sat, 07-jul-2007, 16:37

mcsweeney’s quarterly concern #10

mcsweeney’s quarterly concern #10, michael chabon (ed.)

I’ve given up the monthly book reports in favor of a post every time I finish something. I think it’ll give me a better chance to write more about each book, and my memory will be fresher when I do it. I won’t have a public record of what I’ve acquired each month, but the book queue sidebar gives a good view on what I’ve got (the un-italicized titles) and haven’t yet read.

McSweeney’s Issue 10 (reprinted by Vintage with the proceeds going to support 826 Valencia) is a collection of short stories, but rather than the typical “contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory stories” (to quote Michael Chabon’s Introduction), the stories are all attempts by the writers to revive the lost art of writing genre short fiction. It’s quite a list of authors too, including Chabon himself, Nick Hornby, Michael Crichton, Dave Eggers, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, Harlan Ellison, Rick Moody, Neil Gaiman, and others I’m less familiar with.

My favorites include Elmore Leonard’s story about a young man becoming a U.S. Marshall, Kelly Link’s strange story about cat skins and witches, Nick Hornby's take on an end-of-the world coming-of-age story, and Michael Moorcock’s 1930s detective fiction about the murder of Hitler’s half-niece. Rick Moody has an interesting pseudo-time travel story that didn’t grab me enough for me to completely follow it, but it was very interesting and I’ll have to re-read it again to see if I can figure it out.

Some may have suffered in my eyes because I wasn’t enamored of the genre they chose. Despite Geek Love and the first season of Carnivàle, I don’t like carnivals that much, which made Glen David Gold’s carnival story awfully dull. My least favorite parts of Cloud Atlas (itself a work of genre fictions) were the first and last parts, similar to the Jim Shepard story and the “survival / man on the run” story by Carol Emshwiller. Maybe Gold, Shepard and Emshwiller succeeded with fictions I'm just not that fond of.

At the same time, some of the best stories in the collection were the ones that didn’t stray too far into pulpy genres. Dave Eggers’s mountaineering story and Laurie King’s backwoods cabin tale were enjoyable less for the plotting and occasional dips into the genre pool, and more for the fully fleshed out characterization, and the human emotions in evidence.

So, what can the collection tell us about genre fiction and it’s place in the short story world? For me, not a huge fan of short stories to begin with, it’s clear that there’s room for all kinds of fiction, and there’s no reason to reject a story because it’s got themes further from our own, more mundane, experience than usual. I enjoyed both the really pulpy fictions in the collection, and those that were more conventional; and I was bored with quite a few of the stories in each category as well. If Chabon keeps writing great genre novels like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, maybe there will continue to be room for all sorts of stories in the “Literary Fiction” section at the bookstore.


tags: review  books 
sun, 01-jul-2007, 15:10

black swan green

black swan green, david mitchell

Books Acquired

Books Read

I think this is the last time I post one of these long monthly summaries of what I’ve read. I should be considering the books when I’ve finished them, not a month later, as is the case with Galatea 2.2. I remember what it’s about and that I liked it, but the details of the story and exactly why I liked it is already fading from memory. Plus, if I comment on each book, there'll be more posts!

As for the best of this month, it's a toss up between The Raw Shark Texts, which is a great “summer read”, and Black Swan Green, which is a more serious coming-of-age story. Read both!

Galatea 2.2

As I mentioned, I liked this book a lot and am really looking forward to reading more of Powers’s work. The book appears to be somewhat biographical since the main character’s name is Richard Powers and the number of books he’s written and his back story match what the Wikipedia has to say about him. But it’s unlikely that Powers really participated in the creation of a neural net genuine enough to make it’s creator consider whether it had a right to life. Which is what happens here.

As to why I liked it, I’m afraid I can’t really remember exactly. It was very smartly written, had some excellent science in it about the nature of language and consciousness, but didn’t get too hung up on the science that it felt like you were being educated.

