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The Overstory (2018)

by Richard Powers

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,1291663,256 (4.07)358
An air force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back to life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers - each summoned in different ways by trees - are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent's few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours - vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity's self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? -- from dust jacket.… (more)
  1. 31
    Barkskins by Annie Proulx (GerrysBookshelf)
  2. 21
    The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods by Julia Hill (Gwendydd)
    Gwendydd: One of the main characters of Overstory is loosely based on the life of Julia Butterfly Hill.
  3. 11
    The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed by John Vaillant (Gwendydd)
    Gwendydd: These books both talk a lot about the giant trees of the west coast, logging, and anti-logging activists.
  4. 00
    Greenwood by Michael Christie (OscarWilde87)
  5. 01
    The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff (Sandwich76)
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» See also 358 mentions

English (159)  German (1)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  All languages (162)
Showing 1-5 of 159 (next | show all)
The first section of this novel, Roots, was phenomenal. If you're not up for a long book right now, I would even recommend just reading those eight chapters as short stories (even though you'll miss out on a lot of the "point" of the book.) I'm happy to give five stars just for those stories alone.

Marking the rest of the review as spoilers not because it gives away any specific plot developments per se, but because I'd recommend reading the book and forming your own opinions before reading any review in too much detail.

The rest of the book, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds, were also excellently written, but the pacing and structure felt a bit more clumsy to me. Maybe this was because of my expectations-- I knew that the disparate plot lines would eventually converge, which was great, but I expected them to do so with a bit more of a crescendo. Instead the plotlines meandered into each other more incidentally, with three out of the eight streams never meeting any others or touching only once or indirectly. I felt like the section headings had made a promise to me-- Roots and Seeds matched their namesakes very well, but I was expecting all to come together triumphantly in Trunk and then separate again in the branches of the Crown.

One drastic change to help the meandering could have been: honestly, I liked the Ray and Dorothy plotline, but I felt like the whole book may have been stronger if they were cut entirely, with some parts of their story incorporated into the other characters as possible. The ungardening and the "stand your ground" legal stuff was really interesting, but the fact that the rest of their story was so disconnected made them feel out of place throughout the book, despite their parts being well written. I kept expecting the other shoe to drop in a more dramatic way, but was ultimately left hanging. Again, expectations.

There was also quite a bit of repetition in Trunk and Crown. Seeing or learning about the same things from different characters got a little tiring-- even though it's interesting to get different perspectives from characters with different mentalities and backgrounds, with such a well-populated ensemble piece I feel like there needed to be more restraint. I personally enjoyed all of the parts that just dished information on trees, but I can see how they could get tiring, especially when they weren't as strongly flavored by the accompanying focal character. The beginning of the book did this flavoring well-- trees are family heritage to Nick and Mimi, meaningless background to the Brinkmans, sci fi inspiration to Neelay, a whole fascinating world to Patty, guiding angels to Olivia, etc. By the end of Trunk, though, all the tree talk just sort of felt like Richard Powers.

In some ways the overgrown (sorry) nature of the book helped it towards feeling more like creative nonfiction, which is an appropriate vibe, but I feel it could have really sung if Powers had curated it to be a bit more novelistic in the center. Or at least that would have been my preference.

And yet I'm still giving 5 stars. All this said, the beginning and end of the book were really really strong, and there was so much good stuff throughout. The Hoel family chestnut, Adam's ants, Dr Westerford's redemption, the car full of beings of light, the intergalactic Stanford quad, Maidenhair up in Mimas, the suicide tree. My favorite characters were Nick, Neelay, and Patty, but all of them were enjoyable to follow.

Read! Read! I want to hear what everyone thinks about this book.

