The Overstory by Richard Powers (Literary Fiction)

This book absolutely deserved the Pulitzer — the writing is probably the best I have ever seen; the characters have the level of depth and detail that makes them more real than the people we interact with daily; the plot — like life — is in no way predictable.

I can try to explain what the book is “about,” but it will sound like a plot and in no way will explain what it will be like to read it —to be drawn into the world it depicts in a complete immersion. It’s a book about forests — the trees and plant life that came into being about 400 million years ago and have been thrumming along ever since. It’s about philosophy and psychology and activism. It’s about how eight wildly different people with wildly different backgrounds and interests became part of the story about recognizing the rights of forests as more than simple utility for humans. I’m still not getting across what it’s about exactly 🙂

The first eight chapters serve as the introductions to each character. Each is like a short story in itself. While this served to provide the backstories, each was intriguing in its own way. Except for chapter one! I can’t explain but I didn’t like that chapter at all, and in fact this stopped me from continuing the first two times I attempted it! I can’t explain it — hated the first chapter and then got completely absorbed and never looked back.

Eight individual narrative arcs are superimposed on a segment of an ultra-long term narrative — that of forests and the planetary ecosystem. An engineer, a gaming prodigy, a property lawyer, a plant specialist, a behavioral economist, an activist, an artist, and a man I’m having a difficult time categorizing all twirl around in our current world engaging with our trees. Some cross physical paths, some influence others, all have their minds shifted in one way or the other … and we go along for the ride. All are misfits in the sense that they don’t feel forced to adhere to cultural norms and this makes them both more interesting and more capable of growth.

I love the way the author brings in so many different angles. From actual behind-the-scenes information to new (to me) concepts about rights. In succinct and yet poetic language do we learn about the nature and mechanisms of the ecosystem, the wood industry, and the way human societies behave. As an aside, this is a book that writes about nature in a way that appeals to me — I’m not a visual person so long descriptions of the way something looks does zippo for me. This book describes nature in terms of its systems using vivid imagery and detailed behaviors. And the concept of plant rights — sounds ridiculous and yet by the end of the book I was thinking about it. A quote: “Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of “us” — those who are holding rights at the time.” Wow — doesn’t that sound familiar from past and current fights?

Beautiful writing, beautiful sentiment — every sentence is perfect. Covers the gamut of interaction styles — between each other and within ourself — intellectual, spiritual, emotional. The scale of this book is only barely comprehensible to the reader — but it is. Definitely not a fast read — you’ll want to take your time with this one.

So many quotes! I had to whittle down the list but here are some of my favorites:

“Even as an infant, he hated being held. Every hug is a small, soft, jail.”

“Adam can’t stop reading. Again and again, the book shows how so-called Homo Sapiens fail at even the simplest logic problems. But they’re fast and fantastic at figuring out who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, who should be heaped with praise and who must be punished without mercy. Ability to execute simple acts of reason? Feeble. Skill at herding each other? Utterly, endlessly brilliant.”

“We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.”

“… the backs of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps…”

“The understory fills up with tracks like longhand accusations scribbled on the snow. She listens to the forest, to the chatter that has always sustained her. But all she can hear is the deafening wisdom of crowds.”

“And still a part of him wants to know if his few and private thoughts might in fact be ratified by someone, somewhere. The confirmation of others: a sickness the entire race will die of.”

“You know, you look at those mountains, and you think: Civilization will fade away, but that will go on forever. Only, civilization is snorting like a steer on growth hormones, and those mountains are going down.”

“Once Ray starts a book, he force-marches through to its conclusion, however hard the slog. Dorothy doesn’t mind skipping the author’s philosophies to get to those moments when one character, often the most surprising, reaches down inside herself and is better than her nature allows.”

“Righteousness makes Mimi nuts. She has always been allergic to people with conviction. But more than she hates conviction, she hates sneaky power. She has learned things about his mountainside that sicken her. A wealthy logging outfit, backed by a pro-industry Forest Circus, is exploiting the power vacuum prior to a big court decision by rushing through an illegal grab of mixed conifers that have been growing for centuries before the idea of ownership came to these parts. She’s ready to try anything to slow the theft down. Even righteousness.”

“The article stokes his distress. Should trees have standing? This time last month, it would have been his evening’s great sport to test the ingenious argument. What can be owned and who can do the owning? What conveys a right, and why should humans, alone on the all the planet, have them? … His entire career until this moment — protecting the property of those with a right to grow — begins to seem like one long war crime, like something he’ll be imprisoned for, come the revolution.”

“His heart contracts back down to the size it was when she found him.”

“All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia, those recent yesterdays when tomorrow seemed the answer to everything a human might ever want.”

“This is her freedom. This one. The freedom to be equal to the terrors of the day.”

“At some time over the last four hundred million years, some plant has tried every strategy with a remote chance of working. We’re just beginning to realize how varied a thing working might be. Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes. To solve the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb, then, is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

“It strikes her that she envies him. His years of enforced tranquility, the patience of his slowed mind, the expansion of his blinkered senses. He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires, while she — she is still trapped in a hunger that rushes past everything.”

