Almond Zin!

Hello, I am Zin! And last night I finally ! got to see Steve Almond read in person!

My Zoetrope buddy Jeanne (Hello, Jeanne!) emailed me early last week to tell me Steve was doing workshops and a reading here at the Space Gallery right down the street from me! I think it is a riot that someone else, who lives almost in Rhode Island, has to tell me what is going on two blocks away! But that is how it sometimes goes!

Jeanne was taking one of the workshops, but I have not been writing fiction lately, and I am not really at the Steve Almond level yet, and so did not think the workshop would be a good idea. I wanted to go to the reading, so I met Jeanne and her daughter (who we discovered some time ago lives in my apartment building, how is that for coincidence) at the reading that night.

He is extremely funny (but only if you are on the left side of the aisle, I would guess; you can judge for yourself from the collection of online essays on his website under “Patriotic Writings”) and read from his teeny-tiny self-published books, like This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey which I have (and which I carry around to read on busses and in waiting rooms and wherever because it is so wonderful) and Bad Poetry (which I do not have but I think I will need to get) and Letters From People Who Hate Me (ditto on do not have) – this one has some of the best come-backs to obscene hate mail because they show the letter writer for what he or she is, a maniac without the ability to think, and make a larger point about the issue at hand at the same time. Like the guy from the Space Gallery who introduced him said: Some funny people will tell you a fart joke; Steve Almond will tell you a fart joke, and follow it up with a penis joke, but the penis joke will turn and venture into an area of utmost vulnerability. That is exactly what he does!

These books are only available at readings (or you can order them through the Harvard Book Store). So I should have bought them! I could have gotten them signed! I am an idiot! But I get frazzled when I am out in public, so many things to think about – do I have a normal look on my face or am I imitating The Scream? Am I singing or making other funny noises? Am I standing ok or am I cowering in terror? I do these things a lot at home so I worry I might do them without realizing it when I am out in public. I did not want to embarrass Jeanne! So I did not think about practical things.

After he read a bit, he took questions and someone asked about the problem he had with Fox following his resignation from Boston University after they hired Condaleezza Rice to speak at Commencement (this is thoroughly covered in (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits and Obsessions which I also have; they were running the clip he made about that adventure) and admitted “I have not done any research on this” and Steve joked around about feeling like he had to do research before attending a reading (I did do some research. I had my entire Steve Almond collection in my rucksack. But I did not tell anyone. They would have thought I was strange. Am I?). He is a very funny speaker. Jeanne said the workshop was excellent as well. And I obviously love his writing, especially his non-fiction and flash.

My only complaint with the reading was that it was too short! Maybe 45 minutes. But he gave a noon-to-3pm workshop, a 3:30 to 6:30 workshop, and a 7:30 reading, so I am thinking, that is a full day! And it was free, after all (the reading was free; the workshops were $100 which is not bad at all for someone of his calibre). And most people have very short attention spans. Me, I like to go somewhere and plant myself for a while, preferably in a dim secluded corner where no one will see me or ask me anything like “Why are you hiding here in this dark secluded corner?”, so I am just not really made for the short-attention-span lifestyle!

But it was a fun reading and I am very glad I went – thank you Jeanne for cluing me in and for meeting me there!

Steve Almond – God Bless America: Stories

This collection spans humor, loneliness, the creepy, the bawdy, the American Dream, several American Nightmares, humor, and heartbreak. For that matter, most of the stories include three or four of those elements. I found the stories, in general, got stronger as I read, but that could be more that I was more attuned to what was going on. I tend to have trouble with humor; I miss it sometimes. My fallback position is pathos, not funny. So there are a few instances where I think I missed the boat completely, and I take full responsibility for that. One of the funniest stories is also one of my favorites; my other favorite is one of the saddest. And the story that had me most baffled – and still does – I still don’t know if it’s humor or not. But each was an enjoyable read.

I didn’t comment on “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” here because I already discussed it when I read BASS 2010. In fact, it was the first story I blogged about, a little over a year ago; I’m sure I’d have very different comments today. I won’t even read the post now, because I’ll probably be embarrassed.

“God Bless America” (Southern Review) –

Billy Clamm had not signed up for Drama I, he had signed up for a tax-preparation course called Loopholes Ahoy! But the Medford Adult Education facility was a confusing one, full of strange underground corridors and bunkers, and Billy was somewhat easily disoriented, somewhat prone to distraction, particularly during the bleak winter months, and so he had found his way to the wrong classroom.

I was nervous after reading this story. While I enjoyed the Boston landmarks (I lived there for 20 years), the story itself did nothing for me. Not that it’s a bad story – it’s a rather enjoyable misadventure, doubling as a comedic mis-allegory for The American Dream, a fun satire. But I didn’t feel that whooosh in my soul that I’ve come to expect from Steve Almond (he gets graded on a curve; good isn’t good enough). And since I’d already read “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” (which I liked), I felt like 15% of the book was already gone and I didn’t have much to show for it. Does that make me a tough audience?

So I read it again, and found additional enjoyment in the misunderstood-allegory part. Billy hasn’t really paid much attention in History and Civics classes, about as much as some of the politicians who have stumbled onto the scene recently, substituting catchprases for policy and vague misrecollections for actual understanding:

But this was America, the land of opportunists, and here it wasn’t enough to want something, you had to fight for what you wanted and fight hard, fight through your own resistance and the jeers of others and physical adversity, which was what the Pilgrims had done vis-à-vis the Thanksgiving situation, and after them the colonists, who had bucked the most powerful empire on earth even though they were basically just a bunch of underfed tax evaders. And then the pioneers. No, you couldn’t forget the pioneers, who had traversed vast prairies and mountains, and battled Indians and grizzly bears and inclement weather and various kinds of pox, and some had even starved and had to eat each other to survive, which, by the way, would make a terrific film treatment, Billy thought, because it said so much about he indomitable spirit that had built the country. Not that cannibalism was part of the indomitable American spirit, but it showed how far some people would go to find good property.

