Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Orchid Thief

If you ever thought gardening, or plants in general, was boring, the world of orchids will come as a great surprise. I grew up in a household where gardening was a creative passion – both my parents spend long and mostly happy hours in the garden, or planning the garden, or discussing the garden – and still, the very idea of orchids being exciting was a shock. Susan Orlean was equally shocked, but also curious, and she explores the history of orchid hunting and the flower’s modern culture in her book The Orchid Thief.

The book – which began as an article for The New Yorker, where Orlean is a staff writer – begins with the story of John Laroche, the titular orchid thief. Laroche is the reason Orlean discovered the world of orchids in the first place. As she explains, his story caught her eye when she saw a small story in a newspaper about four men arrested for orchid poaching.

Generally speaking, animals get poached. People go around the world in search of rare animals to kill and display – either as clothing, in the case of alligator skin shoes and bags or fur coats, or on walls as strange taxidermied art, or sometimes to eat, in the case of shark fin or turtle soup. It turns out, though, that orchids and many other kinds of rare tropical plants are incredibly valuable on the black market. And the history of their value goes back to the 18th century when wealthy men became obsessed with collecting orchids.

Personally, I have never been that entranced by orchids. Sure, they’re lovely and all, but until reading The Orchid Thief I couldn’t even begin to understand the attraction. But Orlean, after months of research time spent in Florida (the capital of the American orchid industry and where Laroche lives), is able to describe some truly alluring flowers. There are thousands of different kinds of orchids, all with various colours and slightly different petal and formations and textures, and just enough contrariness to make growing them an obsessive and all-encompassing endeavour.

Orlean’s starting point is Laroche, but the real story in this delightful piece of non-fiction is flower itself. The through-line often moves away from Laroche (although it always returns to him) into the wider world of plant crime, the historical precedent for orchid hunting, and the many characters who run the nurseries in southern Florida. She also managed to weave in a history of the Seminoles, a through-line about her personal hunt for the ghost orchid and an overview of Florida as a state. Suffice to say, she packs a lot into this book.

Orlean has a way of making both the characters and the landscapes she describes spring off the page so that you can feel the sticky swamp mud under your feet, and hear the slow but impassioned drawl of the man showing her around one of his greenhouses. On the one had, she didn’t have to make these characters up, but she did have to capture them and translate their vitality and unusual passions from the world of orchid nurseries – where they fit in 100 per cent – to the black and white of the page and the world of readers who have likely never experienced anything like their level of desire for anything. And really, she does an amazing job.

If I were asked before I read this book if I was interested in orchids, I probably would have offered a non-committal answer accompanied by a half-shrug. Now, though, I know better. Nothing in the world of orchid lovers is non-committal. Besides, after the rollicking education Orlean offers up, I now know that flowers, and the culture that springs up around and because of them, are far more than the sum of their parts.

The Orchid Thief
by Susan Orlean
First published in 1998 (cover image shown from Ballantine Books edition)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Coming of Age

I have written about quite a few coming-of-age stories here (Lives of Girls and Women, Summer Sisters and Mister Pip all come to mind) and there are a few reasons for that. One, I suppose, is that it's a relatable genre; for writers who understand how to do it well, it's offers an exploration of youth and sexuality that you don't often find in other kinds of novels. I also love good character development, and a bildungsroman (the technical term) offers that in spades.

This morning, on the Guardian newspaper's book blog, there was a story about how Americans were the best coming-of-age authors out there. The author cited To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye as classic examples of the superiority of American authors when it comes to exploring the lives of youth. As far as including those two novels as classic examples of the genre, I have no qualms. However, of the three I listed above, only one is by an American author (Judy Blume's Summer Sisters), the other two are by Canadian Alice Munro and New Zealander Lloyd Jones, respectively.

I admit that the first few coming-of-age stories you think of might be American, but it certainly doesn't take much to think of others. I don't want to make it sound like I'm snarking at the Guardian book blogger, but there are many countries who publish predominantly in English and aren't England or the States. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and much of the Caribbean (among many others) publish in English, and if you don't think Jamaica Kincaid (from Antigua and Barbuda)'s Annie John is a coming of age classic in terms of its exploration of race, sexuality, school and friendship, well, you must be missing out.

Normally, I guess, a blog post like this on the Guardian wouldn't concern me overmuch. But summer seems to be the season of coming-of-age. I don't know if it's because kids aren't in school, or because of the weather, but many of the best novels (and, admittedly, movies) in the genre are set at least partially during the summer. So to write a post like that, when this is the season to reread youthful books, just seems a little lazy to me, I guess.

