Review of Dadaoism by Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp

One must look closely at the cover to appreciate the art. Words, portmanteau or apropos to the content, beginning with the longest word and decreasing slowly into the four-letter expletive at the bottom, cascading into one another. These key terms suggest some of the tricksterism to be encountered in the anthology. Finally, there are the two gender symbols merged at the base, encompassing the two halves of the human experience. It reminds me of a funnel, a filter of language.

But what is Dadaoism? Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp posit two partial comments on the theme in their superb introductions. Isis explains that authors erect armor around themselves in the form of writings, feebly increasing the durability of their spiritual vessels. In my mind, the metaphor extends to ephemeral mansions and worlds constructed by authors to escape reality, in the hope for the endurance of our personal brand of imaginative expression. We each craft a golden disc, but instead of the great void, we cast it into the supersaturated information exchange permeating our culture.

Crisp cites Zhuang Zhou’s well-known parable of the butterfly’s dream. Which makes one wonder, is our reality a personal interpretation? A flood of interpretations is likely to result from reading this anthology.

It begins with an intriguing story by Reggie Oliver – a controlled, subtle, philosophical tale in which the main character comes to identify with a fancy chair. It hints at the mingling of souls with inanimate matter, or the Asian trope of inanimate objects which inherit souls after reaching sufficient age.

The range of authors and stories (and poems) is immense. At times cryptic, impenetrable, irrelevant, and oddly hallucinogenic, this collection defies as it entertains. Whether they are advocating an elimination of style or motive, or relishing these things, this collection subverts whatever expectations you bring to it. I found Nina Allan’s tale one of the more traditional. Peter Gilbert’s “Body Poem,” seems to extrapolate into fiction of what Shelley Jackson has been doing in real life for years. It was one of my least favorite inclusions. Whenever several inexplicable twists occurred in this unpredictable collaboration, the intrusion of the imagination was everywhere evident. “The Autobiography of a Tarantula” by Jesse Kennedy might have been my favorite. Haunting and creative, unhurried, ruthless, and profound. A skewed perspective is often a leaping-off point for these microcosms, branching into unaccustomed spaces of neurally stimulating territory.

A good example was “The Lobster Kaleidoscope” by Julie Sokolow, wherein the chance existence of homonyms dictated the slant and content of the tale. A surreal and brilliant slide into uncanny dreamscape.

“Koda Kumi,” a ‘remix’ by Isis of Crisp, was particularly mesmeric, combining traditional storytelling elements with characteristic artful atmosphere and lyrical prose.

The unsettling dystopian “Poppies,” by Megan Lee Beals, though abrupt, added layers and dimensions of weird.

Totaling 29, these wildly different and stirring works contain something for everybody, as well as some things for nobody, and no things for somebody, etc. The permutations of the human mind are practically infinite, but our prevailing sensibilities latch on to easy interpretations. Be baffled. Wander through the labyrinth of hyperbolic experimentation. In its heart is the luscious fruit of enlightenment, sprouting from a rhizosphere of dark, subconscious exploration.

Review of Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes by Mark Samuels

A solid collection of unsettling short stories in the vein of Machen, Poe, and Ligotti.

Mark Samuels appears to be able to hold his own when compared to these giants. His command of language is only matched by his superb imagination. Darkness infuses every atmospheric example of traditional storytelling. While the stories in this book are not wildly experimental, they are not predictable or conventional. I would say a few of them verge on cheesy, but the tone and description are handled very well. The characters do not act like idiots, as in most horror films, but the events definitely assume a cinematic allure.

The stories to be found here are:
preface – Mark Samuels is genuinely recognized as a paramour within the genre of weird fiction. The easiest comparison is Ligotti, though you will find touches of influence and originality ranging the gamut of weird authors.

Glyphotech – a startling tale about the perils of corporate group think, with a B-movie ending.

Sentinels – Another likable protagonist, encountering horror in the everyday. Derelict places in the city achieve prominence as effective motifs.

Patient 704 – being trapped in an insane asylum is a well-used concept. This was a provocative example. Television static emerges as a theme within the author’s work, conveying a subliminal layer of unearthly or demonic maliciousness.

Shallaballah – very creepy. Mannikin’s become a theme. More run-down tenement buildings, grungy, gritty locales, and physically repulsive characters doing shocking things.

Ghorla

Cesare Thodol: Some Lines Written on a Wall – Found text as a motif. The cliche of mental patients scribbling on walls combined with a fungal anomaly. Well-honed horror tropes employed with aplomb.

The Cannibal Kings of Horror
Destination Nihil by Edmund Bertrand
The Vanishing Point

Regina vs. Zoskia – A legal case lingering through the ages, concealing deeply insane motives. Posits that the universe at large exhibits insanity.

A Gentleman from Mexico – A tribute to Lovecraft and a metafictional found text story. Very atmospheric and satisfying.

While I was not bowled over by this collection, I was entertained all the way through and enthralled on a few occasions. I’ll devour many more short stories by this author before I grow weary, and if there is more variety in future volumes, I may become addicted to the easy-to-read style. A highly recommended entry point into cosmic horror.

Review of Pleasant Tales II by Justin Isis

Isis doesn’t disappoint. In this collection, he shows versatile and snide talent, facetious and chameleonic mastery, satiric and oneiric brilliance. 

He is a stark commentator on modern mores and a profound pursuant of personal stylistic innovation. A mesmeric and elegiac offering from a grossly under-appreciated storyteller. I think you will want to read all of his work once you dip your toes in. My favorite so far has been I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like. Check it out.

The handful of stories presented here do not represent the sum total of the author’s powers but a sampling of his fluctuating concerns. A quick read, but a memorable one. They concern young and old people (and a chimp) encountering surprising and skewed fates. The astute reader will notice that the language takes part in the story, sliding into overwritten purple prose to emphasize the exuberant willful tone. These are exercises in style, and simultaneous explorations of outré concepts. Every move is made with intention and veiled playfulness. Any approach toward contempt is a retreat from treacly predictability. Any advance toward ruthless experimentation is a disturbingly effective joust with the reader’s perception.

His most compelling techniques are evident in the masterpiece ‘A Walk in the Park,’ where we are made to witness a perfect storm of rapid-fire mordant set-pieces adorned with meteoric wit. One can easily discern the social awareness within the stilted portrayal of self-cultivation and rampant business acumen on display.

With consummate skill, the other tales switch up their modus operandi, delighting as they defy convention. If they do not give you a warm, tingly feeling, they will slide under your skin and burn. With this infectious and addictive volume, I am committed to reading everything else he has written or shall write – such is my enthusiasm. You will not find a prequel to Pleasant Tales II unless you look under the bibliography of Brendan Connell. Spoiler alert: I’ll be reading that soon.

Review of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver

I surprised myself with this second reading by not wanting to give the collection 5 stars. 

Carver’s first collection is relatively short – as was everything he published – the man was not very prolific. I’ll review his major publications as I get through them in the LOA collection, then read the Poetry and uncollected stories and essays. All told, about 1600 pages of material by Carver exists. This first 181 pages of it is middling Carver – him feeling out the style which would come to redefine much of American short story writing.

In some ways it is reminiscent of Chekhov, but there is a more subdued quality. Less variety. Very little figurative language, sometimes what is being stated is completely literal, and other times he will end a story on a disquieting and eerily imaginative note. A lot of the time he simply states what his characters are doing. Every story features cigarettes and heavy drinking, most of them contain some form of violence of verbal abuse, and you might suspect the author was simply writing about himself. Though Carver’s life resembled some of his characters’ in places, there is certainly a detectable distance. Occasional satire. Much dry, artful humor. Straight-faced, utterly bland recountings of a day or two of life. Yet the voice is supremely clear, and extremely compelling. Writers who have appropriated this style in part or expanded upon it include: Murakami, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and many others. It is not hard to understand Carver’s influence once you get into reading his stories. So distinctive, tight and absorbing, yet so plain, so straightforward, always effortless.

Contained in this collection are tales of marital strife, stories about men sitting around in bars, men acting like macho men but really crying inside, fishing, thinking about chicks, sitting around the kitchen table drinking, smoking often, acting like that ‘one guy’ at social gatherings who has to ruin the fun for everybody. In short, they are very bleak, utterly depressing, and memorable, but tend to blend together. A lot of subtext in the dialogue, as if he were imitating Hemingway. Not everyone will dig this first book, but what comes later, that’s where it gets interesting.

Review of Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki

A quick read. The first thing by Izumi Suzuki to make it into English. Can we get some more please?

First off, the comparison to Black Mirror is apt. Ignore the rest of the blurbs. That’s enough of a hint. Base your reading decision on that fact alone.

