Review(s): ‘The Botany of Desire’ and ‘Cloud Atlas’

I feel guilty because I have been very remiss in my blogging duties. Other things have been consuming my evenings, and it’s taken me longer than usual to finish my latest book (Cloud Atlas). There always seems to be so many things to do. As it is now, I’m getting sleepy and I’m wondering if my evening of reading has meant I’ve forgotten to do something else (feed the kitten? lock the garage? take out the recycling?), so I’m going to try to write up two short(er than usual) reviews of the latest books I’ve read: The Botany of Desire and Cloud Atlas.

It really is a shame my blogging slump has come now, after reading two such wonderful books that I really have loved, but there it is. If I wait any longer, I know I’ll forget so many things I wanted to say about both, or I may never get around to writing them down. And when that happens, that’s really the tragedy.

BotanyofDesire_full

The Botany of Desire
By Michael Pollan

  • Date Finished: June 26, 2015
  • Genre: Science
  • Year: 2001
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Summer 2015
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

The Botany of Desire has, and will, become one of the few books that I just love talking about with anyone. Anyone, I tell you! Even people at my high school reunion who profess not to read, I’ll even talk about this book to THEM, and damn it if they’re bored. This book really was everything I thought it would be ever since I first saw it at Half-Price Books in 2009-10, where I was working at the time. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma earlier and just loved it, so I was on the lookout for anything by Pollan. This book answered that, as well as my curiosity and interest in the workings and order of the natural world, ecology, and botany (blame those silly science classes I was forced to take as an English major in college).

This book is pretty much great – there’s no other way to put it. Pollan takes an interesting approach to plants and botany in this relatively short book, written before The Omnivore’s Dilemma made him mega-famous. He takes four very common, very well-known plants – the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato – and explores their lives in relation to humans and the history of human desire. These plants have been majorly impacted in a variety of ways via their interaction with society, whether it’s the happy marijuana plants that flourish under controlled grow lamps, to the changing face (and taste) of the American apple when put up against market demands, to the inconspicuous flower that inspired an economic meltdown.

What I found most interesting, though, was the discussion of who is using who. Given that we all accept the concept of natural and artificial selection, it’s easy to see how the American apple tree has evolved, based on which apples people like best. But just as plants produce colorful flowers in order to attract the bees they need to survive, couldn’t we also say that a flower like the tulip uses the whims of its human admirers in order to ensure its own survival? Plants bend to the whim of humans’ desire, but humans also help those self-same plants fulfill their own deepest desire – sexual reproduction.

This book explores this topic and more, while also diving deep into the interesting histories surrounding the four star plants. There’s a particularly hilarious anecdote about Pollan accidentally growing a giant marijuana plant. I also learned a heck of a lot about plants, human culture, and how we interact with the resources around us. It’s pretty much everything I could ask for in a fun non-fiction, science read – and by that, I mean pretty great.

cloudatlas

Cloud Atlas
By David Mitchell

  • Date Finished: July 14, 2015
  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Year: 2004
  • Project: Big Books Project
  • Reading List: Summer 2014
  • Grade: A
  • Thoughts upon reading:

I didn’t know what to expect from Cloud Atlas, although based on so many awe-struck, baffled reviews, I think I was expecting something incredibly complex and confusing, as well as something so densely written, I wouldn’t be able to see straight. Maybe Jonathan Franzen-like, or akin to David Foster Wallace.

I’m glad that initial impression was wrong . It did take me quite awhile to finish the book, although I attribute that to a big uptick at work, resulting in me forgoing my usual book at lunch. As I said above, stuff has been happening in recent weeks (a new kitten! house guests! a funeral! a high school reunion!), and coupled with the ten thousands things that need doing around here, I feel like I have less and less time to myself these days. No matter! I finished tonight, and I’m happy to report that despite a very slow start, things turned out awesome.

Cloud Atlas, as many reviewers and movie trailers will tell you, is a Russian nesting doll of a novel. The book follows six seemingly separate stories that take place on different continents and at vastly different places in time. The way David Mitchell structures this narrative is particularly fascinating, and if you’ve haven’t read it yet, I’ll leave that for you to discover. Cloud Atlas, however, is about more than that. It’s about the cyclical and repetitive nature of time. It’s about rebirth and souls moving through different times and places, only to fall for the same trappings of human nature again and again. It’s also a warning lesson, a story about what happens when humanity’s greed and selfishness is left unchecked over hundreds, if not thousands of years. It’s about the evolution of society, and the end of civilization as we know it.

I will say, it wasn’t until I was about halfway through the book – somewhere in the first Somni section – that I really started to get into it and understand the very subtle connections Mitchell was making. This book takes patience. I’ve read several bloggers who complain that they couldn’t get through the first 10 pages and put it down, never to try again. To that I say – I’m sorry for you. Slog through the first story of Adam Ewing as best you can, because once you really hit a groove with this book, it’s hard to put down.

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