What are your favourite coming-of-age stories? Feel free to leave them in the comments.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Magician's Nephew

There's something about early August that makes me very nostalgic for my childhood pre-working summers, when this would have been just the mid-way point and not on the tail end. This is the time of year, more than any other (even Christmas), that makes me want to revisit kids' and YA novels. Last summer it was rereading the last two Harry Potter books over a three-day stretch; this year, I hunkered down and reread C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew in an afternoon (I could have sworn it was a longer read).

Despite what the movies would have you think, The Magician's Nephew (not The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) is the first book in Lewis' famous series. And it wasn't until rereading it that I finally saw how religious his books are. Certainly, I had heard about the religious aspects, but they didn't strike me as particularly extreme in the other stories. Generally speaking, religion was a much bigger deal during the time period the stories are set in (prior to WWI) so it always made sense to me that religious details would be incorporated.

Well, rereading The Magician's Nephew really casts a different light on the rest of the series. It isn't obviously more religious, I guess. The characters don't quote passages from the Bible or anything, and in some ways all the magic that Lewis conjures up is rather anti-Christian doctrine. But the last half of books makes it clear that The Magician's Nephew is decidedly Biblical, and is quite literally the Book of Genesis for the series. But I'll get to that in a minute.

The story is fairly simple. Digory and Polly are neighbours living in London. Digory has only recently arrived, though, and is staying with his aunt and uncle (brother and sister, not married couple) because his mother (their sister) is gravely ill and his father has gone to India to work. So, Digory is not at all happy with his situation, but he and Polly become friends and start exploring the attics of their rowhouses. Digory's Uncle Andrew fancies himself a magician, and at the first opportunity he gets, he tests out his magic on the two children. Uncle Andrew has created rings (yellow ones and green ones) that will take you to another world. He, of course, is too afraid to try them and instead tricks Polly into putting on a yellow one. She vanishes immediately, much to Uncle Andrew's delight and Digory's dismay, and Uncle Andrew persuades Digory to go after her because she doesn't have the green ring, which will supposedly bring her back. Digory heads off into the unknown and discovers the Wood Between Worlds. 

I love the structure Lewis constructed for his magical travel. The Wood Between Worlds is a beautiful forest, filled with little pools. Each pool is the entrance to another world, which is how the children discover that their green rings will take them to any world they desire (put them on, choose a pool and jump in) and the yellow rings will always return them to the Wood. Genius. Looking to have some fun before heading back to Uncle Andrew, they children go and explore a world that is dying. In it, they discover Charn, an ancient city filled with no one; that is, until Digory rings a bell and awakens the Emperess Jadis, who is also a witch and quite evil. By unhappy chance, the children accidentally bring Jadis back to London with them, where she wreaks havoc.

They decide they need to lose her somewhere, so they use their rings and take her back to the Wood and into a new pool. But this world is dark, and the children worry they've somehow stumbled upon a place that doesn't exist. Then they hear a song, low and lovely, and slowly light comes into the world, and then water and mountains and plants and trees and animals and all the other things that make up a world (sound familiar?). Of course, the singer is Aslan, the great lion, and he is creating Narnia. The story really becomes very Biblical at this point, and Digory even has to go pick an apple from a far-off and walled garden in a task that tests his faith and belief in Aslan. It's interesting to read, actually, because although it seems heavy-handed now, I'm sure I didn't notice any of the allusions as a child (of course, I was not a religious a child, but still).

The ending, which manages to explain The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, before that book has even come out, is perhaps the best example of foreshadowing I have ever read. Really, anyone looking to write a series should study Lewis' technique of subtly couching future details into otherwise relevant descriptions and explanations. In many ways, The Magician's Nephew is just an extended prologue to the rest of the stories; it works best when you know what's coming, which rewards rereaders who come back to books many years after first enjoying them. It's really a perfect little reread: it's quick, it's interesting, and it reminds you of just how wonderous and new stories felt when you were a kid – before images and ideas seemed familiar – and you could just get lost in the world of the story.

The Magician's Nephew
By C.S. Lewis
First published in 1955 (cover image shown from HarperTrophy edition)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Don't disappoint your books

This is a beautiful little short film (2 minutes, so actually short) called The Diary of a Disappointed Book.  It was put together by studiocanoe and tells the story of a book given, forgotten, read and forgotten.

Rather than risk spoilers (because you should watch it – really), I will leave my thoughts to after the jump.

The Diary of a Disappointed Book from Studiocanoe on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Sword in the Stone

Sometimes it just works out that you discover a great book because of a movie, and not the other way around. That is the case with T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, which first made itself known to me (and, I'm sure many other people) through the Disney movie of the same name. But as good as that movie is (I love it as a kid), the book far surpasses it.

