Book review

A dry tale about a dry time

LAST CALL: THE RISE AND FALL OF PROHIBITIONlast-call200_custom-f4a2f7205ab027a58dd55e6b4eec9d210cbb04c4-s6-c30
Daniel Okrent
Simon & Schuster

I love watching History Channel documentaries on the American Civil War. I’ll scan the electronic program guide and hit record for any Civil War doco I find. If, after pressing play, I realise I’ve seen it already, I’ll watch it again. I’ve seen the well-made but damn slow Ken Burns series at least twice.

This has led to me to believe I have a deep and abiding interest in the Civil War. And so I’ve bought any number of books on the subject – and not finished one of them (well, except for Confederates in the Attic, but that’s more about the US obsession with the war than the war itself). I don’t finish them because, well, they’re boring.

No, that’s not actually true. I just found that I’m not as interested in the Civil War as I thought. Happy to watch docos about the various battles and a bit of voice-over action reading the words of participants, but not at all interested in all the political argy-bargy that went on too.

What’s this got to do with anything? Well, I reckon I feel the same way about Prohibition. Well, at least the way Prohibition is covered in Okrent’s book Last Call. I watched the Ken Burns doco on Prohibition and the idea behind the concept of country banning alcohol. So I bought Okrent’s book, thinking it’d be great. It’s got loads and loads and loads of great reviews – one on the cover even goes so far as to claim it is ‘‘a narrative delight’’. So I figured it’d be the go-to source for Prohibition matters.

I made three separate attempts to read it, always giving up before page 60. In each case it was because it was so damn boring. As for those fantastic reviews, I can only assume they read a different book to me. Or that maybe it becomes an absolute ball-tearer from page 61 (no, I don’t think that actually happens).

For me, the book is really dry and the narrative very slow-moving. The period of prohibition seems rife with great material – crime, mobsters, smugglers, bribery, people partying on regardless, average citizens flouting the law. It’s a story that should really zip along. But Okrent’s tale is so slow. It reads much more like a textbook than a popular history, with Okrent throwing in what seems to be every single piece of research he discovered.

Having tried and failed to read this book three times, I very much doubt I’ll be bothering with a fourth time. At least not until I find myself up in the middle of the night and need to get back to sleep.

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