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.

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

9780399588563_p0_v2_s192x300Where did you grow up?  Is your childhood home still there with all its memories?  What if it were gone forever?  With the sixties as her timeframe and a small farming town two hours outside of Philadelphia as the setting, Anna Quindlen creates an unforgettable family in Miller’s Valley with a story of lives connected to both time and place.

The story follows the journey of the narrator, Mimi Miller, as she grows from a bright eleven year old who sells corn at a small stand outside her family farm to scholarship student at the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually, a medical doctor who returns to her hometown.  Her mother, a nurse, stabilizes the family with her income and her wisdom; her father, whose family has held the farm for two hundred years, is a stoic man who can fix anything from broken radios to the old sump pump in the basement; her older brothers split into Tommy, the appealing black sheep who goes off to fight in the Vietnam war and returns broken, and Eddie, the steady and boring  brother who grows up to capitalize on the destruction of the land.  Peripheral to the family core but just as important to the theme are others: Aunt Ruth, an agoraphobic with a secret, who never leaves the small house next door, and Steve, Mimi’s boyfriend. 

Quindlen’s main characters are ripe and deep, and you will remember them and wonder about them long after the story is over.

The villain is the government, personified by a slick developer, who is pressuring farmers and town folk to leave to make way for a government sponsored dam and reservoir, surrounded by new patchwork housing.  Clearly, some are happy to sell – including Mimi’s mother – while others, including Mimi’s father, dig in to preserve their heritage.  Mimi is scared of what the future holds but it seems there is no stopping progress – or the government.    

I wondered about the historical accuracy of the story; is there a town and a farm under water in Pennsylvania because of a dam realized through government intervention and industry?  The closest I could get is Codorus State Park and Lake Marburg in York County – both the timeframe and the location fit:

The creation Codorus State Park is tied to a cooperative effort between private enterprise and state and local government. The borough of Spring Grove and the P.H. Glatfelter Company worked together to dam Codorus Creek. The purpose of the dam was to provide drinking water for Spring Grove and to meet the industrial needs of the paper plant owned by the P.H. Glatfelter Company in the borough…a park was created on the shores of the newly made Lake Marburg.[1]

Lake Marburg gets its name from the small community of Marburg, home of a handful of buildings – including a farmstead – that was flooded in December 1966, when Codorus Creek was dammed. The land for the park was acquired as part of the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act, with the governor approving the acquisition on December 10, 1964.  Underwater Ghost Town 

 

 

Quindlen is one of my favorite authors; I have a few of her books on my shelf – just cannot part with them.  I’ve quoted from her memoir – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – but I was happy to see another of her novels and anxiously pre-ordered it.  Although the historical aspects are informative, the message of hearth and home – and where it is – left me with a disturbing as well as comforting feeling.  As someone who is displaced, and still misses the place I called home – although it is not underwater and remains the same as when my children skated on the nearby pond –  I can relate to the last paragraph of the novel:

“I never go over that way…But every couple of years I have a dream.  I dive down into green water and I use my arms to push myself far below the surface and when I open my eyes there are barn roofs and old fences…But I swim in the opposite direction, back toward the light, because I have to come up for air.  I still need to breath.”

Life goes on, wherever you are, as long as you can keep breathing…

My Reviews of Quindlen Books:  

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

9780395869468_p0_v1_s260x420Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald has given me the same rush as finding Jane Gardam – seasoned English authors do that to me.  In her slim but powerful volume of The Bookshop, Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale reminds us of the smallness of some people and the uncomfortable closeness of small-town living.  Although Fitzgerald first wrote her book in 1978, bookshops are still disappearing and courageous people who dare to challenge, are still are still being thwarted.

Middle-aged widow Florence Green decides to open a bookstore in a small British seaside town.  Since this will be the first bookstore in a town without even a library, her forward-looking venture would seem  heroic.  However, Florence did not count on the town’s self-appointed arts doyenne, Mrs. Gamart, jealous of anyone who would challenge her authority over the town, who suddenly decides that the old, leaky, haunted site of the new bookshop that has been empty for years, should be the town arts center, under her supervision.

With her determination, Florence’s initial success with the bookshop and her customers’ clamour for the new bestseller, Lolita, only raises the ire of fellow shopkeepers who greedily envy her short-lived success and irritates Mrs.Gamart.    Despite the patronage of the town’s old monied recluse, the bookshop falls to Mrs.Gamart’s lobbying for a new bill to take over the “historic” building, leaving Florence with no car, no money, and no books.

Throughout the story, Fitzgerald offers her unique brand of wit through Florence, changing morose actions into satire, sometimes with farcical asides.  It’s easy to laugh at the haughty dames and be wary of the scurrilous BBC announcer.  And, just when it seems Florence will be saved, her hero falls over dead.  Sometimes, the good guys don’t win.

 

Read for Better Social Skills

Just as watching an episode of “Breaking Bad” before going to bed can give me nightmares, or catching up with the angst on “Nashville” can make me restless, now Science magazine confirms that reading “literary fiction” makes me better able to empathize and improves my emotional well-being. I always knew Anne Munro was better for me than Gillian Flynn.

In her article for the New York Times Health section –For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov Pam Belluck notes that a recent study reported in Science “found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.”

Literary fiction has that sly factor of making the reader digest, assimilate, infer possibilities – even think. Belluck offers authors like Chekhov and Louise Eldrich as examples of literary authors. I might add Kent Haruf, Jane Gardham, Ian McEwan. Who would you include?

All That Is

9781400043132_p0_v2_s260x420If you are thinking you are too old to write, consider James Salter at 87 years old with his first novel in 35 years – All That Is. Although Salter has a reputation for being in the same league as Roth and Updike (according to NPR), I have not read any of his books (over a dozen) including the tempting title – Life is Meals. His age prompted my interest – not the glorious reviews or awards.

Salter documents the life of Philip Bowman in All That Is, beginning with a horrifying description of his participation in World War II as a junior naval officer in the Pacific. Bowman graduates from Harvard, marries a Southern Belle, has an affair, divorces, and works his way up as a book editor at a small New York publishing house. As you follow him, Bowman’s life seems ordinary; his experiences could reflect that of any man looking back on his life.  Salter treats the story like a fictional memoir but keeps you present at each stage of Bowman’s life, introducing and interacting with Philip’s mother, friends, lovers, fellow workers – with acute attention to the details.   As he shifts the point of view, it’s easy to be confused about who is ruminating; characters move in and out of focus, and it sometimes takes a few paragraphs to realize someone else is talking. Malcolm Jones in his New York Times review notes:

In the preface to his 1997 memoir, “Burning the Days,” {Salter} wrote: “If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go…As with any house, all within cannot be seen.” That apt description of his engaging reminiscences might easily serve to introduce this novel.

All That Is has that literary quality that will keep you reading, only if you do not require constant angst, mystery and intrigue, scandal, romance, sex. Not that these are missing; they are just not always obvious – except for the sex. His words have that lilting beauty that can lull the reader into not realizing how awful the action really is.

Philip finally falls in love with his soulmate – not his wife.  She mercilessly uses him to get what she wants.  Reeling from the shock of her betrayal, Philip is desolate – until he exacts revenge through her daughter.  His action leaves that sour taste that Gillian Flynn perfected so well in Gone Girl; Salter’s character has more sophistication and literary aplomb – but is no less loathsome – and the ending promises that he will continue to be.

I closed the book with a hollow feeling.  With magnificent language throughout and a documented life that often connected to an everyman scenario, the story had no real plot, yet Bowman seemed worth following.   Alas, he was not.