At least he didn’t go on a TV reality show to find his fortune, which seems to be the preferred route these days.

“Hope Wood” (The Sun) –

Already our framed degrees were wilting. The future which we had talked about eagerly for years was upon us and our shock was not that this future should entail depression – which, idiotically, we took as a measure of our depth – but that it should prove so uninteresting.

Here is the whooosh. I’m not usually a fan of description, no matter how good, but I could become one thanks to stories like this. Two recent college grads learn something from the junkman, and somehow it doesn’t come across as hokey as all that. And I want to paint my windows so the house looks like it’s batting its eyelashes, and I want a fridge and a crib and a cash register just like the ones in the story. A little care, a little genius, and trash turns into treasure. And then there’s the baby…

“Not Until You Say Yes” (Ninth Letter) –

…her ideas about life had yellowed one by one, like old movie posters.

I’m torn on this story. I like the story, I’m just not sure about the way it’s told. Now, I have total confidence that Steve Almond can choose to tell a story in many, many ways, so he picked this way, and that choice puzzles me. It concerns a crochety sixty-seven-year-old woman who takes a job as a TSA agent, and a wise-ass ten-year-old who knows how to scam the airlines’ overbooking policies. Both characters are perfectly drawn, it’s true. There’s no sentiment here, in a story that could easily be derailed by cuteness. But the story proceeds in mincing little choppy steps, and I found it kind of unpleasant as a matter of style. I’m not saying lush prose is called for – that wouldn’t do at all – but there is a middle ground. Maybe the idea was to make me as irritated as the old woman. Considering I pretty much am the old woman, that wasn’t necessary, so it was overkill for me, but for others it might work. I’m also not crazy about how the ending was handled. There’s a line of dialogue that isn’t recorded for a couple of paragraphs, and that rang false to me. But I’m not about to start questioning Steve Almond’s choices; my purpose here is to learn.

Shotgun Wedding (New England Review) –

There were other discussions, later on. But these had been grim and cautious, more in the spirit of negotiations. As the years passed, as they racked up accolades and anniversaries, the idea of children was quietly subsumed into the looming issues of cohabitation and marriage. These, in turn, were weighed against career advancement and logistics. Brian didn’t avoid these matters. He was too clever for that. Instead he bled them of passion.

Carrie, ad exec at a San Diego boutique agency (“projects rather than campaigns, meaning they had integrity and a modern-art installation in the lobby that looked very much like a disemboweled ostrich”), goes to the doctor for the flu and discovers she’s pregnant by Brian, who’s in Milwaukee setting up his own agency (“then to send for her, as if she were some lady pioneer”). The story is pretty much her reaction to that, and her phone call to Brian, and culminates in food porn about a Philly cheesesteak (in San Diego? sacrilege!). Elliot Holt’s “Fem Care” was a much richer exploration of the topic. Except without the transplanted food porn. This felt… boilerplate. Which scares the hell out of me: have I learned anything in the past year?

Tamalpais (Virginia Quarterly Review)

I should have said something to Pound at that point. But I was very young and not much good at identifying my feelings. Besides, this was the best job I’d ever had and it was going to help me pay for the SAT prep course I was going to need to have a shot at Cal, and I felt, bizarrely, that Charlotte herself was a kind of test, a chance to see if I was worthy of better circumstances.

This is a lovely character study – a different kind of coming-of-age story with an ambiguous ending that I love. Austin is a sixteen-year-old waiter and UC-Berkeley aspirant (Electrical Engineering) at a snazzy restaurant on the hill overlooking the working-class valley where he lives. Charlotte is a customer who morphs over the course of the story from one thing into another. Watching Austin deal with her, with her kind of adult brokenness he seems to have not encountered up close before, is both sweet and sad as he fumbles and regroups and struggles to find his footing.

What the Bird Says (Southern Review) –

He had assumed his mother and sisters would run the show, that he’d be more of a special guest. But the old man had little use for the women. He’d been raised in a family of men, in a world of men, and now that he was departing that world he seemed to feel the need to settle up with the man he’d brought into it.

Jim visits the family manse in Old Dominion (or somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line) to attend the death of his patriarch father. I should recuse myself from this story, because I have a similar going-home-to-watch-Daddy-die tale. In fact, it’s the first story I ever wanted to write. I still haven’t written it. I was one of the women the old man had no use for, and as I hung around hoping to get my apology, the rest of my family made it clear they had no use for me, either. So I had some sympathy with Jim. But, again, I didn’t really care for the way the story was told. There were terrific scenes – the Bishop and the old man going through their joint recollections, which, owing to the illness of the old man, “settled into a kind of shorthand – the invocation of names. Ted Houghton. Forrest Drury. Buzz Shaw. The dear departed, all those jolly young souls fallen into graves.” And the linen that binds the women together: “linens which were to be washed, dried, folded, and tucked. He had never seen so much linen in his life.” And the final scene is great. But overall, it just didn’t work for me, mostly due to the voice of the prose. I just couldn’t find a person on the other end.

The Darkness Together (Southern Review) –

Then the train lurched and Hank stumbled against her and she let out a happy shriek, and as all this happened – Hank drawing his knee first into and then away from his mother’s bosom, she clinging to his belt loops, her forehead brushing his thigh – a third figure slipped into the compartment.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” he said.

Yes, it’s creepy. Ewwww creepy, not horror-story creepy. And the rest of the story is the interaction of these three players – teenage Hank, his not-very-subtly seductive mother, and stranger-come-to-town-on-a-train Nicholas Chaleaux, who sized them up right away and eases into confronting Mom with her behavior as the train ride continues, always backing off at the last possible moment. At any moment, of course, Mom could call the conductor and insist he be seated elsewhere. But she doesn’t. And it’s not just because then the story would be over. The final scene is the closest possible thing to a sex scene without actually sex, it’s really remarkably written. But it’s still creepy. And I didn’t really want to know much more about this mother after the first couple of pages. I did want to know where Nicholas came from, why he showed up, and what happened when Henry and Mom got home, but that’s pretty much left for speculation. It’s a psychological tour de force, and one I admired, but didn’t particularly like, perhaps because it was so effective it made me uncomfortable. It reminded me very much of a Flannery O’Connor story I read recently, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” but I’m not sure why; maybe because that was about a strange mother and son pair, too.

