Nichole L. Reber is a writer experienced in journalism and marketing communications, especially with an emphasis on architecture, sustainable building, residential development, and interior design. Her career further includes non-profits, publishing, education, and public speaking. Available for speaking engagements and to lead seminars, she currently seeks employment in or around but not limited to the vicinity of Phoenix.
Young American writer Shannon Young is writing a memoir, Hong Kong style. Her dream of being published and being in publishing should have taken her to New York. It took her to London.
There, working in publishing and starting to hone her own writing craft, she met the man who would be her husband. She agreed to move with him to Hong Kong. A month later, he’d be sent back to live in England.
After reading Steve Almond’s essays on various sites in the past few months I wondered, when picking up Not That You Asked: Rants, Exploits and Obsessions, if perhaps a collection of his essays might be a bit too much puerile masculinity. Would his work come to sound like high school highjinks? The answer is no.
It’s not a new book. In fact it was published in 2007. (Go here for his more recent titles and tour dates.) But the self-deprecation and personal essays that fill this quick read are still very much in vogue. So is humor, a quality that seems most always to sell and keep us coming back for more.
Another element in vogue within the world of publishing is creating short sections, which Almond exacts in spades. After reading a few essays consecutively, though, one gets the sense she’s reading thoughts from a writer who 1) cannot hold a thought for more than some 90 seconds, 2) Cannot connect a series of thoughts together, and 3) doesn’t trust the reader to be able to do so either. After a book full of essays built on this system of comic strip after comic strip, I long for something longer, something to commit to.
The diversity of Almond’s topics though does keep us committed to the read. He mocks the Kingdom of Oprah, idolizes Kurt Vonnegut, exposes himself sexually, and fears he’s killing his newborn baby. Despite the fact I’m a baseball fan I skipped over the two essays on the Boston Red Sox; if I wanted to read play by plays I’d pick up a newspaper of last night’s game. Nor did the essays about pad thai or Tesla (the rock band) strike deeply.
One of my favorite parts was his lashing out on Oprah: “The truth is, I don’t give a shit how many books you sell. I don’t care how …many famous people you make cry. At the end of the day you’re a TV star. You show up on a tiny screen and give lonely people a place to park their emotions for an hour. You’re the world’s leading retailer of inspiration. You’re the Wal-Mart of Hope.” Go, man, go!
By the time we’ve read a couple of his essays on what he calls the “deplorable nature of literary fan”, the truth to his storytelling and self-deprecation hits a low point. The same is true of “Demagogue Days”, which brings to mind more attention seeking than bona fide activism against FOX News, war in the Middle East, and the Bush administration. Consider what he writes about himself and other “dumb ass adjuncts” who work for $5,000 per class:
“We do not, as a rule, teach for money. (My pay stub, when divided by the number of hours I worked teaching a class, came out to less than the minimum wage.) We teach because we dig teaching, because we enjoy our students.”
This and other arguments made throughout the piece, such as Almond’s disgruntlement that he wasn’t granted the promised 10 minutes but 25 seconds to bask in the FOX limelight, rang as hollow arguments to his sincerity in fighting what he called Hateocracy.
Furthermore, Almond’s overzealous use of Cantos, a la Dante’s Inferno, gave the essay not the literary cultural criticism he seems to have sought but rather chopped it so badly enough to read more like a reactionary blog post.
Overall I would recommend Almond’s book. Its humor and topical diversity make a good bathroom read. My conservative friends, however, would likely hurl it across the room, as the book jacket portends.
Goodreads members should/can read other reviews of this and other Almond books here.
In The Woman Who Fell from the Sky author Jennifer Steil recounts a year spent in Yemen, where she worked to modernize a newspaper and help its journalists adopt Western methods of journalism. Along her one-year journey she changes the lives of and is changed by the women in her office and their culture, she pushes the boundaries of comfort of the men in her office, and she learns to live the life of an expat.
Memoirs require the ability to tell stories with depth and essayistic contemplation, use a blend of the universal and individual. They are not merely chronicles of quotidian matters, as this one was, leaving itself to read more like autobiography.
As a former expat and one who’s worn hijab, I could relate to Steil’s early concerns for the practice. As one who has worked in multiple other cultures, I could relate to her frustrations with the workplace’s pace and practices. However, she might have been hired to improve the Yemen Observer but her tale read more like a forced issue than one that changed her. For instance, the more I fought China and its workplace practices the further and further I dug myself into a hole. With more travel came more recognition to work within the parameters of the culture, not against it, as Steil’s book repeatedly made me think of.
Having been warned by an American friend, “You cannot show them any weakness. You cannot show them a flaw or they will become completely disillusioned and lose faith in you,” as she was in the book’s beginning, I saw more forcing and demanding than observing and navigating of the workplace. Her decision to often work for almost 24 hours straight did not impress me or make the narrator more likable; it worked in contrast to that, actually.
The book focused too much on the job. The character was too driven by her American professional identity, which remained static throughout the story. Her choice to scream at her colleagues and fail to see that they’re not rushed, not wired for perfectionism, not bound by the American shackles of productivity made me pity her. Yet I don’t think that’s the intent of the book.
The entire topic of romance annoyed me from the start. This was especially so because each broach of the subject lacked sufficient weight or depth to suggest any careful consideration and therefore didn’t work enough o put me on her side. For instance, upon meeting people she always tells them she’s married and even wears a wedding ring. Why? What did she have to gain (or lose) by doing so? Even when she reminds us that she’s spending one of her last fertile years in a country where she’s unlikely to find a romantic partner, the contemplation takes all of a short paragraph. That’s not a lot of front weight to justify putting so much back weight on finding the man who’s now her husband. To top it off, she barely seemed to feel more than momentary obligatory remorse for having stolen another woman’s husband. I’d have felt more for a minor character in a Harlequin Romance novel.
Overall Steil does not have much literary control over her writing. She had so much potential to move us by creating a mini story around various experiences there, but time and again left me hanging. With its lack of depth and literary tropes, the autobiography disguised as a memoir called The Woman Who Fell from the Sky might appeal to the masses. It does not appeal to this literary snob.
The book wasn’t entirely without merit, however. It contained one of the best quotes on travel I’ve ever read: “Travel is always like this, I remind myself. Uneven, with stretches of loneliness and anxiety followed by unparalleled moments of bliss and discovery. In the droughts, I have to learn to trust that the joy will come.”