The Overstory

shopping  A recent article making the rounds on the internet reported on an Idaho artist converting a 110 year old dead cottonwood tree trunk into a little free library. Before I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, it never would have occurred to me to wonder how the tree felt about it.  Now, every time leaves rustle outside my window or a tree sways in the wind as I drive past, I listen  – not necessarily for messages from the tree but for the shift in my awareness.  Richard Powers has changed my perception, but it sadly will probably not last.

The Overstory is a long and challenging book, and its message should not be taken lightly.  Barbara Kingsolver in her review for the New York Times tries to explain the premise:

“The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories…{but} These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods.”

Although Powers frames his narrative around the environment, with scary references not only to artificial intelligence but also to the extremism of the righteous on both sides of the conversation, he uses trees to tell the real story of civilization or perhaps the lack of civility.  I read the book slowly, trying to digest its depth; I attended a discussion led by brilliant and thoughtful readers who had read the book more than once, and still I wonder if I caught all of Powers’ intent.  Powers is a MacArthur genius and winner of what Barbara Kingsolver calls the “literary-prize Olympics” – way over the head of most of us – but he manages to integrate encyclopedic information on botany and computers with relatable perspectives in the lives of his nine characters, to nudge the reader to think about the bigger picture in this book.

If you read the book, it helps to take notes on the characters as they are introduced in the first section of the book, but, don’t worry if you mix them up or forget all their details as you continue.  The characters are there to be the understory, the familiar connection, but  the trees – here long before us – carry the message.  If only we would listen.

Three Quick Reads to Start the Year

A short list of books to begin January, 2019:

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  1. Heads You Win 

Jeffrey Archer is back with another cliff hanger, examining what if the other road were taken.  After a harrowing escape from Russia, the life of the main character switches between Alex and his mother in New York City and Sasha (same character) in London.  The parallel lives of the same character follow a fast-paced thriller in alternating chapters, with a surprise ending.

     2. Night of Camp David

Fletcher Knebel’s 1965 novel about a deranged President has made a comeback, probably because fiction may not be far from the present truth.  The political thriller features “an unhinged American president who falls prey to his own paranoia and conspiratorial fantasies, as people around him struggle to rein in his worst impulses.”  Sound familiar?

     3. The Bookshop of Yesterdays

Amy Meyerson’s mystery adds a little romance and familiar literary references to Melinda’s surprise inheritance of a bookshop. Although I had solved the puzzle early in the story, I still enjoyed the read – and learned about a few icons I didn’t know were adopted, including Eleanor Roosevelt and John Lennon.

 

 

My Favorite Books of 2018

6cr5kd9LiLooking back is sometimes easier than looking forward.  Scrolling through my reviews for 2018 brought back connections I made through books, and, as I tried to identify one book from each month, I remembered the year.  I found a book for each month except June, and the one posting for that month titled A Prescription for Comfort Books  was a reminder of my fall.

Here are my favorites for 2018 – have you read any?

  • January, 2018 – I started the year with Roz Chast’s Going Into Town, my favorite book of the year.
  • February, 2018 – a complicated puzzle of lives and loves – The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake
  • March, 2018 – Eleanor Roosevelt and her true love in Amy Bloom’s White Houses
  • April, 2018 – a thrill a minute in Christine Mangan’s Tangerine
  • May, 2018 – Ruth Ware returns with another mystery thriller in The Death of Mrs. Westaway
  • June, 2018 – oh, my aching back – a good title for my memoirs
  • July, 2018 – Anne Tyler returns to Baltimore in Clock Dance
  • August, 2018 – Delia Owens, a naturalist, writes her first fiction book in Where the Crawdads Sing
  • September, 2018 – a creepy thriller – Louise Candish’s Our House
  • October, 2018 – the power of women in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
  • November, 2018 – a children’s book with a message for adults by Kate DiCamillo – Louisiana’s Way Home
  • December, 2018 – nonfiction – The Library Book by Susan Orleans

 

 

Smile – It’s Christmas

My favorite irreverent poem for Christmas Eve is Shel Silverstein’s Christmas Dog. Read it again – here.

Looking for inspiration, I found another short popular poem by Silverstein:

Unknown“i made myself a snowball
As perfect as can be.
I thought I’d keep it as a pet,
And let it sleep with me.
I made it some pajamas
And a pillow for it’s head.
Then last night it ran away,
But first – It wet the bed.”

And…another poem from a favorite author, Phyllis McGinley:

Office Party

This holy night in open forum
     Miss Mcintosh, who handles Files,
Has lost one shoe and her decorum.
     Stately, the frozen chairman smiles

On Media, desperately vocal.
     Credit, though they have lost their hopes
Of edging toward an early Local,
     Finger their bonus envelopes.

The glassy boys, the bursting girls
    Of Copy, start a Conga clatter
To a swung carol.  Limply curls
     The final sandwich on the platter

Till hark!  a herald Messenger
     (Room 414) lifts loudly up
His quavering tenor.  Salesmen stir
     Libation for his Lily cup.

“Noel,” he pipes, “Noel, Noel.”
     Some wag beats tempo with a ruler.
And the plump blonde from Personnel
     Collapses by the water cooler. 

And, finally,  a lovely one to dream on by Walter de la Mare:

UnknownMistletoe

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.
Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen—and kissed me there.

Unknown

 

The Library Book

shopping  It seemed appropriate to borrow Susan Orlean’s The Library Book from the library, and her affinity with the institution caught me from the first page.  I too remember walking to the library as a young girl, holding my mother’s hand, and gleefully letting go once inside to enjoy the freedom of roaming the stacks of children’s books.  I too remember checking out so many books; we had to balance those slippery covers carefully as we walked home. If those books had disappeared in a fire, I would have been devastated. The Library Book tells the story of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed more than one million books in Los Angeles’ Central Library.

Perhaps the most poignant note in this book had me forgetting I was reading nonfiction:

Orleans says the fire reminded her of the proverb that when a person dies, it’s as if a library has burned to the ground. “A host of memories and stories and anecdotes that we store in our minds disappears when someone dies. It struck me as being a wonderful way of seeing why libraries feel like these big, collective brains — because they have the memories and stories of a whole culture inside them.

Orleans has produced a comprehensive book in her research, documenting what happens behind the scenes in libraries, how the librarians thought about the fire, then morphing into the library today as it adapts to the digital age. She takes the reader inside the stacks, observing and listening to the questions patrons ask and revealing how the library works. When she investigates the life of Harry Peak, the possible perpetrator, she never hopes to solve the mystery of the devastating fire – but you hope she will.

At times, her attempts at solving the mystery of the fire drives the narrative; other times, her observations of librarians and books connect with my curiosity and awe of both.   I read it all carefully and slowly, and it has inspired three resolutions:

  1. To visit the Los Angeles Central Library,
  2. and find its collection of restaurant menus.
  3. To look for the Library’s float in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade.