“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…

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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

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“This Bitter Pill” by Frank Bill

For week 31 of the 2015 Deal Me In challenge, I drew the eight of diamonds, which I had assigned to the Frank Bill short story, “This Bitter Pill” from the Indy Writes Books anthology. Now in its fifth year, Deal Me In is an annual short story reading challenge (explained here). My list of stories I’m reading this year, with links to those I’ve posted about, may be found here.


The randomized order of my Deal Me In selections often produces eerie coincidences. For instance, just this week, in nearby Anderson, Indiana, police broke up a heroin ring of more than twenty(!) people. (News article may be found here if you’d like to be depressed) Heroin addiction and its consequences is the subject of Frank Bill’s short story, “This Bitter Pill,” originally published in Pank Magazine but also reprinted in the “Indy Writes Books” anthology, which I own a copy of.

“Tar Baby” is an eighteen year old mother of a newborn. She has a deadbeat boyfriend, “Patch Work,” a stuttering, “stillbrain” whose main attraction appears to be that he “scores good drugs.” She works at a low-paying convenience store job, and is, along with her boyfriend, a heroin addict. Tar Baby and Patch Wwork have gotten into debt to a despicable dealer, “Deuce,” using some of the money that friendly relatives have given them to help “the young couple out with the baby” as a down payment on a fix and promising the rest, thinking they’ll pay Deuce back  when Tar Baby gets her meager paycheck. Sadly, they discover that much of that money is needed for diapers and other baby-related expenses.

What to do? It seems one option is that Deuce is notorious for taking payment in flesh – usually in sadistic ways – from his delinquent female customers. This option hangs in the background throughout this short story as the young couple try to cope.

This was not a pleasant story, and I’m still a little perplexed at how it found its way into this anthology, the submissions for which were supposed to have “something to do with reading, writing, literacy, books, or bookstores.” I guess a stretch could be made that “illiteracy” might be assumed to be among the young couple’s shortcomings, though that isn’t explicitly stated. Illiteracy is rampant, in general, in the margins of society that these characters inhabit. In fact “margins” of society is a good choice of words here, as one of the problems that keeps people like this down is the fact that there is little or no margin for error in their lives. Just one setback or piece of bad luck (or more often a bad decision) can quickly derail any progress (or the hope of progress) being made to extricate themselves from the margin…

I continued to enjoy the author’s gritty and visceral writing style in this story (as I have in his previous works that I’ve read, “Coon Hunter’s Noir” and “Amphetamine Twitch“) I have one more story of his to go in this year’s Deal Me In, titled “What Once Was” and am looking forward to reading it.

Indy Writes Books is an anthology for sale by Indy Reads Books, with all proceeds going to support local adult literacy programs, an undeniably worthy cause which Bibliophilopolis is happy to support. If the Indy Writes Books anthology sounds like something you’d be interested in, please consider purchasing a copy. More info may be found at http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/

Up next for week 32 of Deal Me In 2015 (Also from Indy Writes Books): “Your Book: A Novel in Stories” by Cathy Day.

Below (from goodreads.com): author Frank Bill

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“Finding Eudora” a short story by Amy Sorrells

It’s week 18 of the 2015 edition of the Deal Me In short story reading challenge. I drew the ten of diamonds, the second ten in a row that I’ve drawn from my short story deck.  In 2015, I’ve reserved the diamonds suit for stories included in the local anthology, “Indy Writes Books” – A volume of which Bibliohilopolis is a proud “first edition sponsor.” 🙂 The local author contributors to this collection were asked to provide work that had “something to do with reading, writing, literacy, books, or bookstores.” This story, whose narrator is a librarian, certainly meets that criteria.

