Wednesday, May 31, 2023

"The Table at the Back of the Coffee Shop" - short story


Up and about when all is quiet, Kevin puts on his sports clothes and running shoes and races through the park. It doesn’t matter if there is light rain, or if the temperature has dropped below freezing, the run invigorates him, sets him right for the day.

The early train is half empty, and Kevin takes his usual seat in the third car. He picks up the self-help book he is reading. As the train speeds toward the city, Kevin studies the daily habits of successful people.

Kevin emerges from the station and bounds across the street, steps ahead of a passing delivery truck. The barista at the all-night coffee shop greets him by name. He nods and takes his regular table toward the back. This is where he sits every morning, the natural lighting just right. His regular table. He powers up his laptop, and his espresso is ready moments later.

The barista—maybe her name is Nancy, he's not sure—once tried to engage Kevin in conversation, asking him why he worked in the coffee shop. Kevin gave her the briefest of replies, telling her he had long ago vowed to stay clear of office politics, and that he had a shaky internet connection at home.

What Kevin didn’t tell her was that he had recently been fired from his job at a brokerage firm. Insider trading, they said, but it wasn’t exactly true. He also didn’t tell the barista that he had just broken up with his girlfriend. She had yet to remove her things from the apartment they had shared. Getting into the city each day and working in the coffee shop—this was the escape he needed. This was his life now.

Kevin sits at his regular table and sips his coffee. He gets busying buying securities and stocks, then selling them later, hoping to turn a profit. For Kevin, the coffee shop is a welcome refuge when everything in his life has gone wrong. The relaxed ambience of the place makes him forget, temporarily, the loss of a job, and the girlfriend who walked out on him. Listening to mood music streaming through his AirPods, he filters out the surrounding noise and tunes out of his troubles. The morning's caffeine intake keeps him alert, keeps him on course. He reviews his positions and closes profitable deals where he can, hoping to come out ahead at the end of the market day.

On the train home, Kevin reads a chapter of his self-help book. When he arrives at his apartment, he sets his laptop on the table and skims through emails. A dinner of leftover Chinese takeout awaits him. He walks around the boxes left by his ex-girlfriend, opens a beer, and falls asleep while watching a streaming crime series.

Five days a week, Kevin travels to the city and sits at the coffee shop for a full day of day trading. Kevin wonders whether it's all worth it. No colleagues to work with, no girlfriend waiting for him when he returns home. There must be more to life than this.

It's Friday morning, the last day of the workweek. When Kevin arrives at the coffee shop, someone is sitting at his usual table. The table in the back, by the window. His table. A woman with her head down is typing on her laptop. Kevin looks around at the many available tables. He could sit anywhere, but this is where the natural lighting is best. The barista has a wry smile on her face as she prepares his espresso. Kevin turns to the woman.

“Excuse me. This is my table.”

The woman looks up, stares at Kevin, and then breaks into tears. He steps back, not understanding what he’s done to offend her. He raises his hands, surrendering the table, but doesn’t move away. He won't be able to get any work done sitting near a crying woman.

“Is something wrong?” He realizes how stupid this sounds because, obviously, something is very wrong.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

Review of 'Demon Copperhead' by Barbara Kingsolver

This week Barbara Kingsolver won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel Demon Copperhead. This week I finished reading Demon Copperhead. Just because a book wins the Pulitzer doesn't mean you'll enjoy it.

I have read Pulitzer Prize winners in the past and some of them I enjoyed immensely, such as Less by Andrew Sean Greer (2018 winner); All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2015); and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2014).

On the other hand, I considered The Overstory by Richard Powers (2019) to be seriously overrated, excessively long, and complicated by esoteric words that would baffle a Scrabble player.

What didn't I like about Demon Copperhead? The novel is described as a 'masterful recasting" of David Copperfield. Apologies to Charles Dickens—I didn't read that classic. In this case, I can't make any sort of comparison.

Demon Copperhead is the coming-of-age story of an Appalachian boy struggling with poverty and, as he grows up, opioid addiction. The Pulitzer Prize committee said that the protagonist Demon Copperhead has a "wise, unwavering voice" but I found that voice annoying. And longwinded. And often veering off course in an endless stream of consciousness that was difficult for me, as a reader, to endure.

Life is hard when you're going from one uncaring foster home to the next, it's true, but I kept wishing that Demon would get his act together. He never did.

Especially irritating to me was the language of the book. I'm sure that the author got it just right—this is the way Virginian rednecks speak and act—but I found the book too Appalachian for me, for lack of a better way to describe it.