Never Let Me Go

I’ve never read Ishiguro before, and I didn’t want to start with Remains of the Day, so I chose Never Let Me Go. The book is a sort of argument about how far we would be willing to go to extend and improve our lives. In this case, by producing humans whose purpose is to provide replacement organs for the rest of us. When they’re not donating organs, they’re taking care of those that are. The book is told from the perspective of one of the organ donors, mostly in the form of flashbacks to her growing up. I found that technique to get a little old after awhile, because I got tired of the first person voice and wasn’t as interested in learning every detail of her childhood. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the final section of the book had a strong emotional effect.

Page 263:

…when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most…How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back.

The Raw Shark Texts

I read this book in two days, and once I hit the half-way point I couldn’t put it down. It’s a smart, funny thriller that’s also a love story. The main character wakes up on the floor of his apartment with no memory of his past, and soon discovers that this has happened to him multiple times in the past. Notes he sent to himself from the past start to clarify the situation, and once he figures out what’s going on, the adventure begins.

Some of the dialog didn’t ring true for me, but the sections from his past life were great. Page 123:

“Hey” “What?” “While we’ve been sitting here, have you been thinking my girlfriend has no knickers on? ” “No, course not,” I said, then, after a second: “Well, it depends. What’s the right answer?” Clio tucked her hands deeper under her knees and looked away so I couldn’t read her expression. “No clues,” she said.

The book isn’t perfect: the last fifty pages bear a striking similarity (intentionally, I’m sure) to a famous movie about a shark, and I kept thinking to myself, “this will make for a great movie.” None of these issues is damning, though, and in fact, The Raw Shark Texts is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Plus, how can you go wrong with a book that’s got a flip-book section in it?

Black Swan Green

David Mitchell’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor (presumably not this Jason Taylor), growing up in a small English town in the 80s. I found a lot to like about this book, since I was also a teenager in the 80s (in a small town in the U.S.A.) and faced many of the same problems fitting in with my peers. Thankfully, I didn’t have a stammer, but it’s a good stand-in for whatever it is that makes a person not part of the in-crowd. The book is rich with the details of the community, Jason’s family, and the trials he faces among his peers.

What was most impressive, though, was how much Jason changed and grew through the year that the book covers. Not only does Mitchell convince you to care about Jason, but you feel like you’ve lived his growing up along with him.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Barbara Kingsolver and her family move to a small farm in rural Virginia to see what it would be like, for a full year, to grow as much of their food as possible on their farmstead. The book is another view of the same issues that Michel Pollan considers in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I read last month. The main narrative describes the yearly cycle of food on their farm, from the asparagus of April to the squash, frozen meat and banked root vegetables they eat over the winter months. Along the way Kingsolver’s daughter includes commentary and recipes from the perspective of a 19-year old, and more political or scientific sidebars from Steven Hopp.

It’s an effective way to consider the subject of the worldwide industrialization of food production, but suffers because most of us can’t just pack up and move to a farm. I’d love to be able to raise chickens and turkeys and grow all my own food, but land covenants in my neighborhood forbid raising “livestock”, and Alaska is a tough place to grow your own food (although we’re doing what we can in our small garden. Still, this, and Pollan’s book have caused me to think more carefully about the food choices I’m making and what options I have available for making better ones.

Falling Man

This is DeLillo’s 9/11 novel, and man, is it a flat, emotionless book. I guess that must be the point, though.

