Calling New Delhi For Free
By Susan Kramer O’Neill (Venezuela 1973-74)
Peace Corps Books, $10 (paperback); $3.99 ebook
Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965-67)
I pulled Calling New Delhi for Free out of the mailer excited to be reviewing a collection of essays. Nothing like a good essay to satisfy and inspire a writer. I especially love painfully brilliant essays that make me want to say to the writer: I know, I know; I’ve been there; I’m with you. (Example: Love, Loss and What I Wore, by Ilene Beckerman.)
I turned the book over. The quotes on the back are hilarious. Here’s the first one:
Almost NOBODY buys essays, UNLESS you’re FAMOUS.” NAT SOBEL, of Sobel Weber Associates, Inc., my (former) agent.
And so, I also love humorous essays as long as they’re screamingly funny. Everything the late Nora Ephron wrote immediately comes to mind, with David Sedaris coming up next.
Onto the title page. Hmmm…. Title doesn’t match the one on the jacket where I find a subtitle: And Other Ephemeral Truths of the 21ST Century. Nothing about essays as promised on the cover, ie. Essays by Susan Kramer O’Neill. Next page, an author’s note wherein O’Neill tells us the collection consists of her blog posts with the exception of one selected as a “Notable Essay of 2000” in Best American Essays, and two others-one a contribution to a journal, and another a segment of a magazine article. So maybe, just as the collection was about to head into production, she decided to tell her former agent a thing of two, disappeared the subtitle on the jacket, and called her posts, essays. Voilà, she’s famous. My favorite people are those who go about burning bridges, or as JFK once said, “Be true to yourself and let the chips fall where they may.” Of course, he had a billion dollars to fall back on, but never mind.
Now I say to myself, okay, if 70 is the new 50, if the memoir is the new novel, maybe the blog post is the new essay. I will next ask my two favorite bloggers….oops, make that bloggists…Christine Lehner (“Sort, Quench and Dump”) and Jere Smith (“A Red Sox Fan from Pinstripe Territory”) to tell me if a blog post can be considered an essay.
From Christine: The difference between an essay and a blog post lies in the expectations I bring to each. I may be old school, but I look to an essay to start me someplace and then steer me, be it by craft, cajolery, or stealth, to a new place. I may be persuaded to take action, or simply have my worldview altered. Many blog posts will look like essays (a collection of paragraphs, even a beginning and an ending) but they are largely of the moment and descriptive or anecdotal. Believe me, I am inordinately fond of amusing anecdotes but they are not essays. (Note: Christine’s stepson, Colby Branch, is presently a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauricio Abdala Dos, Chinandega, Nicaragua.)
From Jere (It is a week after the Red Sox made the play-offs and one day after the Yankees didn’t-he is a most happy fellow) : I’m not an essayist but I feel like if I wrote an essay it would be the same thing only I’d spend more time on it to get it perfect. Blog posts are more “in the moment.” (Note: Jere’s parents are former Peace Corps volunteers: Me, Cameroon; his dad, Uruguay.)
I now have a litmus test of sorts.
And so I read O’Neill’s collection of 33…uh….whatever, and I loved them.
They are indeed hilarious, some screamingly so, and they are most definitely “in/of the moment,” which gives them that yummy immediacy you savor in a successful novel written in the present tense. (I think there are three.) As with the posts in most blogs, they have a thematic thread. My son’s blog’s theme is that all Yankee players and their fans, too, should get drilled by Pedro Martinez once a day. Christine’s theme is hagiography, biographies of the saints in case you didn’t know. Example: St. Phalange, who, in the 14th century avoided losing her virginity by cutting off all her fingers. Note: Can you tell that Christine’s day job is fiction writer?
Susan Kramer O’Neill’s thread is frustration, the frustration inherent in being a living human being. Here readers will totally identify with those frustrations so riotously rendered. What left me with a feeling of awe and envy is how beautifully she gets it done without spitting nails or cursing. As we all know, it’s almost impossible these days for a stand-up comedian to get a laugh without sticking the adjective motherfucking before every other noun. So her talent in this regard is fortuitous since one source of her frustration is often hubby.
“In Heineken: What’s it all About” she arrives with him in Amsterdam and the first thing he wants to do is go on the Heineken Brewery tour. She dislikes beer. Besides…eleven Euros is a lot of money for a brewery tour. And this was not a real brewery…. This is the former brewery and current “Heineken Experience Welcome Center.” She does admit though, that upon receiving the inherent free gift, she is impressed with the rather elegantly crafted, buffed aluminum, fake Heineken bottle containing a stainless steel bottle-opener.
In “Starving in the Fort,” she arrives at her hometown airport (Fort Wayne) to find that “The Cookie Lady” no longer welcomes arrivals with a free cookie. She is especially frustrated because she’s hungry, but becomes rapturous with relief when she spots the De Brand Chocolate counter still in its familiar spot.
De Brand chocolate is rich, thick, real chocolate, with rich, thick, real fillings made with cream from flying cows and fruits and nuts tended and harvested by virgins in gauzy white robes with garlands in their spun-gold hair. Each piece of candy is dipped by hand to the music of fairy lutes, and meticulously wrapped in gold foil by enchanted butterflies. You won’t find De Brand Chocolate in China, although I have no doubt that Chinese spies lurk beneath the windows, disguised as peony bushes, ears pressed to panes to steal the secret of the candy’s über-lusciousness.
There are amusing anecdotes that are just a page or two long that make you want more: the barrista who insists on putting a plastic lid on O’Neill’s coffee or she can’t have it; the baby equipment of yore no longer available for her grandchildren as it’s all been deemed unsafe; subway tokens …round and substantial…(a token) will pass through the laundry or your pet Rotweiller and come out unaltered…dependable, trustworthy, cool to the touch…a tactile experience…replaced with pieces of paper …fragile as playing cards; trying to avoid germs only to have a child sneeze all over her unwashable iPhone; and my favorite, one of the ten zillion frustrations that come with being a writer, herein, falling victim to writing workshops: “How to utilize the social media to promote your writing with the ultimate tool, Twitter.” (Hah!)
These pieces are not sloppily put together as are many blog posts out there.
Then there are these three: “What’s Wrong with this Picture,” “Journey to the Underworld,” and “The Surgeon’s Little Helpers,” essays all. It is clear that she spent time on them to get them perfect, and they, in fact, steer you by craft, cajolery, and stealth, to a new place. Maybe persuade you to take action. The third definitely altered my worldview. These essays are not funny. They are war stories, the last two centered on O’Neill’s service as a nurse in Viet Nam. Someone once said, “Every war story is an anti-war story.” Here are three that stand with the best of them. If you think you know what a MASH unit is after watching the eponymous film and then the TV series, you don’t. You really, really don’t.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith wrote the first long fiction to come out of the Peace Corps, Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman. She has just finished her 9th novel, The Honoured Guest:: Anne Alger Craven, Witness to Sumter, in Her Words, and is presently looking for a new agent to represent this dynamite book. (Maybe Nat Sobel might like it.) Her 10th , presently in the form of thoughts transcribed onto coasters and the margins of the daily Times, will take place in Las Vegas 150 years after #9.