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The Woman Who Married a Cloud: The Collected Short Stories of Jonathan Carroll
The Woman Who Married a Cloud: The Collected Short Stories of Jonathan Carroll
by Jonathan Carroll
Edition: Hardcover
30 used & new from $58.83

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Review in LOCUS MAGAZINE, July 23, 2012
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Like Graham Joyce, Jonathan Carroll is a writer who, by common knowledge, ``defies classification,'' which by now has become a sort of classification all by itself; why else would we keep inventing terms for it? But it's not as though readers didn't make heroic earlier efforts to find easier labels for both Joyce and Carroll, mostly as horror writers.
Joyce's earlier novels like Dreamside and The Tooth Fairy sometimes were reviewed as horror, and in Carroll's case The Land of Laughs made it onto Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's ``best 100 horror books'' list, while his story collection The Panic Hand won a Stoker. Both writers have won World Fantasy Awards, which with its broad remit seems a bit closer to the mark, but the main point is that neither writer seems to start out with any particular notion of genre in mind at all, but rather with a singular angle of vision. For the last few years, Carroll has been a regular contributor to Bradford Morrow's journal Conjunctions, which seems a reasonable home - neither a genre venue nor one which turns its nose up at genre material. In ``Nothing to Declare'', one of the more recent tales in Carroll's generous career-overview collection The Woman Who Married a Cloud, a waitress begins a tentative romance with a customer by noting, ``It happens so rarely that you meet someone who perceives life from a unique perspective and in sharing it, expands your vision,'' and that, ``No matter what they talked about, he almost always came at it from a different angle.'' She might as well be reading the book she's in.

More than half the stories in The Woman Who Married a Cloud, the earliest from 1982, were included in Carroll's now out-of-print 1995 collection The Panic Hand, which gives some sense of how relatively sparse Carroll's short fiction output is - a little over 50 stories in
30 years, of which 37 are collected here. Most of us, I would imagine, know Carroll mostly through his novels, which often begin with likeable but flawed characters in believable domestic settings and unexpectedly spiral outward into broadly philosophical considerations of epistemology and ethics, while casually introducing fantasy elements such as ghosts, time travelers, aliens, or talking dogs - but which somehow never quite turn the novels into anything resembling genre fantasy, a label to which Carroll has frequently objected. Never very long, the novels are nevertheless boxes full of twisty surprises, and something of that effect is retained here in the two long novellas ``Black Cocktail'' and ``The Heidelberg Cylinder'', which together make up nearly a fifth of this large collection. Each would be a good introduction to the character-based narratives and unexpected reversals of his novels, while retaining the focus of his best short fiction. ``Black Cocktail'' is narrated by the host of a radio talk show ``which welcomes full-blown kooks,'' and whose lover has died in a catastrophic Los Angeles earthquake (referred to in a few other stories as well). He meets a successful haberdasher named Michael Billa and, while they don't become lovers, she is fascinated by his stories of childhood, especially one involving a near-psycho kid named Clinton, who was Michael's protector in high school. When Clinton reappears - still apparently 15 years old - the narrator's life begins to take a series of classically Carrollesque turns. His house and motorcycle are vandalized, neither Clinton nor Michael are who they at first appear to be, and the whole tale begins to turn on such appealing pop-metaphysical notions as the ``Essential Time'' - ``when you are more you than at any other time of your life'' - and the ancient conceit that each human has only one part of a five-part soul and can only reach fulfillment by finding the other literal ``soulmates.'' Carroll's theology always seems a bit woolly to me, but he presents it with such grace, and embeds it so naturally in his plots, that it becomes almost charming - in much the same way that Charles Williams's peculative theology can be more appealing than C.S. Lewis's more doctrinaire bludgeoning. In a sense, he does for adults what his namesake Lewis Carroll does for children.

Hell, for example, plays a key role in ``The Heidelberg Cylinder'', but it sounds like a pretty pleasant place whose main problem is overpopulation, which leads to various denizens of Hell being relocated randomly into people's houses, and who are allowed to reconfigure the houses after their favorite movies. The narrator's first clue is when he notices that several of his neighbors' belongings have been unceremoniously dumped into the streets, and he's soon visited by two rather comical figures who claim to represent a brotherhood called the Heidelberg Cylinder, named after a mysterious device which has been behind every important modern invention from the cotton gin to the computer. By the time we get to a sentence like ``I don't like being told what to do; especially not by dead people who live on movie sets with burning dogs,'' we know we're in a Carroll story, and one that's as delightfully insane as it is indescribable.

