The Overstory
The Overstory is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’s twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.A New York Times Bestseller.

The Overstory Details

TitleThe Overstory
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseApr 2nd, 2019
PublisherW.W. Norton Company
ISBN-139780393356687
Rating
GenreFiction, Environment, Nature, Literary Fiction, Contemporary, Novels

The Overstory Review

  • Hannah Greendale
    January 1, 1970
    Powers’ structural approach to The Overstory breaks with traditional plotting. The result is two books in one, each designed to appeal to a different type of reader. The flaw in this approach is that the book either reads like a literary triumph that starts slow then builds to something satiating, or it reads like a bait-and-switch with a breathtaking start followed by a wearisome and long-winded trek to the conclusion. Part 1 (called “Roots”) reads like a magnificent short story collection. The Powers’ structural approach to The Overstory breaks with traditional plotting. The result is two books in one, each designed to appeal to a different type of reader. The flaw in this approach is that the book either reads like a literary triumph that starts slow then builds to something satiating, or it reads like a bait-and-switch with a breathtaking start followed by a wearisome and long-winded trek to the conclusion. Part 1 (called “Roots”) reads like a magnificent short story collection. The backstory and exposition that would normally be woven throughout a book is delivered in several rousing anecdotes. Nine protagonists are introduced, their stories ranging from sweeping multi-generational sagas to brief glimpses into their private lives. These characters remain separate in “Roots,” yet their stories are united by meaningful interaction with trees. Each of their stories arrives at an arresting climax before Powers hits the pause button. “Roots” will likely appeal to fans of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster or The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan. The remaining three-fourths of the book, however, are something else entirely. Parts 2 through 4 (called “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seed,” respectively) sees these nine characters being inextricably drawn together. Their lives entangle, their shared interests and unique experiences with trees drive their actions. This portion of the book is arguably slower, with fewer revelations about the characters and more attention dedicated to exploring themes. Powers pulls back the curtain to introduce trees as a tenth character and forces us to examine our role in, and relationship to, nature. All ten characters share similar beliefs, fight for the same causes, face the same external conflict (while wrestling with minimal or no internal conflict), and everyone gets along. It’s a startling contrast to the first part of the book; a harrowing and captivating intro that promises heartbreak and drama, followed by a stagnant alternative book in which the captivating backstories have very little bearing on the overall narrative. At times, Powers’ writing is as beautiful and wondrous as nature, and his messages about activism and resistance are poignant but, ultimately, his execution is uneven and the final product is a book bloated with redundant characters. The bends in the alders speak of long-ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen; soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Poplars repeat the wind's gossip. Persimmons and walnuts set out their bribes and rowans their blood-red clusters. Ancient oaks wave prophecies of future weather. The several hundred kinds of hawthorn laugh at the single name their forced to share.
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  • Neil
    January 1, 1970
    Further Update. I can't help it: Powers' writing does something to me. I've now finished a re-read of this book and I am going back to 5 stars. It's a book that really rewards a second reading. It is much darker than I remember from first read (suicide, disillusionment, betrayal on top of the destruction of the natural world) and also much more emotional. The latter of those two surprised me because I thought that knowing the story would reduce the emotional impact, but the reverse happened.I lo Further Update. I can't help it: Powers' writing does something to me. I've now finished a re-read of this book and I am going back to 5 stars. It's a book that really rewards a second reading. It is much darker than I remember from first read (suicide, disillusionment, betrayal on top of the destruction of the natural world) and also much more emotional. The latter of those two surprised me because I thought that knowing the story would reduce the emotional impact, but the reverse happened.I loved all the comparisons of speed (humans, the natural world, computers) and I got a lot more out of Neelay's story this time through.So, whilst I can understand the criticisms some have made, I'm choosing to ignore those bits and take the novel as a whole which is, I think, required reading.---------Update: on reflection, I got a bit excited about having a new Richard Powers book to read and I have definitely, despite what I say below, read better books this year. Consequently, my rating has dropped to 4 stars. There is also the fact that Powers himself has written several books better than this one.—————Two quotes from different parts of this book:"The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."And"Yes! And what do all good stories do?" There are no takers. Neelay holds up his arms and extends his palms in the oddest gesture. In another moment, leaves will grow from his fingers. Birds will come and nest in them. "They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t."I should come clean at the start of this review. Richard Powers is my favourite author. I have read all his previous novels and have been desperate to read this one ever since I first heard about it a few months ago. I am grateful to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an ARC a couple of months prior to publication date.The overstory is the name given to the part of a forest that protrudes above the canopy. When you look at a rainforest, for example, what you see from above is the canopy with trees standing out above it. What you don’t see unless you get into the rainforest is the understory that sits below the canopy but above the ground, then the shrub layer below that and, finally, the forest floor.It is clear from page 1 of this book that the trees will be the stars of the show. Repeatedly, they are referred to as "the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation" and the book is shot through with the most astonishing and mind-blowing information about trees. In particular, the book tells us a lot about how and what trees communicate with each other. For example, when a tree comes under threat from an insect of some kind, it tells its neighbours who respond by releasing insecticide to protect themselves. In a large forest, many trees whose roots meet actually meld their root systems together making the whole forest an interconnected network where the trees nurture their young and heal their wounded. Not so long ago, all this was the stuff of ridicule, but today a lot of it has been demonstrated and more is being discovered all the time.What Richard Powers wants his readers to realise is what this means for humanity. He wants us to realise how important trees are for the world. And he chooses to do this not with a text book but with a story.His story is structured like a tree. The first 150 pages consist of the "Roots". These are 8 apparently independent short stories giving us the back story for 9 different people. One, for example, tells us the family history of a some immigrants into America (mid-1800s) ending with an artist in recent times who inherits the family collection of photographs all of the same chestnut tree taking at monthly intervals over generations. In another, a hearing and speech impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with each other. The unifying theme across all the stories is the presence of trees. And it is worth noting those trees because, as many people know, trees have huge mythical and symbolic meanings and the trees Powers chooses for each of his characters are not random selections.The next 200 pages are "Trunk". Here the stories of the individuals that we now know quite well start to merge and connect. Some merge completely, others connect tangentially. This passage is overtly political. Don’t expect an unbiased overview: this is an impassioned plea for the protection of trees set in the form of a story. It is an attempt to make readers realise how temporary humans are in the grand scheme of things…"But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died."…and how much more permanent trees are…"Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they’ve planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing."Then we have 120 pages called "Crown" where the stories separate after a dramatic climax to Trunk, but remain connected, branching out in different directions.Then, finally, "Seeds" tells us some of the outcomes of the stories and leaves us poised for the next steps in others. It includes a plea for us to look at things differently."The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees."I think this is perhaps one of Powers' most accessible novels. It feels to me, fresh from finishing it, like his most passionate one. Yes, there is some science, but a lot of it is explained carefully. This novel does not require the scientific background that some of Powers' novels have asked the reader for. And there is no music in this book, which is the other thing that Powers often includes in his novels and often does so in a fairly technical way. This one is, by contrast, far more emotional: it feels like a book Powers has written because he wants, as the quote at the start of this review says, to change people’s minds. In my case, he is perhaps preaching to the converted because I am already a believer in conservation and already convinced of the importance of trees. Even so, this book taught me many things and fired up a stronger passion in me for the natural world. I have to hope that others will read it and become equally convinced of the need for intelligent conservation work.I know I am biased because of my love for all of Powers’ novels, but I think it is possible I have now, even only in January, read my favourite book of 2018.
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  • Paula Kalin
    January 1, 1970
    Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018, The Overstory is a brilliant and passionate book about humans and their relationship to trees and the natural environment.The first half of the book is exceptional. Written like short stories, 9 characters are introduced separately with their tree story. Each story has an event that has happened to change the life of the character by the tree or trees that shaped them. The stories are phenomenal.The second half of the book is about these same characters be Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018, The Overstory is a brilliant and passionate book about humans and their relationship to trees and the natural environment.The first half of the book is exceptional. Written like short stories, 9 characters are introduced separately with their tree story. Each story has an event that has happened to change the life of the character by the tree or trees that shaped them. The stories are phenomenal.The second half of the book is about these same characters being drawn together to fight the cause of saving trees. Environmental activism is the center of this part of the book and it’s fight against logging companies who are destroying the American forests. Richard Powers shows such compassion and enthusiasm throughout his book. However, I found the second half to be too long. Some editing would have gone a long way. His book is 500 pages long and not an easy one to get through. It is well researched and very thought provoking, however. A book that won’t leave the reader for a long time.4 out of 5 stars
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  • Paromjit
    January 1, 1970
    This has won the Pulitzer Prize!!Richard Powers writes with ambition, passion and reverence on the world of trees, their ancient intelligence and their central place in the fragile ecosystem. This is a dense and epic work of environmental fiction, a picture of the state of our planet and how humanity has contributed to its degradation. Whilst the over riding central character of this are trees, he interweaves the stories of the lives of 9 disparate individuals, within a four part structure of Ro This has won the Pulitzer Prize!!Richard Powers writes with ambition, passion and reverence on the world of trees, their ancient intelligence and their central place in the fragile ecosystem. This is a dense and epic work of environmental fiction, a picture of the state of our planet and how humanity has contributed to its degradation. Whilst the over riding central character of this are trees, he interweaves the stories of the lives of 9 disparate individuals, within a four part structure of Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. The stories of the 9 people appear to be isolated but interlinked with their varying connections to trees and their growing contribution in their efforts to prevent the destruction of forests and woods. Powers immerses us in the world of trees, so wondrous, coming at the theme from multiple perspectives, packed with elements of science and a dollop of magical realism.This is not a perfect or an easy read, there are occasions when Powers just cannot help himself from over egging the narrative with his heavy handed need to hammer home the same points a little too assiduously. However, this powerful paean to the treasure that are trees and nature, highlights one of the most important issues in our contemporary world, the state of the planet that our younger and future generations are set to inherit. People have failed to see the wood for the trees, thereby underlining our inability to intuit the place of humans amidst the wider ecosystems of the Earth we rely on to live and survive. This is an elegaic, extraordinary, and emotive read, if faintly exasperating at times, a critically important novel for our times on the issues surrounding sustainability. Many thanks to Random House Vintage.
