Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life

Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life

by Michael Greenberg
     
 

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In Beg, Borrow, Steal Michael Greenberg regales us with his wry and vivid take on the life of a writer of little means trying to practice his craft or simply stay alive. He finds himself doctoring doomed movie scripts; selling cosmetics from an ironing board in front of a women's department store; writing about golf, a game he has never played; and botching hisSee more details below

Overview

In Beg, Borrow, Steal Michael Greenberg regales us with his wry and vivid take on the life of a writer of little means trying to practice his craft or simply stay alive. He finds himself doctoring doomed movie scripts; selling cosmetics from an ironing board in front of a women's department store; writing about golf, a game he has never played; and botching his debut as a waiter in a posh restaurant.

Central characters include Michael's father, whose prediction that Michael's "scribbling" wouldn't get him on the subway almost came true; his artistic first wife, whom he met in a Greenwich Village high school; and their son who grew up on the Lower East Side, fluent in the language of the street and in the language of the parlor. Then there are Greenberg's unexpected encounters: a Holocaust survivor who on his deathbed tries to leave Michael his fortune; a repentant communist who confesses his sins; a man who becomes a woman; a Chilean filmmaker in search of his past; and rats who behave like humans and cease to live underground.

Hilarious and bittersweet, Greenberg's stories invite us into a world where the familial, the literary, the tragic and the mundane not only speak to one another, but deeply enjoy the exchange.

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Editorial Reviews

Edmund White
Most of the unconditional admirers of New York are from elsewhere. People like me, who grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s, couldn't wait to trade in "the provinces" for the Big Apple, and half a century later we're still besotted with its incomparable vitality. But Michael Greenberg, a native New Yorker, loves the city as a child loves a parent, and in its honor he has put together a collection of tightly written, incisive chapters, each another tessera or tile in a big mosaic—and like tesserae, they are all placed at a slightly different angle to the light.
—The New York Times
Juliet Wittman
The short pieces in Beg, Borrow, Steal are in the tradition of the literary-journalistic essays that Europeans call feuilletons. Although flexible, this form requires skill and concision, and Michael Greenberg uses it brilliantly. Personal experience is at the center of each piece, but none is solipsistic; the tone is understated and ironic, and every essay contains a hard-won glimmer of insight.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In these 45 thoughtfully crafted short essays written for London's Times Literary Supplement from 2003 to 2009, Greenberg (Hurry Down Sunshine) touches on his decades of trying to make good as a writer in New York City. Greenberg starts with early memories of growing up in Brooklyn, where he opted out of joining his father's scrap-metal business, instead dropping out of school in the early 1970s in search of a “blunt exotic experience” in Argentina and New York's Lower East Side. He ended up strapped with a young family of two children and faced years of plying odd jobs, like driving a cab, giving Spanish lessons, selling cosmetics on the street and ghost writing, all the while trying to write his novel. He fashions an anecdote for each of these experiences, in gently self-deprecating prose, such as writing for the movies and working the stock market, both to some success despite his naïveté. He tapped into an enthusiastic group of dachshund owners when he had to find another home for his child-nipping Eli, a troublesome pooch with a “disgraceful domed head”; he devotes chapters to the Negro Burial Ground and the paupers' cemetery on Hart Island, in New York City. As well, he offers touching reflections on the life of novelist William Herrick and editor Ted Solotaroff, and chronicles some funny run-ins with New Yorkers of all stripes. These are graceful ponderings by a deeply sympathetic soul, a consummate New Yorker and terrific writer. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Greenberg, a native New Yorker and author of the well-received Hurry Down Sunshine, collects 45 short essays that originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Greenberg's editor gave him simple instructions: for each piece, spill a drop of blood, give it a sense of urgency, and do not exceed 1200 words. Greenberg skillfully meets his editor's requirements and seems to have carefully and artfully selected words and constructed sentences for maximum impact, much like a haiku, to which he likened his strict parameters. His narratives, which mostly take place in New York City, include an entertaining cast of characters and span from his youth in the 1970s through marriage and raising his own children to the near present day, with the underlying theme of a writer eking out a living by any means possible and, in turn, living a full life. VERDICT Each piece is about four pages long, which makes this a quick and easy read, especially for subway or bus commuters; recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs and essays.—Mark Alan Williams, Library of Congress, Washington, DC\
Kirkus Reviews
Times Literary Supplement columnist Greenberg follows his acclaimed debut memoir (Hurry Down Sunshine, 2008) with a collection of tight, readable essays. The author's refreshing approach avoids the self-indulgent and solipsistic impulses that often characterize autobiographical writing. In a concise format-modeled on that of his column for TLS, which, the author writes, "seemed as strict as that of a haiku"-Greenberg offers concentrated excursions into a wide variety of subjects, including film, literature, Jewish identity, immigration, racism, family conflict, the wildlife in Central Park, tenement housing, New York City's rat problem ("Dozens of them were hanging out like teenagers, copulating, browsing, completely at ease") and even the politics of transgendered sexuality. Although the narrative is structured in episodic fragments, Greenberg does an excellent job keeping them unified via his plainspoken, unpretentious tone. Most chapters read like anecdotes told among friends, yet at the same time the author creates poignant subtexts involving fundamental human values and emotions like love, desire, honesty and malice. In one essay, for instance, Greenberg recounts his days as an interpreter for Spanish-speaking defendants in a criminal court, and how this experience impacted his later compassion and sympathy as a juror in a case involving a janitor accused of selling drugs to students. In another, he relates the story of a tense friendship with a black man who implies that an uncomfortable number of black Americans harbor violent fantasies about killing whites. From odd jobs and family drama to political unrest in Argentina and the many pitfalls of memoir writing, Greenberg skillfullyexplores issues that range from the profoundly tragic to the delightfully funny. Succinct, entertaining personal narratives.
From the Publisher
"Greenberg, a native New Yorker, loves the city as a child loves a parent, and in its honor he has put together a collection of tightly written incisive chapters, each another tessera or tile in a big mosaic…Greenberg is an acute observer (if 'acute' is defined as sharp, sensitive, even painful)."—Edmund White, The New York Times Book Review