Part of Carroll's signature effect derives from the mundane, almost old-fashioned way in which he frames his tales; the understated ironic voice (often first-person, sometimes with a female narrator or a gay narrator as in ``Black Cocktail'') sounds more like John Collier or the early John Cheever than a contemporary slipstream fantasist. There's almost never a clue in the traditionally ingratiating openings that the story is going to fly off the rails of realism, and sometimes it doesn't - it just gets really odd. ``Mr. Fiddlehead'' begins with ``On my fortieth birthday, Lenna Rhodes invited me over for lunch,'' but turns out to concern an imaginary childhood friend who becomes a real part of an adult's life. The wonderfully titled ``Elizabeth Thug'', on the other hand, begins with a similarly mundane image of a woman entering a tattoo parlor to get a tattoo that she hopes will make her distinctive, but never turns into fantasy at all. Sometimes these quiet, domestic tales pivot on an episode of sadness or grief - a dead wife (``Vedran''), a pair of beloved dogs (``Second Snow''), a dead child (``Florian''), a dead father (``Crimes of the Face''), or going blind (``A Wheel in the Desert, the Moon On Some Swings''). The choreography of sadness is something Carroll does as well as anyone.
At times, the stories which do introduce fantasy verge on a kind of slick sophistication that suggests a Twilight Zone episode, as when a character wakes up to find himself back in prep school (``Postgraduate''), or former residents of a house show up asking to see it for old times' sake and end up somehow transforming it back into the world of their memories; sometimes they seem too conveniently moralistic, as when the protagonist of ``Alone Alarm'' is kidnapped by figures who turn out to be versions of himself at different stages of life. But more often than not, Carroll's stories achieve a strangeness and power all their own, and of a sort that beggars any sort of précis.
Let me instead suggest that, in addition to the stories I've already mentioned, you read, and read carefully, tales like ``Friend's Best Man'', ``The Sadness of Detail'', ``The Panic Hand'', ``The Stolen Church'', or ``The Woman Who Married a Cloud'' (one of two stories might as well be original here, since they appear also in 2012 periodicals - though for most of us, nearly all the stories here will be accessible for the first time). There are dogs and children and lost lovers populating these tales, to be sure, and there are fair doses of grief and sentiment in some of them, but mostly there are the lineaments of a vision so distinctive, and so morally grounded, that it hardly bears comparison with anything else in modern fiction at all.

--Gary K. Wolfe

by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.75
192 used & new from $5.14

73 of 105 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars disappointing, October 25, 2011
This review is from: 1Q84 (Hardcover)
A real disappointment. It's a very long book but the story in no way justifies its 900+ pages, particularly the last 200 which are a tedious slog. All the trademark Murakami strokes and tropes are here in spades--the overall shimmering/fata morgana weirdness that leaves the reader a little dizzy and gravity-less time and again. Mundane descriptions of people, places, and situations that from one moment to the next morph into things eerie, half-funny/half- ominous, sometimes miraculous. And as usual at the center is a slightly befuddled, directionless protagonist expertly cooking his lonely guy meals while listening to classical music. Predictably he is unwillingly swept up by a series of events that, like a tornado, throws his life and future into chaos. Also there's a mysterious woman with beautiful ears, a number of enigmatic dream sequences that are sometimes resolved but usually aren't... All familiar, frequently delightful stuff for Murakami readers. In small doses. But the novel is simply too long for the tale it tells; it should have been cut by many pages. I started reading with enthusiasm and high expectations because it's this sui generis author and his purported magnum opus. But after turning the last page I felt relieved, exhausted and shrug'y. A friend and rabid Murakami fan who read 1Q84 at the same time I did said, `I'm going to need drugs to finish this damned book.'

