“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…” ” –Isaac Asimov
Review The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
1998, 282 pages, ***
For the Science Challenge and the Lit Flicks Challenge
WARNING – I suspect this will be a LOOoooonnng post and I’m just getting started. I’m wondering if I should do this in pieces/parts… Why am I telling you this?!?
I have been curious about this book ever since seeing Adaptation, a crazy nutty awesome movie (one of my very favorites) starring Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Nicholas Cage. I can only recommend this movie if you like the really strange ones. I have a crush on Charlie Kaufman. If you don’t know who he is, you probably won’t like him.
And, so I liked the book. I like the book especially because it really reinforces the theme of the film! [To me, the theme of the movie is that some books are impossible to adapt into a film…] The book is good but really should be considered a stand alone book that is mostly about flowers – and fascinating flowers they are! but not as a true ‘story source’ for the movie. It makes the movie hilarious! but it is not the movie in book form. And if you don’t get that, forget it. (I’m wasting my time, aren’t I? trying to explain this? the fun is you can’t explain it! you either get it or you don’t.)
Enough about the movie. But it’s great fun to read about John Laroche, the orchid thief that Susan Orlean uses as her subject for this nonfiction expose into the culture of orchid collectors. It was terrific to imagine Chris Cooper when I read this and thankfully, the book’s cover jacket has a photo of Susan Orlean so I could imagine her instead of Streep. Thankfully.
The writing style is engaging; she makes the subject very interesting. Lots of history on orchid hunting and the strange characters that found new species and the guys who hired them in order to add unique flowers to their collections. This could also be a book for the World Citizen challenge since they travel all over the world. I was also intrigued with the debate of whether or not delicate protected plants should be ‘rescued’ while jungles are being destroyed or if harvesting these precious specimens are part of the problem.
I wish this book had more pictures of the flowers…
The ghost orchid, polyrrhiza lindenii: This is what the author most hoped to see in her quest to write this book. She is very much a character in the story, as she pursues everything about orchids, learns more about Florida and attempts to discover what the passion is for this exotic plant. She wishes to know what makes some people have such passion, any passion.
A bromeliad: (there are many varieties but it so helps to have any image pop in my head when I read about them…)
The winner of the 1984 World Orchid Conference Best Orchid was the Vanda Deva Robert. This image pops up when you google for it:
This image of a child on a water lily ‘…became a photographic cliché.’ The few mentions of Joseph Paxton fascinated me and I will be reading more about him and his Crystal Palace* some day. Don’t you love when a book suggests something and off you skip to go learn more? Maybe that’s one of my thrills with reading nonfiction. People are so darn fascinating; I love history and architecture and … oh! lots of things!!
avuncular: Regarded as characteristic of an uncle, especially in benevolence or tolerance. (I always look up this word! When will I remember its definition already!?)
impecunious: hard up; not having enough money to pay for necessities
stupefaction: a feeling of stupefied astonishment (I know ‘stupified’ but something about this form of the word and how it was used, made me write it down…)
changeling: 1: a person of subnormal intelligence [syn: idiot, imbecile, cretin, moron, half-wit, retard] 2: a child secretly exchanged for another.
Passage from page 252:
… and I thought to myself: I am standing amid millions of dollars’ worth of flowers. I breathed in deep and held my breath while I swung my head so that the $4 million of flower colors smeared like lipstick. It was in the nature of Florida, this kind of abundance, the overrichness of living things – so many of everything that all of it blurs together and you have to decide whether to be a part of the blur or to be a distinct and separate being.
Finally, no, I will NOT be starting an orchid collection. I will avoid attending an orchid show no matter how much I think I want to go! However, I will admit, I do have a buried faded dream** of being a botanist…
OH! One of the quotes on the back of the book jacket is by Katherine Dunn! This excited me because her novel Geek Love was one of my favorites from 2008. I love it when I know one of the authors so featured and (maybe?) not many others do…
* Further reading: Kate Colquhoun – A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton
** and a photographer, an architect, a novelist, a college professor, an artist, a wealthy eccentric philanthropist, a retired US Senator, a greeting card designer, a quaint stationery shop proprietor, a travel guide…)