USA News

The Book Pages: Reading Louise Erdrich during difficult times

In dark times, we seek solace. So I’m going to focus on solace today.

During the past few weeks, I happened to be reading a book that speaks to the ways in which we navigate difficult days. The novel also manages to be a ghost tale, a crime caper, an exploration of Indigenous experiences, a love story (or three), a pandemic account and a comedy. Plus, it’s packed with an insider’s insight about booksellers, bookstores and bookshop customers.

It’s Louise Erdrich’s most recent novel “The Sentence,” a book I’d been meaning to read since it came out last November. The novel spans a year in Minneapolis from November 2019 to November 2020, a time that encompasses the outbreak of COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd and ensuing protests.

“The Sentence” is the new novel from Louise Erdrich. (Image courtesy of HarperCollins)

You don’t need me to tell you about Erdrich, who’s won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and other awards and nominations for her more than two dozen novels, children’s books and poetry collections. She’s a master.

So while there’s a lot going on in the book, the story is told in small, digestible sections that make it easy to follow. It just all seems to work.

Maybe what I find most appealing about the book is that it at times almost – almost – feels improvised, but in the way that, say, an expert chef might look at your pantry’s random offerings but still manage to turn out something wonderful. That’s not a dig, it’s awe. But that’s also part of the trick: Erdrich juggles stories and subplots with an eye toward crafting a satisfying conclusion. All that and more made the book a gift to return to.

Erdrich, who is owner of Minneapolis’ Birchbark Books and Native Arts, knows her business, customers, staff and the alchemy that occurs when they all interact. She hilariously describes hard-to-please customers and introduces what she calls cowbirds, aspiring writers who slip their self-published books onto the store’s shelves. (Real-life cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests for them to raise.)

Erdrich knows what readers want, so the novel also features book lists, recommendations and commentary. Like this bit, which is one among many:

Text from Louise Erdrich's "The Sentence." (Courtesy of Harper)
Text from Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence.” (Courtesy of Harper)

This was definitely a book I was happy to find when I found it. It’s a book that, truly, provided some peace.

Have you read it? What are you reading right now? Send me an email at [email protected] and let me know.

So there’s a moment in “The Sentence” where a character dons a hoodie from the store, and it got me thinking about my own book-related wardrobe.

It’s possible that when I stopped wearing band T-shirts I started replacing them with bookstore shirts. I have a large, expanding collection of shirts, hats and tote bags from bookstores I’ve frequented over the years: Vroman’s, Mr. B’s, The Last Bookstore, Phinney Books, The Ripped Bodice, The Tattered Cover, The Strand and more. And yes, there are even more if you count the shirts about reading, libraries or George Saunders’ Story Club.

I know: Cool, right?

Some of the author's book related outerwear. (Photo by Erik Pedersen)
Some of the author’s book related outerwear. (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

So maybe they don’t have the kind of cultural cache as a Prince or Smiths or Uncle Tupelo tee in some circles, but I’m glad to show my support for the stores I love.

Plus, as I’ve spent more time at home over the past two years, I like to be reminded of the places that I want to visit again.

The latest? That might just be Kansas’ Raven Book Store, which was just named Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly.

Turns out, they have some great-looking shirts.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


Benjamin Myers talks Mötley Crüe, Roald Dahl and the best LA novel

Benjamin Myers is the author of “The Perfect Golden Circle,” out May 17 from Melville House. (Photo by Richard Sacker / Cover courtesy of Melville House)

Novelist Benjamin Myers spoke to me from his home in a small artistic West Yorkshire town in England. An author and journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Mojo and Le Monde, Myers’ books include “The Offing,” “Pig Iron” and “The Gallows Pole,” the latter of which is being adapted for TV.

Generous with his time and conversation, Myers told me this about his work, which has often touched on historical moments. “Stories are important. They’re an essential part of recording history, and you have to record history to learn from history. So that’s what I tell myself when I lie in bed at night, fretting about the state of the planet. All I can do is use it with a very few basic skills that I have to try and do something.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.​​

Q. Is there a book or books that you particularly like to recommend to people?

There’s a writer called J.L. Carr, who wrote a novel called “A Month in the Country,” which came out in 1980. It’s set in the aftermath of the First World War. It’s really short, poignant, simple – it’s a novella, really – about one man who renovates a church in a little village in England. It’s beautiful. It’s sort of very melancholic. It was made into a film in the ‘80s, starring Colin Firth. I always mention that book because I think it’s not widely read.

I should give a mention to Willy Vlautin actually, who is probably my favorite US writer right now. I really like his novel, “Don’t Skip Out on Me,” which is his novel about boxing. I’m quite into boxing. That’s probably the best novel I’ve read about boxers and about survival, surviving modern America.

