Thursday, November 05, 2009

Walmart and John Grisham's Ford County

Call it due diligence...Okay, my work is close to a Walmart so I went there on my lunch hour. I got into the mood by getting a quarter pounder from the in store McDonald's, read a copy of US Magazine to find out why the Bachelor dumped Melissa Rycroft, then went to find Ford County, John Grisham's short story collection 16.99. The store was pretty busy, but I was the only person in the book section there.

It was in a shelf marked best sellers which was dominated by a huge quantity of copies of Twilight and its sequels (there were so many I thought the display itself was painted black and I suppose this supports my theories that Walmart really is a big box take on Vampirism). I did not, however find a collection of short stories by Stephanie Meyer. In terms of number of copies stocked, the Grisham was second to Twilight.

Ford County was directly in between a book by Danielle Steel and one by Nicholas Sparks. On the far right of the display, they had a book by Glenn Beck. On the far left, they had a book by Rush Limbaugh (just kidding about the Rush, there was no book from anyone left of Glenn Beck there). I live in the middle of Northern California btw where teabagging remains something you mix either with hot water or with another consenting adult so it was surprising to see the Beck book there as the lone political tome on the shelf.

Ford County was on the only book of short stories on the bestseller display. I did later find a copy of Olive Kitteredge on a distant bottom shelf sitting next to a single copy of Angela's Ashes. There were also multiple copies of Tuesdays with Mori and Mitch Ablom's complete opus of inspirational writing on a high shelf. Interestingly, no Harry Potter. My last visit to the book section of Wal Mart was all Harry Potter. btw I'm a big Harry Potter fan,even to the point that I would probably buy and read a JK Rowling literary novel.

No, I didn't read the whole book or even all of a story (that would be wrong). I did read the first pages of most of the seven stories, skimmed a bit, and checked the endings of the 7 stories. The stories are all really long, actually too long to be posted here even on novellas. While this isn't completely fair, I'm told that standard slushpile practice is to read the first page then make a quick decision.

I'd forgotten that Grisham is a wonderfully clear writer. You know where you are, what he's talking about, and you don't trip over any sentences, all with a minimum of effort. I think that serves him well in his thrillers. My one venture into a regular Grisham book, it struck me that he wasn't necessarily great at setting mood, evoking place, or finding imaginative ways to describe things (he's no Michael Chabon that way). Not a lot of metaphor, imagery, symbolism, etc. Anyway, this virtue also is something of a handicap to me because it leads to a sort of flatness of tone and the impression the insights aren't all that deep either. That may just be me, I notice that writers who see detail, make the language sing, and know how to cast shadows with their description and bring out ambiguities also often have deeper insights.

He tosses in some Southern Grotesque, on page one he tells us that someone's mom is 400 pounds (that one may be American normal or at least fast food normal these days vs. Flannery O'connor grotesque though) and there are similar details about the good old boy protagonists who wind up at a strip club instead of donating blood for their friend.

I don't think it was length alone that kept these stories out of the New Yorker. They may, however, be perfectly enjoyable stories. I'd have to read them all the way through to know that. There's definitely more to a story than style and voice and those things might be in those stories. Still, when I think Ford and short stories, I'll probably think of Richard rather than Ford County.

That said, I'd love to get my own book into Walmart someday. My guess is they sell a lot of books.


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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Second Chancelucky in Line

I’ve been reading a lot of Haruki Murakami lately and enjoying it. I’m also worried that it’s starting to affect my regular life. As I’ve mentioned, I write fiction some times when I’m not blogging. Judging from the last few months, I must have been writing a lot of fiction :}. I certainly haven’t been blogging.

Anyway, a couple months ago I was looking to see what the deadline for the University of Iowa’s Short Story Collection competition happened to be this year. I’d entered the year before, but I knew that I didn’t have much of a chance. I used the competition more as an opportunity to put together something that looked like a collection than a serious run at winning it. I opened the web page and much to my shock the winner was Kathryn Ma, someone I actually knew. As it happens, Kathryn went to both the same college and graduate school that I did. We weren’t good friends, but we certainly knew one another. She’s a terrific writer and very deserving. One of the shocks was that I had no idea that she wrote at all. I later learned that she didn’t start until she was 40.

Had someone told me that the winner of the Iowa contest would be a Chinese-American writer who set stories in Northern California and the same writer had gone to school x and school y at such and such a time, I would have started celebrating. Certainly, that could only have been me. Slightly less odd, the judge for the contest was Curtis Sittenfeld (American Wife) who went to the same high school I did and attended the same college that Kathryn and I went to though ten years later. After the publication (part of the prize) of All That Work and Still No Boys (Kathryn’s collection), I sent her an e-mail through Facebook and decided to go to one of her readings in Berkeley. I’ve been to any number of readings by authors, but I don’t know that I’d ever seen anyone who had prepared quite as well as Kathryn. She thanked the owners of Mrs. Dalloway’s , the bookstore/garden supply store hosting the reading, delivered a brief-engaging talk about her history as a fiction writer, read a selection from the book that she timed out at exactly 8 minutes (I assume that’s an ideal length somehow), and answered questions with poise and charm for the 30 or so people there.

I bought a copy of her book then got in line to have her sign it. After a minute of standing in line, a younger Asian man inadvertently stepped in front of me. Eventually, he turned around and I think it dawned on me that he’d cut in front of me and he offered to switch places. I told him not to worry about it. We waited our turn, then he came up to Kathryn and she said, “Who do I make this out to?”

The guy says “Sign it to Chants Lucky.”

My eyes-widened and I imagined the books flying off the shelves and rearranging in odd patterns.

Kathryn says, “Oh, you’re Chants Lucky. Thanks for your e-mail.”

“The guy finishes his visit and turns to leave, but I get to say, “Is your name really Chance Lucky?”

He nods then takes off.

My turn comes up and I tell Kathryn, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m Chancelucky. You know we went to X and Y together.”

Kathryn smiles and acts like this happens a lot. We catch up a bit in the way that 2 people who barely remember one another might. She signs my book and says, “Ah yes, Chance Lucky with two C’s right?”

I compliment her on her memory (it does make me feel a bit better, end the visit since there are several people behind me in line several of whom may also have names Chants Lucky, Ciance Lucky, Chans Lucky, Chentz Lucky.

As my friend and I left the bookstore, it occurred to me that I should have stopped Chants Lucky to get his story. I would then have learned a bit more about alternate universes etc. and maybe gotten published in some journal of theoretical physics for Star Trek fans who also read Murakami. I didn’t. Maybe,I was afraid of the possible anti-matter matter explosion from a Chance encounter of this kind.

Instead, maybe I'm fated to stay the second Chance Lucky waiting in line to talk to Kathryn Ma. It may be all that's holding the cosmos as we know it in place.

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