“A massive, crowd-sourced urgency unfolds in Like-Land, and the learners, watching over these humans’ shoulders, noting each time a person clicks, begin to see what it might be: people, vanishing en masse into a replicated paradise.”

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5+/5
Loved this book — 500 pages and I read it in a day and a half — I couldn’t stop!

A skillfully constructed family drama pulsing with life, love, relationships, tragedy, and personality — yet (thankfully) never crossing that line into the minefield of melodrama. Amina Eapen is a talented photojournalist who fled to the safety of weddings and quinceaneras after taking a stunning suicide photo that led to both massive acclaim and massive recrimination. A second-generation, Indian-American immigrant, this story features some of the immigrant flavor, but primarily throws stereotype aside to focus on intricately drawn individuals with so much detail I feel I know them better than I know myself. The action takes place primarily in Albuquerque and moves between the present (1998) and (well sign-posted) pieces of personal history.

I always hesitate to give anything away because the stories unfold at the perfect pace and you should get to enjoy the uncoiling. Suffice it to say that this is a book about family relationships, concomitant personal growth for all, love and loneliness, life and death. Characters: Amina’s father Thomas, the brain surgeon who prefers life in the U.S.; his wife Kamala who wants nothing more than to go back to India; brother Akhil, angry and ranting until he meets his perfect foil; and their extended families — the biological portion left in India and the even closer family created locally.

The writing is beautiful and manages to be funny and poignant at the same time. One of those books where I highlight phrases on most pages (see samples below). I thought the last line of the novel was absolutely perfect. Some comprehensive and edifying descriptions of the process of creating artistic photography which I found fascinating.

As an aside, I learned about a group of Christians that was completely new to me: Amina’s family are part of the Syrian Christians of India who trace their conversion to the 1st century AD after a visit from Thomas the apostle. This plays only a tiny role in the book but I love a good historical tidbit.

It reminded me a little bit of A Place For Us — which I also loved — probably because both are 2nd generation immigrant family dramas that do not claim to represent the category but are splendidly unique and have that amazing character insight that draws me in.

Some quotes:

“Amina nodded calmly, trying to keep her face from registering any hint of worry, but something in her chest bunched up on itself, like a cat being cornered.”

“It wasn’t that she doubted their love or intentions, but the weight of that love would be no small thing. What would they do with everyone else’s worry on top of their own? Thomas did not weather other people’s concern well. He was not going to be happy with her.”

“Cool, flabby arms squeezed her round the middle hard, more a Heimlich than an actual greeting.”

“A minute later Amina set everything on the counter between them and sat down, instantly more jittery, like there was a panic button on her ass.”

“It resembled nothing as much as a set of monster’s dentures fallen from some other world and forgotten on the dusty side of the thoroughfare”

“Her mother’s convictions that movies continue in some private offscreen world had always been as baffling as it was irrefutable. Whole plots had found themselves victims to Kamala’s reimagining, happy endings derailed, tragedies righted.”

“Like plumage that expanded to rainbow an otherwise unremarkable bird, Kamala’s ability to transform raw ingredients into sumptuous meals brought her the kind of love her personality on its own might have repelled.”

“…she would not destroy another creature’s carefully wrought world. If she were God, she’d be a little fucking kinder.”

“Why is it that fathers so often ensure the outcome they are trying to avoid? Is their need to dominate so much stronger than their instinct to protect? Did Thomas know, Amina wondered as she watched him, that he had just done the human equivalent of a lion sinking his teeth into his own cub?”

“… it was that every part of Paige, from her conscience to her politics to her grown woman’s body, was suffused by an optimism so assured that to stay with her, Akhil had to stop being such an angry dick.”

“Her cigarette had a thumb-tip-sized ash growing on it. She flicked it, stuck it between her lips like a straw, and sucked. A cat with its claws out skidded down her trachea.”

“Why bother? Once rewritten, Kamala’s history was safer than classified government documents.”

“It was one of Dimple’s favorite theories, how thousands of years of obsession with a Christian God in a subcontinent of more dynamic religions had petrified the Syrian Christian community, turning them into what she alternately called ‘the stalest community on earth’ or ‘Indian’s WASPs.’ “

“She hated seeing her own face right next to Simple’s — all beak and long chin and awnings for eyebrows, where Dimple’s was a crisp, pert heart.”

“She imagined all of it gone, undone, erased back to 1968, when the city was nothing but eighty miles of hope huddling in a dust storm. She imagined Kamala on the tarmac, walking toward a life in the desert, her body pulled forward by faith and dirty wind.”

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

Shockingly good — one of the best books I’ve read in years. The plot follows Washington Black — born a slave on a brutal Barbados plantation in 1818, he becomes a naturalist illustrator, scientist, and inventor via circumstance mingled with aptitude and fortitude. The book defies categorization — it is simultaneously a wild adventure story and a personal reflection on a life propelled by both trauma and serendipity.

