Thursday, April 10, 2008

Uwem Akpan -- June 2008

Uwem Akpan's forthcoming (June 2008) collection of stories, SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM, published by Little, Brown and Company, is an beautiful, bitter, compelling read. The savagely strange juxtapositions in these stories are grounded by the loving relationships between brothers and sisters forced to survive in a world of dreamlike horror.

Open the book at any page, as in divination, and a stunning sentence will leap out. For instance: It was before the new democratic government placed a ban on mass transportation of corpses from one end of the country to the other. The word mass hides in the sentence until you're halfway down the page. Then, WHACK. It is from the story Luxurious Hearses.

From My Parents' Bedroom: If he gave even one franc, his bad money would swallow all the good contributions, like the sickly, hungry cows in Pharoah's dream.

Children are sold into sexual slavery, children breathe glue in the shelter of a mother's hand to kill hunger pangs, children witness a father forced the kill his beloved wife, their lovely Tutsi mother -- these are newspaper facts molded by Akpan's sure touch into fictional works of great power.

Mr. Akpan grew up in Nigeria, was educated by Jesuit priests, and is himself an ordained Jesuit. He received an MFA in writing at the University of Michigan, and is or will be teaching at a Jesuit mission in Zimbabwe.

There is a map of Africa with the countries where these stories are set marked out. This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Nicholas Kristoff writes eloquently of where we are now in his today's New York Times O-Ed piece.

Read Mr. Akpan's book to understand Kristoff's urgent message on Darfur/Sudan through the eyes of a child.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Real Mystics at Mystic Lake

Perhaps the poets, writers, literati, indigirati, are the real mystics, who knows? The writers mentioned in the following piece are going to be reading and wandering about the casino at the Native American Literature Symposium, Mystic Lake, Shakopee, March 27-29, 2008

Vanishing Americans Just Keep On Writing

It gives me some satisfaction to think of those 19th century yappers (Manifest Destiny) (Vanishing Americans), and of Andrew Jackson (trail of tears), shock at the Native literature, books of tribal poetry and fiction, marvelously stacked here at my elbow.

First there is Gordon Henry Jr.'s intricate intellectual and beautifully grounded collection of poetry titled The Failure of Certain Charms. Salt Press. I read it all in a swoop. I loved River People -- The Lost Watch -- very powerful. Henry's poems are an edgey mixture of now, then, and no-time time. He has a steely sense of humor. "If Only Gregory Corso Was the Terra Cotta Horse on the Coffee Table with the Magazine Open to the You Can Be An Artist Ad". Where does that come from? An idiosyncratic human being (Chippewa) who loves his people, his family. We have to keep thinking, writing, seeing the world through our eyes, these poems tell us. We can't quit. We can't die. Our ancestors were tough and so we have to witness this world for them.

Yellow Medicine Review, Winter 2007 includes a extraordinary poem of memory by Janet McAdams. A grandfather works himself to the end, "and death opened its white mouth and breathed him in." Luke Warm Water opens an email file that informs him that his reservation hosts a terrorist cell. But it's a joke. Pauline Danforth writes of a Ojibwe life-ways and language camp, and the poignant moments there with children, She meditates on the distance between our ancestors and our lives now. One of my favorite lines in the book is from -- I am afraid of my own poetry, Sarah Agaton Howes "I am afraid the colonizers will Never Leave!/Shit! I am afraid they will leave and I won't know how/to clean a walleye" This issue of Yellow Medicine Review includes much, much more and is available at

In preparation for entering Eric Gansworth territory I read his new book of poetry A Half-Life of Cardio-Pulmonary Function. Syracuse University Press. Illustrated with extraordinary paintings, this volume of poetry sings the body complicated. (Thank god, here's really complicated Indian) There is a gentle, funny, brotherly observer in these poems who forgives us all -- I kept reading one after the other -- ah, forgiveness. Not that there is ever an outright absolution. By the way I am not a real critic, just a devoted reader. These poems are stirring, down-to-earth, and of course funny.

I have also got the companion volume to Genocide of the Mind. (These are both essential reading) Sovereign Bones, New Native American Writing, edited by Eric Gansworth. Nation Books. Here's a tiny clip from Old Stories From The New World, by Susan Power: "Do you know what it's like to be a sliver of the census pie in your own land, the numbers at the bottom of every statistical list if you're listed at all? This is what it's like to be Native when you're born in Chicago in 1961: you exist in the mirror, in your mother's face, you exist in the angry poems that drizzle from the clutch of your pen, all your words upon words upon words, your exhibit, your proof of life, shouting with ink -- we are here!"