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  • Ron Charles
    January 1, 1970
    Richard Powers’s “The Overstory” soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.Long celebrated for his compelling, cerebral books, Powers demonstrates a remarkable ability to tell dramatic, emotionally involving stories while delving into subjects many readers would otherwise find arcane. He’s written about genetics, pharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, music and photography. In 2006, his novel about neurology, “The Echo Maker,” won a Richard Powers’s “The Overstory” soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.Long celebrated for his compelling, cerebral books, Powers demonstrates a remarkable ability to tell dramatic, emotionally involving stories while delving into subjects many readers would otherwise find arcane. He’s written about genetics, pharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, music and photography. In 2006, his novel about neurology, “The Echo Maker,” won a National Book Award. And now he’s turned his attention, more fully than ever before, to our imperiled biome and particularly to the world’s oldest, grandest life-forms: trees.“The Overstory” moves the way an open field evolves into a thick forest: slowly, then inevitably. For a while, its various stories develop independently, and it’s not apparent that they have anything to do with one another. But have faith in this world-maker. Powers is working through tree-history, not human-history, and the effect is like a time-lapse video. Soon enough his disparate characters set out branches that touch and mingle: Before the Civil War, a Norwegian immigrant travels to Iowa and begins homesteading in the largely empty new. . . . To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...
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  • Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽
    January 1, 1970
    2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction! This dense, literary book will make you think.… when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down. Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:The Overstory is a powerful, literary novel, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It sings, in part, a paean to the wonders of trees and the multitude of wonders that old-growth forests and a variety of trees brings to our world. It also mourns a tragedy 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction! This dense, literary book will make you think.… when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down. Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:The Overstory is a powerful, literary novel, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It sings, in part, a paean to the wonders of trees and the multitude of wonders that old-growth forests and a variety of trees brings to our world. It also mourns a tragedy: how humans relentlessly annihilate these priceless resources, and what drives some people to eco-terrorism.The Overstory is brilliantly organized in a form that reflects an actual tree. It begins with a section aptly titled “Roots,” a set of eight apparently unconnected stories in which we meet nine disparate characters: An artist whose family home in Iowa boasts one of the last healthy American chestnut trees. The engineer daughter of a Chinese immigrant. An odd, unmotivated teenager inspired by a book about human behavior and psychology. An intellectual property attorney who falls in love with an unconventional stenographer. A Vietnam veteran who stumbles into a job planting seedlings to replace mature trees that have been cut down. A brilliant computer programmer, permanently disabled by a fall from a tree. A postdoc, hearing- and speech-impaired woman who studies trees, discovering that they communicate with each other, and is ridiculed for her conclusions. And a beautiful, careless college undergrad who dies from an accidental electrocution and returns to life with a vision and a purpose. And all of these characters have been deeply affected by trees, in one way or another.Richard Powers traces the lives of these nine people ― often back to their childhood or even their ancestors ― to explore how they have developed into the people they are. These introductory stories of their lives are excellent and insightful; good enough that they could stand alone as individual short stories. But Powers is just getting started.In the next section, “Trunk,” their lives come together and begin to affect each other. Four of them become eco-warriors, part of the tree-hugging movement whose proponents will do almost anything to stop the logging and stripping of irreplaceable mature redwoods and old-growth forests. “Trunk” culminates in a terrible, unexpected event that will change their lives forever. And so we proceed to “Crown” and then the shorter, final section, “Seeds.”The Overstory is a little bit magical realism, with messages being shared with some of the characters by some mystical source, and a little bit science fiction, as the genius computer programmer develops video games that turn into a type of artificial intelligence. But mostly Richard Powers is trying to convince us, as readers, of the wondrous nature of trees, and to treat trees, and our world generally, with deeper respect. The novel shifts its focus somewhat in the final section, with a somewhat cryptic hint that trees may well outlast humanity.Parts of The Overstory rate five stars, easily, but personally I hit a bit of a wall with the lengthy middle section, “Trunk.” As brilliantly written as the book is, it’s also sometimes slow-paced, repetitious and didactic, as Powers delves into the evils of the corporations and groups who are indiscriminately cutting down trees and eliminating forests, and the worst of the tactics they use against those who try to oppose them. I think this novel would have benefited by being edited down by about a hundred pages and by being less overtly preachy. But Powers is clearly angry, and wants us to share that anger and be moved to take action. It may be message fiction, but this is potent stuff. Also, as Powers points out more than once, trees live very slowly compared to humans, and that is echoed in the deliberate pacing of The Overstory.For readers already of the view that humans are doing profound damage to the ecology of our world, The Overstory will give you additional arguments and inspiration. For those more skeptical, it may cause you to reexamine some of your views. The Overstory isn’t an easy read, but it’s a powerful and persuasive work of art. I received a free copy from the publisher for review. Thank you!Content notes: some, very limited adult content (language, violence, sexual situations). This isn’t a book for younger readers in any case.Initial post: This hefty, literary book looks a little intimidating, but interesting. The Secret Life of Trees. Off we go!
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  • Beata
    January 1, 1970
    Having bought this book months ago, I started wondering if I spent my money well. Although I enjoy making my own mind regarding my reading choices, I couldn’t escape coming across many reviews, both positive and negative, as a result, I was a little apprehensive … When I began reading, I thought it’d take me many weeks to get through this novel, however, it turned out to be a compulsive reading for me. Different characters, different stories, one theme: trees. I love forests, parks and try hard Having bought this book months ago, I started wondering if I spent my money well. Although I enjoy making my own mind regarding my reading choices, I couldn’t escape coming across many reviews, both positive and negative, as a result, I was a little apprehensive … When I began reading, I thought it’d take me many weeks to get through this novel, however, it turned out to be a compulsive reading for me. Different characters, different stories, one theme: trees. I love forests, parks and try hard to save trees in my neighbourhood, but this novel added a new dimension to my perception of the lives of trees. I’d never read environmental fiction before, and for me this book is powerful. As a reader, I received what I expected to receive from a good book: story and narration that engaged me.
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  • Jenny (Reading Envy)
    January 1, 1970
    This amazing book connects specific trees to people or families and then the stories come together and morph into being about the environment, how trees relate to each other, and this underlying theme of personal and natural histories that always play out. Decisions have long-reaching consequences, etc. The first section had me in tears about Chestnut trees. All I wanted to do when I reached the end was go back to the beginning. I started this as a review copy but bought my own hardcover before This amazing book connects specific trees to people or families and then the stories come together and morph into being about the environment, how trees relate to each other, and this underlying theme of personal and natural histories that always play out. Decisions have long-reaching consequences, etc. The first section had me in tears about Chestnut trees. All I wanted to do when I reached the end was go back to the beginning. I started this as a review copy but bought my own hardcover before I hit 100 pages.
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  • Hugh
    January 1, 1970
    Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019This is the most ambitious and complex book on the Booker longlist, and two thirds of the way through it, I was pretty sure it was heading for five stars and being one of the best books I have read this year. Sadly, I found the last part rather disappointing, and I know from previous experience that Powers is capable of better. Perhaps a convincing resolution is too much to ask when the subject matter is so div Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019This is the most ambitious and complex book on the Booker longlist, and two thirds of the way through it, I was pretty sure it was heading for five stars and being one of the best books I have read this year. Sadly, I found the last part rather disappointing, and I know from previous experience that Powers is capable of better. Perhaps a convincing resolution is too much to ask when the subject matter is so diverse and extraordinary.The book is all about trees, and in many ways the trees are more important than the diverse cast of human characters, all of whom become involved with protecting, nurturing or learning from trees in many different ways. Throughout the book there are many examples of extraordinary trees, their importance to supporting other forms of life and the mechanisms by which they grow, communicate, cooperate and react to threats. Powers cannot resist the occasional foray into his long-established interest in human behavioural psychology. If all of this sounds dry and unreadable, that would convey entirely the wrong impression - Powers is a masterful storyteller and everything is clearly explained in terms that are easy to relate to. The first section introduces each of the main characters in separate chapters. The first chapter sets the tone - an Iowa settler plants chestnuts on his farm. One survives, and this tree is photographed monthly by several generations of the family - it also survives the blight which wiped out most of the chestnut trees in the eastern States. We then move to a Chinese family attempting to grow mulberries to harvest silk. By the time this section finishes we are almost a third of the way through the book.The second section brings many of the human cast together in 80s California, where they join campaigners attempting to protect some of the last remaining redwood trees - this is a mixture of fact and exaggeration - in general the tree science is fact, but the human activity is fictional or adapted. At the end of this section, the failure of these protests leads them to start an arson campaign, (view spoiler)[in which the charismatic Olivia "Maidenhair" (whose story is partly modelled on that of Julia Butterfly Hill) is accidentally killed. (hide spoiler)]. For me this was the most powerful part of the book.The third section moves them on twenty years, where the past either haunts or catches up with the protestors, and the other characters are developed. The short final section is more speculative and less convincing. I also felt that many of the humans were a little too caricatured, but perhaps that was necessary to make the book work.I couldn't help seeing this book as something of a companion piece to Annie Proulx's Barkskins. Both centre on humanity's voracious and wanton destruction of aboriginal forest land, both are epic novels and both are mostly set in the United States. They diverge there - Powers is fascinated by the details of tree science and the importance of forests to the world's ecosystem and biodiversity, Proulx is more interested in the older history and the effect of deforestation on native Americans. For me, Barkskins was the more complete book.The details are, as ever with Powers, fascinating and impressive, but inevitably the science is a little simplified to meet the demands of the story and some of the conjecture is decidedly fanciful. This is a fascinating and thought provoking book.
