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bruce berger
 
Bruce Berger is the award-winning author of numerous books of nonfiction. The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert was selected by judges N. Scott Momaday, Elizabeth Hardwick, William Kittredge and Jorie Graham to receive the 1990 Western States Book Award. It was followed by There Was A River, whose title piece is a narrative of what may have been the last trip on the Colorado River through Glen Canyon before its inundation by Lake Powell, and by Almost an Island, which recounts three decades of exploration and friendships in Baja California.

Praise for Bruce Berger's non-fiction: 

"Here is a wide-eyed writer with the curiosity, patience and observational skills to follow leads, pursue histories and apply the artistry that takes the reader down the same paths he visits…. There's geology, natural history, religion, desert rats, environmental issues, Mexican politics, music and adventure. There's disappointment and maturity and, above all, humor. Berger is clearly guided by the inner lizard that lives within all desert-lovers - scurrying in and out of crevices, basking upon rocks in the sun." Los Angeles Times

"Fine, lucid essays on the desert and its environs by a thoughtful, observant and very able writer." Peter Matthiessen

"Lucky for us, Bruce Berger is one of those cursed to have been there when. Berger is a poet, a pianist, and an elegant prose stylist...." San Diego Tribune 

"Bruce Berger's essays are bright and gritty, his observations on the desert sharp, provocative, and useful." Barry Lopez

"Environmental witness-bearers are many, but precious few are those who can write this well." Ted Conover

"Berger takes his place with Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez." Denver Post


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Here’s Craig Manning’s review of END OF THE SHERRY, published as part of the Indy Pick in Independent Publisher:


Indie Groundbreaking Book: The End of the Sherry

Youthful Adventure with Nostalgia and Color

by Craig Manning


As soon as we had ordered coffee, my spirits revived, for I spotted an upright piano. Here was relief from piano withdrawal, as well as an opportunity to speak the French I had studied for six years. I asked the waitress whether I could play.

“Certainly. We’d love it.”

I got through some Debussy. There was a bit of applause and the man at the nearest table asked if I knew any songs. I ran through some Gershwin. “How about ‘The Marseillaise’?” called a woman from across the room. I belted it out.

“Can you play ‘The Communist Internationale’?” shouted another patron. I had learned the tune from a socialist college roommate and gave it equal treatment.

“Can you play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’?” asked the man who had wanted popular songs. When I finished it, another customer shouted, “Play the last two songs again!” Beers arrived for me and Patrick. I felt my spirit thawing.

“What is the politics of these people?” wondered Patrick when we were back on the road.

“None,” I replied. “They just like patriotic songs.” Musical requests, a new language—this was living.


The above excerpt, pulled from Bruce Berger’s latest novel and memoir The End of Sherry, may seem like a bit of a lengthy quote to start off an article, but I couldn’t help myself. This half-page bit, contained within the book’s all-over-the-place first chapter, is quite simply the perfect microcosm of the story that The End of Sherrytells throughout its 300 pages. Let me explain.

This memoir, like last month’s indie groundbreaking book, is a portrait of an American in a foreign land. In the 1960s, Berger—an undergraduate alumni of Yale University and a graduate alumni of Berkeley—chooses to leave behind what he describes as the “boredom under the elms” characterized by his childhood home in suburban Chicago in pursuit of more vibrant pastures. Berger’s escape leads him to Spain, or more specifically, to Puerto Real, a port town in Andalusia, Cadiz. There, he takes up residency in a campground with only Og, his German Shepherd, a heavy typewriter, and a rickety Citroen automobile to his name. Raucous adventure transpires.

 


For some, the bare-bones style of living described in this book might sound horrifying. For Berger, however, those three tumultuous years spent in Spain were an unforgettable period of adventure, education, growth, and personal freedom. Even without the amenities and luxuries that most of us have grown accustomed to in modern America—and even living in Spain during the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco—Berger found bountiful life and opportunity in Puerto Real. All of that is brought back to life in The End of Sherry, where Berger writes richly and animatedly about the people he met, the places he explored, the spiritual subjects he parsed, and the unforgettable experiences he lived to the fullest during his time in Spain. His reverence for that time of his life is clear from the simple fact that he recaps his life up through college and grad school in a single paragraph on page six, but spends the majority of the book’s remaining pages reminiscing about his far briefer world travels. It’s a reverence that, thanks to Berger’s dynamic and lively prose, proves thoroughly infectious to the audience.

Which brings me back to the excerpt at the top of the page. One of Berger’s passions—as is revealed early on in the book—is a deep love for music, practiced through his natural talent for tickling the ivories. Told by his childhood piano teacher that he possessed “an unusual quality of perfect pitch,” Berger morphs himself into a human jukebox of sorts that takes up work in Spain as a piano player in cafes, restaurants, and bars. He catches requests on the fly, translating them into communal sound, cash tips, and plenty of free drinks—including the titular sherry. The bar regulars in Puerto Real, Berger reveals, had a special taste for sherry in the 1960s (though not, as Berger notes on the very first page of the book, the same honey-flavored wine that Americans might drink).