Yeah, take that, DeSoto, Cortes, Custer, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Ma from Little House on the Prairie,etc. etc.
We are here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

People of the Book in hibernation

Does everyone go into a post Xmas hibernation? This year it was especially intense, given the subzero days that seemed so long and arid. I read copiously, but strange things -- books that do not really exist. Fortunately, I also happened upon a few that do. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks had a thriller plot and the most exquisite details about the restoration of ancient tomes. Also there was a masterwork published by our own Graywolf Press -- Out Stealing Horses. Again I went back to James Welch, one of the most gifted American writers, sadly missed. Fools Crow, The Death of Jim Loney, Winter in the Blood, The Heartsong of Charging Elk. Anything he wrote -- extraordinary.

I read Night Train, by my sister, Lise Erdrich. I know, she's my sister, but she's also brilliant and funny.

A few notes: contrary to an odd remark published I can't say where (referring to me as a sort of luddite) I DO know how to get online and I even post these blogs with my own fingers. I see them moving on the rectangular contraption I've heard called a keyboard, right now. It is true that I write first drafts by hand, but I also type efficiently and if I take my brain pills I can remember my own passwords in order to sign in at various sites in the cyberworld.

People of the book, when the pages in your hands cast a shadow from a warm sun, please let me know.

Faithfully yours, Louise

Monday, December 17, 2007

Brief lives, long books

This morning my daughter was late to school -- cause listed on the sign-in sheet "severe maternal inertia". There was not room on the sheet to continue, "as the result of trying to finish The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz". So I just wrote "literary hangover." I was up too late, but that's what a richly thronged and impeccably written book will do.

I also had to finish A Shadow in the City, Charles Bowden, a non-fiction-fiction-crossed portrait of an undercover narc, before I could be useful or attentive to anything else in this life. There is a great deal of violence in the book, but mainly it is that hardest thing to write -- emotional violence. A man's work becomes betrayal, and then betrayal becomes self betrayal. A portrait of a man becoming alive to the truth of his singed existence.

The amnesia of Xmas has erased about two weeks since I wrote the two paragraphs above. I just sat down at my computer again (actually, my daughter's phenomenal Cube, the T-Bird of computers) and realized that I had not posted these comments.

Astoundingly, the world of Charles Bowden exists in the same dimension as the world of Brother Benet Tvedten and Blue Cloud Abbey. Driving to North Dakota from Sioux Falls in late December, we took an exit off I-29 and stopped in fresh snow to visit the abbey. Brother Benet autographed one of his books for us -- The View From A Monastery. As it is the first book I've read in the new year, I hope that some of what it contains -- gentle humor, hard-won tolerance, grounded spirituality, will rub off on me. I imagine that many people visit the monks and priests at the abbey hoping that a bit of transcendence and peace will rub off there, too. Few can stay. The abbey is both lively and echoing with the portraits of lives in the book -- vexed, funny, joyous, ordinary and yet marvelous.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wading Through the Reads

I apologize for the bad pun. Brian Baxter has had a good influence on me in every other way except the puns. His (extremely tolerant) wife woke early on a muggy morning and said, "The air is humid." Brian answered, "but to forgive, divine." Not easy to contend with.

Brian did tell me to read THE DOG SAYS HOW, by Kevin Kling. In gratitude for the happy sort of anguish and out loud laughter I've experienced reading this book, Brian can pun at will. My reaction is very simple: THE DOG SAYS HOW is the book I'm giving my father this Christmas. There is always one that stands out. This is it.

I have a pile of advanced reader's copies, as well as books that I read because the writer was at the store, and some that I've read because the writer at the store mentioned a particular writer, and others, well, because they just filtered in somehow.

First, fresh as the day's news, I have a book that is not light holiday reading. (Don't stop viewing this blog -- I'll get to the pleasure reads.) But I have to talk about this book -- a must read on my list. OATH BETRAYED. Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror, by a University of Minnesota professor of medicine, Steven H. Miles, M.D. (Random House).

At last we are hearing more about torture after the destruction of CIA videotapes of interrogations of detainees after 9/11. Our government is really afraid now -- if there is another tape around that someone just forgot to erase we could have another Abu Ghraib debacle. This is the Limbo Administration -- How Low Can You Go? Besides the reference obvious to Catholics. Questions: why didn't the prison doctors at Abu Ghraib report the fact that their "patients" were being tortured? Why did they become complicit? Don't doctors adhere to something quite marvelously humane -- the Hippocratic Oath, 500 B.C., "I will use regimens for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgement, but from what is to their harm or injustice I will keep them." Yes, and yet there were doctors at Abu Ghraib, and there are doctors who no doubt were complicit with the CIA in questioning detainees. How can this be? How can there be doctors who dispassionately note the suffering of another human and decide whether they are fit to stand another session of torture? OATH BETRAYED should be required reading for all medical students and military doctors. More than that, as we have now become a country that tortures, we all need to read this book. We are all complicit if we do not speak out. Don't be afraid. Don't turn away. What our government has condoned is a stain on all of us, and besides, doesn't work. To speak out, google Center for the Victims of Torture and learn how you can be heard on this issue.

