I’ve been reading a lot lately. This is about 50% procrastination (writers will do anything to get out of writing, especially without a firm deadline in place), 20% sheer joy at having time to actually sit down and read a book (during my TasteTO days, it was a rare occurrence if I finished a book in under a month, just because I had to read it in snatched five minutes bits due to being so busy) and 30% due to the fact that I wore stupid shoes and gave myself a super-bad case of plantar faciitis and have been trying to stay off my feet as much as possible over the past few weeks, because it hurts like beejeezus to walk.
During this time I thought to get caught up on the works of Steve Almond, a fantastic writer from Boston, probably most well-known for his book Candyfreak. He writes about stuff other than candy, though, and I recently enjoyed a collection of his ranty essays.
(Not that You Asked) includes a facetiously stalkerish set of letters to Oprah regarding inclusion in her book club, the story of Almond’s obsession with Kurt Vonnegut, stories of various sexual exploits, and oh yeah, the time he quit his job at Boston University over the announcement that Condoleeza Rice would give the keynote address at graduation, and the resulting shitstorm that occurred because he happened to send his resignation letter to a local paper. Almond found himself the whipping boy of all the right-wing TV pundits – you know the ones, those shouty guys who get all red in the face, with the veins in their foreheads looking as if they’re about to pop, the ones who don’t let the guest get a word in edgewise and who make you out to be evil because you voted for the left.
The weekend this all went down, in May of 2006, Almond was actually here in Toronto, doing a “book reading” of CandyFreak at a candy festival. When Greg and I met him, he seemed a little stressed, but we wrote it off to a poorly organized event. Turns out, half of the United States (the gun-toting, not especially open-minded half who will shoot first and remember you’re a fellow human being later) were out for his blood.
(Not that You Asked) also includes hilarious pieces on the time a reality TV show took over Almond’s house to film him being “obsessed” with candy, and the very best ever guide to a new parent’s first few days with a newborn entitled “10 Ways I Killed My Daughter With Her First 72 Hours of Life” which includes heat stroke (leaving baby in a too warm room), asphyxiation (is she breathing? I don’t think she’s breathing.), cancer (what the heck is that coming out of my baby?) and broken vertebrae from forgetting to support her head.
Almond’s writing is sharp, witty, precise and brilliantly snarky. He suffers no fools, but is also self-deprecating enough that he can laugh about (and write about) his own foibles, including his failed teenage sexual exploits, including the shoplifting of condoms and stay-hard lube, and the decision to have a girlfriend wax his chest. He speaks to every man and woman in some way as we see ourselves in his essays and his antics.
David Rakoff is similarly sharp. I knew nothing of his work before I found his book of essays Don’t Get Too Comfortable in a used book shop, but I am officially a fan.
A former Canadian, Rakoff tells of the almost tawdry details of acquiring US citizenship – line-ups, interviews, and a swearing in ceremony that takes place not in his new hometown of New York but in Hempstead, Long Island.
He also writes about the trend for “simplicity”. Sorting through boxes of high end products to be donated to a mission, the charity organizer he is working with removes anything that is too simplistic (soap shaped like river rocks, bottles of cosmetics with old time labels) because she insists the people receiving them will be reminded that they’re poor, and Rakoff points out that simplicity is wasted on those who simply cannot appreciate it.
Rakoff also explores other “first world problems” in his essays, writing about fasting, riding the Concorde, foraging tours of Central Park, and the tediousness of Paris fashion week from the point of a reporter who doesn’t typically write about fashion. He also spends a week in the crowds each morning mingling with the fans outside the Today show, and the piece about his crafty alter-ego (by which I mean the one with the glue gun), inspired almost exclusively by Martha Stewart, is a gut-buster as Rakoff manages to combine cynical snark with genuine keener enthusiasm.
Both Almond and Rakoff display a keen knowledge of pop culture, but are able to remove themselves from it and look at it with a sceptical eye, particularly when it comes to their place within the spectrum. Maybe these are both books that only a curmudgeon could love but both men made me laugh out loud repeatedly, made me gasp delightedly at their audacity, and made me believe that they’d both be proper fun to go out drinking with.
Almond and Rakoff have a selection of other works available. I’m on a mission to read them all. You should too.