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The Overstory

October 5, 2018

I read a great deal, and enjoy books about a wide range of subjects. Lately I've been studying cellular biology, as that's a subject I know little about. The mechanics of the cell are truly fascinating.

That material, though, tends to be pretty dry.

But I recently finished Richard Powers' The Overstory, a fictional account of nine individuals whose lives somehow revolve around trees. Now, trees are important to me as we live in the woods surrounded by them. In the summer and fall they are magnificent, though late in the year we're nearly overwhelmed with dealing with leaves. Our first year here we brought over 200 big bags of leaves to the dump to be mulched. Then for years we'd haul 15-20 big trailer loads there. Now we have a machine that mulches them into a big pile, and every couple of years I use a front-end loader to get rid of the mess.

We heat with wood. A lot, generally 5 to 6 cords a year. Normally I'm gathering logs all year. On a nice day it's great to get outside and wield the chainsaw and splitter.

Then there's my sawmill, which is a ton of fun, but is essentially nothing more than one of my follies.

The Overstory is an homage to trees. The title reflects the contents: "understory" is the forest debris, of course, mirrored by the detailed stories depicted in the book, yet there is an overarching overstory tying these all together. While each of the nine stories at first stand apart, Powers expertly weaves them together in the second half of the book, creating one unifying message. And, yes, it's tree hugging, though I thought the path of the novel was very compelling.

The best part of the book: the writing. This is the only work I've read by this author, so I don't know if his other books are done so well, but the wordsmithing is on a par of that in Moby Dick. Not that Powers crafts Melville's multi-page-long paragraphs! I had to greatly slow down simply to enjoy his use of language and the imagery he paints. If you love good writing, really good writing of the sort that's so rare it surfaces only a few times in a life, you'll treasure the book.

The author's erudition is breathtaking. His knowledge of computer technology is that of one who has worked in the field for many years. I almost drowned, pleasantly (if that's possible!), in the tsunami of facts and information about trees. Some was rather mystical, like trees communicating with each other. Too mystical, it seemed, till a little digging revealed that the foliage does indeed pass messages through the forest. I suspect Powers overstates the nature of this, waxing almost religious about it. But for the sake of a good yarn getting a bit carried away can be fun.

The book isn't perfect. The last quarter is hard for some to finish. My 90+ year old parents, who are very careful readers, loved the first part but couldn't finish it. It does peter out a bit, and the ending is somewhat predictable. At 502 pages some may find it daunting. If a book is good, for me it can never be too long.

One of the nine characters is a computer geek. I thought he added little to the story, and, though his tale was somewhat interesting, it seemed irrelevant. He overcomes his physical handicap by designing computer games.

Because of the writing and the compelling story, despite it's flaws, this is probably the best book of any sort I've read in years.

Feel free to email me with comments.

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