The book is long and midway, I began to long for it to end. I'll leave it for the reader to determine whether it's a happy ending or not. Maybe the novel deserves the prestigious literary prize it won, but I won't be one of its readers recommending it.

Barbara Kingsolver is an American novelist, essayist and poet. She was raised in rural Kentucky and lived briefly in the Congo in her early childhood. Her widely known works include The Poisonwood Bible, the tale of a missionary family in the Congo, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a non-fiction account of her family's attempts to eat locally.

Related stories:

Review of "Less" by Andrew Sean Greer

Review of 'The Overstory' by Richard Powers 

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Review of 'Professor Schiff's Guilt' by Agur Schiff

The protagonist of this novel does not deny that his "grandfather's grandfather's grandfather was a slave trader". Professor Schiff admits this freely to the members of the Special Tribunal convened in a fictitious African nation to judge whether he is guilty under the newly legislated Law for Adjudicating Slave Traders and their Accomplices, Heirs, and Beneficiaries. Schiff is the "first person officially suspected of committing crimes" under this law. He has no doubts that the tribunal will maintain its judicial objectivity and trusts it to judge him fairly.

In the novel Professor Schiff's Guilt by Agur Schiff, translated by Jessica Cohen (New Vessel Press, May 2023), the 63-year-old professor first learns about this small African coastal country after reading a marginal item in a newspaper detailing the discovery of the remnants of a nineteenth-century merchant ship. The Esperanza was once owned by his ancestor, Klonimus Zelig Schiff. The professor saw in his family's connection to that ship and its role in the African slave trade, the subject of his next book.

But the professor's road to Africa began even before he read that newspaper article. When he fails to collect a debt from a dubious attorney at home in Tel Aviv, he is offered instead the services of Mrs. Lucile Tetteh-Ofosu, an African migrant worker, as a personal assistant. "Are you offering me a human being instead of the money you and your friends owe me?" he asks incredulously. Signing a legal document entitles Schiff to "make any use of Lucile as he shall deem desirable in his sole discretion," in effect making her his modern-day slave.

These two plotlines play out in parallel—the professor on trial for his slave-trading ancestor's misdeeds, and his fascination with the mysterious African woman who he employs to clean his house. The African official assigned to Schiff's case declares him a racist, claiming that his testimonies and writings show that he considers Africans to be inferior. Is the professor guilty of this charge, or is he honest in his claim that he loves the African nation, its people and its culture?

"You love us just as a master loves his slave," the investigator tells him.

This well-written and compelling satirical novel makes us question how our colonial ancestors related to the African continent and how Israelis today relate to the migrant workers we employ in minimum-wage menial jobs on the streets of Tel Aviv. In this, maybe we share the professor's guilt.

Agur Schiff has worked as a filmmaker, started writing fiction in the early 1990s, and has published two short story collections and six novels. Professor emeritus at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, he has been awarded the Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize.

Jessica Cohen translates contemporary Israeli prose, poetry, and other creative work. She shared the 2017 Man Booker International Prize with David Grossman, for her translation of A Horse Walks into a Bar, and has translated works by major Israeli writers, including Amos Oz, Etgar Keret, Ronit Matalon and Nir Baram.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Hiking in Israel: Nahal Prat (in pictures)

Nahal Prat, commonly known as Wadi Qelt, is a stream in a Judean Desert ravine not far from Jerusalem. The stream, with its spring and natural pools, is a popular destination not only for hikers, but also for families eager to cool off in the easily accessible pools. Especially picturesque is St. George Monastery, an active cliff-hanging complex inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks.

Less accessible, and certainly more challenging, is the central part of the stream. As part of a group of 16 hikers, I made the steep descent from Kfar Adumim (knowing that there would be a steep ascent at the end of our circuitous route). This area of the stream is wild, although the paths are well-marked and there are metal rungs set in the rocks in sections where the path was narrow or climbing was needed. At a few spots we needed to cross the stream, jumping carefully from rock to rock. And there was one pool for those willing to take the plunge.

While the weather was cool making our desert hike quite comfortable, at one point we were surprised by an unseasonable downpour. This made parts of the hike a bit dangerous, not because of the fear of flash floods but because the rocks were very slippery.

Climbing the hill back up to Kfar Adumim after a 7.5 kilometer hike, I looked down at the ravine and said to myself that I will gladly come back for another enjoyable hike in Nahal Prat.

Related stories: