August 2011

Jill Talbot

nonfiction

Make Mine a Double: Why Women Like Us Like to Drink edited by Gina Barreca

Recently, I was asked to name my favorite books about drinking. I had no trouble coming up with a long list of male writers that included Carver, Cheever, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Steinbeck; but I couldn't help noticing the absence of women. Though I thought about it for days, I could only come up with Dorothy Parker as a woman who wrote about liquor straightforwardly, unabashedly ("I wish I could drink like a lady"). Current literature, thanks to countless addiction memoirs, showcases women as repentant drunks; in other words, we are bombarded with the after and get none of the before. We never get the good and rarely the good-before-it-all-went-bad.

As Gina Barreca points out in her introduction to Make Mine a Double: Why Women Like Us Like to Drink, "Some find it easier to assume that no distinction exists" between enjoying a cocktail and being a drunk. "Somehow with drink, as with sex," Bareeca notes, "it is the woman's job to say 'no thank you, I'm not a bit interested' even -- or especially -- when she is." The pieces in this anthology are indeed interested and invested in the drink, and Barecca has organized their revelries by the glass: the martini, Champagne (three of these essays and one contributor's biography allude to Veuve Cliquot, which I had never even heard of before reading this collection but am now on a quest to have), whiskey, wine, and for one author, an inability to find her own drink, much as she has tried. The collection opens with Kristen Dombeck's "Speak-Easy," a historical account of Carry A. Nation -- whose late nineteenth century hatchetations ironically announced women's presence in bars across the country as Nation herself denounced their existence -- juxtaposed with Dombeck's own initiation into the world via booze. Dawn Lundy Martin lauds the martini and the ghosts that knock against the glass, while Fay Weldon's therapist gives her permission to drink with three words: "You deserve it." Permission is a recurring theme here, as is permissiveness. These writers address what women will allow and what they will allow themselves, and it is, as Susan Campbell writes, "as complicated and delicious as the perfect martini." 

What women will allow themselves, no surprise here, derives from family traditions and with one exception -- Stephanie Hopkins's imagining and attempt to recreate the masculine individualism of her westward father -- it is the memory of the mother that tips the glass one way or another for these writers. The family dynamic helped to create the dine-only drinker, the woman who drinks a very dry martini in a plastic cup in order to be in the same room with her mother, the wariness of the crude and common versus the experienced and sophisticated, the mother and daughter-in-law who finally find common ground in wine, the fundamentalist-borne teetotaler who, quoting Pete Hamill, confesses to having no talent for drinking. Yet the majority of the women in this collection do, in fact, have a talent and affinity for drinking (and making drinks), and they embrace the libations that get them to be not who they are (martinis are not transformative, Lundy Martin insists), but where they are in their lives: the woman contemplating her singledom at a wedding through a Pinot Grigio prism, and who, like me, lists "literate drinker" as a prerequisite for a potential mate; the academic escaping colleagues who speak in "MLA-formatted footnotes" via annual trips to Sin City; the Peace Corps volunteer challenging gender dynamics in Tanzania' the Park Slope Moms' Club (until a sudden "No Strollers" sign appeared on the door of the bar); the college student who adroitly turns the sexual tables in regards to alcohol-related assault; and the lesbian highlighting the sexual dynamics through a tour of Japanese karaoke bars. And those are only some of the highlights in this entertaining, thought-provoking geography of women and drinking.

Two very substantive points arise from this collection: 1) Women continue to need to create "socially acceptable alibis" for drinking, as if women getting together for cocktails must be under the guise of a Book Club or a Mom's Group's "Make Your Own Purse" night. Can women not talk together, just as women, over a few drinks? Is it us?  Or "them"?  Beth Jones, in "One Not-So-Simple Question," warns, "So it's a risk to write an essay about embracing" drinking. Why? Discuss. 2) Women find who they are not through the drink or perhaps in spite of it. The women here hold their liquor, and quite well.

A few elements keep this collection from being "full-bodied." An overwhelming number of contributors are from the New England area, and while I have already pointed out the diversity of settings, a collection that so firmly addresses social mores and women's relation to drinking practices would have been enhanced by contributions from various regions in the country. Likewise, some of the pieces read as responses to assignments in a Women's Studies class (with one even pointing out that she studied under "Gina"; it took me a moment to figure out that she was referring to Barecca, and I felt that to be an unfortunate slip in the anthology). Not all of the essays in the collection have the nice finish that one would expect from a university press-published anthology; many feel like early drafts, and I found myself flipping the page to ensure that is where the essay had indeed ended. 

Barreca's anthology fills a gap in the portrayal of drinking women by not positing them as merely lightweights or lushes, but as intelligent, confident women who embrace and celebrate the drink. Readers and students of Women's Studies, Gender Studies, Sociology, Psychology, and Social History will definitely find many questions and issues to discuss (perhaps even your next Book Club selection, in honor of the defunct book club featured in Laurie Fedrich's "The Breakup"). I wish I had had some of these pieces to read as I was discovering the convergence of my drinking self and my writing self; in fact, reading the earliest essays in this collection immediately altered how I will (and now see that I can) approach the wine in my writing.

Overall, the women in this collection celebrate the empowerment of "giving an order rather than taking one." It is a collection of twenty-nine new works on women and their drink (or not) of choice written by impressive women. I say, "Drink up."

Make Mine a Double: Why Women Like Us Like to Drink edited by Gina Barreca
UPNE
ISBN: 978-1584657590
200 pages