Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Title: Love Medicine
Author: Louise Erdrich, living goddess, who published her debut novel at age 29
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Instant classic
Describe it in a sentence: 
The intertwining lives of two Ojibwe families on a reservation in North Dakota, narrated by different family members
TV/movie character who would like it: Bear with me, but Noah and Helen of The Affair—a show about marital infidelity told through each character’s perspective.

It’s not every day that you read a book that reminds you of everything a book can be. Most of the time the books I read are confirmations of what I already know.

To put it bluntly, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich’s first novel and the first one I read by Louise Erdrich, exploded the novel. Actually, I’m self-conscious of writing sentences down now, having seen all that Erdrich in her mid-twenties could do. I found myself nodding along the way you do when you see the truth repackaged in a new way.

Love Medicine is the start of a trilogy that follows the same families. It’s a polyphonic book, narrated by different characters, all of whom feel the repercussions of the others decisions. The novel breaks with form, retreading the same events through different lenses. Later Erdrich said she wrote her first novel this way because she didn’t know how to structure an entire book leaning on only one voice.

Louise Erdrich gives me Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House vibes

That surprises me, that this is an accident. Because the book seems masterful—far from a first-time novelist relying on gimmick. Sometimes it was hard to follow, but I decided to trust the characters; eventually, the story would come into focus. And it did (though families trees will help).

Take even the degree of differences between each narrator. The cadence of the sentences alters depending on who is telling the story. Language and syntax becomes a vessel for character—the unapologetic, matter-of-factness of Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight sons to different men; Lyman Lamartine as he watches his luck come and go in quick sentences. Characters seamlessly process the magical alongside the real, living in a reality that is abundant in possibility, if limited in opportunity.

It feels a bit silly, for that reason, to go into the plot details. You should let the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and co. tell it yourself. But this is the deal: In the opening scene, June Morrissey, a Chippewa woman, dies after an encounter in a remote mining town. She walks into the snow, and it feels, according to Erdirch’s narration, like going home. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like coming home—maybe it is. After reading Love Medicine, you may take indeed sentence—“The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home”—literally.

Later on, a character beautifully remarks on the thin boundary between life and death: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.”

Erdrich describes June’s death as a kind of home-going. Appropriate, because the entire book is concerned with home, with the reservation these people were born on, and live their lives on—bumping into the same people, the same ceilings of opportunity. Even when the characters aren’t home, they’re thinking of it.

Anyway, June’s character is refined via the narrative engine of the book: A love triangle between Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, both Chippewas, and Marie Lazarre, a white 14-year-old who—after escaping a convent—meets Nector in a field. The drama begins when they’re teenagers, and never ends, only evolve.

A wonderful family tree, credit to this blogger

And how could it end? Lulu, Marie, and Nector have no choice but to live through their connections as they change. Marie’s adopted grandson, one of the “strays” she takes in, comments on her relationship with Nector (who, by that point, is losing his mind to dementia but is lowkey carrying out an affair with Lulu). They’re both seniors, but are just as firey with each other—defying his expectation that older people are somehow more docile, somehow feel less.

“You see I thought love got easier over, the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash. She loved him. She was jealous. She mourned him like the dead. And he just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind,” Lipsha said.

This novel is about what happens when people live in close proximity, and simply never leave. There’s a fishbowl quality to it, like a long social experiment: What happens when you cordon people off into one geographic region, and watch their lives play out?

I looked up many a map while reading

Then again, what the outside world holds might not be any better. Characters are ruined by war. By emotionally meaningless, but physically destructive, encounters with men. By poverty, injustice, and racism. On the reservation, you get the sense that at least characters are understood by one another. Because the world outside the reservation holds the people who made the concept of a reservation necessary at all.

Erdrich’s book is teeming with insight into life on a North Dakota reservation in the 20th century, and with plain ‘ol wisdom, including gems like this: “The greatest wisdom doesn’t know itself. The richest plan is not to have one.”

I’m so happy I read it—and so happy I let the powers of the aisle work their magic. The art of the wander.

moi in the library

While I loved it, Love Medicine came into my life completely by chance. Erdrich’s name was on that hazy list of authors whose work I hadn’t gotten to yet. During my first trip to the library stacks post-quarantine, I was overwhelmed with choice and possibility. It felt like staring at a timetable in an airport and instead of dreaming of boarding a plane to all those destinations, actually going to those destinations. Books are the closest thing I get to travel these days, and the emotional experience of this book was honestly akin to some of the immersive rushes I’ve had while walking alone down an foreign city’s street, seeing the familiar refracted through a new light.

