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Birchbark Blog

Immersive Reading

Louise Erdrich - Thursday, February 05, 2015

During the first twenty or so pages of Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings I knew that I was reading an extraordinary novel, the kind that makes me page back and forth, set the book down, think about the language, then start again. I had to start the book over because I'd read quickly. The book flows because language is both brutally visceral and mesmerizing. There are offhand killings, botched killings, killings cunningly plotted and awkwardly executed. Although this book is centered on the miraculously failed attempt on Bob Marley's life and the swirl of murderous gang rivalry, cold war paranoia, and the infamous suffering of ghetto drug user/dealers, it is not a history book. It is what history feels like. I couldn't get out of this book. Sometimes I couldn't find my way inside of it, but I couldn't stop reading it either. Marlon James writes great characters, from the hit man desperate to please a scornful boyfriend, to a woman on the lam whose survival story is raucous, suspenseful, and absurd. This intelligent, intense, profane, and beautifully fluent novel is shortlisted for and richly deserves the National Book Critic's Circle Award for fiction this year -- best of luck, Marlon James.

Comments
Carol Montgomery commented on 09-Feb-2015 11:36 AM
I delight in your words and what comes from your rich inner world, into this material world as books. Aztec Ruins in New Mexico and it was possible to talk with you about it. THE BROKEN CIRCLE:A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MAGIC IN INDIAN COUNTRY by Rodney Barker is the book. There are so many questions, so much to startle me that I wish for a guide through it.
Gigi Burke commented on 09-Feb-2015 12:20 PM
Your review of this book brings to mind a work that had similar effect, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Set in the slums of Mumbai with unforgettable characters and lives. Won the Pulitzer.
thanks
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Things I Didn't Know

Louise Erdrich - Friday, December 12, 2014

Last August we were sorting through the advanced readers copies that had collected on the bookstore shelves. My daughter Pallas picked up The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg. I thought I'd seen the last of that book, but Pallas came back for Christmas and put that reading copy in my hands. She told me to read it, I did, and now I have to say to you. READ THIS. The Underground Girls of Kabul is subtitled: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. This book. If you read it, you will never forget Azita, Mehran, Zahra, Shukria, or Shahed -- all women who have been raised as boys in Afghanistan -- and then forced to return to being women. Nordberg explores a cultural practice that astonished me. It makes sense -- to "make" a girl at birth into a boy, for at least part of her life, is to give her a taste of what it is to be human. To have a will. Often, it is a magical practice that will supposedly prompt a woman's body to produce a male. Most hauntingly, one of these women became a "brother" to a real brother in order to protect him from possible poisoning by a previous wife in a polygamous marriage. She ate everything and drank everything before her brother. You will not stop reading this book until you find out what happens to these women -- what is happening to them now.

Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at UC-Davis, grew up in Algeria. Her impassioned and superbly intelligent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, begins with this sentence: "Could I defend my father from the Armed Islamic Group with a paring knife?"  Bennoune's father, Mahfoud Bennoune, taught Darwinism and was a fearless critic of armed fundamentalists like the Islamic Salvation Front, who sponsored assassinations of of Bennoune's fellow professors. Her experience impelled Karima Bennoune to travel the world, at great personal risk, in order to interview moderate Muslim people, often women, who cogently and steadfastly insist on human rights in violently fundamentalist settings. She has described herself (I was lucky enough to meet her) as "the woman who makes people cry" because these stories about people who strive to maintain humanity, who die for the right to dissent, to speak freely, become educated, dance, write, paint, sing, bare their faces to the wind, their hair to the sky, and who insist that the memory of those killed in this struggle not be erased, these stories include unbearable loss. Yet the stubborn will to resist is mesmerizing -- I could not stop reading this book until page 195 (the hardcover). In the middle of this page, I had to set the book down in order to cry, too, along with the people whose existence gave me a sense of human grandeur. 

Comments
Barbara Zeller commented on 18-Dec-2014 08:24 AM
I was in Birchbark Books this past weekend, and believe it may have been Pallas who also put a book in my hands, albeit figuratively: Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life,’ by Hermione Lee. I had put it in my stack on the counter, but then put it back on the shelf at checkout on a trade for something else I wanted to purchase. Just a word from Pallas - well, you should pick that up later because it is a fantistic book - had me grabbing up the book again and adding it back to the stack. I am anxious to begin it.

