Thursday, May 21, 2009

Linda Himelstein's "The King of Vodka"

Linda Himelstein began her journalism career in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal, and from there went on to work for the San Francisco Recorder and Legal Times. She covered Congress, federal agencies, city hall, and the courts, and appeared on television outlets such as CNN and C-SPAN as an expert commentator. In 1993 she joined BusinessWeek in New York as its legal affairs editor. One of her cover stories, titled "Bankers Trust Tapes," helped BusinessWeek win the National Magazine Award.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire, and reported the following:
In writing The King of Vodka, my goal was twofold. First, I wanted to tell an amazing and original tale. The narrative follows the rags-to-riches-to-rags drama of the family of vodka pioneer Pyotr Smirnov (Smirnoff today), an uneducated serf who rose from nothing to become one of Russia’s wealthiest and most successful industrialists. On his way to prosperity, Smirnov piqued the ire of Chekhov, became a foe of Tolstoy’s, and wooed the Tsars. The family lost everything after the revolution.

My second goal was to wrap this wonderful tale in historical context so that the reader could taste, feel, smell, and ultimately understand the Russia of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Page 99, thankfully, illustrates both goals. The scene is outside Smirnov’s vodka factory. He has just gotten married for the third time. It is May and his business has taken off. Horse-drawn carts of fresh fruits and herbs are approaching his factory from the train station, angering pedestrians and snarling all other traffic. It doesn’t matter, of course. “Luckily for Smirnov, he had the personal clout to get away with creating such pandemonium.”

As one of Smirnov’s sons later told his wife: “The air was resounding with the cries and insults from the carters and the people whom they were obstructing. Ladies closed their ears and hid themselves behind their umbrellas.” These small details help to create a very vivid scene. A reader can actually envision the crowded street, smell the fruits, and hear the cries of the angry passersby. In addition, you get a sense for the way business worked in Smirnov’s day. He was already a powerful business leader. He had made the necessary connections to get his way. It is apparent from this passage, when looking at some of Russia’s business practices today, that history does repeat itself.

In combining many of the essential elements in The King of Vodka, p. 99 is pretty representative of the book.
Browse inside The King of Vodka, and learn more about the book and author at Linda Himelstein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue