Monday, October 10, 2011

McSweeney's 38

Edited by Dave Eggers

I've never attended church or any other religious ceremony with any sort of regularity, saving such things solely for weddings, funerals, and a pair of odd attempts by my mother to 'try it out' when I was young.  As a book lover, and having no way to understand what was going on (I don't see this as a problem, but it does persist to today), I was usually more interested in the books conveniently stored in ledges in the back of the pew in front of me.  At least, until I opened them...

I bring this up because aesthetically, the newest edition of McSweeney's the literary quarterly, evokes for me the stiff, textured paperback hymnals of those days, right down to its deep forest green cover.  The difference, of course, is that I actually enjoyed reading this McSweeney's.

The book opens with a strong short story by Ariel Dorfman about a woman and her husband who have gone to Paris to enact a ritual of remembrance for the woman's brother, who disappeared thirty years prior in Chile.  I find her actions, which take on the role of performance art, as she places rag dolls at sites where partisans were shot during the Second World War to be touching, but the true weight of the story lies with the man in the hotel room next door, who is either attempting to kill someone, or is just making it sound like he is.

After that, we are given a lengthy piece of reportage on The Special Populations Unit of the Israeli army - forces made up of non-Israeli soldiers, mostly Bedouin and Druze.  Not unexpectedly, they are lured into the army with promises of equality and improved stations, but are still treated poorly.  The author, Chanan Tigay, tells of a reservist who receives his call to duty on the same day that he is informed that his house (where he was relocated by the army years prior) was illegal and would be bull-dozed.  With every article I read about Israel, my opinion of its leadership and institutionalized racism gets even worse.

My favourite piece in this McSweeney's is Nathaniel Rich's 'The Northeast Kingdom'.  This is a terrific short story about a very old man who just wants to work on his model airplanes.  As he gets closer and closer to holding the longevity world record, and as he gets increasingly harassed by reporters and relatives who want to know his 'secret', he and his grandson decide to fake their own deaths.  It's a very good piece of writing, with a nice ending.

Also of interest is Roddy Doyle's story 'The Hens', about a Polish architect who is hired by an Irish woman to look after her backyard chickens, and becomes embroiled in open warfare between three upper middle class women with nothing better to do.  It's hilarious.

This is followed by Steven Millhauser's re-working of the Rapunzel myth, Biji Adjapon's brutal story of girlhood in Ghana, and Rachel Glaser's tale of a woman who is at drift after her relationship ended.

There is an excerpt from the new Voices of Witness book that collects oral history around the topic of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.  This story, told by Talat Hamdani, whose son went missing on September 11th, is pretty interesting.  Her son, Salman, is believed to have gone to help out at the World Trade Center site, and was never seen again.  Later, the authorities began to act as if he was a suspect, and then the family suddenly received his body, or at least what they were told was parts of it.  The whole thing is suspicious, but as this is only an oral history, no investigative journalism was conducted to try to find out what really happened.  While I found the woman's story gripping, I feel like this piece also reveals some of the weaknesses and limitations of oral history.

Finally, the book ends with the first chapter of an upcoming novel (it is not named) by Dave Eggers.  It's about a fifty-six year old man who is facing bankruptcy, and has one final chance to make his fortune, by starting up a business in Saudi Arabia.  It's Eggers, so it's good.

Once again, this quarterly does not disappoint.

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