Thursday, June 6, 2019

When a Book Humbles You


I’ll start with a confession. I neither like nor enjoy most modern “literary” fiction. I’ve tried repeatedly to get involved with some Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner, only to throw it down with a combination of disgust and boredom within a few chapters. Not every single fictional character or family must suffer from such extreme dysfunction that they can barely make it through a day without booze or pills. A book needn’t feature only repellent people who have overpowering murderous urges toward their closest friends or family members in order to qualify as “literary.” But apparently, the gods of modern literature have dictated it must be thus, so bookstore shelves sag with a ponderance of these bleak modern novels.

I’m not saying every book I read must be a variation on Pollyanna…simply that once in a while, I’d like to read a story of struggle, hope, ambition, and obstacles overcome that actually has a happy ending. Why can’t books about joy be considered as worthy of the designation of literature as stories about unending agony?

All my ennui toward modern literature collapsed into a heap when my long wait on my library’s Hold List ended and I was able to read this year’s winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Literature, The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is both one of the most profoundly moving and yet also terrifying works of fiction I have ever read.

I wasn’t familiar with Powers’ work prior to reading this book, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions about him. It didn’t take long for his exquisite wordcraft to grab hold of me. Powers writes in stretches of austere beauty, where not a single surplus word blunts the impact of his meaning. He intersperses that spare elegance with chapters as florid and overgrown as the mysterious, endangered, primal things that are his true stars, thereby creating a rhythm as mesmerizing as the motion of a train rocking along the rails.

Powers starts by giving readers a teasing brief, the merest suggestion of what is to come. He then segues into the story of a single character and a single tree. In this way, the author introduces the nine main characters and their individual connections to the lives of the trees growing around and through them. Next, he pulls the story out to a longer view and starts to interweave all his vast forests, leading his characters into and out of each other’s lives in vital and compelling ways. He didn’t write this book so much as he allowed it to grow and become the thing it was meant to be.

He chronicles the struggles of people who love and value trees, who know the importance of maintaining Earth’s ancient forests, who are fighting to save the last few green places in the world. They lock arms and bravely face off against people and corporations who regard the Earth as little more than a personal if occasionally inconvenient garden where they are entitled to endlessly harvest, extract, and abuse in their ongoing quest to expand their own power and wealth. They do all this with no regard whatsoever for the irreparable damage they’re inflicting upon this planet we all call home.

As I read, I realized with growing horror the book is a confirmation of things I have long suspected were true. We humans are hurtling toward oblivion, unwitting passengers on a plane flown by mad pilots who are willing to rip off the wings midflight and sell them for scrap because they have parachutes, and don’t care that none of the other passengers do.

By the time I realized most of the human characters in the novel do have problems with booze and pills and murderous urges, the creeping green vines of the story had woven themselves so tightly into the marrow of my being that there was no way I could have put the book down without ripping out a little piece of my heart. Besides, there is hope in this book. There is more than a smidge of joy. And there is that unrelenting terror.

The Overstory may not move you as profoundly as it did me. After I finished reading it, I laid awake most of the night thinking about it, and it occupied my thoughts for much of the following day. I believe this book has the power to move humanity in much the same way that Silent Spring did. For a long while, Rachel Carson’s seminal work on the evils of widespread DDT use slowed down the poisoning of our fragile Earth. Now we are back to bathing in an unending stream of toxic chemicals, ruled by individual and corporate greed that never takes the greater good or even the survival of humans as a species into consideration. Now, we need this book.

No matter your belief system regarding Mother Nature, the Earth, plastic waste, greenhouse gases, deforestation, pollution or pesticides, Powers’ book will speak to you in some way. You will come away from The Overstory richer for having read it.

As for me, this morning I went out and planted a tree.


Patricia B. Smith is a journalist who is the author of 11 published books, including Idiot’s Guide: Flipping Houses, Alzheimer's For Dummies and Sleep Disorders for Dummies.

Pat is also an experienced professional developmental editor who serves as an Editorial Evaluation and Developmental Coordinator for Five Star Publishing. She works with private clients as well and has helped many authors land their first publishing contracts. Many of her clients have achieved notable success, including two winners of the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-me Best Book of the Year Award.

Connect with Pat on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

14 comments :

  1. I know what you mean, Pat. I have felt that same disappointment over many of the Booker prize winners and have decided not to bother with them anymore. For me, I don't necessarily need a happy ending, but I do need characters who are either wonderful (including wonderfully flawed and human) or otherwise somehow engaging or interesting. I can't invest in a book when the only character(s) are offensively vile or eternally morose.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You put your finger on it, Elle. There almost seems to be a "character flaw" list these authors are contractually obligated to follow. The result is boring, depressing, cookie cutter books.

      Delete
  2. Thanks, Patricia. That was a beautiful endorsement of a book. I just put it on my library queue, and I look forward to reading it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Meg. Please let me know what you think of it after you read it. It's been two weeks and I am still thinking about this book every day, several times a day in fact.

      Delete
  3. Wow! This post struck many chords with me, especially from the environmental angle. I worry about the earth that we are slowly killing and what will be here in a hundred years for those yet to come. I'm also a tree-hugger from way back.

    I loved what you had to say about this book, and I'll have to definitely give it a read. Like you, I am often disappointed in what is touted as the best of fiction today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Maryann. You're so right about the path of modern fiction. I often think of books I read as a child, teen or young adult and find myself hard-pressed to come up with a modern book that I think will have any relevance or still be on reading lists a hundred years from now. Assuming, of course, that human beings are still here a hundred years from now.

      Delete
  4. What a great book review. It seems many of us feel the same way about "literary" novels, but I've just read two crime fiction novels that left me unimpressed and uninspired. One was just godawful. I mean stretching for two star from one of my favorite writers. Maybe it's the times in which we live.

    Different books strike readers differently. We can see that in every writer's Amazon reviews where one to five stars run the gamut. So glad you found a gem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Polly. It’s been a while since a book just mowed me down but The Overstory did it. I cannot stop thinking about it.

      I just tried to plow through the first two books in a highly recommended mystery series and there was so much head hopping it made me dizzy. And cuteness. My lord, that saccharine sweetness overload almost gave me a sugar high, except that the “heroine” of these books is not really a very nice person. But a new one comes out every year, and I myself cannot put together even a page of decent fiction, so perhaps I have no room to criticize.

      Delete
  5. There are occasional literary novels that still move me. But, for the reasons you state, it is a rare occurrence. I miss white hat heroes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I miss them as well, Diana. There was just something so satisfying about those books. It feels good when a deserving hero or heroine, after surviving a suitable number of travails, ends up with a just reward, and the villain is punished. Those may be old-fashioned sentiments, but they speak to the human experience, and how 99% of us feel when confronted with evil or injustice. The desire to see good triumph is woven deep into the DNA of most human beings.

      Delete
  6. We're planting three trees on Tuesday, and I haven't even read the book yet. Thanks for an intriguing review, Pat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Patricia, I love the idea of planting trees. However, before I read this book, it was just something I did occasionally as part of my gardening hobby. Now in addition to being fun (and a lot of hard digging) planting a tree makes me feel as if I am doing something critically important, and throwing my lot in with many like-minded people. And perhaps, with some luck, even making a tiny difference.

      Delete
  7. I love this review, Pat. It's eloquent, it's honest, it's intriguing, and it's sending The Overstory directly onto my "to-read" list. Without this article I likely would never have found it, much less read it. Thank you! :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Linda. It's been a long while since a book grabbed me this powerfully. I hope you enjoy the read as much as I did. :-)

      Delete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.