A Jew Berserk On Christmas Eve (Nerve and Pisgah Review)

So much drunken hope! Isn’t that a version of love also, some central, infant aspect of the thing: the dumb throb, the frantic seep? How else do we withstand the rest of the bullshit?

The quote probably does a disservice to the story; it isn’t representative at all. It’s a hilarious sexual farce featuring Jacob, the Jew berserk on Christmas eve. He is berserk because his girlfriend of eight months, Dria, has invited him home (to meet her very WASP one-percenter parents) for Christmas, and has told him she’ll have sex with him on Christmas Eve. What college boy could resist? Dria calls Jacob her “dirty little Jew horn” and “matzo fucker.” The terminology is appalling to him, but: “I wanted to have sex with her really badly.” So he calls her “frog slut” and “Parisian whore.” What happens on Christmas Eve night, I won’t even hint at. I couldn’t possibly. It’s a riot. All that’s missing is Tevye fiddling on the roof. This is the raunchy, irreverant, hilarious Steve Almond at his best.

Akedah (Southern Review) –

You are the mother of a soldier returned from war. He is all you have. Your husband is dead. He married you young, moved you across the state to Philadelphia, away from your family and your congregation. Then he died in a trolley accident. And now your son, Ike, is home from the war, from the Battle of the Bulge, from the coast of France, which you imagine as someplace white and jagged, but he smells different now, of cigarettes and rank cotton. It bothers you especially because you work in a laundry. Your hands are perpetually chapped; the hot water stings.

And we slip into a very different Jewish tale. It’s a magnificent story. This is the one, this story, the one to buy the book for. The story speaks for itself, especially if you’re familiar with the term “Akedah.”

Hagar’s Sons (Ecotone) –

“I am coming to know you. I know, for one example, that you are worried about corruption. You regard it as an unnatural condition. It offends your morality. But what has been accomplished by our species that didn’t involve foresight? Jacob and his birthright. David. Saul. We make the arrangements necessary to honor our covenants.”
“I’m really only half-Jewish,” Cohen said.

I’m perplexed by this story. I follow everything that happens. Thanks to my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I even have the background knowledge of the biblical Daniel and his dream interpretations, the Colossus, the handwriting on the wall, and the apocalyptic nature of the Biblical text. I have some vague familiarity with Dubai from an old Anthony Bourdain show (the tallest building in the world, the artificial Palm Islands – but I don’t think they’re in the shape of Arabic characters, are they? – the shopping mall in the desert which includes a ski resort complete with snow-covered mountain). But I’m still left trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Is it real, or a fantasy/dream, or a combination? Why is Cohen (the Hebrew word for “priest”) only half-Jewish? Why was Cohen picked at all, for that matter? Is it really saying what it seems to be saying about foreknowledge of 9/11? Or is it a farce about what coulda-woulda happened, the power of greed? A spoof of the tin-hatter theory that the Jews were responsible for 9/11? It’s a fascinating spy story, but I need the Cliff’s notes. Or at least the cue cards so I know when to laugh.

First Date Back (New England Review) –

Strangers kept coming up to Tedesco. They wanted to shake his hand and say thank you. They stared into his eyes with self-satisfied reverence. It was like he’d performed some unpleasant task for them and now they were square.

In this modern reframe of The Best Years Of Our Lives, a homeward-bound soldier falls in love at first sight with a flight attendant. He’s fully aware that his time in Iraq has left him without the social skills needed to conduct a proper romance, and his flashbacks keep getting in the way, but he does his best. It’s one thing to have Brian Williams or Mike Wallace talk about the trauma vets have suffered, or to see documentaries on the issue; it’s another to follow this one guy though his first day back. An excellent tragedy.

A Dream of Sleep (New England Review) –

Death did this. It transmuted each act of love into something unbearable.Was it any wonder he had buried himself?

Wolf Pinkas is a man more comfortable with death than with life. He lives in a cemetery crypt converted into a caretaker’s cottage, and he tends forgotten graves. The more the world changes, the more he withdraws into the world of the dead, his dreams and memories of Poland and the war, his cats, music. In one of his great essays on writing, Almond said, “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires” – and here a teenager does just that.

A good collection – I’m glad I read it, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. I have to admit, that I still prefer Almond’s nonfiction (and the flash I found in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey) to his short stories. Even so – I’m already waiting for his next collection.

Steve Almond: The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories

I chose to read this because, well, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but other than “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” I haven’t read Steve Almond’s short stories, just his flash. This is his second story collection, published in 2005.

The title story (originally published in Zoetrope) is first, and traces a rocky affair between a women’s magazine editor, who spends her working hours giving life advice to other women, and a less-than-suave medical resident from blind date to… well, I’m not going to give that away. Keep in mind that just because someone doesn’t come across as smooth doesn’t mean he’s not a dog. The first-person female protagonist is wonderfully drawn. But overall I’m a little disappointed – and believe me, I feel pretty stupid saying that. It’s a fun story, smooth as glass to read, but… is there really any there there? Favorite line: “But somehow, the fact that B.B. Chow can’t really kiss or fuck or even fondle, the fact that he makes me feel like Xena, Warrior Princess, these things turn me on. It’s like the bar is set so low with this guy, we can’t help but get over.” I remember some TV show or movie, maybe a book, I’m not sure, where a fat woman went on a blind date with a man who turned out to be fat and rather unattractive, cut the date short then refused all offers of another date. He persistently asked why: did he do something wrong, did he remind her of her evil ex, spinach in his teeth, she’d just met someone amazing the night before, what? And she confessed, she didn’t want to date a fat man. Or an ugly man. A woman in her position (she had some kind of high-end job) did not need to date fat, ugly men. To settle. He was stunned, hurt. “I thought you’d understand,” he said. “You of all people.” “What,” she said, “just because I’m fat, I’m supposed to accept any loser who shows up? No way. I’ve worked hard, I’m a good person, I have a lot to offer, and I’m too good for a fat man.” I had very mixed feelings about that scene. I wonder if it actually exists, or if I made it up. In any case, it was a more effective and moving exploration of how we judge people than this story. Of course, this was a lot more subtle and took a different angle. But I’m just sayin’.