With this stellar collection of mind-bending short stories, the author enters the ranks of the criminally undertranslated alongside Shuichi Yoshida, Shin’ichi Hoshi, Yūten Sawanishi, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and many, many others. While her prose could be compared to Hoshi’s, her ideas transcend her era, predicting an amazing number of inventions and trends ahead of time. Combining an easy, pulpy style with extreme subtlety and a restraint so palpable that many readers will mistake it for mere competence. The problem with that assessment is it ignores the immense troves of world building taking place in the background. You could pass the collection off as a diverting analysis of modern satirical metaphors, but it is much more. The collection showcases a myriad of tones: seductive, charming, light, dark, disturbing, silly, quirky, melancholic, gritty, comedic, etc. making for a pristine assuredness which is hard to pin down. Whereas Atwood and Murakami do predictable things with practiced mastery, this author seems willing to try unexpected tactics, without the clout, and gets away with it seamlessly.

She is called a “legend of Japanese science fiction,” but I have never heard her mentioned anywhere before. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since most of the Japanese science fiction anthologies I’ve read aren’t up to this standard.

The main draw of her writing style is the straightforward narration. Characters saying and doing things that are not out of the ordinary for them – depicting their lives as they are lived without explaining the situation to the reader, who must voyeuristically peek behind the veil of narrative distance. But we suddenly find out it’s not taking place on Earth, or one of them is an alien, or they have things implanted in their brains. The astute reader will find social commentary bubbling like magma, underlying layers of subtext. These things include: television addiction, ennui, prostitution, drug addiction, suicide, robot appliances, video phones, “cinebooks” (ereaders), dreams, memes, family relations, friendships, siblinghood, loneliness, gender politics, virtual life, people rubbernecking with camcorders, and a lot more. I have a feeling these stories will reward my inevitable second reading.

Chilling, masterful, easy to misread by a passing, casual reader who thinks they know how science fiction should be written. This book communicates a plethora of deep truths disguised as “light” or “soft” science fiction. Challenge yourself to discover what lies in store here, especially during the “terminal boredom” of our quarantined age.

Review of First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Not a good entry point for new readers. Along with his last collection, Men Without Women, in a lot of ways, it feels like Murakami is riding his own coattails.

To sum up my thoughts: This collection doesn’t enhance Murakami’s reputation, neither does it compare to his first 3 great collections in English.

I’m not a Murakami basher. I would much rather melt Updike, Mailer, Roth, and Auster with the magnifying glass. If you are a true Murakami fan, there is enough in this collection to warrant a purchase.

The first problem I had with the collection was that more than half the book’s length was available through the New Yorker and Granta. Murakami has described his American agent as greedy, for pestering him into selling stories to the New Yorker. He claims she would just sell all of his laundry lists to them for a quick buck – And they would buy them. (I’m paraphrasing). Those stories are:

“Cream”
“With the Beatles”
“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey”
“Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” (Granta)

These aren’t bad per se, but they led me to believe he was scraping the barrel for leftovers. We all know the author is obsessed with music. That was amply demonstrated by his book Absolutely on Music, along with the motifs found through his entire oeuvre, but the theme appears here at the expense of other concerns. “Confessions…” immediately put me in mind of his story “A Shinagawa Monkey,” from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. It was entertaining. An homage. A return to the whimsy we have come to expect. A whimsy missing from every other story in this book.

Much of Murakami’s charm lies in his quiet reflections, the conversation between oddball characters, and internal monologues flowing through his meandering plots like cream through coffee. In the end, I found that the bulk of this collection tasted bitter. The main characters all felt the same – they are all first person singular narrators, borrowing heavily from Murakami’s autobiographical reminiscences. I get that this was the connective tissue of the collection, but again, it wasn’t particularly moving. Most of the stories revolve around an epiphany, lack magical realism, smack of commentary, and go down dry and scratchy.

Nonetheless, like Cortázar or Bolaño, I often feel like I could read anything – even laundry lists – from these authors. The minor works are still worth having. All their interviews and conversations are interesting. They invite the reader into their presence. They have a warm and welcoming tone. Murakami’s cryptic, passive-aggressive tweets, as infrequent as they are, also seem to have an ominous power for some reason. There is a mystique, half of which may be imaginary, or the product of wishful thinking. We all want another large, impressive novel from Murakami, but I’m beginning to doubt we will get one. Rather, the marketing team seems more interested in spoon-feeding us these slim collections, tapering us off the Murakami addiction with diminishing returns.

The other stories here are:
“On a Stone Pillow”
“Carnaval”
“The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection”
and “First Person Singular”

Of these, I only found the first one of the four compelling. “On a Stone Pillow” along with the Yakult Swallows one, contain poems. Adding poems is a new device for him. The stories are slow, melancholy, nostalgic, but a bit bland. I probably suffer from overexposure at this point.

When are we going to get official translations of his earlier stories? – I’m thinking of “Lexington Ghosts” and “Donutization” and dozens of others – there have been bootleg translations floating around for quite some time. What we really need is another fat novel to boost his standing, showcase that imagination he has been hiding, and justify the author’s claims that he spends several hours per day writing, between his daily marathon run and 12-hour jazz-record binge.

Review of Morbid Tales by Quentin S. Crisp

Incredibly good. QSC is not only a master storyteller, but his elegance and imagination are exquisite, refined, compelling, and unique. 

These are the types of speculative fiction short stories with subtle speculative elements, which could hold their own as literary fiction but expand their purview beyond the average range of infantile mainstream topics. They are not what I would normally term ‘morbid,’ at least compared to contemporary extrapolations of that term. They contain brutality, violence, sex, and surreal horror, but more than all that, they are immaculately written wellsprings of imagery, containing deep psychological insight and breathless, dream-like allure. Even if you do not like the stories he tells, you have to admit that he tells them well. Crisp is an apt name. The sentences crunch like Pringles. The residue they leave in the mind is haunting. Simultaneously old fashioned and cutting edge.

‘The Mermaid’ – a novella length story about the legendary sea creature, with a surprising ending. An exploration of sexuality, with a warm, nostalgic tone. Extremely uncanny, due to the intense and photographic detail, the immerse quality of the prose.
‘Far-Off Things’
‘Cousin X’
‘A Lake’ – A Japanese tale. Familiar themes, but Crisp conveys the Eastern setting with knowledgeable skill. He was collected in a Haikasoru anthology and has written other books taking place in Japan. He is obviously well-traveled and well-versed in Eastern philosophy. This one has a Lovecraftian twist, but above all, a chilling atmosphere.
‘The Two-Timer’ – Crisp writes convincing adolescent protagonists. A recurrent theme in his work is unrequited or misinterpreted love.
‘The Tattooist’ – A tour de force. One of those classic tales which is disturbing, beautiful, weird, creepy, ecstatic, morose and much more at the same time. In the vein of Tanizaki, but thoroughly modern.
‘Ageless’ – A retelling of a concept already exploited by Nicholson Baker. A quirky and hypnotic tale nonetheless.
‘Autumn Colours’.

I will have to read all of Crisp. You never know where his intellect and artistry will take you. Everything he writes is infused with brilliance, wit, and irreverent charm.

Review of Drowning in Beauty: The Neo-Decadent Anthology

From the Introduction to the About the Authors page, there is a great deal to love about this anthology. It is one of several Neo-Decadence dedicated anthologies I plan to read this year. Snuggly is my new favorite press. 

This collection brings together powerhouse monoliths of modern experimental prose. I think I could read Neo-Decadent anthologies for the rest of my days at the expense of terminally repetitive ‘classics.’

I’ll elaborate on some of my favorites, though the least of these authors could write circles around the writers you will typically find by scouring literary magazines and mainstream productions.

Daniel Corrick – Introduction
Brendan Connell – “First Manifesto of Neo-Decadence”
Justin Isis – “Second Manifesto of Neo-Decadence” – These three preludes did well to set the tone and prepare the reader for a wild ride. Where one competent intro would’ve served, we are treated to three astounding, chiseled, palpitating arguments to bolster the relevance and pleasure to be found in the volume ahead.

Brendan Connell – “Molten Rage” – Connell employs an elegant, image-heavy prose, laden with obscure terminology, dense whorls of description, and luscious settings. An explorer of imaginative interpretations of far-flung locales. His works contain a well-traveled appreciation of art, language, and the capacity of the human mind to salvage meaning and aesthetic quality out of every day experiences.

Justin Isis – “The Quest for Nail Art” – Isis is a brilliant writer who is not limited by specific subjects or genres. Everything of his I’ve read has been poignant, surprising, and unique. A convincing female protagonist here, laugh-out-loud social commentary, much emotional tension, and fabulous imagery and voice. Japan is his go-to setting, and his quirky portraits of detached young people are subtly disturbing and ultimately moving.

Damian Murphy – “A Mansion of Sapphire” – One of the best stories I have ever read by any author. Already a fan of Murphy’s, but this one reached new heights of immersive detail. I love underground, cult-like sub-cultural motifs. Add to that an appreciation for retro video games, and the usual immense, tranquil, magisterial descriptions of dreamlike landscapes, pervaded with eldritch atmosphere.

Yarrow Paisley – “Arnold of Our Time” – Comedic, spoofy, literary. Several sharp jabs at contemporary culture.

Ursula Pflug – “Fires Halfway” – A quiet, effective meditation on more aspects of youth culture, rich and alluring.