Luckily, I happened to pick her first book, and the first in the trilogy. Now, I fully intend to dive into the Erdrich extended universe, which includes an array of stories—including one dystopia that looks delectable.

Have you read other books by Louise Erdrich? Let me know! I need help guiding my next read.

Buy Love Medicine

Things That Happened Before The Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

IMG_3210.JPGTitle: Things That Happened Before the Earthquake
Author:
 Chiara Barzini
Genre:
Literary coming-of-age
Describe it in a sentence:
Girl and her family move from Italy to Los Angeles; girl has way too much freedom
TV/movie character who would like it: Effy Stonem of Skins would really identify with Eugenia. When she went out to bars, she would speak to strange men with an Italian accent and congratulate herself on being so mysterious and mischievous.

I stuffed this book in my tote bag for the commute home along with three other books. Usually, I skim through the first few pages and see what sticks. But immediately after beginning Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, I was pulled into the vortex and had to say goodbye to the rom-com and dystopian I’d brought along, too. That’s how strong Eugenia’s voice is, how true her perspective. Oh, I thought. This 16 year old and I are going to be hanging out for a while. Let’s go back to remembering 16: Thinking you’re self-sufficient but really just wanting someone to pay attention to you; thinking you’re the shit but also wanting someone to cook you dinner and pet your head. Eugenia is in that place where she’s able to see her parents’ flaws, but also yearns for them to revert to being Parents in the archetypal sense – not people. It’s such a precious and precarious moment.

Anyway, I’m side-tracking here. The story is about an Italian girl who moves to Los Angeles so her father can make a movie. Eugenia’s parents, Serena and Ettore, are capital e Eccentric. They let their two kids roam free range around ’90s L.A. while they scrap together a movie, risking all financial security (and possibly breaking some laws) to do so. Eugenia, lonely, wanders around the school and her city and encounters many characters. Each encounter leaves an impression and teachers her something, maybe, but it’ll take her years to figure out what. That’s something I admire about Barzini. Everything’s filtered through Eugenia’s perspective. There are no easy answers. People she meets aren’t reduced to teaching moments; rather, they’re people who push into the clay of her becoming, for better or for worse.

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another great part of this book are its tremendous descriptions of pasta. i ate a lot of pasta as a result. 

I also love that Eugenia can be an asshole. She messes up! A lot! She breaks rules! She stirs shit! When she’s on vacation on what’s essentially a desert rock off Sicily, she gives a makeover to a local woman and fires up rumors of witchcraft. She’s the 16 year old I always wished I was. Even if that 16 year old made objectively terrible and dangerous decisions. Instead, I stayed home with a book and left the adventures to the Eugenias of the world.

Some of the best books I’ve read this year have been first-person coming-of-age stories about teenage girls (Open Me and How to be Famous). They remind me of my younger self. The girl who was just opening up. Who was scared, but also so goddamn excited. I love their arrogant brashness. They see something we (and by we I mean OLD PPL) don’t. They see hypocrisy. But as an old person, I also see the danger that Eugenia constantly put herself in, and was worried.

Oh to be 17! Oh to be on the cusp of it all! There’s a great story in Lauren Groff’s recent collection, Florida, about a teenager attending the tail end of a party full of adults, simmering in anger and resent and love triangles. She feels pity for them. She’s just starting, and she knows it.

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As you’ll find out after reading this book, she’s wrong! They do. 

“Call Me By Your Name,” Or An Aching Love Story That Will Become An Aching Movie This Fall

418NXgCbb8LI’ll be lucky if I can get Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman out from under my skin at some point within the next year. I’ll also be lucky if my fellow commuters forget that, one Thursday afternoon, my face involuntarily contorted into a sob on the last page of a slim novel. What Call Me By Your Name lacks in pages, it makes up for in sheer psychological depth.

Welcome to the landscape of an all-consuming first love. A kind love that you forgot about after you turned 20, because frankly, that kind of full emotion is almost exhausting to remember. And it’s sad to remember, too — that state of pure awareness can only be sustained for so long.