( )
  misslevel | Sep 22, 2021 |
In the first half of [b:The Overstory|40180098|The Overstory|Richard Powers|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1562786502l/40180098._SY75_.jpg|57662223] the author uses trees as a connecting motif through the lives of nine disconnected characters. I've enjoyed the "different characters / shared object" framing device since first experiencing it in [b:The Library Card|87218|The Library Card|Jerry Spinelli|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1328865933l/87218._SX50_.jpg|1222529] and the first half of the book uses it extremely well. The second half of the book shifts into a shared narrative and the book's well crafted characters suffer under the weight of having to carry that narrative. Still - well written and worth the read. ( )
  eshaundo | Sep 13, 2021 |
Trees tie together everything that takes place in this novel. It starts with small short stories that are seemingly disconnected except for the presence of a tree, sometimes more prominent than others. When the action moves to the second portion of the book, the stories begin to weave together. I won't say that this was an easy read, but it was very good. It made me think about the importance of trees on many levels, especially as exemplified by the stories that intertwine. Any reader can take away something from this book, something that will make them look at trees and forests in different ways and think about how they may have played a role in their lives. I won't look at a forest the same. ( )
  hobbitprincess | Sep 9, 2021 |
The introduction of the characters made very good short stories for the first 9 chapters of the book, reminiscent to me of an American David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas). The later half of the book was a coming together of the characters and their love for trees. I found the later half a little disappointing after such a brilliant start and felt the author could have made more of the trees being the salvation of the characters, rather than their destruction. I felt the ending was too pessimistic for such an inspiring species. I enjoyed the references to trees in Religion, Ovid, Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, and others. I wonder, were the references to modern books (The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini) mentioned only by fictional titles because these authors are still in copyright? The inclusion of the Bystander Effect occurring in the psychology lecture hall was very well written and ironic. ( )
  AChild | Sep 6, 2021 |
My first tree hugger book.
Long.
Learned so much. Different persprective. Amazing how nature is all connected!
I did like the individual stories at the beginning more than the rest. ( )
  avdesertgirl | Aug 22, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 159 (next | show all)
“Literary fiction has largely become co-opted by that belief that meaning is an entirely personal thing,” Powers says. “It’s embraced the idea that life is primarily a struggle of the individual psyche to come to terms with itself. Consequently, it’s become a commodity like a wood chipper, or any other thing that can be rated in terms of utility.” [...]

“I want literature to be something other than it is today,” Powers says. “There was a time when our myths and legends and stories were about something greater than individual well-being. "
added by elenchus | editlithub.com, Kevin Berger (Apr 23, 2018)
 
Acquiring tree consciousness, a precondition for learning how to live here on Earth, means learning what things grow and thrive here, independently of us.

We are phenomenally bad at experiencing, estimating, and conceiving of time. Our brains are shaped to pay attention to rapid movements against stable backgrounds, and we’re almost blind to the slower, broader background drift. The technologies that we have built to defeat time—writing and recording and photographing and filming—can impair our memory (as Socrates feared) and collapse us even more densely into what psychologists call the “specious present,” which seems to get shorter all the time. Plants’ memory and sense of time is utterly alien to us. It’s almost impossible for a person to wrap her head around the idea that there are bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California that have been slowly dying since before humans invented writing.
 

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Powers, Richardprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Allié, ManfredÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bierstadt, AlbertCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Chauvin, SergeTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gaffney, EvanCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Guevara, Teresa Lanero Ladrón deTraductorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kempf-Allié, GabrieleÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lanero, TeresaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Noorman, JelleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quinn, MarysarahDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Toren, SuzanneNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vighi, LiciaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Earth may be alive: not as the ancients saw her--a sentient Goddess with a purpose and foresight--but alive like a tree. A tree that quietly exists, never moving except to sway in the wind, yet endlessly conversing with the sunlight and soil. Using sunlight and water and nutrient minerals to grow and change. But all done so imperceptibly, that to me an old oak tree on the green is the same as it was when I was a child.
--James Lovelock
Tree . . . he watching you. You look at tree, he listen to you. He got no finger, he can't speak. But that leaf . . . he pumping, growing, growing in the night. While you sleeping you dream something. Tree and grass same thing.
--Bill Neidjie
Dedication
For Aida.
First words
First there was nothing.
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To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs.
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An air force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back to life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers - each summoned in different ways by trees - are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent's few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours - vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity's self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? -- from dust jacket.

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