Book Review: The Golden Notebook

This longish novel by Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing is known as an important feminist work, and that’s why I decided to read it. However, Lessing’s intent was to approach a number of other important subjects, primarily fragmentation of the mind and of society. She certainly swung for the fences; the number of subjects she touches on are too many to mention without driving readers away (I have a list at the end, for the heck of it). From politics (disintegration and rebirth of the British communist party) to existential loci such as the presence of a child as an emotional anchor, to intimately common things like dealing with tampons. The scope of the novel is wide-ranging; so are the settings and characters: along with the protagonist, Anna Wulf, Wikipedia notes 31 characters, all of whom are fully described, fully animated. The two focal points are the protagonist’s early life in Africa during the War (WWII) and her post-war life as a single mother (and Free Woman) in London. Settings are intimate — passages go on for pages often without the characters leaving their apartment. After the African section, primary characters rarely go outside and there are no descriptions of London at all.

Note: page numbers refer to the Simon & Schuster 1962 edition.

So, how is it to read? I found it odd and intensely detailed, often for reasons which are obscure to the reader until much later. The characterizations are superb, as are descriptions, such as: her room, page 52; the privileged of English upper classes, 71-73, beauty and ugliness, pp 132-133, consideration of suicide, page 152. And, or course, Africa, in many places.

I found it a difficult and frustrating book to read at times due to the many diverse and intense passages, often presented as non-sequitur. Furthermore, the portrayal of the protagonist, Anna, loops upon itself: she a writer who imagines characters, including a woman writer, who imagines characters…  Only in the end brought together many of these threads to serve the narrative. Well, not all — the cascade of pigeons (on page 356) never seemed to relate. There is a lot of Anna writing about the rejection of her husband Michael throughout the first half of the book — it appears to define her. Yet Michael is not even mentioned in the critical last phase of the book, during her crack-up and affair with Saul.

Yet the reader realizes by the end that most of these intense passages have purpose. For example, in the early part of the book Lessing presents in excruciating detail characters and descriptions that, so well presented, become imprinted on the reader’s memory. The depth to which she impresses these memories on the reader serves to reflect the protagonist’s remembering of them 450 pages later, when Lessing flits across certain images from those early days as Anna’s mind becomes unmoored. That later passage would never have been so powerful if Lessing had skimped on the Africa section early in the book. (The Africa section is a novella in itself!) There is only one other book which impacted me similarly and that was The Brothers Karamazov. Though I did not end this book with a similarly intimate bond with the characters as I had with Karamazov — Lessing’s depiction of a woman holding onto sanity did not lend itself to that, but more like reading Dhalgren, you walk away from this book feeling the process of disintegration which is presented so convincingly.

Why odd? Lessing latches on to certain mechanics and runs with them for a time, then discards and seems to forget them. Examples are a focus on comic books (pages 273 and 310) when writing of certain children, never to mention it again, the use of ‘I I I I’ –“I, I, I, I, like a machinegun ejaculating regularly” (p. 537) in the description of Anna’s relationship with Saul and nowhere else. There is a lot of narrative ‘telling’ especially around page 150, that strikes me as odd, accompanied by passive voice. That technique gets ten pages of treatment and does not return. There is a hideous run-on sentence on page 356. Her portrayal of Americans often come across as 1950s T.V. corny. But the structure of the story, which switches from third-person Anna-and-her friends to first person ‘notebooks’–diaries, really, and there are 4 of them–is not so radical any more. It would have been in 1962, when the book was published, and she did an amazing job with the structure. She also, via the diary presentation, switches up how the diaries are used, what is written in them from narrative to short fictions (pp 455 – 463) which serve both to highlight the essential conflicts concerning Lessing (love, relationships, male privilege, and dysfunction) and also show the reader Lessing’s incredible breadth as a writer. These short fictions could have carried the novel, and saved me a lot of reading. She could write long, and she could write short, could Lessing.

Oddest of all is the ending. I’m going to skip to that because it is very odd and frankly, the book is a huge and powerful construct which serves I think to impress upon the reader emotion and imagery more than a firm narrative. (The narrative is there, but, frankly, not a lot happens given this is 550 pages.)

The final two sections of the book are a long and intense depiction of Anna, with her daughter gone at boarding school, living with a man–Saul Green–she almost immediately begins an affair with, despite rather intense feelings of dislike. In fact she falls in love with the man and the result is many pages of coldness, hostility, angry sex, multiple-personality-switching from antagonistic to supporting and affectionate — the craziness of love we’ve all felt but jacked up a notch. Anna turns to drink, Saul comes to resent her, he eventually leaves, and via the vehicle of the Golden Notebook, a novel is written — started by Anna, written by Saul.