“The Soul Module,” originally published in Tin House, is quite short. Just the title made me think of “The God Module,” a part of the brain that may play a role in a person’s religiousity. And by golly, just like the title of Lauren Groff’s “Delicate Edible Birds” made me think of the feast described in Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, I was right! Not exactly, but close. Our first-person protagonist, Jim, meets college squash team buddy Wilkes for brunch, very early in the course of which Wilkes explains he has a cartridge in his head, implanted there by alien caretakers. Before Jim can digest this, or get more information (or even order brunch), Wilkes’ parents happen by and join the two buddies. Turns out they, too, have cartridges in their heads, and they take over where Wilkes left off, explaining the details. Jim thinks of a course in The Biology of Religion (sounds like a fascinating course) during which he’d learned of a hormone secreted by the pineal gland which the professor referred to as the Soul Molecule, as it encouraged mystical thoughts. Jim failed the class, but he seems to be making up for lost time as he reacts to this information. One of the winning things about this story is the way it’s presented, in straightforward but slightly stark manner. In fact, the first paragraph struck me immediately as being choppy – strangely choppy – though the rest did not. The dialogue between Wilkes and Jim, before the parents arrive, is amazing. It’s really quite a wonderful read, strange and funny. In the second paragraph, Jim recalls how Wilkes told him, back in their squash playing days, that the secret of his successful game was: “Vision. You have to see what’s going to happen.” Of course, Jim had no vision at the beginning of the brunch, but by the end he seems to have caught on: “Everything that was about to happen I could see, just before it did.” Me, I’d be worrying about a communicable neurological virus at work. But folie a deux – trois, quatre – is probably more likely. I’m reminded of visiting a friend for the weekend many years ago, only to discover her husband was an actively raving alcoholic who was pretty much ignored like the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s a fun story, completely crazy, told perfectly.

“Appropriate Sex” on first read is pretty annoying and feels like flag waving: “Look, ma, no hands, I didn’t touch her even though she came into my office and threw herself at me!” But there’s more to it than that. I once had a therapist who told me she couldn’t be bothered with websites and email or television or movies because she didn’t do screens (this was said with serious deprecation, as if screens were things only cretins bothered with) because her strength was in understanding relationships between people. Considering what a crappy therapist she was, I think maybe she should’ve gone to the movies more and learned to use a computer. This story is all about relationships. Mr. Lowe, college writing teacher, is separated from his wife at least partly due to his newly acquired impotence. The students in his class are discussing a story about a woman who “pulls the plug” on her terminally ill daughter and then rides a horse. One student sees a great deal of sexuality in the horse riding scene. And, to a third-person reader, he’s right. The students take sides. Mr. Lowe gets nervous and tries to move the discussion along. The writer stays silent. But she shows up for office hours with Mr. Lowe and hits on him. All this is pretty routine, but then he says something amazing: “I felt suddenly, irretrievably sorry for both of us, for Mandy who viewed her sexuality as a bright new user option only obscurely related to her heart, and for me, who was losing hair in clumps and couldn’t even give my wife a decent poking anymore. I wanted to have a good cry right then, preferably with my head nuzzled somewhere warm.” The student who noticed the sexuality in the story shows up, and starts confiding in Mr. Lowe about his recently broken relationship, and the two share a joint and gallop off like stallions into the sunset, bringing back to mind the sexual aspects of the horse in the story and the divorce of sex and relationships. I can’t say it was a story I loved – it did seem a bit self-serving, or at least pandering – but I appreciated it at least for the insertion of a Bill and Monica riff, how the definition of sexual relations, and the eventual discovery of the blue dress and the revelation of just what went on in the Oval Office: “this was our national discourse.” Yes, it was, wasn’t it. And that is what, about the whole miserable mess, was truly, truly sad.

“I Am As I Am” immediately had me on alert for something Biblical, a la “I AM THAT I AM”, one of the many translations of YHWH, Yahweh, or Jehovah. But I don’t think that’s what it is. There is church in the story, but it’s clearly stated the church service is not a usual thing, and I AM THAT I AM is kind of hard-core religion. Red herring? Maybe. (I would start a new paragraph here but I’m trying to keep all these comments to one paragraph per story) But I’d rather start with the beginning, a very good place to start, especially in this case, because the little preamble about the park in Dorset Centre, how it was this and someone thought, “Oh, no, that might cause trouble” so they made it that and someone else said, “No, that could cause a different kind of problem” and they ended up with something that didn’t work when it would’ve been great if they’d just let it develop naturally, without all the planning. Thinking about it too much ruined it. And then we go into Eric learning to swing and how his father taught him that it has to be intuitive, that thinking about it won’t work, and I’m going “Yes!” Eric struggles with this concept but he gets it, and becomes, in addition to an attractive and appealing boy, a very good 10-year-old ballplayer. (another paragraph, forgive me) Bill Bellamy is not, however, a good ballplayer. And catastrophe ensues. Eric is fine until everyone keeps assuring him it wasn’t his fault. And he starts thinking about it. And thinking about it. What I love here is that there’s this tendency to assume, especially with kids, that they’re feeling this or that, and to “fix” it. I’m a cryer. I cry in supermarkets, on busses, at dinner, whatever. Definitely at movies. Even comedies. And it freaks people out. I keep assuring them, “I’m all right, I’m just crying, I won’t die from it” but everyone universally seems to feel like they have to fix it. Which makes it a problem, since I have to now conceal that I’m crying. And feel bad about it. “I am as I am” comes in when Mom bakes him a cake to cheer him up (except, um, she got the flavor wrong, so the maid must’ve actually made it) and the phrase is on the cake, which is baffling. I’m wondering if the maid is religious. Or if Mom is just weird. There are some class issues as well – the Bellamys live in an “annex” to the town, the boy isn’t attractive or appealing, and his mom gets a little weird after the tragedy – and all in all there’s a lot to think about here. And I’m wondering, wow, where did this come from, more, please.

