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.

A Sudden Light

9781439187036_p0_v3_s260x420Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain was one of my favorite books, and I kept waiting for another of his quirky stories with a philosophical edge.  In A Sudden Light, Garth involves the reader in a debate of sustaining natural resources in the Pacific Northwest vs land development, while cleverly disguising his mission in a charming tale of a family legacy.  Just in time for Halloween, the story also involves ghosts – some real, some contrived – and a fourteen year old hero who saves the day.  For book club fans, Stein includes a list of questions at the end, and enough fodder in the characters and plot to sustain a lively discussion –  a sample to tease you: “How do we reconcile the differences between what we see and what we know?”

Trevor and his father, Jones, bankrupt from his boat-building business and recently separated from his English wife, travel to the old family home, a nineteenth century estate in the hills of Seattle, to convince Trevor’s grandfather to sell the valuable land and the crumbling house.  Jones with his sister Serena are determined to move their father, who has shown signs of dementia, into a retirement home. They plan to sell the valuable property to developers who will subdivide the land and build “McMansions.”

With its secret stairs and hidden panels in the walls, the house is an ideal place for a haunting.  Ghosts of past inhabitants are frequently heard or seen, including Trevor’s grandmother and one of his great-grandfather’s sons, Ben, a passionate environmentalist who swore to atone for his family’s destruction of the Northwest forests for profit.  Trevor is torn – he wants the money from the sale of the land to get his parents back together but he is also determined to help Ben, an Oscar Wilde version of the Canterville Ghost who frequently appears to  him to champion the return of the property to nature.

Stein’s descriptions of the peace brought by the natural land, the trees, the birds – are all reminiscent of Thoreau and John Muir, whom he invokes frequently.  He delivers the beauty of the surroundings with thoughtful metaphors – ““hummingbirds are to humans as humans are to trees.”  But his story focuses on the family drama as he reveals their history with Trevor’s dreams, overheard conversations, and reminiscences from Serena and Trevor’s grandfather.

The ending is not predictable but satisfying, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book; but then I have a penchant for a well told romantic ghost story with pithy phrases.

My Review of: The Art of Racing in the Rain