From page 75:

“Is it possible you and I are done with conflict? You know what I mean. The everyday friction. The every-word every-breath schedule we were on before we split. Is it possible this is over? We don’t need this anymore. We can live without it. Am I right?” “We’re ready to sink into our little lives,” he said.
Working Alone

I’ve done quite a bit of work around our house, most of it by myself. Hanging fourteen foot-long pieces of siding while standing on a swinging platform hung from the roof is not easy, and neither is raising, squaring and plumbing walls. Carroll considers solo building from the ground up starting with the foundation, moving up through the structure to the roof, and even has a chapter on building a deck. This book, and Moving Heavy Things, will go a long way toward allowing you to work on your house by yourself without getting hurt.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Genuinely funny, honest and open, and yes, heartbreaking.

tags: books  review 
sun, 03-jun-2007, 14:33

the omnivore’s dilemma

the omnivore’s dilemma, michael pollan

Books Acquired

Books Read

I got a lot of books this month. My reading has slowed a bit now that we’ve got more than twenty hours of daylight and there’s lots of projects to get done outside (vegetable garden, dog yard cleanup, etc.). But that doesn’t stop me from reading the book blogs and literary magazines, adding to the queue, and taking BookBurro over to AbeBooks for a used copy of what’s what. In addition to getting some real bargains at AbeBooks, I’ve also frequented the local new and used bookstore for some stuff (I had no idea King Arthur Flour published a whole grain baking book until I saw it at Guiliver’s—woo hoo!), and even picked up some things from Barnes & Noble when I couldn’t find them anywhere else. Sometimes you really do want a giant-size selection.

Here They Come

Another in McSweeney’s Rectangular’s series, the book looks good and is well made. It’s a slice of life story (that freshman-year writing class is really paying dividends) told from the perspective of a thirteen year old girl living in abject poverty in New York City. Their apartment is filled with garbage bags and rotting refuse because they can’t pay for trash pickup, the toilet water freezes at night, and their father has abandoned them to live with a woman referred to throughout as “the slut.” Sounds depressing, I know, but the girl narrating seems to be completely open to the world and the full variety of experiences it offers without being upset about the particular hand she’s been dealt.

Not much happens, despite taking place over at least a year, but all the details and neighborhood characters in the novel really bring it to life, and the narrator is a fantastic and unyielding observer of the world around her. The result is a very rich, rewarding and emotional book that sort of sneaks up on you because of it’s apparent simplicity.

This was one of the books considered by the litblog co-op in Spring 2006 (note that the posts at that link are in reverse chronological order, so start at the bottom if you're reading it). The author participated and had this to say about the book and how she views her fiction:

I’m one of those writers who really believes that you can “show” rather than “tell” a story and you’re right, a lot of writers out there are busying themselves with telling conventional stories with conventional plots and because of it they are missing out on all the other ways there are of being on the page and of sounding on the page. A lot of writers think it’s their responsibility to instruct or entertain the reader, whereas I believe it’s more important to witness – I think it was Michael Ondaatje who said, “a writer should be like a mirror walking down the road” and that’s how I try and think while I’m writing.

I think that’s why I came away somewhat amazed by the book, despite nothing really happening and a lack of a normal plot. Many foreign films appear to have little or no plot when compared to American films, and yet, by the end, you've come away with something more than the story being told. What’s interesting to think about in is why this is so rare in fiction, even though for most of us, our lives really don’t conform to a classic storyline plot, at least not at the scales at which most novels operate. Sure, I was born, grew up, went to college, had some relationships, and now I’m married with six dogs, a cat, and a job sitting in a cubicle staring at a pair of computer screens. But take almost any year out of that life and it’s pretty plotless. Maybe it’s just too hard to write a novel that people will want to read that is as mundane as a real life. It’s a credit to Yannick Murphy that she was able to do it with Here They Come.

Thinking with Type

This one came highly recommended, although I can’t remember where. It’s a really good looking book, and it’s worth the cover price for how well put together it is, and for all the examples inside. It’s not particularly good as a style guide, though. For that, I’d recommend Robert Bringhurt’s The Elements of Typographic Style. It’s much more concerned with proper typsetting, and the rules of producing a document or book that looks good. I think the books really complement each other, and this is a case where Amazon’s “Better Together” section really does make the right “Buy this book with…” suggestion.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Wow!

