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Birchbark Blog

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.

Comments
carla hochschild commented on 30-Nov-2018 06:19 PM
I have enjoyed Louise Erdich’s books for more than three decades, so It is a real pleasure to read her thoughts about winter reading. I might add, if you fall asleep and have less reading time, the first book on your list should be OVERSTORY by Richard Powers. You will look at your place in the Universe so very differently. Richard Powers is a true American genius.
Linda Sheehan commented on 01-Dec-2018 04:07 PM
Thank you, I love lists.
Anonymous commented on 02-Dec-2018 06:25 AM
Thanks. I was desperately in need of some fiction suggestions from a source I trust.
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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.     
Comments
Anonymous commented on 03-Oct-2018 01:36 PM
My friend gave it to me for my birthday. A month early because she couldn’t wait. We are both tree people. She is a wonderful artist that sees things in the wood. She proceeded to paint in honor of the book. Her name is Joan White check her out. Then John Bates new book came out. Again celebrating trees.
Thank you for sharing this.
Diane McGrath commented on 03-Oct-2018 02:04 PM
I clicked on this link thinking oh, it's too bad she won’t have discovered the Overstory yet, but there it was! I have found myself tongue-tied when asked to describe it. From now on I will tell people to read your description. It is the best book I have read in ages! And I now look upon trees with much more awe than I once had. Thank you.
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Powerful Must Reads

Louise Erdrich - Sunday, August 06, 2017

A September Must Read:

1) Nomadland by Jessica Bruder (available 9/26/17).  Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.  You will never forget the people whose stories Bruder tells.  Proud, resourceful, screwed-over, funny and in so many ways admirable, the American nomads Bruder lived with and reports on have sometimes lost everything but their bravado.  These are people whose middle class jobs dried up, people who lost their homes when the housing market crashed, people who should have comfortably retired but instead are nearly broke.  Opting to live in vans, campers, trailers, various RVs, they follow seasonal work from Amazon warehouses in the Southwest to the sugar beet harvest in the Red River Valley of North Dakota.  Most people are in their 60s or 70s.  The Amazon jobs are so grueling that there is a period of "work hardening" before they begin, and dispensers of OTC pain relievers on the warehouse walls.  

These are the people who have done their best to "make America great again".  Bruder tells their stories with humanity and wit.  She doesn't need to editorialize because the stories tell all you need to know about who bears the burdens of an unfettered free market.  

2) Actually this is an August Must Read but you must please read You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie's memoir.  This overwhelmingly beautiful book is ostensibly about his mother, but also about everything in the world, and all things Native.  Loss, Hilarity, Cruelty, Love, and an obliterating History.  My daughter and I listened to the book on a road trip from Belcourt, North Dakota.  It was a literary experience that i will never forget.  Of course, Sherman is an extraordinary reader as well as writer.  But the sound of his voice telling us his story over the miles became something more.  By the time we got home we were imbued and imprinted with Sherman's living spirit and Lillian's complex ghost.  My sister called this "not exactly a book as much as a volcanic eruption".  She is a physician with Native Health.  She's seen a lot.  She's exactly right.

3) Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler.  This is the book I was reading when not actually driving.  Octavia Butler was a visionary writer of speculative fiction.  She was a genius.  Even if you think you don't like science fiction, please try this book.  It is wonderfully addictive and complex.  Butler constructs an alien race that exists by manipulating and absorbing the genetic material of other worlds.  They find us shortly after we destroy our place on this planet.  They save us and fall in love with us.  Their first human is Lilith.  i don't know how to convey the generosity and tension of this book -- you will have to read it yourself.  One of my daughters kept telling me it was a good book, another put the book in my hands and insisted I take it on my trip.  Thank you.  Gorgeous, strange, stunningly humane.

4) The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk (available 8/22/17). This is one of Pamuk's most engaging novels.  The narrative is a directly focused stream.  But one of the most wonderful and terrifying things about the novel is the description of how wells were hand dug in Turkey in the old days.  I was fascinated because at the time I was also reading about hand dug wells in the 1930's on the Turtle Mountain reservation.  In both places the water was 70 or 80 feet down in the earth.  The digger filled a bucket with dirt and stones, and that bucket was hoisted up by people on the surface.  The sides of the well were reinforced as the hole got deeper, and deeper.  80 feet.  Can you imagine working at the bottom of that well, looking up at the tiny circle of sky, and not feeling entirely lonely and vulnerable?  It would ruin the book to say much more.

5) Hunger by Roxane Gay.  A Memoir of (My) Body.  And then this book.  In some ways, it is about what it is like to be greatly overweight.  It is also about why Gay used fat to insulate herself from further harm after a sickening betrayal by her childhood boyfriend.  He lured her to a hunting shack where his friends were waiting.  She was gang-raped at 12.  Sensitive, intellectual, deeply loving, soulful, possessed of great gifts of articulation, she embarked after the rape upon a life of hunger.  This book is like an undertow.  You are swimming in the life of another person, and suddenly you find that she has written about part of you that you cannot acknowledge.  You don't even know why you can't stop reading, why this book afflicts you, like it's author, with a kind of hunger.  I started the book late one afternoon and by night I reached a certain page, a section, and my heart began to madly pound.  It was near the end.  I put the book down and paced my house, sobbing, until I could finish the book.  Just telling you it is that sort of book.  In it you may find a hidden side of yourself suddenly reflected by an author who is an avatar of female truth.   

 

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