05 December 2011

(Not that You Asked), by Steve Almond

It's been awhile since I loved a book as much as I loved this one. It touches on pretty much all the things I love and am interested in (literature, sports, food, sex, politics, self-discovery) in a thoughtful, and fantastically well-written way.

 The first piece, a series of letters to Oprah, is cute and pretty funny, if a little fluffy. Then comes the second, on Vonnegut, and just knocks your socks off. It starts off as a paean to Vonnegut, combined with an account of actually seeing him in person, and then it (bravely) moves into a description of "the Vonnegut apostasy." I don't think I've ever read anything that admitted to this. I wasn't even aware that it existed, until I read this piece and felt this deep sense of recognition. There are a number of maudlin, uninteresting things one could do with that epiphany, but instead, Almond turns it into a broader reflection on why Vonnegut hasn't been more influential, then returns to a kind of homage (based partly on some fascinating archival research), conveying a profound appreciation, one that contrasts subtly with the adoring fanboyism that the piece opens with. It's a really impressive piece.

 From there, he moves into sex, with a few amusing essays about various encounters and discoveries. They're clever and amusing, but they also make you aware of what a good writer Almond is: good sex scenes are not easy to write, and his are fantastic. Fittingly, the section ends with a short guide to writing sex, which is really insightful and interesting.

 Then there's a great essay on being an Oakland A's fan living in Boston - not the best piece of sports-fan writing I've ever read, but highly entertaining and definitely resonant. Then there's a wonderful section on "fame," a great description of reality tv - where you really appreciate Almond's honesty with both himself and his readers - and a really well done account of his interactions with a trash-talking blogger (am I secretly hoping that Steve Almond will read this post? Maybe!). Then two very brief but powerful essays on literature and being a writer:
  I'd sit there and read a sentence like "I'm going to die from love" and start crying. And what's strange is that it felt so good to cry, there was a kind of joy in it, because all feeling is joy, because the capacity for feeling is the great, unstated human achievement, and because somewhere, off in the distance, I could see that my capacity to feel wasn't going to mess me up forever, and that someday, if I kept at it, the writing thing, if I kept myself open to the lashings of the world, the true, brutal hurt of the place, I might start to get somewhere. (181)
 This is followed by a really touching homage to food and friendship, and one to heavy metal. I realize I'm basically summarizing the book here, but I feel like I can't not mention the parts I especially adored, and that turns out to be pretty much the whole thing. So I might as well continue now.

 The penultimate section, about politics, was probably my least favorite, and even that was really very good. But the section after it, on becoming a Baby Daddy, as he puts it, is phenomenal. "10 Ways I Killed My Daughter Within the First 72 Hours of Life" made me laugh so hard I cried. I mean, tears were streaming down my face I was laughing so hard. I can't even remember the last time I laughed that much, let alone when reading a book. It is touching and irreverent and one of the funniest pieces of writing I have ever encountered. It's a hard act to follow, but I appreciated that the publishers didn't conclude the book with it, because I think I would have felt somehow manipulated. Instead, the final piece is a piece about Judaism and holiday traditions. It's thoughtful and interesting, not exactly mind-blowing but worthwhile, and hits the right emotional notes.

 Not to be a dick or anything, but come to think of it, this is the book Michael Chabon wishes he had written, what I think he was trying to do in Manhood for Amateurs. Anyways, point being - it's a terrific book. I want to buy a copy for everyone I know.


Camilleon said...

Thanks, I just ordered this as a Christmas gift for my mom--she likes humorous books, so maybe she'll enjoy it. :)

Chris Love said...

As you can probably guess, I'm pretty damn sold on this book. Soon. It must happen soon.