Elio is 17, and if I could describe him in one word, it would be inflamed. He’s inflamed because of his sudden, unexpected attraction to the American scholar staying at his family’s Italian villa for the summer. And he’s inflamed because he’s realizing that he’s capable of such extreme emotion, emotion so viscous action seems impossible. Essentially: he’s just realized what love is.

Most of the novel is Elio parsing through his own thoughts, squeezing meaning from his David’s daily paths, searching for layers of truth behind innocuous lines of dialogue. He’s a thinker, not an actor. Eventually, after pages and pages spent analyzing passion, he acts. Thank god — now we get some juicy bits involving peaches and unforgettable innuendos.

There’s a lot I love about this novel. Italian villas. Literary crowds. Literary snobs. Sexy sex. Coming of age. Persistent great love that nags and nags throughout a lifetime. The idea of soulmates. The exploration of sexuality, bisexuality, and loving someone for their “core.”

Most notably, I loved the pressing, inespecable presence of time in the novel. Time functions on three levels in the novel. There’s the slow-moving Mediterranean Summer Time that I, having spent summers in Cyprus and Greece, know so well. Waking up with the sun, the mornings stretch, then the afternoon meals stretch, then night turns into a terrain of desire. Sleep’s an afterthought in the long, languid days that seem to go on forever, but when sleep does come, it knocks your sun-drenched body out. 

In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we’ve always known, and not saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.

On the other hand, time is inevitably pulling Elio and David towards an ending. David’s fellowship at the villa lasts only six weeks. Once the boys finally get together (no spoilers) Elio must make a choice. Does he give himself fully to the moment as if there were no ending, or does he stay aware of time?

Contrasted with this furious love affair is Elio’s ten-year-old neighbor, who’s dying of leukemia. Her days in the Italian sun are numbered, and she’s very vocal about the fact, to an off-putting degree. David and Elio are never able to confront their own limited days in the sun with language. Rather, they twist, they ache, they twist the minute hand but it doesn’t slow down. We’ve all been in those time-sensitive love affairs. They’re even more passionate because they have years of passion to cram into days. The roar of a love that can’t live out its due is deafening. It’s sad to think that the little girl won’t ever feel that love.  

And then, finally, there’s Love Time. Just as with the book Americanah, time doesn’t erode the connection between David and Elio, and that’s almost the worst part. The optical illusion of time passing — that circumstances change but people don’t.

Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.

All that praise doled out, there’s also a lot that drove me crazy about this novel. I’m happy I’m not a 17-year-old boy in love for the first time. There were many instances I said, yo, Elio — just go to him! While Aciman’s language is supremely exacting, it’s also maddening. How much time can we spend in the whirling dervish of adolescence? No longer than the number of pages that this book is: That is the absolute maximum.

I also took one large plot detail with a grain of salt. David is 24, and Elio is 17. In a book, I don’t care. But in real life, if my 24 year old boyfriend left me for a 17 year old, I’d be…well — inflamed.

I’m hoping that the movie, which has already garnered praise at Sundance, will strip some of the mental game of one-person ping pong, and inject more searing stares. Yum, Armie Hammer, yum.

A Confederacy of Dunces Club, or: How I Know I Have Good Friends

Sometimes my friend Laura listens to the recommendations I give her–and when she does, she’s always happy. What can I say? I gots good taste. I got her hooked on everything from British TV (a Doctor Who fandom to last centuries & Little Britain) and the podcasts she listens on her way home from work (Invisibilia and More Perfect). But nothing has made me happier than when she took my reading advice. On the morning commute we shared together, I watched her bookmark travel further and further into A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

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“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.” –Ignatius, but also me, super unemployed and that’s why I have time to read 😉 

When I first read A Confederacy of Dunces, there were moments in which I lost control over my body and threw the book across the room in a fit of laughter. But in this case, BOY did it ever. The book caused me to cringe and laugh in such rapid succession that my stomach hurt afterward. It’s the kind of book that can cure you of whatever illness you might have by making you just have SUCH  a good time.

Toole’s book follows the one-of-a-kind Ignatius Reilly, who, when we first meet him, is living in his mother’s hosue surrounded by his own filth, writing a long work about Boethius, a scholar of the Middle Ages that Ignatius personally identifies with. Ignatius sees himself at odds with the rest of his New Orleans community. He’s haughty, arrogant, and lives in a world entirely of his own imagination. His intellectualism has gone awry, sprouting horns of self-righteousness and ignorance towards his own personality and situation. In Ignatius’s perception of reality, everyone else is an “abomination” and only he holds the key to the proper way of existence. We all know people who walk around like that–but no one does it with as much bumbling, outrageous, offensive outbursts as him.

