May 1, 2008

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The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes, by the Editors of McSweeney’s (Vintage Books, 2008, 217 pages)
By Nate Graziano news@hippopress.com

Maybe it’s egocentric to believe a book could be written with me specifically in mind, but in the case of The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes, the joke is definitely on me.

A little background: I was an English major as an undergraduate, and currently, I’m finishing up an MFA in fiction writing. On top of this, I teach high school English, where for a century the curriculum has been inextricably married to the literary Canon. It would not be overstating the case to say that my life is a giant deluge of literature and writing. It would also be fair to say that — with the possible exception of The Bush Administration — there are few grounds more fertile for a good old-fashioned lambasting than literature and this business of books.

That is precisely what the editors of McSweeney’s, the rabble-rousing San Francisco-based literary journal and independent press, have done in The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes. This is book for anyone who has ever spent time staring at their English diploma on the wall and wondering what the hell they were going to do with it. It’s a book for anyone who has ever dragged their knuckles through a writing workshop. It’s a book for the book-lover and working writer. And for the most part, this collection of short essays, vignettes, lists, letters, screenplays and (no joking) diarrhea songs “from the grad schoolyard” is gut-busting hilarious.

The editors of McSweeney’s have clear targets in the crosshairs. Some of the authors and topics that receive the heaviest of satirical gunfire are James Joyce (“Postcards from James Joyce to His Brother Stan”), Franz Kafka (“Social Security Denies Gregor Samsa’s Disability Claim”), Shakespeare (“Lady Macbeth on Ambien”), the writing workshop (“From the Found Notebooks of Homer’s Writing Group”), grad school (“A Serial Killer Explains Literary Terms”), and the publishing industry (“Submission Guidelines for Our Refrigerator Door”).

Although it doesn’t go overboard with political grandstanding, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the gang get their share of shelling as well. A standout in this category is “Whale of Mass Destruction — Richard B. Cheney, Adjunct Professor in the Humanities Presents: The Annual Symbolism in Melville Lecture” where Blair Becker, in the voice of our vice president, explains the historical background of Melville’s classic in terms of “Moby-Dick, whale of mass destruction, swimming through the seas unchecked, consorting with reefs, hurricanes, and any number of cataloged hazards to navigation. WMD has rebuked international whale inspectors for years.”

Like any book of this nature, the jokes hit and miss. The snarky humor and literary allusions do not always land a square punch, but more often than not, they do. Let it also be clear that this book targets readers with a foundation of classic literature and some knowledge of the writing industry. Anyone who has not read the big names dropped in literature and grad classes will likely miss many of the jokes.

However, written in short, digestible bites, The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes hits dead-on for bibliophiles, writers or wise-ass literature students everywhere. For fans of McSweeney’s, this is exactly what we’ve come to expect — edgy, funny, intrepid and intelligent (minus, maybe, the diarrhea songs).

And for a book reviewer trying to end his article with something clever, alliterative and befitting of a blurb for book sellers, McSweeney’s saves a punch for him as well. A-Nate Graziano