The Brain-dead Megaphone by George Saunders

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The Brain-dead Megaphone by George Saunders

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Category: Humour
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Dan Hooper
Reviewed by Dan Hooper
Summary: A wonderful and varied collection of essays from an extraordinary writer.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747596417

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American author George Saunders is known for his short stories and fiction, but he's also a journalist for publications such as The Guardian, The New Yorker Magazine and GQ. The Brain-Dead Megaphone is his first collection of essays and it's an interesting proposition: sixteen pieces ranging from travel writing, literary appreciation, political essays, to surrealist short fiction.

What marks Saunders' political essays out is their immense affability – never resorting to polemic, Saunders pieces are consistently thoughtful and reasoned. Title piece 'The Brain-Dead Megaphone' is a great introduction to the book, entertaining and inviting throughout as it slowly develops from a piece about the loud ignorant people to the dumbing down of news media. 'The Great Divider' is an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism highlighting the problems of immigration between Mexico and the United States; it covers all sides of the story from a human perspective, while he remains open minded about a contentious issue. As he meets with the Minutemen, a vigilante group who watch along the border for illegal immigrants, Saunders doesn't paint these men as racist red-neck caricatures but instead shows them as hard-working patriots wanting a decent future for their families.

As a creative writing lecturer, Saunders has an obvious love of language and this is not just expressed through his fluid writing style. In a series of personal essays Saunders covers how Esther Forbes' book Johnny Tremain was the book that first got him interested in writing and how Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is an influence on him. Saunders also includes a few brief pieces of fiction writing, like his hilarious faux letters page 'Ask the Optimist' and his interesting writing experiment 'Woof' - a plea written from a dog's point-of-view. A word of warning: if you have any interest in reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn then do not read Saunders' piece 'The United States of Huck' – though not a bad piece, it does tell you too much about the story including its ending.

Saunders proves himself to be a good travel writer. His piece about Dubai, 'The New Mecca', is an enlightening travel piece into a mysterious Middle East metropolis. Heaving with poetic imagery and attention to detail, Saunders puts this into a social context as he refers to the use of migrant workers in its construction and maintenance. It is a shame to report that his brief piece about Britain is quite myopic, focusing on the upper-middle class without really saying anything new. The climax of the book, 'Buddha Boy', is an illuminating travel journal piece about his trip to see a boy who had been in meditation for seven months straight. Though questioning, it isn't cynical but wondrous of this weird character.

This could have been an indulgent mess, but instead it is one of the most enjoyable essay collections I've read since the work of Hunter S Thompson. The Brain-Dead Megaphone is like the best magazine you've never read, a variety of well written, impassioned, and entertaining pieces from a writer you'd love to go for a drink with.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this book then you might also like Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. For an excellent collection of essays we can recommend At Large And At Small by Anne Fadiman.

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