Colby Smith – “Somni Draconis” – Good, but I struggle to remember this middle section of the book. Perhaps upon rereading I’ll appreciate the nuances here. There was no detectable decline in quality, but I was disengaged here until Brantley’s production.
Colin Insole – “The Meddlers”
D.P. Watt – Jack”

Avalon Brantley – “Great Seizers’ Ghosts” – A difficult, archaic, semi-historical, operatic adventure story. Makes me curious about the late author’s other works. Some glimmering sentences.

Daniel Corrick – “Chameleon is to Peacock as Salamander is to Phoenix” – Suffered a bit from the overused ‘plight of the artist’ archetype. If you want to get on my bad side, make your main character a writer or artist whose work has never been given adequate appreciation. Here, a graphic artist slowly succumbs to an unusual form of madness. Still entertaining and well-written.

Quentin S. Crisp – “Amen” – An exercise in ultra-detailed depictions of a dreamlike moment. Something Crisp has tried before. But the author’s command of language goes beyond admirable into the incredible. He is preposterously articulate.

James Champagne – “XYschaton” – A tour de force of creepy-pasta science fiction, from an outsider perspective. Displays unfortunately wearisome gimmick with the pronoun, but amounts to a treasure trove of esoteric literary memorabilia. This is how Alexander Theroux would write if he took up science fiction – which he won’t. The prose is that good. Even with the pleonasms and hyper-eccentric narrator. Likely to polarize readers, but pushes the envelope on taboos and storytelling.

Review of Flowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver

Reggie Oliver is one of those authors like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, who is master of a few key aspects of horror, terror, suspense, and description. Yet, he is not a perfect writer. 

His stories are immersive, antiquated, and charming. Reading his work feels like sliding into another time, being confronted with images that refuse to vacate the mind, and sinking into the narrative flow effortlessly, until you are left breathless on the shore of some imaginative ocean. However, more than a few times in this collection, he bungles the ending, leans too heavily into his wry, aristocratic language, and grinds the tension to a halt with an unnecessary comment or four. None of these issues prevent this collection of stories from being a delight to read.

“A Child’s Problem” – a super-old-fashioned horror story from the perspective of a precocious child. Old mansions, jump scares, extremely slow-paced. Reminded me of The Haunting of Bly Manor. Overall effective, well-written, but very long. Could easily have been written by Blackwood. Liked the chess references, the authenticity. Verisimilitudes of classic frightful tales resplendent in the mossy setting.

“Striding Edge” – a consummately readable parable about a hiker with friends in a mysterious cult. A silly ending, but plenty of good imagery. Excellent atmosphere.
“Hand to Mouth”, “Singing Blood” – decent stories with the same fear-inducing atmosphere.
“Flowers of the Sea” – one of my faves from this author. I find the concept of dementia to be the most frightening thing on this earth. Try watching the short film Mémorable – you will never be the same. This story had a similar, powerful effect on me. Utterly chilling, heartbreaking. The ending was a strange choice, twisting the tone unexpectedly.
“Lord of the Fleas” – a compelling story with a pre-historic style. Features Samuel Johnson (somewhat unnecessarily). Quite good overall.
Several more similar stories ensue. One can grow weary of the strained cragginess of the upper-upper-upper crust British snootiness. When he’s not funny, he’s NOT funny. But once in a while a joke comes out of nowhere and gets me chuckling.
The collection is quite long. When I got to “Sussmayr’s Requiem,” I took a short break. This story features one of Mozart’s peers and is a prototypical tale of an artist suffering under the shadow of a genius.
“Come into my Parlor” – A farcical story from the child’s perspective. He portrays the childish mentality well, hearkening back to writers like Lewis Carrol or C. S. Lewis. His writing is comparable – but the ending is just bad.
“Lightning” – A tale about actors and a frightening performance. Well-told, lame ending.

You can detect a pattern in my criticism, but don’t think these tales are missable. He is a tremendous writer, who captures unforgettable moments. His style is rare nowadays, and his storytelling powerful. I will be reading all of his collections.

Review of Majipoor Chronicles (Lord Valentine, #2) by Robert Silverberg

This was unexpected. After reading Lord Valentine’s Castle, which I was a big fan of, I bought the rest of the series and jumped into this book, the second volume. 

It is a collection of unconnected stories, with a flimsy framing device, set on Majipoor, exploring locales, eccentric inhabitants, races, creatures, politics, and various adventures. A few of the stories were entertaining, a few of them were silly, and several were inconclusive.

The first story, about a woman living with an alien in the jungle, was an unconventional love story. Not terribly moving, but contains excellent descriptions of the rough wilderness.

Then we get a clear commentary of war politics (Vietnam?) in a war tale about the Metamorph conflict.

The third story was an impressive story about a ten-year voyage halted by sinister dragon-grass. I loved this story. It was unexpected, and reinforced the Medieval quality of many of the societies of Majipoor. The technology levels can be confusing in Silverberg’s most expansive world building creation, but if you come into the Majipoor stories ready to accept magic, science, sex, and adventure, a lot of these iterations will satisfy your curiosity.

The fifth story was also quite good, about a desert journey, and dream manipulation. It conveyed the immense landscapes on the planet with brilliant imagery.

Then comes a tale about a soul-painter – another romance about finding one’s muse.
Several more lackadaisical stories followed those.

I am getting the sense after reading several Silverberg titles, that he was interested in depicting the far-flung experiences of extraordinary individuals. He is no different than most pulp writers, but his work is very easy to read, fairly engaging, and when it is good, it can hold its own against Heinlein, Asimov, and other big shots of science fiction. While the first book in the series is clearly better, this second installment gives us a mixed bag of story elements, churned out rapidly for sheer entertainment. I read this lazily, over a couple weeks, picking away at it. It was not nearly as immersive, yet I can’t say it was poorly written. Though I fail to remember several bland stories, there was a pleasant and undeniable sense of the grandeur and psychedelic tinge of this colossal and beautiful world of Majipoor. I think that was the whole point. If you just want to revisit the enchanting setting, give it a go.

Silverberg’s work – the more I read of it, the more I want to read of it – contains an exuberance for life. His characters are always trying to get the most out of it, pursuing every pleasure and opportunity for gain. This is epitomized by the frame-story’s character Hissune’s search for another life in the archives in the labyrinth. It reminded me of the kids from Book of Skulls, seeking after an ideal existence, and gaining unexpected knowledge and maturity along the way. They selfishly consume life, and its offerings, wisdom, and hardship, taking into possession the stories these things congeal into. It represents a vicious and unending battle against boredom and mortality.

Review of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

It was interesting reading these stories at the same time as the Collected Stories of Raymond Carver. There are some similarities, such as the slavery to alcohol, but Lucia Berlin’s have more humor, in my opinion.

There is a great deal of personality to these tales. They are on par with Joy Williams and Lorrie Moore, but with Berlin, there is a greater sense of autobiography to them, even if that is illusory. As in the case of Carver, what we read about her life matches what is contained in her stories pretty closely.

The 43 stories in this collection present a relentlessly entertaining, open-hearted, brash, and consistent narrative voice, blazing with life and wit. It discusses humility, outcast life, aimlessness, and the attempts at recapturing youth, defining a spurious motherhood, and dealing with incorrigible men, societal restraints, her physical handicap, and much more. There is some brutally, sex, a lot of drugs, and the struggle of downtrodden, abused, and dissatisfied women. Clever observations abound. The prose is slick and seductive, with minimalist details that hit the bull’s eye. The collection opens with a couple tame stories – the titular one about the life of a cleaning woman, and two taking place in laundromats. The charm is palpable and addictive.

She hits you pretty hard with the abortion story, “Tiger Bites,” which I found devastating. The first 125 pages were extremely strong, but after the story of the Communist teacher, I noticed a wavering cloudiness to the storytelling, though I could’ve been getting too used to the exuberance. The enchantment fell away somewhat, only to return toward the end of the collection with renewed force. This is to say that the collection is not perfect, but it is still extremely good. It has a certain consistency, and all of her stories are unmistakably products of her difficult and crystallized inner experiences, bled onto the page by a talented, down-to-earth writer. Like life, the stories have ups and downs, and many repetitions. The intimacy of the stories lie in the fact that she holds nothing back, and you will really feel you have come to know the author from the inside out. Brief moments of clarity often overshadow the larger themes. It was mainly the battle with alcoholism I tired of after several iterations. The same thing happens with Carver, and it makes one posit that alcoholic writers can only write about alcoholic writers.

The biographical details put many of the stories in perspective, and the forward and introduction were effusive, if a little uncritical.

My favorite story was “Toda Luna, Todo Año” about a diving trip. I don’t know why I liked it so much, only that it was mesmeric, memorable, beautiful, profound, and exquisite. In rare moments over the course of the collection, the author achieves singular brilliance, but it is hardly ever sustained for an entire story’s length.

The most brutal story was “Mijito,” which will live forever in my memory. Her depictions of infants and children are heartbreaking, as are her portraits of homelessness, halfway houses, and prison. Several stories straddle Central American and American cultural divides, adding much cultural flavor.

