Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals by Dinty W. Moore

Finely crafted short essays masquerading as self-effacing jokes about writers and writing, in q&a form.

dear mister essay writer guy

Dinty W. Moore (Between Panic and Desire), the editor of Brevity, solicited respected contemporary essayists for questions regarding the form, so he could answer them in Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. An essay riffing on the question at hand accompanies each q&a. The resulting collection of self-deprecating humor includes bits of writing advice as a bonus.

Cheryl Strayed has concerns about her predilection for the em dash: Moore assures her that “em dashes can replace commas, semicolons, colons, the large intestine, and parentheses.” Brenda Miller worries that Facebook “is like one big communal personal essay”; Moore answers with a selection of his status updates over a period of months, which are as sage and instructive as they are hilarious. Roxane Gay wonders about the value of writers writing about writing. Other seekers of wisdom include Judith Kitchen, Phillip Lopate, Brian Doyle and Lee Gutkind. Moore makes room to share a “found essay” left on his voicemail by Mike the Tree Guy, and to list the side effects of memoir, including “nausea, sleep problems, constipation, gas, and swelling of the navel.”

Moore is rarely serious and keeps his tongue in his cheek throughout, but the result is enlightening as well as entertaining. With fewer than 200 pages, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is a quick and enjoyable read, to be taken in pieces as small as the reader prefers. Its witty, modest tone belies the artistry of the essays contained, which are exemplars of the short form.


This review originally ran in the August 28, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 polar bears, naturally.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

I am working on a Maximum Shelf for the first book of Hogarth Shakespeare: The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson. In preparation, naturally, I got myself a copy of The Winter’s Tale, which Winterson retells, so that I could see the connections clearly.

This is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, variously described as a romance, a comedy, or (as Winterson tells it) a play about forgiveness. It is indeed funny at times, although also tragic and pathos-ridden: in an echo of Othello, a jealous royal husband accuses his wife and best friend of being unfaithful together, resulting in deaths and betrayals he will deeply regret. The Winter’s Tale is indeed a more forgiving version, however, as the next generation gets a chance to correct these wrongs and start fresh; in fact, depending on your interpretation, even the jealous king himself gets a second chance.

There is the requisite Shakespearean clown, a lovable character known only as Clown; there is the requisite Shakespearean rogue, who successfully appears to the same people over and over in a variety of disguises. Which leads me to another Shakespearean requisite, the suspension of disbelief, as a father disguises himself successfully from his own son who knows him well, and a lost identity is easily provable after a lapse of 16 years. It’s all in good fun, though: these are accepted devices of the stage.

And fun it is, despite the unhappy scenes along the way. I also enjoyed a strong female character who stands up to the king and does not get damned for it: another shrew, if you will, but less ambiguously represented; this one is clearly a hero. The Winter’s Tale is a pleasing blend of humor and romance in the end, and I am excited to explore Winterson’s take on it. I only wish I could see it performed now that I’ve enjoyed Shakespeare’s telling. He remains a master.


Rating: 7 bears.

Bellingham Theatre Guild presents The Drowsy Chaperone

drowsyOn a rainy night, with a sprained ankle, I set out on my bicycle with Pops to see a local amateur production at a neighborhood theatre. In a word, the production was indeed amateur (which is to say, unpolished), but heartfelt and charming; and the play borders on too silly but was ultimately fun.

The narrator is a middle-aged, socially awkward man, sitting in the darkness of his apartment and dreaming about another world. He speaks directly to the audience about the strengths and downfalls of musical theatre, and puts on a record, the soundtrack to a musical of the 1920’s called The Drowsy Chaperone. The action comes to life in his living room, as the original cast performs the play, interrupted by our host’s interjected comments on the show.

