Saturday, April 18, 2015

Short Story Saturday: Charles Baxter's "Charity"

Charles Baxter
Charles Baxter's short story "Charity" made its first appearance in 2013 as part of Issue number 43 of McSweeney's.  It is also the very first story in The Best American Short Stories of 2014, the wonderful collection edited by Jennifer Egan that I enjoy dipping in and out of so much. 

"Charity" is about Matty Quinn, a man who goes to Africa with only one goal in mind.  He is not there to exploit the situation so that he can come home a richer man.  On the contrary, he is there simply to make a difference in the lives of a few people via the little health clinic that employs him.  Matty Quinn is a kind soul, and as observed one day by Harry Albert, he does the little things that really do make a difference.  Matty is so kind, so empathetic, in fact, that Harry falls in love with him before they speak a single word to each other.

Matty Quinn, though, is an example of the old cliché that "no good deed goes unpunished" because soon after he returns to the U.S. doctors tell him that the fatigue and pain he suffers are due to a viral rheumatism infection that he acquired in Africa.  Their remedy?  Painkillers and time.  But before he knows it, doctors have cut Matty off from the very painkillers that make his life even remotely bearable - forcing him to spend his remaining savings to acquire the same drugs illegally on the streets of Minneapolis.  Finally, Matty does what is to him the unthinkable; he resorts to mugging people to get enough cash to make it through another day.  And kind soul that he is, the guilt drives him nuts. 

"Charity" is told in two distinct voices.  The first part of the story is a third person recounting of Matty's story: who he is, how he met Harry, why he was in Africa, and what happened to him when he came home.  The second part of the story suddenly switches into the first person voice of Harry himself, and in a final twist of voices, Harry reveals that he is also the author of the third person account that makes up the earlier part of "Charity."  This second section delves deeper into the relationship of the two men and brings the story to its somber, but satisfying, conclusion. 

Interestingly, in the "Contributors Notes" section of The Best American Short Stories of 2014, Baxter reveals that "Charity" is just one of several stories he had been writing at the time about "virtues and vices."  He had, in fact, been struggling with a plot for the story he wanted to call "Charity" when he remembered a character from the one he called "Chastity."  In that story, a young man is severely injured during a mugging when someone comes up behind him and strikes him with a pipe.  The mugger was never identified.  Baxter says he began wondering who could have done such a thing - and why.  Could the mugger actually have been a good man caught up in a situation so desperate that it drove him to do something completely out of character?  Thus, was born the plot of "Charity," and the rest is history.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Assault

I did not learn until last month that Dutch author Harry Mulisch died in late November 2010, but even though The Assault is the only Mulisch book I have read, the news that he is gone saddens me.  And because The Assault is so well crafted and tells such a memorable story, I intend to see what else of his is available to readers in this country. 

The novel is set in Haarlem in late 1945, during the last few weeks of Germany’s harsh occupation of The Netherlands.  As is always the case, a few have decided to make life easier for themselves and their families by collaborating with their occupiers rather than resisting them.  Toward the very end of the war, the assassination of one of these despicable people, a police inspector by the name of Ploeg, will lead to the near total destruction of the unfortunate Steenwijks, a family in front of whose home the German’s find Ploeg’s bullet riddled body.  

In one horrible night, ten-year-old Anton Steenwijk loses everything: his parents, his only sibling, and the home he has lived in as long as he can remember.  The events of that night are so shocking and so chaotic that Anton understands little of what is happening around him.  All he knows, as he is being taken away by car, is that his house seems to be burning to the ground, and that his parents and brother are nowhere to be found. It is only years later, as he encounters figures from his brief Haarlem past, that Anton begins to learn the details of what really happened that night.

Now he has to deal with it.

Harry Mulisch
The Assault is as much about the emotional scars of an enemy occupation of one’s homeland as it is about the physical ones.  After wars, cities can be so successfully rebuilt that just a few years later it is hard to believe that they were ever destroyed in the first place.  It is not so easy, however, to rebuild the emotional lives of war’s survivors, and for many that task is impossible.  Anton Steenwijk, though, has been more successful at putting the war behind him than most of his contemporaries have been.  He is not out there looking for the truth - but the truth seems to be looking for him.  What he learns changes everything about who he thinks he is.

Bottom Line:  This excellent translation of The Assault will haunt the novel’s readers long after they have turned its last page.  I highly recommend this one.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Saving Books One Penny at a Time

Save a book from this fate: buy it for a penny
Have you ever noticed what seems to be thousands and thousands of used books on sale for a few pennies each on  Many of them are being offered at one cent each, in fact.  Have you ever wondered how anyone could afford to sell books at that price?

The secret, my friend, is in the price being charged to the buyer for shipping...what the shysters on TV like to call "postage and handling," with "handling" perhaps providing the largest portion of the profit being made on the entire transaction.  Why else would every single TV seller be so eager to give you two items for the price of one PLUS another charge for postage and handling?  