Overall, I have to rate Berlin higher than Carver. She has a very strong method, and a persuasive voice. These were extremely compelling. As I become more disenchanted with Carver and similar short story writers, I look forward to reading her other collections.

Review of Tales of Love and Loss by Knut Hamsun

Hamsun is a reliable writer, able to absorb me effortlessly.

Several of these stories are memorable, though some of them are less significant than others. A few pastiches and plenty of journeys by train. Hamsun’s personality shines through, especially when referring to gambling, lack of literary appreciation by passersby and the woes of traveling. A compelling addition to Hamsun’s strong body of work, but not quite on the same level of chilling brilliance as Growth of the Soil and Hunger.

Review of The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino

A brief, final testament left by Sorrentino, and proof that his dotage was virile and discerning.

Broken into 50 scenes, these flask fictions (flash fictions) are reminiscent of Barthelme and even, fragments of Bolano.

Often humorous, this “novel” shines with deep human emotions, wry bathos – as the author himself describes it – and bawdy touches of loving fun. While not free of his habitual racial slurs, it is less scathing and indicting than the previous book of his I read, called Aberration of Starlight.

The presiding sentiment, I think, is the futility of living, of aging, and of growing sour. Clearly coming from his own perspective, he depicts writers in their final death throes (in the literary sense) and has the detached wit so clearly at the forefront of literary fiction in his time. Unlike the distasteful scenes you’ll find in the previously mentioned work, he is no less honest here, but subtle and refined.

The defining characteristic of these vignettes is eloquence. In the short space of a couple pages, he encapsulates characters with precise details and charming nonchalance.

As I explore this author’s work further, I doubt I will find another book as refreshing as this one in his revelrous oeuvre. But he is apparently full of surprises.

Review of Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe

I would question anyone who reads this whole book and fails to rate it 5 stars. What are you looking for in fiction?

Sophisticated characters, complex subtexts, compulsively readable science fiction themes, lighthearted fantasy, excellent world-building, truly immaculate imagery, well-defined dramatic scenes, a huge variety of motifs, atmosphere and tense dichotomies? The list could go on and on. Stretched over 500 pages, this more than generous helping of Genius Wolfe is enough to satisfy anyone.

In 34 stories, Wolfe displays his brilliance on several levels. His usual fascination with ghosts runs through many stories, including a breathtaking traditional literary ghost story and a space opera that plays out as effectively as George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers. Many of the stories are long and incredibly engaging. Each has unexpected twists and mesmerizing, subliminal suggestions. I was bowled over by the completely convincing Dickens homage. There is also a ghost story that read like a Somerset Maugham tale. There were a few interconnected stories related to the Solar Cycle and the mythology of Thag. You will encounter anthropophagi and anti-matter entities, robots and rampaging unicorns, post-apocalyptic struggles and straightforward insurance fraud. There have been stories of synthetic human war machines and interdimensional battles with magical creatures before, but no one tells them quite like Wolfe. I was enchanted by the Arabesque and moved by the many interlaced storytelling elements throughout. This work represents a career well-realized and a talent well-developed.

Wolfe has an expert’s understanding of science fiction’s underpinnings, and displays them by incorporating microuniverses, macro DNA strands and genetic modifications. He ropes in traditional fantasy storytelling, epic space action, and parodies. His work is known for allegory and Biblical themes, and many can be found herein. Yet, it is not easy to pinpoint some of his references, and true to form, he leaves many pieces and strings for the reader to work out upon reflection. Speculation is part of the fun, whether a character’s existence is called into question, or the reader must doubt another character’s perception or sanity, this is part of the process of digesting these vivid creations and deriving the every bit of intellectual stimulation out of them as you can. Like all of his stories I’ve read so far, I think I’ll be revisiting this collection.

Review of What is All This?: Uncollected Stories by Stephen Dixon

I’m not going to go easy on Dixon this time. But I will read more of his stuff and decide if he deserves the accolades and blurbs.

The stories here are artificial because the mechanics of what he is doing are never concealed by the writing. You can see the gears turning in his writerly mind, and in some cases, predict what he is going to type next. This is the writing of someone with a gun to his head. In a way, the urgency of the words is immense, you can barrel through a void of unmeaning – while he churns butter – the literary equivalent of it – out of the void.

Some tales are genuinely moving though. They are tales of American desperation. At the same time they convey a desperation for recognition and are too often about how to infiltrate female trousers.
The plight of writers, rarely writing, but always seeking to be known, is a consistent subject. The author tackles this concept repeatedly, while not forgetting to include the unsung heroes of our country’s formidable industries of food and manufacturing. The stories do not often attain a resolution, are fundamentally uneven, a crap-shoot, and contain too much mundane conversation.

His most traditional stories are his best in my opinion, which could just mean I’m not impressed by pure experimentation. When he isn’t fooling around, his writing plumbs deeper and provides memorable drama.

When he nails the voice, he’s mightily convincing. His clipped ticker tape style is very easy to read. Dixon sticks to 85% dialogue much of the time, when describing the petty squabbles of lovers, he can be alternately clever and puerile, exact and infantile, and slipping into jabbering nonsense too quickly. The longer stories are sometimes well-fleshed out, multi-dimensional, and affecting. In many others, he is simply exhausting narrative possibilities. The most radically different ones are obnoxious catalogs of internal checklists, or monologues eliminating various scenarios ad nauseum. Pointless speculations, mindlessly repetitive worrying, automatic writing, and the rest of it, as if Dixon were trying desperately to fulfill a word count quota. The psychology of blame recurs again and again, as does marriage, guilt, and the spats of cohabiting men and women, irreducibly selfish in nature, these characters enact combat theatrics as if their lives depended on it. Unfiltered, raw, frequently awkward, rhythmic, free associative, could all describe the prose style. It is usually futile to search for deeper meaning in these mundane snippets of existence, too inconsequential a glimpse into a life, haphazard, free form rambling, coming off as pseudo-autobiographical, uber-realistic, depicting inner storms, the psychological conceptualizations of imagined interactions, the visualizations of internal turmoil, details piling up like Tetris blocks, until unexpected humor arises in metafictional commentary.

It is a mind unraveling onto paper. What happens seems inevitable. Cause and effect is all it is. Concerned with accurate dialogue, and conveying a realistic passage of time, he passes muster – you can feel you are living in the story. Often hoping for a climax, I was only faced with anticlimax, with real life, and disappointment. If you enjoyed Queneau’s Exercises in Style, these will offer similar distraction. Subtle intuition may be required to determine some of the character motivations, especially if you are not accustomed to the sparse, dry, occasionally captivating style. Longing, frustration, bureaucracy, torment, despair, ridiculousness, Kafkaesque situations and more congeal into an impactful package, when he pulls it off.

I enjoyed the couple examples of dystopian society, but the fragmentary recounting of everyday human relationships, the intricacies of emotion displayed, the gestures, the psychological associations, all the tough days, hard times, and bleak prospects wore me down. There is plenty of evidence that he was writing the first thing that popped into his head. I cannot discourage that enough.

Ordinary, abundant clichés abound in the character speeches cropping up in almost every story, but the situations contrived subvert some expectations. I hated the discussion of semantics, found the selfishness blasé, was reminded of the pain of living with another human being, did not appreciate the demonstration of the art of the whiny argument. On top of this, he covers domestic violence, adults fighting like children, and adults fighting children. The demands of interacting with people in harsh reality, the pain of humility and why it is necessary in human interactions, people making poor decisions and suffering the consequences – all part of this circle of life. Dixon’s literary exploration of an imaginative environment yields a few gems. Mostly it is a bunch of goofy, gabbing, crabby men and women, irresponsible man-handling peddlers of quirky disturbances, cockamamie schemes, swagger, robust jiving, pin head roundtable debates, blustering blowhards, flimsy blokes with parasitic leanings, or Dixon’s typewriter had diarrhea.

Review of Sing to It: New Stories by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel’s award-winning The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel was chock-full of absorbing, somewhat dog-centric tales, with formal artistry and quirky characters. 

Her latest collection proves that she has been doing something the past thirteen years. The main problem is the brevity and insignificance of what is on display here. Any selection of her earlier work is superior, and most of the pieces in this tiny collection are clearly flash fiction. There is only one full-length story, which delivers. There were several question marks popping into my head when I read the lesser ones. Remove all of the negative space in the book and you will end up with out 50 full-length pages.

One other thing I fail to understand is why the publisher thought it necessary to state on the cover: “By the Award-Winning author of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel”.

In the end, this is a footnote-sized collection for Hempel completionists. I don’t think it’s my fault that I’m beginning to question my appreciation for an author I used to rank with Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams. Still, an influential author with a style all her own. I highly suggest her earlier collection over this one.

Review of Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

One’s enjoyment of this collection may depend on one’s enthusiasm for wordplay. 

There is a significant amount of utterly clever portmanteuing. Buried beneath the lexical prestidigitation is a penchant for unconventional storytelling. Combining homages to classical mythology with post-modern shenanigans, Barth’s creative use of the English language is a rare confection. Yet, there are points when his esoteric noodling will become inscrutable for Cro-magnon readers like yours truly.