The musical is your standard comedy of errors, involving a wedding that not everyone is supportive of, and includes mistaken identities and the beginnings of new romances. It was pretty cheesy, particularly in its song and dance (even more so than your standard musical!), although the tap dancing was a great addition. But as the story developed, I was more tuned in to the pathos of the narrator and more on board with the general silliness of the show-within-the-show. So while it started a little questionably, by the end I had let myself go into the world of the theatre, and it was rewarding. The performances were less than perfect, but again, this is local, amateur, community theatre: adjust your expectations a little, and be prepared for a good time. I left feeling uplifted by the fun, and will be looking for more Bellingham Theatre Guild performances in the future. Thanks, neighbors.


Rating: 6 gimlets.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

veronaI had a pleasant reread of this early Shakespeare comedy in preparation for the Houston Shakespeare Festival this summer. Of course you saw my post the other day about what a special copy of the book this is…

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an earlier and a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but I think it’s still excellent in all the usual ways: clever wordplay, mild bawdiness, romantic wafflings or confusions that may threaten our modern sensibilities just a touch, but overall, with the potential to be wildly entertaining in the right hands. I remember the performance I saw as a youngster being accessible (having read the play beforehand helps, of course).

The two gentlemen are Valentine and Proteus, and they are best friends. Valentine is prepared to leave Verona to seek his fortune in Milan; Proteus stays behind because he is in love with Julia, and determined to win her. Valentine finds his love in Sylvia, daughter to the Duke of Milan; and Proteus’s father is convinced to send his son away, separating him from Julia just as they declare their love for each other. Proteus is sent to join his friend Valentine, which should be a happy reunion; but fickle Proteus falls for his friend’s betrothed, betraying both his friend Valentine and his own love, Julia. Determined to win Sylvia away, Proteus reveals Valentine and Sylvia’s elopement plan. The Duke has Valentine banished; and the action of the play moves to the woods.

In what might be seen as a vague early shadow of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woods are host to a banished Valentine and his servant Speed – who are taken in by a host of bandits – and who are pursued by a grieving Sylvia and her faithful servant – who are pursued by a love-stricken Proteus, her father the Duke, and the Duke’s intended son-in-law Thurio – who are accompanied by Julia, serving as a page (in male drag of course) to Proteus, thereby in pursuit of her love. If you had trouble following that, all is as it should be.

You might recognize a few lines:

What light is light, if Sylvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Sylvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.

Or:

It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Speed, servant to Valentine, and Launce, servant to Proteus, have their share of buffoonery, great scenes with wordplay and witticisms that are typical of Shakespearean comedy. All ends well (although we sniff at the treatment of certain female characters, and the slurs upon Jews. Time-typical Shakespeare, again); and the play is, indeed, funny.

I look forward to seeing this summer’s live performance.


Rating: 7 gift-dogs.

Alley Theatre presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

vanya

Husband was kind enough to accompany me to the theatre again, our second play at the Alley this year. (See Fool from a few months back.)

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike references Chekhov; but no familiarity with his work is required to enjoy this one. Vanya and Sonia are aging siblings – she’s adopted, they will remind you a few times – still living together in the family home, mostly bickering with one another and dissatisfied with their lives (particularly Sonia, who is casually mentioned as being bi-polar). Their sister Masha is a successful actor – less so on the stage, more so in the movies, particularly sexy slasher flicks; but she is aging, too, and feeling less secure about her sex appeal and professional future. When Masha comes to visit this time, she brings Spike: a much younger aspiring actor and a hot piece of male flesh inclined towards taking his clothes off. This habit is the source of some laughs, as everyone onstage is entranced by his beauty (Vanya as well as his sisters is attracted to men); but as Nina points out late in the play (I paraphrase): Spike is beautiful; it’s a shame about his personality.

Oh yes, Nina. The cast of six is rounded out by a beautiful young neighbor girl, Nina, also an aspiring actor and a huge fan of Masha’s; and the housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra is a real hit: like her Greek namesake, she is cursed to make predictions that are… often right, more or less; but that are disregarded. She is a strong personality and a great stage presence, and provides still more comic relief. The play is not short on laughs, in fact, despite some heavy subject matter: depression and late-life regrets; family dynamics; climate change and politics; a rapidly changing and-not-always-for-the-better world. I was struck by a line (again I paraphrase) about how there are now 900 (or some such number) television channels available, and you can always find a news channel that tells you what you already believe. Late in the final act we are treated to that classic, the play-within-a-play, written by Vanya and performed by Nina, which takes place in the post-climate-change-apocalypse, when humans are extinct.

