Richard Powers is really smart.
I don’t know his IQ or anything, it’s just a quality he seems to radiate. People give off all kinds of vibes (like creeper vibes), if you will, and from the first time I picked up one of his books, his intelligence was obvious. A few years back The Echo Maker was a bookclub selection. This book is about a sister who comes to care for her brother, who has a brain injury (Capgras Syndrome), which was the result of a recent car accident. The Echo Maker was not well received by the other book club-ers and not everyone finished it. These different reactions are not uncommon to the books we read. I bring it up simply because while I remember the majority disliking it, it was this book that introduced me to Powers, and ultimately my interest and fascination in to his thought process.
Several months passed and another friend was raving about Orfeo by Powers. Orfeo is about a retired composer who does genetic engineering as a hobby. When government officials arrive at his home he flees. During his journey you learn about his past, which coincides with such world events like the JFK assassination, 9/11, and H5N1. You find out about his love for music, a particular woman as well his struggle with needing to invent versus pleasing the world around him. To me, just reading the synopsis kind of blows my mind. How do you put all of those factors together and form a cohesive story?
The Time of Our Singing has musical roots as well. This story follows a interracial family and their three children who grow up during the Civil-Rights era. The husband and wife meet in college and bond over their love for music. I don’t know as much about this book, but I did buy it because Power’s wrote it.
Well, now to the big dog.
The Overstory, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this past April. Powers was a finalist for this prize in 2006. He has many other literary awards under his belt such as the National Book Award, the Man Booker (both short and longlist), the PEN/ Hemingway and so many others. When it was announced that he was this year’s PP winner, I remember thinking, Finally! So incredible well-deserved.
When I first heard the title, I looked up the word overstory. I had never heard it used and wanted to see what the definition was.
1. The highest layer of vegetation in a forest, usually forming a canopy.
2. The trees in a forest whose crowns constitute this layer.
The beautiful cover of this book does feature trees, so go with it. In a nutshell The Overstory is about trees, like really and truly about trees.
By the way, you’re welcome for that in-depth synopsis. Just kidding I’ll give you more, just in case his name alone and my awesome synopsis doesn’t send you racing to Amazon or the nearest book store.
Here is the cut and pasted book summary:
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 into 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.
To me, it’s just strange enough to grab my attention. It’s a little out there, but completely intriguing. Or maybe I just really like trees?
I came across a great article about Powers on theguardian.com. It talks about his life, career, awards, and then delves in to his interest in trees before he wrote The Overstory,
“Powers hadn’t particularly considered trees until his first encounter with a giant redwood a few years ago, while he was in California teaching on Stanford’s creative writing fellowship course. “When they’re as wide as a house and as tall as a football pitch you don’t have to be particularly sensitive to be wowed by it,” he says. “But once I started looking, I realised it’s not about the size and scale … it’s that I’ve been blind to these amazing creatures all the time.”
After he wrote this book he took a trip to the Smokies, he realized after a research trip that he felt better than he ever had. Powers was then teaching at Stanford and within six months, decided to give up that lucrative job and move to the middle of the forest.
Powers’ books revolve around music, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and genetics. These are areas that although I only know a little of, I find to be extraordinary subjects to learn about. Hopefully there’s some food for thought in this post and if nothing else, maybe you’ve learned about a new-to-you author. Or as Powers was dubbed in theguardian.com article, “the best novelist you’ve never heard of.”
“Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.”