Show Notes – Episode 1.7

Long Live the King of Vodka: The Life of Pyotr Smirnov

The King of Vodka, Linda Himelstein

We are in high spirits this week for our next Thrift Store Find: The King of Vodka, by Linda Himelstein. Everyone knows the brand Smirnoff vodka, and if you haven’t found yourself waking up the next morning regretting your choice of flavored vodka the night before have you even been to college? But did you happen to know the wild ride that is the life story of the brand’s original founder, Pyotr Smirnov? Our guess is you haven’t, and boy are you missing out.

Paige took a shot on this book when we visited Goodwill many months ago, I mean, hey, alcohol = interesting. How Linda Himelstein, a respected investigative journalist, author, and producer, came upon this story in the first place is interesting. After graduating with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University, Himelstein went on to write for The Wall Street Times, Business Week, Legal Time, The New York Times, and more. Originally she began writing on legal matters, but would expand her repertoire to include business and tech stories. Beyond writing, Himelstein has also produced two documentaries, The Hunting Ground and The Great American Lie. The Hunting Ground, covering the prevalence of and response to sexual assault on college campuses in the United States, is currently available for viewing on Netflix. The legal background perhaps explains her original interest in the Smirnov story. After moving to the Bay Area, Himelstein learned of the recently resolved court case that involved members of the Smirnov family who were trying to sue the brand for using their family name and recipes. The extended Smirnov family members lost their case in court, but the story sparked Himelstein’s interest, leading to a discovery of the life and times of Pyotr Smirnov.

Once again the topic of popular vs. academic history came up in this week’s episode. For those of you wondering what that means, labeling a book as “popular” history is not necessarily a slur against it’s quality (though some do tend to use it that way, which is ridiculous). Usually the determining factors for a popular history are that is has not been published by an academic press – think Oxford University Press, for example – and that it generally has a more engaging style, free from jargon and theory, that appeals to a broader base of readers outside the historical field.

The iconic St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow, the city where Smirnov first began to build his empire. The cathedral received it’s distinctive modern day colors during Smirnov’s lifetime. Photo by Nikolay Vorobyev on Unsplash

While Paige was at first thrown off by this style, her discomfort vanished after the prologue. The story of Pyotr Smirnov is an amazing one indeed. Paige suggested The King of Vodka be made into a TV series, and she’s right, the drama of this family’s history seem tailor-made for a creative interpretation. Pyotr Smirnov was not born into wealth or privilege, he was born a serf. We have included a few resources about serfdom down below, but as a quick recap: serfdom was a form of slavery that had its roots in the Roman Empire, and at one time was widespread across Europe. However, by the time of Pyotr’s birth in 1831, Russia remained the last stronghold of serfdom. Being born a serf usually consigned you to a life of hard labor, as you worked the land you were tied to for a master, almost exclusively a member of the Russian aristocracy. What set the Smirnovs apart was their admittedly limited education, and their incredible business acumen. Through the efforts of Pyotr’s uncles, and eventually his own, they were able to make enough money from selling vodka to buy the entire family’s freedom.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Pyotr experienced several personal tragedies, and the company he created weathered several storms: the conservative regime of Czar Alexander III that tied vodka to immorality, and the Bolshevik Revolution that targeted capitalist ventures, to name a few. By the time of his death, Pyotr had indeed become the King of Vodka, but this title was hard won. After his death in 1898, it would be a title his heirs were hard-pressed to keep. The story of the Smirnovs is intimately connected to the story of modern Russia itself. The events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that swept across the entirety of the country also played out in the internal family dramas of the Smirnovs. If you want to understand modern Russia, this is as good a place to start as any. Plus there’s booze.

Overall, this was the first book Paige read for the podcast that she truly enjoyed and would heartily recommend. Ignoring the hilarity that it took us seven weeks to reach a book that Paige liked, The King of Vodka has her endorsement and earned 4.5 out of 5 stars. If you are at all interested in Russian history, perhaps already having binged your way through Empire of the Tsars or The Last Czars on Netflix, then this is a book for you.

