Alot of people we talk to have had similar experiences with the McSweeney's franchise: Six years ago, the journal felt like the best thing to happen to the printed word in ages. They published stories about talking dogs and meta-articles lampooning stuffy literary journals, and did so with an incredible and irreverent sense of design—booklets were stuffed into cigar boxes and bundles of faux-junk mail. Sometimes McSweeney's came as a gorgeous hardback, sometimes it was comprised of nothing but comics.
Then the inevitable backlash came, and people derided them for becoming too gimmicky and losing sight of its original ethos, as it published fiction by heavyweights like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates. Lately, though, we've talked to more and more people who have come back around to McSweeney's and are ready to give the quarterly another chance. To help ease these readers' transitions, we've spent some time with a few of their most recent publications and found that there's a lot coming out of the imprint to be excited about.
Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney's Book of Lists (Vintage)
If you've never read the frequently hilarious lists on the McSweeney's website, then I suggest doing so ASAP. If you're already familiar with these exercises in intelligent silliness, then you already know what this book is about. Mountain Man Dance Moves compiles more than 100 of these lists into a quick-read compendium that's funny enough to make you read aloud to whoever's nearby. Topics include: Nonrecommended Questions for Your Five-Minute Speed Date ("Do you have caller ID?"); Things Bob Seger Did "Like a Rock," that in Retrospect Do Not Seem All That Rocklike (Felt like a million, Believed in dreams); Future Winners of the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest ("I'm saying a cliché in a different context, Pam."); and Failed Yo Mama Jokes (Yo mama is as fat as my mama.). They're completely ridiculous, but mostly funny as hell and really smart to boot, which is an increasingly elusive combination these days. CHAS BOWIE
The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian (McSweeney's)
Chris Adrian "recently completed a pediatric residency at the University of California in San Francisco, and is currently a student at Harvard Divinity School," brags his author's bio—and, unmistakably, The Children's Hospital is born of both medicine and theology, a novel in which Gnosticism collides with diagnoses, and Old Testament-style cataclysms dovetail with IVs. But The Children's Hospital is, thankfully, more than that awkward marriage; it is also a thing of complex beauty and extraordinary insight.
The premise: During a fantastic storm, med student Jemma Claflin finds herself in the children's wing of a hospital—soon, the rest of the world is dead, crushed beneath seven miles of water. As the hospital floats, the surviving doctors and children find their fates tied to angels both benevolent and vicious, and their faith and fears bound to a supernaturally powerful Jemma. More than a vision that combines fantasy and realism, philosophy and certainty, The Children's Hospital is also about everything in between. It's been awhile since religion was this fascinating and moving—just as it's been awhile since there was a work of fiction this challenging, inventive, and heartfelt. ERIK HENRIKSEN
Arboretum by David Byrne (McSweeney's)
More than 20 years ago, David Byrne urged the world to stop making sense. These days the message is the same, but the delivery couldn't be more different. In recent years, Byrne has become a vocal proponent of PowerPoint—that bland, generic presentation tool used by stuffed shirts in boardrooms everywhere. By infusing the boring, corporate medium with his own Dada-driven art, he collapsed this barrier between super-logical and illogical. Now he's back with a variation of this approach in the sumptuously bound and printed Arboretum, a collection of over 90 drawings that take the form of evolutionary trees and Venn diagrams—tools that scientists use to map out rational thoughts and theories.
It would be most unlike Byrne, though, to use these diagrams and graphs for their intended purposes. Instead, he attempts to draw connections between cosmetic surgery procedures and 20th century art movements; forms of bling bling and charitable events; guitar solos and sexual aggression. Each of these intellectual explorations is plotted out in thin, pencil drawings, and most of the diagrams are accompanied by explanatory paragraphs in the back of the book. Arboretum isn't as flashy or catchy as a lot of Byrne's previous work, but it's rich with fascinating ideas and provocative questions.