“Between the Lines” – a short story by Ben Winters

Read for:  Week 40 of the 2015 Deal Me In Challenge

Card Drawn: Ace of Diamonds

My Source for the story:  The “Indy Writes Books” anthology

My other experience with this author:  His short story “Man on the Monon” and his book “The Last Policeman

This story is the lead-off hitter in the Indy Writes Books anthology that was published late last year. It’s a kind of Gift of the Magi meets a Steve Jobs Product Launch meets the Twilight Zone. Well, Gift of the Magi may not be totally appropriate, although like that story the twist of this one is the result of only the best intentions. Experienced readers know, however, that good intentions are not necessarily an effective vaccine against protagonist woe…

IndyReads-Covers5

We’ve become an increasingly a gadget-addicted society in the past decade or two. Things are speeding up too, as new products are coming at a fast and furious pace. Winters highlights this trend with the very first sentence of the story: “When the company announced that they would be making an announcement, everybody flipped out.” Sound familiar? Speculation follows about what the new gadget might be this time. When the announcement finally comes we learn that the new device is one “that allowed human beings to enter into works of fiction.” The name of the device appropriately gives this story its title.
Of course, for consumers, buying a “Between the Lines” device is not where it ends. To use the device, you also need to buy an “OpenBook” to insert into the device. Neither are cheap in the imagined (probably not too distant) future of the story. In spite of the expense, the Sutters – a simple wage-earning couple (not poor, but one that can’t often afford luxuries) have a daughter Caitlin who has always loved to read and who is also approaching her twelfth birthday so they decide to buy her one… Let the scrimping and saving begin! Mr. Sutter begins walking to work instead of buying a “transit card” meals are skipped at the office, purchases of new clothes are put on hold and finally the day comes when he arrives at the “Wolcott & Lombe” bookstore armed with more than enough to buy a Between the Lines and an OpenBook to go with it (he had over-saved in fear of an unexpected price increase). The OpenBook they’ve decided to purchase for Caitlyn is none other than “Alice in Wonderland.” How sweet.

Like any good parent, Mr. Sutter is concerned whether or not there are safety issues with such a device. “Is there any danger?” he asks. The salesperson gives him a well-rehearsed reply that he’s likely given thousands of time since the product came out. “There is no danger in any of these books, sir. That’s the whole point. You go into the book and you experience the book, but you can’t change the story, and the story can’t change you. But the memories? The memories last a lifetime.”

The last sentence there provides a bit of foreshadowing for the direction the story goes. Mr. Sutter decides to use his excess of saved cash to buy a second OpenBook for him and his wife to enjoy and excitedly heads home with his purchases. I’m afraid I have to stop here since I don’t want to have to write “MAJOR spoiler alert” preceding this post.

I liked the story a lot, particularly how effectively Winters captures the essence of our gadget obsessed culture. There’s also a section where he discusses the early days of Between the Lines’ release – which OpenBooks are most popular and with what demographics, and also about how, for a time anyway, the Between the Lines phenomenon leads to a resurgence in the bookstore business. He even notes that some authors “righteously opted out of the licensing deals” noting that there would be no OpenBook edition of “The Corrections” at Jonathan Franzen’s “irritated insistence.” (heh heh. Well played, Mr. Winters)
If you’d like to read this story – and the others in this fine anthology – you may purchase a copy at Indy Reads Books bookstore in downtown Indianapolis. Proceeds from its sales go to support local literacy initiatives, so it’s a win-win purchase for you.:-) You can also find info at http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/

I’ve posted about several of the other stories from this book as part of my annual Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge. Links to some of my favorites are below.

Your Book: A Novel in Stories – Cathy Day

Small Planes, Flying Low – Victoria Barrett

El Estocada – John David Anderson

Finding Eudora – Amy Sorrells

Anna’s Wings – Angela Jackson- Brown

(“Picture if you will… a hard-working young couple saves their money to buy their daughter a new OpenBook device that allows her to step into a beloved novel – or perhaps maybe… intoThe Twilight Zone…”)

Ace of Diamonds image used for this post found here

Advertisements

Top Ten Tuesday – 10 Favorite “New to Me” Authors of 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish blog. Pay them a visit, or check out everybody’s lists at the home post for this week.