I’ve read previous books by Pollan, as well as many of the pieces he’s written for The New York Times Magazine, but this book is a real tour de force of personal experience and investigative journalism about our food system and how screwed up it is. Pollan starts with the omnivore’s dilemma, which can be expressed simply as “what should we eat today?” It’s a very complex question, especially in today’s world, because our food system has been drastically manipulated by science and politics, and at the same time, we’re living in bodies designed for a vastly different eating environment.

As an attempt to explain the dilemma in his own life, he considers four meals: a fast food meal (Industrial / Corn) eaten in the car, a meal prepared from foods purchased at a local Whole Foods Market (Big Organic), a meal prepared from local foods grown on sustainable farms (Pastoral / Grass), and a meal from foods he collected and killed (The Perfect Meal / The Forest). You can tell from the chapter titles how he feels about each of these meals, but as you travel the path with him and actually see where the food he’s eating comes from, it’s hard not to agree with his conclusions.

This is one of those books like Fast Food Nation where you shouldn’t pick it up unless you’re willing to evaluate what you eat and the consequences of your choices. I came away from Fast Food Nation never wanting to eat fast food again (short of In and Out Burger, maybe). I was already familiar with most of the arguments in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but the volume of evidence in the book makes those arguments hard to refute. In our own life, we’re trying: we bought a side of beef from a local beef producer, we’re trying to buy as much produce from the Farmer’s Market as we can, and we’re spending a lot of time and effort in our vegetable garden this year. I may spend more time in the outdoors this summer both hunting game, and down in Chitina filling my personal harvest quota of salmon.

That’s the sort of commitment Pollan’s writing can inspire.

Easy Guide to Sewing Pants

It turns out that this particular book (and, frustratingly, an awful lot of sewing books in general) is specific to sewing women’s pants. Luckily, the book has lots of material on getting a proper fit for almost any female body type, and I expect that with the exception of a certain piece of external anatomy that women lack, there are women whose lower half is shaped enough like mine to fit a pair of pants. It’s been a very long time since I’ve sewed anything complex (I don’t think dog beds count), so I don’t think I’m going to start my efforts with pants. After I’ve made a few simple shirts I may move on to pants and hopefully this book will help with getting a proper fit.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel The Dictionary of Popular Yiddish Words, Phrases, and Proverbs

You’d be hard pressed to avoid hearing or reading something about this novel. His previous novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so expectations were high. The novel is a detective story, set in an alternate reality where Sitka Alaska is a temporary Jewish homeland, soon to revert back to Alaskan control, and where Yiddish and “American” are spoken alongside each other. Despite the confining nature of the detective genre (the hard drinking, divorced cop; shady figures controlled by some darker agent; occasionally gunplay; etc.) Chabon tells an entertaining story filled with the atmosphere of a Yiddish community in southeastern Alaska. And the writing is fantastic.

One of the excellent riffs from the novel. Page 290:

The brake and gas were rigged to suit a man of his stature, and he handled them like Horowitz sailing through a storm of Liszt.

When I first read that I did a double-take, read it again, laughed, and felt compelled to put on Horowitz in Moscow. The book is filled with intelligent references like that one. The sort of thing that’s probably missing from lowbrow pulp detective fiction, but which fits right in here.

I can’t say that Chabon was completely successful, though. I liked Kavalier & Clay better, mostly because I didn’t think the story moved along fast enough or had enough of the twists and turns one might expect from this sort of genre, but I think it’s better have tried something new and interesting, than to just keep writing the same books over and over again. Chabon has demonstrated that he can write gloriously in a wide range of different literary forms, and even if each book isn’t the “perfect” novel, I’ll keep reading because I know it’ll be an interesting ride. What more should we ask for?

