For no reason other than that it is July, we forthwith offer a highly subjective ranking of the best issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.(Editor’s Note: Many of these issues no longer seem to be available at the McSweeney’s Store. We remind you, however, that in the wake of the AMS/PGW fiasco, buying directly from independent publishers can be a great way to show your support. Hardcovers of Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, for example, can be had for 40% off at www.softskull.com. We’ve provided links to the McSweeney’s store below, when applicable, as well as our usual Amazon links.)10. Issue 14: At War for the Forseeable FutureTruly, a McSweeney’s for all seasons. This is the one from right after the 2004 elections, and the mood is downright dour, from Chris Adrian’s “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” to Weschler’s “Thumb in Eye” Convergence. But there is some damn good stuff in here, notably Jim Shephard’s and Chris Bachelder’s stories, and Claire Light’s “Pigs in Space.” Lindsay Carleton’s creepy, angry “The People” perfectly distills the overall mood, and is probably our favorite McSweeney’s debut story ever. In its stripped-down cover and moderate front-matter, this McSweeney’s is, more than any other, a “typical issue” of the magazine. That it is of such high quality speaks to the enduring value of what editor Dave Eggers started. Every reader will have his or her own list of highlights and bloopers – aesthetic uniformity and frivolity seem to be the Scylla and Charibdis of the McSweeney’s project – but it’s been awfully good these last ten years to have a thick, prominent quarterly devoted to the notion that good writing both instructs and entertains. (McSweeney’s Store)9. Issue 11: It Can Be Free, a.k.a. “The DVD Issue”This is another of McSweeney’s stronger efforts, where fiction is concerned. Big names predominate – T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson – but the best work comes from the slightly less-prominent: David Means, Tom Bissell, and Samantha Hunt. As usual, there’s a debut story of which to be jealous (by Benjamin Lytal), letters, a smattering of nonfiction, and a Lawrence Weschler convergence. The endpapers appraise us of another notable Eggers project, the “Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award.” A handsome, quasi-biblical design diverts. And just when you think you’ve exhausted Issue 11, you remember the tongue-in-cheek bonus DVD. Indisputably the most essential item here is “The Editing of The Making of McSweeney’s Issue #11 DVD” (with audio commentary by John Hodgman and Sarah Vowell). In theory: cloying. In practice: freaking brilliant. (McSweeney’s store)8. Issue 20, a.k.a. “Return to Form”After a few issues in which whimsy trumped value, the magazine here buckles down and focuses on core competencies. First: fiction, notably Susan Steinberg’s “To Sit, Unmoving” and J. Erin Sweeney’s “Terminal.” Second: Design. Among its stories, Issue 20 interlards beautiful color plates by contemporary artists. My favorites are by Jason Holley and Susan Logoreci. As a bonus, the editors throw in a bound excerpt of Chris Adrian’s monumental novel, The Children’s Hospital, subsequently published by McSweeney’s Books. With the addition of a letters section and a kick-ass piece of journalism, this issue would easily have cracked the Top Five. (McSweeney’s Store)7. Issue 3: Windfall RepublicWe could just as easily list Issue 1 here, on the principle of historical significance. But Issue 3, its beefy younger brother, is where McSweeney’s really started to hit its stride. Having started out showcasing articles killed by other magazines and larky humor pieces, the Quarterly Concern quickly began luring the best work of talents young and old. Hence Saul Steinberg’s wonderful diagram “Country Noises.” Hence Paul Collins’ “Banvard’s Folly” (later reprinted in his book of the same title). Hence Judy Budnitz’ O. Henry-award-winning “Flush,” and Gary Greenberg’s remarkable memoir “In The Kingdom of the Unabomber” – the bloody heart of the Windfall Republic.6. Issue 12: Twelve New Stories from Twelve New WritersUnder the Managing Editorship of Eli Horowitz, McSweeney’s has laudably (if intermittently) emphasized showcasing new talent. Given the pressure on literary magazines to draw readers with recognizable names, this issue was a pleasant surprise. Of course, the last 80 pages feature a Roddy Doyle story and short-shorts by, e.g., Judy Budnitz, Rhett Miller, and Jennifer Egan. But the real meat is in the titular twelve stories. At times, the profusion of present-tense threatens to overwhelm the reader. But in stories like James Boice’s “Pregnant Girl Smoking,” it works just beautifully. Two of these debut writers, Ben Ehrenreich and Salvador Plascencia, would go on to publish novels – one of them from McSweeney’s Books. (McSweeney’s Store)5. Issue 13 a.k.a. “The Comics Issue”To date, Chris Ware is the only guest-editor