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.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Last night, I read Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky. Cole Becker, the sales representative from Random House, put this book in my hands. Cole is an exquisite human and a reader of great depth, but that's for another posting. This book is one of the other great finds of the last two years in addition to Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. It is densely woven with a sure-handed and sly sense of character. Love triangles, terrible mistakes, unbearable consequences, the French countryside -- what more can you want from a novel except for the author to have lived to finish it?.

The Advanced Reader's Pile yields the book of poetry I have been waiting for. Behind My Eyes, by Li-Young Lee. There is a marvel included, a CD of poems read by the author. I can't wait to listen. The poems have a strange and lovely weight. I read one, and then it is awhile before I can absorb another. This is a trance of a book, filled with love and sorrow, but also a lightness of spirit, a dreamy sense of humor.

If you want funny, there is Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes In New England. Really, I think that Brian gave it to me thinking ha, ha, writers' homes and so on -- I am surprised that I picked it up and then couldn't stop laughing.

And then there is strange, sort of gripping, book by Theo Padnos, Light of the Crescent Moon. He just up and decides to go to Yemen and see what happens if he makes (subtitle here) "An Undercover Journey to the Soul of Radical Islam." I am at the place, now, where he buys beer. I cannot say whether or not this is a "good" book but I'm fascinated by bootlegging in Yemen.

I did have an advanced reader's copy of Run, by Ann Patchett. I brought it to the doctor's office and had just opened it and was finding the book extremely good when another woman in the doctor's office approached me. "Is that the new Ann Patchett?" she asked. I said yes, and that it started out very well. She said that she would go right out and buy it at Barnes and Noble, but I told her it wasn't out yet. She looked so crestfallen that I gave her my copy. She looked at me as though I had handed her a diamond tiara.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Harry Potter Party!

Many thanks to everyone who made our Harry Potter Party a success! Everyone received their books and went home happy, maybe a little sleepy. Police involvement was minimal.

The end of the Golden Snitch.

Brian was a wizard.

The Morris Dancers performed.

We were very busy that night.

An owl showed up.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

I plucked this book from the stack of Advanced Readers Copies that flood the store, read the first page, and then read the book straight through exclaiming to anyone who would tolerate me -- listen to this, and this, and this!!!!! This book is a thought experiment (what would the world be like if humans disappeared today, raptured up perhaps). A very simple premise that leads this marvelously straightforward, thoughtful, thorough author into parts of the world I hadn't known existed. As well, he deals with exactly what would go first and last in your house. How long it would take for Manhatten to collapse. On and on. It makes for obsessive reading. This is perhaps my favorite book this year. At once the most harrowing and, oddly, comforting book on the environment that I've read in many years. -- Louise

Monday, July 23, 2007

Reply to Replies and Thank You

Dear Book People --

Thank you for the answers -- I'm looking for that Nabokov and understanding you, inhaler. I am wondering if I've got enough brain cells left to memorize The Fall, a perfect book. Or perhaps The Aleph. My father is already memorizing all of Robert Service, and it isn't even 451 time. I am glad someone is taking on Sigrid Undset and Middlemarch. As for Rolo, I know him and I do believe that he'd kick me off the island for a book no matter how long he's had this (invented) crush on me. Still, as he is a terrific writer, I hope that blog readers find his book The Wonder Bull.

Did anybody come to our Harry Potter Party and enjoy it? We worked very hard on the Trivia questions! Did anybody get to Level Three? The whole time, I was in the confessional reading dreams. I was supposed to be Trelawney. When I walked out I was amazed and thrilled at the crowd, including the big snake and the rat. The Morris Dancers were as always phenomenal. The police even came. I am sorry, neighbor who made the nuisance call. We should have told you that several hundred people, including many children dressed as Owls and Death Eaters would be wandering up and down 21st street. It was a marvelous night, for me anyway. Thank you Kenwood Deli, and thank you everyone who came.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

Jugglers, Magicians, Potter!

A call to jugglers! A call to magicians!
Please come to our Harry Potter Party!
A spontaneous upwelling of grassroots eccentricity.
A hometown sort of kid pleasing party.
A celebration of the ancient and the fantastical and the new.
It is whatever you want it to be.
Add your art.
Add your presence!
July 20, 2007, at 9 pm.

Can't wait to see you at Birchbark Books!

Friday, July 6, 2007

It's Fahrenheit 451 --which book are you?

My first question to those of you who love books is this: which book are you? Say someone burns all of the books, including My Pet Goat, and we are faced with a famous situation. Each of us must memorize your favorite book. For the rest of your life you will painstakingly memorize and then BE this book. This book will exist through you. But your life will be devoted to muttering and remembering every word written between the covers. And also, this book must be important enough for you to die for it. For if during the memorization process this book is discovered in your possession you will be confined in a place known as LITMO. And although we are told over and over how great those confined there have it, people commit what their keepers call "hanging gestures." -- Louise

Staff Favorites, Friday Edition

Here's a selection of what our staff has been reading:

1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
2. The Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley
3. A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
4. Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron
5. To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel
6. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott


1. The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman
2. March, by Geraldine Brooks
3. The Shadow Thieves, by Anne Ursu
4. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
5. Spinky Sulks, by William Steig
6. The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason


1. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
2. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
3. The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch
4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
5. Old School by Tobias Wolff
6. Collected Works by Flannery O'Connor

Library of America Editions

BirchBarks Books is pleased to announce our recent acquisition of a number of brand-new Library of America editions of collected works by William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and other literary luminaries. Not only are these editions comprehensive (complete works, novels, poems, short stories alongside letters, articles, reviews, etc.), they are simply elegant with their cloth covers, sewn bindings, and acid-free paper, making them excellent gifts and keepsakes.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The River Wife by Jonis Agee

This is the book keeping me up nights. Not suprising since in it a young woman is kept up nights reading the story of Annie Lark, the first in a line of women who marry river men. Annie is easy to love, from the moment we meet her during an earthquake, to her last days--which come all too soon, even after a couple hundred pages. The novel is nearly 400 pages total, so you can live in it a few days, and trust me, there are other River Wives to love. Jonis Agee wrote this full and unforgettable novel over nearly a decade, adding it to her impressive list of books this summer when it offically comes out in July. So satisfying you will wonder why books like this seem so few and far between.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Boozhoo from BirchBark Books

We are a small, independent bookstore located in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis. Author Louise Erdrich owns the bookstore which focuses on Native American authors and titles, although not exclusively. We decided it is time we blog about the wonderful books, authors and events we host via our store. Look for reviews and book news from us, coming soon!