Well, according to The Guardian, it works pretty much the same way on when it comes to the sale of used books by third-party sellers.  Acquire them cheaply in bulk, slap a penny price tag on each book, charge the standard $3.99 shipping fee, and there's money to be made there for both the seller and for Amazon. 
The price point is partly a result of the market’s downward pressure: at a certain level of supply and demand the race to the lowest price swiftly plummets to the bottom. What remains inflexible is the $3.99 fee Amazon charges the buyer for shipping. From that $4, Amazon takes what they call a “variable closing fee” of $1.35. They also charge the seller 15% of the item’s price – which in the case of a penny book is zero. That leaves $2.64 to cover postage, acquisition cost and overhead. 
“All told,” Mike Ward concedes, “we only make a few cents on a penny book sale like that.” Now that hardly seems like much, true. “But keep in mind,” he adds, “that last year we sold 11.5m books.”
 (The most surprising bit in the article might just be that so many charity shops are giving away donated books in bulk if someone is just willing to haul them away on a regular basis.)

Do read the article because it might just get you in the proper mood to see what you can add to your own collection for only $4 a whack.  Some very good deals are to be had.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Trailer of the Week: Toddlers Are A**holes (And It's Not Your Fault)

Although even the last of my grandchildren are now well beyond the toddler stage of life, this does bring back some memories...not all of them pleasant ones.

Looks like the book offers a bit of comic relief for parents who find themselves mired in toddlerhood at the moment.  I hope it helps.  But don't get so involved in the book that you forget to check on the little guys...or they will make you pay for that oversight.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Driving the King

The 1956 onstage assault suffered by singer Nat King Cole in Birmingham, Alabama, made headlines around the world.  Thankfully, the three men who attacked Cole at that event accomplished little more than knocking him to the floor before they were apprehended by policemen who were there to prevent just such an incident.  King returned to the stage a few minutes after the assault and managed to finish his performance without further incident.

This is the real world event that Ravi Howard uses as the centerpiece of his new novel Driving the King - even though he moves the event back about a decade and has it take place in Montgomery rather than in Birmingham.  However, as alluded to in the book’s title, Driving the King is really the story of a fictional character who served as the singer’s personal driver for a number of years (Nat King Cole is, in fact, a relatively minor character in the book). 

Initially drawn together because they shared a first name, Nat Cole and Nat Weary were boyhood friends and classmates before King’s family moved out of Montgomery.  And now that the famous Nat King Cole has come to Montgomery to do a show, Nat Weary has a favor to ask him.  Weary wants Cole to help him propose to his girlfriend during the show – and the singer agrees to stop the show while Weary makes his move.  But when a man jumps on stage and begins beating Cole, everything goes wrong.  The proposal never happens, and Nat Weary, as a result of his aggressive defense of Cole, finds himself doing ten years of hard labor in one of Alabama’s harshest prisons.  “The King,” though, never forgets what his old friend did for him.  Upon Weary’s release from prison, Cole asks Weary to come to Los Angeles to be his driver and after much consideration Nat accepts the job. 

Author Ravi Howard
Driving the King is set in the pivotal period of race relations in this country.  The book covers in detail the Montgomery bus strike of the period, and even includes a young Martin Luther King as one of its characters.  It is a stark and vivid portrayal of Jim Crow Alabama, but it does not stop there, because Nat King Cole, as the first black performer with a television show of his own (15 minutes in length), suffered racial prejudice even in Los Angeles.  (In the real world, a cross was burned on the LA lawn of King’s home by members of the Ku Klux Klan.) 

This is an ambitious novel – and it largely accomplishes what it set out to do.  But, perhaps because so many of its characters are stereotypical (both blacks and whites), the book never fully draws the reader into the world as it was at that time.  It just does not seem real.  Nat Weary is an interesting character – and learning a bit about Nat King Cole’s personal journey is interesting – but I can’t help but feel that Driving the King could have been so much more than it is.  And that’s a shame.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Why I Will Never Read J.M. Coetzee Again (not that the goofball cares, of course)

J.M. Coetzee
Listening to Simon and Thomas (on a recent episode of The Readers podcast) discuss "reading assumptions" got me to thinking about my own preconceived reaction to certain authors and wondering if I were doing myself a disservice in the process of making assumptions similar to those they described.  But when I thought more specifically about some of my assumptions, I decided that the answer to that question is an emphatic "no."  

Let's take South African author J.M. Coetzee as an example of what I mean.  Based almost entirely upon one novel, Diary of a Bad Year, I have come to despise the man.  I have no interest in ever reading another word he has written, or will write in the future, no matter how much critics around the world may love the guy.  Why do I feel that way?

Because in that book, Coetzee comes across as a vicious, little weasel of a man who represents everything I hate about politics and the smear tactics that are so often used today to ruin unfairly the reputations of good men.  Coetzee hates certain U.S. political figures so deeply that he simply cannot control himself in Diary of a Bad Year.  He, in fact, lets his hatred so overwhelm him that, despite his attempt to employ effectively a stylistic gimmick, the stink of his hatred permeates the entire novel.  I finished it only because Coetzee made such a fool of himself that I could not turn away.  In a perverse way, it was a fascinating thing to watch.

