Category Archives: essays

Steve Almond’s Essays: Not so Critical

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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.

Partake in some wit and come to know Almond's brevity here

Partake in some wit and come to know Almond’s brevit

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.

Writing Memoirs as Book-Length Essays

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‘Writing is just another form of problem solving. Like psychology or medicine, it’s a drive to understand the human condition experientially, one that’s led by emotion and instinct. The success of a piece of writing is proven by readers connecting with the writer’s words, knowing on some basic level that what the writer has composed touches on a truth of human experience,’ Tara DaPra wrote recently in Creative Nonfiction.

This quote reminds me of some things floating around the Interwebs about publishing and memoirs– publishers bored with woe-is-me family stories, memoirs that are nothing more than chronicles, and nonfiction romance titles published as memoirs.

I think something else is happening now. Having read multiple articles citing editors express boredom with the litany of family and/or abuse stories coming across their desk, they want something hopeful. Apparently, that has come in the form of romance. Just in the last week three memoirs have caught my attention. All three center on romance. Are memoirs the new chick lit?

Love is important. It’s the human experience DaPra wrote about in CNF. Dinner parties might be filled with conversation like, “How did you two meet?”, but does that mean it’s what readers want? Do readers want dinner conversation served up in book form?

I don’t think so. They want a story, a journey along a narrative arc. But two of the last three memoirs I’ve read have failed to give that. I kept reading one of them in hopes of finding a well constructed arc in quotidian story after quotidian story, only to be disappointed. The other disappointing memoir also lacked an overall arc. Its conclusion made me wonder whether the author and I had read the same preceding 300 pages.

The concept of memoir causes me to anticipate a book-length essay. Something with the tone of Joan Didion, Joseph Epstein, Pico Iyer. Some contemplation of a universal idea or question, filtered through observation, and polished into an individual yet relatable conclusion.

That brings me to a quote from Brooke Warner, a publishing expert whose webinars on platforms, publishing, and memoirs provide abundantly useful insight. In a webinar that discussed the raging popularity of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she said that it’s the universal message in memoirs that make readers care.

“People want to see memoir as a mirror to themselves and their experience. So much of the criticism that happens around memoir about being self-indulgent is when writers don’t understand how to turn that mirror back to their readers to give their readers to give them a sense that they’re being spoken to,” she said.

Hallelueah, sister. Still up at the reading plate: Mary Karr, Lauren Slater, and Frank McCourt.

Who are your favorite memoirists and what’s your take on swings within the genre?

Listening for Luck, a Publication Announcement

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After trying out my second writers group then attending Lee Gutkind’s book signing on a recent Thursday night, I couldn’t have guessed what the rest of the night held. A formerly homeless man bums a cigarette from me at the #62 Hardy/Guadalupe bus stop, and we talk about the gorgeous full moon.

“That doesn’t come to ya unless ya got faith and hope,” says the bespectacled man in the baseball cap.

“True,” I say, thinking to myself, Shit, no this guy’s gonna talk about God and homelessness forever.

“You can pray to him. You can talk to him. He’ll answer ya. But what he says is gonna be much bigger than whatever you’re praying for,” he continues.

“Yep, and you have to work to make your prayers come true too.”

“Yep. You know it,” he replies and disembarks at his stop.

I think about his words. Instead of reaching for my book or listening to my headphones, I just let the moment be. Silent yet full.

There isn’t much showing for my job hunt efforts. Nor for my literary efforts. And at least once a week I get down about one or both of those elements of my life. Still, I know something’ll come along. I’ve made it through far worse than this.

Momentarily, it’s my stop. I walk a block to the apartment my friend has been kind enough to share until I get myself rooted in my repatriated life here in Arizona, sing some Melody Gardot lyrics. The smell of fresh laundry greets me as I pass a house. The site of three cats, fat and lollygagging like Puss in Boots in the last Shrek movie, makes me giggle.

My roommate and I briefly discuss our day, talk about the grocery list, and I open my email. A message awaits me:

“I am pleased to inform you that we will publish your piece Battle of Mianzi in the May issue of Eastlit.

We would also love to see any other work you have! We all liked this piece a lot.

Regards and thanks for supporting Eastlit.”

I don’t know who that man on the bus was but this post, an acknowledgement that god does honor faith, hope, and work, is dedicated to him.

It’s good to have faith.

 

My travel essay, “The Battle of Mianzi“, is running now in the May issue of Eastlit. It marks my second piece to be published within a year. My first, “Burqa to the Loo”, an essay about wearing hijab in Mumbai, only to be thought of as a potential terrorist, was published by Recess Magazine last June.

Tell me about your favorite publication announcement.

HS