The high-browness of some sections are Rushmore-esque. Experimentation prevails through retellings, reimaginings, and regurgitations of Greek tragedies, pseudo-Arabian tales, and a perplexing ménage a treize of Gulliverian travails.

He admits preference to long-form fiction, though condensed, his voice is richly exuberant. My fave example was the tangled Siamese twin’s illicit and unimaginable tale, told in a slippery and macabre bildungs-Geschichte.

If I had to describe the nested tales in one word it would be: ovoviviparous.

Review of The Paper Door and Other Stories by Naoya Shiga

Naoya Shiga’s short story collection, translated by Lan Dunlop is a condensation of a career, a well-translated, well-written, well-selected enticing collection.

In Japan, Shiga is hailed as “god of the novel.” His only novel-length work was the morose A Dark Night’s Passing, but in Japanese, apparently, the term ‘novel’ refers to short stories as well.

I would not rate his stories higher than Akutagawa’s, but they are so varied and careful, I am tempted to compare them to the work of Soseki. You get a lot of variety in this small collection, and I only wish the rest of Shiga’s oeuvre would get translated.

I would suggest reading this before attempting his 400-page novel, because you can absorb them more easily and get a feel for his unadorned style. There are traces of brilliance and after reading all the stories I can see why the author inspired a fanatical following. They are distinctly Japanese, and if you are a fan of Chekhov, Maupassant and Akutagawa you will probably enjoy this book. I know I will be adding it to my Japanese Literature shelf. Especially good examples are “Han’s Crime,” and “The Shop Boy’s God.” In these two stories you can see the range he covers in his style. The first is representative of his storytelling art. Simple, straightforward, riveting, old fashioned tale in the fashion of Pu Sungling. The latter is a subtle, indulgent character study, a relatable anecdote with memorable charm.

In short, this is an important piece of J-Lit in translation, which will hopefully, at some point, be made obsolete by a complete collection of the author’s short pieces.

Review of Collected Early Stories by John Updike

This one surprised me. It is a luxurious and splendid collection. Well worth the money. My first Updike. Reading it resulted in me buying 12 of his books.

For some reason, he has acquired a reputation recently, and most of the chatter about his work takes the form of complaints. This might therefore be the best place to start with his oeuvre.

Listing off major themes and my emotional responses to the stories:

Fatherhood’s and husbandhood’s sinuous triumphs and challenges. Nice mix of life stages represented. Though women are always secondary characters. Many main characters resemble one another or are simply cut and paste versions of Updike – or they come off that way.

Death contemplated from the perspective of youth as a discovery of mortality arrived at abruptly. Sort of a universal feeling, portrayed with startling elegance. The lyrical brilliance is everywhere, as are the scintillating similes. Updike is at times reminiscent of Bradbury, but in this volume, he is devoted to Realism, and can be quite boring. He relies on plot very rarely.

Men shoved along the march toward death, assembling in their persons various paraphernalia of dignity. The mysteries of unassuming men – the men who uncomplainingly hoist the world upon their shoulder, only to expire pitifully in the next instant. Updike’s observational facility is construed through poetic juxtapositions.

Some of the stories are short sketches, exquisitely rendered snapshots, even, on occasion, still-lifes.
Updike is well-practiced in the art of literary allusion, as well as imagistic illusions. His command of description is magisterial.

DFW lumped him in with Mailer and Roth as GAMN (Great American Male Narcissi). This proclivity is not evident in this collection of his work. I’m assuming in later books, Updike turns into a sex-crazed dirty old man Narcissist. I’m basing this on how other people have described him. His language strikes a chord. The words are always brave, stating with poignant fierceness, never hiding behind safer, cliched lines. They have the spontaneous quality of free verse.

It would be hard to believe that the eight or nine thousand pages of writing he produced are all so inspired, uniformly pleasant to read, or infused with such radiance.

Pointing out the differences between Brits and Americans, rich and poor, young and old, never gets old with him, at least not yet.

Homely stories, in that the home is the theater of the drama, played out in unflattering starkness.
Visions of Christian life and Atheistic death. Some of the proclivities of Thomas Wolfe, but with a more honed style, no nonsense, a storytelling agenda unclouded by aesthetic bravado. Snow-covered parking lots, and equipment crowded back rooms, offices and book-lined studies. The quietude of Sunday afternoons; such pleasantries as make us thankful for our uneventful lives.

They possess the blandness of daytime television, how a lot of life is wasted between conversations, which are hardly ever thrilling. American ennui, childhood angst, prim and well-educated, privileged, sniveling. The dawning of maturity, nostalgia’s blush upon a quaint memory. The tales don’t require analysis, they yield to light, casual, leisurely reading. They are deceptive, glowing with inner warmth.

The stories are very tame, cool, refulgent, quiet, you can get the sense of relaxing into them.
Slow and methodical, employing straightforward 3rd person unvarying perspective. Sometimes it is only a lucid expression of palpable tension between characters. His stories seem ideally suited for the New Yorker, that is to say, they are inconsequential. The connective tissue of ordinary lives.

Flowing consistency, humdrum existence, everyday life, ie. strong emotions are often absent from the stories or are merely implied. Many of them rely on ephemeral epiphanies. Cool detachment, affected attitudes, hipness. The skill lies in the minute observations. The tales are easy to grasp, addictive, do not suffer from accumulation, are riddled with pop references, but just superb precision, fabulous word choice, blossoming prose cataracts, pervasive humor, implicit loneliness, the evocation of being young, naive, full of one’s self to the brim, the lives of unproductive, idle lounge lizards, in often entrancing descriptive prose.

American life, freedom, a certain type of indulgent selfish boorishness, middle class woes. Caring, and knowing it, is enough, feeling it in your bones, for these characters. Even when his storytelling ceases to be relevant and interesting, his sentences sustain themselves. Allusions to Joyce, Plato, Wodehouse, W. H. Hudson, philosophers, psychologists, etc. Speckled with memorabilia from the 50s and 60s. The utopian era of American ennui. He settles into a more utilitarian style toward the latter half, Sherwood Anderson-esque, accompanied by youthful moments of clarity. Dark moments are few and far between.

Couples and young men, never too poor, never quite happy, nor overwhelmed with despair.
Beautiful flora, elegant rooms, charming furniture, clean shops and safe streets, streetcars, smoke-filled sitting rooms, the mesmeric melody of words, intricately assembling crystalline images.
And the persistence of morality: how over time, a person, when interacting with others, begins to sense something in themselves called a soul. Some stories are meditations, solitary recordings of daily details, and associations, impressions, dusty photographs, sepia-toned reminiscences.

Some stand-outs include a bedtime story about a wizard. “The Persistence of Desire,” contains a brilliant episode at the eye doctor. A lot of husband-wife spats, children making mischief.

Evocations of childhood so convincing and effervescent as to be awe-inspiring. Dinosaurs at a dinner party – the mingling of surrealism into later stories. In some he begins to depart from Realism in favor of satire, but only in brief experiments, all of which prove to be magnificent departures. Makes me wish he would have stuck to satirical fantasy. There is a conversation with a Baluchiterium. (Throughout, his vocabulary is immense.) “The Pro” draws parallels which boil down to “Golf is life, life is lessons.” The interactions of paramecium, more dinosaurs, extinct animals reverberating into the consciousness of bored narrators. After 800 pages of 19th-century meekness we are treated to a 25-page sex scene in “Transaction” – showcasing another side of Updike’s talent.

All 102 stories are richly resplendent with the potential of artful language. “The Chaste Planet” is one of his most fascinating stories, in that it is satirical speculative story about the musical mating rituals of pickeloid Jovians.

Let your troubles melt away, live in the moment. Read rippling character intentions in his ripe dialogue, where cigarettes serve stylistic purposes. He is an expert at picking key quirks out of gestures. These slices of life are full of wonder, tender moments, and a strained self-conscious judgement of the world. Even a story about nothing is fascinating, containing many remarkable turns of phrase. With pithy sentences aplenty, Updike presents a thrilling panorama of descriptive detail through aptly chosen images, showcasing holistic human beings depicted in unflattering lighting, effortlessly smooth, moody, in displays of the pleasures of exercising the imagination. Pining after a vanished ideal, the disillusion that comes with growing up, and much, much more.

Review of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Recommended for hardcore DFW fans. This collection is a deeply personal, scattered exhibit of loneliness, a harrowing, sad, and convincing portrayal of damaged psyches. Wit, brilliance, and exuberance are all evident in Wallace’s oeuvre, but here, must be discerned through strata of mimesis.

Listening to the audiobook reading by the author this time around allowed me to feel landscapes of hurt and brokenness within its multitudes of layers of densely packed, heady elegance. Its psychological abysses yawned before me, its desolate precision etched indelible fingerprints of gracious remembrance into my mind.

Elevating this story-jumble are the author’s tangentially related interviews with fictitious personalities, wherein elaborate thought-salads congeal into heartbreaking, cohesive episodes of disturbing humanness.