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  • Spencer Orey
    January 1, 1970
    Brilliant, slow, and meditative. It made me evaluate my ideas about sustainability, wood, and trees and how I can be a better person in the world. None of the characters really stuck with me, but the presentation of different species of trees (and individual trees situated in places and times) in their grand majesty over time was extraordinary.My hardback copy was printed on recycled paper, which was a good detail!
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  • Trudie
    January 1, 1970
    Another hour. Deserts of infinite boredom punctuated by peaks of freakish intensityPowers doing my review writing for me. My reading experience of The Overstory often felt like a forced march of The Appalachian Trail while being read poetry. In all likelihood that might appeal to some people, however I prefer a less arduous journey. I tried to escape this book once, flinging it aside at around page 60 but several positive reviews from trusty readers and the growing likelihood that this will ma Another hour. Deserts of infinite boredom punctuated by peaks of freakish intensityPowers doing my review writing for me. My reading experience of The Overstory often felt like a forced march of The Appalachian Trail while being read poetry. In all likelihood that might appeal to some people, however I prefer a less arduous journey. I tried to escape this book once, flinging it aside at around page 60 but several positive reviews from trusty readers and the growing likelihood that this will make the MB shortlist made me put my hiking boots back on.This is not my first rodeo with Richard Powers. I read his 2014 shortlisted book Orfeo a novel that deep dives into molecular biology and classical music and combines them in grand esoteric passages that at times seem barely penetrable. Despite this I ended up admiring Orfeo. I had hoped for something similar to occur with this book, particularly as I admire books that find ways to incorporate the hard sciences. Unfortunately, I came away from this wondering if I might have been better served reading Wohlleben's Secret life of trees .I am aware Powers has a degree in Physics as well as literature and that becomes obvious in sentences like these :Ten million points flicker in the falling dark, like logic gates of a circuit cranking out solutions to a calculation generations in the making. Through the armored arch behind the checkpoint, a cell-subtended hallway disappears lengthwise down an optical illusion into forever. I do admire him for attempting to mesh these disciplines but it makes for a grandiose writing style and a sometimes odd juxtaposition of disciplines. These being not limited to - dendrology, ecology, eco-warfare, computer science, psychology, mythology, poetry, evolution, and taxonomy. This often verges on information dumping and threatens to lose sight of the fact this is suppose to be a novel. My other major concern with this book was the understandable but ultimately unhelpful craze to anthropomorphise scientific research. Wohlleben's book has garnered much attention but it is far from accepted doctrine to talk of complex tree networks as if they have intention and consciousness. Powers leans heavily upon this, trees "bleed" sap, they have plans to travel north, they communicate intention with each other, they would talk to us if only we were listening. Certainly there is scientific evidence to support communication and symbiotic relationships and much else interesting besides. But it seems to me a fallacy to try to view these findings through a lens of human behaviour. Is that not an egregious form of egotism on our part? There are far better reviews available that discuss the ecological themes of this book, its' unusual structure, the characters and why Powers might win a place on the Man Booker shortlist. However, I personally subscribe to the opinion that Annie Proulx did this type of book much better with Barkskins. Proulx has a warmth and knack with characters that I think is lacking in The Overstory and I walked away from it with a much greater sense of the epic scope of ecological crisis.However, it is impossible to spend what ended up being almost two weeks with this book and not find some glimpses of brilliance. I am left with a strong sense of having traveled through some delightful arboretum where tree giants are whispering just out of ear shot. Much like hiking the Appalachian Trial might feel like days of misery and toil for one or two moments of transcendental bliss so goes the experience of reading The Overstory . A slog then but not without occasional rewards.Leaving you with the oh so wise Dr Patricia Westerfold -She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable she’d get an ovation
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  • Meike
    January 1, 1970
    Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019 Richard Powers goes eco-fiction: In "The Overstory", the real protagonists are trees - living, breathing, communicating, ever-evolving, hard-working, intelligent trees. Okay, there are also people, but the quest they are on is to understand what the trees already know. Powers knits a whole web of protagonists, and the rootage of the book is a compilation of short stories, introducing the human characters: Nicholas Hoel (who grew up on a farm), Mimi M Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019 Richard Powers goes eco-fiction: In "The Overstory", the real protagonists are trees - living, breathing, communicating, ever-evolving, hard-working, intelligent trees. Okay, there are also people, but the quest they are on is to understand what the trees already know. Powers knits a whole web of protagonists, and the rootage of the book is a compilation of short stories, introducing the human characters: Nicholas Hoel (who grew up on a farm), Mimi Ma (the daughter of a Chinese immigrant), Adam Appich (a psychologist), Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly (a childless married couple), Douglas Pavlicek (a war veteran), Neelay Mehta (a computer game developer), Patricia Westerford (a biologist), and Olivia Vandergriff (a recently divorced student). Gradually, the reader understands how these people's destinies are connected, and all these connections relate to trees and forest preservation. The human protagonists learn about the value of forests due to different experiences, all of them develop unique feelings towards the natural world, and all of them take measures to preserve the forest that is vital for the survival of humankind. This may now sound like Powers wrote a story about epiphanies and eco-fighters, and in a way, he did, but mainly, this is a sad story about destruction and failure - I guess this was the only way to write an honest book about deforestation and human stupidity. I found the structure of the narrative very impressive, and the importance of the message cannot be overstated, but to focus on the trees as intelligent organisms instead of objectifying them seems to be the real innovation and appeal of the book. In fact, the trees are smarter than the people in this book, and when it comes to the points discussed in the text, they probably really are.Parts of the book are overtly long, but it's still a very worthwhile read.
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  • Gumble's Yard
    January 1, 1970
    As per the end of my review, the book has now deservedly won a medal but for lots of reasons (not least that the Booker really does not need another American based male author winning it) I hope it does not win the gold. This book begins by giving the stories of a disparate group of individuals with different professions and backgrounds, and their interactions with the world of trees. And so I would like to start my review by commending the reviews of a number of my Goodreads friends - a photogr As per the end of my review, the book has now deservedly won a medal but for lots of reasons (not least that the Booker really does not need another American based male author winning it) I hope it does not win the gold. This book begins by giving the stories of a disparate group of individuals with different professions and backgrounds, and their interactions with the world of trees. And so I would like to start my review by commending the reviews of a number of my Goodreads friends - a photographer with a passion for nature; an actuary (who unlike one character in the book actually qualified rather than taking drugs); and an ex music critic, now librarian and art blogger. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...https://deucekindred.wordpress.com/20...And then to add my own brief thoughts on a few other areas which I think are not captured in their reviews. The first is the concept of different timescales and in particular the link to Artificial intelligence; something which I think was vital to the very conception of this book which arose when the author was based around Silicon Valley but walking amongst ancient trees. The theme is first captured in a science fiction story that one character loved as a youngster (and later part remembers as an adult, albeit forgetting the ending). Aliens land on earth. They’re little runts, as alien races go. But they metabolise like there’s no tomorrow. They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see - so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like tears. To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat. The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply. Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck unto the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home. The parallels with humans and trees are clear and later (in a related story) a character visiting an airport is drawn to the movements of birds rather than the static scene of departure boards - a symbol of how humankind is hardwired to focus in movement/change. Then as the first mentioned character starts to creates the artificial worlds in his MMORPGs and eventually diverges in his aims from those playing the games, and those around him in his old firm and, at the book’s end starts to use artificial intelligence for different purposes than those his game has been hijacked by, we see the dichotomy that Powers is exploring, one he has explained in early interviews. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants. Will we double down on the great migration into symbol space, our decampment into Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and World of Warcraft, the road that we have already traveled so far down? Or will Big Data and Deep Learning allow us to grasp and rejoin the staggeringly complex processes of the living world? The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re inseparable aspects of the new ecology of digital life. A second theme is suicide. Of the characters whose individual stories start the novel and then interleaf throughout it: one’s father commits suicide; another contemplates it but is dissuaded by voices at the last moment; another makes an enfeebled attempt in hospital observed by a second character; another is thankful that the opportunity does not present itself in prison. And of course the book culminates with a lecture planned to end in suicide as advice on the best thing than a human can do to save the environment, before taking a late and different course. I saw two angles to this - firstly a view that the current obsession with consumption and new flirtations with climate change denial and rolling back environmental protections is itself a form of suicide; and secondly a counsel of hope against despair and that humans still have a role to play in serving the planet (what role does life want humans to play is of course the aim of the new Artificial intelligence established by the aforementioned character at the book’s end). Very much a book of ideas, if as has been pointed out in Paul’s review and the comments below it, ones that have largely been adopted from elsewhere and, slightly oddly, unattributed albeit Power himself seems to acknowledge that omission. The judges award him no medal - even a bronze. They say it’s because he has no bibliography. A bibliography is a required part of the formal report. A bibliography is not required for a novel but I think it would have been useful given the campaigning nature of the book, so I will add my own. Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman is the definitive guide to the field of Behavioural Economics that underlies a lot of the bookCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond is an excellent guide to societal suicide due to excessive growth outstripping resources and environmental degradation (including deforestation). Will the judges award this a medal - I would be very surprised and a little disappointed if it does not achieve the “bronze” of a shortlisting given the stimulating ideas it summarises; but equally not surprised and certainly not disappointed if it does not win the gold, not least due to comments in the book which in my view range somewhere on the spectrum of ignorant to insulting about my profession, industry and faith.