The next and final section of the book is a Free Women third-person section, and here Lessing switches up the whole depiction we’ve just slogged through.

Firstly, she makes very clear, by repeating the interaction with the daughter about boarding school (third person here, and we wonder, is this the ‘honest’ deposition?) that we are going to re-live the same time period as the 150-page Saul Green section. In this section,  a different man comes to Anna’s apartment, Milt. He’s different in character, entirely benevolent, different in appearance — less threateningly masculine (owlish, wears glasses, does not stand with the ‘rakish’ pose of Saul Green) and in a much more benevolent way, Milt releases Anna’s writer’s block, and leaves, all without the tenseness, challenge and angst of the Saul Green section. And there are similarly Disney-eque endings for the other characters, delivered in a clean style and in shockingly brief number of pages (for Lessing). People get married, find new loves, etc. without complication. The whole Michael thing has been forgotten. It makes me suspicious. I feel this ending is the false ending, it’s Lessing poking fun at conventional novels, or poking fun at convention. Or it is her signal that the third person narrative, the Free Women sections, are some sort of construct of Anna’s, that Lessing-as-Anna is giving us a wink, there is no reliable reality, there is only impression, there is only the diary, and fiction, and unreality.

I do not think this is a far-fetched notion, that Lessing is breaking the fourth wall in the final section. Lessing does write passages in the book that feel very self-referential — about how writing is like prostitution (p. 372, p. 375), selling out (p. 472), and she signals with a passage of Ella-as-Anna (p. 393) that Anna is a reflection of Dorothy.

So, why did Lessing write the book? I think she makes that clear on page 405. Here, Anna’s diary describes a discussion with her psychiatrist, Mother Sugar, and Anna says: “You’re suggesting I should write of our experience? How? If I set down every word of the exchange between us during an hour, it would be unintelligible unless I write the story of my life to explain it.” The book could be seen that way, as Lessing’s story…it is about a woman writer, of the same era who grew up in Africa, and was a single mother (with one child, as does Anna, though Lessing left two others with her ex in Africa) in London.

The quote that I will remember from this long novel I think shows Lessing’s inner turmoil: “Injustice and cruelty are at the root of life.” p. 543. I don’t think Lessing was a particularly happy person, but that’s just the impression from this one book. Certainly, she saw herself as one of the ‘great men’ rolling boulders up the hill of civilization (pp. 529 – 537).

BOTTOM LINE: This was an important book to finish. I cannot say I enjoyed it all the time, but I appreciated it, and met the end with a feeling of clarity which escaped me most of the way through. The depictions were superb, the writing usually superb, with some odd passages where things got wonky. Lessing achieved the communication of ‘her experience.’ That is the essence of art.

Selected subjects she touches on:

American women, p. p. 416-417 (Lessing had many HUGE generalities throughout the book).
Betrayal, pp. 509-510, p. 539
Communism, p.55; misery, myths and failures, pp. 140-142
Cooking, p. 311
Creative destruction, pp. 426-427, p. 508
Empty Nesting, p.493
Failure, p. 51
Feminism and the modern woman, pp. 156-157; only women are ‘healthy’ p. 336; patriarchy, pp. 385-387
Freedom and violence, p. 450
H-Bomb anxiety, p. 528, p. 555
Homosexuality, p. 524, rather odd, and ugly, frankly
Hysteria, pp. 410-419
Inevitability of the machine, p. 377
Integrity of orgasm, p. 279
Intellectuals vs. the stupidity of the masses, p. 529, p. 537
Lack of outrage, p. 126
McCarthyism, p. 482
Madness, pp. 331-332, p. 347, p. 433, p. 525
Marijuana, p. 424
Jealousy, p. 498, p. 501, and homosexuality, p. 502
Regret, p. 125
Tenuous liberty, p. 484
Tommie as a zombie, p. 343
Using sex to advantage p. 78


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Distillery Tour: Glenfarclas

For this post, a departure: not a whisky review, but a distillery tour review, of Glenfarclas. This was my first tour of a distillery, so the whole thing was new and fascinating. That’s fortunate, as I had planned no less than nine tours for our two-week vacation in Scotland. Frankly, my wife was dubious, but she came to really enjoy them. As we progressed across the whisky-making regions of Scotland, we did six other tours and learned that no two tours are the same. We also discovered aspects of the distillery experience we did not expect, and fortunately, we both found compelling. Onward! (Note, most photos can be clicked for higher res images.)