One of the 2 very negative reviews of the book in The New York Times:

Comment Comments (25) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 27, 2015 11:19 PM PDT

The Average American Male: A Novel
The Average American Male: A Novel
by Chad Kultgen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.83
185 used & new from $0.01

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars who cares?, July 3, 2011
I think it was the writer Gary Indiana who said something like, "The problem with young people is their lives are not endlessly interesting, although they think so." That is the problem with this book: it is not the empty endless sex or the provocative language or the fact the protagonist seems to fill his days only with meaningless sex, thoughts of sex, and video games. That's fun and funny for a few pages, almost shocking in a sophomoric `let's see if I can gross you out' way a la early Brett Easton Ellis and/or Chuck Palahniuk. But then it becomes a very serious bore. Both of those other writers, whether you like them or not, tell stories that go somewhere. This one goes to the couch, to the mall, and to the bedroom and that's it. The end. It is also told in a monotone that indicates even the first person narrator is bored with it all. Why would the writer think we aren't too?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 24, 2011 11:47 PM PDT

Cloud Atlas: A Novel
Cloud Atlas: A Novel
by David Mitchell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.75
411 used & new from $0.32

38 of 51 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars don't believe the hype, August 10, 2010
This review is from: Cloud Atlas: A Novel (Paperback)
This is one of those novels people talk and write about reverently, so you go into the experience of reading it with either high expectations or a squinted eye, doubting that it can possibly live up to the lavish praise. This one doesn't. The structure of the book is clever-- break it up into multiple stories that slightly overlap each other but not really. Mix in a bunch of styles and genres (thriller, dystopian-end of the world, epistolary, Science Fiction...) and then fan them out like a deck of cards so the first story ends with the last chapter, the 2nd story with the 2nd to last, etc. The problem however is twofold-- none of the characters are particularly interesting or sympathetic, and some are even cliche. So after a while you don't really care what happens to any of them-- whether their fate is good or bad. The second problem is you've seen the stories before in slightly altered versions. For example, the Science Fiction story seems like a clone of BLADERUNNER and a William Gibson short story. A great novel doesn't mimic-- it shows you the world through new eyes. When it's successful, CLOUD ATLAS is very good mimicry: the author knows his genres and styles. And as mentioned, the structure of the novel is sui generis. But clever structure and good mimicry is not enough to buoy up a 500 page story or to merit calling the writer a "genius" which I've seen in a number of reviews of the book.

Crooks Like Us
Crooks Like Us
by Peter Doyle
Edition: Paperback
12 used & new from $42.51

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of a kind, December 14, 2009
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This review is from: Crooks Like Us (Paperback)
Art is often best when it is unintended. A masterfully simple Biedermeier desk, the futuristic Parker 51 fountain pen, Bauhaus woven cloth, Japanese wabi sabi objects, Dieter Rams' appliances for BRAUN, or the Gill Sans type font, things like these were expressly conceived to be used every day and not live out their years in a museum. But they were so exceptional or singular that over time they rode the elevator up to art's top floor and stayed there. So too with photography. Whether it be Weegee or Vivian Mayer's black and white pictures of 1940's NY, Lartigue and Doisneau's day to day in Paris, LIFE magazine's coverage of the Great Depression, or even the best accidental Lomography work, what most people first thought were merely snapshots grew wings over the years and now live among the angels of art. One of my favorite books of 2009 is called CROOKS LIKE US by Peter Doyle. Doyle is an Australian who went through the forensic photography archive of the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney. His book is essentially a collection of 1920's mugshots. Black and white look-the-camera-right-in-the-eye photos of criminals who were caught and booked. Pickpockets, whores, grifters, murderers, small time losers, dope fiends, counterfeiters... all were arrested and momentarily memorialized with one straight on and one profile picture before going to trial. The astonishing thing about the compilation is both the unintentional beauty and composition of many of these photos. A friend who saw the book said most of the subjects look like they're either Thom Browne models or people you'd see in a GQ or VOGUE fashion spread. The men wear fedora hats tipped at jaunty angles, formal white shirts and ties, sharp looking tweed. Although some are seriously scary looking hombres, they've almost all got style and flair like you can't believe. If you saw one of these guys walking down the street today you'd think "that is one cool dude." The women stare straight and fearlessly into the camera. You can almost hear them sneering "You gotta problem, pal? What are you gawking at?" They emanate strength, smartass, sexuality, street smarts, and in some, great mystery. Picture after dramatic picture of liars, cheats, steal from blind nuns, stab their mother, sell their children-- creeps, bottom feeders, perverts and monsters are transformed by simple police mugshots into gorgeous, haunting, timeless portraits. Their eyes tell a thousand stories. Hands in pockets, posture proud and erect, hair slicked carefully back, their expressions are defiant, amused. You can't beat them--in the end, they know they'll win. Almost a hundred years later you're certain these crooks knew things you wish you could learn. Characters whose lives you'd give a lot to know more about beyond that single, captivating glimpse. At some point the jarring realization hits you that every single person in the book is probably dead now. But that is one of the wonders of great art--it can resurrect anything and make it so alive again that for a while you can almost hear it breathe.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 22, 2012 10:48 AM PDT