of McSweeney’s to have written the majority of the text while also illustrating the dustjacket. Almost autistically intricate, Ware’s design rewards repeated viewing. And between vignettes from his illustrated history of Western thought, Ware offers readers a four-color Who’s Who of contemporary comic-book artists, including Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, and Art Spiegelman. No less beautiful are the prose contributions from Ira Glass, John Updike, and Chip Kidd. Portfolios of Charles Schulz and George Herriman provide historical context. On the whole, the issue makes a compelling case for comics as literature. (McSweeney’s Store)4. Issue 10: Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling TalesWe’ve recently fantasized about a literary quarterly that would only have guest-editors. You’d have to bid for the budget and subscriber list: whoever had the best pitch would win the right to put out an issue. In this 2003 anthology, guest-editing again proved congenial for McSweeney’s. In the most entertaining fashion imaginable, Michael Chabon made a case for the foolishness of genre distinctions. The results are a hung jury: it’s telling that some lit-fic writers delving into pulp genres sound as uncomfortable as some pulp writers waxing literary. But when “Thrilling Tales” is on, it’s on. Elmore Leonard is, as always, a great American Writer. Kelly Link is, as always, Kelly Link. Chabon’s skylarking “The Martian Agent” would inspire at least one blogger to attempt serial narrative. And Rick Moody’s “The Albertine Notes” (just republished in his book Right Livelihoods) reminds us of how good a writer he can be. It’s interesting, having read What is the What, to return to Eggers’ story “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” and to rediscover the odd joylessness of his immediate post-September-11th output. Eggers’ gifts as a writer depend, we think, upon his capacity for wonder, and when it goes, the work suffers. Perhaps this explains the streak of guest-editors, and the eventual hiring of Managing Editor Horowitz. Anyway, if you’re going to buy this issue, try to find the original McSweeney’s edition, rather than the Vintage paperback.3. Issue 8 a.k.a. “Paul’s Eye is on the Sparrow”We’ve encountered a lack of consensus on this issue: people either love it or hate it. We love it. Guest-editor Paul Maliszewski devotes the entire issue to “hoaxes,” presaging his own eventual exile from the McSweeney’s kingdom. But expansion beyond the usual gang proves to be a good thing. Again, we get Ben Marcus, Paul LaFarge, Moody, Weschler, J. Robert Lennon, and some quality Gabe Hudson. But Maliszewski also brings on board Samantha Hunt, Lynne Tillman (in the letters section), Michael Martone, Darin Strauss, Curtis White, and Gilbert Sorrentino. On the whole, the mood is a bit drier, a bit more refined, though we do get some amusing faux-reference-work riffage on Borges and the letter “M” (a prelude to the Future Dictionary of America?) Highlights include a wonderful Alex Hemon story, Sean Wilsey doing fiction, Rachel Cohen on Fernando Pessoa, a Tina Barney gatefold, and Jonathan Ames’ fascinating “The Nista Affair” – either memoir or story, we can’t tell which. 2. Issue 5: Small Box Half-Full of Gems and ItchingDon’t be fooled by the title. Issue 5 is not a box, and thus earns fewer style points than its immediate predecessor. (Nor does it contain gems or itching, in any literal sense.) It is, however, the strongest single issue of the magazine, where content is concerned. By the summer of 2000, whimsy, that sometime irritant, had given way to millennial exuberance. From the almost impossibly baroque “copyright page” to the pseudonymous letters by “Daniel O’Mara,” editor Eggers left his fingerprints everywhere on this one. More importantly, he got top-flight work from Collins and LaFarge, Lydia Davis, and Ann Cummins. Other highlights include a “Convergences” pinup, a Ben Marcus short short, a long piece by Susan Minot on Uganda, and an enormous story by “Elizabeth Klemm” (David Foster Wallace, doing some of his best fictional work since “Church Not Made of Hands”).1. Issue 4: Trying, Trying, Trying, Trying, Trying, Trying (a.k.a. “The Box”)The perfect marriage of form and content, this issue crystallized, in paper, the grandest possibilities of the McSweeney’s project. An unusual and elegant design concept – a box full of separately bound books – shows off this issue’s stories and articles to wonderful effect. Slighter offerings by heavy hitters (Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Moody) are enriched by their status as beautiful objects. Conversely, newcomer Sheila Heti dignifies the lavish presentation of her “Middle Stories” by making a hefty impact in a short amount of space. Lawrence Weschler contributes one of his most compelling “Convergences,” and other nonfiction, like Malisewski’s “Paperback Nabokov,” help establish McSweeney’s as a home for first-rate essays.
