WAMC Book Picks 11 September 2018

The Overstory
Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ novels often examine the impact of science on the world. His latest book, The Overstory, is a breathtaking exploration of the evolution of life on earth, the co-dependency of life forms, and the threat we, as a species, pose to this intricate system. It is an impassioned cry for us all to pause, take stock, and think about the devastation we are wreaking on the ecosystem before it is too late. But this is no preaching from the pulpit tirade; it’s a beautifully written work drawing on the knowledge of the ages to paint a picture of hope and possibility – if only we would listen to the world around us: the trees have secrets they want to share.

The book is divided into four main parts: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. In Roots, Powers introduces the main characters in eight short and very moving pieces. He clearly loves his characters, revealing them with great warmth and compassion.

In Trunk, five of these characters join the Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest, staging blockades and peaceful protests until they are met with violence. They decide to meet the violence with a campaign of arson against equipment and machinery. Tragedy strikes, leaving one of them dead, and the other four on the run.

Part 3, Crown, opens 20 years later. One of the arsonists is discovered, and reveals the identity of a second arsonist in a deal to reduce his sentence. The second arsonist refuses to expose his friends, and is sentenced to two consecutive life terms for domestic terrorism.

Powers begins the final section, Seeds, by imagining the life of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet condensed into a single day starting at midnight. On this time scale, modern humans appear just four seconds before the end of the day, and the first cave paintings are created with just a second left until midnight. Yet we have come to dominate the planet.

This is a beautiful novel, told with love and respect, but also with a sense of urgency. It’s time to listen to the trees.

The Only Story
Julian Barnes

The dust cover of Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, hints at the subject matter: scattered around the title, in a smaller and different font, are the words “Love is.”

The book opens with a powerful question:

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? This is, I think, finally, the only real question.

Paul, the narrator, quickly points out that it is not a real question, because we don’t have the choice. He continues:

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don't mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there's only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.

It’s the sixties. Paul, nineteen, is home for the summer from university. He is quickly bored with the sedate life of his hometown, a South London suburb known affectionately as The Village by all its residents. His mother encourages him to join the local tennis club. There, he quickly forms a friendship with the much older Susan Macleod. At first, their relationship is platonic. Susan is married, after all, and has two daughters, both older than Paul. But, as happens, their friendship quickly develops into a passionate love affair.

In the first section of the book, Paul tells his story of falling in love with Susan. Their affair upsets the conservative community in which they live. Paul and Susan are expelled from the tennis club, and run away to the city to set up a home together. In the second section, Paul reflects on his time with Susan, and on what he has learned about love, and what he is still discovering about life. In the final section, Paul distances himself as his relationship with Susan breaks down. There are flashbacks, more memories revealed, and fresh interpretations of what happened to their love and their lives. And why.

Barnes’s writing is hypnotic. The Only Story gently bubbles along, touching on this and that, but, in the process, revealing great insight into how a love can fill our lives and still leave us with questions.

There There
Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, takes its title from a Gertrude Stein quote. When asked about what it was like to return to her hometown, Oakland, Stein replied “There is no there there.” What once had been was no longer. Orange uses this idea as a parallel for the Urban Indian experience and the dislocation felt with the loss of tribal homelands and ways of being.

There There is a formidable novel. Orange’s prose is lean, hard and relentless. He introduces us to twelve Urban Indians from Oakland, California; twelve different voices with individual tales of hope or longing or despair. Each character is remarkable. All are well-formed. Many are flawed and struggling. Orange reveals their motivations, their fears and their connections in a series of brilliant vignettes. The stories pivot around the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow.

Dene Oxendene, slowly getting over the death of his uncle, interviews random people, asking for their stories. He tries to find meaning in their lives and plans to produce a documentary from the recordings he makes. Orvile Red Feather practices traditional Indian dance for his debut at the powwow. His aunt, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, is secretly proud of her nephew’s ambition, and plans to attend the powwow to see his performance. Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober, is traveling back to the family she abandoned years ago. Her traveling companion is Harvey, the boy who got her pregnant when she was 17, then deserted her. Jacquie’s estranged daughter, Blue, flees a violent marriage. There’s a scene at the bus station as she makes her escape that is breath-taking.

There’s a sense of foreboding throughout the novel as the day of the powwow approaches. This is where the twelve stories intersect and explode.

Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere begins where it ends, with the smoldering ruin of the Richardson’s suburban house in the idyllic town of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The fire fighters attending the scene report that there were multiple points of origin for the fire and that an accelerant was probably used - little fires everywhere.

The youngest member of the Richardson family, Izzy, is missing, and the rest of the family are convinced she is responsible for setting the fire. But why?

The summer before the fire, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive in Shaker Heights. They rent an apartment in a building owned by Elena Richardson. It’s their latest home in a long list of temporary residences they have shared over the years. Mia is an artist and, once she finishes a project, she feels the need to uproot, move on, and find new inspiration. But this time they mean to settle for longer.

Pearl meets Moody Richardson, Elena's son, who shares many of the same classes at school. Moody invites her back to his house. Pearl is quickly fascinated by all things Richardson. Meanwhile, Izzy Richardson, with aspirations to become an artist, is drawn to Mia.

A custody battle over a Chinese-American baby tears the town apart. Mia is a friend of the child’s birth mother Bebe. In a fit of depression and desperation, Bebe had abandoned the baby outside the firehouse. It was quickly found, and the McCulloughs, old family friends of the Richardsons, were given temporary custody. The ensuing custody battle divides the town and pits Elena and Mia against each other. What is best for the child? Who will make the better parent?

This is a story about motherhood. But it is much more than that: it is a story about race, and power, and privilege. Ng gently peels away at the layers of Shaker Heights society, exposing rifts and petty prejudices, and long-held grudges. Behind the peaceful façade that Shaker Heights projects to the world, there are little fires everywhere.

Us Against You
Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Bachman’s latest novel, Us Against You, follows on from the events of his previous novel, Beartown, and asks the question: How does a town recover from a divisive and shocking event that rips a community apart?

Beartown is a tough, hard-working community deep in the forest. Life isn’t easy for the inhabitants of the town, but they shrug off their difficulties with pride. Life isn’t supposed to be easy, after all.

The pride and joy of the community is the local ice-hockey team. But the team is threatened with closure. All the best players have left for the neighboring town of Hed, and the team’s sponsors have followed them. The team’s long-standing coach retires and is replaced by a woman with an unusual coaching style. One of the players is photographed kissing his male lover, and the photo goes viral. The club’s general manager, Peter Andersson, feels his family drifting slowly apart as they struggle to deal with what happened to his daughter, Maya, as told in Beartown.

Backman takes the shattered fragments of the community and deftly pieces them together once more. This is a book about guilt, and the destruction it can wreak on relationships. But it’s much more than that. It's about surviving in the face of hardship; it’s about growing, and the strength that can come from loyalty and a shared sense of passion. This is a compassionate novel. There are some wonderfully moving moments when the inner kindness of the town’s inhabitants is revealed.  Backman observes the dark in people, but also the light. His touch is delicate, understated, even, and wields great power.