Instructions For a Funeral: Stories by David Means
I really disliked this collection for one main reason, Means’s prose is meandering so much that you completely disconnect from the character he’s giving a voice to. There are some alright pieces with a good core idea, but then the execution is soporific, leading me to realize I’d “read” three pages and not remembered a stitch of what I’d seen on the page. I’m a reader who loves literary fiction and even postmodern writing that plays with structures and voice. But this is just plain boring, with characters who never become compelling and lacking the urgency good short fiction possesses.
Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since I read Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, both by George Saunders, I have been searching for that sort of literary voice, and I think I’ve found it in Adjei-Brenyah. The most obvious connection is the short “Zimmer Land,” a theme park where people come to act out their aggressive fantasies while mostly ethnic minority employees (wearing high tech protective gear) become human punching bags. “The Finkelstein Five” continues that exploration of contemporary race conflict as the narrator becomes caught up in the reaction to the acquittal of a child murderer who took the lives of four black children with a chainsaw. There’s a duo of stories about the Thunderdome like conditions of a future shopping mall, where customers kill each other over insulated parkas. My favorite was the closing story, “Through the Flash” and it brought me to tears while reading it. That tale features a teenage girl caught in a dystopian time loop where she and her neighbors have lived the same days for thousands of years. It was an oddly hopeful and heartbreaking story. Of all the fiction I’ve read this year Friday Black gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.
The Need by Helen Phillips There are subtle shades of Jordan Peele’s “Us” present throughout this novel as it tells the story of a housewife encountering an entity in her home that will up-end her life. Molly is an anthropologist by day and worn out mother by night, often tasked with caring for her two very young children by herself while Molly’s husband is away. It’s one of these lonely nights at home when Molly becomes aware that something else is in the house. The brief movement of a toy chest lid in the living room informs her that this thing is watching her, and when it reveals herself, she isn’t quite sure how to process what is going on. Then the deal is struck, and soon, Molly finds she’s an outsider in her own life, becoming an observer as someone else takes her place. The scary part is that Molly finds relief in handing the burden of parenthood off to another. The Need is a tightly written and deeply existential & weird text. I’m not a parent, but the anxieties experienced by parents are palpable in this book. I imagine this could be a cathartic release for parents who naturally have those moments of regret from time to time.
Mister America (2019) Written by Tim Heidecker, Gregg Turkington, & Eric Notarnicola Directed by Eric Notarnicola
For seven years, writer/actor/comedian Tim Heidecker has been building a universe. It started with “On Cinema at the Cinema,” a film review show on YouTube. Heidecker and Turkington starred as versions of themselves, the former an arrogant prick and the latter a film buff obsessed with all that is mediocre. Worldbuilding occurred during the conversations the men had. This included Heidecker marrying a Japanese friend, having a child with the friend (Tom Cruise Junior), and the child dying because Heidecker became a strict anti-vaxxer. It was clear that Heidecker had a point of view to get across, the sort of profoundly twisted satire mainstream media doesn’t provide audiences with.
Four Lions (2010) Written by Chris Morris, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong, & Simon Blackwell Directed by Chris Morris
Nine years after the events of 9/11, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raging on, as ISIS was growing in power, four radicalized British Muslims want in on the jihad. They aspire to be suicide bombers but want to do it legit so that they end up as kick-ass martyrs. Two of the men, Omar and Waj, fly to Pakistan to train with al-Qaeda but end up using a rocket launcher the wrong way round and blow up part of the training camp. Meanwhile, Anglo convert to Islam Barry recruits Hassan, a young Arabic rapper who wants to create a “jihad of the mind.” When Omar returns the group devolves into arguments about what exactly to bomb: a mosque and pretend they were Jews, a pharmacy because they sell birth control or some as to be determined target.
This year I committed myself to read three books at a time: One comic book collection, one fiction book, and one non-fiction book. As a result, I read some very informative books, filling in my knowledge on subjects I realized I only understood tangentially. Here were my favorites, in no particular order, expect the last book which is my favorite.
The Second Amendment: A Biography – Michael Waldman After the shooting at Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School in February was moved emotionally in a way that none of America’s previous school shooting tragedies had hit me. I think I’d chosen to be numb to what had gone before, notably Sandy Hook, despite being an elementary school teacher out of pure psychological survival. I knew I had issues with the proliferation of guns in the United States but was unable to articulate my views and wanted to clarify facts so that I could clarify or possibly change my understanding. Author Waldman does an excellent job of giving in-depth explorations of gun ownership from colonial America to the most recent Supreme Court cases surrounding the issue. I walked away having a firmer, never final, viewpoint on an issue and was able to navigate past my emotional response to holding a much more reasoned one, while not eschewing the humanity involved.
Dick Cheney served under three of America’s presidents before getting to sit as vice president during George W. Bush’s administration. His path to power was made possible by his wife Lynne who spurred Dick on despite his proximity to many political scandals in Washington. When he finally reaches the highest levels of power in America, he calls in a series of friends and associates to help him commandeer control of the executive branch. President Bush doesn’t seem to mind and happily hands off the reins power leaving Cheney to mastermind the whole of foreign and energy policy for the next eight years. This is the story of the shadow president who transformed our nation forever and increased the reach of the office of the President for generations to come.