"The short pieces in Beg, Borrow, Steal are in the tradition of the literary-journalistic essays that Europeans call feuilletons. Although flexible, this form requires skill and concision, and Michael Greenberg uses it brilliantly. Personal experience is at the center of each piece, but none is solipsistic; the tone is understated and ironic, and every essay contains a hard-won glimmer of insight… Greenberg is a poet of New York, evoking in these fleeting pieces the city in all its scuffed and squalid grandeur."—Juliet Wittman, The Washington Post

"[A] terrific new collection…. It is as though Bellow or Alfred Kazin were transported to post-millennial New York, bringing their toughness and romanticism to bear on our softer and more familiar world…. This book, with its intrepidity, humor, and dark insight, offers its own, irrefutable justification for the 'writer's life.'"—Adam Kirsch, Tablet

“Binding together this episodic autobiography is the series of marginal jobs—mover, Bronx street vender, author of voice-over narration (“Golf. Simple. Majestic. Timeless”)—with which Greenberg supported his literary career….The real attraction, however, is…the everyday texture of metropolitan life, which Greenberg captures with diaristic immediacy.”—The New Yorker

Beg, Borrow, Steal is a delightful journey through a well-lived life in New York City. The 44 chapters-once-columns stand alone and yet, pulled together, flow like a river of many surprises…The more I read of Greenberg's life, the more I wanted to keep reading. The chapters are short, up to 5 pages each, and loud with wit, wisdom and irony. Many are simply perfect.”—Kassie Rose, WOSU Radio

“Darkly comic…Most of Greenberg's tales are set in New York City, where he is often an endearingly hapless companion… [His] gifts as a storyteller—his spare style, shrewd use of detail, easy way with unpredictable references…lack of sentimentality, and sense of the surreal in the ordinary—are evident throughout the book, whether recounting adventures in South America, or observing a New York City street scene.”—The New York Review of Books

“[Beg, Borrow, Steal] amounts to a history of a man from nowhere determined to be, and continuing to be, a writer no matter what….Greenberg’s unsparing, ferric style of truth telling [is] direct, unbuffered, sharp-edged….He was variously a peddler of cosmetics and fire alarms, cab driver and chauffeur, Spanish teacher and court interpreter, furniture mover, bookstore clerk, mail sorter, waiter, and hack writer, all pursuits providing subjects for these essays in which the quotidian is illuminated and refracted through a cool, audacious eye.”—Boston Globe

