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Birchbark Blog

Circular Thinking

Louise Erdrich - Monday, June 02, 2014

The Circle, by Dave Eggers, spooked me enough without the most recent N.S.A. revelations courtesy Edward Snowden.  In this Sunday's New York Times a front page story on how the N.S.A. has collected facial recognition data on millions of people, and how behind the ball, or circle, Congress is -- the technology moving as usual light years faster than oversight. To backtrack, Eggers book, out now in paperback, juicily details a society of googlish happy drones thoroughly invested in making the world "transparent". Eggers's narrative follows one eager young woman rescued from a boring ordinary job into the nirvana of the Circle's tech campus. Her epic climb eventually involves betrayal after betrayal and at last a world destiny shaping final episode that involves -- facial recognition technology that could become the perfect tool in the creation of a totalitarian transparent world controlled by The Circle. This novel is an odd combination -- perfect beach read, perfect nightmare, compelling and satisfying.  And as I said, spooky.

Other magnificent reads: Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman. Joanna Scott's forthcoming novel, De Potter's Grand Tour, is a delicate, enchanting, utterly delicious text, melancholy at the heart and yet slyly funny. Scott is of course a fearlessly intelligent writer, and this book is surely one of her finest. An aching quandary at its center, a question of love and abandonment involving exotic travel -- what more can one ask of the perfect book for summer cabin jaunts?

Wonderfully, in the summer, so many Minnesotans leave behind the electronics that keep us amused indoors while the snow whips viciously or gently drifts down in Hollywood style giant flakes. People's hands seek books. Real books that can survive being dropped in a lake.     

How many writers simply never, ever, disappoint their readers? Lorrie Moore may be solitary in that category. This isn't a very intellectual statement, but anyway: Bark, her latest collection of stories, is a Dark Chocolate with Ginger bar. One square? One short story? Impossible. But then I am in love with her characters' astringent wit, dead on observation, self reflection tinged with panic, with their impractical tenderness. My best summer advice is to buy Bark, then work backwards -- do not leave out Birds of America. Just give yourself a break. A beach towel, her books. Or just a couch, a fan, and all that Lorrie Moore has written. 

Diane Sherman commented on 02-Jun-2014 07:44 PM
You are such a wondeful author yourself so I value hearing your book recommendations. Your book Love Medicine blew me away, as did Round House.
Marcy Erb commented on 26-Jun-2014 02:58 PM
Dear Ms. Erdrich,

Wow! So many amazing books, so little time...there is a big pile forming next to my bed, replacing the bedside table! I'd love to see some poetry recommendations for the summer too.

I have thoroughly enjoyed your poetry and I illustrated a short excerpt from "Indian Boarding School: The Runaways" on my blog, Illustrated Poetry. I hope you check it out and enjoy. Have a lovely summer!
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A Few of Last Year's Belated Favorites

Louise Erdrich - Saturday, January 18, 2014

Because I started reading spy novels during a difficult month, and then couldn't stop, I have to include everything by John Le Carre and Graham Greene -- my favorites among them being Le Carre's A Perfect Spy, and Green's The Comedians and Travels With My Aunt.  These aren't exactly spy novels, but they are rich with intrigue and loaded with phenomenal characters. 

THE ACCURSED, by Joyce Carol Oates is one of the best books that I read that was actually published last year.  I am not ordinarily a fan of books about famous historical figures, but The Accursed hooked me in immediately with the overheated voice of an academic historian.  With each additional character, and each layer of text from what becomes an absurd, wondrously varied number of "found" notebooks, the plot gets wilder, spookier, and in many places laugh out loud hilarious.  The voice of one particular sly invalid had me in stitches of delight.  Oates' portrait of Woodrow Wilson is a masterpiece of passive aggression -- his final letter to his wife dripping with candied blame.  Nobody can make the devil as grotesquely attractive as JCO -- I guess readers in the know just use her initials -- this was one of the very best reading experiences of a beautiful bookish autumn.

 More recently, I've just finished Chang-Rae Lee's ON SUCH A FULL SEA.  Set in New China, or B-Mor, previously known as Baltimore, Lee draws a hypnotic portrait of self-strangled humanity.  B-Mor is a hydroponic vegetable and fish producing community in which everyone has cancer.  People appear, disappear, live and die with little emotion attached to their fate.  The communal voice, haunting as a Greek chorus, wonders what it could mean to be an individual.  Yet the book is about an individual, Fan, and follows her storied escape through a bizarre afterworld where the fossil fuel corporations and Monsanto and every other greed based short sighted company has triumphed.  My Facebook page has a link to what could be a prelude to this powerful novel.

Last night I began reading Amy Tan's latest novel THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT.  I was up into the hours of the wolf.  This promises to be one of those reads, much like Donna Tartt's THE GOLDFINCH, where nothing and nobody gets by the open book and the pages just keep turning themselves. 

I'm extremely grateful to these writers, for I've realized there is no cure for this fundamental happiness that always ends in craving, except more narrative.  Thanks for the narrative.  And yet, have I been fair to the writers who don't use what is usually identified as plot, writers whose prose is set down with such willed precision, that each sentence seems drawn from an emotional stillness resulting from decades of devotion?  No.  That is why I'm looking forward to whatever is in that new (grievously posthumous) book by W.G Sebald. 