20140901-105307.jpg

Top Ten New to me Authors in 2014:

This is one of my favorite topics of the year. One of the best benefits of participating in the book blogging community is learning of new authors from your fellow bloggers. I’m happy to say that my reading the past five years has been greatly enriched by the addition of many authors who I only learned of through my fellow book bloggers. I heartily thank you all, and today I’ll share some of my favorite new-to-me authors of the year. The following are in a rough ascending order with my favorite being number 1…

20141116-082601.jpg

 

  1. Katherine Vaz – I’ve been reading through her collection of short stories, “Fado and Other Stories” this year and have just been blown away. I’ve posted about a couple of her stories, “Undressing the Vanity Dolls” and “Fado” if you’d like to hear more about her.
  2. Ernesto Sabato – His book, “The Tunnel,” was recommended to me by a co-worker. It was great! I even recommended it for the book club at Indy Reads Books when they were looking for a ‘short’ book before reading a longer one (I think the longer one was Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” – HE didn’t make this list) and they liked it too.
  3. Ralph Ellison – One of those “I’m embarrassed that I’ve never read” books for me has always been Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” Fortunately, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club read it for Banned Books Month in September. Very deep and often brilliant.
  4. Jess Walter – Wow. His collection of short stories “We Live in Water” blew me away a couple months ago. It looks like another local book discussion group will also be reading his novel Beautiful Ruins next year, which I’m looking forward to. Top that off with an Indy visit by this author for “Vonnegut Fest” in November, and he’s certainly become one of my favorite new-to-me authors.
  5. Ben Winters – I read a couple short stories of his, then his Edgar Award-winning novel “The Last Policeman” as preparation for a launch party for the final book in that same trilogy. Met him in person at that event and have subsequently read another great short story of his (“Between the Lines”) in the hot-off-the-presses anthology of local writers, “Indy Writes Books”
  6. Roxane Gay – Her story “North Country” has been one of my favorites from my 2014 Deal Me In short story project. I read a couple others by her since – and have one on my radar for next year – and was looking forward to a scheduled visit of hers to the local Vonnegut Library, but it was unfortunately cancelled due to health reasons.
  7. Leonid AndreevHis story “Lazarus” may be my favorite short story read of the year. I had never even heard of this author before I made “stories by Russian writers” a suit in my annual Deal Me In challenge
  8. Ken Liu – I enjoyed his sci-fi flavored story “What I Assume You Shall Assume” in the “Weird Western” anthology “Dead Man’s Hand” which I completed recently. He’s an author I definitely want to explore further. I need to write a blog post about that anthology too. It was a lot of fun. 🙂
  9. Martin Amis – I just finished reading his book, “Time’s Arrow” and hope to write a blog post about it soon. Very enjoyable fresh narrative perspective – a novel written in reverse time. Now that’s ambitious.
  10. Salman Rushdie – I’d never read him until I read the exceptional short story “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella Consummate their Relationship” earlier this year. Of course I knew of him because of the infamous “fatwah” from back in the day, but this is the first I’ve read of him. I received some recommendations from others for subsequent reading which I hope to follow up on..

Okay, so those are ten of my favorite “New to Me” authors in 2014. Now I want to know who YOURS are… 🙂

tunnel

“I’ll Get You Your Asteroid!” Ben Winters’ “Last Policeman” Series.

20141014-112232.jpg

Before I started blogging about books and literature, I never used to go to “book events,” but now it seems like I’m going to them “all the time.” 🙂 Almost all the ones I’ve been to have been enjoyable too, and I always think, “I need to write a blog post about this!” but rarely do. So I have a backlog of four or five book events that I’m going to try to catch up with, even if some of them took place quite awhile ago now. So here goes (Part I of) nothing.

