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Birchbark Blog

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The Undocumented Americans. Early on in this brilliant, vivid, tender, furious work, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio tells the reader that she is crazy.  But I've not met a saner person on the page.  Brave, yes, outrageous and honest, yes, but far from crazy, although Villavicencio shows how being crazy is often the sane response of an undocumented person to life in the United States.

Villavicencio interviews undocumented workers who rushed toward the burning towers on 9/11, cleaned up afterward, ruining their health, people who saved other American lives during Hurricane Sandy.  In every crisis, including this pandemic, undocumented workers are on the front lines caring for the vulnerable, cleaning hospitals, delivering food, working hard in an array of punishing jobs that often put them in danger.  These jobs are essential.  Just look at recent newspaper headlines, "Don't Deport Health Care Workers", "Undocumented Farmworkers, Still Deportable, Are 'Essential'. 

I've dogeared half pages of this book, not only because the information is so vital, but because Villavicencio has remarkable descriptive gifts.  She describes her father's feet, "small and fat, like mine, so you can't tell they're swollen.  After a few years, my dad's feet would hurt so much that he walked like he was on hot coals . . . "  She talks about his life, measured in deliveries, "a raisin bagel with cream cheese and coffee with hazelnut creamer.  A blueberry muffin and black coffee; two cranberry scones . . ." There is Julieta, "a big woman with the cheerful, paranoid manner of a debutante with a secret."  And Theodoro, "a lonely, ancient man, but he says he is fifty-six.  He is a tree.  His mouth is curved downward, wrinkled set deep like bark grooves . . . our conversations feel like dark, hardened sap."

What can I say.  This book.  I read it in gulps, late at night.  I couldn't stop, because I was meeting so many funny, philosophical, courageous and intriguing people, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio included.  I hope you read this book! ( I would press it into your hands if I didn't have to stay 6 feet away from you.)

Postcolonial Love Poem

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, April 01, 2020
Dear Friends,

When people say "this has never happened to our country before" I want to say, "yes it has." Indigenous people suffered wave after wave of European borne epidemic diseases, which killed 9 of every 10 people. The trauma continued through the Flu of 1918 and the scourge of tuberculosis. When treaties were made it was thought that Native people were going to vanish, but no. We are still here. In her torrential book of poetry, Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz addresses these losses. With tenacious wit, ardor, and something I can only call magnificence, Diaz speaks of the consuming need we have for one another. This is a book for any time, but especially a book for this time. These days, and who knows for how long, we can only touch a trusted small number of people. Diaz brings depth and resonance to the fact that this has always been so. Be prepared to journey down a wild river.

Yours for books,

Louise 

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


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