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Birchbark Blog

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.
Anonymous commented on 07-Aug-2014 08:50 PM
While reading "Shadow Tag", I was surprised to find a reference to the Huicholes (on page 162).

Dear Louise Erdrich,

You might be interested in this site, which I find by far the best about all aspects of Huichol culture :

Bless you for the many hours of delighted reading you gave me.
Elna Falls commented on 04-Sep-2014 08:33 AM
Do you ever answer questions about your books?
I was at UNC-CH in May for my 50th class reunion, and I saw in the bookstore that The Round House was the recommended read for the incoming fall class. I bought the book, and I am reviewing it for my Charlotte, NC book club next week. I think Cappy killed Linden. Am I correct? Everyone loved the book, and we are getting ready for a great discussion. You are a great writer.
Elna Falls commented on 07-Sep-2014 05:34 AM
I got it after rereading!
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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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Aza was an artist from day one.

Louise Erdrich - Monday, July 08, 2013
Aza was an artist from day one -- a rendingly sensitive baby. Once she had a crayon in her hand, the world was hers. She started drawing complex rooms, dancing women, women in wild outfits, then there was a long interlude of girls kissing boys or holding hands. I mean, she worked everything interior out through her drawings. Finally, she was in high school and started serious art study. From there it just kept going and now one of the very best things about my publishing life is that Aza does my book covers.  

We always talk about the book covers before she goes into them. I never know what she'll come up with though. As HarperCollins reissues my backlist books, she does the covers.  

Aza started with Tales of Burning Love, and made it strongly graphic, and I loved it. Then she made the new Perennial Editions (finely made paperback books with beautiful paper and heavy French flaps) of Love Medicine and Plague of Doves. The letters on Love Medicine are made of bundles of sweetgrass, and raised on the cover. Very simple and warm. The cover of Plague of Doves has movement on the page -- the leaves of the tree turn to feathers and shimmer. For The Round House (paperback available late Sept) she draped a woman in sacred red cloth -- a moving knockout image.  

She is the baby in The Bluejay's Dance who was so super sensitive she needed to be bundled onto me at all times. Sometimes when exhausted I would think -- hey, but I get it, she's an artist! That this has come true is utterly cosmic.   


Anonymous commented on 15-Jul-2013 10:48 PM
I admire the way in which you write about your love for yours daughters. I have two of my own and just recently flew to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove with them in tow straight to your book store. I bought a fellow teacher and friend a signed copy of your Tracks, and myself a signed copy of Four Souls, which I just finished reading, gasping with something akin to awe. My grandfather was Ojibwe, from Lake of the Woods, Minnesota. His parents were Metis, migrated from Canada, and died young, leaving 13 broken kids to their fates. My grandfather shed his soul, for all outward appearances, but regularly returned up North to hunt, fish and think. When he died, the house he built and his construction company behind it was bought and torn down to put a highway in, across the Mississippi to Wisconsin. When I came to visit my mother (who lives in Minnesota in the summer), I drove down that highway, thinking that he left no "tracks." However, your daughters prominence in your life as your core inspires me, and I understand that my daughters are his tracks, as they are mine. Thank you for your service and ability to share wisdom.
Anonymous commented on 22-Jul-2013 10:13 AM
I love Aza's covers! Which titles will she be doing next?
Deborah Farquhar commented on 24-Jul-2013 10:38 PM
I love The Round House! It is beautiful. I hope I can visit your Birchbark one day. While I cannot claim any Native American heritage, I firmly believe the intertwining of heritage(s) enables us all to appreciate our tracks. My daughter (BA and MA in English with honors) wrote her Honors thesis on "Last Report" and continued her interest in your work in her graduate research studies, claiming your edition(s) of "The Antelope Wife" require a critical edition that appreciates the depth of your work; she has applied for an internship at the Native American Museum in Washington. I hope this finds you in good health!
Stephanie S. commented on 26-Jul-2013 05:26 PM
I was introduced to your work almost 20 years ago in an American Literature class where my professor included a strong Native American component. Just finished the Round House and it was amazing. So happy to be reconnecting with your work after all these years. And I love the book covers. I think that book covers, like album covers, are a dying art. Seeing an artist successfully translate a complex, rich story of words to a singular image is truly delightful.
Pat Shearer commented on 18-Aug-2013 01:30 PM
I have just finished reading "The Round House" and it is still on my mind after 2 days. It made me laugh out loud, feel compassion, but mostly I am impressed with your knowlege of the Human condition. Thank You, I will begin reading some of your other books.
Jess Yorke commented on 06-Sep-2013 09:03 AM
I was introduced to your books via University. Beet Queen and Love Medicine were on the curriculum. Your descriptions are disturbing but I think they mean something to the US in the way they relate to the truisms of everyday life and proximity of native cultures. I think your books are important. They have had an impact on my professional thinking and I'm very glad to have been introduced to them.Thankyou.
Leslie Aplin Wharton commented on 02-Jan-2014 03:29 PM
My mother-in -law wisely gave me "the round house" for Christmas, it is the first book I have read through without long breaks for sometime. I love your writing. I lost my home, one my husband and I built with our own hands, in a Colorado wildfire. We moved to Washington state to find a new home. i am writing my story "the edge of next". I ponder at times if the story is any good but realize I need to write it anyways. In the interview at the end of the book you talk about tying yourself down to remind yourself to sit and write. Your book gives me strength and the rain here ties me down to sit and write. Thank you. Leslie Aplin Wharton
craig stewart commented on 19-Mar-2014 04:44 PM
I first read tracks a long time ago after finding it in a manchester bookstore and i loved it, i still do. I became drawn to any literature, be it fact or fiction about native american life, not the image we are so often fed in the uk but real stuff about real people who have to deal with the realities of the time. Tracks opened that world to me and since then i have read many of your books including the birchbark house series before i passed them onto a friends daughter. Now she loves them too! Thankyou Louise! Craig.
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