Glenfarclas Lobby Shop. You can see the entrance to the tasting room at the far end.

Glenfarclas rare bottles. Can’t buy these, but…

Glenfarclas is about 20 minutes south of Dufftown. It’s set in a broad valley, which you can see in a flyover view here, at their website. The entrance is easy to miss driving south, so if you find yourself up among the piney hills, you’ve gone too far.

You’ll gather in a lounge off the lobby. I couldn’t sit for long, I was too busy gazing at all the rare bottles (pic at right) they had on display. Not all were off-limits, there were some old releases (the Family Casks) still available for the (very) well-heeled.

…the Family Casks can be bought. My birthyear bottle was about £3K, if I remember correctly. Click for hi-res.

We were shepherded by our hostess for the morning, Kirstin, and we headed outside to the millhouse. Fortunately, we had a bright, sunny morning, so everyone was in good humor. Our guide proved to be witty, a touch arch and quite refreshing. That was one aspect of our tours we grew to appreciate — at most of the distilleries, the guides felt comfortable being themselves, and they proved to be quite an enjoyable lot.

In the millhouse, we were introduced to the raw ingredients. Kirstin passed around jars of ripe barley and the malted end product. Note, they do not malt on site, so we were in a shipping bay where malt is brought in. But we all had the opportunity to try munching some malted barley, that was exciting. Tastes pretty good.

Next up we met their one milling machine, and I found it surprising that they had no backup for this critical machine. Kirstin explained that these machines were so reliable that the company which made them went out of business. The mill at Glenfarclas is relatively new (1960s model I believe) and kind of bland in appearance. (I have better photos of older mills still in production in future tour reviews.) We passed by a big electrical panel with important-looking red lights and switches. I was impressed that they Glenfarclas folks trusted complete strangers to keep their hands to themselves. As I learned at all these tours, you really climb around in the guts of these facilities.

Up a steel staircase from the mill, Glenfarclas has a lovely malt de-stoner, pictured below. I find this hilarious as I live in a town where cannabis is legal. We could use a de-stoner.

At one time in my life the studious label of the de-stoner would have sent me into fits of laughter. The dresser evokes its name with a touch of attractive woodwork, a hallmark of malt distilleries: custom handiwork.

The mash tun. Nuff said.

Next we marched into the heart of the distillery and met their mash tun. At 16.5 tonnes capacity, this stainless steel beast is an indication of Glenfarclas’s industrial focus: modern equipment, run efficiently. But this is industry at a small scale. At 3.5 million liters per year, their output is a fraction of true giants like Macallan. (I lost many notes when I destroyed my phone later on the journey, but I’m remembering that Glenfarclas brings in about 10 tonnes of malt per week, whereas Macallan would use that in less than a day.) You could call Glenfarclas a boutique maker: they boast modest production levels and focus only on unpeated, sherry-cask-aged releases. They pursue their niche with well-capitalized, modern efficiency. There are no Oregon pine washbacks or bragging about old-time methods. Everything about the place conveys a sense of focus and attention to detail.

Spick and span is Glenfarclas. Underneath the big Tun Room.

The facilities are spectacularly well-kept and clean, as you can see from the photos. Efficiency leads to opportunity; our guide boasted that in the downturns of the industry, the owners of Glenfarclas, a family-run concern ( J. & G. Grant), always expanded their contracts. Their good management is evident in the way they deliver an excellent product at very reasonable retail prices. They find efficiency in bottling and malting offsite. The heart of the process, distilling and aging, is handled here.

No worries taking photos at Glenfarclas.

Next up was the still house (click to expand photo at left.) There was no wash running at the time; maybe that’s why we were able to photograph (other distilleries disallowed photography in their still houses). The wash still reads 28,000 liters. That’s a fairly big still — compare to Caol Isla, no slouch in production whose wash stills are 19,000 liters. The stills are highly polished at Glenfarclas, not a job I would relish. A real industrial work of art, the whole of the still house, and topping all, the pièce de résistance: their spirit safe.

Keep it secret, keep it safe.

Spirit safes, from the grungier facilities like Bunnahabhain (review coming) to spiff places like Glenfarclas, are always gorgeous, the jewel in the crown of any distillery.

If the spirit safe is the heart of a distillery, this is the brain.