Who else should I mention? I really like James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room.” I don’t think it’s his most famous work, but it’s just a beautiful novel. John Fante, “Ask the Dust.” Probably the best L.A. novel. I think people know who John Fante is. Certainly in Britain in the ‘90s and naughties, he had quite a sort of revival here, but I feel like he’s kind of faded from view a little bit recently.

Q. So is there someone a person, you know, librarian, a teacher who made an impact on your reading, and your reading life?

I had a really good English teacher at school. Who only taught me for a year or two when I was like 12, called Mr. Leake, Nick Leake. Do you know what a safari suit is? He wore safari suits and was quite well-spoken. The school I went to, it wasn’t terrible, but it was quite rough. So he stood out amongst the teachers and the pupils because he seemed a lot more academic and maybe should have been teaching at universities. But he would stride across the school in this beige safari suit, the beard. And I just quite liked his vibe. He taught us literature. I was already a reader, but I just like the fact that the most eccentric teacher was the one who was teaching us literature. It kind of all made sense.

Q. What are you reading now?

I’m reading a book by Damon Galgut, the South African writer, and it’s called “Arctic Summer.” He won the Booker Prize [in 2021 for “The Promise”]. This novel is a kind of fictional imagining of E.M. Forster, this stiff, repressed Englishman, traveling out to India in the 1910s.

I’ve just read a book by my wife Adele Stripe called “10,000 Apologies” about a band called Fat White Family, which she cowrote with the singer. They’re like a cult rock band here in the UK. It’s a little bit like, have you read “The Dirt” – the book about Mötley Crüe? It’s kind of like “The Dirt” but on no budget.

It’s a very colorful, complicated history, and everyone was surprised when it became a top 10 Times bestseller when it came out a couple of months ago.

I’m not trying to plug my wife’s work excessively, but there’s a book came out last year called “Excavate,” which is a series of essays [which she contributed to] inspired by [English cult band] The Fall. It’s a really interesting book. Again, you can read it without having heard a single note of The Fall’s music. It’s something you can just immerse yourself in.

Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?

I’ll say, “Danny, the Champion of the World” by Roald Dahl. It’s a very simple story about a young boy and his dad and they live in a little caravan [camper]. And his dad goes out poaching pheasants at night from this country estate. It’s just a really beautiful story and it’s a story that you can read as an adult or as a child. That and a lot of his “Tales of the Unexpected,” which are stories for adults I read as a child. There’s a real darkness and kind of morbidness to it which I liked as a kid; I like to be able to read an adult who didn’t patronize children or didn’t say everything’s sweet and nice. So anything by Roald Dahl, I think was, was my entry point into literature.


More stories

Lauret Savoy is a writer and the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College. "Trace" won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the ASLE Creative Writing Award. (Photo Credit: Kris Bergbom /Cover courtesy of Counterpoint Press)
Lauret Savoy is a writer and the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies and Geology at Mount Holyoke College. “Trace” won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the ASLE Creative Writing Award. (Photo Credit: Kris Bergbom /Cover courtesy of Counterpoint Press)

‘Trace’ elements

Lauret Savoy shares an original essay about the Southern California landscape. READ MORE

• • •

Bestselling author Adrian McKinty, whose latest book is "The Island." (Photo by Leah Garrett / Courtesy of Little Brown)
Bestselling author Adrian McKinty, whose latest book is “The Island.” (Photo by Leah Garrett / Courtesy of Little Brown)

Terror ‘Island’ 

Adrian McKinty describes the real-life inspiration for his chilling new novel. READ MORE

• • •

Elite swimmer and author Lynne Cox swims in Alamitos Bay in Long Beach with a friend's dog. Cox just published her seventh book titled "Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog." (Photo courtesy Lynne Cox.
Elite swimmer and author Lynne Cox swims in Alamitos Bay in Long Beach with a friend’s dog. Cox just published her seventh book titled “Tales of Al: The Water Rescue Dog.” (Photo courtesy Lynne Cox.

Canine heroes

Long Beach swimming legend Lynne Cox writes about water rescue dogs in new book. READ MORE

• • •

"This Time Tomorrow," a novel by Emma Straub, is the top-selling fiction release at Southern California's independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)
“This Time Tomorrow,” a novel by Emma Straub, is the top-selling fiction release at Southern California’s independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

The week’s bestsellers

The top-selling books at your local independent bookstores. READ MORE

• • •

What’s next on ‘Bookish’

On the next free Bookish event June 17 at 5 p.m., host Sandra Tsing Loh talks with Caroline Aaron and Kristin Marguerite Doidge.

 

File source

Tags
Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button
Close