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.
The following comes from The Millions blog about David Halberstam's passing (two of his best know works are The Best and the Brightest about the war in Vietnam, and Summer of ’49 about the 1949 pennant race between the Red Sox and Yankees). I think it's a great commentary on why people watch and enjoy sports.
There is something to the notion of sports as a balm for citizens suffering from war fatigue. They are soldiers abroad gathered in a tent in the desert somewhere to watch the Super Bowl on television, and they are children bypassing front page headlines that scream death and destruction in favor of the sports section and the box scores of games that they were forbidden to watch because of woefully premature bed times. Sporting events bring people together in celebration of achievement, rather than in protest of failure, and are thus both a distraction from the duty of citizens as witnesses to history, no matter how grim, and at the same time real and not insignificant demonstrations of the values of a free society, complete with overpriced cotton candy, and (today) overpriced athletes. Athletic competition, so often couched in terms of battle when described, transcends violence. It is an elevated and, I would argue, rather sophisticated form of human interaction.
Check out the FedEx tracking image above. We paid extra for two-day shipping, but I guess two actually means four when shipping to Alaska. The funny part is that the package went from China to Anchorage (less than a two hours by air from Fairbanks), but instead of being delivered on the 21st, it went all the way to Indianapolis, and then back (!) to Anchorage for delivery in Fairbanks today. Cost: three days and an additional 7,528 miles traveled.
When I saw that the game on Sunday Night Baseball was yet another Yankees and Red Sox matchup I complained to Andrea about how often the major media outlets show this particular matchup. It was the game on Fox Saturday Baseball this week, and guess what? It's the game on Fox Saturday Baseball next week too. Haven't we all seen enough Derek Jeter?* It seems like three quarters of the games I can watch on TV or listen to on the radio are Yankees / Red Sox, Cubs / Cardinals or Giants / Dodgers games. What about everyone else? It might be fun to see all the young talent in Tampa or Miami, or see a game televised from the new ballpark in Pittsburg. I'm a Giants and A's fan, but I still like to see the rest of the league play once and awhile.
Baseball is baseball, though, so I grudgingly listened to yesterday's game. And what a game it turned out to be! One of the great things about baseball between any two teams is that there's always something interesting going on, and in last night's game the Red Sox hit four consecutive home runs off the same pitcher. That's only the fifth time in Major League history that a team has hit four in a row (last year's Dodgers did it in a late inning comeback), and only the second time in history it's been done against the same pitcher.
And even better than that, it was a tight game featuring the Japanese phenomenon Dice-K Matsuzaka (he didn't pitch very well, but got the win), and ended in the top of the ninth with the go-ahead run at the plate in the form of Alex Rodriguez striking out to Jonathan Papelbon.
Yesterday we got rid of some of our electronic waste. Interior Alaska Green Star has an annual recycling program so that all this stuff can get disposed of properly instead of winding up in the landfill, or on it's way to third world countries. Andrea volunteered at yesterday's event and dumped off two of our old computers, three CRT monitors, a printer, a VCR, cordless telephone, DVD player and a CD player. The total cost was $75.
Some of the people who showed up didn't know there was a charge, and at least one guy who wound up leaving said, "Why should I pay when it's free to go across the street and throw it in the dumpster?" I have no doubt that's where his electronic waste wound up; on it's way to the landfill, right next to the Tanana River. According to the Wikipedia article, e-waste represents only 2% of the garbage in our landfills, but is responsible for 70% of overall toxic waste. That's a pretty big externality, totally unrepresented in the low cost of these items.
I'm glad these recycling programs exist, but I also wish there was a way to encourage electronics manufacturers to make products that were designed for longevity rather than low cost. Some of the things we got rid of were simply obsolete (why keep a seperate CD player when our current combination VCR & DVD player can also play CDs?), but the majority were broken and because replacements are so cheap, it didn't make sense to repair them. All those low prices we're paying for our stuff today may turn into a pretty big cleanup bill in the future, whether we're paying it or not.