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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.


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