“A Happy Dream” is archived on Steve Almond’s website. For a short, not-really-meaningful story, this gave me more associations than I know what to do with. Henry, risk-averse sous-chef, has a blind date with a pretty (not gorgeous, he’s all done with gorgeous) woman by accident when she mistakes him for someone else, and he plays the role of Firefighter Mike. Except, it isn’t really that simple, of course. It’s pleasant, but there are opportunities missed, and the title completely goes by me. It’s not a dream, is it? No, that would be really awful. Anyway, what I’m thinking, while the sous chef is playing firefighter and the bike messenger is playing chimney sweep (I thought something was strange when she said she was a chimney sweep) and it all works out in the end and she continues to see him as a firefighter, is that this is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Who Am I This Time?” which just happens to be maybe my favorite KV story of all time. But that’s just because I know Steve Almond has a literary crush on KV. Something else flitted through my brain but it flitted out again. Maybe because this is NOT “Who Am I This Time” and I’m getting disappointed again. Maybe I should go back and read the amazing flashes in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey to remember why I’m so into Steve Almond in the first place.

“Lincoln, Arisen” is a little different – I think there’s a story there, but frankly (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) I’m just not interested in finding it. I think my read could be characterized as a skim. One paragraph struck me – “There once was a man who found no happiness in his life. He was sad every moment of the day. His duties were many and without mercy. Senators ran to him in anger. Common men blackened their hearts on his behalf. A nation of mothers cursed his name… He behaved nobly, but for reasons he could not fathom. His faults were but the shadows his virtues cast. He saw himself grimly advancing on history, but came to understand it was the other way around…” And another: “‘If anyone can do better than me, let him try his hand,’ he writes, in a note to congressional leaders. ‘You boys at the other end of the avenue seem to feel my job is sorely desired. Listen: I am but one man in this ruinous union, which has become nothing but a white elephant, impossible to steer or manage.'” I am thinking that is from history. I wonder if President Obama, who early on said his Presidency was inspired by Lincoln, but at the time this was written was just a junior Senator with a good keynote speech under his belt (depending on exactly when this was written), read that in his study of the former President. I wonder if he’s read this story. One blogger described it as “President on abolitionist action” as Lincoln and Frederick Douglass take a raft down the Mississippi, a la Huck Finn Ain’t history grand, the way things work out. Part of my trouble with this story, I think, was that I spent the first half of it puzzled, thinking Douglass referred to Stephen Douglas. I should read it again. As I said, I think there’s a story here. A real story, not just cute bawdiness. But, I’m just not interested. Maybe another time.

“The Idea of Michael Jackson’s Dick” on the other hand, is something that just doesn’t interest me any time, any how. Michael Jackson was alive when this story was written. I think it’s sad that it’s more interesting because of that, but still not interesting enough to bother really reading. Sorry. Possible story concept: Where were you when Michael Jackson (or Heath Ledger or Tony Curtis) died? I was having an MRI. I went into the machine when the ambulances were called. I came out and he was dead. No, that has nothing to do with this story. Calling my read a skim would be a kindness.

“The Problem of Human Consumption” originally from The Virginia Quarterly Review – this is the story that tells me I must buy this book (I am reading a library copy). Layers upon layers – hunger, sex, love, cancer, death, loss, secrets. Paul is a widower, as the first sentence declares. Jess is his daughter. He finds his wife’s wedding ring in Jess’ room. He wonders when his wife gave it to her, how Jess could leave it on her dresser so casually, and discovers there is a hair strung through it so he can pull the hair and the ring slides from hand to hand. Jess comes in from her date, sees him in her room; she took the ring from a box in his closet, a box containing various memorabilia of Mom, including the ring. They both remember a moment at the beach years ago, when Paul and his wife made love while Jess, a baby, napped, except she woke up. The common thread running through this, believe it or not, is meat. Ham, and hot dogs. But the image of the ring – Jess does not realize it is suspended by a hair – is so gripping, and the hunger so intense, oh, my, what a story. Neither knows what the other is thinking. They each deal with their own guilt, real (for going into her room, for stealing the ring from him) and imagined (he thinks he killed his wife on that day, she at the time thought he was killing her then and there). That is the key here, these two people, father and daughter, alone when they do not need to be. There is some fourth-wall-breaking stuff I’m usually not crazy about, but it works here. This story cooks. Vegetarian, please. How did he do this? The image of the floating ring? The brilliant concatenation of beach, hunger, meat, loneliness, sex? The narration, present tense, super omniscient switching from Paul to Jess to narrator: “It is important to remember that their crimes are not really crimes. They are simple human failings, distortions of memory, the cruel math of fractured hopes. The only true crime here is one of omission. The woman they both loved has been omitted from their lives. She is a beautiful ghost, a floating ring.” See? This is what I want to learn to do. This is the story I want to learn to write.