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  • Dianne
    January 1, 1970
    2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction! A very erudite and weighty saga that took me over a week to read. It’s excellent, but at the same time, I really wanted it to be over so I could move on to another book. This is a novel where full attention must be paid.Still, the truth is I learned a ton about the world of trees and will never look at them quite the same way again. The research and passion Powers poured into this novel is staggering. My husband and I just purchased a wooded lot to build a 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction! A very erudite and weighty saga that took me over a week to read. It’s excellent, but at the same time, I really wanted it to be over so I could move on to another book. This is a novel where full attention must be paid.Still, the truth is I learned a ton about the world of trees and will never look at them quite the same way again. The research and passion Powers poured into this novel is staggering. My husband and I just purchased a wooded lot to build a house next year, and I have found myself standing amongst the trees really LOOKING at them and listening; looking at the undergrowth for all of the life hidden below. Just this past weekend, two lots near ours cleared, cut and/or burned many of the trees on their property in preparation for building. We will have to do the same this spring. And it sucks! Seeing the stacked oak logs with the ash from the fires falling around us was surreal, especially since I was right in the middle of this book, thinking hard about the natural world and what we humans are doing to it.Impressive and Man Booker longlist worthy; I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t make the shortlist. It is a commitment, though, so be aware when you start that it’s a lengthy, dense, and thoughtful kind of book. This isn’t a book you’ll be inclined to speed read. And although it’s a “tree-hugger” kind of book, it is not preachy and has an optimistic heart. If you choose to read this, I’d be very surprised if you don’t come out the other end a little transformed. Let me know!
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  • Michael
    January 1, 1970
    A wonderful tour of how human lives can intersect and become engaged with that of trees. The complex narrative of nine separate characters who grow alone, have different kind of formative influences from events involving trees, and then converge in mind or action by the middle of the book on the political fight in the 80s over the logging of the last old-growth forest plots in the Pacific Northwest. In the process we get to experience a satisfying interplay and integration between tree-hugger sp A wonderful tour of how human lives can intersect and become engaged with that of trees. The complex narrative of nine separate characters who grow alone, have different kind of formative influences from events involving trees, and then converge in mind or action by the middle of the book on the political fight in the 80s over the logging of the last old-growth forest plots in the Pacific Northwest. In the process we get to experience a satisfying interplay and integration between tree-hugger spirituality (or cult mentality from some perspectives) and the surprising discoveries about the ecology and botany of trees in recent decades. All of us I think are reeling from the planetary ecological crisis brought on by the interconnected issues of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and global warming. This book provides emotional relief by making these issues part of the personal stories of characters whose aspirations and motivations are easy to identify with. Some get attuned to trees through their parents of family traditions; others through accidents or surprises. In each case, their lives eventually become transformed by concern for trees. As Ovid began “Metamorphoses”:Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.For example, a key character, Patricia, grows up feeling isolated by her hearing impairment but gets drawn to the mysteries of the world of plants through the inspiration of outdoor travels with her father and readings of his books such as those by the 19th century naturalist John Muir, who said:We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men … In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.Her thesis and post-doctoral work on chemical alerting among trees upon attacks by insects ends up being so ahead of its time, is attacked by established scientists at meetings where she can overhear the slanderous rejection in whispers in the crowd: “There’s the woman who thinks that trees are intelligent.” She quits academia for work as a high school teacher and later as a wilderness ranger in an Oregon national forest. Nick is another key character because his story of a tree connection follows multiple generations, starting with the arrival of his Swedish ancestor at a farm homestead in Iowa in the 19th century. His admiration of the grace and nut bounty of the American Chestnut in his transitional residence in Brooklyn leads him plant some at the new farm. The advent of photography leads him to take monthly pictures of the one seedling that survived, a tradition passed down and given impetus when soon after the turn of the century all chestnuts east of the Mississippi succumb to an undefeatable fungus. Nick inherits the huge stack of photos, which when flipped provide a rare window into the growth behavior of a tree over the span of more than a century, branching, reaching, and racing for the sun. Marvelous invention by Powers (or highlight of something actually done?). When Nick’s parents die in a propane heater accident, the contrast of this tree’s timescale puts his tragedy in perspective:When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts, lifting its lower limbs and shrugging its ample globe. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphore against the bluest of midwestern winter skies.Nick’s affinity is with art and painting, not in the death-throes of the family farm in the face of industrial agribusiness. In reducing possessions before selling the farm, he advertises “Free Tree Art” on the highway, and chance favors him with a visit by one Olivia who is passing through on her way to joining the protesters against clearcutting in the Pacific Northwest. Her character was introduced earlier as a disinterested actuarial student who, like Saul on the road to Damascus, has a near death experience which makes her suddenly hungry for s more meaningful path to her life. A TV news interview with a protester engages her with this powerful logic: Some of these trees were around before Jesus was born. We’ve already taken ninety-seven percent of the old ones. Couldn’t we find a way to keep the last three percent? They join the growing movement of activists trying to stop the rush of timber companies in Oregon trying to harvest all the big, old redwoods and Douglas firs before a law is passed to restrict the harvest. At first non-violent civil disobedience prevails. Nick and Olivia do things like chaining themselves with others to block harvest equipment passage on logging roads. The next step is ‘tree sitting’, which puts them together for months on a platform in the canopy of a fir more than 300 years old. The efforts of Powers to capture such an experience was a high point for me in the book. A lovely example of the convergence of character stories comes when they read a book together during their vigil called “The Secret Forest”. Written by Patricia, it begins: You and the tree in your back yard came from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions that tree and you share a quarter of your genes.While a forest ranger, Patricia encounters botanists at a field station who tell her that ten years after her research discoveries were discounted it was finally validated and serves as a major inspiration to them. She gets a chance to join them and expand upon her work on airborne signaling to underground communication between trees through fungal filament network in the soil linking their roots. The “mycorrhizal” networks represent a symbiosis based on the fungus providing the trees mineral nutrients from the soil and trees in exchange providing them glucose. Through the network a large tree can send water and nutrients to nurture vulnerable saplings, and a dying tree can bestow its resources to healthy survivors. The activists gather in the message that trees form a cooperative network that bears some resemblance to an intelligent community of communicating individuals. In the case of a grove of aspens, the individual trunks one sees turns out to be genetically identical offshoots from a common root mass which could be thousands of years old.From the foregoing, you can get the picture on how all the tree-hugger elements of the tale are tempered with a lot of real science for a foundation. The character of Adam plays an interesting role for bridging this divide. He joins Nick and Olivia during their tree-sitting to interview them for his thesis research, which aims to investigate the foundations of tribal biasing of human thinking toward irrational beliefs, such as that of trees being intelligent and deserving of legal rights. The more Adam comes to experience what Nick and Olivia are up to compared to the intransigent greed of the logging industry, the more he respects them. Their opponents display stickers like these on their vehicles:Loggers: The Real endangered Species.Earth First! We’ll log the other planets later.Adam gets even more radicalized from the dangerous and brutal tactics to complete the logging of the tract and, finally, the tree they are protecting. Some of the tragedy we experience in the downing of the Tree of Life in the movie “Avatar” comes through to him. Soon after their release from arrest for their crimes, Adam joins the couple in their escalation toward more active and criminal resistance, such as destroying loggers’ equipment. A disastrous outcome from one such initiative sends Adam into hiding and pursuit of a quiet academic life.So far I’ve talked only about four characters. Among the five other characters, another man and woman have their own critical tree experiences that ends up putting them on the path toward activism in the Northwest. The others are very different. There is an urban couple who work at a legal office and do amateur theater with only limited intersections with trees. But eventually they get interested in gardening, and, in compassion for the deforestation problem, adopt the practical antidote of letting their back yard go wild, neighbors and municipal authorities be damned. And just maybe they can imagine some effective legal arguments to support the rights of a forest. The final character, the son of an Indian electronics engineer, becomes paraplegic from a fall from a maple tree planted in honor of his birth. He has the gumption and skill to succeed in life as a computer programmer, and from his heart designs a role-playing computer game that puts a lot of heroes out of Hindu mythology in the context of a forest world that emulates a lot of global ecology. By this means he sensitizes millions toward a mindset of problem-solving ecological issues. These are all vibrant characters and round out the others I highlighted.This novel surprised me on almost every page with special ways of looking at our human lives in relation to our poor stewardship of forest resources. The flights of science, poetry, politics, and mythology never intrude as discursive or self-indulgent elements in the narrative, but they always emerge naturally from the human stories portrayed. I feel ashamed to have accumulated so many books by Powers over the years without reading one until now. Related readings to consider Personally, this book was a perfect fit with other books read in recent years, including these that I can recommend:--Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, by Robert Pogue Harrison—a tour of cultural history and mythology about forests as a sites for human quests, refuge, or spiritual transformation--My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir—a naturalist’s portrayal of his hikes in these California mountains, including his poetic and spiritual reactions to his first encounters with the ancient, giant redwoods and sequoias (free audio version at Librivox)--The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey—satirical, semi-autobiographical take on a set of colorful characters engaged in radical activism against deforestation--Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren—entertaining and educational autobiography of an ecological scientist, including some forays into the field of tree communication via fungal networks--The Diversity of Life, by Edward O. Wilson—masterful synthesis of biodiversity and species interdependency in ecosystems and scope of the current threat, with a focus on forests and jungles Value added reading: --Do Trees Talk to Each Other?, by Richard Grant; Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018--review of Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate”--Nature's Internet: How Trees Talk to Each Other in a Healthy Forest, by Suzanne Simard. Youtube video of TED Talk, July 2016--Why Should Trees Have Legal Rights? by Maria Banda; Globe and Mail, June 1, 2018--Branching Out, by John Gorka, 1987; YouTube video--whimsical song about becoming a tree which is "gonna reach, gonna reach for the sky, gonna reach until I know why"
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  • Melki
    January 1, 1970
    "Thank you for the tools. The chests. The decking. The clothes closets. The paneling. I forget . . . Thank you," she says, following the ancient formula. "For all the gifts that you have given." And still not knowing how to stop, she adds, "We're sorry. We didn't know how hard it is for you to grow back."Powers begins his monumental novel by introducing his characters - each with their own short story. Then, the characters begin to interact in a tale that is beautiful, heartbreaking, terrifying, "Thank you for the tools. The chests. The decking. The clothes closets. The paneling. I forget . . . Thank you," she says, following the ancient formula. "For all the gifts that you have given." And still not knowing how to stop, she adds, "We're sorry. We didn't know how hard it is for you to grow back."Powers begins his monumental novel by introducing his characters - each with their own short story. Then, the characters begin to interact in a tale that is beautiful, heartbreaking, terrifying, and occasionally magical.Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they've planted are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing.This is an epic story about people and trees. There are clashes between loggers and protesters, and an act of eco-terrorism that has long reaching consequences. There are also dire warnings about the future as our growing population continues using resources faster than the world can replace them. As one character mentions, "Demand for wood has tripled in our lifetime." I didn't enjoy this part as much as the character introductions, but it still made for a powerful read."Trees stand at the heart of ecology, and they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven. But people ---oh, my word --- people! People could be the heaven that the Earth is trying to speak to."If we could see green, we'd see a thing that keeps getting more interesting the closer we get. If we could see what green was doing, we'd never be lonely or bored. If we could understand green, we'd learn how to grow all the food we need in layers three deep, on a third of the ground we need right now, with plants that protected one another from pests and stress. If we know what green wanted, we wouldn't have to choose between the Earth's interests and ours. They'd be the same!"This is one for the tree huggers, though it will make you very, very sad. Thanks to W. W. Norton for the opportunity to read this unforgettable book.People aren't the apex species they think they are. Other creatures --- bigger, smaller, slower, faster, older, younger, more powerful --- call the shots, make the air, and eat sunlight. Without them, nothing.
