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.

the overstory img

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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Book reviews: Super-readable YA fiction

It’s easy to get young kids reading – as a parent you do all the right things: show them picture books from birth, read to them (honing your animal impersonations as you go!), read with them as they begin their own journey, take them to libraries and story circles and buy them books. But what happens when they don’t want you reading to them in bed any more? What happens when they are old enough to choose electronic devices over books? What happens when they “have” to read books at school they don’t enjoy? What happens when you’re too busy or too worn down to police the mobile phones, the tablets, the games consoles?

These challenges are particularly acute for parents of teenagers – isn’t it hard enough having teenagers in the house, without bringing in yet another source of conflict or disagreement? If this sounds familiar you might want to look into “super-readable YA” books. These are relatively short YA books, with highly-engaging contemporary themes, easy plots with the most succinct scene-setting, and high action. I read a couple recently which I can recommend. What is more, these two have a specific typeface and are printed on paper with limited ‘ghosting’ (where you can see the text on the reverse of the page through the paper) making them highly suitable for kids with, for example, dyslexia.

Grave Matter by Juno Dawson

Grave Matter imgJuno is a widely-published author, Queen of Teen 2014 and member of the LGBT community. The story begins with a funeral, for Eliza, girlfriend of central character, Samuel. Eliza was killed in a car accident in which Samuel was driving. He is grief-stricken and finds himself in conflict with his family, who do not understand his torment. Samuel seeks out the estranged sister of his vicar father, with whom he cut off contact after she began to dabble in the supernatural. Through his Aunt Marie, Samuel enters a world where he can bring Eliza back to life, but at a deadly price.

This book will appeal to teens who enjoy science fiction and fantasy or have tendencies towards gothic themes. There is some light swearing and some fairly gruesome scenes as well as some challenging themes so I would recommend for 15+. It is ultimately about accepting realities and coping with bereavement.

The Last Days of Archie Maxwell by Annabel Pitcher

Last Days of Archie Maxwell imgI found this grittier and rather more challenging than Grave Matter. It would suit teens who enjoy social realism or who may be coming to terms with difficult family relationships or with issues around sexuality. The book opens with Archie’s parents announcing they are to separate. Archie’s sister suspects it is because their father is gay. This is going on in the background, but Archie also has issues at school. He is part of a gang with some of the cooler kids, but who are actually unpleasant bullies. He befriends one of the more desirable girls at school, Tia, about which he is mercilessly teased by the other lads. Tia’s brother committed suicide on the railway line near Archie’s house, a year earlier, and he finds himself telling her that he saw her brother just before the day he killed himself, because she seems to need this to comfort her in her grief. As a result they become close. Thus, Archie finds himself sucked into lying, whilst his own home life seems to be falling apart.

Archie ultimately contemplates suicide himself and this is where (as a parent of a teenager) I found the book very challenging. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t do it! I guess this will be helpful to teens who may themselves be suffering from depression, as we see the disastrous after-effects of suicide for those left behind (Tia’s brother) and how it ultimately solves nothing. Jared, the openly gay school student in the book is a great role-model, confident, self-assured and who faces down the bullies, who are exposed as gutless and superficial. I enjoyed the book, but it’s quite a tough read. There is a lot of swearing and sexual language and references. On the plus side I liked how it looked at relationships from a boy’s perspective, which is quite unusual.

Both the above are published by Barrington Stoke, so take a look at their website for more suggestions for all age groups.

Can you recommend any easy books to get teens back into reading?

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