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Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life Hardcover – September 8, 2009

3.9 out of 5 stars 56 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From 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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"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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More from Michael Greenberg
Read a Q&A with Michael Greenberg, author of Beg, Borrow, Steal [PDF].

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; First Edition edition (September 8, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159051341X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590513415
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,116,349 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By michael carroll on July 19, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Sent an advance reader's copy of this book (as a sometimes reviewer, and without knowing the author), I was drawn from the first sentence into this mesmerizing collection of personal accounts, ranging in subject from the author's family to the many failed or else underappreciated artists Greenberg has known in New York. It's written in short chapter-essays, each a self-contained meditation on a central event or personality or passion that Greenberg uses to springboard into other areas that often seem unrelated. The fine connective tissue of the 45-chapter book turns out to be his unbroken, ultimately undaunted desire to cobble together a life from writing, a subtle underlying theme he manages to insert so entertainingly that as soon as you finish one piece you'll want to turn the page and start the next one before you turn out the light and roll over. I didn't read his previous book, HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE, but here Greenberg gives us some of the background to the story he told there, as well as a couple of glimpses into the hazards of finally having a successful literary career after a lifetime of failures, half-starts and disappointments. Largely, the anecdotes are deftly included ancillary notes to the group portrait of a vanishing New York. What Greenberg can squeeze into five or six pages, simply by quick association and spare description, it takes some writers chapters to accomplish. It would make a great model for composition and creative writing students. A man in his 50s, Michael Greenberg has the maturity and the trained eye to use his many experiences and the simple juxtapositions of his ideas to great effect, and a freshness of voice that makes his style almost transparent.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The best review here is the one entitled "A first rate writer but a 'this and that' book." I think it sums up this little book quite well. I would only add this: The marketing hype attempts to portray this book as addressing the issues of being a struggling writer. So for all you struggling writers who think this book will inspire you to 'Keep after it! I succeeded and you can, too!' please move on to something else.

Don't get me wrong--Greenberg is a fine writer, and reading this book for review made me aware of Hurry Down Sunshine, which I look forward to reading one day. But I think the author would have been better served with promotion that states clearly, "This book is a collection of short essays about how complex life with humans can be at times." It is a "writer's life," but it is not at all about his writing life, and for all that, could be Anyman's life.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Tne cover itself is striking: What appears first to be a white rose is in fact a book or manuscript, wadded up, rolled and dog-eared almost beyond recognition. Perhaps its message is that there is both beauty and suffering in trying to make a living as a writer. The New York Times compares this collection of columns by Michael Greenberg to the work of Dostoyevsky. I can see the similarity: Both authors seem fixated on depressing tales of the disenfranchised and disillusioned in a dehumanizing urban setting. It's hard to read these essays and not feel some of the despair of the characters. In a straightforward, unflinching and unsentimental style, Greenberg descibes his years of barely staying alive, trying to make it as a writer in New York, while taking a series of menial and short-lived jobs. he also introduces us to his demanding and disapproving father, to a Chilean movie director, the author William Herrick, the chef who serves gourmet leftover meals in a soup kitchen, and a variety of city denizens in varying states of alienation. There is a certain degree of wryness and irony in some of these tales, but alas, little real humor, and it's difficult to read more than a few at a time, short as they are. These stories may serve as cautionary tales to the reader, (e.g., don't think you'll get rich by writing, kids!) or they may just be a series of bummers. You decide.
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Format: Hardcover
What's that old chestnut about life being stranger than fiction? If you doubt it, you need read no further than these forty-four essays written by a New Yorker in the flesh, Michael Greenberg, between 2003 and 2008.

They are extremely intimate and bare personal tidbits that most would not confess. He started out pretty average. Middle-class, Jewish family in Rockaway, New York, his father a blue collar scrap metal merchant sent his son to a strict, academically demanding Hebrew school. But adolescence kicked in and the fights between father and son "were famous" for their intensity. Ultimately, he dropped out of school at 17, never went to college and broke his parent's hearts.

He wanted to be a writer and as he learned his trade he had to eat and support himself so he, in the New York City tradition, held a wide variety of jobs. He was a Spanish tutor, a street peddler, a waiter, a postal worker and of course a taxi driver. They not only kept body and soul together but they provided fodder for his writings. His life has been anything but boring. Exciting and terrifying at times, but never boring.

A victim of phony friends and con artists, he never gave up. He once sold counterfeit cosmetics in front of a woman's store,after bribing the store's security guard. His price of $3.50 for his products made the women suspicious, so he raised his price to five dollars and sold more. Unfortunately after a particularly good day, he was mugged by three teenagers. They took all his money and merchandise. So it was on to another adventure. And they were many and varied.

He took off to Argentina with his high school sweetheart because "as an aspiring writer, I figured I would do well to experience a place other than New York.
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