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  • Helene Jeppesen
    January 1, 1970
    This book was many things at the same time. It was bewildering, yet intriguing. Right from the beginning, I was intrigued with the subject matter of trees and the characters we are introduced to - the events they go through are fascinating! But I was also bewildered at the writing style and how dense it felt while somehow also being readable and compelling. This is a 500-page literary fiction book, and at times it felt like work to read it; but most of the time it didn't. I had conflicted feelin This book was many things at the same time. It was bewildering, yet intriguing. Right from the beginning, I was intrigued with the subject matter of trees and the characters we are introduced to - the events they go through are fascinating! But I was also bewildered at the writing style and how dense it felt while somehow also being readable and compelling. This is a 500-page literary fiction book, and at times it felt like work to read it; but most of the time it didn't. I had conflicted feelings while getting through the pages, because while I was loving the story and its importance, I was also frustrated with the fact that the storyline is messy and hard to keep track of, and I had difficulties keeping the characters straight and remembering who was who. BUT as I was approaching the end of the book, Richard Powers explains everything in a few sentences that turned this book from somewhat intriguing to brilliant! Here's the excerpt (no spoilers): "She remembers now why she never had the patience for nature. No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. Branching, tangled, messy plots. And she could never keep the characters straight."This book encapsulates nature and the secret life of trees in many ways, and these sentences encapsulate exactly how I was feeling while reading. In other words, Richard Powers was just messing with my mind :) Needless to say, my overall experience of this book is one of fascination. I love "The Overstory" for its importance and its ability to drag the reader into a somewhat messy plot and still make us feel like we are reading important, unique and dangerous history.
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  • Peter Boyle
    January 1, 1970
    I reckon everyone has a tree story. Here's mine. When I was a boy, our family planted a wood of sitka spruce and lodgepole pine on a stretch of wasteland that surrounded our farm. The government provided a grant to pay for this, and the annual subsidies that the forest generated helped put my brother and me through college. The saplings were knee-high when we sowed them and now they stretch a couple of storeys high. I live in the city these days, but when I drive back every month and see those s I reckon everyone has a tree story. Here's mine. When I was a boy, our family planted a wood of sitka spruce and lodgepole pine on a stretch of wasteland that surrounded our farm. The government provided a grant to pay for this, and the annual subsidies that the forest generated helped put my brother and me through college. The saplings were knee-high when we sowed them and now they stretch a couple of storeys high. I live in the city these days, but when I drive back every month and see those stately conifers tower over my little Corolla, I know I'm home.The characters in this novel all have tree stories too. Their lives are all shaped by them in some way. Nick is an artist from the Midwest, who carries on his family's tradition of photographing the majestic chestnut in the back yard. There's Neelay, a young Indian-American who falls from an oak as a boy, fracturing his spine and setting him on course to become a world-renowned game designer. Douglas is a war veteran whose life was literally saved by a banyan tree. And then there's Olivia, who hears voices after a near-death experience, telling her to fight for the woodlands that are being decimated by greedy logging companies.And that's where "Trunk", the central section of the book, takes place. After introducing us to nine major characters, most of them become involved in the struggle to protect America's forests. In a recent interview with the Guardian, (thanks to Canadian Reader for reminding me!), Richard Powers said that he was inspired by a documentary about environmental activists in California, who battled to save its giant sequoias.Many of the activists in this tale are influenced by a biologist called Patricia Westerford. She becomes at first ridiculed, and eventually revered for her groundbreaking theories on how trees communicate, and nobody loves them as much as she does. Lots of the book's best lines come from her story. The forest is a paradise that never ceases to amaze her: "She works all day in the woods, her back crawling with chiggers, her scalp with ticks, her mouth filled with leaf duff, her eyes with pollen, cobwebs like scarves around her face, bracelets of poison ivy, her knees gouged by cinders, her nose lined with spores, the backs of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps, and her heart as happy as the day is generous." Even when Patricia, who has enjoyed quite a solitary existence, falls in love late in life, she can't help making a reference to trees when describing her happiness: "She takes his shaking hand in the dark. It feels good, like a root must feel, when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground. There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things."It's quite a long book, and I did feel that the Trunk part of the story could have been tightened up a bit. But it really is a joy to read: the lives of the nine major characters intersect in surprising and satisfying ways. Most of all, the author's affection for everything arboreal shines through and his passion is intoxicating. In the days since I started reading it, I've found myself noticing the limes and maples that line my walk to work, and I've begun to appreciate the ways in which trees have touched my life. It is a story that can change a person's outlook on the world, and not many novels can truly claim that.
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  • Rachel
    January 1, 1970
    The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it's also hard work, and I'm not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers' genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don't think I was the right reader for it.Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only s The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it's also hard work, and I'm not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers' genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don't think I was the right reader for it.Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only so many loving descriptions of trees a person can take after a while. What I'm interested in when I read is conflict and human interest and interpersonal dynamics, and when none of that is at the forefront of a book, I'm inevitably going to struggle with it.While Richard Powers did create a host of distinct characters in The Overstory - the first section of the novel is eight different short stories, one following each of the main characters through defining moments in their early lives - it soon becomes apparent that their stories aren't the ones that Powers is interested in telling. I had more than a few moments when I had to wonder why Powers chose to write this as a novel at all, when it would have arguably served its purpose just as well as a treatise on environmental activism. Powers is a hell of a writer though, I'll give him that. I can't bear to go lower than 3 stars in my final rating because I can't deny the admiration I feel toward Powers' craft. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I lost track of the amount of times I paused and reread a particularly striking passage, and the amount of detail that Powers is able to pack into every page is incredibly impressive. And on a larger level, the thematic complexity that Powers is able to achieve with his anthropomorphic symbolism and thorough examination of disparate disciplines and philosophies is undeniable. When words like 'epic' and 'masterpiece' are being thrown around in conversation with this novel, it's not difficult to understand why.But at the same time, I'm just not convinced that it was all necessary. I don't believe that this book is able to justify its length of 500 (very long) pages. It's punishingly dense and bloated; I found certain characters to be extraneous and a lot of the detail to be superfluous. But it's also punctuated by moments of such beauty that make it a worthwhile read, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this wins the Man Booker, but on a personal level, I can't say this was my favorite reading experience I've ever had.
