Book review – “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

According to my Goodreads account, I started this book on 4 December. It was the final book I tackled on last year’s Man Booker Shortlist. I have only just finished it. It has taken me well over six weeks. I have read a couple of other books alongside it, mainly because it is currently only available in hardback and at 502 pages it does not slip readily into the handbag. It is also a book that demands to be read slowly, almost at the pace of a tree growing, so it requires something of an investment. If you are put off already, read on, because I must balance that by saying that it is a quite extraordinary book and every hour I have spent with it has been time well spent. It is not a book that rewards being read a few pages at a time, it is best approached with an hour or so in hand.

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It is hard to know where to begin to describe it so I will give you the New York Times quote from inside the dustjacket:

“A monumental novel about reimagining our place in the living world.”

After reading it you cannot help but feel that the human race is bent on a suicidal mission, that we will take most of nature down with us and that our tenure as a species on this earth has been wild and reckless and over in the blink of an eye (in evolutionary terms). We’re on the way out I’m afraid. The author’s framework for exploring this is the life of trees. The number and range of trees on the planet was once phenomenal, and humans have systematically destroyed most of them, in the pursuit of so-called ‘progress’, grazing land and space for short-term cash crops, a grossly selfish and short-sighted error of judgement:

“We’re cashing in on a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” (p386)

This is the essential powerful message of the book and his method of telling it is also extraordinary. The first part ‘Roots’ is made up of individual chapters about nine individuals, their background, how they came to be at whatever stage of life they are at and, for some, how their families came to be in America. For each individual, trees represent some significant event in their lives. For example, Douglas Pavlicek served in Vietnam and after his plane was hit, he parachuted out and his landing in a banyan tree saved his life.

The second part of the book ‘Trunk’ is the most substantial and details how each of the individuals lives proceed. For example, Neelay, badly paralysed after a childhood fall from a tree becomes a powerful computer games entrepreneur when he invents an extraordinary virtual world. Patricia, an introverted sight and hearing impaired young girl, whose father invested in her a love of nature, becomes an academic but her book about the secret language of trees is derided and she retreats to a reclusive life as a ranger. Many years later, others will agree with her and her thesis becomes fashionable and influential. Olivia, who almost died in part one, becomes an activist, and hooks up with Nicholas, who lost his entire family in part one after they were accidentally poisoned with gas in the family home. The two of them occupy a giant redwood tree in forest threatened by loggers for many months, though ultimately their protest proves futile (this is a metaphor). Many of the characters’ lives intersect, while others remain firmly parallel, for example Dorothy and her quadriplegic husband Ray; it is not clear until close to the end how their story is relevant.

The third part of the book ‘Crown’ is a coming together of all these separate stories, the logical conclusion to the each of the individuals’ stories and the fourth part ‘Seeds’ is about the legacy they leave behind. The end is anti-climactic in some ways, but I think that is the point; for all our ego and self-importance, the mark that humans will leave is pretty insignificant in the long-term. We will simply destroy ourselves. As the book progresses the pace also picks up, as does the switching between the individuals and their stories and the sense is created of humans accelerating towards their decline.

It is hard to do justice to the book in a short review. It is a book which merits deep reading. It is a remarkable concept and remarkable in execution and the writing is sublime, possibly the finest prose I have read in years. In some ways it has left me profoundly depressed about the direction the world is going on – it would be easy to focus on the events of recent years for examples of this but the reality is we have been crafting our own demise for decades, since the Industrial Revolution. Despite all the evidence, we continue to press on with our self-destruction, although there are a few people out there trying desperately to make their voices heard, the author being one of them – I’ve heard him a few times on the radio making the case for paying attention. The non-depressing thing about the book is the realisation that human beings are actually just a miniscule episode in the natural history of this particular planet, and it will prevail, with or without us. This is the ‘overstory’, the picture that is much bigger than us. In this respect our arrogance, particularly that of some of our world leaders, is really rather laughable. What is fascinating is the why, what drives us humans to behave the way we do, and this book sets about trying to explore that.