The story careens from the Barbados plantation to the open seas to the Arctic to England and beyond. The Victorian pursuit of knowledge and invention permeates every page (especially pertaining to marine life). The relationships across race, sex, and status in a violent and yet rapidly evolving time period are examined in every possible way. I love the depth of that exploration and what feels (to me) like a fair portrayal of the complexities of every one of those relationships — the individuals, the culture, and the time period all coming to bear and the bald fact of each person interpreting behaviors of others in very personal ways — there is no absolute truth, only personal truth. Wash himself is aware that his perceptions are probably flawed and yet that does not change them in any way.

The writing is Pulitzer quality — absolutely stunning — one of the few books I’ve read without skimming a single sentence. I rarely read books about slavery or the Holocaust — I’ve read too many and just don’t want to go there anymore. I picked up this highly recommended book with the intention of reading a couple of pages and then giving it back. I didn’t put it down for 75 pages (and then only because I was called to dinner!).

Highly, highly, recommended.

Here are too many quotes — just know that I winnowed these down from many, many, more:

“Moistening my lips, I sat at a table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantations, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.”

“The skin round his eyes tightened. He shook his head. ‘Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from heaven, it is this.’ “

“Christopher Wilde had not your best interests at heart. You were a cause to him, not a person — however much he protested otherwise. You were something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness.”

“I understood. He meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of that past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire. It did not matter that he accepted me as a thinking man, that he respected my mind, or even that he was in the midst of taking a favour from me. I was black-skinned and burnt, as disfigured inside as without…”

“I had long seen science as the great equalizer. No matter one’s race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I’d given to the ways in which it might be corrupted.”

“He was a wretched man, a pox, but I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end, however well deserved. He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.”

“…her silence was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it.”

“The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.”

“He was sixty years old at least, with pulsing red hands and extravagant wrinkles.”

“And despite all, his dark eyes seemed to me soft, restless, thoughtful, with a kindness so rarely granted to one like me that, meeting his eyes, I shivered.”

“How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them? I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.”

“After a long moment of trying to muster my courage to speak, I remained silent.”

“He had a thick black mustache and a very pale, grey mouth, as if his lips suffered for sunlight.”

“I saw him, and I kneeled dripping in the low entrance, staring. For he was short, fat, and under his scraggly whiskers was a face very much alive and quite brutally ugly.”

“For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from he dimmest of shadows.”

“Staring into her sharp face, her brown front teeth edging over her lower lip, I felt a kind of despair, sensing the solitary mornings of the world fade from me, and grow dim.”

“Sometimes when I spoke she’d stare on with quiet ferocity — but it was not pity I sensed there, nor morbid fascination, but something like a greed to fully enter my consciousness.”

“What an agony it was, to see them together: old Goff, earnest and probing and high-minded and utterly oblivious; Tanna, sharp-tongued and brilliant and stifled and yet somehow devoted to that self-absorbed man. It was clear to me that both were intelligent, kind people, but careless with each other’s feelings, and poles apart in temperament. I liked both immensely; I hated their way together.”

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

I loved this book — far more than I expected to. It’s an intimate story about the intra- and inter-personal dynamics of an Indian-American, Muslim family living in Northern California. It opens at the wedding of the eldest daughter to a man she has picked for herself. In attendance, her brother is clearly estranged from the family. From there the narrative is subsumed by a sea of unordered memory snapshots that help establish how the family arrived at this place. I liked the collection of non-linear memories — far from being confusing, it felt the way memories of life always feel — holistic and relevant to the current thought or moment.

The prose is beautiful and the self awareness of the characters and relationships between them are complex, subtle, and both well observed and absorbing. While I’m not religious and generally don’t enjoy reading religious novels (and really have very little exposure to the Muslim religion in particular), I found the descriptions of the role of Islam in each of their lives to be pure poetry. I appreciated the thoughtful descriptions of the different characters’ choices with respect to their religion — what restrictions they perceived, what remained important to them, and how their choices changed the relationships they had with each other and the community. The multi-perspective insights were incredibly valuable to me.

The deep connection I felt to the characters and the poignancy of their thoughts and actions brought me to tears several times. The novel was an honest portrait of an actual family — it’s rare that a set of characters feels this real to me. If this continues to be the quality of book from SJP for Hogarth (this is the first book from that imprint), I will be a huge and loyal fan 🙂

One note: For some reason, the opening pages of this book just didn’t do it for me. I kept starting it and putting it back down. There was nothing wrong or poorly done with the opening, it simply didn’t grab my interest. If you have the same initial reaction, please keep reading! It doesn’t take long before you’ll be swept in.

Some great quotes:

“It was a strange time in their lives: the children like paper boats they were releasing into the water and watching float away.”

“Asfoos was the word in Urdu. There was no equivalent in English. It was a specific kind of regret — not wishing he had acted differently, but a helpless sadness at the situation as it was, a sense that it could not have been a different way.”

“It was an absurd expectation placed on women: that they agree to marriage without appearing as though they wanted it. That they at least display innocence.”

“Loving Amira was not just loving a young woman. It was loving a whole world. She was of the same world he had been born into but had only ever felt himself outside of, and sitting by her was the closest he came to feeling harmony with his own home.”

“Right and wrong, halal and haram — it was her father’s only way of experiencing the world.”