The Overstory

Narrated by: Suzanne Toren
Length: 22 hrs and 58 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (5,061 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2019

A monumental novel about reimagining our place in the living world, by one of our most "prodigiously talented" novelists (New York Times Book Review).

The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable that range from antebellum New York to the late 20th-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

An air force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits 100 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 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. There is a world alongside ours - vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

©2018 Richard Powers (P)2018 Recorded Books

Featured Article: How to Celebrate Earth Day in Your New Normal


What a time for a golden anniversary. Celebrated annually since 1970, Earth Day commemorates its 50th year of existence as the world faces an unprecedented global crisis. While this particular Earth Day won't be filled with parades, communal beach cleanups, and school field trips to plant trees, fear not: when there's a will to honor the environment, there's a way. Inspire your inner environmentalist by listening to some of our favorite earth-loving audio.

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Mind blowing

If we could send one book into orbit to tell whomever else it out there who we are (or were) and why we messed things up so badly, this one might be it. One of the best pieces of fiction I've ever read. Highly recommended.

121 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Great book, iffy narration

Great story, mostly good performance, but the narrator does an excruciatingly cringe-inducing "deaf accent" for one character as well as a very poor Chinese accent. This book would have been an ideal candidate for a multi-cast narration.

81 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Could Not Stay With Narration

I think this book would be better of read rather than listened to. It's a rich and interesting story but also detailed with lots of pieces that fit together. I love interweaving of trees and humans. Life. But the narrator's lilting voice, while pleasant, either puts me to sleep or leaves mind open to distraction. I just can't stay focused on the story because I drift off. I'm not half-way through it and have just decided to give up. The story is great but the performance kinda ruined it for me.

146 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

eye opening

I'm a fuel guzzling truck driver but this book made me wanna pull my semi to the side of the road And hug a tree

499 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Astonishingly powerful writing.

Where does The Overstory rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

It’s up there with the top three.

Did the plot keep you on the edge of your seat? How?

As a book of short stories some resonate more than others. HOWEVER, you would just listen for the exquisitely skillful writing, it’s really quite beautiful.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No. Well yes, I wanted to but the beauty of the short story is you can try them on in different moods, times of day, it’s in bite size pieces. There is an overarching narrative where each story reveals its connection to its neighbors. But, the skill of the writer is such that the spirit of each tale stays with you. You can stop and start and never risk missing the culmination. Most impressive book I’ve read in the past year, maybe longer.

166 people found this helpful

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Awe-inspiring writing but annoying narration

The writing: an exciting story interwoven with fascinating, true science about nature. An urgently important perspective. I felt elevated to another plane with a different sense of scale and time.

The audiobook: the narrator over-does it with the ethnic accents and a main character’s speech impediment. All the men’s voices are raspy and brash; all the women’s voices are lilting and soft. It gets a bit annoying once you notice that her voices are so stereotyped; I would have preferred a more subtle performance. So I’ll be (re?)reading the text to fully enjoy the book.

82 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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A Masterpiece

Now THIS is a book.

I read this epic, stunning novel right after finishing two other very-hyped novels that just didn't deliver (Washington Black and Asymmetry.) It was a good reminder that publicity for new fiction is not always proportionate to that magical combo, story quality plus writing.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers scratches every possible itch a demanding reader might bring.

-Imaginative story that a regular person couldn't possibly have invented? Check.
-Superb character development with a cast of believable, fully-drawn characters, each able to inspire feelings in the reader? Check.
-Character arcs that lead the main characters through real change and development? Check - and not for one protagonist but for a whole troupe of interesting characters, each with their own arc, all intertwined. The partially-deaf scientist, a lonely soul ahead of her time. The half-Chinese executive with millions of dollars of undiscovered art on her walls. The artist descendant of an Iowa farm family and a chestnut tree. The college girl who can speak to trees after she's electrocuted. The psychologist with asperger's who becomes a reluctant activist. The Vietnam vet who becomes a drifter for positive change. The flower children amateur thespians who survive every challenge to create a perfect marriage.
-Perfectly crafted language that makes the reading experience special without ever neglecting to be in service of the narrative? Check.
-A narrative structure that mirrors the books key themes. Check. Powers' story starts at the roots, the story nutrients flowing upward and branching outward until all of the disparate parts that appeared as though they could never be related are integrated into a full ecosystem. Brilliant
-A highly entertaining, can't-wait-for-the-next-page experience that also has something profound to say about the human condition in general? Check. Check. Check.

And for lagniappe, Powers also delivers us characters that aren't even human: Trees, unique characters by species, many individuals with their own hero's journey. Forests, interdependent neural systems that act and react with each other and the insatiable human consumption all around them.

It's all completely believable, totally current. There's no science fiction or speculative fiction in this book - just a contemporary novel that takes all sentient beings into consideration rather than humanity's usual, navel-gazing focus on just ourselves.