I saw the Yiddish Dictionary in the remainders pile at Barnes and Noble, and decided it might help with some of the Yiddish words in Chabon’s novel. As it turns out, you don’t need any special understanding of Yiddish because Chabon is careful to put the words in enough context that it’s easy to figure out what he’s talking about. And unless the Dictionary is really, really bad, Chabon isn’t really writing straight Yiddish anyway since most of the words that appear in the novel aren’t in the Dictionary.

Whole Grain Baking

I got this book at the end of the month so I’ve only had a chance to make one recipe from it (Dark Sourdough Rye), but the bread came out very good. My initial impressions of the book are very favorable. It’s got weights along with volumetric measurements for all ingredients (I do all my bread baking by weight), includes sections on breakfast foods, cookies, cakes, quick breads, sourdoughs, rye breads and normal yeasted breads. Since I already know how to make bread, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time reading the introductory sections on technique and ingredients, but there is a fair amount of this material so even a beginner would find the book useful. It is the sort of book where you’ll probably need to plan a trip to the store before attempting a new recipe. In contrast to some of my other favorite baking books (Hamelman’s Bread, Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible), this one has lots of recipes with ingredients not often on hand in my kitchen. That’s a good thing, I think, because it complements my other books well, but you can’t just get up on Sunday morning hoping to make a new recipe without some foresight.

Think UNIX

I read this book when it first came out in 2000 and it’s always the first book I recommend when people ask me what book they should get if they’re interested in learning Unix. It’s main advantage over the other books you’ll find is that it’s not a command manual or a tutorial, it’s a book that discusses both why and how Unix is different from other operating systems. For example, a tutorial-style manual might discuss pipes and how you use them, but I think it’s useful to know that the reason you’re using a pipe is because one of the philosophies of Unix is that it’s a large set of small, fast, single-purpose tools; rather than a small set of large, slow, multi-purpose tools like Microsoft Windows offers. Learning to use Unix isn’t just about learning the commands, it requires re-thinking the way you’ve probably been doing things for a long time under on other systems.

I got my copy for $6 at AbeBooks, but it’s back in print again, so if you want a new copy, click the link above.

Voyage Along the Horizon

A tale within a tale, written in an wry, early 20th century style, this book tells the entertaining story of a scientific expedition to Antarctica gone wrong. I enjoyed the style and atmosphere, but the book never comes to any satisfying conclusion.

At the end of the book there’s a brief interview with Marías where they ask him about the ending of the book. He says:

…the end of a novel isn’t usually very important. In fact, people never seem to remember the endings of novels (most especially crime novels—that’s what makes them so re-readable) and movies (especially, once again, thrillers and whodunits). Conclusions and final explanations are often the most irrelevant—and disappointing—parts of a novel. What counts the most—and what we remember the most—is the atmosphere, the style, the path, the journey, and the world in which we have immersed ourselves for a few hours of a few days while reading a novel or watching a movie. What matters, then, is the journey along the horizon–in other words, the journey that never ends.

I don’t think I entirely agree, and it matters in the context of this book, because at the conclusion, I was left thinking, “that wasn’t a very good ending.” So I didn’t like the way the book ended, but I really did enjoy the things he says are most important (style, atmosphere, etc.). I think the best books are those which have it all. Why restrict yourself to style and atmosphere, when you can have that, plus good characters, an entertaining plot, and a fantastic ending (see Icelander)?

tags: books  review 
mon, 30-apr-2007, 15:31

the children’s hospital

the children’s hospital, chris adrian

Books Acquired

  • Chris Adrian. 2006. The Children’s Hospital. McSweeney’s. 615 pp.
  • Richard Powers. 1995. Galatea 2.2. Perennial. 329 pp.
  • Kahled Hosseini. 2003. The Kite Runner. Bloomsbury. 324 pp.
  • Javier Marías. 1972. Voyage Along the Horizon. Believer Books. 250 pp.
  • Yannick Murphy. 2006. Here They Come. McSweeney’s. 250 pp.
  • Dustin Long. 2006. Icelander. McSweeney’s. 249 pp.
  • Michael Pollan. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin. 450 pp.

