Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Not So Short Story: Sherman Alexie and His Ultra Pale Face F, by Edward Booker..

Back in my day, I didn't have to walk in the snow, but the Internet did function on dial up and AOL chat rooms ruled the day (yes...I frequented a room called the Book Shelf which the author Thom Jones also appeared in from time to time).   I lived in Little Rock and a bookstore's website was having an online "chat" with an author I had recently started reading and loved, Sherman Alexie.   As people submitted questions, one person typed a question which was basically trying to show how smart he was.  Whether it is an in person book signing or in this case, online,  the author is smart, everyone attending is smart, but ultimately, attendees are there for one reason, to listen to the author, not to a random know-it-all in the crowd.  However, in this case, the questioner typed a word which caused me to ask my wife, "Is that even a word?"  She read it and agreed that even though it was a ten dollar word,  it was not the right word.  While we thought this to ourselves and would never say something, Sherman Alexie in essence typed,  I'm not sure what word you think you are looking for and proceeded to give a hysterical response.  My wife and I LOLed before LOL was en vogue.   It was a great experience.

To give you an idea, during high school I became fascinated by bookstores.   I read about Prairie Lights and That Bookstore in Blytheville, Powell's and Tattered Cover.  After relocating to Denver, I was fortunate enough to start working for Tattered Cover which is known for hosting author signings.  In 2000, Sherman Alexie came to the iconic store located, at that time, in the Cherry Creek shopping district.   For a number of years when tourists were surveyed, the second most popular destination spot in Colorado outside of the mountains was the Cherry Creek shopping district.  While the Lower Downtown store (LoDo) has a committed event space, one of the unique features about a signing at Cherry Creek was it took place in the public area while the bookstore was open to the regular shoppers.  This added to the experience of listening to an author while customers and booksellers wandered in and around the stacks, a living, breathing organism while the event itself, is frozen as a moment in time. 

The signing was for The Toughest Indian in the World and from the time he was introduced, he was making fun of anyone, anything, and anybody.  At the time, there was a popular book about Native Americans that had been written by a white guy and he refused to continue to speak until one of the customers stood up and turned all the book covers backwards where he couldn't see it.  At one point, he made some off color joke and a woman stood up and left (it necessarily made a scene because it was standing room only).  He stopped momentarily to ask her friends if she was OK because all of his remarks were in jest. They assured him that she was always a drama queen.   He continued to make us laugh as much as any standup comedian.  I laughed until my sides hurt.

A number of years later, I had been sent to the American Library Association conference in Chicago to speak about Playaways (parent company is Findaway as in all the employees are encouraged to think of ideas and then literally, find a way to make them a reality.)   Sherman Alexie was there for his new book, War Dances.  I was able to hear him speak again and heard him relate a lovely story about his mother reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.   I knew that there would be a limited number of ARCs (Advance Reader Copies which are books released ahead of the actual release dates to newspapers, reviewers, booksellers), but I wanted to hear Jill McCorkle who was reading after him.  I knew I could stand in line to get my book signed by her (she, too, was delightful) and rush over to get in relate my other brief brushes  with his Indian greatness and get my ALA program signed. 

(Edward's actual video of the event from 2009)
And?  My point?  Alexie now has a new collection with old and new stories called Blasphemy.  When I think of short story authors that have enough to compile collections, I think of Alice Munro and Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme.  Alexie's consistent contributions to the short form are highlighted by this collection.  While I was annoyed at first that the new ones aren't separated from the ones published in previous collections, in reading the collection, I find I enjoyed rereading the stories, as though visited by an old friend or hearing him relate the same stories, which is a part of his own voice and storytelling tradition.  You'll find stories that will break your heart and give hope.  There are stories of families and friendships that are disenfranchised or reconciled.  There is a skepticism toward the myths and traditions that make up the Indian culture, but a love for the very people who are often causing the stress or tension because those old ways are such an integral part of their being. 
If you ever have a chance to hear Alexie in person or do an online "chat",  do it.  You will not remember laughing so hard in your life.  But if that isn't an option, I hope that you will pick up Alexie's collection and experience him through his wonderful words.

--Edward  (shown here with Sherman Alexie, of course)

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