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BOOK REVIEW : A Drinking Buddy : THE GUINNESS DRINKING COMPANION By Leslie Dunkling ; (Lyons & Burford: $22.95, 224 pp.)

March 02, 1995|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The introduction offers a plausible aim: "to say something about the drinks themselves and to provide at least a part-explanation of why we drink what we do."

And so this book does, in a way. There are chapters on what various prominent people have said for and against drinking, choice literary passages about drinking and essays on the major classes of alcoholic beverage: beer (including Guinness stout, of course), wine, hard liquor, cocktails.

But "saying something" and "part-explaining" are just a hanger for this particular suit of clothes. Basically, as the title says, this is a companion, a book full of tidbits for dipping into at random, rather than a book you sit down and read straight through. The essays, short as they are, are broken up with boxed quotations--little snippets of poetry, or dialogue from novels, or essayistic wit. Basically you can open the book just about anywhere.

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In among the essays on the wines of the world and how whiskey is distilled, you find numerous curious facts (more than 7,000 cocktails have been registered with the American Bartenders' Assn.; English yuppies prefer bourbon to Scotch), literary musings (is "A Farewell to Arms" basically a diary of what the protagonist has been drinking?), and oddities of language ("high," meaning drunk, was originally Cockney rhyming slang--"high as a kite" rhymes with "tight").

And these are what you'd buy the book for. If you really wanted to learn a whole lot about the wines of the world or how whiskey is distilled, you'd have bought a specialized study, not one that has room for the Australian slang term for drinking alone ("drinking with the flies").

The fact that the book was originally written for the English public shows here and there, for instance the prominence given to a lot of 20th-Century English novelists you may never have heard of. But give the Limeys their due--they know a thing or two about boozing. Queen Elizabeth (the 16th-Century one) considered beer "an excellent wash" and used to drink a quart of it at breakfast.

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