God Bless America

By Steve Almond

(Lookout Books, $17.95, 211 pages)

Who is this author?

Steve Almond, who lives near Boston but grew up in California, is a writer of many talents. His nonfiction book, “Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America,” was a history of candy-making in America, a celebration of entrepreneurship by small companies and  a confessional memoir. Many, many readers found it yummy.

Almond also writes biting, brilliant essays about American life – politics, commercialism, sports mania, movies and more — from a progressive point of view, and he’s not afraid to ladle on the snark when it serves his purpose. He’s also an accomplished writer of fiction, including a novel told in letters, “Which Brings Me to You,” with co-author Julianna Baggott, and several story collections, which mix humor with a poignancy that can break a reader’s heart. His stories have appeared in many top-notch literary journals and he also writes newspaper op-ed articles.

What is this book about?

His latest collection, “God Bless America,” combines his acid take on life, as demonstrated in his essays, with his skill at creating fictional characters who leap right off the page.

In its 13 short stories, it introduces us to a motley crew of characters. A guy who drives a Duck boat and participates in re-enactments of the Boston Tea Party sees the U.S. as a “land of opportunists” and turns out to be right on the money. An airport security guard encounters a kid who’s not what he seems. A mother and son get entangled with a disturbing stranger on a train. A cemetery caretaker tries to help a young mother embrace life amid the stone emblems of death. The stories are a blend of humor, pathos and tragedy, mixed with a sure hand.

Here are some insights from Almond himself:

 “I didn’t consciously set out to write about America. But like every other sane person in this country, I’ve watched in a kind of horror as our country has descended further and further into moral ruin. So obviously, that concern crops up in the work. But I’m mostly interested in particular Americans, and the way in which people seek to cope with their loneliness and regrets,” he told the website Art & Literature at  http://artandliterature.wordpress.com.  “To me, the comic impulse always arises from tragic circumstances. Comedy is how we survive our sorrow. I never set out to be funny. That doesn’t work. What I do is force my characters to confront some dark stuff, and allow them to have a sense of humor about it.”

Why you’ll like it:

Almond, who has appeared many times at Real Art Ways in Hartford and also at The Courant’s National Writers Workshops, is funny enough to do stand-up comedy, and that talent infuses his writing. He can be wry, sad, thoughtful, outrageous and provocative, often all at the nearly same time. He also has the ability, not common in male authors, to write movingly and utterly believably as a female character.

What others are saying:

“Steve Almond is one of our most prolific-fearless-political-hairy-intelligent-sexy-hilarious writers. He makes me shake my head with sadness one page, snort coffee out my nose the next. And he makes me care deeply about his characters, so many of them wrong in the head and right in the heart, down on their luck but clinging to the desperate hope that the next hand of cards will turn up flush,”  says Benjamin Percy, author of “The Wilding.”

“These wonderful, wickedly hilarious stories have forgiveness at their core. Steve Almond’s characters are sons and fathers, inveterate gamblers, thwarted dreamers, the mothers of children gone astray, and God Bless America teaches us how to love every one of them. Almond always has an ear to the ground for the ‘dumb throb, the frantic seep’ of human hope, which his prose transmutes into music,” says Karen Russell, author of “Swamplandia! “

“Almond hears America singing, and the country is way off-key, at least in this collection of 13 irony-laden short stories,” says Publishers Weekly, adding, “Almond is writing in the American grain, but the wood has become so warped that this collection about disaffected characters who can barely articulate their needs and fears defines a new American gothic.”

When is it available?

It’s waiting for you now at the Hartford Public Library.

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