*PSA*: If you noticed some background noise – like scratching or bells or meowing – in this week’s episode, be advised you are hearing Paige’s gang of cats doing their best to break the door down and succeeding.

We are just buzzing about these links:

  • For more complete information about Linda Himelstein and her work, visit her website.
  • For a list of all flavored Smirnoff vodkas currently sold in the US, look here.
  • What is serfdom? We didn’t really talk about it in the episode but check out the Britannica article on the origins of serfdom to learn more about this specialized form of slavery entrenched in Eastern Europe as late as the 19th century. Britannica also has another short article on Alexander II and the emancipation of Russia’s serfs. If you are so inclined to learn a great deal more about this topic, Jennifer can recommend Orlando Figes’ outstanding work, The People’s Tragedy. Assigned as a book for Jennifer’s legendary class on modern Russia, this book is hefty, but engagingly written and incredibly comprehensive (5/5 stars).
  • For more on Czar Alexander II, his Wikipedia page is extensive, and includes sources for further reading – some of which are even kind of recent!
  • According to Himelstein in The King of Vodka, the annual per capita alcohol consumption in Russia at the time of Smirnov was 2.7 liters, while in France it was nearly six times higher at 15.7 liters.
  • Unfortunately Jennifer wasn’t able to find much on the Pavlov vodka brand (in English) and whether or not it is the same as from the time of Smirnov. Possibly the brand we can find in stores was named after a Russian psychologist, but Jennifer isn’t sure about the accuracy of this fact.
  • The toxic ingredients found in Smirnov vodka were fusel oil, ethane diacid, sulfuric acid, and aniline dye, all of which are known to cause stomach, mouth, and kidney problems.
  • The most recent data Jennifer could find on the top grossing liquors was from a Forbes article from 2018. According to this article, while Smirnoff only ranks #6 in terms of all liquor sales, including local and international brands, they do still rank as #1 in international brands.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.8. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please leave us a review and follow us on social media (links above). Be sure to check out our Patreon for bonus BBE content as well, including bonus episodes. Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.6

Another Trip Down Enlightenment Lane: BBE on Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

We are back to Books We Hate this week, the subject? Paulo Coelho’s classic hit, The Alchemist. What soulless ghoul hates this book that has inspired so many people, sold millions of copies, and been translated into dozens of languages?? Well, if you’ve been keeping track of our episodes, you know that Jennifer is that ghoul. Yes, it was Jennifer’s turn to pick a book she hated for Paige to read, and it is Jennifer that hated The Alchemist so much that she put it down after getting through maybe forty pages. Keep in mind, this was back when it was a point of pride for Jennifer to struggle through to the bitter end no matter how terrible she thought the book was. Jennifer hated it so much that apparently her brain tried to wipe out the traumatic experience entirely because she can’t even remember when it was that she attempted this read. Something about the dreamy, symbol-laden parable really irritated a very pragmatic past Jennifer, but it remains to be seen if Paige will agree.

Coelho is best known for The Alchemist, first published in Portuguese in 1988. According to his Wikipedia page (which he potentially contributes to himself?), Coelho had a rather checkered past before he began his writing career. Though his parents were dead set on him entering the priesthood – possibly an inspiration for his character, Santiago – Coelho dreamed from an early age of being a writer. This eventually would happen, but not until after a nomadic and apparently drug-fueled lifestyle through South American, North Africa, Europe, and beyond. Undoubtedly his experiences traveling provided some inspiration for the journey parable found in The Alchemist. Though he had enjoyed a successful career as a songwriter after returning to Brazil in the 1970s, he did not feel fulfilled because he had never abandoned his dream of writing – his Personal Legend, if you will. So he began to write books, the first being Hell Archives. He would not find success with his first, second, or even third book, but in 1988 he felt inspired to write his classic in only two weeks, quite a feat for any author. Since then, he has been prolific, though none of his other works have been received with the same critical acclaim.

