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.

Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

unknownAlthough I haven’t read all the books still on my to read pile from last year, I am already thinking about new books to be published soon in 2019.

Here are five I want to read, with more to come:

  1. The Suspect by Fiona Barton – a psychological thriller
  2. The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley – a Flavia de Luce mystery
  3. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict – historical fiction with actress Hedy Lamarr as the main character
  4. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman – romantic comedy with one woman’s trash becoming another woman’s treasure
  5. Spring by Ali Smith – the next installment of her seasons

 

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

 

 

What is Bill Gates Reading?

UnknownI’d forgotten I’d signed up for the Bill Gates Newsletter; wisely he doesn’t send many – to me anyway.  I skipped his end of the year Christmas summary of his year; I get enough of those from people I actually know – but his list of five books included suggestions I liked.

Among the books he claimed he couldn’t put down this year was Educated by Tara Westover.  I’ve avoided this book as I do most memoirs, especially  those with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” focus.  This is the third time the book has been recommended.  First, I ignored a good friend’s recommendation to read it; second, when a book club identified it, I groaned; finally, here is Bill, claiming “I never thought I’d relate to a story about growing up in a Mormon survivalist household, but she’s such a good writer that she got me to reflect on my own life while reading about her extreme childhood.  Melinda and I loved this memoir of a young woman whose thirst for learning was so strong that she ended up getting a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.”

Three’s a charm, so I’ve ordered the book from the library.

Next on Bill’s list was 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari.  He had me at “if 2018 has left you overwhelmed by the state of the world, 21 Lessons offers a helpful framework for processing the news and thinking about the challenges we face.”  I probably should have read this book yesterday – or as soon as the recent President was elected.  I’ve ordered this from the library too.

Finally, I found one book I could download immediately to my Audible account. It seemed appropriate to listen to Andy Puddicombe’s The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness.  Bill says he and Melinda have “gotten really into meditation lately.”  I downloaded the Calm app to my phone with good intentions, but usually only remember to turn it on when loud noise outside my window late at night is keeping me awake.  Calm has “bedtime stories” to drown out the party clamor.  Bill’s note that the book has “Puddicombe’s personal journey from a university student to a Buddhist monk…” caught my interest.

The other two books on Bill’s list of five did not interest me now, but maybe they will you:  Army of None by Paul Scharre, “a thought=provoking look at A-1 warfare,”  and Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, “…the rise and fall of Theranos.”

No fiction on the list;  I wonder if Bill ever reads any.

The Museum of Modern Love

51vG9TBXECL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_   I read the first paragraph of Australian writer Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love:

“…But this is not a story of potential.   It is a story of convergence. Such things are rarer than you might think. Coincidence, I’ve heard, is God’s way of being discreet. But convergence is more than that.  It is something that, once set in motion, will have an unknown effect.  It is a human condition to admire hindsight. I always thought foresight was so much more useful.”

and before reading more, I decided to find out more about the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, who inspired the book.

In her review for the New York Times, Tacey Rychter summarizes the author’s experience with Abramovic’s 2010 art show – The Artist is Present:

“…Rose was one of 850,000 people who attended Abramovic’s 75-day performance, “The Artist Is Present,” in which visitors {to the Museum of Modern Art – MOMA} waited for hours to take a chair opposite the then 63-year-old artist and share a meditative gaze with her for any length of time. People described transformative experiences. Many wept through their mute encounters. ‘It was as if they were seen in a way they’re not normally seen,’ Rose said. She returned every day for three weeks. She watched the crowds and saw others came back, too.

The books mixes fiction with the real life of the Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramovic, whose career has included knife slashing, self-flagellation, razor blades, and walking the Great Wall of China.  Using the 2010 performance art at the New York City Museum of Modern Art, Rose not only plays biographer to the artist’s life but also connects to a small cast of characters she creates, representing the more than 1000 people who took turns sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic and meeting her gaze and the thousands more who came to observe from the sidelines.

Not knowing about Abramovic, I used youtube to find the live performances Rose vividly describes in her story.  I was sorry I did; some of those images are hard to see and to forget.  At times, the controversial performance art seemed more of a stunt than art,  but Rose’s characters and their stories make the book compelling, and Rose gives the artist a higher level of intention through her characters’ participation.

The central character is Arky Levin, a composer of movie soundtracks; the others who converge with Arky as they each experience Abramovic’s art show include: Jane Miller, a recently widowed middle school art teacher from Georgia; Brittica, a pink-haired Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic; Healayas Breen, a black art critic and singer and a former girlfriend of Arky’s former musical partner; and Marina’s dead mother, who hovers over the museum watching and commenting.  Abramovic’s performance helps each face and resolve an inner conflict.

The most poignant story revolves around Arky Levin and his wife, Lydia, a brilliant  architect.  Her congenital disease has recently deteriorated to a semi-comatose state, and she is in a nursing home. Arky has learned that Lydia had previously created a court order to keep him from visiting, having long doubted his ability to care for her and wanting to free him from being her caregiver.  Their daughter and friends question Arky’s willingness to abide by the legal document since Lydia is no longer capable of changing it. Unable to write music and not able to decide how to show his love for his wife, Arky finds himself drawn repeatedly to Abramovic’s MoMA performance.  His struggle ultimately has him taking the seat across from Abramovic for his epiphany moment.

Although the focus is on the power of redemption through art, the book is difficult to read.  The background information on the artist reveals not only her grueling performances but also the horrible life in a war-torn area forcing her into creating her own style of salvation.  And Arky’s experience facing his wife’s debilitation has a note of incredulity – what spouse would exonerate the other’s commitment from the vow to be there in “sickness as in health” – maybe that’s a question for a book discussion?  

A key element of Abramovic’s performance art is the eye contact she makes and holds with each one who sits across from her, whether the person sits for five minutes or five hours.  In the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of the book, the author suggests trying this stare or “gaze” with a friend or loved one to see what happens.  Arky practices by staring at a pillow before he attempts trying it with the artist.  It’s not easy to sit perfectly still, staring at someone.  Even in meditation, you get to close your eyes.

Not for everyone, but a book with staying power and inspiration to anyone trying to deal with grief, suffering and recurring illness.

“Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”