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Birchbark Blog

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.

Books for the Long Nights

Louise Erdrich - Monday, November 19, 2018

I am not a fan of daylight savings time, but here we are. It will be dark no matter how we try to play with time. For these nights that start before the day is over, thank Hermera, Goddess of Daylight and Hypnos, God of Sleep, for Good Books, under the protection of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Patron Saint of Literacy. Notice how all of this early darkness stirs the need for divine intervention? Those books I mentioned. I must begin with Kate Atkinson's Transcription because since reading this book I can't find another novel that I want to read. Transcription begins with a woman lying on pavement after an accident, being fitted by a neck brace, and thinking 'What an odd thing existence was.' Read the beginning after you read the end. (You'll want to start over, but there are other books, like The Winter Soldier, and many short days to come.) This book upends the usual existentially sour male dominated spy novel by putting the narrative into the capable, kind, naive yet ruthless sort of young woman you would want as a relative. She transcribes the conversations of Nazi sympathizers during the beginning years of World War II, while living a mysterious and richly peopled life. I can only tell you that you won't want to miss a word of this book. Atkinson is so adept and deadpan a novelist that in her hands you sweep along with the narrative, beneath its spell, all the while knowing your master (this novelist) is delighting in casting this spell. Thank you, Kate Atkinson.

In difficulty over finding my next novel, having finished a most extraordinary biography (Stefan Zweig's Balzac, bought at What Goes Around Bookstore in Bayfield, Wisconsin) I chanced on The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena. Subtitle: Adventures in Search of the World's Rarest Species. I was hooked when I read Magdalena's declaration that he does not accept extinction. I was enthralled with the lengths he goes to in order to crack the secrets of how to propagate the one remaining plant of a species on the very brink. This is true suspense. When he compares the world of plants and the process of extinction to a library in which, for instance, we burn all of the books but the ones with blue covers, he means to tell us how little we know about plants. Plants contain millions of unknown medical salvations as well as being, of course, carbon gobblers, producers of oxygen, our most reliable source of food, and if I may say, extremely pleasant companions for a desk bound writer. I have, for instance, a gardenia bush sent in the early 1990's by the writer Scott Turow. He has surely forgotten all about his lovely gesture, but this gardenia continues somehow to flourish—reliably producing five or six scented tropical blossoms every August, here in Minnesota. All it seems to need besides lots of water is southern light, a summer porch, and seashells embedded in its dirt. But sorry, there is another book...

Maid by Stephanie Land—another young woman you'd like as a relative—is an autobiographical day to day struggle. Land battles the dirt and disorder of others in a ferocious effort to provide for her daughter. In the process, she not only to survives but grows into the writer of a vibrant and engaging book (available January 2019). I've also started reading Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg. Long Descriptive Subtitle: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. That tells you what the book is about and what we have to fight to keep. He includes independent bookstores as palaces, which of course I appreciate.

Back to The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason. By rights this book should be number one on all bestseller lists at present. Why isn't it? Can it be that this novel is too interesting? Too well constructed? Too filled with humanity, depth, arcane facts and matters of life and death? Is it just too perfect a book? Everyone I have pushed to read this book says yes. Please judge for yourself if this isn't one of the most satisfying novels you have ever encountered.

Novels for the Long Nights: The Overstory by Richard Powers, Transcription by Kate Atkinson, and The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason.

Perfect Gift Book: The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley

Books of the Past: Balzac by Stefan Zweig

Books of the Future: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. This book isn't out until next February, but it is a whirlwind fantasy, violently strange, gorgeous, outrageous, brutal, slippery, and even funny.

Tree People

Louise Erdrich - Monday, September 03, 2018
I finished reading The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a month ago. Since that time I've thought about the book every day. The Overstory is so jammed with gorgeous information that I had to read it over once I'd finished it. I hardly stopped to absorb the information on the first read through because Powers' stories, of people and trees, are compulsively readable. Dr. Pat Westerford, likely modeled on Suzanne Simard, conducts experiments with trees that reveal how they signal one another.  he concludes that they are "linked together in an airborne network, sharing an immune network across acres of woodland. These brainless stationary trunks are protecting each other." Her discovery becomes the basis of her solitude, and then her solitude is shared and becomes a love story. I don't know how to encompass, or even describe, the interconnected nature of the stories in the book except to say that later on, when a character says that whatever is made of a tree should be as marvelous as the tree, this book comes close. As close as a book can get.

After finishing The Overstory, I walked outside and sat down underneath one of my favorite trees, the white cedar. I wanted to know everything about this tree.  From reading this book, I knew that this tree was aware, in a tree's way, of my presence. Powers uses stories to transmit gorgeous swathes of science but it all comes down to this: If we lose the forests of the earth we lose our place on the earth. His book permits one to despair, but it also contains this profound consolation: the world is deeper, richer, stranger, than we can encompass yet. There is so much to find out.  If we destroy our home, we'll never know its magical truths. 

The Overstory
is the best book I read all summer, and the most important book I've read for a very long time.     

My best of September book is The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, who also wrote the deeply romantic and magnificent novel, The Piano Tuner.  I would pick up a copy as soon as it appears. This book has everything a reader could wish -- a young doctor ready to use the harrowing science of the day (1914). A war in which he resolves to become an experienced surgeon at some state of the art field hospital, only to be hauled into a desperate dumping ground of horror, deep in the Carpathian mountains. An unforgettable woman runs this place, a nun/nurse who has become of necessity a far more experienced doctor than our doctor. 

Oh, just read it. Believe me, you'll read it twice and pass it to your best friend.     

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