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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What to Read in McSweeney's 39

Posted By on Wed, Feb 8, 2012 at 8:30 AM


As I've explained previously, by the time I get my McSweeney's update e-mail hyping the forthcoming issue, I'm chiding myself with "Shit. I still haven't read the last one." But thanks to a recent cramped Southwest flight, I have finished my McSweeney's 39 nearly a month earlier than usual, meaning I'm not feeling my usual guilt at 1) not reading and 2) paying a hefty subscription for a publication I don't read but nonetheless makes me feel smarter and more cultured.

Issue 39 has a home motif -- leaving home, making new homes, in the literal as well as figurative sense -- and is a mix (example: Featured photography by Tabitha Soren -- yes, from MTV News!) with hits and misses. Because I read the issue while having my seat repeatedly kicked by a grade school kid and was in a state of general irritability, I'll just stick to the hits.


The Shah's Man by Tom Barbash

As someone who was too young to be fully cognizant of the Iranian revolution (that's not bragging, I swear), I was surprisingly engrossed by this account of the Shah of Iran, who fled with his family in the midst of the Khomeini-led opposition movement and the hostage crisis that held 52 American diplomats for more than a year. Before he died, the Shah and his family bounced between Panama, Egypt, the Bahamas, Mexico, and the United States as his political allies abroad sat on the fence, not wanting to fully dismiss or embrace him while Iran was in a state of flux. Coordinating the Shah's moves and virtually every aspect of his life and the lives of his family was Robert Armao, a former adviser to Nelson D. Rockefeller who stood by -- and reportedly still stands by -- the family through health scares, moves, threats, and death.

Benjamin Bucks by Jennie Erin Smith

As Adaptation and its inspiration The Orchid Thief have proved, nature is pretty good as the seedy setting for criminal and moral misdeeds. Benjamin Bucks follows the eponymous Mormon smuggler of reptiles who travels the world organizing the traffic of exotic snakes and the like with his shady colleagues, shacking up with vulnerable lady friends along the way. Bucks is not likeable enough to root for, but his successes and inevitable failures are equally fascinating.


Anything Helps by Jess Walter

An alcoholic homeless man reflects on the events of his life that led to his current situation, panhandling, living in a shelter, and occasionally breaking visitation rules to see his young son who is in foster care. Not exactly a knee-slapper from the outset, but the story is able to imbue some humor into an otherwise heartbreaking tale of regret.

Chick Killer by Elmore Leonard

This short piece brings sexy badass federal marshal Karen Sisco back to life as she sets up a meeting with her supervisor to discuss her subpar assignments and taking down a wanted murderer while waiting at the bar. All in a day's work.

Secret Language by Yannick Murphy

Adele is an American woman living abroad in her husband's native country. She's under constant ostracism for her domestic abilities, particularly as their daughter is gradually getting weaker because she refuses to eat anything but chocolate. While the description of Adele's home life does not explicitly reference abuse, Murphy is adept at giving you a sense of her isolation and longing to not only nourish her daughter but to nourish herself.

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