If you were following the news in early September, you may have heard about the “near miss” (in astronomical terms, at least) of asteroid “2014 RC.”

20141014-112107.jpg

Also, a bit further back (in July), a local bookstore, Indy Reads Books (see link at left under “local interest”), hosted a kind of “launch party” for author Ben Winters on the release of the final volume of his “Last Policeman” series. What’s the connection? Well, for those who don’t already know, Winters’ trilogy is set in a world facing an imminent and catastrophic asteroid impact.

(below: Travis DiNicola, Executive Director of Indy Reads, introduces Winters, who waits in the wings with his family)

20141014-113745.jpg

I read the first book of the trilogy (“The Last Policeman”) in preparation for this event and, though not a frequent reader of detective novels, did enjoy this one, mainly because of the premise and setting. Think about it, how would the people of the world react in such a situation? (and – perhaps more importantly – how would you?) I suspect civilization would break down much faster than it does in The Last Policeman, but maybe that comes later as I progress through the next two books. We’ll see.

Winters gave an entertaining talk, including rendering some Bon Dylan tunes on a … ukulele(!). Dylan is a favorite of the series’ lead character, Hank Palace. In fact, we learned from Winters that he wanted to title the book “Slow Train Coming” (or maybe just “Slow Train” – I cant remember) from the Dylan song…

“And there’s a slow,
Slow train comin’
Up around the bend…”

…which does seem appropriate based on the book’s premise, but – as I’ve learned at other author events – publishers usually win the arguments regarding a book’s title.

(Below: a ukulele-wielding Winters entertains us as an adoring daughter looks on…)

20141014-113721.jpg

Anyway, Winters also challenged us with a few trivia questions about the series, with some token prizes of false mustaches (in honor of the third book’s cover erroneously picturing Palace WITHOUT a mustache) in addition to a grand prize of all three books in the series (signed by the author) to one lucky winner. With the novel fresh in my mind, I was fortunate enough to win one of the mustaches. 🙂 Thankfully the monetary value of such a prize does not compromise my amateur status in the trivia world.

Below: my “prize” – the bandit mustache – which I later tried on…

20141014-113752.jpg

…though it made me look nothing like one of the famous bandits of cinema, from the classic film Treasure of the Sierra Madre

20141014-112157.jpg

<ahem> Getting back to the book, the novel starts out with Palace investigating a “suspicious” suicide. Even though suicides have become quite common in the world depicted in this pre-apocalyptic novel (can I coin that term here, by the way, or is it already taken?), there’s something about this one that doesn’t quite smell right, and that’s enough to start another, investigative slow train rolling, which gains momentum throughout the first book. In a nice touch, the start of the different sections of the book are illustrated with a depiction of the asteroid’s progress, with data that, though Greek to me and probably most readers, Winters explained as “basically GPS coordinates for outer space.”

20141014-112046.jpg

Winters shared some interesting anecdotes and inside info on the book and series’ progress, and my favorite was the story of his research to see if an asteroid with the timing characteristics as he describes in the book was scientifically feasible. He related a visit with Tim Spahr at Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics  (Winters is a former resident of New England) where Spahr was intrigued by the novel’s premise, and though it appeared a “normal” NEO (near earth object) wouldn’t necessarily fit the specifications, after some puzzling assured the author that “I’ll get you your asteroid!” I love it!

Have you read or heard of The Last Policeman series? (It won a 2013 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original) I have posted about a short story by Winters once before “The Man on the Monon (If You Believe)”  and have also enjoyed another of his short stories, “The Old Slow Man and His Gun From Outer Space” in an anthology of “Weird Western” stories, “Dead Man’s Hand.”

Below: Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics

20141014-112143.jpg

(Below: The great 1950’s film “On the Beach,” based on Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name was one inspiration for this series. It also takes place in a world where “the clock is ticking” with time running out as a radioactive cloud slowly approaches a – to this point anyway – unaffected Australia – another “slow train comin'”)

20141014-112211.jpg