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  • Paul Fulcher
    January 1, 1970
    Now shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker.The Overstory is the first Richard Powers novel I have read but he, and indeed this book, comes highly recommended (not least by my good Goodreads friend Neil) and this was certainly a striking if flawed read. The first part of the novel consists of 8 separate short stories (ranging from 9 to 33 pages) with the background and life of some, at that time, unconnected characters.In each of the stories trees play a part, albeit with very varying levels of sign Now shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker.The Overstory is the first Richard Powers novel I have read but he, and indeed this book, comes highly recommended (not least by my good Goodreads friend Neil) and this was certainly a striking if flawed read. The first part of the novel consists of 8 separate short stories (ranging from 9 to 33 pages) with the background and life of some, at that time, unconnected characters.In each of the stories trees play a part, albeit with very varying levels of significance. And all the stories are told in something of a breathless present tense, one key theme being to contrast the trivial affairs of humanity (at both a personal and geopolitical level) with the long-term perspective of trees, with shades of Reservoir 13 and the way it set human life on equal terms to the cycles of nature and its subversion of the traditional pyschological novel form. One character: tries to read a novel, something about priviliged people having trouble getting along with each other in exotic locations. He throws it against the wall. Something has broken in him. His appetite for human self-regard is dead.For example one story includes the passage:The farm survives the chaos of God’s will. Two years after Appomattox, between tilling, plowing, planting, roguing, weeding, and harvesting, Jørgen finishes the new house. Crops come in and are carried off. Hoel sons step into the traces alongside their ox-like father. Daughters disperse in marriage to nearby farms. Villages sprout up. The dirt track past the farm turns into a real road. The youngest son works in the Polk County Assessor’s Office. The middle boy becomes a banker in Ames. The eldest son, John, stays on the farm with his family and works it as his parents decline. John Hoel throws in with speed, progress, and machines. He buys a steam tractor that both plows and threshes, reaps and binds. It bellows as it works, like something set free from hell. For the last remaining chestnut, all this happens in a couple of new fissures, an inch of added rings. The tree bulks out. Its bark spirals upward like Trajan’s Column. Its scalloped leaves carry on turning sunlight into tissue. It more than abides; it flourishes, a globe of green health and vigor.And a Banyan tree’s perspective:It grew; its roots slipped down and encased its host. Decades passed. Centuries. War on the backs of elephants gave way to televised moon landings and hydrogen bombs.Another character ponders an oak;Thrones have crumbled and new empires arisen; great ideas have been born and great pictures painted, and the world revolutionised by science and invention; and still no man can say how many centuries this Oak will endure or what nations and creeds it may outlive.Some of the stories, and characters work better than others. E.g. I wasn’t too convinced by the rather cliched Chinese emigre father, and one of his daughters has a remarkably poor grasp of primary school level combinatorial maths for someone who is supposed to be aYale economist. When the three daughters need to decide who each inherits which of three jade rings: apparently (3! - 1) is approximately 12.Amelia stares. “Who’s supposed to get which one?” “There’s a right way to do this,” Mimi says. “And a dozen wrong ones.” Carmen sighs. “Which one is this?” “Shut up. Close your eyes. On the count of three, take one.” At times the exposition in the stories would seem better suited to non-fiction and Powers chooses to lightly fictionalise some real-life developments and people. Indeed I was a little disappointed at the lack of any acknowledgement or references for further reading at the end, albeit this was a Kindle ARC so perhaps this may appear in the final version. E.g. one character is a participant in the Stamford Prison Experiment, another learns behavioural psychology from some (in reality well known) experiments in a (fictional) book “The Ape Inside Us” by Rubin Rabinowski. A third invents the whole idea of world building god games (like Sim City and Sid Meier’s Civilisation).And in the book’s own specialist topic area, Patricia Westerford, later to become a best-selling author of seminal popular science books on the life of trees, is, earlier in her career, ridiculed by her fellow research students (as “Plant-Patty”) and humiliated and ostracised by the academic community when she is, in the novel, the first person to propose the (later academically credited) idea of trees communcating by airborne semaphores. In some stories the intervention of the trees is, at least in the characters’ minds, quite explicit, notably Olivia, a failing actuarial science student, squandering her life on alcohol and drugs, who is temporarily dead after an accidental electrocution and, while in that state, is spoken to by trees summoning her back to the land of the living as they have a purpose for her life. In those seconds while she had no pulse, large, powerful, but desperate shapes beckoned to her. They showed her something, pleading with her.Or more prosaically perhaps her heart was jolted back to life when she fell off her bed on to the floor and she imagined the conversation. She already had, as a trainee actuary, a more important calling of course, as one of her lectures correctly tells her:“Insurance,” the lecturer says, “is the backbone of civilization. No risk pool—no skyscrapers, no blockbuster movies, no large-scale agriculture, no organized medicine.”But on the novel’s worldview, and certainly Olivia’s, actuarial science and insurance is the epitome of what is wrong in human society and its pursuit of economic growth. She later tells a fellow eco-warrior:“I was about three credit hours short of a degree in actuarial science. Do you know what actuarial science is?” “I . . . Is this a trick question?” “It’s the science of replacing an entire human life with its cash value.”In the novel’s world view one is presumably meant to be outraged that such a science exists and delighted that Olivia’s death-state revelation diverted her towards domestic terrorism. Not quite, as an actuary myself, my reaction!That the threads of these stories will be brought together is perhaps obvious to the reader from the outset (not least from the publisher’s blurb) but first made explicit as this part draws to a close:Across the road from where she’s parked, aspens tumble down the basin toward Fish Lake, where five years earlier a Chinese refugee engineer took his three daughters camping on the way to visiting Yellowstone. The oldest girl, named for a Puccini opera heroine, will soon be wanted by the feds for fifty million dollars of arson. Two thousand miles to the east, a student sculptor born into an Iowa farming family, on a pilgrimage to the Met, walks past the single quaking aspen in all of Central Park and doesn’t notice it. He’ll live to walk past the tree again, thirty years later, but only because of swearing to the Puccini heroine that no matter how bad things get, he won’t kill himself.To the north, up the curving spine of the Rockies, on a farm near Idaho Falls, a veteran airman, that very afternoon, builds horse stalls for a friend from his old squadron. It’s a pity hire, one that comes with room and board, and the vet plans to leave the gig as soon as he can. But for today, he makes the corral siding out of aspen. As poor as the wood is for lumber, it won’t shatter when a horse kicks it. In a St. Paul suburb not far from Lake Elmo, two aspens grow near the south wall of an intellectual property lawyer’s house. He’s only dimly aware of them, and when his free-spirit girlfriend asks, he tells her they’re birches. In time, two great strokes will lay the lawyer low, reducing all aspens, birches, beeches, pines, oaks, and maples to a single word that will take him half a minute to pronounce.On the West Coast, in the emerging Silicon Valley, a Gujarati-American boy and his father build primitive aspens out of chunky, black-and-white pixels. They’re writing a game that feels to the boy like walking through the forest primeval.These people are nothing to Plant-Patty. And yet their lives have long been connected, deep underground. Their kinship will work like an unfolding book. The past always comes clearer, in the future. Years from now, she’ll write a book of her own, The Secret Forest. Its opening page will read: You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . . .This opening passage from her book is seen as so persuasive by Powers that he has its magic work on several characters and repeats it several times for the reader’s benefit. Which is worrying given the rather pseudo-scientific nature of the claim and the many different ways of measuring DNA comparability. Albeit, this pseudo-science is quite deliberate since Plant-Patty is on a campaign for hearts and minds, intentionally antromophosing the way that trees form a community of sorts:The reading public needs such a phrase to make the miracle a little more vivid, visible. It’s something she learned long ago, from her father: people see better what looks like them. “Giving trees” is something any generous person can understand and love. And with those two words, Patricia Westerford seals her own fate and changes the future. Even the future of trees.At this point the book almost seems set for a Marvel superhero movie style denouement. 8 people (actually 9 as one story tells of a couple), seemingly ordinary but actually with unique skills, are summoned by the trees to take part in their epic battle for survival against their greatest enemy, humanity’s obsession with economic progress. It doesn’t quite play out as explicitly as that, albeit the book and most of the characters would buy in to the sentiment, and it is left entirely to the reader’s interpretation as to whether the world of trees really has intervened in these human lives.5 of the characters do eventually form a team of eco-activists, eco-terrorists in the authorities’ view, full blown versions of Swampy (at one point they end up in the self-proclaimed “Free Bioregion of Cascadia”) battling, at times literally, against the destruction of American woodlands. Whether one has sympathy with their cause or not, this second section of the novel is certainly a fascinating insight into the methods, experiences and motivation of eco-activists. Albeit the novel does seem, alongside the characters, a little too convinced of the worthiness of their cause, if only the scales would fall from people’s eyes. The following exchange, albeit taking place not on a dusty Middle East road but at the top of a tree canopy in a magnificent but threatened forest, was apparently all it took for a Damascene conversion, turning a behavioural pyschologist, actually there to study the delusions of the protestors (“a study on misguided idealism”), into a radical eco-warrior. “Do you believe human beings are using resources faster than the world can replace them?” The question seems so far beyond calculation it’s meaningless. Then some small jam in him dislodges, and it’s like an unblinding. “Yes.”The story highlights, not always one suspects deliberately, the naivety of their view as to the rightness of their cause and hence the legitimacy of their controversial methods (illegal, not via democractic routes, avowedly non-violent but destructive of property and intended to provoke a violent response).Of course one justification for their methods is the inability to achieve their aims via democratic methods - as the book proclaims at one point “The authority of people is bankrupt” - which one could either impute (disappointingly) to the corruption and hence invalidity of modern democracy or, more simply, to the fact that trees don’t vote. Which makes for some very interesting and timely echoes, albeit not drawn by Powers as this as a US book, to the UK suffrage movement which achieved its aims exactly 100 years ago. But the read-over that the book makes instead, to the Occupy movement,seems if anything to weaken the novel’s cause. The novel contains some wonderful writing on trees and the amazing things they can do, things that scientists are only just starting to discover. And indeed the book hints at more radical ideas as to the intelligence of trees that might be yet to come: “Here’s a little outsider information, and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”Much of this was in the form of exposition disguised as fiction and I did wonder at times if Powers should have written, or I may have gained more by reading, a non fiction book such as Plant-Patty’s. Although Powers would argue his work is done if, as I suspect, many readers of his novel are inspired to seek out and read such books (another reason why an acknowledgements / sources / further reading section really should be added).And I couldn’t help but draw a slightly unfavourable contrast to Matthias Enard’s magnificent Compass which handles the erudition as fiction in a more accomplished and literary manner. But nevertheless, and as the length of my review shows, this was a highly stimulating read and I enjoyed its 500 plus pages, even if I was not always entirely persuaded by Powers’s literary methods or his cause. In terms of the Booker, normally I would see this as longlist material at best, but among a very poor longlist it probably warrants its shortlist place, but I would be very disappointed to see it win.Recommended and thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC.
