Sober Reading


I am the son of alcoholic – recovered for 33 years when he passed, and active in Alcoholics Anonymous and helping other problem drinkers over that time – who inherited the drinking gene but not the alcoholic one. Make mine a single-malt scotch on the rocks, please. And after a number of them, I bask in the warm glow and looseness it brings to existence, although the older I get the less often I indulge.

Like many who are both alcoholic or not, over my many years drinking has had its ill effects and created problems in my life, thankfully none of them serious. As I’ve matured, so has my relationship with alcohol and the state of drunkenness. I’m thankful that enables me to still continue to savor its tonic effects and pleasures that intelligent and mindful drinking can imbue.

Yet at the same time, I am quite a fan of books about sobriety, or perhaps better put, those about finding sobriety and the foibles and missteps that eventually lead their writers to that healthier state. One of my favorite books of any sort is noted journalist Pete Hamill’s “A Drinking Life,” a smart, often funny and insightful look at his life as a drinker that in time led him to put the sauce aside. Since like Hamill I spent my hardest drinking years in the bars of New York City, and am a writer/journalist, his tales of sousing resonated with me. The wisdom exhibited as he set aside the sauce offer an inspirational conclusion.

“Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” by Koran Zailckas is an fascinating and at times harrowing account of a young woman’s descent into alcoholism from the author’s teen years into young adulthood, and of course her final arrival into sobriety. Zailckas writes about her drinking, reasons why she did, and how it wooed her into deep and dangerous waters with a perspective beyond her years.

Most recently, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget” by Sarah Hepola was one of those books I put down only when I had to as I barreled through it in about a day. And not just because I know Hepola, who I wrote for when she edited the music section of the Dallas Observer weekly paper.

It’s a work of unflinching honesty mixed with winning self-deprecating humor that also traces the effects of alcohol from youth into womanhood. Calling booze “the gasoline of all adventure,” Hepola increasingly suffers blackouts that, as one might expect, create troubling and pressing mysteries she can only partly unravel afterwards.

She displays an certain equanimity about her misadventures; her account of a business trip to Paris is an especially dramatic tale that she tells with knowing chuckles at her own faults. Hepola’s final words on sobriety wisely detail how it’s as much a struggle as any kind of epiphany. Both she and Zailckas offer valuable perspectives on alcoholism and womanhood as well as the sauce’s role in learning to integrate sex and the desire for love into the modern female’s life.

Alcohol is, sadly, both an overused ritual and social lubricant as well as a serious societal and cultural problem in today’s America. Sobriety and its benefits, as well as the effort it takes to maintain it, gets sadly overshadowed. These three books are important voices on such matters that all do so within masterful and engaging storytelling, all well worth a read whether one drinks or not.

Populist Picks

Book: Somebody to Love? by Grace Slick – Speaking of sobriety, this memoir by the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane and one of the heroines of the 1960s counterculture serves less as a history of the band and more both as a tale of personal discovery and a cultural history. And one that ends with her overcoming a problem with alcohol. Slick’s characteristic bluntness, warped sense of humor and ongoing self acceptance that acknowledges her faults and foibles make it an delightful read.

CD: The Year We Tried To Kill The Pain by Bob Woodruff – His 1994 album Dreams & Saturday Nights was one of the overlooked masterpieces of the early years of alternative country, highlighted by raw eloquence and palpable feeling that is country music at its best. Soon after Woodruff dropped largely off the radar. Now 20 some years after his last new album Woodruff returns with another minor masterpiece that offers a compelling alternate vision of country that shames most everything out of Nashville with its highly human take on modern country that brims with strong roots that reach back to the great Hank Williams.

TV Documentary: Tab Hunter Confidential – The 1950s film heartthrob was, behind the public persona, a closeted gay man. This good natured telling of his time within the cinematic starmaking machinery and his secret life is an enjoyable look at the Hollywood behind the screen and one man’s journey to becoming himself within that milieu.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2017

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