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If Steve Almond is a candyfreak, then I'm a candywhore. I'll take it where I can get it and I'm not half as discriminating about its origins.
That said, you can't help but laugh outright at the sugar-fanaticism of a man who gets faint with joy witnessing the birth of chocolate bunnies and is rendered speechless at the thoughtless waste of even one piece of chocolate, recalling, "I stood there in a cloud of disillusionment...I'm someone who has been known to eat the pieces of candy found underneath my couch."
Goaded by the disappearance of his adored Caravelle bar, Almond (yes, he talks about the name) tours independent candy companies (read: anyone other than Mars, Nestle, or Hershey) to, "chronicle their struggles for survival in this wicked age of homogeneity, and, not incidentally, to load up on free candy."
The best laughs are all in the first five chapters. I giggled, chuckled and guffawed my way through the author's confessions of freak-like candy-hoarding, reveling in the kind of sweet self-effacing wit only a candy junkie could muster.
From there, it's mostly an historical tour of the four candy companies he visited, fascinating and richly detailed, yet interspersed with progressively more disturbing moments of personal crisis. At one point the author himself notes, "I realize that I am oversharing," a phrase that, in a work of humor especially, should be immediately followed by the words, "so I'll quit while I'm ahead." No such luck. From that point on, we are treated to sad reflections on how one may ineffectively attempt to use candy to fill the void created by emotionally unavailable parents, an alarming, overly personal description of penile hypochondria, and finally, how Dubya, terrorists, college hockey players, and Reaganomics are to blame for everything from airport security to the author's inability to give up pot and find love. I found the experience much like seeing a houseguest naked -- you don't know whether to avert your eyes and mumble an apology or pretend it's hilarious and hope he laughs along.
The erratic emotional pitch of the book can be summed up by Almond's description of a candy-orgy during a San Francisco layover; "A brief jolt of good humor...followed by a plunge into hypoglycemic grumpiness." If this book were a candy bar, it would start with a light, crispy, sweetness, get sort of sticky and tasteless in the middle, and end heavily with an artificial, saccharine jolt, leaving the reader with a nasty aftertaste and the vague notion that he should have quit after the first bite.
Perhaps if Almond has just stuck to candy, the last bite...er, page would have been as good as the first.
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Review: From Small Spiral Notebook
In Candyfreak, Almond parlays his own obsession with chocolate into a quest to seek out the sources and practices of today's chocolate confection, as well as to learn about the forces that have overwhelmed the artistry and pluck of individual chocalatiers into the mechanized behemoth of American mass culture. Throughout, Almond tempers his political urgencies with his own disarming awe and glee at the industry and its products, and he also deals with unfolding family tragedies. His grandfather is dying, while at the same time Almond realizes his lifelong zeal for chocolate both saved his life and "broke his spirit." If it sounds like too much to cram in, perhaps you've not read Almond's ambitious book of sort stories, My Life in Heavy Metal, a book that will give you faith in Almond's ability to multi-task, regardless of genre.
Almond's prose packs a sensory wallop at all times. It is also candid, direct, and muscular- he wastes no space. Because of his economy, his writing is akin to the best candy: all good stuff, no fill or the useless air that puffs up the wretched Three Musketeers bar. When he rattles off the names of regional candybars now gone to mass marketers, he says their names are "incantatory poetry." When he says he doesn't like coconut, he says it's like "chewing on a sweetened cuticle." The writing says it: candy, chocolate in particular, for Almond is a passion, a "freak." And like all freaks, Almond has his rage, and the loss of a particular candybar, the Caravelle, and his subsequent despondency and rampage after any sign of it led him to consider the book.
Almond meditates on the sources of his "freak," including its lineage. His father's passion for Junior Mints he sees as a thing to awe: "I loved watching him eat these, patiently, with moist clicks of the tongue. I loved his mouth, the full, pillowy lips, the rakishly crooked teeth-the mouth of a closet sensualist." After some consideration of the roots, however, he's off, interviewing confectioners, visiting factories and tasting candy fresh out of the "enrober" (a device to which he devotes many fine lines), squirreling away samples, and trying to see what did happen to chocolate in America. The short answer is, well, the same thing that happened virtually to every worthwhile thing from beer to sports: mass distribution, mass advertising, mass culture, mass dumbing down.
The short answer doesn't do justice to Almond's work because Candyfreak does what the best creative nonfiction does: reports something in unerring detail, educates about a topic we thought we knew a thing or two about, tells a story both about the author and about the subject, and delivers the whole package in style. Almond's fevered style-known to many from his short stories-here finds a subject about which many folks feel feverish, and the result is one of the most entertaining books I've read in a while.
Almond's tries to balance political fantasy and the reality of the urge: "In my own pathologically romantic sense of things, I viewed [little] companies as throwbacks to a bygone era of candy, when each town had its individual brands. And the good peoples of this country would gather together, in public squares with lots of trees and perhaps a fellow picking a banjo, and they would partake of the particular candy bar produced in their town and feel a surge of sucrose-fueled civic identity. What I really wanted to do was visit these companies-if nay still existed-and to chronicle their struggles for survival in this wicked age of homogeneity, and, not incidentally, to load up on free candy."
While he showcases opinions and can seem hostile at times in his discernment, he is not faddish or uncritical: "The new chocolate specialty products are equally pretentious. I ask you, does the world truly need a bar infused with hot masala? The latest rage, as of this writing, is super-concentrated chocolate, with a cocoa content in the 90 percent range, a trend that will, in due time, allow us to eat Baker's Chocolate at ten bucks a square."
Opinionated, deftly and surprisingly written, thoroughly experienced, and surprisingly moving, Steve Almond's Candyfreak will have you wandering into specialty stores hoping they have candy racks. It will have you looking down your nose at M&Ms, for perhaps the first time in your life. It will have you cruising the Internet for the Five Star Bar, hoping the taste lives up to the writing. It will have you thinking about chocolate for weeks afterward, more than you ever have. And it will have you wanting to return to the book, again and again, to find those sentences, those toothsome, goo-on-your-chin, crunchulicious miracles of sentences, and to wish everyone you know the pleasure of experiencing the world, for a little while anyway, mouth first.