It got a little long-winded here and there, I confess; I think Husband appreciated the fart jokes and lighter, always-accessible humor of Fool better than this one. There were some tangents. But I appreciated every one! I highly recommend this mashup of serious topics, comic relief, and plentiful references to literature and the arts. The actors were strong, too. I heard a few missed lines – just a few, just barely – but was still very impressed by the personalities. Cassandra and Sonia were real standouts; I was especially struck by the arc achieved by Sonia, from dumpy house-bound depressive through an exhilarating costume party to actually making plans to go out on a date. I cheered her on. And Spike’s portrayal in the near-nude was both hilarious and, yes, attractive.


Rating: 8 molecules.

Alley Theatre presents Fool

Husband and I attended the opening “preview” night of Fool at the Alley Theatre last week. I love the theatre (don’t go nearly often enough), while Husband is… forbearing. So I try to take him to plays that he will enjoy. (The Lieutenant of Inishmore was a big hit.) For this season, he chose Fool and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (the latter coming up).

I borrow a plot synopsis from the Alley’s website, since it’s rather perfect, and it’s what convinced Husband to be my date:

In Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy, Fool, two kings get together and place a wager on their fools – a jester competition, and the funniest one gets to keep his head. Two evil minions have a lot to say about this, but not as much as the kitchen wench. And what’s the queen been up to all night? A dramatical comical farcical tragical play about power, love and laughter, set in a medieval kitchen.

What you don’t get from this is playwright Rebeck’s reason for concocting this plot. According to the playbill, these silly, heartfelt jesters; the competitive pseudo-camaraderie of the servant class; the evil kings & their evil underlords; and the conniving queen, are all based on her experience in a very nasty corporate world. For me, this added a layer of interest to the story.

This was a highly enjoyable dramatic presentation. The jesters, and all the players, were freaking hilarious. We literally laughed out loud through a lot of it, which is not the norm even in comedic theatre, in my experience. It was also rather intelligent and heartfelt; I really enjoyed the characters and their conflicts. On top of it all, there was some very Shakespearean cross-dressing gender confusion, and while gender confusions may be comedic low-hanging fruit, they are also funny. And served well here.

I love the Alley because it is smallish, intimate, and not so formal that us informal people feel uncomfortable. Husband and I were on the front row (although way off to one side), so we were very close to the actors. It was a near-flawless performance – a stagehand walked onstage handling props when we think the lights should have been off, ah well – and the actors were in top form. We had a great time and left together laughing. More of the same, please.


Rating: 8 farts.

Ring for Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

ringforjeevesI would like to begin this review-of-sorts by noting the front-cover blurb by Christopher Hitchens:

P.G. Wodehouse is the gold standard of English wit.

Next, note the back-cover blurb by Stephen Fry:

You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.

And thirdly, my A.Word.A.Day email the other day included the following “thought for the day,” by Susan Sontag:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.

The collected wisdom of these three statements is that P.G. Wodehouse is awesome and hilarious; and to further beleaguer the point or try to parse it would be a waste of time, possibly a disservice. In that spirit, and because I’ve reviewed several Wodehouses already, I’m not going to say much more.

Wodehouse is still light-heartedly hilarious and well worth a lazy afternoon. This is, if anything, one of the better ones I’ve read.

If you care for a plot synopsis, I’ll continue to be brief: Bertie Wooster is not present in this story; Jeeves is on loan to a similarly foolish young man. There is confusion about which dame he’s most devoted to. A decrepit English manor is on sale. A bumbling “white hunter” from Africa lusts after a wealthy American widow. Hilarity ensues and all ends well. There are no aunts in this story. The end.


Rating: 7 damp spots.
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