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.

Unsheltered

9780062887047_p0_v2_s600x595   Reading Unsheltered was difficult, not only for the weaving back and forth from the post Civil War era to the present, but also for the not so subtle references to today’s politics and governmental leadership in the United States. As she toggles between the lives of the 21st century grandmother Willa Knox and the 19th century science teacher Thatcher Greenwood, who both lived in the same house, the language seems stuffy in the past and glib in the present.  Most depressing is the implication of ignoring lessons from history – nothing really changes and we continue to repeat the same mistakes.

I thought of beginning this review with the note of the main character, Willa, suddenly having to take on the raising of her grandson when his mother commits suicide. Although years ago,  I clearly remember meeting a woman in her sixties who had decided to raise her abandoned grandchild to keep the boy from foster care; her harrowing story was pitiable.  But Kingsolver has so much more to reveal in this tale of a modern extended family surviving in a rundown yet historic house in Vineland, New Jersey.  Her topics include raising children but also health care and global warming, as well as Wall Street activism and relations with Cuba – among others. She has an agenda.

Willa lives in the house with her handsome husband Iano, a non-tenured college professor, her terminally ill father-in-law Nick, her rebellious daughter Tig,  her son Zeke’s baby son, and Daisy, the old dog.  Thatcher, a high school science teacher, lives in this house about 150 years earlier with his new wife Rose, his mother-in-law, and his young sister-in-law, and two dogs.  The house, constructed without a foundation, has been falling apart since it was first built in Thatcher’s time, and seems about to implode by the time Willa’s family inherits it. 

The house may seem a symbol of their lives, also falling apart.  Thatcher, determined to bring scientific inquiry into his classes by teaching Darwin’s theories, faces a stalwart and fearful body of staunch religious conservatives, determined to ignore new ideas that would topple their well structured world.  Thatcher finds a friend in his neighbor, Mary Treat, an eminent biologist who regularly corresponds with Charles Darwin, but his connection to the local newsman who sympathizes with his struggle leads to a murder and his banishment from the town.

Although Willa’s problems may be modern, they mirror Thatcher’s frustration in dealing with those circumstances thwarting attempts to have the good life.  Iona moves from college to college trying but never getting the elusive tenure track position; Willa leaves her job writing for a magazine to care for her ailing father-in-law; their son Zeke with degrees from Ivy league schools has no job; their daughter Tig, a promising biologist, dropped out of college to migrate to Cuba but returns as a car mechanic – an extended middle class family with no future prospects, no savings, a stack of unpaid bills, in a falling down house.

In both worlds, present and past, the underlying mantra is the struggle between the haves and have nots.  Darwin and new scientific discoveries pose the threat to the status quo in the past, butting against Landis, the town creator and clever entrepreneur gaining wealth at the expense of others, while the environmentalists and the socially conscious in modern times are desperately trying to hold against the empty promises and loud blustering bullies of conservative politics.

Unsheltered is not an easy read, but Kingsolver never meant to write a book with sublime references to love or with delicious twists; she’s left that to Moriarty and others.  The reference to a murder doesn’t appear until page 300, and then disappears again in deference to biology, history and the inevitable repetition of human foibles and idiocy; it’s a wonder our species has survived thus far.

Kingsolver finished this book before Trump won the presidency, and his name is never mentioned.  In fact, in her acknowledgments she notes her research on the lives of the nineteenth century persons who inspired the story, the biologist Mary Treat and the “shenanigans of Charles Landis and his role in the murder,” but “among the novel’s twenty-first century characters, any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.”   But if you have any doubt to whom she is referring, she cites a famous campaign quote:

“He said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and people would still vote for him.”

And if you have any doubt where she stands, the line after he wins the New Hampshire primary – “Welcome to the Granite State…we have rocks in our heads!” – may give you a clue.

 

Historical Notes – Revealing the Person Behind the Myths

51zkQJrF6jL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_  The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

In Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, the appearance of the Marquis de Lafayette and his role in both the American and French revolutions piqued my interest in the French aristocrat who is still revered as a hero in the United States (one of only seven people granted honorary U.S. citizenship) yet denigrated in his homeland of France as a traitor.  With almost one hundred pages of reference notes, The Marquis offers a definitive examination of the man and his complex life.

“The Marquis de Lafayette at age nineteen volunteered to fight under George Washington and became the French hero of the American Revolution. In this major biography Laura Auricchio looks past the storybook hero and selfless champion of righteous causes who cast aside family and fortune to advance the transcendent aims of liberty and fully reveals a man driven by dreams of glory only to be felled by tragic, human weaknesses. “

Auricchio’s narrative is informative and conversational – an easy way to learn history.

