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Birchbark Blog

First Snow

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, November 27, 2019
Oh, Winter.  Here you are again. It seems like you never left. The snow lies heavy on my heart and on the trampoline that I have been keeping shoveled for many a winter past. The thing is, books -- when snowed in, when the temp drops, when you feel the snow will never stop. At least there are books!

And what books. I have to write about Olga again! We know that I'm completely in favor of Olga Tokarczuk. From the advanced readers pile, I plucked Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, and immediately loved the eccentric voice and the murder mystery which satisfied with its eco undertone and its slippery wit.  also loved Flights but it is utterly different, more philosophical, grounded in the body. I found myself a bit choked up when I learned she won the Nobel Prize because she so deserves it. And because now there will be more translations of her books.

I loved Ann Patchett's The Dutch House. Perhaps it is my favorite of her books, which is saying a great deal. Ann wrote a character I still think about, Maeve, an ironic saint. And there is a villain she does not redeem -- very difficult to maintain a loathsome character. I so respect Ann's discipline. The house is also a character. You won't forget it. This beautifully constructed novel really is the perfect read when you are snowed in or need something classy looking to be seen with in a coffee house. I mean, the cover alone! 

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. Actually, anything by Miriam Toews. 

Two Books That Belong Together: Cold Warriors, by Duncan White and The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott. I read these books together and was pretty much overcome by all that I learned about Doctor Zhivago, the Cold War, and the real Lara. I didn't know that one of our secret cold war weapons was actually literature and that Animal Farm was translated into Polish and thousands of books were air lifted and dropped behind the Iron Curtain. The Secrets We Kept is a delicious read about what disregarded secretaries knew and told or didn't tell. After I read these books together I kept collaring people, pushing these books at them the way I'm now pushing them at you. 

What am I reading tonight? Before I make pumpkin pie with my youngest daughter? Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.  

Now I have to stop. I promise a Holiday List to come and also books to look forward to when January happens.  Also, I will let you know how this pie turns out. I really can only cook two things and neither one is pie.

Yours, as always, for books.

Louise

What's On

Louise Erdrich - Monday, August 05, 2019
People (including me) usually answer the question "What's on your book table" with a lament about the messy pile and the impossible task of keeping those books in some sort of order. However, I have cleaned my room. It has taken time, I'm really proud of this. In keeping with this, I am going to give a neat list of what my neat stack looks like starting with the largest book and ending with the top one, the smallest. 

Last Witness by Svetlana Alexievich. Compelling accounts and memories of children who were very young when World War II started.

The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard. Fascinating!  The uses of the mosquito, besides essential food source of birds? To cull humanity.

Coyote Warrior by Paul VanDevelder. The New Indian Wars and a young Mandan/Hidatsa lawyer who continued his father's fight in Washington.

A Primer for Forgetting by Lewis Hyde. The complex solace of what is means to forget -- and the inevitability of same.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. Searing account of a nightmarish and predatory "school" that swallows a promising child.

Facism by Madeleine Albright. If she is writing a book about facism then we should all read it right now.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. A sly, seductive, funny murder mystery in which an "invisible" older woman takes on a personal investigation of killings that seem to be the doing of forest animals rising up to exact justice upon those who desecrate their domain. This is one of my favorite novels of the summer, or the fall (I read an early copy) and I think it will be on many a messier book table than my own very soon.

Yours for books!

The Silence of the Girls

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Since reading Pat Barker's powerful Regeneration trilogy, I've been an ardent admirer of her work. The Silence of the Girls, her latest novel, is extraordinary. Ostensibly a retelling of the Illiad from the point of view of Briseis, captured queen and war prize of Archilles, the book seems more an artifact unearthed from time than a historical novel. Barker's genius is to tell this story with such simple and direct poetry that it speaks truth. Says Briseis "Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up We never called him any of those things, we called him, 'the butcher.'"

Every sentence is anchored in the senses. The odors of women waiting in a hot tower to be murdered or enslaved by their captors. The pathetic sight of slave women too old to be sexually used, asleep in burrows with the camp dogs. The crackling sound of lethal infection beneath the skin of a wounded soldier. The taste of watered wine. The blunt disgust and horror of being forced to have sex with the man who has murdered your family. The salty rapture of bathing in the sea. Barker works with a lived poetry.

At times this book reads as a moving commentary on our current ethos.

As Briseis unflinchingly recounts the daily murders and the shifting uses enslaved women are put to in the Greek war camp, she uses the survival bonds of hurt and seething women as a sort of chorus of disdain. Men waste their power in idiotic quarrels over women, over honor, over nothing, while women desperately attempt to guard their children and live out their lives no matter how brutal. One of Barker's great themes is how violence erodes the personality. The stubborn pride of Achilles leads to the loss of his childhood love, Patroclus. Meditating on the madness of Achilles' grief Barker refers to Strange Meeting, by perhaps the greatest poet/soldier of World War One, Wilfred Owen. Over and over, Achilles enters an underworld of the war dead, Hades, searching, and 'then, as he probes them, one springs up and stares, with piteous recognition in fixed eyes . . . ' This is a line from Strange Meeting, in which a soldier meets the man he recently killed, as does Achilles. He is haunted by Lycaon, the son of Priam, who scrambled up a river bank toward Achilles, greeting him with the word, Friend. Achilles did not spare him, or think twice, and he is tortured by the enormity of his casual cruelty.

As powerful as this scene and so many scenes of male reckoning are, throughout this book, it is a book of women. Women who bear their children in agony and raise them with infinite care, only to see their sons slaughtered off-handedly on the intimate field of battle. Women who survive by exchanging warnings, gossip, information on how to handle men. Women who, let us not forget in the nascent democracy that was Greece, had no agency, no power, who were chattel, who were silenced. In Homer's gorgeous bombastic epics the men slaughter children and each other, they pout, they roar, they rage to the heavens, while the women take care of everything on earth.

Oh dear, I forgot about Valentine's Day! Oh well. It is a truly brave fellow who will gift this book to his lady love. And a woman among women who will get it for herself and pass it to a friend.


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