Unlike his other 2 story collections, untamed libidos and feverish perversity reign here – hence the title – along with truly awe-inspiring prose-segments, interspersed in a confusing and disorienting package, where every page yields meteoric surprises, hand-in-hand with sweaty frustrations, culled from the unhallowed interior corridors of bed-sheet-twisting angst. Especially notable are the longer pieces, the meditations on violence, where Wallace proves his mastery of voice and imitative dialogue. He somehow renders incomprehensible concepts digestible, and translates his polymathic cogitations for the layman reader.

My second reading enlarged upon my first, and no doubt a third review of his complete works would uncover further joys. His contribution to American letters is astounding, and though divisive, these fragmentary stories depict an oft-forgotten side of Wallace, who had a tendency to tiptoe around his own insecurities, except when he dramatized them, when, carried away by the slippery slope of his magnificent intellect, he connects the dots for us, that we might better come to terms with the hidden maps of the mind and heart.

Review of A Most Ambiguous Sunday and Other Stories by Young-moon Jung

I’ve often read story collections of authors before their novels, but in the case of Young-moon, I believe this is less accessible than his longer works, and is the 4th thing of his I’ve read.

The best way I can think to characterize his style is: abstract, pseudo-omniscient, first-person Impressionism.

The stories revolve around a bizarre occurrence, involve a small number of characters, little dialogue, a lot of summary. Not much happens, but a lot of random-seeming observations take place. Our narrator rarely alters his detached standpoint, but his wandering mind provides a panorama of events, tidbits, details, and speculations. It is tough to pin down what is appealing about the writing, or if it is skillful or not. There is little philosophical about it. The author has been compared to Beckett, but I am inclined to lump him into the category of Kmart realism – which is a wildly inappropriate school of thought considering his background, but the feelings he evokes seem to be an accrual of non-symbols juxtaposed with free associations. He does not justify anything, just puts it on the page. You have no idea where he will go next. In this way, surprises abound. It is easy to trace Young-moon’s train of thought as he jumps from one subject to the next, and the reader can appreciate this intimate understanding with the author, that we are sharing this connective assimilation of information. Since his method is singular, humble, and straightforward in its weirdness, he can claim to be uniquely valuable, though how full or rich or deep his experimentation becomes as a work of art, consumable and ephemeral in the experience of absorbing its content, may be wholly up to the reader.

His other titles may offer more memorable distractions, and may display a more focused discipline, but these tales are unpredictable, dreamlike and peculiarly alive.

Review of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I’m surprised that Viking listed this as a children’s literature. There’s nothing risque in it of course, and it is structured a little like Alice in Wonderland, but I think it will appeal to both children and adults with its playful style and malleable language. There are a lot of puns, rhymes and plentiful wordplay.

Rushdie is ceaselessly inventive, and his stories within stories are both traditionally complex, and compulsively readable. I quite like the central symbol of the source for all the world’s stories. It is a thought-provoking concept. Where do our stories really come from? I think humans have a propensity for storytelling, that it is a social act. Yet it lives deeper in us as well, stemming from our beliefs in myths throughout history. Our reliance on stories is endless. Similarly, this book captures the fascination children have with stories and how this curiosity draws them to more deeply understand the world.

Readers will catch many literary references. Anyone who likes a fantastical tale will appreciate his dreamlike whimsy. What’s more, this novel was in the same vein as Grace Lin’s fantasy series. They both played with mythic concepts and applied the tropes to a nostalgic setting. Apparently, Haroun has a sequel. I will likely check it out, along with Rushdie’s other, more intimidating novels.

I always took Rushdie for a serious fellow for some reason. I probably shouldn’t lump him in with other award winners like Kundera, Eco or Pamuk. The more I learn about him the more unique his work appears. But this book proved to me that he has a sense of humor. That discovery will likely be reinforced in my later exploration of his oeuvre.

An easy start to an author I hope I will grow to love.

Review of Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Beginning a series of reviews I will do for Murakami, though I’m arriving late to the party, what with the plethora of reviews out there.

I’ve been a fan since high school and through college. His short stories have a very different feel than his novels in my opinion. With his stories, it is best to “feel” them, rather than to analyze them. Often, they are puzzling, eccentric, funny, and almost always enjoyable in some fashion. His 4 collections of stories in English so far, this being the latest, are all more than worth the read. You could argue that After the Quake, with its deep and unsettling themes, might be the best collection, but it is the shortest and most unified. Blind Willow and Elephant also deserve their own reviews, where I might touch on theme, motif, and other facets to be found in his writing. At bottom, most attempts at interpretation of his work will be deeply personal. That is, people either love it or hate it. Most critics don’t know what to make of his vast popularity.

Murakami’s obsession with Kafka and The Beatles is evident in this slim volume, which bears the same English name as one of Hemingway’s short story collections (intentionally?) You get a decent amount of variety in this one, though I wish it had been much longer. It is a well-dressed selection of his recent work, nearly all of which I had read in the New Yorker online prior to this book’s publication. If you don’t know, Murakami consistently publishes stories in The New Yorker before releasing a book of them. Don’t ask me why he does this. I imagine a lot of money is changing hands in the process.

The recent stories, post-Killing Commendatore have not been up to par if you ask me. I am predicting he will release a music-centric collection in the future, since the sneak peaks are steering steadily in that direction. His entire oeuvre is music-focused in one way or another. It pervades his whole spirit and creative mind. His prose rhythm is also jazzy, rhythmic and pretty addictive. Yet, the few instances where he elevates his storytelling to sublime heights are the moments I look for in his writing, where so much of it speaks of everyday, ennui-laced, nostalgic people and mundane, melodramatic conflicts. He slides into the weird inevitably, into Lynchian territory, without a word or excuse. But this collection focusses more on the real. In the end I was not fully satisfied with it, only because he has pulled these tricks before, in some cases with more success. My favorite story was “Drive My Car,” though that is likely to change. Every time I reread one of the collections I discover new likes, dislikes and uncertainties. My rabid enthusiasm has been subsiding with each subsequent publication after 1Q84, which I am afraid to reread or review, for fear of what it will do to my tarnishing view of his greater works.

Murakami has a way of being effortlessly thought-provoking, even when he’s pulling your chain.

Review of Collected Stories by Roald Dahl,

Dahl’s adult stories are not as famous as his children’s books. Taken as a whole, The Collected Stories is as impressive as Saki’s Complete Works if you ask me.

Many of these stories, for me, were the antidote to reality. His characters, their perpetually gleaming eyes, their moist lips, constantly wringing their hands and exclaiming, even cackling demoniacally, might put one in mind of fantasy villains. But they are ordinary people. In most cases, any supernatural element is secondary to the human element, and occasionally altogether absent.

Evil children, vengeful spinsters, mad husbands, conniving wives, the murderous, the cunning, the smarmy, and the grand in every way – no matter his target, Dahl conceals and reveals with equal facility. His sly exuberance is always on display when it comes to the surprise endings. And there are plenty of those to go around.

These are not fairy tales. ‘Parable’ and ‘fable’ might be words which describe the technique he employs here and there but any of his writerly choices are cast in a modern light. Combinations of outrageous description and stellar plots characterize the majority of the tales. Characters who transform into the things they are consumed by reminded me of The Witches and film adaptations of his children’s books.

His sparse, well-chosen, eerie details, provide the texture for his storyteller’s art, which flows masterfully. He possesses specialized knowledge when needed, explaining the intricacies of greyhound racing for instance. Grief, vanity, and an enormous range of other human emotions and experiences are packed into this bulky collection. The whole gamut.

A few have the sensibility and charm of Twain, others are Rube Goldberg-level business schemes. Think of Wodehouse’s cat-ray factory system: (Breed cats and rats in large numbers. You feed the cats to the rats and the rats to the cats. Sell the cat skins for profit.)

Detail is paramount to the success of most stories. But the sales pitch is one of the things at which Dahl excels. His characters, when they’re not selling a product, are peddling an idea.

Figurative language often explicates the position and emotions of the characters and the reader must use their imagination to conceptualize the story’s metaphorical and allegorical significance. Figurative language is just fun too, when used well. Other times it is all too clear what he is getting at and subtlety was not the aim. Nonetheless, he is always extraordinarily vivid.

The collection begins with 10 stories about pilots. The author was a pilot himself, and he presents an intimate examination of many transcendent moments, both real and imagined. They deal with man versus nature, the horrors of war, empathy, tragedy, bomber pilots put into harrowing situations, the veteran’s damaged psyche and even a dreamlike adventure. Lots of death and air battles provide a backdrop of action, desperation, helplessness. Many take place in exotic locales, like Cairo, Greece, and France. The first 140 pages should be enough to draw any serious reader in to the strange world Dahl crafts so meticulously. It will also turn away any people who assume he can only write stuff for children. These are not the most demanding stories you will find, but they are not for youngsters. Actually, the further along you get in the collection, the more adult they get, including a handful of ones sold to Playboy and other magazines, which really ratchet up the sex and grotesquerie.