A Well Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

II4KCPF3K4I6RPOASD4BZRMMLU  The Vanderbilt name carries with it a sense of awe for me.  I’ve heard of the railroad baron who built an empire and had magnificent homes in New York City with a “beach house,” known as The Breakers in Newport.  I know about Gloria Vanderbilt of skinny jeans fame, and her son, Anderson Cooper, the blue-eyed white-haired newsman.  But who was Alva Smith Vanderbilt?  

Therese Anne Fowler reveals the story of the outspoken  feisty suffragette married to William K. Vanderbilt,  grandson of Cornelius and great great grandfahter to Anderson. In the first half of her life Alva does what is expected of her, marries into money and society, and works behind the ssenes to assure the Vanderbilt name is synonymous with wealth and power.  But after being betrayed by her husband with her best friend, she divorces William and marries her own true love.  Divorce in the Gilded Age was no small undertaking, but she manages.  Eventually, in the second half of her life, with no husband, she uses her money and influence to fight for women’s right to vote and equality.  

Although Fowler’s narrative is sometimes painstakingly slow and the plights of the wealthy seem overbearing, Alva rightfully takes her place among strong women in history.

Just in Time for Halloween

9780399564512  Witches and vampires take on a literary bent with Deborah Harkness, who returns with Diana Bishop, Oxford scholar and reluctant witch, in Time’s Convert.   If you missed the All Souls Trilogy introducing the cast of characters, Harkness thoughtfully brings you into the family with clever references as she tells the new story of what it takes to become a vampire.

Alternating between contemporary Paris and London, and the American colonies during the Revolutionary War, the story fills in the background of one of its main characters. Matthew de Clermont, now Diana’s husband,  when he meets Marcus MacNeil, a young surgeon from Massachusetts, during the war.   Matthew, a vampire, offers Marcus the opportunity for immortality and a new life.  Marcus’s transformation is not an easy one and his newfound family often clashes with his inbred beliefs.  In the present, Marcus’s fiancee is undergoing her own tranformation to becoming a vampire, and Diana is coping with her two year old twins who seem to have discovered their powers.

If you are a reader of magic, the supernatural, and romance, Time’s Convert will satisfy.  And if you are a fan, Discovery of Witches has been filmed and showing in the UK, with Matthew Goode from Downton Abbey playing the handsome vampire.  Not yet in the United States; maybe PBS will add it to its collection next year.

Related Review: Discovery of Witches

The Silence of the Girls

SilenceOfTheGirls_200x300    Pat Barker’s Trojan women really know what’s going on in The Silence of the Girls, but they have no voice in Homer’s Iliad.   If you missed reading this classic and have wondered what all the allusions mean, Barker’s story follows the original plot closely – even to Achilles’ best friend disguising himself with Achilles’ god-given armor.  Unlike other retellings of The Iliad, Barker tells the story from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, with the narrator the captured queen Briseis, a friend of the infamous Helen of Troy, who becomes Achilles’ slave.

The battles are brutal, the men are uncivilized, the feasting is sloppy, the hygiene is nonexistent, and the rats are everywhere.  The women observe, serve, and wait.

If you know the story, the plot line is not a mystery and the outcome not a surprise, but Barker uses Briseis to fill in the story behind the glory. In Homer’s The Iliad, Briseis is the catalyst in a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.  After Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his own Trojan slave, he demands Breseis for himself, sparking a crisis when Achilles subsequently refuses to fight, threatening the Greeks’ ability to win the war. Awarded to Achilles as a prize in conquering her homeland, the city of Lyrnessus, Briseis is a minor character referred to by name fewer than a dozen times in Homer’s epic, and then only to emphasize her beauty. Pat Barker gives Briseis a voice.

Barker addresses how differently history treats men and ignores women.   When King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body, he cries:  “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” This moment is among the most celebrated in literature, and yet Briseis’s perspective is very different. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, observing the scene. “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”   When Briseis described the famous Helen’s confession of how she’d been raped as a child by a riverbank. “Of course I believed her,” Briseis says. “It was quite a shock to me, later, to discover nobody else did.”

The civilized Greeks who gave us democracy and Socratic inquiry could be very uncivilized. Barker dismisses the legend of the Achilles heel, as well as the glory of all those Greek heroes who have been lionized in songs, plays and books. Breisis tells the real story from the silenced women and ends with an admonition – we change history to suit, soften its horrors to be able to live with it.

“What will they make of us, the people of this unimaginable distant times?  One thing I do know; they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told of the massacre of men and boys, and the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they”ll  go for something altogether softer….{and} Achilles {will be}granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…”

Despite the anachronisms and coarse language, Barker’s story makes its point – those silent women’s voices can be very powerful.  In another retelling of a Greek classic, Madeline Miller’s book, Circe, centers around a minor character in The Odyssey, a witch goddess who became the protagonist Odysseus’s lover.  Maybe I’ll read that next.