Zoe’s job at the “Whitcomb Street Library” (in an economically depressed part of town) was the only one she could find “with benefits” after a standout college career where she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Creative Writing. She’s become jaded about literature and a career in letters. She laments how Fifty Shades of Grey has a waiting list a mile long at her branch while the covers of books with quality literature remain shiny and new. She also wishes more kids came to the library. One kid who does, though, is Veronica Hyatt, a thin girl who’s reading through the library “A to Z,” checking out books in authors’ alphabetical order, ostensibly to read for her grandmother.

Veronica’s up to the “W”s when we meet her and is looking for something by Eudora Welty, who’s currently checked out to another patron (I guess at least some of them read actual literature!). Some time later, a family member of Veronica visits the library and inquires about Welty, saying “…we was looking for some of her short stories awhile ago, but they was checked out.” It is only then that Zoe learns the true story of the young girl and her “grandmother.”

A great short story, written in a kind of timeline format, with the the nice touch of the entry dates being listed as “Due Dates” as one would find in the back of an old library book. I’ll finish with a quotation from the story that comes after Zoe learns “The Rest of the Story” about Veronica.

“It struck Zoe then that it was in the knowing and getting to know, through the bumping together of words and lives that hope rises. The writer has little to do with it. The person who matters is the reader, turning the words until the heart spawns the fullness of their meaning. That was why she knew Walt Whitman. Not because she wrote a thesis on him, but because of the exquisite realization of the bones and the marrow in the bones he described.”

More about the Indy Writes Books anthology may be found at http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/

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What about you? What is your favorite story with a library setting among those you’ve read? Do you have any personal library stories you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them.

I’ve previously posted about a few other selections from this excellent anthology – linked below if you’d like to take a look:

Dan Wakefield’s Introduction “Corn, Limestone, Horseweed, and Writers”

“El Estocada” by John David Anderson and

“Anna’s Wings” by Angela Jackson-Brown

Below (from Wikipedia): Hoosier Literary Luminary James Whitcomb Riley – perhaps the inspiration for the Whitcomb Street Library name in the story… 🙂

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“Anna’s Wings” a short story by Angela Jackson-Brown

2015/02/img_54081.jpg(For week 8 of the Deal Me In 2015 short story reading challenge, I drew the queen of diamonds. In addition to being part of my short story reading challenge, this post is another “reading local” post for me. In 2015, I’m trying to increase my reading of local authors and/or books set in my home state of… Indiana.)

 

“I’m disappearing, Leo,” she had said once Leo got her settled in his car. “I’m not going to let you disappear, Anna,” he had said, stroking Anna’s damp hair. But if the truth be known, Anna was disappearing and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Little by little, piece by piece, segments of Anna’s personality were slipping away, like birds during the onset of winter. ”

“Anna’s Wings” is a gently poignant story about a man, Leo, and his wife, Anna, who is suffering from mental illness and in rapid decline. Maybe “fading fast” would be a better description, as it fits in with her notion of “disappearing” in the passage quoted above. However you decide to describe it, the horror of watching a loved one – or at least watching that part of a loved one that makes her unique – disappear is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Anna’s illness manifests itself in several ways: Forgetting where she is or where she is going, forgetting to pay for goods at the Winn-Dixie (fortunately Leo is the town sheriff and can make things right in the latter case), and a fascination with a family of ducks that has settled in a pond Leo and Anna’s property. Leo can find her “somewhere near the ducks” most days when he comes home. Since the ducks seem to make Anna happy, and since Leo fears the potential impact their flying away might have on her condition, he clips their wings as a pragmatic – if temporary – way to “treat” her symptoms. Anna’s not so far gone, however, as to not notice that the ducks never seem to fly any more and learns what Leo has done:

“How could you, Leo? How could you clip their wings?” she had cried hysterically, pounding her fists against his chest. “I didn’t want them to fly away from you Anna,” Leo had said to her, as he’d tried to pull her close to him, but she jerked away. “What about me, Leo? Is that what you’ll do to me?” she exclaimed, her eyes shining brightly with tears. “When it’s my time to fly away, will you clip my wings too? Will you? Will you, Leo.”

