Nine Inches – short stories

9781250034700_p0_v2_s260x420Short stories are on my radar – with Alice Munro winning the Nobel for her short stories and Sarah Hall’s story winning the BBC short story award for her tale of a woman turning into a fox ( a story I have yet to find anywhere in print but the BBC reading was enticing).  Tom Perrotta’s Nine Inches on my Kindle was a funny, irreverent collection that had me laughing, crying, musing, and reflecting on my own experiences.  With the same quirky perspective he gave to people in crisis in The Leftovers, Perrotta changes ordinary events into devastating moments.

Each of the ten short stories focuses on a dreary middle-class suburbanite facing inner turmoil for an irretrievable life mistake, and emerging changed through events that could happen anywhere to anyone.  The only problem – each story has a depressing, nevertheless realistic, ending.  After reading the first six, I stopped.

The title refers to middle school teachers using a piece of nine-inch tape to measure and enforce safe space between students who are slow dancing, with the focus on one teacher who reminisces on his lost chances.  “Senior Season” targets a football player who suffers a head injury that keeps him from playing; “Grade My Teacher” focuses on a teacher obsessed with her online evaluations and ranking; “Kiddie Pool” has a man discovering his wife’s infidelity when he sneaks into his dead neighbor’s garage to use his pump to inflate a pool for his grandchildren; “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” – the most enjoyable of the lot – targets the rivalry between coaches of a Little League game with a talented young girl as the pitcher.

Good stories…well written…maybe I’ll go back to read the rest later.

Kate Atkinson

9780316176484_p0_v9_s260x420Although I had Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog on my to-read list, my good intentions went astray and I never did read that book. Now she has a new novel, Life After Life, and the theme seems vaguely familiar: the main character relives a segment of her life over and over, never realizing she has been there before.

An interesting conceit that has been used before, so I preordered the book, and it now sits on my Kindle. But – not until I read Sarah Lyall’s interview of the author in her New York Times article Kate Atkinson’s Groundhog Day Fiction – “Three Beginnings, Reverse Chronology and a Novel That Starts Over in Every Chapter,” did I want to read the book. Lyall connects the author to her writing, uncovering some of those moments the reader always wonders about – where is the connection of fiction to the author’s life? As an intensely private person, Atkinson carefully reveals only a sampling of her thoughts behind the writing, but it is enough.

The best sales pitch for reading came in the last paragraph of the interview, when Atkinson notes:

“The legacy of the fairy story in my brain is that everything will work out…In fiction it would be very hard for me, as a writer, to give a bad ending to a good character, or give a good ending to a bad character. That’s probably not a very postmodern thing to say.”

Maybe not, but my kind of book…

Sacré Bleu – A Comedy D’Art

Although I had started reading Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu on my Kindle as I flew West, I stopped abruptly when my good friend told me her real book had the pictures in color. Mine were all in gray. Now with the book in hand, I can see I made the right decision. Not only does Moore sprinkle the narrative with great art from Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, and many others, the cover is blue, and if you look carefully, the print is too.

At first, Moore’s typically irreverent approach seems tame compared to some of his other books. This story opens with the death of Van Gogh, and creates a mystery around his death; was it suicide or murder?

“Who tries to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest, then walks a mile to seek medical attention?”

But soon Moore introduces a few notes to let you know he has more than an investigation in mind: a mysterious crooked man in a bowler hat who mixes colors; a strange source for the cerulean blue powder used for the precious ultramarine pigment; time travel that gives participants amnesia; and his usual mix of crazy happenings. As promised, the color blue affects all the action – along with Moore’s trademark other-worldly fantasy mayhem.

Claude Monet

In Moore’s story you are invited into the world of Lucien Lessard, a French baker aspiring to be a great artist like his famous nineteenth century customers. (Lucien seemed so real, I found myself looking for his name among the Impressionists.)  Juliette is his beautiful model who seems to have an affinity for artists and the unusual capacity to put them under her spell while posing nude.  

As she travels through history with the Colorman, she leaves a wake of inspired paintings and a few painters with syphilis.  Her influence is not restricted to portraiture; Turner’s light and Monet’s railcars in steam are products of her Muse. Look for the blue.

J.M.W. Turner

Moore’s use of famous paintings as the focus for the plot reminded me of Steve Martin’s rendition of the dark and shady side of art in his last book – An Object of Beauty – but Moore’s Sacré Bleu resembles more of a Grimm’s fractured fairy tale version of art history.  In his “Afterward: So, Now You’ve Ruined Art,” Moore acknowledges his historical sources – some he ignored or changed for the sake of the story, but if you are a fan of Moore’s imaginative mix of fast-moving plots with crazy yet witty characters (Fluke is one of my favorites), you expect him to be bawdy, funny, and weird.  If you are a lover of great art, be prepared to never look at a painting again without thinking of Moore’s explanations for their inspiration.

Always entertaining, Moore has produced another gem in his collection of fantastic tales.   But be sure to read this one with the blue pages in your hands.

Related ReviewSteve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty

I Just Read My First Library Book on a Kindle

With the promise of being able to download a library book, I asked Santa for the new Kindle (cheap version, not the Fire) and he delivered early – before an overnight flight to Germany.   Like many libraries, the Hawaii State System recently connected to Amazon to offer free downloads of their electronic books.  Unfortunately, the system had a long wait list for most books, and clicking on the “books ready to read” offered slim pickings – My Father’s Tears by John Updike or Christina Dodd’s Move Heaven and Earth.

The plane ride was bumpy and a movie I had missed – Martin Sheen in The Way – offered a pleasant distraction (beautiful scenery and worth renting if you haven’t yet seen it), but I managed to read through Dodd’s medieval romance – an easy formula read with the swashbuckling hero and the intelligent yet beautiful maiden.  Since Dodd’s Move Heaven and Earth was like following a Middle Ages soap opera, the book was a good primer for learning the assorted buttons on the Kindle.  If I pressed the forward button too long and skipped a chapter or two, I really didn’t miss anything.

Amazon’s marketing was successful; I’ve now purchased a few books for my Kindle.  The convenience of a thin pocket-sized contraption that can hold thick books and pages of story is hard to pass up – especially if you are trying to carry on luggage.  But, I did bring a few actual books along (just in case), and bought another in the Heathrow terminal en route.  The Kindle is nice, but turning pages is still better than pressing an arrow.

What’s On Your Bookshelf?

When I came across the ocean without my books and the shelves sat bare until the slow boat carrying them could catch up, anyone who came into my office would think I did not read.  After a few weeks, a few new books spread scattered on a lonely shelf; it would be impossible not to keep getting books, but those that I had kept for many years were not there – and I missed them.  When they finally arrived, I closed the door and got reacquainted – smoothing their covers, rereading the inscriptions, opening to worn bookmarked pages with passages I wanted to remember.

With the shelves stacked high with a wall of books, the room was warmer and friendlier. Now when anyone came in, they went to the shelves first to see what I read – sometimes, a familiar book started a conversation or a connection.

A room without books is like a body without a soul………..Cicero

Bruce Feiler tries to snoop on his friend’s bookshelf in his article for the New York Times, Snooping in the Age of eBook, surreptitiously trying to discover what his friend is like through what she likes to read. With electronic books replacing print on paper, snooping is not so easy – books are not on display but hidden inside a Kindle, Nook, or iPad.    Reading Feiler’s article reminded me of the room that had no books for a while.

That room is gone now, and many of the books have been given away or donated to the library, but some remain in a smaller room on shorter shelves.  If you could see them, you’d know that I keep them to remind me of who I am, what I dream, where I’ve been, and why I read.  And, if you could snoop there, you’d know a little more about me.