Monday, April 20, 2015

The Book of Speculation

Erika Swyler’s debut novel, The Book of Speculation, is a complicated tale about a family whose women have for generations suffered one of the strangest curses imaginable: they all choose to end their lives by drowning.  An odd thing about the string of deaths is that each of the women, because of her ability to hold her breath for an extraordinary length of time, once made her living as a circus “mermaid.’  But strangest of all is that each of them decides to do the deed on July 24.

Although Simon Watson’s mother is one of these women, he has no idea that she is just the latest in her line to have drowned herself on July 24.  Simon, now a small town librarian, lives alone in the family home in which he cared for his younger sister after the death of their father.  Enola (yes, she is named after the Enola Gay that carried the first atomic bomb to Japan) joined the circus as a Tarot card “seer” six years earlier and seldom makes it home now to see her brother.  Simon’s life has, in fact, become rather dull and routine – but all of that changes on the day in June that he receives an unexpected package in the mail.

An antiquarian book dealer, whom Simon has never heard of, has sent him a 1700s-vintage book because of a reference the dealer found in it to a member of Simon’s family.  The book, which appears to be the logbook of a traveling circus, arouses Simon’s curiosity so intensely that he decides to use all his library skills and connections to research the name found in the book.  And what he finds scares him to death.  Now, with July 24 fast approaching again, Simon’s life has become a race against the clock as he desperately searches for an answer that will keep his sister from becoming the latest victim of the family curse.

Erika Swyler
The Book of Speculation revisits the age-old debate of fate vs. free will.  Is the course of a person’s life governed by fate, or is free will enough to move what appears to be one’s fate in a whole variety of directions?  Simon does not believe that his sister has to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmothers.  But as the days fly by, and the universe begins to conspire against him, he begins to wonder if fate holds all the best cards.

Bottom Line: The Book of Speculation is an intriguing story in which alternating chapters between the past and the present steadily crank up the tension all the way to what proves to be a rousing finish.  It is easy to get lost in this one – and I did.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunday Shorts

I'm heading to Minute Maid Park in a few minutes with my youngest grandson to watch the Astros take on the Angels (who used to be the California Angels but are now called something really cheesy like the "Angels of Anaheim").  But before we leave, there's time for a few more Sunday Shorts:

  • I spent another hour sorting a closet full of books yesterday afternoon and came away with 20 more hardcover books that I can release into the wild to make their own way in the world.  I'm sure the books will be thrilled to see the light of thrilled as the folks at my office will be Monday morning to find the coffee break room filled with free books again. That brings me to almost exactly 100 hardcover books that I've moved out the door so far this year.  
  • I've kind of settled on the idea of listening to classic novels as I drive to and from work (although I'm going into FULL retirement on May 14, so time is running out quickly) because I never seem to get around to reading them anymore.  That backfired on me this week when, right in the middle of The Three Musketeers, I came across a disc so defective that it cannot be read by any CD player I own.  Well, that stopped me in my tracks.  I hesitate to try to finish up by reading the rest of the story because the new translator is likely to have a completely different style than that of the audio book version.  Epic Fail.
  • Coming into the year, I put together a list of unread books I own, some of which have been on my shelves for almost 30 years.  I prepared the list with high hopes to then make a real dent in it during 2015, a project that doesn't seem to be happening.  Just this week, I finally finished my first book from the list (The Joy Luck Club) and I've started another one (a thirteen-year-old Larry McMurtry book).  That's not nearly the pace I was hoping for, but it's a start.  Now I need to build on the tiny bit of momentum I've gained this week...lots of books to go.
  • And, I feel like I'm entering my first reading funk of the year.  I can always tell when it happens because my per-day page count drops right off the table - exactly as it has for the last four or five days now.  I've learned the hard way that the only thing likely to get me back on pace any time soon is to find that Magic Book, the one that gets me so excited that I can't put it down.  Let the search begin...wish me luck.

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.