The second set of stories deal with the art world, of which Dahl was also a part in his time. Eccentric rich people are easy to poke fun at, and he does it very well. “Nunc Dimittis” reveals what Dahl can do with the revenge plot. “The Sound Machine” could have been written by H. G. Wells. When Dahl decides to include science, he is on point. “Mr. Botibol” presents a recurring character at his most self-delusional. It is a charming and heartwarming story. One of the most innocent.

“Vengeance is Mine, Inc.” is the first comedy of the business acumen variety in the book. A harebrained scheme turns out miraculously well, while capturing the spirit of industry which so easily consumes and encapsulates a whole history of human affairs.

He lapses into Wodehousian aplomb, relishing insane levels of detail in one of the masterpieces of the collection, called “Taste.” Other standouts include “The Ratcatcher, Mr. Hoddy, Madame Rosette, Galloping Foxley, William and Mary, Georgy Porgy, Pig, The Landlady, The Visitor, & The Last Act.”
There is just so much variety here. He might discuss bullying, innocence, naiveté, more satires of the rich and fabulous of English and American society, orphan life, pheasant hunting, furniture dealing, being swallowed whole…

The one called “Bitch” features a recurring character, Oswald, whose fictitious memoirs provide a metafictional element. The idea is very similar to Perfume, but the approach and climax is quite unexpected.

His worst story is on the subject of cow-birthing. Occasionally his far-fetched ideas are simply absurd, without being clever enough to propel the reader’s interest. But the vast majority are incredibly satisfying to read.

Perhaps my favorite story was “The Visitor”, about Oswald’s Casanovan adventure in the desert. It features a picaresque element and a shocking ending. Dahl is so good at lulling you into a false sense of security. Grim visions like these, are almost guaranteed to capture the heart of fans of speculative fiction, even if he doesn’t stray far from Realism. He is not afraid to discomfit the reader. I grew nauseous while reading the prolonged description of brain surgery in “William and Mary.” I could see the procedure happening in excruciating detail in my mind’s eye.

Come to Dahl for the extravagant plots, the weird, ghostly surrealism, the cruelty, horror, violence, subtly telling details. The tenuous and artificial connections between human beings are elegantly presented. His rhythm is like a well-composed bar-room style retelling, but add in the uncanny description, and you have his recipe. Levity, amid squalor, provides profound contrast. Lethargic, indulgent, beatific – he was able to capture it all.

What keeps us sane and makes us go insane? Each slanted and skewed perspective was a joy to uncover.

Dahl’s stories are always fascinating, and this is a must-have jumbo collection.

Review of The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is unapproachable, never ordinary. He is a master and is fundamentally enjoyable to read. This short short novel is elegant in the extreme. 

Nab describes the desire to write Lolita as a throb plaguing him much of his life. It produces a corollary in this work. An offshoot, the proto-Lolita. But be not fooled. This is a polished, pristine, powerful publication.
The same set-up as his great work with all the inbuilt tension. Contemplates the nature of carnality, lechery, love and lust, social strictures, and passion, all in versatile, angelic prose, inducing literary bliss. It is a refined sustained, lucid dream of a novella, another ode to nympholepsy. Vladikov exhibits extreme variation in word choice, as he seeks to express the justification of the guilts of his tortured characters, the sophisticated warring, internal conflicts, the sensuous nature of their artistic souls. His writing is dense with observations, pithy, imagistic, suggestive ethereality, and barbed phrases, a honeydewed style perfectly suited to the descriptions of obsession, psychological clarity versus intense moral confusion, and yearning, amid the empty substitutes provided by propriety, always seeking after ideal beauty, running from mortality, and appreciating the finest cadences of the English language. It is a magnificent evocation of vigorous emotion, blossoming effortlessly in its contained structure, radiant, fraught with complex caricatures, and utterly riveting. He is fond of chess metaphors, and he is a keen player in this game of language. His approach betrays a keen insight into the motives of deception, the vain art of seduction. Somehow it is more daring than Lolita, and just as enchanting.

Review of An Angel of Sodom by David Vardeman

Primarily through comedy, Vardeman’s experimental stories run the gamut of human emotion, from hilarity to harrowing heartbreak.

From page one he offers an unflinching and unflattering view of the human animal’s foolish and various ways of tackling life. It is with a unique literary mastery of his chosen arguments that he depicts the often pathetically inept actions of his characters.

Above all, these are character-driven tales, taken to the very edge of believability. The conversations always take a turn for the bizarre, even as they touch on stunning human truths.

The aplomb on display is equalled on by the control of his gamma-knife-sharp wit. What results, is an utterly devastating circus of dream visions.

The first story forsakes punctuation except full stops, which makes for a learning curve. Force your mind around his rhythmic style and you will likely get addicted to the surprises to be found within and around every unexpected word.

Several of the stories capture convincing perspectives of troubled youth seeking after a place to belong, employing sardonic logical fallacies, coupled with rude, salacious, and satirical narration.
These are characters who take dysfunctionality to an art form, stroking their Godzilla-sized vanity with absurdist fantasies, indulging in their incurable blindness toward common sense and everyday propriety by behaving in shocking and silly ways.

I sensed touches of bizarro-fiction, but this could have only been my perception – a result of the constant fluctuations of bewilderment. You might describe this work as disturbing, twisted, demented, riotous, or profound. Vardeman asks the relatable question: why doesn’t anyone take me seriously as a human being? Am I a joke? Can’t anyone see past my obvious flaws to the brilliant unique individual beautiful person inside? The most commonly posited answer is: No. Or if they can, they don’t care, and are too worried about themselves to listen to your whiny pity party soundtrack/ sob story – like, get over yourself, join the party, get in line, etc.

Flying in the face of society’s strictures, the characters find hope and consolation in resistance to the norm, the safe, and the boring. They seek adventure and excitement as a means to define themselves and assign meaning to their terrifying lives.

“A Young Guy and his Career” is a bizarro detective story. It is unlike anything I have ever read.

“Farm Girl” is an immersive story about a girl growing up on a farm, longing to become a literary immortal, who thinks running away to Paris is sufficient qualification to become the next Proust.

The title story is poignant, and bizarrely descriptive, easy to parse, fast-paced, intuitive, with integrated dialogue and a pervasive sense of grotesque humor. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Utterly ridiculous. But it operates within the confines of its established logical landscape, becoming miraculously readable through rhythmic stylistic thrusts, charming through blasphemy, wrestling with biblical undertones, sliding into the just-plain-weird, until the sheer outrageousness becomes entertaining in a reality TV sort of way, but far more condensed, unrepetitive and deep. Vivid description accompanies sharp dialogue, again, dependent entirely on quirky character facets, often bordering on insanity, full of quips and egregious cleverness, and morbid in the extreme. The commentary on art and idolatry, pop culture, the media, tourists, and the backwater residents of America’s heartland were pointed, affecting, and effective. Its delusional characters shed light on our times and foibles. In complete helplessness, their confrontation with harsh reality cannot but be the anodyne for the oversaturated postmodern literary landscape we face today.

“Perversion is only a lack of acquaintance,” one of the characters says. This is during an exquisite punk rock satire, suffused with a sense of lost youth, spoiled potential, an inescapable dejection, amid moral decay, within a bereavement for the nostalgic pastures of youth, grappling with a sick sort of logic – all of which provide motivations to propel the narrative.

The author’s sophisticated commentary on religion through creative blasphemy lends itself to a range of interpretations. No matter how susceptible you are to the uncanny and the odd, Vardeman’s debut is a forceful example of honed aesthetic principles. For the herniated metaphors, and the stomach-churning detail of a pork-themed restaurant debacle alone, he deserves five stars.

Review of The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe

ISBN 0894712330 (ISBN13: 9780894712333)

When choosing which single volume of Poe’s to keep in my collection I settled on this one. 

I decided against the Library of America edition of the tales due to conspicuous absences in the Table of Contents. This one has all of my favorite poems, stories and a few essays. I supplemented this with the LOA edition of his Reviews and the Delphi Complete Works ebook edition, chiefly for the letters. You would be hard-pressed to find a more delightful volume of Poe than this one, even if it is missing a few gems (like Eureka). It has pretty much all of my favorites.
He was the kind of author I will reread for life. I rarely grow tired of his semi-Gothic prose and lyrical poetry. Ever since reading Tell-Tale Heart, Pit and the Pendulum, Cask of Amontillado in middle school, I’ve cherished this large tome for the wealth of memories attached to it. I remember reading Pym and being amazed (in high school) and rereading The Raven a hundred times in an abortive attempt to memorize it. Most charming of all, perhaps, are the illustrations in this omnibus. If only LOA would take their work more seriously, stop leaving out key works from their authors and invest in illustrated pages. These editions from this publisher may be getting hard to find, but I also picked up their first volume of Twain as well.
If you are debating about reading Poe, do yourself the favor of reading his Complete Tales, in any form – even ebook – and if you can afford it, stick this one on your shelf.

Review of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories by William H. Gass

ISBN 0879233745 (ISBN13: 9780879233747)

I think I am going to like this Gass, I thought, and here I am, at the end of it, hovering between four and five stars, as I so often do, but settling for that generous bedizening – the whole roster of stellar units.

