Tuesday, August 2, 2011

McSweeney's 37

There is so much great content in this McSweeney's, but I want to talk about the design of the book first.  Looking at the image to the right, this latest volume looks like it's just a regular old hardcover book, yet that image is taken looking at the book straight on.  It's designed to look like a 3D image, with the upper left and lower right corners cut out accordingly, reminding me of the papers on Battlestar Galactica.

Inside the reader is greeted with a booklet that contains four chapters of John Sayle's A Moment in the Sun, which I didn't read because I'm working my way through that book now (it's amazing).

The book has a ton of great writing.  Jonathan Franzen contributes Ambition, a story about an aging couple.  Nelly Reifler's The Grove is about a rabbit who moves into the wider world, and discovers just how difficult life can be.  It jumps around a lot, but is a very well-written piece.

Etgar Keret's story, 'Cheesus Christ', is an exploration of causality, as it plays out in a cheeseburger fast food joint, encompassing such topics as the Butterfly Effect, depression, and suicide.  'Take Care of that Rage Problem', by Edan Lepucki, examines the life of a woman whose parents have split up, and while they're okay with it, she is not.  Keeping with the divorce theme (it's pretty common this time around) is Kevin Moffett's 'Lugo in Normal Time', about a sad sack father trying to stay relevant in his daughter's life, while imagining that he has some control over the passage of time, or at least his ability to process it.

I've never been tempted to read a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, but I do like her shorter pieces.  In 'A Brutal Murder in a Public Place', the narrator (the author?) finds a bird flying around in an airport in New Jersey, and spends a chunk of time thinking about it.  Joe Meno's story 'Lion's Jaws' was terrific.  It is about a man who has a few dates with a video artist who dreams of being killed by a lion.  Funny and strange, I quite enjoyed it.

In terms of non-fiction, there are five excellent pieces (two of which will be discussed in my Kenyan paragraph below).  In 'Now Ye Know Who The Bosses Are Here Now', J. Malcolm Garcia explores an unsolved murder that happened in Northern Ireland in 2007, after the ceasefire.  It seems very likely that the killing was done at the hands or the orders of the IRA, but nothing has happened to prosecute the case.  This piece depicts all aspects of community life there, and is very sad and effective.

Closer to home is Jess Walter's 'Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington', in which he details, in fifty numbered sections, what life is like in this mostly forgotten town.  There are lasting images of grown men riding childrens' (stolen) BMX bikes, and the proliferation of womens' shelters in the area.  This piece is very evocative of the place, and where the author fits within it.  It's probably my favourite piece in this whole book.

In 'Still Looking', John Hyduk writes about his struggles in finding a job in the new American economy.  He has had a number of low-paying and dead end chances over the years, but is now really struggling to find something that pays a living wage.  I love this sentence:  "sweat labourers are the kids from the first marriage, and just about as welcome."

 The book ends with five pieces of contemporary writing from Kenya; three that are fictional, and two that are memoirs.  The first memoir, 'The Life and Times of Richard Onyanga' tell of how the painter got his start in life, and the source of his recurring subjects of buses, Land Rovers, and his first girlfriend, a domineering muzunga who was significantly older than him.  It's terrific.  
Annette Lutivini Majanja's piece, 'It Is Only The Best That Comes Out' is a highly amusing accounting of the rules and regulations at Precious Blood Riruta, the secondary school she attended.  There are discussions of which biscuits to purchase, and how to hide extra food in laundry buckets or where they incinerate sanitary napkins.

Binyavanga Wainaina's story 'Boonoonoonoos' reads as the opposite of Majanja's piece, as it is a story about school girls who sneak out to meet soldiers, and to generally cause havoc.  It provides a nice notion of what life was like in Kenya in the 80s.  Billy Kahora's story 'Urban Zoning' is an interesting look at how a man on a month-long bender (it's all about staying in The Zone) is able to manipulate his bosses into letting him keep his job.  There is another story in this section, but it is the only thing in this book that I didn't enjoy.

In all, this was another excellent edition of McSweeney's.  I increasingly am only interested in reading short pieces of fiction or gigantic, sweeping novels.  I love how the fine people at McSweeney's are handling both of those needs this summer.

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