Will he? You’ll have to read the story to find out…

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Above: American Wigeons (the ducks featured in this story) – picture from website (with more info about them if you’re interested) http://www.birdsasart.com/bn188.htm

I own this story as part of the Indy Writes Books anthology (order online at http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/ ) – a local project of which Bibliophilopolis is happily a “first edition sponsor.”

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(For my Deal Me In 2015 short story reading challenge, I’ve reserved my diamonds suit for the short stories included in this volume, but it also includes poems and non-fiction pieces and even a puzzle or two. My complete list of stories I’ll be reading for Deal Me In this year is here. Many other bloggers are doing a form of the Deal Me In challenge this year, and links to participants’ blog’s may be found on my sidebar.)

 

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The above picture (taken by me, thus explaining the poor focus and quality) is of the author reading from this story at the book’s launch party at the Indy Reads Books bookstore in downtown Indy last fall. Angela Jackson-Brown teaches English at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. She also writes an excellent blog which may be found at http://www.angelajacksonbrown.com/

“El Estocada” by John David Anderson

For week 2 of The 2015 Deal Me In short story reading challenge, I drew the five of diamonds. (An explanation of the challenge may be found here. You can also check out my complete list of stories I’ll be reading in 2015 if you’re interested.) 2015/01/img_39191.jpg

El Estocada

We see it all the time in sports. The relentless questions posed to aging superstars on ’the wrong side of thirty’ – “Have you lost a step?” “Do you still have enough arm strength to make ’all the throws?’”, etc. Having these reporters nipping at one’s heels must be incredibly exasperating, and if sports superstars fall victim to them surely superHEROES would face the same challenge. Such is the case for The Sentinel, a past his prime superhero guardian of the city where this story is set.

2015/01/img_5336.pngWe meet him in a bookstore, where he is enjoying some quiet moments just “perusing” – an activity in stark contrast to his normal, superheroic duties. Though enjoying some down time, he is troubled by a recent encounter with a reporter who suggests that The Sentinel ‘allowed’ an old couple to die during an attack of an arch-villain. When The Sentinel points out that he had saved a school bus full of children instead of the elder victims, and that he had to make a choice, the reporter suggests that, in his younger days, The Sentinel was fast enough to have saved both of them. This earned the reporter a broken and bloody nose, something The Sentinel regrets. Just a little, though.

The action in this story takes place mainly in the bookstore when The Sentinel spots a young woman sitting in the store reading the newspaper. He is immediately attracted to her: “She wore a magenta dress with gold swirls embroidered into the hem, the straps revealing sharp shoulders and toned arms. Her hair reminded him of tree bark, with its layers and undulations, its palpable topography. He wondered what it smelled like.” Not exactly a conventional description – tree bark(!) – but who am I to guess what a superhero’s thoughts would be like. The Sentinel’s encounter – and its aftermath – with the woman completes the story in a way I found quite satisfying.

I was also curious about the meaning of the title so I had to ’research’ it before reading. I’m no expert on bullfighting (what little I know is from Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and from following the big annual international chess tournament that used to be held in Linares, Spain) but the term “estocada” refers to the final thrust of the sword of a matador which kills the bull. This title is quite appropriate for the story in multiple ways, including a bit of a surprise ending…

(below: the legendary bullfighter, Manolete)

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I recommend this story and the antholology “Indy Writes Books” that includes it. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, it may be purchased at Indy Reads Books bookstore in downtown Indianapolis or online. Worth noting is that all proceeds from the sale of the anthology go to support adult literacy programs in Central Indiana. (Oh, and “full objectivity disclosure”: Bibliophilopolis is also a “First Edition Sponsor” of this book 🙂 )

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Week 1 of Deal Me In 2015

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(I drew the two of diamonds. I love this card (from the Bicycle “Club Tattoo” deck) – kind of a Chinese-flavored, one-headed Cerberus(!) with one paw on a “basketball” – like any good Hoosier mythological creature!)