Books Read

  • J. Anthony Lukas. 1997. Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. Simon & Schuster. 880 pp.
  • Chris Adrian. 2006. The Children’s Hospital. McSweeney’s. 615 pp.
  • A. L. Kennedy. 2004. Paradise. Knopf. 304 pp.
  • Jim Crace. 1999. Being Dead. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 192 pp.
  • Dustin Long. 2006. Icelander. McSweeney’s. 249 pp.

Big Trouble

Big Trouble is a huge, sprawling story, principally devoted to the assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Stuenenberg in 1905 and the ensuing capture and trial of three of big labor’s most important leaders. I say principally because Lukas ranges all over the map, extensively considering each player in the drama, as well as significant coverage of people only tangentially related to the case (like pitcher Walter Johnson, who Clarence Darrow probably saw pitch in Caldwell while he was in town defending Haywood). The huge scope of the book, makes it a much richer history than just a detailing of the case, and the book really brings you into what was a critical time for labor and industry in American history.

A quick summary of the story appears on page 375:

Colorado’s mine owners hoped to rid themselves forever of these apostles of disorder. Their message to their counterparts in Idaho was blunt: Here are the bodies, here is the money, please kill them for us.

That may sound pretty ridiculous to us in 2007, but at the turn of the twentieth century, labor relations, especially in the Wild West were very unformed. Business owners rode roughshod over the workers, and the federal and state governments were always willing to step in against the workers. More often than not, federal troops showed up and arrested everyone present, men and women alike, and held them without charge for as long as they liked. There are interesting parallels with our current obsession with terrorism, as the labor leaders (and owners) sometimes employed terrorist tactics to strike back. The current detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA smuggling enemy combatants overseas to be tortured and murdered, and the Republican politics of fear are all in evidence at the turn of the century in the West.

The book is great at recalling that time in our history. For example, in the courtroom in Idaho, Ethel Barrymore (grand-aunt to Drew Barrymore) attends one day of the trial and comments about how everyone in the courtroom was “chewing gum.” Actually, everyone was chewing tobacco and the courtroom was filled with spittoons for the men to spit into. Guns were everywhere, as were the Pinkertons who ran the entire investigation and had infiltrated Darrow’s defense team. It was a different world, and Lukas really brings it to life.

The Children’s Hospital

It’s been several weeks since I finished this book, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s a great book; very enjoyable, and at the same time, filled with ideas about spirituality, the end of the world, and hope for the future. What surprised me most about the book was that it was both fantastical and spiritual at the same time, and each of those things individually will sometimes doom a book for me. When I was younger, I read everything Stephen King wrote, and I always enjoyed the more realistic books a lot more than the ones requiring too much suspension of disbelief. But even with all the plot twists, bizarre developments, and religion in it, I loved The Children's Hospital.

There’s a great review of the book at The Quarterly Conversation that I wish I’d read more carefully before reading the book. I generally avoid spoilers, but in this case, I think I might have gotten more out of the book if I’d been thinking about the things the review brought up. So, if you're willing, think about this stuff if you pick up the book.

Spoiler warning!

Among other things the review mentions, consider:

  • Nine floors of the hospital: nine rings of hell / nine months of pregnancy
  • Children inherit the earth
  • Hospital: care without caring, like the earth that was flooded
  • Why did each of the major “Thing”-s happen? Was someone to blame?

End Spoilers

The Children’s Hospital is one of those rare books that is so filled with ideas presented but not spelled out so that multiple readings and multiple readers can really bring a lot to thing about and discuss. It’d be a great book for a book group.

Paradise

An enjoyable read, especially after The Children’s Hospital. It’s sort of like a fictionalized version of Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story; it's got lots of drinking, and a love story but it’s the sort of dysfunctional love story that only a pair of alcoholics (see Charles Bukowski) could have. What Kennedy brings to the book is the ironic, completely un-apologetic main character of the story.

