Archive | 10:08 AM

Book Club Reflection: The Overstory by Richard Powers

20 Apr

My book club met the day after I finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers to talk about the book. I’m glad I could talk to the group about the book, so I wasn’t insularly reading it. This is always great when I don’t like a book.

Powers is a well published author. This was his 12th book and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Powers has a diverse background. He worked as a computer programmer for some time, much like Neelay. He started his education in physics before switching to creative writing. He’s moved around a lot, having lived in Thailand for six years as a child and moving to the Netherlands after the publication of his first book to stay out of the public eye. He was working at Stanford when he wrote this book and did a lot of research to make sure that the science in the book was as accurate as possible at the time of its publication. Our readers really appreciated the details and research he was able to add. After finishing that research, he moved to the Smoky Mountains. He was finishing the book around the time Trump was elected to office and felt he needed to go back and edit parts of the story to reflect changing attitudes. We wondered if this editing removed some of the cohesiveness of the story.

There was a mixed reaction to this book. One reader was blown away by the book and said it gave her a lot to think about. One enjoyed the writing style. Another liked the characters. There were others who felt like me. We weren’t emotionally invested in the story and topic. One said the book lacked empathy and seemed to suffer from the point about nature that Powers was making. One remembered that the characters were most memorable by their story in the Roots section. They were relatable and interesting but once they got into the middle of the book, many had to refer to notes to keep track of the characters and keep them straight. At times, it felt like a lot of short stories that were connected, a bit like trees in a forest, where each could have stood on its own. One did say she started the book as audio and when she switched to print, she liked it more. So maybe I just picked a bad medium.

Surprisingly, a lot of our conversation was about the overall plot and themes. We tend to focus on characters, but this meeting it was different. We talked about how we moved we were by Olivia’s death and the idea that our lives are but a blip and that even humanity is nothing compared to the life span of many trees. In the same way, we felt like Adam’s observation of ants was like how trees might observe humans. Adam was a controversial character in our discussion. From everything else we knew about him, his radicalization seemed out of left field. One reader hypothesized that because he was studying the dangers of the bystander affect, he realized he needed to act so he joined the movement rather than watching it happen. One reader didn’t like how Mimi’s father’s suicide was written. It seemed sudden and almost like an ‘easy out’ for the author to give Mimi some motivation and pass on the family heirlooms. Nick didn’t get a lot of time in our talk. None of us really understood the point his art played in the book and by the end, we were even more confused.

I’ve started our next book and it’s already going much better and I’m looking forward to the discussion. I’ve learned to just look forward to the next book if I don’t enjoy the one I’m reading and it’s going well so far.

Until next time, write on.

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