review

THE CROW’S DINNER – JONATHAN CARROLL

The Crow's DinnerThe Crow’s Dinner by Jonathan Carroll
My rating: 4/5 cats
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this is an enormous book of carroll’s short nonfiction pieces, ranging from musings and anecdotes to blog posts and reprinted emails, many of which can be found here:

https://jonathancarroll.com/archive

to give you a sense of both how big is the book and how short are the pieces, here is the table of contents, which i have painstakingly typed out for you. i am putting it behind a spoiler tag so no one has to scroll through such a huge wall of words just to get to what the book’s about.

View Spoiler »

that is … quite a lot of pieces. this was my nonfiction book for the month, and even though – yes – they are technically nonfiction, the collection all together reads like some kind of carrolly vision board – observations jotted down as raw material for future novels. they all have the shiny flair and staging of a carroll situation, and the themes and motifs are identical to those in his fiction – love and the past and relationships and self and dogs and pens and striking, beautifully-dressed people saying unexpected and memorable things, usually shaped as snappy declarative metaphors. it’s mostly just jonathan carroll people-watching around vienna, where he has lived long enough that he’s an entrenched expatriate (and where there seems to be an unusually high number of blind people). some of his musings hit really close to home, particularly in the weakened emotional home of me right-now, and i may have misted up a little, but he’s at his best not when he’s making me cry, but as a witness to everyday magic, and the genuine delight he takes in the interactions between a man and his dog, or between an elderly couple, or children in the rain. it sounds twee and greeting cardy, but it’s jonathan carroll, so these scenes are played out as majestic, profound, spiritual, and kooky, instead of the kind of threadbare inspirational stuff shoring up the magnet-and-motivational-wall-hanging industry.

since so many of these are so short, and i can’t choose which ones are my favorite-favorites, i’m opening it up to y’all: i will type out TEN of them to share, selected by title by the first ten discrete folks who pop onto the thread (and dear god please let them be real people and not roving RPers). it’s risky, because not all of these pieces are top-drawer stuff and maybe someone will choose one of the few long pieces or a filler-piece and i will regret having made this offer, but since so much of carroll involves a sort of driving force behind the scenes, guiding fate, making cool stuff happen, lacing up the world, i’m going to trust that this force has carroll’s best interests at heart and will make sure his good stuff makes its way to new eyes and new fans, because this guy’s an all-time fave of mine and he deserves a majillion readers.

1) Book Killers and Book Kissers

A professor I had in graduate school once said people who read for pleasure can be divided into two groups – Book Killers or Book Kissers. In that he meant the way we physically treat books while reading them. I’m a kisser. When I finish reading any book most of the time it still looks brand new. I never fold corners down to mark a place, bend the spine to make the book open easier, write on a page, etcetera. Today on the subway I saw a woman reading a book that screamed she was a book killer. It had the wiggly warped look of having been left out in the rain. Many page corners were folded over, and the spine had been bent back so far I was sure pages were going to fall out sooner or later. Looking at her first as a fellow reader, I thought poor book. Will it live long enough for her to finish?

But then as a writer I thought the book looks completely lived in. It probably goes with her everywhere and has been read in some odd and interesting places. Isn’t that the greatest compliment we can pay to a writer? That we just can’t put their damned story down and have to take it with us everywhere? I love it at book signings when people come and sheepishly put down a destroyed copy of any of my books and ask me to sign them. Almost always they say “this was the first book of yours I read and it’s special to me.” It always breaks my heart and I make sure to sign those tired copies as carefully and clearly as I can.

2) The Doctor Who Treats Sick Angels

She was describing a friend of hers who I immediately thought would make a wonderful character either in a book or movie. The man is a well known doctor, a specialist who works in one of Vienna’s most prestigious hospitals. He’s a particularly good doctor, one of those rare ones who is so adept at what he does that people from all over the world seek him out. But he has a secret – he fervently believes in angels, ghosts, other worlds, etcetera. Professionally he keeps the two things completely separate and never talks about the esoteric with either his colleagues or his patients. But to his friends he is very open about it. Recently my friend told him that she was having trouble sleeping. He casually said you must change your sleeping position because you’re being affected by bad spirits, etcetera. What a fascinating and obviously complex guy he must be. I wonder if he ever comforts his dying patients with quiet talk about what he believes comes next…

3) Dead Smiles

There are smiles that ruin faces. Nice faces or plain, beautiful, ugly – it doesn’t matter. As soon as they smile, it’s over; you close some kind of mental door on them. Whether because it’s a false smile, or cold, strange, crazy, calculating – in an instant it tells you a great deal about the person who created it. Whether it’s fair or not, there’s something in you that pulls back no matter how attracted you were to them moments ago.