For me, this year’s annual Deal Me In project has been my most anticipated yet. Throughout 2014, I would often think, “I need to put that (author or story) in my 2015 DMI roster,” or “That would be a great idea for a suit for my next DMI,” etc. The reason for my heightened anticipation seems clear: the interaction with the other bloggers who participated in DMI 2014 opened many doors to new authors and new stories AND new ideas for DMI. For this I am thankful.

It was with this irresistible anticipation, then, that I thought, “Hey, I should draw my first card for 2015 at the stroke of midnight On New Year’s Eve!” I even had a new deck of cards (the way cool “club tattoo” deck from Bicycle) that I was going use for the project. So I settled in to do a little reading about ten p.m. on Wednesday (I celebrate New Year’s Eve in the afternoon – much safer)… Of course, the next thing I remember is waking up about 1:45 a.m. 🙂

So, I drew my card on Thursday morning and was crestfallen when it turned out to be the two of diamonds – a wild card. All this planning of titles and authors I had done in advance, and here right off the bat I had to come up with a wild card story!? I hate drawing a wild card so early. It’s like hitting the daily double on Jeopardy! with your first selection. Serenity now! What was “worse” was that it was the two of diamonds. Diamonds is the suit I’d assigned to stories from the Indy Writes Books anthology and, traditionally, I try to keep my wild cards in the theme of the suit. Problem was, there are twelve – and only twelve – short stories included In that book. Sure, there are other pieces of non-fiction and poetry included, but was that really how I wanted to start my “short story” year? (Drawing a different card, of course, was out of the question. Fate had already spoken.)

Then, scanning the other pieces in the anthology, a logical choice soon became clear. I should read Dan Wakefield’s introduction in the book – an introduction focusing on the great tradition and literary history of Indiana writers. So my wild card is Wakefield’s essay/introduction “Corn, Limestone, Horseweed and Writers”

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I’m familiar with Wakefield from his novel “Going All the Way” and his being a sometimes visitor to the Vonnegut Library book club weetings, where at one of which we discussed his recently published volume of of Vonnegut’s letters. He has also been referred to as the “patron saint” of the Indy Reads Books bookstore in downtown Indy, having – until recently – lived just a few blocks down the street. (In 2014, I also began participating in a book club that meets at that location.)

Shortly into reading the introduction, which tells of a ‘golden age’ of Indiana literature, I encountered the following pronouncement:

“Here is my hot news: ‘The Golden Age of indiana Literature’ never ended, and is still in full swing.” – Dan Wakefield

This sentence is certainly welcome news to me, with my intent to “read local” as much as possible in 2015. My initial, knee-jerk skepticism, however, made me think, “well, I’m sure many other states or locales think they’re in a golden age too,” but Wakefield presents rather convincing evidence of Indiana’s ’literary might’ and by the end had me convinced how lucky I am to be living and reading (and blogging?) in such a literary state.

He mentions the Lew Wallace novel, “Ben-Hur” (perhaps you’ve seen the movie, but did you know that – after The Bible and Uncle Tom’s Cabin – it outsold every other book from 1880 to 1936? ’36 was, not coincidentally, the year Gone With the Wind was published) which I already had on my 2015 reading list, but I also gleaned a few other titles to add to my ‘read local’ books for the coming year:

An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser)
Ernie Pyle in England (Ernie Pyle)
Magnificent Obsession (Lloyd C. Douglas) or The Robe (same author)
Girl of the Limberlost (Gene Stratton Porter)
An Abundance of Katherines (John Green)
Alice Adams (Booth Tarkington)

So… an unexpectedly “educational” start for my 2015 Deal Me In project. What short story or stories did YOU read this week?

If you’d like to read this introduction – and the rest of the book of course! – it’s available for purchase at Indy Reads Books in downtown Indianapolis, or you can order online if you’re one of the unfortunates who doesn’t live in central Indiana. 🙂 See http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/ for details.

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