Yet I always keep a lookout for organic decrepitude. It’s an aesthetic interest I have: as beautiful as we can make any piece of equipment, the natural wear, tear and grunge that accumulates from time and heavy use adds an air of history and accidental art to ordinary objects. Such a subject is tough to find at Glenfarclas, but find it I did: the control center of their still house. Can’t you just imagine the malt master sipping a cup of coffee as he pores over the temperatures and pressures? I’m leaving this photo at full res so you can click it and zoom in on all the cool buttons and gauges. Check out the gloves under the desk, how all the switches require a key, the old brass padlock. Add a lovely patina of wear and yes, (rare for Glenfarclas) a touch of grime.

Warehouse 1, with guide.

On to the great old dunnage (stone walled, dirt floor) warehouse. We were not allowed to wander about the casks (there’s a rope across the way). Some places let you do that, other distilleries have their casks behind gates and do not allow photography at all for fear of explosion. (I found that a weak excuse after photographing in several warehouses). We had a good view of the place and of some casks dating back to the 1950s.

Barrels stacked 3 high, as per tradition.

On to tasting. The tasting room sports very intricately carved woodwork, as it is all salvaged from an old steamship’s lounge. Click on the photo below for super detail.

A room that is quite…tasteful. Sorry,

We had the basic tour, which comes with two tastes, the 10 and if I remember correctly, the 15. You can see my little bottle there, that’s for drivers.

Two for my baby, and one more for (after) the road.

Altogether, Glenfarclas was a delightful introduction to distillery tours. They have a spit-and-polish air and a no-nonsense approach to production. Their packaging is similarly no-nonsense — nothing fancy, as you can see from the photos of the lobby shop: they’ve had the same style, the Glenfarclas script and Roman font describing the release on a square tan label, their stout-shouldered bottle, for many years.

Is it worth the drive out of Dufftown? Absolutely. We enjoyed the lively guide and cheerful tasting room atmosphere. It was great education and entertainment for about $10 US. And that included a discount certificate in the lobby shop, which helped buy us a bottle of the 15-year-old to take home. As with other distilleries, there are more in-depth tasting tours available. Certainly recommended.


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Whisky and Words Number 30: Highland Park Magnus

Reminds me of 2001, a Space Odyssey.

Another in the NAS series! Again I’ll weigh the stratagem of the distiller, and we’ll see if the malt master and his minions have created value for both distiller and imbiber. In this case, the Magnus is presented to us as a hearkening back to old ways:

A whisky crafted in the old way by a new generation of Vikings, MAGNUS bears the soul of our Viking ancestors and the name of just one – our founder, Magnus Eunson.

Magnus, a chap who set up a still on the Highland Park site in the 1700s, was a descendant of Vikings. I’m reading Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, and pretty much everyone in the UK and northern Europe in general is a descendant of Vikings. They got around, those Vikings. Anyway, that’s the theme set by the marketing wags. The presentation is heavy on atmosphere, with the opaque black bottle (right) and a distinctive new cap, which is a combo cork/screw-in with a lot of detail embossed (detail below). The screw-in feature is handy if you are too tipsy to push the cork in without letting slip the bottle. Drink responsibly.

New cap, more Viking vibe.

What can we expect from the whisky? They explain they have brought forward Magnus’s “bold and uncompromising approach to whisky making… a single malt whisky, matured in Sherry seasoned American oak casks, that delivers notes of sweet vanilla, overlaid with our distinctive aromatic smokiness.”

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Whisky and Words Number 29: Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2009

We’re off the NAS train for a bit, coming back from the underwhelming Dalmore KA III, back at you with another Bruichladdich. I’ll do a little compare and contrast with the Bruich’ Scottish Barley, AKA Classic Laddie. Note, the Islay malt does have an age statement. On the bottle it states “Distilled in 2009, bottled in 2015. Aged 6 years in oak casks.” So, this has been sitting around in bottles for two years. Similarly, the currently available Islay Barley shown on the Bruich website is from 2010. (Oddly, where the 2009 is redundant stating the time spent in cask, the 2010 bottle is silent on that subject.) So, you wonder, how does a 6-year old stack up to the standards from other distilleries aged 10-12 years? We’ll see below. Let’s see what goes into making this whisky.

Click to expand, you can read their record of provenance.

First of all we have to recognize Bruichladdich as a distiller with an intense focus on how the whisky is made and from what. Not that other distillers are unfocused–I did visit a number of them this year–but these folks really take terroir to a fanatical level. My Islay Barley’s canister (photo alongside) boasts ‘Uber-provenance’ and names the Islay farms from which they sourced their barley. There is a lot of text about what was happening on the farms the year the barley was grown. It’s worth a read. We also find their credo on the canister, they “believe in Islay…in authenticity provenance and traceability. We believe in slow.”

