling block.



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