4) Junk Shop Happiness

Finding happiness in life is sometimes like finding treasure at a seedy looking junk shop. You go into the store not to find anything, but more just to pass the time before the movie starts, get out of the rain, or a friend makes you tag along because they need to buy a cheap bed for their new dog. But then amazingly, amidst all the sad looking coats and lamps that don’t work, the bad paintings of waterfalls and wilted Halloween costumes of characters on forgotten TV shows, there it is! You cannot believe your eyes. You walk over to it slowly, almost afraid it will disappear before you get there. But no, it’s real – you have it in your hand now. You try it on and it fits perfectly and it costs nothing and the day, the place, the time, the moment all just became golden.

5) The Horrible Chicken Store

The horrible chicken store has closed. The place was probably fifty years old and looked every minute of it. They sold only chicken there – raw and cooked. The food was barely okay but I liked to go because it felt like stepping back into the 1950s as soon as you crossed the threshold. The signs on the walls were yellow with grease, smoke and age. All the machinery and utensils were fat and basic, totally uncool or un-streamlined. No Santoku knives or Cuisinarts on these premises, thank you. The different salads on display looked like they had been sitting bored and untouched for days. I was always too afraid to sample them. You made a point of not looking too closely at how clean things were because they weren’t, and if there were ever customers none of them appeared to be less than eighty and in ill health. In contrast, the proprietor was jovial and loud and always seemed genuinely glad to see you. But today while passing by, it took a moment to sink in that the lights were out inside and no food was on display. Looking again, the interior had that familiar forlorn, unloved look of no one home forevermore. I’m sure chickens all over Austria are rejoicing, but not me.

6) How to Be a Candy Bar

There is a discount supermarket chain in Austria (let’s call it Delta) that sells almost-things. If your favorite candy is called “Freddy” bars and they’re wrapped in red white and blue packages, what Delta does is sell their own brand called “Friendly” bars, wrap them in virtually identical red white and blue packages, and charge a lot less for them. Whether it be candy, frozen pizza, red wine… the company’s thing is to sell cheaper products that are almost the real thing but not quite. And the same is true about how these products taste or work. “Friendly” candy bars might have almost the same ingredients as “Freddy” bars, but they don’t taste anywhere near as good. Delta dish washing soap is thin and sort of useless although it’s colored and packaged to look just like Palmolive. The meat in their dog food cans is a weird shade of gray and makes the dog fart a lot. However as is usually the case, it takes two to dance. The Delta people are saying “Why pay full price for Freddy bars? Ours are just like them but cost half as much.” You know though that isn’t true. You usually get what you pay for. But you buy the cheaper one anyway and end up disappointed. So is Delta trying to fool you with their almost-goods? Yes. But are you to blame for buying them when you know about 90% of the time products like “Friendly bars” are crap? Yes.

Walking by one of those stores the other day, someone said to me, “You know Michael? He always reminds me of something you’d buy at a Delta store.” I knew exactly what she meant.

 

7) If I Have No Memory Am I Still Me?

At the end of the lovely movie A Very Long Engagement, after many struggles and setbacks the heroine is reunited with her adored fiancée. The only problem is the lover has suffered a grievous head wound that erased all of his memory. When they are reunited, he doesn’t know who she is. In Julie Christie’s recent film Away From Her, she plays a woman with Alzheimer’s disease who gradually loses her memory and with it her ability to recognize her husband of many years. At the end of both stories the ones “left behind” look at their partners with equal amounts of longing and confusion because they are right in front of them, but no, they aren’t “there” at all anymore.

In both cases it brings up the essential question — what makes us who we are? Our physical selves? Our memories? Our ties to other people? Our achievements (including our children)…Other, perhaps more ineffable/indefinable things? It’s stuff for a serious ontological discussion (or philosophy class), but also an intriguing question that can be batted back and forth across the ping pong table of your own mind when you’re in the bath tonight: What makes me who I am? If you took away this or that (my memory, or my sense of humor, or my eyesight, for example) would I still be me? Or would the loss of such things disappear me?

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RECEIVED! and holy shit – this is HUGE! it is more than 500 pages! i am very excited, but i will save it for my september nonfiction read. sigh. damn my self-imposed reading structures…

pre-ordered back in may and AMPED!!

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this is just a note-to-self, because last time i accidentally ordered TWO $40 copies of Teaching the Dog to Read because of too-early pre-ordering and the combination of bad memory and enthusiastic fangirling.

DO NOT ORDER ANOTHER COPY OF THIS, DUMMY!!!

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