Regarding ‘slow’: the Bruichladdich people don’t stop at focusing on grain. On their website they describe in detail the old-fashioned equipment and methods used onsite: Oregon pine washbacks, Victorian equipment, little mechanization:

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Whisky and Words Number 28: Dalmore King Alexander III

KAIII box rear

This whisky, the Dalmore King Alexander III (KA III forthwith) was a gift, and I am grateful for it. Especially as this retailed for over $300 when our local stocked it (it’s a state-owned store and they rotate brands, it is gone now). That price is definitely out of my ‘I’ll try it on a whim’ range. One wonders at the price, especially for a NAS whisky. What are we buying? There is a fancy box, as you can see (bottom of post), and all those flaps provide lots of inspiring verbiage:

  • A note on the box art, The Death of the Stag, a fine painting at the Scottish National Galleries (I saw it, an impressive painting indeed) on the right inner flap.
  • A note about the Dalmore Custodians, their loyalty program on the left inner flap.
  • Dalmore history, Dalmore’s general approach to marrying spirit, and KA III tasting notes (box rear).

So what does Dalmore bring to the party? Does this hyped-up NAS hold up?

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Whisky and Words Number 27: Bruichladdich ‘Classic’ Laddie

Known alternately as Scottish Barley and The Classic Laddie, this expression from craft-distiller Bruichladdich is a NAS whisky.

I have to admit a fondness for the place after having visited; I like their style. It was our last day on Islay, and after a busy morning walking from Port Ellen to Ardbeg (more on that later!) we decided to head out into the hinterlands for a drive. We took the road out to Port Charlotte, a tiny village at the end of which the A847 went from two lanes to one. That was all for me, I had had a bellyful of driving on tiny little roads and we headed back the way we came. Portnahaven would wait for next trip!

On the way back, we dropped by Bruichladdich. The distillery had been enthusiastically recommended to us by ‘Uncle Charlie,’ our taxi driver for the Bunnahabhain/Caol Isla visits (more on that later as well). I unfortunately has well tired of photography (and the day was spitting rain as well) so I have no photos, sad to say. Except this one, of some local creatures which had just scurried out of our way:

What, they think they own the road?

Just a dram, please.

It’s an interesting little place, a whitewashed structure and wall, through which you pass into an intimate little courtyard to park. The tasting room is through a brightly painted (turquoise) door, low-ceilinged, liberally provided with couches on which whisky overs lounged in quiet repose. There was the usual display of t-shirts, jackets and the like, and a wide bar where a kindly woman of mature years welcomed us gaily and immediately offered us a taste. Why, of course, why not? I expected the usual: “Here’s our standard, if you want more sign up for a tour.” But she led us energetically through tastings of four expressions (of which I took the tiniest sips, as I was still driving, grr.) We had the Classic Laddie, the Islay Barley (both unpeated), the Port Charlotte and Octomore (latter two peated). Note: though I growl about NAS whiskies, these all lacked an age statement and yet I enjoyed them all.

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Whisky and Words Number 26: Talisker Storm


Talisker Storm

This is the first of three straight NAS whisky reviews. I relented on Talisker’s Storm when the price came down, from over $55 locally (Oregon) to just under $50. The original price was not so obnoxious as some NAS whiskies — I tried a Dalmore King Alexander III recently, for example, which runs $305, and Ardbeg’s Corryveckan is about $90. But still, $55 is the range where you can get a nice 12-year-old.

The standard Talisker 10, one of my favorites, isn’t cheap of course, at about $65 locally, so the opportunity to fill the Talisker-sized hole in my liquor cabinet for fifty bucks was too good to pass up. So, how does the Storm compare? After all, it is a Talisker, and we have expectations: of light peat smoke, a unique medicinal nose, shades of wrack and seaweed, citrus and fruit. Those expectations are whetted by the marketing message prominent in this expression: it comes in a big bluish box with stormy clouds and splashing ocean waves, as you can see from the photo. The text reads that this whisky “takes the most intense experiences to a new level.” Well, that’s a marker thrown. We can expect this dram to be a bit combative, eh?

I’m relieved to see they bottle the Storm at the traditional (and offbeat) Talisker ABV percentage, 45.8. Must be an inside joke on Skye. Side-by-side with the 10-year-old (oh dear, sibling rivalry) I see right off the color is comparable, but the Storm is a shade more straw to the 10-year’s gold. That’s to be expected, in the absence of coloring (but Diageo isn’t telling one way or the other), if we assume younger malts in the Storm’s marry.* Less time in cask == less color.

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