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Birchbark Blog

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. 

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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. 

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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Bedside List

Louise Erdrich - Thursday, July 24, 2014

You know how there are little filler pieces in magazines asking people what is on their bedside table? Here is my list from two of the six stacks on my floor. Little Dorrit  by Charles Dickens, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert The Mishomis Book by Edward Benton Banai, How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran (my sister gave this book to me because there is a part in it that made her laugh so hard she got the hiccups), I'll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, Chippewa Customs by Frances Densmore, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, The Explorations of Pierre Esprit Radisson ed. Arthur T Adams, The Golden Bowl by Henry James, Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, Lovers at the Chameleon Club by Francine Prose, All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, The Ogalalla Road by Julene Bair, Paper Lantern Love by Stuart Dybek, Children of Dune by Frank Herbert, Maisie Dobbs by Jaqueline Winspear. I think that I can recommend every single one of these books although I have been traveling so much this summer that I haven't finished Radisson's explorations.

Things are always happening at Birchbark Books -- l am excited that we'll soon be selling Pancakes Not Pipeline syrup from Honor the Earth, that there will be new Lucky Feather Earrings made by Josef Reiter. I now wear mine only on very special occasions when luck is inevitable -- for instance I will wear them to the North Dakota Council of Teachers of English on Sunday in Mandan, North Dakota, at the Best Western Seven Seas conference hotel. As the daughter of two teachers (who taught me everything) I'm pleased that I get to talk with English teachers. I will certainly cite the study by a pair of social psychologists and the New School who found that reading complex literature increased a person's empathy. Interestingly, it had to be complex literature to make the brain work a certain way. Reading complex literature also increases a person's attention span. At the same time I'll cite studies that reading bits of things on screens including iPhones and this screen decrease your attention span and contribute to ADHD. If you are reading this, you're in peril, friend. Close down your computer and pick one of the books above.

Yours as ever,


Donna DiMichele commented on 28-Jul-2014 11:53 AM
if you are enjoying All Our Names, I think you will like We Need New Names: A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo. The audio book was a double pleasure because the reader was fantastic.
Deborah Farquhar commented on 28-Jul-2014 11:22 PM
Your novels are extremely complex and the characters wonderfully empathetic. Thank you for the reading recommendations. I am always surprised by the amount of junk published.
Celt Ruler commented on 29-Jul-2014 01:54 PM
Keep on truckin', Louise.
Anonymous commented on 29-Jul-2014 06:58 PM
Thank you for the recommendations! Your writing has so delighted and intrigued me over the years.
Elizabeth Winga commented on 04-Aug-2014 11:48 AM
The Birchbark House is the featured book at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for Youth Book Tours for the month of August. Tours are held every Wed & Fri through the month from 1-2 p.m. They are free with no preregistration is required. The Tours are targeted for grades 4-6, but during July we welcomed family groups with multiple ages. Although we recommend reading the book prior to the tour, the tour can also be a way to introduce a book to children. Guides are excited to be able to showcase the few Anishinabe objects on exhibit, in addition to utilizing other artworks in the collection to discuss some of the themes in the book. Hope your young followers will be encouraged to come join us!
craig stewart commented on 28-Aug-2014 07:46 PM
just thinking about little stacks of books on bedside tables, some I have are written by an english author called Alan Garner. primarily for young people but read by anyone of any age they're inspired by the myths and folktales of the north of England and Wales. You might like The Owl Service, ancient Welsh myth brought up to date, dark, menacing but beautiful. The friction between traditional and modern,one culture and another and the resurfacing of old legend surrounding the people in the story makes good reading of an evening! Thanks Louise, Craig
Anonymous commented on 16-Sep-2014 08:23 AM
Dear Erdrich,
I've read your latest novel "The Round House". I think it is an amazing and insightful story, which shows your great concern over the injustice on the reservation. But I feel that the story has not ended yet. I wonder if you will continue the story in your next novel. And when are we able to read it? I'm looking forward to the publication of your 15th novel!
Alexey Koch commented on 27-Sep-2014 08:37 AM
Hi your books are so loveable . I have read the whole birchbark house series .my favorite part was reading about how Indians lived .PLEASE WRITE MORE'!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
john kephart commented on 06-Oct-2014 06:47 PM
what an interesting list, Dune, Henery James( I forgot about that book, its now on my radar) I'm stoping in there are a few books I want-cheers
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