BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Steve Almond
(Note: to the best of my knowledge this book is only available through on-demand publishing via an Espresso Book Machine. There is one at the Harvard Bookstore)
This is a tiny little book, split into two parts of about 40 small pages each. It really won’t take but a minute to read, well, maybe an hour. One side is titled “Essays” and the other “Stories” and they are flipped 180 degrees, so neither (or both I guess) comes first. There are three separate covers to choose from, and Almond has already revised it once since the initial printing. I think I’m a fan of this new fangled on demand printing thing.
Seeing as I really only know of Almond as a fiction writer (I very much enjoyed his 2005 collection, The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories), I opted to open with the “Stories” half first. These are all short shorts, none longer than 4-5 paragraphs. There’s no plot thread connecting these and not much of a thematic line. Short shorts aren’t really a form I’m all that into. I read it like I do poetry, mostly for language and not so much for substance. I enjoyed these, but it’s not really the type of thing I tend to go back to. Almond is a talented writer, and the language is quite good:
This is where the cranes come to sleep, the ripped out yard-by-gravel mile between the bus terminal and the freeway still unconstructed, its fading gray ramps into nothing. They bundle here under night, clanking, steel thread and iron, the hard things of this world. Neglected by their soft owners, the cranes huddles and murmur old jokes, somber, worn, from the duties of lifting and sniffing on each other the perfume of oil going black. They know not to nod their giant necks, not to run their hooks against loose rebar. This is the hour of rest, when nothing is built or remembered. The wind through their loose parts is idle syncopation and notes whistle up, a song made with every measure of grace, as where honest labor has been done and fellowship means beast and machine. Sleep, good citizens, it is not yours to hear this sweet offering.
The “Essays” side of the book is the one I’d assumed I’d like less. Almond, however, surprised me with one of the best guides to writing I’ve come across to date.
Unlike the stories, Almond’s essays follow a sequence of questions and answers, almost as if he’s inserting his own responses into a writerly catechism. It’s really written for students (enrolled in a program or otherwise) of writing. But anyone who entertains writing fiction or is interested at all in the writing process should defintiely give this a read. And, speaking from many dreadful workshop experiences: writing teachers should read this, as well as a few of the books I’ve suggested below.
Almond’s now-recognizable voice comes through especially clear in these essays. He reminds me a lot of George Saunders: biting and sarcastic and a little insane, yet undeniably wise. He writes in a funny yet serious tone that screams authority but doesn’t demand it. Writers should read this book, and everybody should read Steve Almond.
Similar Reads: Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (Vonnegut), On Writing (King), Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (Truss), The Evil B.B. Chow (Almond), The Braindead Megaphone (Saunders)