In this episode, Paige takes the reader through the adventures of the shepherd, Santiago, a boy once destined for the priesthood, and now set on finding fantastical wealth. After first being inspired by the wise man, Melchizedek, to begin this journey to find the fulfillment sadly lacking in the ushering of sheep from one place to another, Santiago journeys through north Africa on his way to the pyramids. Along the way he is helped or hindered by various characters, but ultimately learns more about himself, and how he relates to the larger world. As most journeys away from home, this is an eye-opener for Santiago. What was particularly irritating for Paige, other than the basics of the message, was that much of the terminology found in The Alchemist was an echo of what she already slogged through reading The Celestine Prophecy. Really, the similarities are eerie, as we discuss in the episode. Like most parables, The Alchemist is also…basic. The story is not complicated, in fact, it is so simple that Paige and Jennifer were looking for symbols that are not actually there other than the simple archetypes that the characters represent.

Photo by Federico Gutierrez on Unsplash

Coelho was surprised by the success of his book, and honestly so are we. Kind of. While this new age-y, woo-woo, follow-your-dreams message has become worn out and tired, it still sells. The thriving MLM market is enough evidence of that. Our social media feeds are often drowning in individual appeals to join the family, be part of an amazing community, find fulfillment and financial freedom. Of course this is all achieved through purchasing mostly non-FDA approved products that promise to revolutionize X, Y, and Z – but never mind that. The message is the same as so many others we have heard before: be true to yourself, listen to your intuition, get back to Nature, pursue your Personal Legend. See, it fits right in.

Looking at reviews of The Alchemist, it appears to be a polarizing read. You either really loved it and it changed your life, or you found its message to be simplistic, cheesy, superficial, or sometimes even offensive on a personal level. Does this speak to each individual’s own level of cynicism that we often reject positive messages like those listed above? Or is it because we recognize that sometimes intuition fails, sometimes dreams die, sometimes the wind fails to speak, and the universe fails to provide? Paige gave this book a solid three stars. Much as we have rolled our eyes at Coelho’s work, it is hard to completely trash a book that pushes such a positive message, naive or no. It’s popularity, similar to that of The Celestine Prophecy, speaks to its efficacy. Who knows, maybe you should give it a try?

To pursue your Personal Legend, listen to the links below:

  • If you want more info on Melchizedek the Biblical character, check this page out.
  • If you want, you can check out Coelho’s personal website, but…there have been many things that were less of a mess, tbh.
  • Course Hero has a wonderful YouTube series on The Alchemist that includes, summary and analysis of themes.
  • Coelho himself published a short article on his website about ten life lessons that can be drawn from his work. Definitely give this a read to learn about messages included in the text beyond just ‘pursuing your dreams’, which is what they have been boiled down to in this post. Truly, they are great mantras to incorporate into your life when possible.
  • As discussed on this week’s episode, Coelho also possibly edits his own Wikipedia page, which makes it both more and less accurate?

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.7. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please consider leaving us a review and follow us on social media if that is your thing (links above). Be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content as well, including bonus episodes. Until next time!

Show Notes – Episode 1.3

Visions of Enlightenment: Mysterious Manuscripts, Macchu Picchu, and Machine Guns

For our second Thrift Store Find, Paige chose James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy. Served up in our local Goodwill’s New Age section, and with a name like The Celestine Prophecy, you can guess that this pick is going in a similar direction to our first Thrift Store Find. However, contrary to what Jennifer had originally thought, this is, in fact, a work of fiction. Perhaps this is better than a mystical self-help book? Perhaps not? We’ll get to that at the end of the post. Either way, Redfield is simply using a fictional story as a vehicle for plugging his nine step program to achieving enlightenment, although what kind of enlightenment he means is not necessarily the woo-woo mumbo jumbo you may be expecting.