“Wired For Life” originally appeared in The Missouri Review. I read this at a bad time. I’d just read a draft of a story by someone who perhaps is developmentally delayed, or has some kind of language deficit. And I had the same feeling when starting this story: it was written in choppy, elementary sentences that barely made sense let alone flowed, with plenty of non sequiturs thrown in. Something like Zin’s hurried and unedited writing. On reading it again, just now, I don’t see the similarity, so I guess it was just carry-over. Very strange. But the story, well, it’s about connections, sexual and electronic. Janie’s laptop power cord is frayed and undependable, and she stops in to Charlie Song’s electronics repair shop to have it fixed. He pulls out a sadder gun – you know, the thing they use for soldering – and she is aroused by the precise motions of his hands, regardless of his aged, baggy face and rotted teeth. This may have something to do with her boyfriend, Drew, who doesn’t want to have sex with her, and regards any contact over “cuddling” to be pressure. Janie is in a bad way. She discovers a few weeks later the cord needs more solder, so she returns to Charlie Song and his sadder gun. Yes, I’m amused by that pun. I remember a book by Echo Heron, one of my many terminal-illness books, this one from a nurse’s point of view, in which she gets in an elevator with a young man pushing a machine. She asks what the machine is, and he says it is a fokk machine. She follows him, curious what the fokk machine is going to do, exactly, and he plugs it in and it starts fokking which helps the asthmatic in the room breathe easier as the moisture in the fog – or more accurately, vapor – relaxes his bronchioles. I giggle uncontrollably when I read that, and I get the same kick out of sadder gun. I also appreciated the description of the cuddling episode that goes bad when Janie thinks Drew is turned on but he isn’t, and he ends up sleeping on the couch. Her last visit to Charlie Song is pretty good. I almost gave up on this one early on, but I’m glad I hung in there. It’s actually quite a portrait of a woman driven crazy by a withholding man, when it’s usually shown the other way around. Oh, and there are a lot of great lines, like “His eyes were so lambent Jamie wanted to poke one with a chopstick.” I had to look up “lambent” – bright, shining. Any story that sends me to the dictionary is a winner. But mostly I just love Janie going back to Charlie Song, time and time again, trying to get her connection fixed.

“Larsen’s Novel” originally appeared in Other Voices. I had a few WTF moments in the opening, but then I realized that was part of the design. Dentist Flem comes home with a novel his pal Larsen has written, and Flem’s wife immediately says, “What is that, a rabbit?” Turns out there is a reason she says this, but it had me thinking I was illiterate. And for some reason, I had a terrible time keeping the characters straight. It isn’t that there are so many of them – two couples, each with children who play minor roles – but I just was bewildered and had to keep looking back at who Beth was married to and who Belle was. Then we have Poor Jude, and that just tickled me, because there are people like that – you call them Poor Whatever not because they are necessarily any more pathetic than anyone else but because they exude this need for sympathy, this put-uponness. The bulk of this story is made up of Flem avoiding Larsen because the novel is, well, not so good. AS someone who regularly trades reviews in an online workshop, I can sympathize. I often have a strong desire to run and hide because A has reviewed my story and now I have to review A’s story, and I do not want to! In fact, I am dealing with that on several levels right this minute. And it isn’t because I’m such a great writer, it’s that the story is in a genre that just doesn’t appeal to me, or for whatever reason is a chore to read. Find a dozen ways to say “this story was meh” without hurting someone’s feelings. Yeah, go ahead, do it. Anyway, back to Larsen’s novel, which is deemed by a professional critic to be awful, and then by another to be genius (not an uncommon thing, a group of us are reading BASS 2010 together and every story gets its share of “what is this doing in this collection” reactions). But Flem doesn’t know how to face Larsen. Lots of humor surfaces throughout. And Dr. Oss appears! Is this the same Dr. Oss from “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched“? If so, he deserved the punch he got, because he’s rather an ass. There is a point to all this: Flem is actually jealous that Larsen wrote a novel, even a bad novel. And his avoidance has consequences. I felt sorry for everyone involved here, but no one was a real villain, they all just had their own tragic flaws.

“Skull” is posted online at Nerve.com. In the comments section is a link to a generic joke collection that pretty much is the story (a woman with a glass eye likes to take it out and have her boyfriend screw the socket. The specifics are given in great detail). I’m perplexed as to why Steve Almond would bother rewriting a really gross joke, and why he’d end a collection with it. Then I think, maybe I’m just an old fart who doesn’t know how to have fun, maybe this is funny, maybe it’s even touching (um, no, no touching, please!), this version of intimacy, how desperate must someone be for real intimacy and why would she be that desperate, does it, as the comment say, relate to a French story about a woman who pulls out a priest’s eyes and inserts them into her, and to the equivalency of eye loss with castration, …) but no, it’s just creepy and unpleasant and I really am disappointed this is how the collection, which contains some excellent stories, ends.

I’m going to return to Steve Almond’s online story archive and check out the rest of the stories there. I’m not planning on reading Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life because I have heard it is pretty much heavy on the raucous sex romp, and while I’m down with that in small doses, I’m a little old for a whole book of it. Final question: if he can write stories like “The Problem of Human Consumption” and “I Am As I Am,” and to a lesser extent “Larson’s Novel” and “Lincoln, Arisen” and “Wired for Life” why is he fooling around with “Skull” and “A Happy Dream”? Then again, who the hell am I to judge Steve Almond.

Steve Almond – (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions

Steve Almond originally intended to write a tribute to Kurt Vonnegut (I already gave my [very positive] impressions of that section of his book, “Why I Crush On Kurt Vonnegut“) but his editor, as editors do, wanted something else. Here’s a tip for all you editors out there: when Steve Almond says he wants to do something, let him do it, ok? I enjoyed the book thoroughly, I’ve been having a wonderful time over the past couple of days, but the Vonnegut section was absolutely the high water mark.

Close behind was “Demagogue Days,” his brush with Sean Hannity (and others) following his resignation from BU when they invited Condoleeza Rice to speak at commencement. I heart Steve Almond more and more. And I was tickled pink by “Cash Cowed”: the National Republican Congressional Committee tried to seduce him out of $500 with a gavel and a position as honorary chairman of the Business Advisory Council. I remember Rachel Maddow’s gleeful coverage of a similar maneuver last year, when Newt Gingrich’s group “American Solutions for Winning the Future” offered a Dallas strip club title of Entrepreneur of the Year – complete with gavel – for the price of $5000, an offer that was withdrawn when the nature of the business became known. I guess they aren’t very picky about those mailing lists. The chapter is hilarious.