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  • Cheri
    January 1, 1970
    4.5 Stars4.5 Stars“We lived on a street where the tall elm shadeWas as green as the grass and as cool as a bladeThat you held in your teeth as we lay on our backsStaring up at the blue and the blue stared back“I used to believe we were just like those treesWe'd grown just as tall and as proud as we pleasedWith our feet on the ground and our arms in the breezeUnder a sheltering sky” -- Only a Dream, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Songwriters: Mary Chapin Carpenter ”First there was nothing. Then there was 4.5 Stars4.5 Stars“We lived on a street where the tall elm shadeWas as green as the grass and as cool as a bladeThat you held in your teeth as we lay on our backsStaring up at the blue and the blue stared back“I used to believe we were just like those treesWe'd grown just as tall and as proud as we pleasedWith our feet on the ground and our arms in the breezeUnder a sheltering sky” -- Only a Dream, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Songwriters: Mary Chapin Carpenter ”First there was nothing. Then there was everything.” ”First there was nothing. Then there was everything.” ”The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”I say, Richard Powers’ Overstory is something you need to read. I’d like to leave it at that and believe that you might actually read it, because I’m not sure I have words that would do justice to this, and at the same time my mind and heart are jumbled in thoughts and I’m still somewhere inside the pages of this book, trying to hold onto that feeling for just a bit longer.This begins with a short chapter that has the feeling of a biblical tale, with perhaps a touch of magical realism to it. The meaning, the cycle of life, but also the life lessons that we are somehow missing, unable to grasp.”A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.”This is divided into sections, with the second section sharing Nicholas Hoel’s story, as the young Jørgen Hoel, among others, throws his stone into the tree to bring down the chestnuts, over and over. A free-fall of food in this still young country. Later that night, he will propose to Vi, a young Irish girl, and they marry before Christmas, and will move ”through the great tracts of eastern white pine, into the dark beech forests of Ohio, across the Midwestern oak breaks, and out to the settlement near Fort Des Moines in the new state of Iowa, where the authorities give away land platted yesterday to anyone who will farm it.. It’s not an easy life, but they make it through the first winter, and by the time it is time to plant again, Vi is pregnant. When Hoel comes across the six chestnuts he had put in his pocket the night he proposed to Vi, he ”presses them into the earth of western Iowa, on the treeless prairie around the cabin.”Hundreds of miles away from the native range of chestnuts, further still from Prospect Hill, but he has hope for the future, for their future. His son will record the growth of the one tree that remains many years later with a Kodak No. 2 Brownie camera, every month from the same spot and the time of day. His personal ritual, a ritual that for him feels holy, like the sacrament of communion.There are many other character’s stories that eventually become somewhat intertwined, but at the root of all of these stories is this reverence for trees, so much so in some of these stories that they act as one of the characters. From the beginning, this is lovely, even though there were minor parts of this story I didn’t enjoy quite as much as others. There were times when I felt a point was being driven home again and again, which took away some of what I loved about this story, and occasionally it felt heavy and dense, for me, especially later in the book, but ultimately, this is one I won’t forget.Many thanks for the ARC provided by W.W. Norton & Company
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  • Lark Benobi
    January 1, 1970
    When I began reading this magnificent book I declared "this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2018." Then something happened. I wanted to know more about chestnut trees and the Hoel legacy, damnit. I was entranced by the chestnut-manna scene that begins the novel, and the lone tree that survives on the Hoel farm, and every perfect thing that happened between the words "Now is the time of chestnuts" and "the bluest of Midwestern skies."Then, ok, what followed was "interesting." Now and t When I began reading this magnificent book I declared "this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2018." Then something happened. I wanted to know more about chestnut trees and the Hoel legacy, damnit. I was entranced by the chestnut-manna scene that begins the novel, and the lone tree that survives on the Hoel farm, and every perfect thing that happened between the words "Now is the time of chestnuts" and "the bluest of Midwestern skies."Then, ok, what followed was "interesting." Now and then I felt moved. But mostly I felt led around, like being on a tour at a museum where the docent hurries you from room to room, when what you really want is to spend some more time right where you are, seeing less, but seeing full.
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  • Matthew Quann
    January 1, 1970
    Whoa! Congrats to Richard Powers for his 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction win!In the opening chapter of Richard Powers' The Overstory, the author spans the four or five generations of men who photographed a single Chestnut, over a century, in a mere twenty pages. Despite that these men could have risen and fallen over the course of a couple pages, each of their stories felt like they could have stretched off into their own novel. This is my first novel by Powers and I couldn't help but admire the Whoa! Congrats to Richard Powers for his 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction win!In the opening chapter of Richard Powers' The Overstory, the author spans the four or five generations of men who photographed a single Chestnut, over a century, in a mere twenty pages. Despite that these men could have risen and fallen over the course of a couple pages, each of their stories felt like they could have stretched off into their own novel. This is my first novel by Powers and I couldn't help but admire the guy's ambition, dense writing style, and the massive scope with which he approached The Overstory.Clocking in at just over 500 pages, The Overstory is filled to the brim with an astonishing nine primary characters with their own supporting casts. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I was happy to sit back and let Powers' 150-page-long cast introduction roll over me. The writing was a little overblown, some of the stories a bit melodramatic, but it was undoubtedly entertaining stuff. I found these opening sections worked a bit like a short story collection that revolved around a central premise: trees. Let me tell you: Powers likes his trees. It's to his credit that he was able to get me thinking about the silent sentinels of the forest with much greater enthusiasm than I initially brought to my reading. The environmental activism that holds the book aloft comes from a place that feels vexed with the endless consumption of our planet's resources and does an excellent job showing the decent some characters take into extremism. In an ambitious move, Powers often treats his characters like accessories to the real star of the show: trees. It is a concept that had my wife wondering what sort of pretentious literature vortex I had fallen into. Undoubtedly the book had me groaning in bits where Powers lays it all on thicker than tree sap. Same goes for some of the wisdom that feels psilocybin-born. There's passages in this book that recalled to me the most esoteric of my undergraduate lectures. And yet, it somehow all managed to slowly erode my skepticism and I found myself looking out at the tree on my front lawn, wondering how little I know about its kind. Though this is a book that seems destined to haunt students of American literature in the years to come, it also happens to land emotional and existential hits on a pretty regular basis. Near the book's end, some of the novel's themes begin to crystallize. Though I'm sure everyone will take something different from The Overstory (including abhorrence), I think I'll appreciate the message to cool my jets and smell the roses. The Overstory moves at a pace that demands patience and, perhaps, trains the reader to think about the environment around them in a new light. Though the weather is approaching sub-zero, I can't wait to get out in the spring to spend some time in the forest. Though the book could have used a more diligent editor, and a few of the characters could have been cut out, I liked this book in all its uneven ambition. Addendum: Obligatory Man Booker CommentaryThis brings me to halfway through the Man Booker 2018 shortlist! I'm already having a better time this year than the last. I decided to go with The Overstory at the mid-point because it was the book that daunted me the most of the six. Even though Milkman has since taken home the crown, I'm determined to get to the other three books before the year's end. First, a short break with some brain candy, then I'll be going with The Long Take.
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  • Betsy Robinson
    January 1, 1970
    Immediately after inhaling the first two pages of this book, I screamed, "Thank you!" To whom, I'm not sure. Then throughout the book, I re-erupted with it, sometimes to Richard Powers, sometimes to whatever force allowed me to understand what came through Powers, through the page, through the people he was writing through, and through the ancient tree memory that pervaded this orgasmic and sweeping novel about all of Nature’s life.This book, the writing, the subject of trees and Life with a cap Immediately after inhaling the first two pages of this book, I screamed, "Thank you!" To whom, I'm not sure. Then throughout the book, I re-erupted with it, sometimes to Richard Powers, sometimes to whatever force allowed me to understand what came through Powers, through the page, through the people he was writing through, and through the ancient tree memory that pervaded this orgasmic and sweeping novel about all of Nature’s life.This book, the writing, the subject of trees and Life with a capital "L" throbs. It's so beautiful and exciting that sometimes it hurts and you have to put the book down and digest. From the opening words, Richard Powers casts a spell, and for me it felt like thick and expansive energy—an altered state. Love. Love of and for trees as the complicated communal beings that they are, and when you feel that, it changes everything—from your relationship to the book you're holding that once was a tree, to your connection to Life, to the incontrovertible knowing that there is nothing that is not alive and remembering and praying, and even if we humans destroy ourselves, Life will always go on. This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived. [. . .] Trees know when we’re close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near. . . . When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear. (424)This book asks what keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness, our place in the context of all that is—and responding to it. And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not?My plants are happy I read this book.Here is Sierra Club’s enlightening interview with Richard Powers about this book.
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  • David Yoon
    January 1, 1970
    I shouldn't like this book. it's an extensive brain dump of information about forest intelligence, how trees in fact communicate with each other to warn of impending threats. How a vast underground network connect trees across thousands of kilometres creating a plant neurobiology. We have eco-warriors Watchman and Maidenhair, she a survivor of a near death electrocution that has left her with the ability to communicate with light beings that exhort her to save the trees! And to be honest it gets I shouldn't like this book. it's an extensive brain dump of information about forest intelligence, how trees in fact communicate with each other to warn of impending threats. How a vast underground network connect trees across thousands of kilometres creating a plant neurobiology. We have eco-warriors Watchman and Maidenhair, she a survivor of a near death electrocution that has left her with the ability to communicate with light beings that exhort her to save the trees! And to be honest it gets a little scattered nearing the end, juggling 9(!) different characters, some of whom I'm still a little unsure as to what they're supposed to represent, what story they're trying to tell. But damn can Powers write about nature. I realize that my literary fiction diet is made up of cityscapes and suburbs. Characters that rarely look up from the concrete under their feet. Powers gets us outdoors and manages to evoke the wonder you felt staring at a massive redwood, or the spare jack pine on a rocky outcrop bending against the wind. It's a rare talent that can tread that line between deeply researched science and woo-woo nature gazing but Powers pulls it off with aplomb.