Now for an injection of hope. LISTENING IS AN ACT OF LOVE, Dave Isay, stories told by people all over this country and gathered by the tenderhearted and oracular Storycorps Project. This is one of those books that puts a lump in your throat. A book safe enough to set in your grandmother's hands, and yet it is filled with intelligent sweetness and you can enjoy it, too.

Another book about hope -- published in 1998. GAVIOTAS, by Alan Weisman. (Chelsea Green) The author did a reading at our bookstore when he was touring for his stunning THE WORLD WITHOUT US (to my mind the best nonfiction book of this year). He sent a book of his because he thought my daughter and I would like it. Like it? Holy shit-powered cookstoves! This is a tremendously illuminating story. GAVIOTAS is a community built in remotest Columbia by tinkering visionaries who decided to create a sustainable civilization out of what was at hand. The result is a miraculous place. Imagine a solar powered hospital, a well pump operated by children on a see-saw, and yes, those amazing cookstoves hooked up to a cow barn, as well as a forest of millions of planted trees that generates a nascent rain forest as its understory. This book reads like a thriller -- I was up all night until I could finish it because I knew I could not bear it if the dream was destroyed by the unbearable anguish of Columbia's recent history -- but Gaviotas lives. I went online to find out more about GAVIOTAS. I have ordered the book for the bookstore --again, it was published in 1998, by Chelsea Green -- a book and a dream whose time has come.

Sometimes I read the book of an author who has blurbed a book I like -- in this case I got everything I could by Charles Bowden because he blurbed GAVIOTAS. I began with BLOOD ORCHID -- An Unnatural History of America. Let's see . . . my powers of description are really strained here -- what can I say. I realized that to put Blood Orchid and anything by Mary Daly together on my bookshelf might cause some sort of methane reaction. The whole house could blow. Blood Orchid is a turbo-charged, hell bent, gloriously venomous, tender and oddly whore-avid screed on what our country was becoming back in 1995. It is all that Charles Bowden saw then but it is more pertinant than anything I've read about our country recently. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson looking at the United States only with a heart full of pure and desperate yearning. As I read the book, my left cheek hurt and I realized that my feminist card (which I carry at all times in my jeans pocket) had caught on fire. All women may not like Bowden's references to us -- but still I read on until the wires crossed in my brain last night. I put it down but will pick it up again tonight to read with 1491 -- more about 1491 later -- these are the perfect two books to read together if you can't help breaking your own heart now and then with the truth.

To mend that heart -- again, THE DOG SAYS HOW, by Kevin Kling.

From the advanced readers pile -- TO BE PUBLISHED IN FEBRUARY 2008: RESISTANCE, by Owen Sheers, a Nan A. Talese book from Doubleday. One of those great IF premises -- IF in 1944 D-Day failed, Russia fell, and the Germans crossed into Great Britain -- what would happen to a tiny farming community in Wales once their men left to join the resistance and a German intelligence unit entered to find a rare map? I know, the rare map thing . . . but this is an very good novel, well imagined from the moment a woman touches the absent shape of her husband's body on the horsehair mattress beside her and knows her world is changed. I did read the entire book . . . but haven't yet absorbed HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN"T READ, by Pierre Bayard. Yet I can say -- this book is an excellent skim. I plan to page completely through it again when I have more time. Yes, I'll get to it again after I read Percival Everett's harrowing new book, THE WATER CURE, published by Graywolf Press.

Also -- not yet published: Jhumpa Lahiri's UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, which has a lovely, quiet story in the beginning, and THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Still on the reading table: THE UNREDEEMED CAPTIVE, by John Demos, and more by Charles Bowden, whose books actually seem alive with sinister joy -- is that the smell of scorching pages downstairs or my buffalo chili burning, again?

Talk about dread and love -- the holidays are here. Why do they always turn up? Why can't we just lay around and eat and read whatever falls into our hands?

And yet. To give is human. To give books, divine. Luckily, my daughter just turned up with a recommendation. She likes IGRAINE THE BRAVE (for a young 1-3 grade reader) by Cornelia Funke.

Or for all ages: THE DOG SAYS HOW, by Kevin Kling.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sherman Alexie Congratulations from local Indigerati

Sherman Alexie's latest novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part time Indian is nominated for a National Book Award, and it is currently number three on the New York Times Bestseller list for young adult books. Congratulations from Birchbark Books and thank you, Sherman, for a terrific birthday reading. You came perilously near uplifting. And to the person who coined the word Indigerati in Sherman's presence here in Minneapolis or Saint Paul, another thanks.