There’s plenty of fluff as well. An MTV reality show tried to film a segment about him, following the publication of Candyfreak, which did not go terribly well and ultimately was not obsessive enough to air, despite the producer’s constant exhortation to display more bizarre behavior (“Roll in candy”). I remember this chapter when I see ads for shows like My Strange Addiction, which recently features a woman who eats couch cushions, and another who insists on wearing furry animal suits when she goes bowling or pretty much anywhere. I do not believe them. The woman who eats her hair, ok, I’ll accept that, there’s even a medical term for that (trichotillomania) but couch cushions, no. And bunny suits, no. People who have to wear bunny suits to function are pretty much confined to institutions.

And we have the “awww” chapter, regarding the birth of his first child. In spite of my total lack of interest in all things baby, I did enjoy it. His chapter on ugliness broke my heart and mended it again (it deserves more attention but I am not up to it at the moment, maybe some day when I am more able to own my ugliness). I loved the account of cooking Lobster Pad Thai. And his encounter with a literary blogger who hated him for apparently no reason at all. Note: I am not a literary blogger. I am just a person. Well, two people, sometimes. I just give my impressions. I am just a bad writer trying to learn how to be a good writer by looking at the gap between my bad writing and the good writing of others, I am not offering literary criticism or reviews.

I will admit I pretty much skimmed through the sexual development chapter. Just because I heart Steve Almond, doesn’t mean I want to read about his first ejaculation in the hot tub. And I skipped the baseball chapter entirely. Hey, I lived in Boston for 20 years, I did my time. I stayed up until 3 am several times for West Coast post-season games that went into extra innings until Calvin Schiraldi hit a batter with a pitch, and I watched, live, as the ball went through what’s-his-name’s legs. I lived in Maine when they finally won the damn World Series, and I was surprised the next day when the sky was still blue and the sun still rose in the east. I just didn’t want to bother. But die-hards will probably love it.

I was disappointed to discover Mr. Almond is one of those people who announces he does not own a TV. I think it’s fine to not own a TV. I think it’s fine to not watch a TV if one happens to own one. I just have this problem with people who announce they do not own a TV, as it generally is said with a great deal of pride and superiority over the rest of us hapless fools who live by the light of the small screen. So this is causing some cognitive dissonance: what do I do when someone I think I will crush on for the foreseeable future does something that I have always thought indicates snobbery? I choose to accept it as one of those things people do, and move on. Maybe some day I’ll adjust my thinking about people who announce their lack of TV ownership. See what a hold he has on me?!?! And for someone who never watches TV, he did a bang-up job relating the national obsession with forensics (CSI, etc) with our ability to hide the military bodies, to link the “who-done-it-and-why” with “what is this war about”. This is why he has this hold on me. See?

(Non-Fiction) Steve Almond – (Not That You Asked): Why I Crush on Vonnegut

I ordered this book of “Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions” mostly out of curiosity. And I’m again swept away in the joy of pure reading, of saying, “Yes, yes!” and forgetting about plot and POV and tense and pace. I am thinking non-fiction is so much closer to my heart than fiction. And I say that with more than a little trepidation. Because, what if it’s true?

At any rate, this book is wonderful. I must comment on the three-chapter section titled
“Why I Crush On Vonnegut”, which fits in with Zin’s post on the purpose of literature, and the difference between Art and Entertainment that was raised in the introduction to BASS 2011. And with what has transpired in the US over the past few days.

Steve Almond is fiercely obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut, has been since he did his thesis on him years ago. The chapter covers, among other things, his attendance at a panel presentation by Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jennifer Weiner. I have never been a huge fan of JCO, though I thoroughly enjoyed her recent New Yorker story, “I.D.” And I was embarrassed to admit I don’t know Jennifer Weiner at all until I found out she writes some kind of “chick-lit” about shoes which get turned into movie vehicles for people like Cameron Diaz and Justin Timerlake. Now, if she had written “Love Story” it might be different (in my defense, for our Senior Class Song I voted for the Randall Thompson setting of Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” rather than the theme from Love Story, but I and the two others in our class of 500 who knew the song from chorus were seriously outvoted).

Almond’s account of the panel has an eerie similarity to the Singer panel and lecture related in the BASS 2011 introduction, except it is Steve Almond style rather than Richard Russo style. That is not a slam on either one of them. I can like two different things equally well. In this case, they both work beautifully.

But back to the point, which is the purpose of Art, or Literature. Steve Almond attributes to Vonnegut the belief that “artists should serve as instruments of destiny;” and reports “He had spent his entire life writing stories and essays and novels in the naked hope that he might redeem his readers…every one was written under the assumption that human beings are capable of a greater decency.” He found, in the archives of Vonnegut’s papers: “I now believe that the only way in which Americans can rise above their ordinariness, can mature sufficiently to rescue themselves and to help rescue their planet, is through enthusiastic intimacy with works of their own imaginations.”

Literature is here to save us. From ourselves.

It was a fortuitous convergence that this book arrived today, as I watched more news coverage of the craziness from the weekend, including the actions of the state legislature of Arizona which today voted to prevent protesters from approaching within 300 feet of the funeral of the nine year old girl who was murdered on Saturday at a public forum with her congressional representative. This legislation was necessary because the God-fearing Christians that make up the Westboro Baptist Church have decided they will vocally and visibly demonstrate, at the funeral of this child, as her parents walk her to her grave, that her death was the result of homosexuality. Or God’s anger at Catholics, I have seen both explanations, I am not sure which one is true. I am grateful to Steve Almond and his paean to Kurt Vonnegut for offering me some comfort at this bleak time, when I am in despair about our endless capacity to make things worse. Because Steve Almond goes on to say: “But something occurred to me…something Vonnegut has been trying to explain to the rest of us for most of his life. And that is this: Despair is a form of hope. It is an acknowledgement of the distance between ourselves and our appointed happiness. And at certain moments, it is reason enough to live.”