So now, and probably forever more, when I see a J.M. Coetzee book in a bookstore, I think of nothing but the pettiness and childishness displayed by its author in Diary of a Bad Year.  Am I wrong for not giving another Coetzee book a chance?  Considering how angry the last one left me feeling, I don't think so.

Life is too short to read all the good books that I want to read, so why should I bother with those that are almost certain to leave me feeling abused?  I do suppose, though, that I should thank Mr. Coetzee for automatically eliminating his novels from consideration each time that I go about choosing the next book.  Anything that simplifies life is a good thing - even when it comes from a man dominated by his one-track mind.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sunday Shorts

Somehow or another, I have collected a random little bunch of bookish (and maybe not so bookish) thoughts in the last couple of days that I know do not deserve anything remotely like an entire blog post of their own.  These are things I would normally tweet about on my Book Chase Twitter account, but that has come to feel so much like shouting into a black hole that I've pretty much given up on Twitter.'s my first (and maybe my last) group of Sunday Shorts:

  • Is it as hard for you to follow a Zadie Smith novel as it is for me?  I'm about 80 pages in her novel NW right now, and I'm finally able to read whole pages without having to re-read paragraphs over again because I have no idea what the woman is talking about.  As many of you know, Smith is one of those "creative" stylists.  No quotation marks for Zadie...just smaller print to indicate conversation is taking place.  Now try to figure how who is speaking for each line.  Simply put, that is not as easy as you might think it would be.  Anyway, I'm almost  through the first section of the book - and I'm hoping she doesn't mess around with me by switching styles with each section.
  • I managed to cull another 30 books from my shelves and closets this afternoon.  That brings my culled total up to about 80 books since I decided it was time to get rid of some books before my wife volunteered to do the job herself.  I hope they all find good homes and are happier than they were here sitting inside dark closets for years at a time.
  • I saw one of those cheesy little sayings this weekend that went something like, "The key to happiness is avoiding all idiots."  Well, I failed miserably at doing that today, and my unhappiness level has been pretty high since before noon today because one of the biggest and most proficient idiots I have ever known decided to start another squabble with me.  I like the way Mark Twain put it in his autobiography when he said that some people are just "assfull."  You are my hero, Mr. Twain...but you already know that.
  • The Astros toyed with my emotions for over four hours this afternoon, but the final score of the game did get me out of being in such a deep funk about that "assfull" nuisance I had to deal with, so I forgive them.  First we grab a 4-0 lead and coast right up to the last two innings - during which we fall apart and let the Rangers tie the score at 4-4.  Then Astros right fielder George Springer makes one of the most spectacular catches I have seen in over 50 years of watching baseball games by extending his glove over the outfield fence to catch what would have otherwise been a walk-off grand slam home run for the Rangers.  It took another nail-biting four innings, but the good guys finally prevailed 6-4.  And suddenly, I was smiling.
So, for the moment, life is a little better.  I don't have to deal with that assfull hypocrite again for another few days; with a 3-3 record, my local baseball team is doing OK to start the 2015 season; and I have room for 80 new books.  (But don't tell my wife that last bit.)

Full Measure

T. Jefferson Parker has been writing crime fiction for three decades now, and he has done it consistently well.  But, perhaps because his reputation as a crime writer is already as solid as it gets, he offers something very different to his fans this time around.  Full Measure is a character-driven literary novel that, according to fellow novelist Stephen Harrigan, sees Parker “playing in the same league as John Steinbeck.”  While that may be a little strong, do not make the mistake of underestimating this novel because it truly is a fine piece of writing.

When Marine Patrick Norris returns from Afghanistan, he believes that his fighting days are over.  Little does he suspect that he is coming home just in time to help defend his family in a very personal battle that seems almost certain to overwhelm them.  The California avocado farm the family has operated as long as Patrick can remember has been overrun by a fast-moving wildfire.  Now, only a few trees are standing – and no one knows how many of them are still alive.  And because the remaining trees may never produce avocados again, Norris Farms is unable to get the bank financing needed to carry it through the lean times just ahead.  If the family can hold on long enough to prove that most of the standing trees are still alive, the farm has a slim chance of surviving.  But hanging on will not be easy – and it cannot be done without Patrick’s help.

T. Jefferson Parker
Ted, Patrick’s older brother has long been the weakest link in the family chain, and now his mental instability and carelessness around the trees are as big a threat to the farm as the rogue storm that appears to be headed San Diego’s way.  Ted thinks little of himself, but he idolizes his younger brother and considers Patrick to be a true American hero, someone who has upheld the honor of his family and his country.  Patrick is everything that Ted wants to be but knows he never can be – and it shames him.

Ready or not, Patrick Norris is in the fight of his life now.  He wants to save his brother from himself, he will do whatever it takes to save the avocado farm, and his struggle with demons of his own is about to doom his relationship with the young woman he deeply loves. 

Full Measure is the story of a family pushed to the brink by Mother Nature.  It is about loyalty and duty to family, and the way that two very different brothers respond to the immense pressures of the situation.  It is about life in all its beauty and all its ugliness.