The first time Berger gets up to play, he receives requests for multiple national anthems and patriot songs. Despite the differing meanings and ideologies presented in the songs, when Berger plays them in Spain, they all work to bring people together and ignite celebration and bonding. It’s a perfect example of the friendly and accepting culture that Berger found himself enthralled in during the years detailed in The End of Sherry. As he picks up new words and masters the Spanish language, he also finds new friends (or, in many cases, drinking buddies) and cultivates new connections through song and conversation. It all coalesces into a beautiful feeling of belonging and contentment that, while fleeting, is beautiful and moving nevertheless.

Eventually though, Berger has to leave Puerto Real behind. When he comes back in the 1980s, everything has changed. His personal utopia has vanished, replaced by industrialization, crime, and rampant drug use. The locals no longer appreciate piano, opting instead for new dance and electronica crazes. When Berger walks into bars, he can’t even get his hands on the “astringent as paint thinner” sherry that he developed a taste for nearly 20 years earlier. Put simply, The End of Sherry has come and the world of Berger’s illustrious, adventurous youth has vanished. Luckily, within the pages of this book, those days will live on forevermore, not just for Berger, but for the rest of us as well.

Interested in checking out The End of Sherry? The book is available on Amazon.com in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle versions.

 

Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing forIndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes forRockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at manningcr953@gmail.com.

The End of the Sherry - review published in New Pages, June 2014

Nonfiction by Bruce Berger

Aequitas Books, January 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1929355952

Paperback: 316pp; $19.95

Review by Girija Sankar 


The End of the Sherry is a beautiful memoir chronicling the life and times of Bruce Berger in Southern Spain as a young, 20-something American.  Berger flew to Spain from California, abandoning graduate school in Berkeley, his story following the footsteps of a friend, his dog and a dodgy car. His friend soon decided to go his separate way and Bruce found himself in a sleepy, small town in Southern Spain, picking up his own little entourage and filling in as the pianist for several rock and roll bands playing at night clubs.  With his home base set up at campgrounds close to town, Berger often spent the day entertaining his friends at home: “Drifts of free time washed them daily to my tent, sometimes bearing bread and cheese.” 

Essays delve into Berger’s varied experiences in Spain—encounters with local eccentrics, the highs and lows of playing in a band, nascent romances, faith and life under Franco, with each experience rendered in prose laced with pathos and humor, demonstrating an innate curiosity for place, context and culture.  When writing about his dalliances with religion as a child in the Christian Science tradition, Berger writes that in Spain he:

. . . never mentioned that the Protestantism I grew up in was Christian Science, whose tenets would have disqualified me as a rational being. Looking back on childhood, I could see that I had tried to hold onto Sunday school theology in the way one clings to the atmosphere of a dream, even when that dream is not entirely pleasant-but it was hard to believe in the non-existence of matter when the tweed I was forced to wear itched on my neck.

Just when you think that the writing is getting denser with some intense recounting of childhood memories of church and faith, Berger brings the reader back into the here and now and reminds you that yes, of course, while at Sunday school, one has to worry about itchy tweed jackets and the sheer textural and tactile experiences of quotidian life. 

Months passed. Berger’s mother visited him in Spain, triggering a not altogether unexpected existential crisis. What are you doing with your life, his mother asked him. “‘Living it,’ I declared with what I hoped was finality. ‘That’s no answer,’ replied my mother. ‘We all live our lives. What are you doing with yours?’” Berger then rationalizes his time in Spain as the fruits of a delayed youth: “As an actual teenager, immersed in books or the family Steinway, alone or with adults, I hadn’t even been young at all, and perhaps it was important to get it all in even if it was out of sequence.” Berger refers back to this notion of “out of sequence,” and it serves in the end, as a leitmotif of his times in Spain.  

Indeed, he was living his life, and chalking up experiences, ranging from the ordinary to the bizarre as a part-time itinerant fishmonger and English tutor to a monk. Perhaps many of these forays were laced with the ulterior motives of a fledgling writer: “If I was an achieved atheist, I was only as aspiring writer, and felt I should be exposed to everything if only to have experience to draw on.” 

The End of the Sherry also serves as a useful ethnographic portrait of Spain under Franco. Berger’s words describe the general air of malaise and despair in small town Spain mingled with a certain fatalism that allowed the Spaniards to take life as it came.  

The End of the Sherry is a classic, coming-of-age memoir that doesn’t reveal itself as such until after the fact. And that may be the best thing about it. Coming-of-age novels and memoirs are often cloyingly laden with seemingly instructive and life changing moments, crescendoing up to where the writer or the protagonist is in the here and now. Berger’s stories are light and airy, unfettered by the usual burdens of having to create a whole, of rendering something greater than the sum of its parts. The ‘whole’ does emerge but rather like sherry, the fortified wine that Berger is initially curious about in his early days in Spain, the full effect of Berger’s reminiscences should be allowed to marinate and age, almost “out of sequence” to truly enjoy it. Therein lies the beauty of The End of the Sherry.