James Redfield, c/o goodreads

Redfield grew up in the Birmingham, Alabama area, and attended school at Auburn University. While in school he studied several eastern schools of thought, such as Taoism, while earning a degree in sociology. He later got a Master’s degree in counseling, which kick-started a fifteen-year long career in counseling. Though working with abused adolescents was undoubtedly a fulfilling career for Redfield, he explains in his personal bio on his website (link below) that he felt increasingly drawn to write about, “interactive psychology, Eastern and Western philosophies, science, futurism, ecology, and history.” He actually published The Celestine Prophecy himself, through Satori Publishing in 1992. By 2005, the book had over twenty million copies sold and was available in thirty-four different languages, a kind of success that most self-publishers can only dream of. This was only the first of many subsequent successful books, wherein Redfield reveals further ‘steps’ in his program. The Celestine Prophecy is described by Redfield as being a parable,

Paige walks listeners through the nine steps as presented within the story about a man (who is never named, although they call him John in the movie adaptation – let’s call him ‘John’ from now on), who embarks on a wild Peruvian adventure after becoming dissatisfied with his life and learning of a mysterious manuscript discovered in Peru, one that points to a path to achieve enlightenment. While the Catholic Church is trying to suppress knowledge of this manuscript emerging, as it rather understandably represents a threat to their own spiritual teachings, some brave souls that ‘John’ meets serendipitously along the way are not going to let an ancient institution or a few gun fights stand in their way. Yes, I said gun fights, as there are a disproportionate number of gun fights in this story, likening it to a Jason Bourne or a James Bond movie. Did anyone else notice that those two have the same initials? Anyway, “John” is helped by various people who reveal subsequent insights necessary for spiritual awakening to him.

This beautiful photo of Macchu Picchu, where ‘John’ has a spiritual experience, is by rhett sorensen on Unsplash

Redfield fluctuates between preaching an ascension gospel and providing advice that you would expect to find in a therapy session, undoubtedly stemming from his background in counseling. Things like releasing emotional or spiritual burdens, marketed in the story as forgetting your past, are common fare in the therapist’s office. Further, Redfield discusses how to recognize toxic people and behaviors at length, though not in so many words. Instead, this is billed as ‘transference,’ and ‘John’ learns there are four different types of behaviors that are designed to gain energy (or attention) from other people: the interrogator, the intimidator, aloof, and the ‘poor me’. This section was perhaps the most practically applicable portion of Redfield’s work as we all know people who match these behaviors, or perhaps even recognize these behaviors in ourselves from time to time. It is part of being an emotionally well-adjusted being to learn how to avoid these detrimental habits, and if necessary, cut out people in our life who embody them.

It seems that while the story itself, and definitely the movie by all accounts, comes across as kooky, some of the basic ideas within it are much more relevant to your daily life than you might expect. We are almost 100% certain that Redfield does not actually believe that we are going to turn into beams of light like some sort of apocalyptic Rapture – he says as much in his bio. Rather, The Celestine Prophecy can be taken as an exaggerated how-to guide to achieving greater mental clarity and peace. Perhaps Redfield felt that a fictional tale would be more palatable to the average reader than an esoteric nonfiction text. However, for us, placing his ideas in this context makes them more difficult to take seriously. Clearly though, his books’ incredible popularity indicates that they speak to a lot of people, including the former owner of Paige’s copy, who wrote extensively in the margins of certain chapters. While Paige is definitely not recommending The Celestine Prophecy to anyone any time soon, this doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t add value to your life.

We foresee these links being useful:

  • Here’s the IMDB page on the movie adaptation of The Celestine Prophecy. Apparently it is available to watch if you have Amazon Prime! But with a rating of 23 from Metacritic, be warned…
  • Stargate SG-1, Atlantis, and Universe (the whole current Stargate saga) is now available on Hulu and through Amazon Prime. If you have either of these subscription services and you haven’t checked out Stargate yet, what is your excuse really?
  • There are literal tons of fun links to learn more about Stargate, but here are a few: Gate World is a complete guide to the Stargate universe and also has a page for the upcoming and mysterious Stargate Origins spin-off, the Stargate Wiki is – as you can imagine – the place to be for any scrap of Stargate info you might have a question about, and finally don’t miss the new Stargate Command YouTube channel where you can catch cast interviews, classic clips, original YouTube shows, and much more! Really, Jennifer could talk about Stargate all day, so if you want, you can hit us up on social media or comment below.
  • Check out Celestine Vision to see other books Redfield has published, of which there are many, and upcoming Redfield events.
  • Redfield also provides an in-depth bio on the above website, which is pretty revealing.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.4. Follow us on social media if that is your thing, and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content!

