Thoughts on selections from The Best of McSweeney’s, the first 25% (by Jill)

mcsweeney's cover

Why I decided to start reading this book three days before I’m going to be living out of a suitcase in a hotel room in Anaheim for four days, I have no idea, because it’s big and heavy and not something a normal person would want to take on vacation. But who ever accused me of being a normal person when it comes to books? No one! The good news is that I won’t be compelled to bring three books with me like I usually do when I go out of town. When Jacob and I went on our three day honeymoon I believe I brought five books, and bought a few more while we were in Monterey, because I had no idea what I’d feel like reading. Turns out, I spent more of our honeymoon reading the insides of my eyelids than any of the books I brought with me.

The Best of McSweeney’s was Indiespensible Volume 44, from November 2013. I’ve been somewhat fascinated by McSweeney’s for as long as I’ve known about it: it’s a publishing house; it’s a website; it’s a quarterly literary journal! Stop! It’s all three! And it’s based in San Francisco, on Valencia Street—my old stomping grounds! I think I first learned of McSweeney’s when I read Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius back in 2006. I really wanted to love that book, but alas, I did not. I’ve considered subscribing to Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern multiple times over the years, but never get around to doing it for one reason or another. If I haven’t visited the subscription page of their website at least ten more times before I finish this book I’ll be really surprised. I’m pretty sure I’ll resist the urge, but I can’t say that with certainty. So far I’ve read about a quarter of this tome, and it’s actually going really fast. Major complaint thus far? The fabric the cover is made of seems to act as some sort of cat hair attractant/adhesive. Otherwise I’m liking it just fine.

So far most of the stories I’ve read have been just that: stories. There is nonfiction still to come, and I’m looking forward especially to “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” about an outsider’s trip to a NASCAR race. (For those of you who don’t know, my husband loves NASCAR. Not as much as a lot of folks in the deep South, but it’s his sport. Some men love football, some love baseball. My wonderful husband loves car racing, of all kinds these days, but NASCAR is his first love. So I have a lot of opinions about NASCAR, and many mixed emotions. But more on that later.)

Of the fifteen things I’ve read so far, two stand out: Chris Adrian’s story “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death,” and A.M. Homes’ “Do Not Disturb.”

“A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” is narrated by Cindy, a girl who I assumed was in her mid teens. Our narrator was a preemie and lost a significant amount of her small intestine due to an infection after she was born, so she makes frequent visits to the pediatrics ward of her local hospital (oh, and the story takes place in San Francisco, how cool is that?) for various frequent ailments. Currently, she’s being admitted for a course of TPN (total parenteral nutrition) because she’s had a bad spell of malabsorbtion. She calls TPN “the sauce,” and generally is a funny kid considering how serious her condition is. Cindy has several adventures while she’s in the hospital this time: she develops a crush on her intern, Dr. Chandra, who may very likely be the least competent pediatrics intern ever, makes out with a boy with cystic fibrosis in one of the on-call rooms; rides around the ward on her IV stand. This story is more a portrait of a girl living with a life-altering disease than an exciting adventure story, but I really enjoyed it. Adrian makes the voice of this kid so strong and honest. I’ve always wanted to read something of his, and actually have two of his books that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet.

The other story I wanted to mention briefly is “Do Not Disturb.” This story is narrated by a middle-aged man whose wife is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The twist is that his wife is an emergency physician and also a very unpleasant woman. They haven’t been getting along well prior to her diagnosis, to the point that he is considering leaving his wife, but then decides to stay, because he doesn’t want to be the guy who leaves the woman with cancer. And his wife, true to character, decides to make him regret his decision. When they go to Paris after she finishes her first round of chemo, he finally decides he has had enough. I’ve also never read any A.M. Homes (though I own lots of her books!), but I was impressed with the reality she infused into these two characters and their marriage.

I guess the main thread these two stories have is the fact that life goes on, people are still people, despite the presence of horrible diseases—not all people who get cancer are saintly beatific kind people, and teenagers with chronic diseases still have the same urges to get into trouble that all teenagers have. These were just two of the excellent stories I’ve read so far in this anthology. When I’m back from Disneyland I’m sure I’ll have found more to talk about.

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This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - short story anthologies, Fiction - short story collections, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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