Of course, the narrator is entirely on Ignatius’s side, miraculously. It’s that refusal to acknowledge that Ignatius is a madman on the part of the narrator that makes our OWN discovery of it so, so amusing.

In addition to following Ignatius’s attempts at employment (the guy can’t resist any type of food, and has no idea how a business runs. so guess what happens when he works at a hot dog stand?), we also follow a few other plot lines that end up interweaving. It’s the Tom Jones of the 20th century. It’s a modern romp. Each of the characters is ridiculous, but none so unique and superb as Ignatius Reilly (although his very aggressive New York love interest is a close second). There’s a reason that there are statues crafted in Ignatius’s honor in New Orleans. He’s a character that IS larger than the words that contain him–he comes up in statue form!

This book won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Unfortunately, Kennedy Toole committed suicide. The book was found in his room by his mother, and she read it and saw the glimmering genius apparent in its pages. She sent it to the writer and professor Walker Percy (he’s also a great writer) and he took it on as well. So even the book itself was published by people passing it on–infectious word of mouth.

I wish more so-called “literary” books, and certainly books as intelligent as this one, could be as unabashedly hilarious. After one reads Hitchhiker’s Guide and Confederacy where is there to turn?

While I want this post to be about A Confederacy of Dunces and that you all should read it, it’s also inevitably about the experience of sharing a book with someone. I’m never more touched than when I tell someone I think they’d like a book, and then they read that book. Laura and I laughed over passages and engaged in a totally old fashioned and delightfully nerdy celebration of the written word. Of course, she might not totally know what she’s gotten into, as I’m devising a whole list of recommendations for what to read next. Once you start reading, might as well keep trying to do as much as you can. 

ESPECIALLY when there are books this good in the world.

A June of New, Dear Friends

I graduated college in May with a diploma in English and a big gaping hole in my life. What was I to do without my friends and my classes and my little routine? Or, should I say, my little life? The day after school ended, I did the only thing I knew to do: grabbed the nearest, epically-long novel I could find and dive right in.

I chose well. I chose a book that was unpleasant and electrifying and kept me coming back for more.  Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life and its cast of vivid and true characters filled the void for a bit. It became a chore reading it, especially once I saw the book for what it was–not the story of four graduates heading out into the world, as it begins, but the psychological portrait of a person deprived from love and exposed to absurdly gruesome horrors at far too young an age.

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A good book stays with me. It blurs the lines between my life and its life. Every time I walk to work through the Garden district of Manhattan, I keep my eyes peeled for Caleb, tall, dark, and evil, whose apartment was in that area in the book.

But I finished it only a few days later. It turns out one mere novel wasn’t enough to satiate me! I needed more characters and buddies to populate my life for a bit. So, I went into an epically-long series: the mysterious and fantastic Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.

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thousands of pages of goodness

If Yanagihara’s tome is about male friendships in the modern age, Elena Ferrante’s series is about the enduring power of a female friendship in a much different time and place than my own. Elena and Lila, the two protagonists of Ferrante’s series, become friends in Naples in the 1950s. The story ends in the 2000s, after Lila disappears, and she always threatens to do. Elena defines her own identity based off of who she perceives Lila to be. Essentially, whatever Lila is (bold, dynamic, impulsive, manipulative), Elena is not. However, as we’ll see, their relationship is ever-growing and while they know each other so well, sometimes Elena is so busy projecting her insecurities onto Lila that she doesn’t see Lila for who and what she is.

Sounds pretty much like a normal relationship, right? That’s because Ferrante’s books do something extraordinary, that so many novels fail to do–and why so many novels fail. They describe reality. Ferrante’s characters make real decisions. They do not make choices that an author thinks would be convenient for a plot. Rather, as I moved along the path of Elena’s life, all of her actions fell into place. They built up and up, and her decisions impacted her personality and her personality impacted her decisions. Life!

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. Elena Ferrante

I ended June with lots of new friends–and new friendships. There’s Jude and Willem, Elena and Lila. I graduated from college with so many good friends. I’m just starting out like the characters in A Little Life. But reading these books about enduring friendships, seeing them evolve over the decades, makes me excited to see how my own friendships will change in adult life. Is there anything more elastic, forgiving, and necessary than a relationship with a true friend?