Though I really loved Anna Burns’ Milkman and felt it was a worthy winner of the Man Booker, I am also rather desperate for a serious realisation of the impact we are having on the world around us, and feel that greater publicity for this book could at least have contributed something to that debate.

One thing is for sure, I will never look at trees the same way again.

Highly recommended, your patience will be rewarded.

If you have read The Overstory, do you agree with my take on it?

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Blogging and stats, and why we do it

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It is two and a half years since I started blogging. In that time I have published 216 posts. My front page says I have 1,292 followers (thank you!) and I get between six and a dozen likes per post. Whilst there is definitely a gradual increase over time, I know this is not that great, especially after this amount of time and I have often pondered why this is the case. No great revelations to come – maybe what I write just isn’t that interesting! I look enviously at the five and six figure followers other book bloggers have but, to quote Matt Haig quoting Theodore Roosevelt:

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I subscribe to a few ‘blogging bloggers’ (!) who write lots of tips about how I can increase my following, but, to be honest, I don’t read a lot of the posts exhorting me to do x or y, or find out how z increased their following to so many hundred thousand in a week. As a busy mother of three with a part-time job, I find I don’t really have the time to read all these emails, let alone follow the advice. And frankly when I want to read, I’d rather read a book!

At the end of 2018, I spent some time reflecting on what my life’s priorities are and what I want to achieve in the year ahead. I turned fifty last year so that also gave me pause for thought. There’s no point doing things in life that don’t serve you. I like blogging, I like writing about the books I read, it helps me to enjoy them more, reflecting on what I’ve learned, so that’s why I do what I do. I don’t do it for followers, or for money (sorry, blogging bloggers, I don’t want to do ads), and whilst I accept a bit of social media is important, I don’t want to do it ALL the time. I blog because I like to communicate my thoughts about books, and it’s a great thrill when someone comments and you can engage in a conversation. (It’s also made me realise that I should comment more on other people’s blogs that I enjoy.)

So, forget the stats, ignore the number of likes, self-worth should not be dependent on that. In 2019 I’m going to do what I enjoy and enjoy what I do!

Do your blogging stats ever get you down? What do you do to try and increase your reach?

I would love it if you could follow me!

 

 

Book review: “The Children Act” by Ian McEwan

I haven’t read that many books by Ian McEwan – about four I think, not as many as I would like. Each time I read one, I am so overwhelmed by the quality of the work, the writing, the ideas behind each novel, that I wonder why on earth I haven’t read every single thing he’s written, especially as most of them aren’t terribly long. I’ve just finished The Children Act which was my book club’s choice for January. I read it in just a couple of days; the story was not only utterly compelling, but the prose was a joy. McEwan’s easy brilliance just draws you in and I found it hard to put down – one of those books you just have to pick up while you wait for the kettle to boil, just to enjoy the next couple of paragraphs. I felt similarly about On Chesil Beach which I read in 2017, but I’d go so far as to say this book is even better.

The central character is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family law division. She is considered brilliant at her job. She deals with both high-profile celebrity divorces, as well as complex and difficult cases. Not just difficult, but the kinds of cases that most of us would find virtually impossible to adjudicate, such as one particularly challenging case we are told about of two conjoined twin babies. Left together, both would eventually die, but separation would mean doctors could save the stronger of the two, but with the certain and immediate death of the weaker one. In essence, killing one baby to save the other. Fiona reaches conclusions on these kinds of impossible moral dilemmas.

Fiona is 60 and married to Jack, an academic. They have no children, but plenty of nieces, nephews and god-children. They seem settled in their comfortable, affluent, London life until, on the eve of a difficult case, Jack announces that he is finding their marriage sexually unsatisfying and would like to go and have a final fling while he still has it in him. Fiona is horrified and they argue bitterly. The evening ends with Jack leaving the flat, to go off to the young woman he plans to have an affair with, Fiona presumes.

The case over which Fiona is about to preside is an urgent one and she must immediately switch off from her marital crisis in order to focus on her work, where she feels in control.