The Overstory leaves the reader pondering a bunch of interesting questions. What if we could harness the powerful logarithms behind Facebook and Google to drive behavior change for a healthier planet instead of driving consumption? What if humans could rediscover the skills our ancestors had to communicate in interdependence with nature? What are the opportunities and limits that an individual scientist, artist, empath, tech guru, warrior can bring to create systemic change?

One of this book's gifts I'm especially grateful for is that although it deals with an overwhelming and deeply distressing subject - the impact of humanity's expansive consumption on our biome - Powers does not collapse into the easy lure of dystopia. I'm so tired of all these authors dressing up in black and painting clever, apocalyptic visions of the near future. Powers instead rolls up his sleeves and creates something beautiful. He is not naive about the challenges ahead of us, and he doesn't spare the reader from real tragedy when it's warranted. But at the end, the reader remembers the beauty and takes away inspiration.

Read this book. You'll never look at a tree the same way again.

A note on the narration: Suzanne Toren does a decent job, but I wasn't fully on board with her choice to use accents and a speech impediment for particular characters.

45 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Loved the first half, struggled with the second

The first 12 hours or so of this book were marvelous. I loved learning about trees and their meaning to us and the world around us, by following 7 (think...) storylines and their interaction with trees. One note was I wished this story could have taken place all over the world instead of just the United States, I feel like that would have been really empowering. One of my favorite parts was learning about a Banyan tree in Laos, however we were only there momentarily because an American pilot fell out of a plane.

If the book had ended around the middle mark - as seven short stories of people learning how amazing trees can be - it would have been one of my favorite reads in awhile. It did not. It kept going, and going, and going. The group of characters whose stories intertwined became less and less realistic, their decisions and relationships with each other became so entirely un-human that I couldn't really take any of them seriously. Eventually most of them started truly irritating me. I think this was in part due to the narrators voices for all the characters, while the distinction between each was good, I began associating my distaste for them every time she would speak in their tone.

The last 7 hours were brutal. Not only because I had started to truly despise half the characters, but I also started to hate myself and all of mankind. I think this was probably the point but the author kept repeating several lines so often that I began to roll my eyes. Yes, I get it, we are destroying the planet by cutting down trees. Yes, I get it, humans are ruining everything. Yes, I get it, humans are hopeless. The end didn't really leave me with much other than being relieved at its being over.

The one thing I will say is that we (humans) are remarkable creatures too and are capable of doing amazing things, and it's time we put that power and creativity to good use and save our home. I think mankind is capable of living in a sustainable world, we just need to pull our heads out of our butts and make it happen. I wish this book could have given us a little more of that instead of the nothing that 'we will destroy our ability to live on this planet, and then we will be gone and the planet will be better for it.'

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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We Are a Part of Nature

This majestic novel reminds us that we are not apart from Nature but are a part of Nature, and our survival may depend on our collective realization of that reality. Divided into four parts: Roots (which introduces the nine main characters), Trunk (which shows how the characters are related to one another, although several never actually meet), Crown (which catches up with the characters 20 years later), and Seeds (which shows you how each ends up). Powers creates a group of lively and believable characters, most born in the '50s and '60s, who emerge slowly and lushly over time, much like a stand of trees.

Perhaps the most interesting and riveting of characters is Dr. Patricia Westerford who conducts original research proving that trees are social creatures that "must have evolved ways to synchronize with each other." Rejected and ridiculed by the scientific establishment, she leaves academia to become forest ranger. Another character Adam Appich, a grad student in psychology, also fascinated me. He discovers that "humans need good stories to be persuaded by scientists' alarms." Late in the novel he concludes, "Humankind is deeply ill. The species won't last long. It was an aberrant experiment." I am not, however, certain that that is Powers' opinion.

While listening to "The Overstory," I felt the spirits of Thoreau and Muir nearby. Also nearly were: James Lovelock whose Gaia hypothesis postulates that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system, Donald Peattie's "Natural History of North American Trees," and German forester Peter Wohlleben's "The Hidden Life of Trees." It is interesting that Patricia Westerford shares the same initials as Peter Wohlleben.

This is one of Powers' finest works. I heartily recommend it to those who love Nature, especially trees and forests, and are worried about the fragile state of the environment around the world. This novel will draw you deeper and deeper into that complex, shimmering and often invisible world.

Finally, the Audible narrator Suzanne Toren is superb. A great novel requires a great narrator. Toren fits the bill. She brings "The Overstory" to life.

94 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Brilliant, life-changing

I seldom write reviews, and I very rarely give Five Stars, much less three of them. For me, a book has to be brilliantly written and address real issues of human life amidst the changes of world or planetary history. This has those traits. The last book I rated this highly was "The Book Thief," several years back. This book has me seeing trees differently, seeing our present dilemmas differently, and wondering on about the richly drawn characters Powers offers us. Suzanne Toren delivers a performance of a lifetime as the many individuals who make up this story, voicing them with a sympathy and knowledge of the character's traits that I doubt could be equalled. Bravo! and Brava! to author and narrator.

73 people found this helpful