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Birchbark Blog

What Happened?

Louise Erdrich - Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sometimes spring flows by one blossoming tree after the next and then May 18 arrives and my book pile is still here, beside the computer, waiting to be written about before shelved. Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah begins with the loss of an intimately drawn character, and the complex family interactions that proceed quietly in the aftermath.  Although composed of small occurrences, intricate adjustments, the book is riveting in its fidelity to each character's subtle renovation. Euphoria by Lily King is splendidly told. A brilliant, talented, magnetic female anthropologist is coveted by two men, one profane and without conscience, the other possessing too much conscience to be effective.  I read it all in one happily exhausted night. 

The Evil Hours by David J. Morris, a Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is both elegant and profoundly urgent. Morris, a former Marine and war correspondent in Iraq, writes of his own experience, "I came to think of myself as devoted to a sort of Kabbalah, a cult of one whose mission it was to discover what the others had missed, the pattern hidden in the loom, the hand of God . . . "  In the wake of trauma, Morris goes on to observe, this need to make sense of things becomes an obsession. This book does exactly that only in a moving, human, self-revealing way that grounds the reader in the writer's experience, and the dramatically drawn experiences of historical heroes and victims. It taught me something new, and defined for me much that is mysterious about the ever changing labyrinth of traumatic memory.


Immersive Reading

Louise Erdrich - Thursday, February 05, 2015

During the first twenty or so pages of Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings I knew that I was reading an extraordinary novel, the kind that makes me page back and forth, set the book down, think about the language, then start again. I had to start the book over because I'd read quickly. The book flows because language is both brutally visceral and mesmerizing. There are offhand killings, botched killings, killings cunningly plotted and awkwardly executed. Although this book is centered on the miraculously failed attempt on Bob Marley's life and the swirl of murderous gang rivalry, cold war paranoia, and the infamous suffering of ghetto drug user/dealers, it is not a history book. It is what history feels like. I couldn't get out of this book. Sometimes I couldn't find my way inside of it, but I couldn't stop reading it either. Marlon James writes great characters, from the hit man desperate to please a scornful boyfriend, to a woman on the lam whose survival story is raucous, suspenseful, and absurd. This intelligent, intense, profane, and beautifully fluent novel is shortlisted for and richly deserves the National Book Critic's Circle Award for fiction this year -- best of luck, Marlon James.

Things I Didn't Know

Louise Erdrich - Friday, December 12, 2014

Last August we were sorting through the advanced readers copies that had collected on the bookstore shelves. My daughter Pallas picked up The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg. I thought I'd seen the last of that book, but Pallas came back for Christmas and put that reading copy in my hands. She told me to read it, I did, and now I have to say to you. READ THIS. The Underground Girls of Kabul is subtitled: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan. This book. If you read it, you will never forget Azita, Mehran, Zahra, Shukria, or Shahed -- all women who have been raised as boys in Afghanistan -- and then forced to return to being women. Nordberg explores a cultural practice that astonished me. It makes sense -- to "make" a girl at birth into a boy, for at least part of her life, is to give her a taste of what it is to be human. To have a will. Often, it is a magical practice that will supposedly prompt a woman's body to produce a male. Most hauntingly, one of these women became a "brother" to a real brother in order to protect him from possible poisoning by a previous wife in a polygamous marriage. She ate everything and drank everything before her brother. You will not stop reading this book until you find out what happens to these women -- what is happening to them now.

Karima Bennoune, a professor of international law at UC-Davis, grew up in Algeria. Her impassioned and superbly intelligent book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, begins with this sentence: "Could I defend my father from the Armed Islamic Group with a paring knife?"  Bennoune's father, Mahfoud Bennoune, taught Darwinism and was a fearless critic of armed fundamentalists like the Islamic Salvation Front, who sponsored assassinations of of Bennoune's fellow professors. Her experience impelled Karima Bennoune to travel the world, at great personal risk, in order to interview moderate Muslim people, often women, who cogently and steadfastly insist on human rights in violently fundamentalist settings. She has described herself (I was lucky enough to meet her) as "the woman who makes people cry" because these stories about people who strive to maintain humanity, who die for the right to dissent, to speak freely, become educated, dance, write, paint, sing, bare their faces to the wind, their hair to the sky, and who insist that the memory of those killed in this struggle not be erased, these stories include unbearable loss. Yet the stubborn will to resist is mesmerizing -- I could not stop reading this book until page 195 (the hardcover). In the middle of this page, I had to set the book down in order to cry, too, along with the people whose existence gave me a sense of human grandeur. 

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