Show Notes – Episode 1.2

Getting to Know The Stranger

This week on Big Book Energy, we are diving into Albert Camus’ absurdist classic, The Stranger. This was our first official Book We Hate, chosen by Jennifer for Paige. Jennifer’s first, and only, read of The Stranger was her senior year of high school. It was advertised as an example of existentialist literature, and Jennifer thoroughly hated it, though whether or not she really understood it is up for debate. After going through two rounds of graduate school and numerous existential crises, she has a feeling The Stranger may have a different appeal to her now.

Image of Albert Camus
Albert Camus. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, negative no. LC-USZ62-108028.

But boy oh boy was this a philosophical can of worms to explore in only our second episode. And we are not philosophers so….input and commentary are appreciated! The following are some things we learned over the course of this chat. First, Albert Camus was an all around bada**. Born in Algeria in 1913 when it was still under French control, Camus grew up in less than ideal circumstances. His mother struggled to provide for him and his brother, and Camus was afflicted with tuberculosis at a young age which shattered dreams of an athletic career. After receiving the best education possible in these circumstances, Camus tried to forge a better life in France where he was an editor, and later participated in the French Resistance against the Nazis in WWII. Finally, he was presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. So, really like #goals, minus the tuberculosis. Camus published The Stranger in 1942, though this had been preceded by plays, collections of essays, and Camus would go on to write more novels. Unfortunately, Camus’ life was cut tragically short by a car accident at the age of forty-six.

While The Stranger may have been marketed to Jennifer as an existentialist work in high school, Camus actually fought this association, classifying his work as absurdist. What is absurdism, you ask? Great question! That we are not really qualified to answer! But we tried. In short, absurdism is recognition of the conflict between our tendency towards seeking meaning in life and the fact that life is random, irrational, and completely out of our control. This is something that we can see in Camus’ own experience in life, and definitely also appears in his literary work. The Stranger, following a short period in the life of Meursault, is split into two parts: before The Murder and after The Murder. Meursault – who we refer to as M ever after because…we don’t know French – deals first with the death of his mother. Although, does he really deal with her death? No one can tell as he has literally no emotional response at her funeral. Then, after spending some time with his buddy Raymond, a local pimp, M gets into trouble. After a brief loss of control and sanity, M kills a man in cold blood.

The awesome cover of The Stranger, from the Vintage International 2012 edition

Perhaps the most fascinating portion of this book is M’s trial. What condemns him is not the brutal murder, but his emotionless and remorseless response, both to killing a man, but also to his own mother’s death. In fact, his response to his mother’s death is by far the most important piece of evidence used to justify the death penalty for M. Though technically he had done nothing wrong at the funeral, the lack of what society considers an appropriate response is the true nail in the coffin – both figuratively and literally. Encyclopedia Britannica characterizes Meursault as kind of like a rebellious figure who, “refuses to conform to society’s demands.” We find M to be a character so devoid of human emotion as to be suspect for some kind of psychological disorder. However, is it possible that his complete apathy to the world and events around him is a sign that he is still struggling to find purpose after accepting the world is irrational? Let us know what you think in the comments!

While we muddled our way through absurdism this week with an admittedly high brow pick, below are a collection of links that hopefully will give you more information on Camus, absurdism, and also random topics from this week’s episode:

A list of The Stranger Things:

  • Albert Camus’ Britannica entry gives a good breakdown of his life.
  • He also has an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • For those more academically inclined, there is an Albert Camus Society that publishes a Journal of Camus Studies, though you may need to be connected to a scholarly institution to access the journal for free.
  • Absurdism…is absurd, but if you’d like to explore it further, we cannot recommend enough this page from Philosophy Terms.
  • Here’s the AR thing Jennifer was talking about. Accelerated Reader is a software published by Renaissance that encourages students to read while also working on their reading comprehension and critical thinking.
  • Finally, here’s a quick look at how guillotining works on the human brain, and some fast facts about the guillotine. Looks like humans lose consciousness only a few seconds – think three or four seconds – after decapitation, so the facial expressions, etc. observed in the French Revolution were most likely involuntary.

Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.3. Follow us on social media if that is your thing, and be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content!