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Birchbark Blog

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.  f 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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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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White Rage

Louise Erdrich - Monday, May 29, 2017

Dear Readers,

For the past month I've been acting as a book physician, writing out summer reading prescriptions for people with a few hours to spare.  Mostly, I've written out prescriptions for books that will make people laugh or become immersed in suspense.  White Rage by Carol Anderson is stronger medicine.  Images of black rage abound -- from riots in L.A. to Ferguson, Minneapolis, St. Paul -- but images of white rage are often hidden in the acts of the justice system and in the halls of congress.  Anderson has undertaken a history of white rage, and it is shocking from the first pages.  Who knew that Abraham Lincoln wanted to rid the country of slaves by sending them to what is now Panama?  How many high school classes teach the true history of Reconstruction?  With unceasing clarity and calm,  Carol Anderson narrates a history so compelling that I could not stop reading.  If you're thinking of picking up a true crime drama, why not enlarge your thinking with a true historical crime drama?  

This is an extraordinary book and I hope you read it.

For books and readers everywhere,

Yours truly,

Louise 

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