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  • Canadian
    January 1, 1970
    The Overstory is a big, ambitious, urgent, impassioned, and fact-filled novel. By turns, fascinating, stimulating, frustrating, and fatiguing, the novel’s central premise is that humans aren’t the stars of the show they think they are. They are only one part (and a blind, brutal, rapaciously destructive one at that) of a far larger, intelligent, mysteriously interconnected world.In “Roots”, the first portion of a book whose sections are named for the parts of a tree, Powers introduces us to mo The Overstory is a big, ambitious, urgent, impassioned, and fact-filled novel. By turns, fascinating, stimulating, frustrating, and fatiguing, the novel’s central premise is that humans aren’t the stars of the show they think they are. They are only one part (and a blind, brutal, rapaciously destructive one at that) of a far larger, intelligent, mysteriously interconnected world.In “Roots”, the first portion of a book whose sections are named for the parts of a tree, Powers introduces us to most of his large cast of characters. Five of them will eventually meet and interact for the cause of trees and old growth forests. Two of them—one a young college student who has had a near-death conversion experience and believes herself to be in communication with spirit guides—will spend a year camped out in an enormous and mythic redwood, aptly named Mimas, after the giant son of Gaia, the original earth mother. When even this level of commitment to trees—the beings upon whom so much on Earth depends—is not enough to thwart powerful logging interests, the five central figures will move beyond acts of civil disobedience to those that are criminal. There will be tragic consequences.The reader of the novel is showered with massive amounts of information about trees and their mysterious, little-understood networks and capacities. Most of the details are presented through the character of Dr. Patricia Westerford, a professor, biologist, and dendrologist, who is first shunned by the academic community for her work on the ways trees communicate with each other through chemical signalling, but is later vindicated by other researchers. Westerford delivers lectures and writes a surprise bestseller on trees—a book that almost all of Powers’s other characters read. By the end of The Overstory, even a paralyzed young computer programmer/digital game developer, who has spent the majority of his life in an alternate world of his own creating, knows that humans share a quarter of their genes with trees. An earnest intellectual property lawyer, whose restless and philandering wife teaches him that no one can own anything, also encounters Westerford’s book. However, he has to be struck with a cerebral hemorrhage and largely deprived of language to be still enough to observe the natural world and to take in Westerford’s words. His implausibly reformed wife reads the dendrologist’s book to him.I really enjoyed the first section of The Overstory in which Powers tells the stories—often the childhood ones—of his characters. He shows life-changing connections between parents and children. In many cases, a father plants a seed in the child that will change that young person forever. These stories greatly resonated with me, as I had a father who was deeply sensitive to and curious about the natural world. He, too, was a planter of trees—could grow almost anything, actually—and was often distressed by humans and their self-centredness. As Powers narrows his focus (in the second section of the novel) to the five young people who engage in environmental action—and, in particular, Olivia Vandergriff, a.k.a. “Maidenhair”, the student of actuarial science who becomes a new-age high priestess—he lost me. While I continued reading the book, I began to find it tedious. The silly names adopted by the environmental activists grated and the lengthy sections about the extended demonstrations lacked sufficient tension and conflict beyond the most obvious one between those whose attitudes to the forest are purely financial and utilitarian and those demanding a respectful relationship between humans and the rest of the world.I was excited to read The Overstory, and I was stimulated by and loved parts of it. I understand the author’s frustration with the apparent hard-wiring that makes humans preoccupied with their own interests and petty dramas. At the same time, I believe that if this book had been reined in and some of the fuzzy, mystical language cleaned up, the story of humans interested in something truly important would have been far more compelling.
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  • Blair
    January 1, 1970
    The Overstory is the second Richard Powers book I have read – after Plowing the Dark – and although I liked this a lot more, I find it equally difficult to talk about. Perhaps it's simply the scope of it: the cast of characters alone is vast, and if I start trying to write a summary of each of them I'll be here all day. The plot is even harder to pin down. It is, of course, basically about trees. Trees as the extraordinary, underappreciated, misunderstood organism and life-force they are. Tree The Overstory is the second Richard Powers book I have read – after Plowing the Dark – and although I liked this a lot more, I find it equally difficult to talk about. Perhaps it's simply the scope of it: the cast of characters alone is vast, and if I start trying to write a summary of each of them I'll be here all day. The plot is even harder to pin down. It is, of course, basically about trees. Trees as the extraordinary, underappreciated, misunderstood organism and life-force they are. Trees as an analogy for humanity. Trees as the guiding force that bring the people in this novel together and steer them towards various courses of action.Billions of years ago, a single, fluke, self-copying cell learned how to turn a barren ball of poison gas and volcanic slag into this peopled garden. And everything you hope, fear, and love became possible.The first half was my favourite. The first half takes its time introducing the characters, their histories, their strange little links to the world of trees. I loved the way Powers shows us these solitary people, or couples or families, as separate units yet part of a greater network – just like the trees, naturally – and celebrates their differences. At this point, I wrote a lot of notes about how much I appreciated the disparate ways these characters find happiness and fulfilment, how the book almost felt like a 'feelgood' novel without any of the smugness, judgement, or celebration of conformity that would usually imply.The trouble with creating such varied characters and then drawing them together is that it can't help but feel just a little bit contrived. This is where the second half was a little weaker for me. I was relieved that The Overstory didn't go the whole hog – I was worried for a while that every single character would wind up in the same place, acting as the same sort of ecowarrior. But there are, I think, missteps: Douglas and Mimi are perhaps two of the weaker figures in the book, and their relationship never made any sense to me, but perhaps, when I think about it, this is because they didn't make an awful lot of sense to me to begin with. (This isn't as much of a criticism as it sounds; one of the strengths of Powers' writing is the ability to paper over the cracks in characters, so you don't notice things about them are implausible or odd until you really start to pick them apart). I loved Neelay's plot strand, and could have read an entire book just about him (is it significant that of all the characters, he has the least interaction with the others?)You're studying what makes some people take the living world seriously when the only real thing for everyone else is other people. You should be studying everyone who thinks that only people matter.The Overstory is a beautiful meandering saga that delights in language as much as rich characterisation – a more humane Jonathan Franzen, or a more mature Joshua Cohen. It combines wonderful nature writing with all the poignant drama of human life and an emphatic, though not overpowering, message. I found it more accessible and more powerful than Plowing the Dark. I am certain it will win awards. It's not entirely perfect, and it requires a certain amount of commitment, but it can truly be described as a rewarding and revelatory novel. (Try reading this and not looking at trees differently afterwards.)I received an advance review copy of The Overstory from the publisher through NetGalley.TinyLetter | Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr
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  • Logan Farmer
    January 1, 1970
    I can't stop thinking about this book. A sprawling literary eco-epic, The Overstory is the kind of novel that changes people. It's a riveting call to arms and a bitter indictment of our wasteful culture. More than this, it's an incredibly human story with a huge cast of rich characters that you'll never forget. Dense but accessible, Powers is a master of intersecting science, art, and spirituality without sacrificing plot. I pity the next customer who comes in looking for "a book about trees". P I can't stop thinking about this book. A sprawling literary eco-epic, The Overstory is the kind of novel that changes people. It's a riveting call to arms and a bitter indictment of our wasteful culture. More than this, it's an incredibly human story with a huge cast of rich characters that you'll never forget. Dense but accessible, Powers is a master of intersecting science, art, and spirituality without sacrificing plot. I pity the next customer who comes in looking for "a book about trees". Powers has given me a lot to say. Thanks to Meg Sherman at WW Norton for the ARC
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  • David Joy
    January 1, 1970
    Trying to explain Richard Powers' Overstory a few weeks back I told someone that it was as if Wendell Berry had written a work of magical realism. I don't know if that's exactly right or not now, but I know that this novel is something different than anything else I've ever read. When I finished it the first time, I took a few weeks to try and digest it. I thought of it often. And then one morning over coffee I just started reading it again. It struck me how biblical this novel begins. From the, Trying to explain Richard Powers' Overstory a few weeks back I told someone that it was as if Wendell Berry had written a work of magical realism. I don't know if that's exactly right or not now, but I know that this novel is something different than anything else I've ever read. When I finished it the first time, I took a few weeks to try and digest it. I thought of it often. And then one morning over coffee I just started reading it again. It struck me how biblical this novel begins. From the, "First there was nothing. Then there was everything," opening lines to the condensed family history of the Hoels in that second chapter. Good novels aren't simple card tricks. They're not pulling a quarter out of a gullible six-year-old's ear. Good novels make the Statue of Liberty disappear before your eyes. This is the only book I've read this year that's done that. Overstory feels absolutely monumental.
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  • Marchpane
    January 1, 1970
    The Overstory is a thought-provoking and dense novel that seems longer than its 500-ish pages. While I found it slow to start with, it’s a book that rewards patience.Nine characters are introduced in what appear to be unconnected but thematically linked short stories. It’s a lengthy prelude to the main event, but worth it for the depth it brings to these characters before their stories converge into an ensemble piece. Most of them have suffered: a tragic loss of a family member, a humiliation, o The Overstory is a thought-provoking and dense novel that seems longer than its 500-ish pages. While I found it slow to start with, it’s a book that rewards patience.Nine characters are introduced in what appear to be unconnected but thematically linked short stories. It’s a lengthy prelude to the main event, but worth it for the depth it brings to these characters before their stories converge into an ensemble piece. Most of them have suffered: a tragic loss of a family member, a humiliation, or a catastrophic injury. And each of their stories connects in some significant way with a tree. Emotionally damaged, they further alienate themselves from society and turn instead to environmental activism which becomes increasingly radical and dangerous. The human drama is pretext for a requiem to old-growth forests, extolling these intricately interconnected ecosystems in lyrical prose. Powers employs fabulism and anthropomorphic metaphors in describing his tree ‘characters’. It’s an emotive, sentimental approach and I think it works in the context of a green fable. But including dendrologists as characters and long sequences of ‘tree facts’ imply that The Overstory is also intended to be read as semi-scientific rhetoric. If that’s the case, then the anthropomorphism (verging on deification) is grating, especially coming from a scientist character. It also undercuts the book’s imperative to view the world from a non-human perspective, by constantly using human behaviour as an analogue. The Overstory doesn’t convincingly place environmental destruction within a broader socio-political or economic context, relying on an over-simplistic divide between the ‘enlightened’ eco-warrior characters and the blinkered masses. Large chunks of the story are dedicated to portraying forests as majestic and precious, yet it concludes in pessimism. The ultimate message seems to be that environmental action is futile, and that our last best hope is that some posthuman AIs will do a better job of stewarding the planet than we have. All of this adds up to quite a muddled book, and my feelings about it are similarly mixed. It fell short for me as a ‘message’ book about an urgent topical issue. But as a story about emotionally damaged people seeking kinship, the pitfalls of activism, and as a heartfelt ode to forests, it is an absorbing read, providing lots of food for thought.
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