Last Week’s Reading: March 5 – 11

The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey: I’ll post a longer review of this book soon, so for now I’ll just say that I loved it. The hook: three astronauts undertake a long-term simulated mission to Mars, and both they and the loved ones they leave behind struggle with isolation and epiphanies during their experience.

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: What a lovely novel. Exit West has that graceful fluidity that seems effortless but of course isn’t effortless at all, but the result of a writer’s very hard work. It’s about Saeed and Nadia, two young people falling in love as their city falls apart, destroyed in the conflict between government forces and militants. The pair begin to hear rumors of doors not between rooms, but between countries—doors that have been appearing all over the world. Soon migration doesn’t require a passport, but merely steps through an (unguarded door); the trouble becomes what to do once you find yourself on a beach in Greece, or a mansion in London, or a mountainside in California. As Nadia and Saeed navigate through strange new worlds, Mr. Hamid breaks up their narrative with vignettes of other migrants, giving a global feel to an otherwise intimate narrative. Beautiful writing and a timely tale. Highly recommended.

Baptism of Desire, by Louise Erdrich: I enjoyed this 1989 collection, Ms. Erdrich’s second, just as much as her first (Jacklight). The first group of poems plays with Catholic imagery and theology, while the second section includes narrative poems about various characters (like Mary Kroger, the butcher’s wife). The third section, my favorite, is a long poem, “Hydra,” about both the mythological figure and pregnancy. The prose tale of “Potchikoo’s Life After Death” makes up the fourth section (I don’t think I’ve seen a story in a short collection like this before, but I enjoyed it thoroughly). Poems about marriage, domestic life, and the natural world close this strong collection. You can read Baptism of Desire‘s first poem, “Fooling God,” at the Poetry Foundation.

What are you reading these days?

Recommended Reading: LaRose, by Louise Erdrich


LaRose“Our son will be your son now,” Landreaux Iron says to his best friend, Peter Ravich, near the beginning of LaRose.

Landreaux and his wife Emmaline (half sister to Nola, Peter’s wife) have come to deliver their son to the Raviches because Landreaux has inadvertently killed Dusty, the Raviches’ young son and best friend of LaRose, the Irons’ youngest child. Heart-stricken and in agony, they consult their priest, Father Travis, and their Ojibwe traditions before making the fateful choice to hand over their child.

IMG_6770The accident and the sacrifice that follows are the rock thrown into a murky pool; the rest of the novel details the ripples and the matter brought to the surface.

The Irons’ sacrificial act of justice slakes Peter’s need for retribution, and both devastated families grope toward healing. Nola latches on to LaRose immediately, while Maggie, Dusty’s troubled older sister, takes longer to come around; when she does, it is with fierce and fearsome loyalty.

Meanwhile, Emmaline retreats from Landreaux, and their children (Hollis, adopted from one of Landreaux’s childhood friends, Romeo, who’s now an addict and grifter); Josette and Snow, volleyball players and dispensers of sage teenage advice; and Coochy, solid and quiet) try to make their way around the hole their brother’s absence has left in their lives.

Eventually, Peter realizes that LaRose must be allowed to see his mother, and so the little boy shuttles back and forth between his two families, bringing Maggie along with him. He’s unusually perceptive and empathetic, always checking in on the feelings of the family around him and becoming the son or the brother they need in the moment.

LaRose can interact with another world; he can see and hear the spirits of departed people, from Dusty to the first LaRose in his family. This ability is almost an echo of the novel’s narrative mode, which finds scenes from the North Dakota of 1999-2003 intercut with descriptions of the first LaRose’s life in the early nineteenth century, her daughter’s story, and Landreaux’s attempted escape from boarding school as a child. The novel’s sense of time works like a tapestry, the older events not exactly gone or even over, but layered under present events, peeking through in the right light. (In this book race, like history, is a story in flux; it’s not always so easy to say who is white and who is Native American, when the threads of assimilation and tradition are tangled.)

While Landreaux determines to push on after the accident (“But the harder, the best, the only thing to do was to say alive. Stay with the consequences, with his family. Take on the shame although its rank weight smothered him.”), and Peter works hard to do the same, one man cannot let it go: Romeo, whose son Hollis lives with the Irons. In his eyes Landreaux is a rival, a thief who stole the life that could have been Romeo’s (and what a great choice for a name—how better to conjure the useless pursuit of vengeance?). Romeo (father of one and yet father to none) lurks in the periphery, piecing together something to tear the families apart again. But in the background too is Father Travis (father of none and yet father to many), doing his small part to hold things together.

And at the center of them all is LaRose.

LaRose is a magnificent novel about family: families of origin, families formed through adoption and loss, sacrifice and grace, broken families soldered back together. Highly recommended.

Related posts:

Review of The Round House

Poetry: Jacklight

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“the world it becomes”: Louise Erdrich’s “Turtle Mountain Reservation”

IMG_3990Ever since I read The Round House (brief review here), I’ve been on the lookout for Louise Erdrich’s books. In Vermont a few weeks ago, at Brattleboro Books, I found a copy of Jacklight (1984), her first collection of poetry, which, though it’s now thirty years old, still feels fresh, full of sharp observations and unexpected turns of phrase. I’ve been reading it slowly, finishing up last week. The poems tell stories that reflect Ms. Erdrich’s Native American and German American background; several are accompanied by short, explanatory notes or epigraphs, which is a poetic practice I happen to love.

I recommend the whole collection, but this week I’ll point you toward “Turtle Mountain Reservation,” the last poem in the book. Dedicated to the poet’s grandfather, it’s a powerful meditation on heritage, aging, and change.

Recommended Reading: The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The plot of Louise Erdrich’s amazing novel concerns a boy’s search for the man who attacked his mother, while his father searches for justice despite the twisted web of federal, state, and tribal laws that stands in his way.

It sounds simple, but The Round House is the work of a master-storyteller, each detail bringing daily life on the reservation into focus. Joe, the narrator, is a funny, honest companion through the often-horrifying story, and through his eyes we see all the best of late-boyhood friendships in his adventures with Cappy, Zack, and Angus, as well as the worst in men.

The raw anger and frustration that this book made me feel was balanced by admiration for Ms. Erdrich’s stunning language and deft way of shaping her characters. One of my favorite passages is Joe’s relation of the boys’ love for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The boys all want to be Worf, but admire Data immensely. (Also, the chapter names are often taken from the names of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes.)

I finished reading The Round House last Wednesday, and I’m thrilled that I’ve finally had the chance to recommend it.