“No denying the relief at being delivered onto the neutral ground, the treeless heath, of other people’s problems.”

The case on which she is being asked to rule concerns Adam Henry, a teenager, three months short of his 18th birthday, who has leukaemia. His proposed treatment involves a combination of drugs which will also require him to receive a blood transfusion, but, as a Jehovah’s Witness, his parents object to this course of action, and so, it is reported, does Adam. The hospital wants to proceed with the remaining treatment and the transfusion, and to do so immediately in order to save his life, and wishes the Court to rule that, as a child, he can be forced to have it (if he were an adult he would have the right to refuse treatment). Fiona hears the evidence from all sides and decides that before reaching her decision she will visit Adam. The visit affects Fiona deeply, more than she will realise.

It is tense reading as we wait to find out what Fiona will decide. No spoiler here, I won’t tell you her conclusion. Suffice to say that her decision has repercussions, which are primarily about her going through a kind of breakdown, of all that she has believed and taken for granted up to now, and this affects also how she responds then to Jack and the situation of their marriage.

This is both a touching and deeply affecting novel about one woman’s internal struggles and about human relationships in general and the nature of marital love in particular. And at the end we are invited, in a way, to judge Fiona, the Judge. McEwan has some brilliant turns of phrase which left me breathless with admiration and his economical style of writing makes him highly accessible and exciting to read.

I loved this book and recommend it highly.

Which McEwan shall I read next? What is your personal favourite? 

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Book review: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

This book has certainly captured headlines since it was published in November. It was abridged and serialised on Radio 4 the week it came out. I caught a couple of the episodes, but this was merely a taster since, having now finished reading it, at over 400 pages, they gave only the very edited highlights. I do not normally go in for celebrity memoirs, and one could be quite cynical about the enormous deal that has been struck by the Obamas and their publishers (though I gather they are donating royalties to charity). However, very early on in the book any cynicism I might have had melted away.  I have no idea what help Michelle had in writing this book, but it does not ‘feel’ ghost-written. Her narrative voice is very authentic – warm and compassionate, the same way that she comes across when she speaks.

becoming imgMy book club chose this for our pre-Christmas read (I’ve only just finished it!) and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s long, and perhaps could have been edited somewhat, but I imagine the main buyers of this book will be Michelle-fans who want as much detail as possible. The first part of the book was, for me, the least engaging. My fellow readers and I were a little surprised to learn that Michelle Robinson did not in fact come from an affluent background. She was a ‘Southsider’ – from a part of Chicago that was fairly blue-collar and largely African-American, and became more so as she grew older and some of the white residents moved out. A picture is painted of a family with strong values around hard work, doing the right thing, caring for others and loyalty to family. Michelle excelled in school through hard work, determination and the support of her parents and attended both Princeton and Harvard Law School. She has never forgotten her humble beginnings, however, and this underpins her commitment to equality and social justice. However, I did feel this part of the book was most descriptive; in the context of the book as a whole I can see why it would have been important to her to put her politics in perspective, but it was a tiny bit…pedestrian?

Michelle met her husband, Barack Obama, while she was working at a law firm in Chicago, and the development of their relationship forms the basis of the second part of the book. It’s a lovely romantic story, and they are clearly deeply committed to one another. However, it did not come without some pain. Much has been made of their difficulties conceiving a child (both daughters were born after IVF treatment) and of their seeking relationship counselling. What I found most interesting, however, was how Michelle has wrestled with and had to reconcile herself to, the role that being the spouse of a high-profile politician, then a Senator, then a President, has meant for her own career ambitions and her life as a parent.

The challenges of this dilemma are thrown into sharpest relief in the later chapters of Part Two where Barack Obama makes his bid for the US Presidency in 2007/8. The way that Michelle was treated is both fascinating and appalling. How she coped is beyond me, and it is to her enormous credit that she was able to rise above the racist and misogynist vitriol that came her way. I suspect those things ultimately made her stronger. Since Barack Obama left office in 2016, there have been calls from many quarters for Michelle to consider running at some point in the future, to which she has repeatedly said she never would (she states this explicitly in the final pages of the book). When you read her personal reflections in the 2008 campaign you can see fully why she is not made for that particular political bear-pit. She is a much better person than that and working towards a bigger picture than the short-termism associated with political elections.