Thanks to both of these fine gentlemen, on a day when we all need to be saved from ourselves.

This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

I love teeny tiny books. I love oddball books. I love books about writing that mean something to me (not many of them do). And I love Steve Almond. Put them together, and you’ve got This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey which I first heard of in Randall Brown’s blog, FlashFiction.Net.

 It’s a teeny tiny book, I carry it in my rucksack along with Amie Bender’s “The Third Elevator” and whatever collection I’m reading at the moment, because I never know when I’ll want to look at it.  4½ by 6½ , 37 plus 41 pages. Why not just 78 pages? Because it’s two (snap) Two (snap) TWO books in one (if you weren’t a TV addict in the 70’s, that reference will go right by you). When you’re Steve Almond, you can get away with that.

 When viewed from one side, there’s nurse on the cover (the legs of a nurse, at least) dressed in a white uniform, holding a hypodermic syringe. It’s kinda scary, but, after all, this won’t take but a minute, honey. What follows is a series of essays about writing (prescription, see?). Wonderful essays. One of the last discusses titles for stories, and mentions a brilliant student named Ellen Litman who wrote a wonderful story about Russian immigrants titled something bland like “How to Succeed in America” but contained a scene about the narrator’s father clutching a supermarket chicken like it was “The Last Chicken In America” which because the title of the story and the novel-in-stories that resulted. A review of this book on Jon Morgan Davies’s delightful blog “Short Story Reader” reminded me that I hadn’t yet put Steve Almond’s gem of work and play on this blog as a Favorite Read, prompting me to do so immediately.

The essay that meant the most to me, though, was the one about the character alienated from everything living at the bottom of a large hole. It’s his #1 Plot Fail. I was stunned: I thought I was the only one who did this, and now I find everyone does it. “Character in a Hole” is a hilarious essay, about such alienated characters still wanting something, like a really big symbolic fish. His take on the development of the bullshit detector is also special. But every essay is special.

And then we come to the stories. A story about Nixon – yes, President Nixon – that made me cry. Stories about socks, cashiers, various phases of Germany. Amazing stories, so short you can read one while holding your breath, but so long they stay in your head. To read these stories, you must flip over the book, to reveal the cover – the nurse in white with the hypo is now in a black catsuit and heels with a whip in her hand – the Fun side. Or maybe, once you’ve had your Fun, you need your Shot, I don’t know, it’s very entertaining to keep flipping the book (half is always upside down) just looking at the covers, and if you read in public as I do, someone will always stop to stare at you (which, frankly, I could do without, at least when I’m at the supermarket – maybe I need to find a new venue for public reading).

 I read somewhere that this magnificent book is available only at Steve Almond’s readings, or through the Harvard Book Store. I don’t remember where I heard that, but I tend to believe it because it isn’t on Amazon. And because Steve Almond self-published it. When you’re Steve Almond, you can get away with that.

“Crushes”

A while back, someone on Zoetrope talked about “literary crushes” – a desire to become close to a writer not for romantic or sexual gratification, but purely to admire his/her work. Since I’ve never been one of those who does the “Oh, I love So-and-So”  – I like individual works but might not like someone’s other stuff, even in genre fiction when series people start a new series, especially in literary fiction – I never paid much attention. But now I understand.

I want to follow Steve Almond around and catch the crumbs that drop from his plate. I actually gave serious thought to going to one of his classes some day when I’ve finally written a few stories that are, you know, not terrible. That would of course mean getting additional money to go with the $1700 insurance thing that’s still sitting in the bank.

And I want a print of that photo of Rachel Maddow that MSNBC is using as promo for the “Lean Forward” thing, where she’s kneeling on the floor looking at papers, wearing her geek glasses. I still can’t believe how much like a teenager she looks when not in camera getup. I really don’t want to get naked with her, though, just be a fly on the wall when she does her work. I still worry that she goes a little over the top with some things, and she knows damn well what some of these people mean when they say stuff that sounds funny. And she rephrases too much. But I adore her anyway, so I’ll give her a pass, but I’ll also keep in mind that I’m not going to follow her blindly off a cliff.  Unless it isn’t a very high cliff.

BASS 2010 – Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched by Steve Almond

My latest project, to read and comment on all 20 BASS 2010 stories. And why not start this blog, this project, with the superhero of the Pantheon of Writers, the Rockstar of Flash himself, and tell him what’s wrong with his story. If you’re going to be stupid, be really stupid, that’s my new motto.

Ok, I loved this story until it got to the poker game itself. I think that’s because I’ve always been content-driven, and I was interested in the interaction between patient and therapist more than the poker game. Also, I was pretty sure what was going to happen in the game, and I’m surprised that I wasn’t surprised. I enjoyed the way the therapist kept coming up with excuses for his actions, like a good little addict, nice rationalizations – teach the patient a lesson,  that was my favorite. The game itself, damn, I was loving these characters and then you throw cards at me? I didn’t care about the cards! Maybe that’s because I don’t know poker and I’m not interested in learning about it. But even without knowing what the cards meant, I knew what was happening, so that’s a really good thing he did there. this is a story I’m going to read again, I’m interested in level of detail, and in how he slipped in backstory and internal thought, my bete noirs. Overall I give it a 9 but that’s probably because I’ve been falling in love with Steve Almond lately. When I fall out of love I’ll probably give it a 7.5. Part of the problem is, “what’s at stake”, ok, maybe his marriage, but $50,000 isn’t all that much for  a shrink who makes that on one patient in one year. It’s fascinating because he becomes the patient who has to pay, and I guess that’s the point, he got the therapy in one afternoon instead of weekly but he still gets to pay the full amount. Hmmm.  Make that an 8 after my crush subsides.