The Empire of Ice Cream Hardcover – Apr 1 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In "Coffins on the River," one of several autobiographical stories in Ford's outstanding second collection of fantastic fiction (after 2002's The Fantasy Writer's Assistant), the narrator remarks: "[T]he ideas would fly like bats at sundown, like phone calls from our creditors." Whether drawing on his past as a schoolboy (in the previously unpublished "Botch Town"), a clam digger ("The Trentino Kid") or an adult returning to his childhood home ("A Night in the Tropics"), Ford uses such incongruously lyrical phrases to infuse the everyday with a nebulous magic that erases the line between reality and belief. Sorrow is always quietly present, even in pieces of pure whimsy such as "The Annals of Eelin-Ok," "The Green Word" and "Summer Afternoon," and it becomes more prominent in three tales of people created by others' imaginations: the surreal "A Man of Light," the bittersweet "Boatman's Holiday" and the Nebula-winning title story. Brief afterwords provide both real-world context and a welcome pause between the intensely engaging stories. Both new and returning fans will be entranced and delighted. (Apr.)
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A book that opens with a story about creatures who live their entire existences in sand castles, from when youthful builders abandon them to when the tide destroys them, demands readers possessing a healthy sense of wonder and the willingness to embrace the bizarre and fantastic. The title story beautifully twists the experience and senses of a synesthetic musician to answer the question, what would happen if synesthetic experiences took on physical forms? "The Weight of Words" takes the phrase seriously to explore the sinister potential of print. "Boatman's Holiday" depicts what Charon, the boatman of Hades, does on vacation. Giants and unidentifiable alien creatures, fairy tales, the intertwining of wonder and terror, and fantastic views of both the strange and the ordinary all appear in this marvelous collection, with Ford's comments on his inspiration and motivations appended to each story. Ford is nothing if not versatile, as this collection confirms to great effect. Regina Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The title story, indeed, is one of my favorite stories by anyone from the last few years. My interest was immediately engaged by the Wallace Stevens reference, though Ford, in his introduction, disclaims any intention of alluding to Stevens' great poem. The story is about a man with synesthaesia. He becomes an accomplished piano player and composer, even as he perceives the notes he plays or composes as sights or smells or tastes. Somehow coffee ice cream causes a special hallucination: a young woman. As he grows older, he finds that pure coffee allows real contact with this woman, and he learns that she, too, is an artist and a synesthaesiac. The story climaxes as he tries to complete a major musical composition -- coming to a predictable but still quite satisfying and moving conclusion.
Another brilliant piece is "The Weight of Words." This suggests that the placement and appearance of words can affect their meaning in such mundane ways as subliminal advertising, or such more profound ways as causing death, love, or the appreciation of beauty. It's told by a man who has lost his wife and hopes to regain her by the use of weighted word -- instead he gains something quite different.
There is one new story in the book, a very long novella (nearly novel length): "Botch Town". This is a pitch perfect and rather sad evocation of childhood in a lower middle class New Jersey suburb. The title refers to a model town that the narrator's brother constructs in his basement -- somehow their sister, who is in some way brilliant but not very comprehensible, seems to use this town to reflect real happenings in their own town, including the whereabouts of a mysterious visitor who may be connected with the disappearance of a neighborhood boy.
There are many other jewels here. "The Annals of Eelin-Ok" is a tender, bittersweet, story of a Twilmish, a creature that colonizes a sand castle and lives only until the castle is washed away. "The Beautiful Gelreesh" is quite different in mood, a sardonic piece about a doglike creature with a rather extreme means of curing depression.
"A Night at the Tropics" concerns a cursed chess set and the bully who stumbles into possession of it. The story is framed in a very Kiplingesque manner: the narrator, named Ford, tells of his return to his childhood house, and a visit to a bar his father frequented, "The Tropics." It is there that he again encounters the bully, and hears the tale of the chess set. And, much as Kipling so often and so brilliantly managed, the frame ends up blending with and enhancing the central story. (And, to my relief after Ford's denial of the Stevens reference in "The Empire of Ice Cream," his introduction here explicitly acknowledges Kipling's influence.)
I won't mention the other stories, but I'll say that they are a varied and intriguing lot. The book itself is a lovely physical object, as we expect from Golden Gryphon. And Ford's introductions are fairly brief but very interesting, definitely significant value added. This is surely one of the best story collections of the year.
Jeffrey Ford is a highly intelligent, clever wordsmith that more closely resembles Bradbury and Wolfe than the Datlow/Windling crowd. Like his unstable scholar's work in "The Weight of Words", Ford's writings are greater than the sum of their parts.
In particular, I'd like to praise the novella, "Botch Town." As soon as I was a few paragraphs into it, I recognized the familiar territory of the "remember the year when..." stories by Bradbury, King, et al, that I enjoy so much. The autobiographical tone was convincing, and the characters were universal and believable. My friends and I had our own version of Mr. Blah Blah, and our own Halloween hijinx were remarkably similar to those described within. (I also appreciated the subtle nod to Spike Jones fans.)
Among my other favorites are the darkly humorous "Boatman's Holiday" and the surreal tour-de-force, "Giant Land."
If you're looking for a collection of substantial, sophisticated yet accessible, stick-to-your-ribs short fiction, then pick up The Empire of Ice Cream.
All the stories are really well written and fascinating. You will love these stories and they will stay with you after you have finished the book. There will be many I will come back to time and time again. I highly recommend this book.
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