As my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work. They inserted “Harvard-educated” in their description of me, but generally left it at that. A couple of news outlets had published stories speculating that I’d been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband’s  growing political stature, which was painful to read. 

The final part of the book looks at her life in the White House. As she writes in the opening lines:

There is no handbook for incoming First Ladies of the United States.

As with most things in her life, Michelle Obama had to find her own way. In some ways that must be a liberating position to be in – having the freedom to write your own job description (the present First Lady has taken a somewhat different approach) – but for Michelle Obama there was the deep hostility she had to contend with, not just the political opposition, but the more personal, racist, misogynist and body-shaming tone she also endured.

I understood…that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House, I was “other” almost by default. If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors, I knew it wasn’t likely to be the same for me. 

When the book was published, commentators pounced upon her comments about the present incumbent of the White House, looking for something juicy. Yes, there are some criticisms, as you might expect, and sadly the echo chamber rather defines the politics of the age – most of us prefer to read or listen to people who reflect the views we already hold. But what struck me in fact was the restraint, and the most chilling comment was that Michelle Obama will never forgive Trump and his team for placing the life of her husband and her daughters in danger. This sums up the book, and the woman, for me; it’s family, loved ones, values first, politics second.

If you’re a Michelle fan you’ll love this and have probably read it already anyway! If you’re objective there is still much to enjoy here and there’s no doubting the courage, integrity and sheer grit of the woman. She is undoubtedly a role model to us all.

What did you think of Michelle Obama’s memoir? 

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Happy 2019!

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Happy new year, readers and fellow bloggers!

I hope you all had a good break and got plenty of reading done. My holiday was a rather different one this year. Straight after Christmas I was with family in East Anglia, so there was very little reading time. We then went on a family skiing trip to a very beautiful and very snowy Austria for New Year. (We love skiing, but I am always relieved when we all come home injury-free!)

It was probably our best family ski trip ever, in an area we have never previously visited, Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis in the South Tirol. There were very few British accents to be heard and fellow skiers were overwhelmingly Austrian, German or Dutch so it seemed to us to be well-kept secret. It was stunningly beautiful and we enjoyed the unusually bountiful snowfall, even if that caused us some problems getting back home.

the overstory imgDespite being outside skiing all day I did get a fair bit of reading done and managed finally to break the back of a book I have been reading for some time now – The Overstory by Richard Powers, the final one of the Man Booker Shortlist 2018. It’s a wonderful and brilliant novel, but it’s very long and quite hard work. The prose is a joy so much so that you simply have to read every word, which makes it doubly time-consuming. So, it was the perfect holiday choice. I’ve still not quite finished!

 

 

becoming imgOver the holiday I also completed Michelle Obama’s Becoming. This is a much faster read and very different, though also thoroughly enjoyable. Look out for my reviews of both books over the next couple of weeks.

I’ve been putting some thought into my reading plans for 2019 this last few days and have just launched this year’s Facebook Reading Challenge. If you’d like to join us do pop over to the page to have a look at the list of themes for the year. The title for January is Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing, which I gather is very funny so I’m looking forward to starting it.

 

I’m also planning to visit the Hay Festival again this year, which I attended for the first time in 2018. I loved it so much that I now intend to make it a regular part of my annual calendar. I am lucky enough to live in Manchester where we have a fantastic literary festival every Autumn. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make any of the events last year (the speakers I wanted to see all sold out very quickly so I need to be more on the ball this time) so that will also be a priority for 2019.

My other big goal this year is to attempt to get my own book published. I’ve been working on it for about 18 months now and finally finished the revisions to my second  draft in December. I feel it’s now time to put it in front of someone else for feedback – a terrifying prospect, but a necessary one. I feel sick even thinking about it!

I hope the year ahead will be joyfully book-filled. What a wonderful hobby we share!

What are your literary plans for 2019?

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