I have enjoyed many books recommended by the staff at Birchbark Books. An especially powerful book that I am currently reading, and that has reached me on so many levels, is "Sacred Wilderness" by Susan Power. Finding that I need to read it slowly to understand and savor all that is there.
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Book Pile

Louise Erdrich - Monday, November 03, 2014

Every time I finish a book I want to include here I put it into a pile. Now the pile has toppled. I hardly know where to start except with the first that comes to mind. The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker, subtitled and subdescribed, as every nonfiction book is these days: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. I cannot get this disturbing bit of information out of my head: The Pentagon has been researching a hummingbird-like Nano Drone. This remotely controlled fake hummingbird spyware would be painted like a real one and mimic darting movements. Fortunately, there is a difficult issue to surmount -- the drone's battery life is eight minutes. Basically, Strycker says, hummingbirds burn fuel like fighter jets. We would have to eat two hundred pounds of hamburger between breakfast and dinner to match a hummer's intake.  "In terms of energy, hummingbirds live at the edge of physical possibility." This book is packed with marvelous bits of information and I'm going to give it to my father.

Per Petterson's new novel, I Refuse, is unnervingly terse and starkly beautiful. It is a small porthole window that provides glimpses of damaged unassailable love. I don't think Petterson uses a single adverb -- stunningly stunning. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, uses quite a few. They are in keeping with the Victorianesque text. This novel was perfectly deserving of the Man Booker Prize.  Wendell Berry's novel, Hannah Coulter, seems a quiet novel. For many of its pages it is the story of a woman's not unusual life, if you remember that many people made their lives on farms. It is at the end in the description of the Okinawan people and the battlefield their land became, that this novels delivers its power whole into the reader's hands. I am still reading Elena Ferrante's addictive trilogy which begins with My Brilliant Friend.  

When there isn't a book I can get involved with close to hand, I pick up old favorites. Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, always moves me with its simplicity. The ruin of a decent but oblivious man by careless distant relatives gives each page an implacable weight. Yet the novel itself so light on the surface, so precise in every spare scene and nimble word. I read The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. Also an implacable story, told with keen relish for conversation and description of life during the brazen boom years of the mid-1980's in the UK, when AIDS was a set of wild rumors which became devastating truth. 

In the end, the only book that matters in light of today's announcement by the U.N. that we are at the cliff's edge, maybe plunging over, into a broken climate that could knock out our species, is This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.  Please read this book. 

Comments
Bianka Fuksman commented on 07-Nov-2014 10:56 AM
Thank you for your "book pile!" I love this idea of the toppling pile...
They are now on my list.
Isn't it wonderful that there are just SO many books out there. I never understand how I manage to go through a dry spell?
I am always holding my breath for another book by my favorite author- you. <3
Roy Taylor commented on 07-Nov-2014 11:49 AM
Yes, I agree! Haven't gotten to it yet. Seeing NK on "The Daily Show" recently, reminded me that I need to start her latest. First encountered her writing in Harpers, The Nation and In These Times. Then, really added her to my list after, "The Shock Doctrine", because of my interest in neo-Liberalism critique. Now she takes on climate change and its connection to a fossil fuel reliance economy and the current energy hegemony prevalent in the west, now encroaching on the developing world. Thanks for the reminder.
Barbara Scott Zeller commented on 07-Nov-2014 01:27 PM
Thanks, Louise, for these recommendations. "The Luminaries" is one of my favorite books. It was a book that I gave to friends. For a book not mentioned here, I thought "The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell was absolutely brilliant. I trepidly went into this book because I am not a fan of time-travel fiction, but was hooked from the first page. The structure, characters, creative invention still has me star-struck. Now I have more to read from your recommendations...
Kathy Whitgrove commented on 07-Nov-2014 05:32 PM
Hannah Coulter moved me to tears. I recently discovered William Maxwell and read So Long, See You Tomorrow and another of his novels. I will have to get a hold of the one you recommend. Thanks for doing this. It is appreciated.
Chris Hensel commented on 07-Nov-2014 06:28 PM
Thanks for sharing these selections. My book club recently finished The Round House and we loved it. One of our more engaging discussions. As we look to compile our suggestions for our 2015 reading list, we'll have to entertain some of these recommendations. -Watti-tuus Book Club, Twin Cities, MN
Jim Cihlar commented on 19-Nov-2014 07:13 PM
Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty is one of my all-time favorite novels. Thanks for listing it!
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