Saturday, September 14, 2019

Howie Balaban: Beer - It's Good For What Ales You

Sometimes, a book draws a person in by the cover. That’s been discussed here before. It’s not what is good about the book, but it does serve a purpose. If you don’t like what something looks like, you probably won’t pick it up.
On the other hand, sometimes a book’s title can hook a person. And that is what drew me to this week’s review of The Lager Queen of Minnesota.
First, there’s beer in the title. Immediately, I thought, this could be worth a read. The title was enough to get me to pick it up and read the inside flap synopsis, and, sure enough, the story was plenty intriguing.

The story told by J. Ryan Stradal focuses on the lives of two sisters – Edith and Helen. Putting it a simply as possible, the pair of ladies are so opposite in personality yet so unaware of all they have in common. The story begins when they are both still living at home and moves quickly to the present day, with a few flashback sequences thrown in to advance the narrative when necessary.
Edith’s life was stereotypical heartland America. She met a guy, fell in love, got married at a fairly young age, had a family, etc., etc. However, like everyone’s grandma, she had a certain thing that made her stand out. For Edith, that thing was a knack for making stellar pies. In fact, near the end of her second act in life, she created such a name for herself as an employee at her local nursing home by making those pies, that it became commonplace to have people travel from far and wide to visit just for a chance to eat some of the pies. (This led to a funny bit in the story when one nursing home resident is mentioned as having one of the largest families the world had ever known.)
The story of Edith includes her husband who leaves her a widow far too soon, and then she’s tested again when her granddaughter, Diana, comes to live with her. Diana’s parents also are fatal victims of unfortunate circumstances. So, much of Edith’s later life is spent with Diana as the two try to make it day to day.
On the other hand, the story of Helen is also stereotypically American in that so much of a person’s upward mobility in life is determined by who that person knows. In Helen’s case, she leaves home after high school and attends college. There, she meets Orval Blotz, who is heir to a beer company. And yes, they wind up together.
Due to a series of events around the time Helen leaves home for good, and the misunderstandings around them, she and Edith wind up spending the next several decades estranged. The ensuing story that makes up the bulk of this book is one that truly sheds light onto the old phrase about how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence…or is it?
Helen, who along with Orval helps to re-brand the Blotz name and ushers in a long run of success, seems to be living a life of success. However, by simply reading between the lines of her life, it is painfully obvious she is missing something.
Edith helps to get Diana into college with the aide of a concerned neighbor, who, coincidentally, happens to run a small brewery. While Edith has her family close by, financial success constantly eludes her. She’s known, but she isn’t part of a famous family.
As the years go by, Diana works her way back into town where her grandma, Edith, lives. And like her estranged aunt, she also becomes a savvy beer maker.
But no one lives forever, and some companies can’t quite keep up with current trends. Can you possibly see where this is going?
The story picks up steam in its third act as Diana is forced (for a good reason) to rely on Edith and all of her group of senior citizen friends to handle the brewery business for a short time. Each one winds up brewing her own unique recipe. 
Getting too far into how the story plays out would spoil too much from here on out. By this point, you’re likely wondering: How will all the ladies wind up crossing paths again, because it is bound to happen, right? You should read it and find out.
While reading this tale, though, the contrasting lives of the two main women – Edith and Helen – are shown as equally rewarding and equally challenging. In a way, the whole story showed how “having it all” can be done, but in the end, sometimes we need luck to firmly be on our side. Also, a question that I found myself asking is this: how long is too long to wait to make amends? Furthermore, if there’s a rift between family members, when did it begin and do the parties involved truly know everything they think they know? Is there ever a right time to correct things?
In this regard, Stradal’s story of beer royalty gives readers a chance for introspection.  And it should be noted that this was his sophomore effort. His first novel – Kitchens of the Great Midwest – has been out for a few years. After reading this enjoyable tale that left me thirsting for a cold one, I look forward to finding my way to his debut and expect I’ll wind up hungry. And satisfied.

Howie Balaban has picked up his reading pace and, in honor of this book, he wrote part of this review while drinking a can of locally brewed craft beer because he could.