Generally, the story goes like this. Wart lives in Sir Ector's castle in the very ancient times of England when there were still valiant knights and dragons to fight and wizards and witches and Robin Hood (excuse me, Robin Wood – White clears history's name fumble quite nicely). Wart is not Sir Ector's son, though, that honour falls to Kay who is a couple of years older and despite all of his advantages, at least eight times more insecure. Anyway, Wart goes into the Forest Sauvage (old England has some suspiciously French names in White, which I suspect is a nod to the original Morte d'Arthur) and, after spending a rather harrowing night in the wild trying to retrieve a lost hawk, he stumbles upon Merlyn.

Of course, Merlyn knew he was coming because he ages backwards and because he's a magician. Wart and Merlyn head back to the castle and Merlyn becomes the boys' tutor. And, sure, he teaches them both all sorts of important things, but really he saves the best – and most cryptic – lessons for Wart. Merlyn, of course, knows that Wart is going to become King Arthur (his real name being Arthur) and he goes about preparing him for the job by turning him into various animals and letting him learn indirect lessons about valour and bravery and history.

The lessons are one of my favourite parts of the book. I like the way White has imagined the the different social codes and ingrained memories of the various animals. I also like that Wart isn't a natural as any of them. He has to learn to swim like a fish; he has to be taught how to fly; he is conscious of the way the shape of his body changes and White describes it all in a way that makes you think of how weird it would be to suddenly become a snake (or whatever). 

My other favourite part are the anachronisms. The story is full of them – because Merlyn a) ages backwards, and b) is not always very good at his spells, which means sometimes bowler hats end up in the 12th century – and the characters' reactions are perfect. Usually, they don't even notice because whatever is being mentioned or conjured is so foreign that they can't even begin to understand it. Merlyn, though, goes into fits over it, which is hilarious. Additionally, because the book was written in the '30s (prior to the outbreak of WWII), a lot of the anachronisms now seem really old fashioned, which adds another level of humour to the references.

Of all this, though, I'm not sure how much younger readers pick up. There are certainly points that are obviously funny and meant to make kids laugh, but there's a lot going on that would be so far over their heads that it can only have been written for their parents. It's a pretty quick read – certainly as face-paced as any thriller – and it's the sort of perfectly engaging book to bring on a picnic or something, during which you'll chuckle about something and the person you're with will want to know what's going on, so you'll have to explain to them something about a giant, at which point you'll realize that White has cleverly inserted a Hitler-Mussolini figure into the story who gets defeated before he does any real damage, and you'll wish that were really the case. And that's when it will strike you that, for all the lightness and the adventure, White's retelling of King Arthur's coming-of-age is also about England itself.

It's quite ingenious, really, how he buries that metaphor. And it works perfectly, elevating a children's story into something much greater and, in some ways, much sadder – but always gripping and almost always hilarious.

The Sword in the Stone
by T.H. White
First published in 1938 (cover image shown from Laurel Leaf edition)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Books as collections

A couple of weeks ago, The Quarterly Conversation published a piece in which a book collector examined and explained his passion. The article, titled "Inveterate and Unrepentant Book Collecting: A Guide to My Favourite Contact Sport," Scott Bryan Wilson explains how he became interested in book collecting, offers examples of his most prized finds and defends the practice of being a bit of a book snob.

Now, I have a lot of books. I love having books around and I frequent used bookstores on a fairly regular basis. I also have books I have yet to read. Sometimes I even loosely arrange my books by genre (this shelf is mostly non-fiction, this shelf has all my Norton anthologies, etc.). That all being said, I would not consider myself a book collector, not like Wilson is. 

In his treatise, he describes how carefully he selects his books; how he might have multiple copies of some books because they're in different conditions; how there is a hierarchy in his world: first editions and signed copies are best, although he prefers not to have signed copies if they're signed to another person – copies with personal messages are the worst. 

In my world, I will generally choose to buy the less stained or bent copy, it's true. But, finding personal notes written on the inside front cover is like being let into someone else's personal joy. Knowing that a book was given with love just makes it better. For me, the bonus of a used book is that it comes with a history, and you can kind of share it with everyone who read the book before you. When I was a kid (read: 12-or-so years old), I thought the sign of a truly enjoyed books was lots of lines down the spine, so whenever I read a book I loved I made a special effort to crack and wrinkle the spine. This seems bizarre to me now, but it makes a lot of sense in retrospect when you consider how many library books and other pre-read books you read at that age.

All this is really to say that I think all readers are book collectors in some way – whether you collect titles and authors in your head, but do all your reading through the library; or you feel comforted by having old titles around you; or you get satisfaction from finding that perfect and rare first edition and read it carefully, so as not to bend the perfect spine – and I don't think it's problematic to acknowledge that other people enjoy books differently. I may not care what edition my book is, but it's almost comforting to know that someone out there cares very much, and will work to preserve those original tomes.

Image from Bookshelf Porn.
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