Books People Are Talking About by Lynette

Lynette facilitates the book discussion group at the Helmerich Library. At each meeting they read books on a particular topic or books by the same author and share their opinions. Below is the newsletter she shared with her group after their March meeting.

The March meeting of Books People are Talking About focused on two prolific, well known and award-winning American Indian writers, Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich. With vastly different writing styles, and unique voices we had much to discuss.

Ms. Erdrich, owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, published her first novel, LOVE MEDICINE in 1984. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She continued to find both literary and commercial success in collaboration with her husband, Michael Dorris (THE BROKEN CORD ) who died in 1997. Our group concentrated on her later work, particularly THE PAINTED DRUM (2005) and THE PLAGUE OF DOVES (2008). Most of our readers liked her use of language, but found the literary structures and plot lines too confusing. The elements of mysticism and the fluidity of time were difficult. Especially in THE PAINTED DRUM the multiple story lines that weave in and out of the past and present, and the grimness of poverty and starvation were hard to overcome. Erdrich has said that Faulkner is a primary inspiration. His influence is also seen in THE PLAGUE OF DOVES where chapters are written from the viewpoints of different characters. One reviewer calls the result “an elliptical, jigsaw puzzle of a narrative.” Several of our readers felt that too many of her characters appeared only to disappear. Not easy book club reads, but certainly thought provoking and evocative of a complex world view and experience.

Our most popular title was THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie. Narrated by 14-year old Arnold (“Jr.”) Spirit, the story parallels Mr. Alexie’s fascinating and challenging life which changed forever when he made the decision to go to school off the reservation. Surprising everyone, including himself, he became a basketball and academic star. Using humor and vivid honesty, with great cartoon drawings, the book is unforgettable. Accused by some critics as portraying reservation life as too grim, Mr. Alexie details how grim it is. “Poverty,” he says, “doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” The affectionate portraits of his grandmother, his parents, his sister, and their family tragedies transcend culture and place, but also leave a deep impression about this uniquely American Indian life. RESERVATION BLUES , his first novel was not as accessible. I absolutely loved it, but was in the minority on that opinion! Beginning with the true and mysterious disappearance of blues virtuoso, Robert Johnson, and the power of his guitar, the book riffs on music, storytelling, reservation life, and a culture bending rock band from the author’s own Spokane Reservation. The reviewers that discuss Alexie’s sharp wit and black humor are right. His books are both poignant and bracing. Similar themes appear in the 1998 movie “Smoke Signals” an Independent Spirit Award winner, and also written by Alexie. Each of these works give us an powerful glimpse into the clashes between reservation life and certain aspects and values of contemporary white society. I recommend them all.

We were pleased to welcome Judith Houston-Emerson, an artist and author to our discussion. Her new historical novel, THE MYTH MAKERS which grew out of research into her own Cherokee family’s history is now available for sale. The library also owns a copy.

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