Linked only by nefariously complex sentences, riddled with the kind of chewy phrases boys on the ballpark lawn would work with their chapped lips to pull and prod between clenched teeth, the stories here are fascinating, jewel-like run-on spasms through form and essence, like a sun-drenched day, like houses standing in rows, staring at some horizon you are too short to see, like a moon in the sky at midday, defying reason, but lingering like some pendant over blasted landscapes of ghost-peopled towns, where sunk in lazy fiddling, meandering maws squawk and fingers rummage pocket lint, where schooled but not well-reasoned kids resuscitate Caesar within the abstract labyrinths of their somnambulism. The setting is fashioned after some sort of dioramic blend of gothic minimalism, which somehow isn’t hollow. Like a fruit, well-full of rind and insect-swarming seeds, peeled open to reveal a glint of golden nectar. It’s nostalgic headway into dream. It’s a slow slackening of all the reeled strictures of noveled, inflexible fiction. We’ve walked these roads, met these stunted Shakespeares, but we seldom paid attention to the blinding patter of their paws, to the struggles they wield in their wild tunneling toward death. Little stories come and ungainly go, but certain stories capture in their amber, hallowed moments of crystal life, refracting the essence of that unknowable divine back into our double-mirrored minds. Snatch what you can from Gass’ gaseous brand of madness.

Review of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

ISBN 014017821X (ISBN13: 9780140178210)

My first reading of Angela Carter. I can see why she is popular and well-regarded. This book is about as good as retellings of fairy tales could be.

Through rabid exorcisms of imagery mesmerizing moments are born from her disturbing imagination. The dense sentences cluster like a nest of snakes, sniping you from the shadows. Her Baroque stylings are distinctly old-fashioned, but her standpoint and her quirkiness are bold and fresh.

I am easily taken in by the promise of exile in a magic kingdom. I was on guard at first, since I could sense sinister intent in her method. It was a little like the feeling you might have had sitting around a campfire as a child, when some storytelling prodigy joins the circle with the commitment to scar you for life.

Multiple stories deal with captivity, and probably stem from Carter’s dissatisfaction with the outmoded portrayals of women in traditional fairy tales. This is understandable, since they were all conceived in the long age of patriarchal oppression. The Revisionist nature of her composition lends relevance to old stories. She essentially claims them for her own. Aside from her intentions, the craft on display is of the highest caliber. Many descriptions are as poetic as Bradbury’s, but have more bite.

She does not shy away from statutory rape, from sheer carnage. She depicts the confines of poor marriage in a truly frightening manner. Characters seethe with their hideous pasts and dark secrets, concealing the eldritch monsters dwelling in their hearts. Movement and innovation are par for the course for Carter. These are certainly no longer stories for children. They are sophisticated but playful, and the prose is infused with magic. They are suggestive, and mingle the morbid and the beautiful extremely well. Long paragraphs of Gothic and colorful musings, luscious landscapes and boudoirs all contribute to an antiquated rhythm suggestive of Poe.

“The potentiality for corruption,” struck me as a theme. While pessimistic, the stilted perspective is a means by which all things gain shades of sinister meaning. She sustains an effective chilling atmosphere throughout, as the heroes and heroines experience the slick slide into terror, with breathtaking intensity, derailing the Huysmanesque still-life compositions.

Carter lacks innocence, seems to have lost the childish wonder inherent in the original source material. In exchange she brings a wickedness which underlies her charming descriptions. The double meanings of her twisted tales are pretty graphic, and I wonder if we shouldn’t pass them on to our children anyway. The world is a dark place. They will encounter a few monsters in due course. And the monsters were in the original tales in the first place. They just weren’t so heartrendingly deranged.

Review of The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

ISBN 0141395621 (ISBN13: 9780141395623)

Since I’ve read every word Haruki Murakami has published in English I felt obligated to read his introduction once it showed up in the preview on Amazon. People saying “Haruki Murakami is my favorite author” has now become a cliche. But cliches can sometimes be true.

His introduction was nice and long and juicy. My impression of the collection of stories was that they were chosen, as Mr. Rubin explains, for the casual reader. Maybe it’s pretentious but I consider myself more than a casual reader of Japanese fiction. I have an entire bookcase devoted to Japanese literature.
I like to imagine what stories I would have picked if I had the opportunity to compile an anthology of this kind.
There are new translations, which are sorely needed in this day and age. Akutagawa’s previously untranslated short story “General Kim” was my favorite inclusion. Out of Akutagawa’s 300+ works only 77 have thus far been translated into English. Since he’s one of my other favorite authors I’ve actually gone to extremely nerdy lengths to read them all. I wish Rubin would just translate all of Akutagawa already. And maybe Bakin while he’s at it.
I am glad that he put a lot of translating into this volume, but why include “Patriotism” and the first chapter of Sanshiro? Not only do they take up valuable space but they are available almost anywhere. I buy anthologies because they contain stories on the brink of obscurity. Where are all the translations of Hiromi Kawakami or Junnosuke Yoshiyuki? I would have liked to see something new from Ryu Murakami, who never gets anthologized but is one of the best Japanese writers of all time.
I gave this book four stars because it was excellent, but it really could’ve gotten five. The two stories by Haruki are previously available, but luckily we get something new by Banana Yoshimoto and Akutagawa which save this collection, in my opinion, from being a rehashing. It’s hard to find Kenji Nakagami and we are treated to a new story by Mieko Kawakami, which was appreciated, so while I would not recommend this for your shelf if you can only have one Japanese literature anthology – it’s hard to beat the two volume Columbia anthology – I’d put it in my top 5 Japanese literature anthologies. Yes, I am that much of a geek that I would create a top five.
Though this is a step in the right direction there’s about 3000 miles of stepping left to do if we are ever going to get the most out of J. Lit. I keep asking myself, why can’t I just read Japanese? Oh yeah, it’s insanely difficult. Anyway, check it out if you are a fan.

Review of Selected Short Stories by Honoré de Balzac

Balzac, I have found, is one of those authors you can read for your whole like, like Dickens, spreading out the oeuvre as necessary

Balzac’s books, in my opinion, are not to be consumed like snacks or junk food. They are hearty vegetables, often not terribly exciting, but vigorous and nourishing. One can become enamored with his style or one can become distracted, depending on one’s enthusiasm for the everyday lives of 19th century people.

Balzac died at 51, after working 20 years on his Human Comedy, comprising 90 works, and rising to the rank of greatest French author in many critical opinions. For much of his life he was fighting off debt, and 2 months before his untimely death due to overconsumption of coffee, he married a rich Polish countess. He produced 50 short stories, and we have 12 selected here. At first this selection appeared meager and insignificant, but further along in the slim volume the value compounded.

In summation, this is a fabulous depiction of the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie. Balzac drops aphorisms and well-sprinkled witticisms throughout his calm, collected recounting of lives. He is a vastly intelligent writer, on the level of Chekhov, with a subtle wit rarely equalled. He captured the people and key details of his time astutely. Unlike Anatole France, Balzac confined his subject to a set period, wishing to give the fullest picture of a slice of history, concerning almost entirely the French characters he was familiar with, picking and choosing from real life and his imagination as necessary, conjuring perfect examples with precision. He could discern a person’s key attributes from a single glance, seemingly, and could draw out descriptions for pages where a lesser writer would have dashed off a few nondescript lines.

His stories are often simple. 10 sous can mark the border between life and death. Money and ambition take center stage, as does the honest work of the poor. He describes abject poverty like a pro, and the many guises it takes, its resonating affects upon families and great geniuses, for, as has been said, most everyone in Balzac is a genius. He utilizes melodramatic displays of charity and good will worthy of Dickens. There is much sacrifice, injustice and sorrow mingled with the surprisingly uncommon instances of romance.

There is only one decapitation in the whole collection, which is to say that Balzac is no Dumas. Dumas relied on cinematic gestures, grand statements, and a flair akin to the stage plays I imagine he devoured. Balzac rather, reveled in the tiny tragedies, the heartwarming moments, without entirely neglecting the grand episodes of the climaxes of his novels and the occasional “pulp” story. There is to be found the attendant troubles which come from the sudden acquisition of wealth, and much more in several entertaining stories in the second half of the book. The first half is rather droll, though it contains deep irony and brilliant characters. My rating verged on 5 stars after the final story – an amusing satire on the life of a painter. In short, these stories will not satisfy everyone, but if you are an appreciator of delicate sensibilities, prose which moves elegantly and logically through crystalline storytelling, it is hard to do better than Balzac. Take, for instance this quote:

“…creditors being today the most real shape assumed by the ancient Furies. He wore his poverty with a gaiety which is perhaps one of the greatest elements of courage, and like all those who have nothing, he contracted few debts.”

Much meaning in a tight package. Look to Balzac for both distraction and enlightenment.

4th Quarterly Review 2017

My short story “Cygnus” was featured in the 4th Quarterly Review of Bewildering Stories for 2017.

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3rd Quarterly Review

My story, “Eve in the Belly of the Whale” was included in the 2017 3rd Quarterly Review of Bewildering Stories. Check it out:

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