“Interesting, forthright, and funny... In these finely turned columns, Greenberg’s candid, disarming voice reveals a honed sense of irony gained over a lifetime spent befriending the oddballs, con men, and hard luck types who comprise a significant segment of New York City…This is a rewarding encounter with an engaging, unusual literary sensibility.”—Jewish Book World

"Greenberg's book is an important reminder to writers that they don't need to write 'important' stories, but rather, they need to give each story importance."—Carol Hoening, The Huffington Post

“Beg, Borrow, Steal is a series of reflections on the hardships, delights, and moral dilemmas one encounters when trying to get through life primarily by means of stringing words together. As a stylist…Greenberg is at the top of his form… He has the rare ability to say exactly what he needs to say in order to make the story work and, at the same time, to give his sentences a felicitous rhythm that doesn’t call attention to itself.”—The New Criterion

"Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life will become a bestseller today and a classic inspiration tomorrow. Just as people carried Kerouac and Bellow in their back pocket, Greenberg's conversational tone stays with you, and you want to read his essays again and again….We hope by now, with thousands of Hurry Down Sunshine fans ready to read Beg, Borrow, Steal, that Greenberg will be motivated to keep observing, writing, and counting us among his grateful audience."—Blogcritics.org

"Quietly elegant, effortless, valuable, and perfectly crafted, like gems or teardrops…[Greenberg writes] the way Chagall would make a stained-glass window, using familiar materials and skills to create something delicate and undeniable and new."—Bookslut.com

"[Greenberg] creates poignant subtexts involving fundamental human values and emotions like love, desire, honesty and malice…skillfully explores issues that range from the profoundly tragic to the delightfully funny."—Kirkus Reviews

"In these 45 thoughtfully crafted short essays written for London's Times Literary Supplement from 2003 to 2009, Greenberg (Hurry Down Sunshine) touches on his decades of trying to make good as a writer in New York City...These are graceful ponderings by a deeply sympathetic soul, a consummate New Yorker and terrific writer."—Publishers Weekly

“Greenberg’s [Times Literary Supplement] editor gave him simple instructions: for each piece, spill a drop of blood, give it a sense of urgency….Greenberg skillfully meets his editor’s requirements and seems to have carefully and artfully selected words and constructed sentences for maximum impact….His narratives, which mostly take place in New York City, include an entertaining cast of characters and span from his youth in the 1970s through marriage and raising his own children to the near present day, with the underlying theme of a writer eking out a living by any means possible and, in turn, living a full life.”—Library Journal

"Beg, Borrow, Steal is a writing memoir that belongs in the company of like classics such as Grace Paley's Just as I Thought, Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction, William Gass's Fiction and the Figures of Life, and Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings…What is often thought of as an intangible, cerebral activity—writing—is made palpable in this book."—ForeWord Magazine

"Greenberg's descriptions of his encounters with mentors, his dealings with the movie world and his endless family dramas are rendered with biting humor and insight. The unflinching stories are so well written, readers will wince."—Florida Times-Union

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781590513583
Publisher:
Other Press, LLC
Publication date:
09/08/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
200
Sales rank:
1,206,771
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

My old man was like Zeus’s father Cronos: he couldn’t bear the idea that any of his children might surpass him. Life radiated from the central pulse of his scrap-metal yard; the world beyond it seemed to make him defensive and nervous. Self-conscious about his lack of formal education, he took my bookishness as a personal affront. “Which do you think is worth more,” he once asked me, “a commodity or some goddamn idea?”

Among the family, my violent fights with him were famous. The last one occurred when I was fifteen. I followed him around the apartment, taunting him with a line from my latest poem, “Which do you think is worth more, flesh or steel?” At the end of his rope, he took a wild swing at me. I dodged it easily, hearing the crush of bone as his fist hit the wall. I fled the apartment, and when I returned, three days later, his hand was in a cast. “You have guts, but no common sense,” he said. “One cancels out the other. A total waste.”

A week later, I moved away from home, supporting myself with a night job in a bookstore.

Nevertheless, when I was in my early twenties, driving a cab, with a newborn son at home, my father offered me a chance to join the family business. “You get all the major holidays,” he said. “You quit work every day at five. And to make a living you don’t have to be a genius.” He seemed hurt when I turned him down. “Those notebooks you scribble in won’t get you on the goddam subway,” he said. He was right, and during the lean years that followed I sometimes imagined that he was eyeing me with satisfaction.

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