The Headmaster Ritual
The Headmaster Ritual
by Taylor Antrim
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.95
161 used & new from $0.01

5 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A failure, July 20, 2007
This review is from: The Headmaster Ritual (Paperback)
The Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock once wrote about someone who didn't know what he was doing, "He got on his horse and rode off in all directions." The same could be said for Antrim's novel. What do we have here-- a bildungsroman a la CATCHER IN THE RYE where a naif stumbles his way towards some kind of illumination or redemption? Nope. Well sort of. No, not really... A satire of all the awful people and nasty little things that go on daily at those written-about-to-death New England prep schools; a kind of updated "Decline and Fall"? Nope. I could go on, but I'd just say nope to all of them. As one major newspaper review of this book so succinctly put it, "Nothing in 'The Headmaster's Ritual' is new." It is a very obvious first novel that strains to say a lot but ends up saying almost nothing, archly. Its flashes of humor or good writing are overshadowed constantly by flatness and characters/ situations you know could never exist the way they have been described.

Water for Elephants: A Novel
Water for Elephants: A Novel
by Sara Gruen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.09
1944 used & new from $0.01

14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Big Mac Under the Big Top, July 18, 2007
The difficulty of writing a book that is a "good read" is that it must sweep you up and make you forget the world around you. You must become so invested in the daily life and fate of the characters that you become more interested in what is happening on the page than what is going on in your life. At its sporadic best, this novel is a good read. The author has chosen an interesting world and time to write about and obviously done her homework. But homework is not enough. The great nagging problems however are she is neither a good nor original writer. Consequently the characters she has created are wooden and every third sentence out of their mouths is either predictable or a howling cliche. The characters themselves are comprised of one cliche after the other-- the good hearted innocent hero, the evil boss, the plucky sidekick (a dwarf, no less),the bewitching damsel in distress, the schizo villain who is mean to animals... You've seen them all too many times before in books, movies, even cartoons. So when they meet their fates you shrug because you guessed what would happen to each of them fifty pages(or more) before. The book's huge success is similar to the success of a McDonald's hamburger-- you know what you're going to get as you walk into the place.

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
by Bill Buford
Edition: Hardcover
210 used & new from $0.01

7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars editor, edit thyself, August 13, 2006
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This is a charming 200 page book. After that it becomes tedious and meandering and in the end a real slog to finish. Buford's obsession for the "jus just" is funny and entertaining for about 2/3 of the story. After that it becomes mired in uninteresting anecdotes and trivia (historically when did the egg get added to the recipe for pasta is intriguing for half a page, not ten)that overcooks by many hours the final product. He is the kind of writer who thinks everything that interests him will interest you, but he is wrong. Perhaps a better writer could have pulled that off, but Buford is an editor who is writing a book about his love for cooking and in the end that distinction shows. What begins as a love letter from an obsessive becomes in the end the ramblings of a self indulgent food flaneur.

The Nimrod Flipout: Stories
The Nimrod Flipout: Stories
by Etgar Keret
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.34
116 used & new from $0.01

22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars so-so, April 8, 2006
Some of these stories are brilliant, first round knockouts. Others are shtick-yawns. The best are like the wondrous short-short stories of Spencer Holst. The worst are whines from the slacker you'd never listen to for five minutes if you bumped into them at a bar. Buy the book for the wonderful, but expect a very mixed bag.

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