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.

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.”

Louisiana’s Way Home

9780763694630  The openng lines of Kate DiCamillo’s new book for middle schoolers – Louisiana’s Way Home – reminded me of a resolution I have yet to complete:

“I am going to write it all down, so that what happened to me will be known, so that if someone were to stand at their window at night and look up at the stars and think, My goodness, whatver happened to Louisiana Elefante? Where did she go? They will have an answer. They will know.”

I usually avoid reading memoirs, assuming the writer’s memory will have been embellished and cleaned up. But writing my own story for posterity is appealing, especially because I could embellish and clean it up. What has been stopping me? Probably the suspicion of my story being only interesting to me.

Louisiana’s story begins with the curse her grandfather set in motion; mine would mirror it with my grandmother’s power of bestowing a curse, passed through generations.  Be assured, I have not tried wielding her power – not consciously, anyway – and not yet.

Louisiana’s story is “discovering who you are – and deciding who you want to be.”  For fans of DiCamillo, Louisiana may bring back thoughts of Raymie Nightingale, and Raymie is mentioned, but Louisiana has a more compelling story, leaving her friend behind in Florida and starting over in Georgia with a new friend, Burke, who can climb trees and outsmart the vending machine to get free peanuts.

After Granny and Louisiana drive off for a new life, so much happens: Granny loses all her teeth, tells about finding a baby on a pile of rubbish, and deserts the twelve year old. Nevertheless, Louisiana’s steady and optimistic outlook leads her to a new family, a new life, and a happy ending.  The story is at once a sad lesson in hope and a caution to not wallow in fate.  Destiny is what you make it.   Louisiana is abandoned by someone she trusts, tries to work things out on her own, consults with a minister, and finally chooses forgiveness with a new family.   Burke’s grandfather sums up the point of the story when he tells her to  “Take what is offered to you.”

The curse?  Turns out Louisiana never really had one –    only Granny has to contend with that problem.

And DiCamillo delivers another poignant tale of a brave little girl who gets the support of friends from unlikely places and in unexpected ways.  We all need that now and then.

Related ReviewRaymie Nightingale

A Book List for National Coffee Day

UnknownCoffee – I look forward to that first cup every morning, and today is National Coffee Day in the United States, where you can savor a free cup at a few coffee shops.  What could be better than a good cup of coffee and a good book?  

First, where can you get a free cup of coffee today?

  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Krispee Kreme
  • 7 Eleven
  • Cinnabon

 I wondered about coffee references in literature.  Can you think of any?  Here are a few from books I’ve read: 

  • from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: “I’d rather take coffee than complements right now.”
  • from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Good. Coffee is good for you. It’s the caffeine in it. Caffeine, we are here…”
  • from Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukura Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage: “The fresh smell of coffee soon wafted through the apartment, the smell that separates night from day.”
  • from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: “That’s something that annoys the hell out of me – I mean if somebody says the coffee’s all ready and it isn’t. 
  • from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I have measured my life out in coffee spoons.”

51U7v8YQdML._AC_US218_   Brazil is the largest producer of coffee (the United States is the largest consumer), so a new book set in Rio de Janeiro – The Caregiver by Samuel Park – seems appropriate for a coffee day. 

Quick Summary: “…examines the relationship between a mother and daughter after years of mutual misunderstanding. Ana, a voice-over actress, struggles to provide for her six-year-old daughter, Mara, in late 1970s Rio de Janeiro. Desperate for money, Ana takes on a dangerous job with revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the corrupt police chief. …Ana must separate from her daughter to save her from retaliation. Mara, with the help of her mother, escapes to California and years later finds work caring for a woman who’s dying of stomach cancer. During their time together, Mara begins to understand Ana in new ways as she considers her role as a caretaker.”

What are you reading as you sip your coffee today?

Related Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

 

 

 

Hispanic Heritage Month

HHMO_Theme_2018_WEBToday marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, reminding me of Latino authors I have enjoyed and others on my list, including Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Isabel Allende and Sandra Cisneros.  Here are a few of my favorite titles:

  1. Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter – click here for my review
  2. Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street
  3. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prisoner of Heaven – click her for my review 

 

And On My To-Read Pile:

9780385542722Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

 

“Set in ’90s Colombia, Fruit of the Drunken Tree examines the terror inflicted on the South American country by Pablo Escobar from two young girls coming of age.”

 

9781474606189The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Zafón follows 2012’s The Prisoner of Heaven with the conclusion to his Cemetery of Forgotten Books quartet, a gripping and moving thriller set in Franco’s Spain.”  

What are your favorites?