The Overstory – Book Review

People and trees and wonder.

Regardless of whether you are a tree hugger or not The Overstory is a gripping tale worth reading.

Near the end of November, I found a key labeled 2P inside of our mailbox that resides in a cluster of mailboxes at the top of our street. When anyone receives a package, the mail carrier places it in one of the two parcel lockers and leaves the key in that person’s mailbox. I opened locker 2P and discovered a package inside addressed to me from my brother.

My brother and I stopped exchanging birthday and Christmas gifts ages ago. What could it be? At home, I opened the box. Inside was a copy of The Overstory and card from my brother saying he hoped I would enjoy reading it.

I was delighted!

After sending my brother a thank-you text, I walked upstairs to our home office, logged onto our library’s online portal, and gleefully canceled my request for the book. Our library system has 38 copies and I had been 97th on the waitlist.

Book Review

Brace yourself. The Overstory is both brutal and beautiful. I know that sounds weird. Read the book and you will see what I mean.

When I opened the book to read it, I did glance at the “Table of Contents” and noticed the four main sections are called “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” But I did not understand the structure of the book until I got to the “Trunk” part. Then I realized it is a cross between a collection of short stories and a novel.

You will meet the main people characters in “Roots” and then follow them on a series of converging journeys through the rest of the book. Along the way, you will meet many, many trees.

The narrative in the book is complex so pay attention.

The Overstory Book Cover

On the pages of The Overstory, Powers interlaces observations about what is happening in the world with stories about people and trees. The commentary is subtle but you may run across sentences or paragraphs that make you stop and reread them because they are both eloquent and stark.

Here are a few examples that hopefully will spark your interest in reading the book

After a court hearing, there is a protest demonstration with lumberjacks on one side and tree huggers on the other.

“Enemies shout at each other across the gap, stoked by triumph and humiliation. Decent people loving the land in irreconcilable ways.”

One night a man and a woman are sitting in an ancient tree called Mimas trying to prevent it from being cut down.

“Yet on such a night as this, as the forest pumps out its million-part symphonies and the fat, blazing moon gets shredded in Mimas’s branches, it’s easy for even Nick to believe that green has a plan that will make the age of mammals seem like a minor detour.”

As arson flames race across a construction site a psychologist studying activists has a terrifying epiphany.

“The clarity of recent weeks, the sudden waking from sleepwalk, his certainty that the world has been stolen and the atmosphere trashed for the shortest of short-term gains, the sense that he must do all he can to fight for the living world’s most wondrous creatures: all these abandon Adam, and he’s left in the insanity of denying the bedrock of human existence. Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all the trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

During a strategy meeting, a game programmer responds to a request from his boss to build a game about the natural world.

“Not more plants, boss. You can’t make a game out of plants. Unless you give them bazookas.”

A botanist turns the page in a book and sees this.

“No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees—trees are invisible.”

The Bottom Line

Richard Powers entered college as a physics major and left with an M.A. in Literature. He is an accomplished musician and an avid reader with a curious mind. Powers wrote his first book Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance while working as a computer programmer. Since then he has written eleven more novels and has won numerous awards. His twelfth book The Overstory was the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

Have you ever read a book that made you feel dismayed and uplifted at the same time? That is how reading The Overstory was for me. The histories of the main characters are mostly tragic yet they are all touched by trees in poignant and sometimes magical ways.

The underlying thread woven into this magnificent narrative is that we humans are destroying the natural world and other beings that have inhabited Earth far longer than we have.

Each reader will take away something different from reading the book. The message I received is that we can turn back and take a different path. If we don’t, Mother Nature will not care she will just carry on.

There is a reason that the library waitlist for this book is so long. Buy it or borrow it, read it, and then you will know, too.

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Featured Image at Top

This photo shows someone’s daughter touching a tree and looking up at this magnificent being – photo iStock/stockstudioX.

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On Fire – Book Review

We can thrive not just survive.

If you or someone you love is planning to live on Earth anytime in the future, you should read Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.

Without ever having read a review about it or at least glancing at the front flap of the book jacket, have you ever grabbed a book off of a bookstore shelf and then walked immediately to the checkout counter and bought it? I will only do this for a very few authors which include Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Yvon Chouinard.

That is how I obtained my copy of On Fire.

In just under 300 pages, you will receive a valuable history lesson about the climate crisis and a vision for what we can and need to do to keep Earth habitable for ourselves and those who come after us.

Book Review

Since I had read nothing about On Fire, I did not know what to expect other than it had to do with the climate crisis and the Green New Deal. Having read previous books by Klein I was prepared for a fast-paced, informative, and action provoking book. It is.

On Fire Book Cover

Readers before cracking open On Fire, I suggest you approach reading it with an open and inquisitive mindset. You may find some parts disturbing but you will likely feel uplifted by others.

On Fire consists of essays and public talks that Klein has written and presented over a ten year period from 2010 to 2019.

She covers a lot of ground from the Gulf of Mexico to the Vatican to the Great Barrier Reef. Wide-ranging topics include climate change, capitalism, science, culture, and the Green New Deal. Along the way, you will be exposed to terms like Anglosphere, othering, sacrifice zones, neoliberal economics, and geoengineering.

My copy of On Fire is sporting a bright pink and red ruffle along the page edges where sticky tabs are marking passages that I thought were important or worth reviewing again later. Here are a few examples.

For me, the paragraph below from the “Introduction” pretty much sums up our current situation.

“The past forty years of economic history have been a story of systematically weakening the power of the public sphere, unmaking regulatory bodies, lowering taxes for the wealthy, and selling off essential services to the private sector. All the while, union power has been dramatically eroded and the public has been trained in helplessness: no matter how big the problem, we have been told, it’s best to leave it to the market or billionaire philanthro-capitalists, to get out of the way, to stop trying to fix problems at their root.”

In the chapter entitled “The Leap Years,” Klein describes the Leap Manifesto, a sort of Canadian version of the Green New Deal that she helped write. Page 178 contains a very important message that every environmentalist should heed.

“One thing we were very conscious of when we drafted the Leap Manifesto is that emergencies are vulnerable to abuses of power, and progressives are not immune to this by any means. There is a long and painful history of environmentalists, whether implicitly or explicitly, sending the message that ‘Our cause is so big, and so urgent, and since it encompasses everyone and everything, it should take precedence over everything and everyone else.’ Between the lines: ‘First we’ll save the planet and then we will worry about poverty, police violence, gender discrimination, and racism.’

“The Art of the Green New Deal” chapter near the end of the book discusses the power of art and how it can help us envision the social and ecological transformation we can have if we have the courage to go for it.

The video below co-created by Klein beautifully embodies this idea.

The Bottom Line

When Naomi Klein published her first book about the climate crisis This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate in 2014, she was already an award-winning journalist and bestselling author. She is currently the Senior Correspondent for The Intercept and the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. Klein is the co-founder of the climate justice organization The Leap.

Many wonderful writers do not have the grasp of language that Klein does. Her writing is clear, understandable, and evocative. She tells it like it is and seems to purposefully say things in a way intended to rile you up, like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest. This is one of the things that make her such a powerful writer. We need people who are willing to say what is really going on and to spur us to action. Klein does that.

I recommend you read On Fire first and then give or loan a copy of the book to someone you know that has not come to grips with the fact that the climate crisis is already here and that we can do something about it.

Featured Image at Top: Sunrise Movement youth activists demanding a Green New Deal during a sit-in outside the office of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on November 12, 2018 – Photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement.

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