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Birchbark Blog

One Amazing Thing in Normal, Illinois

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Dear Friends,

Last week I was invited to Normal/Bloomington Illinois.  I would speak to students, and read poetry, and looked forward to meeting those who had arranged this visit.  Lynda especially had been patient and encouraging.  Somewhere along the line I realized that David Foster Wallace had taught here, which made me think of his life and work and his graduation speech.  

I looked forward to the book in my bag, One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and to seeing again the person who would drive me.  Bill Young.  I had just finished reading Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safron Foer, and had decided that my rare and even very careful (you know, organic ranch raised creatures imagined so happy to be eaten they run eagerly to the slaughterhouse) type of meat eating was now at an end.  Bill and I talked of this.  On the way to the place I was staying, The Chateau, a unit of motorcycle state police passed us in proud formation.  We seemed to have a police escort!  But as it turned out, there was a convention of state troopers at The Chateau.  The readings of poetry, for a radio show all poetry, and the readings in general, went very well and I couldn't have been more hospitably treated.  I loved walking into the Chateau, past the old tapestry, over the tired new carpet.  Bill and I decided to have a post-reading glass of wine in The Lido bar.  It was filled with rowdy and roaring state troopers, but who do you call when they are the ones disturbing the peace?  

Bill and I went out for a burger -- well, a veggie burger, which can be had at Burger King.  Ours must have been sitting deep in the freezer, said Bill.  For a long time.  But he ate it and we had a glass of wine -- from the Chateau cellar.  The goblet was huge, but of course one would expect that at a Chateau.  I wanted to see the wine cellar, but as the library was mainly American Jurisprudence and Janet Evanovich, and some diet books, Bill said that the wine cellar might not be what I expected.  So up I went to One Amazing Thing, which I intended to fall asleep reading.  Early on I realized that Chitra was throwing a plot at me!  An irresistible plot where a mini-UN of interesting people get trapped by a disaster and each must come up with a story.  Oh no!  Oh yes!  I was up very late.  I read straight through because this is the sort of book that pulls you along.  Divakaruni is so adept with her characterizations.  She has a light touch with people.  She is a careful, evocative writer.   I wanted to be any of the several beauty salons described so lovingly.  I wanted to eat the bits of food described with such delicacy.  Chitra Divakaruni has written 14 books and they just keep getting better.  I think I enjoyed this one the most, lying there in my French (?) four poster bed, French (?) scenes of rural life on the wall, wishing for another French (?) veggie burger, or another goblet from the Chateau cellar.  Outside the rain fell and fell.  The next morning driving back to O'Hare we were passed by a state police car hauling a trailer with motorcycles strapped onto it.  Were the troopers still reeling in the Chateau?  Was the rain too dangerous?  Had they forgotten their rain gear?  We will never know.  But I am still a vegetarian.  

And today, back in Minneapolis, I still admire this line from One Amazing Thing, "She ignored Uma superbly, as people do when faced with those those abject destinies they control."  Haven't we all been ignored superbly?  How I hate it when my abject destiny is controlled by others.    

Comments
chitra divakaruni commented on 13-Nov-2009 07:31 AM
Thank you Louise, whose own wonderful Love Medicine helped me become a writer. I am so honored that you enjoyed One Amazing Thing.
Paula Sullivan commented on 13-Nov-2009 12:53 PM
My partner of 44 years and I have just discovered Louise's novels, poems, etc. Even though I taught creative writing and composition for decades at a community college and assigned anthology readings by Erdrich, I am released from grading endless essays and short stories to fill up my cup again. Where to begin--in no particular order of publication dates, we started with audio books for the drive home from Minneapolis to Tulsa in August, Four Souls (Tracks is for the next road trip) We were hooked, Master Butcher's Singing Club, The Last Report of . . . Little No Horse, Painted Drum,Doves. What a pleasure to read such moving stories, so eloquently put down as if transmitted from other worlds. My kind of reading! Thank you, Louise Erdrich, for inspiring me to take up writing again. Perhaps one day, on our visits to Minneapolis where our daughter and her family live just a blocks from Birchbark, we can thank you in person. Many of our friends are now reading your novels, too.
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Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong

Louise Erdrich - Monday, October 19, 2009
Everything You Know about Indians Is Wrong, a satisfyingly complex book by Paul Chaat Smith, who maintains that although we are considered somehow primitive and simple we are actually oceans of terrifying complexity.  I have been called this by men, with no regard to my Turtle Mountain heritage.  Just . . . an ocean of complexity.  And this book, too, is so complicated that I found my emotions were all mixed up.  Irony, laughter, rage, weariness.  A mixture -- a complex character trait but as one of my character flaws is a vague obscurity I appreciated the harsh wit and intelligence in these essays.  A recommendation with many stars after it.

I'll be taking this book along on my next trip along with Chitra Divarakuni's One Amazing Thing, covering Indians -- East to West.

And some favorite post snow fall reading -- Homer and Langely, by E.L.Doctorow.  I loved this novel for its quirky, mild mannered fidelity, for its courtly reserve, and at last for the gentle horror of its ending.  I thought it beautifully imagined and restrained.  A perfect work.  The portrait of a consciousness cut off from even the world of music, floating in soundless space, the last 10 pages were extraordinarily moving to me.


Comments
Axsel Bjorklund commented on 22-Oct-2009 08:28 AM
On the one hand, not having read the same books, I hesitate to comment. On the other hand, under the guiding principle of "fools rush in...", I must say that simplicity and complexity are two sides of the same coin. Recently, scientists have progressed from Chaos Theory to a theory of complexity where there is what they term a "self-organizing principle". This leads me to believe that you, me, or anybody else that is hassling with this framed in terms of a problem can henceforth rest easy. In short, everything will be OK.
Gary Deason commented on 31-Oct-2009 02:51 PM
CULTURE: We Anglos value our complex world of science-technology-economics-business, but remain pretty simplistic, even naïve, about the equally complex world of spirit-religion-land-art-culture-family-human relationships. Anglos misunderstand and devalue Indians by reducing their expectations to what they themselves cherish and practice (technology, business, etc) instead of what Indians cherish and practice(spirituality, family, etc). We all see through our own lenses. Measured by the standards of white culture, not surprisingly, Indian cultures come up short. If one reverses the viewpoint, Anglos come up equally short, probably even shorter.

RELATIONSHIPS: Maybe this is part of the larger social and cultural background (there’s also the genetic) of male-female relationships, particularly a (white) male attitude toward a woman of native heritage living her uncommonly rich spiritual, cross-cultural, and family background. Static, linear, deductive heads and hearts struggle to understand and appreciate kinetic, relational, value-laden thoughts and emotions. The reverse is true too.

UPSHOT: If inter-cultural relations and male-female relations were more like Yin-Yang or Same-Other, with a healthy dose of respect maintaining equilibrium, the tension would power compelling outcomes.

Hmmm... that turned out too cerebral. The important point is: I hope we all keep trying on both fronts!
Barbara Scott Zeller commented on 20-Nov-2009 09:13 AM
I am an Anglo who does not recognize herself in Gary's post, so "We Anglos" may be a stretch. Cultural generalities scare me.
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