For example, page 71-72:

Being me is a job---is labour so time-consuming and expensive that I have to have a second job just to support it. So that I can drink, I have to get drink and that isn’t something people give away and then there’s the drink that I need because I have drunk and the other drink I have to keep around because, sooner or later, I will drink it. That’s a full-time occupation: that’s like being a miner, or a nurse.

Being Dead

Being Dead goes back and forth in time from the murder of the two main characters in the story, brutally killed on the beach in a romantic moment trying to relive a bit of their past. Having read Mary Roach’s Stiff much of the process a corpse goes through after death was familiar to me, but the book put a more human face on it. I’ve read reviews that suggest the book is romantic, but I really didn’t see it. Instead of romance, I’d say this book offers realism; the reality of death and what it does to those who die and those who survive, as well as the reality of a long marriage between two people. A quick, enjoyable read. He’s got a post-apocalyptic novel coming out in May, which looks interesting. “Less crushing than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and less over-the-top than Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown,” says Publisher’s Weekly about the new book.

Icelander

Great book, highly entertaining detective story mixed with post-modern metafiction. I wrote about this book when I finished it a couple weeks ago. This, and The Children’s Hospital are the clear winners for this month. Both excellent books, one serious, one funny, but both very rich and rewarding.

tags: books  review 
thu, 26-apr-2007, 18:00

icelander

icelander

Last night I finished Icelander, Dustin Long's debut novel published by McSweeney's Rectangulars imprint. I'm not sure exactly what “Rectangulars” is supposed to be, but it's a beautifully produced book. The pages are thick, sewn into the binding, and the cover art is quite striking. I also have Yannick Murphy's Here They Come which also has the Rectangulars sticker on it and it looks to be of equal quality. I commented about this in my post about What Is the What in March, but I'll say it again: it's nice to see a publisher that's taking the time to produce a high quality hardcover for $22, rather than a paperback in hard covers.

But, enough about the physical object. The book is a hilarious detective story that takes place in a fictional city in Upstate New Uruk and involves literary forgeries, the origins of Hamlet, Norse mythology, conversations in mead halls and bars, swordplay in steam tunnels, and an underground fox warrior clan known as the Refurserkir. I really enjoyed the book, more than any book I've read in quite some time. I've read a lot of great fiction and non-fiction in the last few months, but this one was a great mix of fun and intellect. Dustin Long commented on the book in an interview:

I want to be an entertaining writer. But I also want to be a serious writer. I don't think these desires are incompatible. I hope I managed not to be tedious in the more literary aspects and not to fall into egocentric navel-gazing in the more “personal drama” based portions of the story, but whatever success I had was largely instinctual.

He certainly succeeded. The book contains several sections, with different narrators, and the whole thing is “edited” by another character (possibly one of the characters in the narrative, it's not clear after a single reading) who inserts footnotes questioning the accuracy of parts of the story. So it's another example of post-modern metafiction, but rather than being to smart for it's own good, or bogging down in the “meta-” aspects of the form, it moves smoothly through the story.

It's also a very intellectual book that rewards careful reading. Here's an example from page 145, narrated by a jealous husband while his wife manages the construction of her Two-Story House (another play on words):

On the upper level, Jon Ymirson—bare-chested in the unseasonal humidity of late March—swings a hammer, driving nails into wood, affixing one plank to another. Jack stud, king stud. He is constructing the frame of what will become a doorway.

If you're familiar with construction you know that jack studs are the members that support the door or window header and the king studs are boards that sit next to the jack studs and reach all the way from the floor to the ceiling. But the section also works as commentary by a jealous husband about Jon as a stud—shirtless and manly. The book is filled with clever plays on words and ideas like this one.

Icelander might not be a great book of ideas like The Children's Hospital or quite as meaningful as The Road or What Is the What, but it's a great time.

tags: books  review 

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