Sunday, April 19, 2009

#66 - "Ghosts of Chicago" by John McNally

I understand that choosing books because of the first letter of the title, in order to read a book starting with every letter of the alphabet is kind of ridiculous. Or utterly pointless. While browsing at the library, I've picked up a couple of books that looked interesting but I probably wouldn't otherwise have read. And so far I have been pleasantly surprised; Ghosts of Chicago (2008) by John McNally is no exception. I needed a 'G' and there it was on the display table: shiny and new; interesting cover; positive blurbs; short stories. That's all I needed.

Although the title had me slightly concerned that I would be reading actual ghost stories, Ghosts of Chicago does not have supernatural characters or events. Instead, the characters in McNally's seventeen short stories are haunted by their own desires, obsessions, and problems. This can make for a sometimes uncomfortable and depressing read, but I was impressed by McNally's writing and creativity. Every story quickly drew me in, and the characters felt real, even when I couldn't understand--or regretted--their actions.

My last foray into short stories was The Best American Short Stories where I decided that short stories were not my favorite format because I didn't have enough time to get involved with the characters or plot. So, in some ways, Ghosts of Chicago was an improvement for me. The similar settings of the Chicago area, with the relatively dark and somber themes winding through each of the stories created more of a "whole" product. I felt less disjointed and scattered as I read this book. However, I still found myself yearning for more information, and I still felt I was jumping so quickly from story to story that the individual stories couldn't make a deep impression on me.

I was most impressed by McNally's range and creativity. Whether the protagonist is a man, a woman, or a child, McNally gets inside the character's head with surprising realism. The stories range from realistic, to unlikely to almost surreal. I'm still trying to figure out what exactly was going on in "Remains of the Night," a story that involves superheros and creepy bugs and (most likely?) mental illness. I also found "Contributor's Notes" very entertaining. McNally uses his own name as the protagonist and I was trying to figure out what the story was saying about him and then he twisted it all around at the end. And "Return Policy," a sad and bittersweet story about a man who we get to know in slow increments. Although I'm still not completely sold on short stories, I would recommend Ghosts of Chicago for those who enjoy them.

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