This year, Corey Vilhauer, a blogger from South Dakota, joined us on twelve occasions to present his book of the month. I viewed his regular installments as letters from the reading trenches, from a reader who’s willing to try anything as he expands his horizons to new genres and eras of writing. You’ll be seeing the 2007 CVBoMC starting in January. (to see last year’s entries, you can start in December and work back)I wasn’t asked, but I’m barging in on the Millions Best Books of 2006 section of the party and yelling loudly about what I like. Because it’s brash, and brazen, and lots of other words that start with “B.”Actually, as is the pattern with the Vilhauer library, I only read two or three books that were released in 2006. Two of them – David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (which made my top 10) and The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (honorable mention) – were actually quite worth it.However, my two favorite books this year are as follows:John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – Never before has the plight of the dispossessed seemed so important. With The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl epic, the Okies get the center stage they deserved, one that holds the injustices and bad luck that followed them around up to the light for the entire world to examine. And while one might think that these stories have lost their weight, that modern culture has cut Steinbeck’s novel off at the knees, it’s simply not the case. The Grapes of Wrath is just as important today as it was in the 40s. In fact, you can’t deny the similarities between the Dust Bowl’s mass exodus and New Orleans’ migration of displaced people. Bad luck, injustice – it’s all pretty much parallel.McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, edited by Chris Ware (2004) – I somehow missed the comic phenomenon when I was younger. But, after receiving McSweeney’s #13 in the mail (“the Comic Issue”, with a wonderful cover penned by Special Editor Chris Ware) the fire was rekindled slightly. This book is beautifully bound, with hundreds of full color prints, articles from some of the most well known authors and graphic artists, and simply packed to the gills with today’s important comic creators. If you want to get into modern comics and graphic novels, get this first. You won’t be disappointed.Of course, there were more books – I’ve got an entire top 10 (and more, including honorable mentions) at Black Marks on Wood Pulp. It’s the year end edition of “What I’ve Been Reading.” So if you don’t mind mindless plugging, go ahead and visit.Thanks Corey!
I just got back from the Baltimore Orioles game, my first at Camden Yards in several years. I had forgotten how close, compared to Dodger Stadium, the fans sit to the field. Even when I sat in the “Dugout Club” field level seats at Dodger Stadium, I didn’t feel as involved in the game as I do at Camden Yards. It’s much more a city park surrounded by tall buildings, compared to Dodger Stadium’s desert crater feel.Tomorrow I head up to New York on the train. There is wedding planning to be done with Miss Millions, but hopefully some diversions as well.This morning, at a local bookstore, I saw McSweeney’s 13. It’s amazing looking. I’ve got a copy on its way in the mail. Also in book news, Bill Clinton’s keynote speech at Book Expo was well-received, and retailers are salivating over the expected sales numbers for his memoir. And for the Brits, check out this awesome deal being offered by The Times. When you buy a copy of the newspaper you get a bestselling paperback for 99 pence. Now that’s a great reading initiative. (Better than “One Book, One City” anyway)
My friend Edan writes in to remind me about the latest issue of McSweeney’s. Typically I find that McSweeney’s are fun to look at, a mishmosh of interesting design and writing that doesn’t stick to your bones, but I’m genuinely excited about this McSweeney’s in a way that I haven’t been excited about any previous issue. This one is their comics issue with a cover designed by Chris Ware and comics by R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and others as well as essays by Michael Chabon, Ira Glass, John Updike, Chip Kidd, and others. These are all favorites of mine in the world of comics and books. I’m looking forward to reading it. Edan also told me to have a look at The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, which she describes as “awesome and big.” I would have to agree. Go here and click on “look inside” to check it out.I also got a note from my friend Emre who really wants me, and everyone, to read Italo Calvino. He is a most trusted fellow reader so I feel confident when I pass along his Calvino recommendations: “pick up a copy of The Baron in the Trees and indulge in it. The Nonexistent Knight is pretty good too, Invisible Cities is ok, or maybe I couldn’t get into it because I read it on the subway.” Thanks Edan and Emre!