Friday, August 2, 2019

The Overstory: Final Report

Whenever I read a book I find truly great, I almost don’t want to say too much about it. Because I think you should read it for yourself and if you’re like me, you won't want many details going in. The Overstory is one of those books. It’s masterful and will give you just about anything you could want from a novel. There’s beautiful language and great storytelling; there’s philosophy and spirituality and at times, sentimentalism. There’s science and art and madness and weakness and glimpses of the stalwart goodness of people. And there’s trees, lots of information and insights about trees.
Let me tell you about the structure. The first section, called “Roots,” is made up of the chapters I wrote about before—each one titled for a character. This section runs about 150 pages and is like an exquisite short story collection. The characters have no relation to each other, but they all have some type of meaningful connection to a tree or trees. In the next sections of the novel, called “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds,” relationships between these characters are drawn. Often characters come together in unexpected ways. For me, these sections ebbed and flowed. I had trouble at first remembering one character from the other. Powers does a good job of giving reminders but even so, often in “Trunk,” I had to refer back to earlier chapters to remind myself who was who.
I see a lot of movies and for probably the past decade, I often leave the theater thinking “Well, that could have been twenty minutes shorter.” And I will admit that at times in these latter sections, The Overstory lost me a little. I was more interested in some storylines and characters than others. And yet, all along I noticed the amazing things Powers was doing with theme and structure and as I mentioned before, this feeling that all was building and growing together, pushing toward something great. Could he have cut fifty pages or so? Perhaps, but given his prodigious talent, I certainly wouldn't be the one to suggest it.
Several times throughout the novel, the first line of Ovid’s Metamorphosis is referenced:
“I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.”
I don’t want to say too much about the characters or what happens to them in terms of a plot. But I will say that each character has a revelation that paralleled mine as a reader: each of us saw trees, and the world we inhabit alongside them, in a new light. And I think if you get a copy of The Overstory, it will have an impact on you as well.
Also, I very much enjoyed Bookworm's discussion with the author, which you can listen to here.
Next week I’ll be diving into Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a lovely, best-selling picture book. The author, Thomas Pakenham, rocked the botany world in 1998 when this was published. The book is the result of “a five-year odyssey to most of the temperate and tropical regions of the world to photograph sixty trees of remarkable personality and presence…Many of these trees were already famous—champions by girth, height, volume or age—while others had never previously been caught by the camera.” The book has captured the attention of scores of readers, has been recorded in audio form with an accompanying pdf booklet, and inspired a BBC series. I'm very much looking forward to feasting on this book and the photographs within its pages. After that, I’ll conclude with The Hidden Life of Trees and because I won't have a reading update next week due to travels, I may very well have both books completed when I come back. Join me in reading these last two Summer of Trees books!


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka