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The Overstory: A Novel Hardcover – April 3, 2018
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2018: Do you love trees? I thought I did, until I read Richard Powers's The Overstory, and I realized that my appreciation of trees was lightweight at best. When one of Powers's characters goes to a small grove outside her office window to determine the tree's species, "She stands with her nose in the bark, perversely intimate. She doses herself for a long time, like a hospice patient self-administering the morphine." Trees are not exactly an addiction to the wide-ranging cast of characters--an engineer, a Vietnam vet, a college student, a videogame designer, and more—but more like a touchstone that offers tradition and destiny at once. Powers, a National Book Award and Pushcart Prize–winning author, is devious in that he first immerses the reader in the lives of his characters before delicately oxygenating his story with the devastation of Dutch elm disease, the enduring strength of the sequoia, and the communication methods trees use to warn of predators and to lure allies. The Overstory might sound a bit woo-woo—and it definitely is that, though in such a way that it inspires passion instead of eye-rolling. This gorgeously written novel will seduce you into looking more closely at not only our fellow human beings but the towering bio-kingdom that is too often merely a backdrop to our days. Perhaps, like me, you will be inspired to walk out into the night to smell the rain sweeping through the nearby evergreen trees. —Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review
“Monumental…The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of the story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size....A gigantic fable of genuine truths.”
- Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
“Remarkable....This ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.”
- Ron Charles, Washington Post
“A big, ambitious epic....Powers juggles the personal dramas of his far-flung cast with vigor and clarity. The human elements of the book―the arcs his characters follow over the decades from crusading passion to muddled regret and a sense of failure―are thoroughly compelling. So are the extra-human elements, thanks to the extraordinary imaginative flights of Powers’s prose, which persuades you on the very first page that you’re hearing the voices of trees as they chide our species.”
- Michael Upchurch, Boston Globe
“A rousing, full-throated hymn to Nature’s grandeur.”
- Dan Cryer, San Francisco Chronicle
“An extraordinary novel....An astonishing performance....There is something exhilarating, too, in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. The Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference....What was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.”
- Benjamin Markovits, The Guardian
“Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition, daring to cast himself, in the critic Peter Brooks’s term, as a 'historian of contemporary society.' He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked.”
- Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic
“This book is beyond special. Richard Powers manages to turn trees into vivid and engaging characters, something that indigenous people have done for eons but that modern literature has rarely if ever even attempted. It's not just a completely absorbing, even overwhelming book; it's a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that is desperately needed.”
- Bill McKibben
“The Overstory is a visionary, accessible legend for the planet that owns us, its exaltation and its peril, a remarkable achievement by a great writer.”
- Thomas McGuane
“Richard Powers’s 12th novel is a rare specimen: a Great American Eco-Novel.”
- Financial Times
“A colleague of mine once claimed that a critic's opinions are worth less than his or her ability to convey what a book is like. If that's true, never mind that I believe Richard Powers' 12th novel to be a masterwork sculpted from sheer awe. Instead, know that reading The Overstory will convince you that we walk among gods every time we enter a forest.”
- Adam Morgan, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Top customer reviews
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While Powers certainly doesn’t need authentication of his narrative power—he has already won a National Book Award among many literary prizes—I can vouchsafe that he is an excellent storyteller. Similarly, his ability to create characters that may stretch the bounds of believability but still generate passionate sympathetic feelings in the reader is also beyond doubt.
Thus, I found myself reading the Overstory with every free moment I had over two days and loving nearly every page.
The overarching philosophy of the work is that human beings, either willfully or not, do not understand the amount of destruction they are causing to the world’s flora. Plants and trees, one of the oldest of the earth’s kingdoms, are only now beginning to be understood as beings that communicate, learn and in some instances even care for their own offspring. The human caused biocide of the world’s flora is a tragedy not only because these trees may have medicinal or other useful properties for humans but also because each one is a beautiful product of nature fashioned over millions of years. In the author’s view, we seem to be destroying some of the most important parts of creation, so that everyone can, so to speak, have a bigger projection screen TV.
Nor are biofuels, renewable energy or other technological fixes likely to stem this downward spiral. Even virtual reality is only going to be as interesting as the humans who create it and so cannot be a genuine substitute for the complexity of what nature provides for us gratis in the real world.
The author seems to envision only two scenarios: either humankind will wipe itself out and the earth will generate new, unforeseeable solutions to life or artificial intelligence will impose a solution on a humanity which cannot save itself.
To those who have read optimistic works like Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now or related perspectives such environmental pessimism is somewhat startling. I can’t say that I am fully persuaded by Powers’ perspective but I can appreciate the accuracy of his science, the literary craftsmanship that went into embodying these ideas and the importance of his overall message.
So, if you are willing to endure a literary punch to the stomach and put on apocalyptic glasses then you will thoroughly enjoy The Overstory. But, though a love of trees thoroughly permeates the book, it is hardly a walk in the park.
It is perhaps his best book since ``The Time of Our Singing''. The book starts by introducing many disparate characters, a computer wiz,
a scientist who studies trees, a Vietnam vet, and several others. This part of the book is called roots. In Trunk and later Crown
we see how they are drawn into a single narrative that encompasses the relationship between people and trees. In Seeds we are offered a glimpse of the future. As in his other novels Powers does not hide his erudition. We rejoice in it. We are lead to ask ourselves important questions about
our relations with the natural world. At the end it is the stroke paralyzed Ray who perhaps sums it all up best, ``The law must judge imminent at the scale of trees''.
Most recent customer reviews
Moving, informative, thought provoking.
Will never look at trees the same way again. Never.