Dave Ryan commented on 20-Jan-2014 11:47 AM
It's great to hear what you're reading, and your opinions of it. I'm finishing Ray Davies' "X-Ray" a pop autobiography, and I have "Americana", his next, to follow it up with. The library also loaned me "Quinn's Book", I'd read the first three of Kennedy's Albany series and then lost track.

I don't do many audiobooks, but up to Achilles' return to the fight in Fitzgerald's translation of "The Iliad", on my iPhone on daily hikes.

The "to-read" bookshelf includes Gabor Mate's "In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts", because I really need to understand addiction better (I work as a planner on homeless issues); the latest Umberto Eco, and a re-read of something by Doris Lessing. Down the road, I'll read "Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse", the Erdrich work that touched me the most.
Jean Laskey commented on 08-Feb-2014 09:59 PM
I have recently found this blog and am reading it with interest after a recommendation from my father Roger and my aunt Merilynn (Laskey) who grew up with your parents in Wahpeton. She was very proud of your writings and highly recommended you to me. I look forward to reading more of your writings.
Anne Werner commented on 15-Feb-2014 07:47 AM
I began spy novels a number of years ago and totally agree with your opinion of LeCarre's The Perfect Spy being his best. Graham Greene is wonderful also...Travels with My Aunt was listened to in my car as I traveled 100 miles per day to work and back. I recall not wanting to leave my vehicle.
E. Grundstrom commented on 07-Apr-2014 10:43 AM
I'm almost finished with a mystery novel by a Norwegian writer, Jo Nesbo. It's called The Redbreast. On the inside cover there is a quote:
But little by little he gained courage, flew close to him, and drew with his little bill a thorn that had become embedded in the brow of the Crucified One. And as he did this there fell on his breast a drop of blood from the face of the Crucified One - it spread quickly and floated out and coloured all the little fine breast feathers. Then the Crucified One opened his lips and whispered to the bird: "Because of thy compassion, thou hast won all that they kind have been striving after, ever since the world was created.' Selma Lagerlof, Robin Redbreast, Christ Legends. The novel is about Norway's dark past, when the Norwegian government collaborated with Nazi Germany.
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Louise Erdrich - Tuesday, November 05, 2013

As long into the night I read Alan Weisman's urgent, eloquent, harrowing and yet hopeful, story-packed COUNTDOWN, I paused often.  How did he do this?  He trekked the globe in an all-consuming effort to see if we, humanity, will survive the twin knock out clobbers of population explosion and climate change.  He writes of saints, heroes, and the self-consuming madness of greed.  Everywhere, he finds the most fascinating person in a thousand miles, and makes a story out of what they tell us. 

Somehow, after writing The World Without Us, an elegant thought experiment that imagined how earth would look without humanity, he has written an even better book.

Weisman poses questions upon which the survival of our species hinges:  How many people can our planet reasonably support?  Since we've already passed that number, how do we humanely reduce our numbers?  Because we can't reduce our numbers quickly enough to stop eradicating other species, what species can't we absolutely live without?  And lastly, how do we design a stable world and economy for a shrinking population?

COUNTDOWN answers these questions with whirling energy.  We meet mountain gorilla stewards and a San Diego teacher who teaches the answers to the questions above by describing an Iranian carpet.  We meet the great Indian poet Sugathakumari, who despairs of the rampant development of India's model state, Kerala.  Most important of all, Weisman comes up with a single thoughtful answer to all four of the questions he poses.

The fate of our species depends on how quickly and thoroughly women become educated.  Period.  Knock out answer.  Read the book and find out why.

Spoiler alert -- the book ends at Lake of the Isles, only blocks from Birchbark Books.

Yours for Alan Weisman's world changing outlook.  Please read this book.  Take your time.  You will weep and yet be cheered.  As Alan said when he was here in Minneapolis, "there are saints out there" so let's support what they are doing and gain a little grace, each one of us.


Jeff Isenhart commented on 05-Nov-2013 06:38 PM
From your description,Louise,I look forward to reading this book. These are questions, with probably hard answers, that have many of us in our circle thinking about. I am one who holds with "the earth is given for steward for future generations. I have come to the conclusion that that this can not go on. Any book written with "whiling energy" can find a place on a shelf in my den, along with those of Ed McGaa, Black Elk, Thoreau, Norton book of Nature writing, Hemingway and yours. Thank you for this critique and endorsement.
Joe Lamb commented on 20-Nov-2013 10:54 AM
I found "The World Without Us" to be one of the most hopeful environmental books I've read. Strange that a world without humans could be considered "hopeful," but when I'd worked on nuclear weapons issues, back in the '80s, many serious people thought humans capable of destroying life on earth. Alan reminds us that it's not, in the really big sense of geologic time, nature at risk, it's humanity itself. Alan ranks among the most creative thinkers of our time. "Countdown" the next book on my must-read-list.
Anonymous commented on 22-Nov-2013 09:39 PM
Hugs to you all at Birchbark Books for keeping the flame burning bright. If books are the cart, love is the horse.
Steve Anderson commented on 24-Nov-2013 10:03 PM
Thanks for the recommendation. It's an astonishing read but very disturbing and didn't leave me with much hope for our species. I agree that educating girls and women is critically important and the single most important tactic in trying to save us.
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