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Book Recommendations

Spotlight on: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Alternate Recommendation: The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

Keep up with previous recommendations or see what I'm reading now.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

[Amazon.co.uk] [Amazon.ca]
Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

I went into this book with the only information I had about orchids being what I had gleaned from reading Nero Wolfe mysteries. (Wolfe is a portly detective who keeps thousand of the flowers in a greenhouse on the roof of his brownstone.) In addition, the main reason I read the book in the first place was--like most people my age--because I really enjoyed the movie Adaptation, which, for the unfamiliar, is a comedic film about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's attempt to translate The Orchid Thief into cinematic form.

But a couple of things prepared me for what I was getting myself into. First, Adaptation does a good job of introducing the audience to the characters of Susan Orlean and John Laroche before it takes them in an entirely different direction in the last third. And second, my own bibliophilic tendencies well-prepared me for the orchid obsession described within the book's pages.

"John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth."

The first line of the book is one of those that could easily become a classic--a first line that, at the very least, will be included in one of those quizzes of first lines. It instantly describes the character 1 and puts you in a place where you are instantly familiar with him. (It is a testament to the moviemakers that they chose Chris Cooper for this role, who, like Laroche, is handsome--and became a sex symbol as a result of Adaptation--in spite of appearing in the film with no front teeth.)

(This keeps turning into the film review I thought I wasn't going to write, but I think I'll just go with it and see how it turns out. It does make sense that I would notice similarities and differences in the film and book, so we'll just see what happens.)

Orlean's prose is conversational and introspective. Like the film (there I go again!), the writer is really the main character here. She tells the story, and how the orchid obsession surrounding her affected her (for one thing, it made her fear contact with the flowers lest she become obsessed), and there are scenes where Laroche is not present, but never one where Orlean isn't. In the end, I was fascinated by Laroche, but I remained distant, as I was simply being told what things about him Orlean wanted me to know. However, Susan Orlean herself came through as a fully-realized character, with all her prejudices and motives intact.

The Orchid Thief is a quick read and I enjoyed every page. My only complaint is with the ending. Kaufman calls the book "sprawling New Yorker-type stuff" and it resembles that magazine's fiction choices in the infamous manner of them not having endings. The book simply stops. I was being carried along--and didn't notice how close I was to the end due to the Reading Group guide in the back--and then I felt dropped as Orlean ends her book without even having finished her current scene. It was as if she said, "282 pages, that's enough" and then hurried up to finish. She normally used the mechanism of "show, don't tell," but in order to wind it up quickly, she tells an event, that could have taken up another five or ten pages, in half a paragraph. It was jarring and didn't fit in with the tone of the rest of the book.

But, as I said, that is my only complain with a book that taught me a lot about flowers and about its author. I noticed that Orlean has written other books (some of which are in the column on the right), so I think I'll check some of those out.

Footnote (click back button to return to the main text):
1 Although "character" is perhaps incorrect, since the subjects are real people, I will continue to refer to them as such.

The Fencing Master by Arturo Pérez-Reverte Alternate Recommendation: Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Fencing Master

This choice was also inspired by a Nero Wolfe novel. After reading a couple that just didn't satisfy me, I picked up Over My Dead Body. As I said in my review of The Orchid Thief, Nero Wolfe is an orchid fancier. However, this book also focused on the world of fencing, when someone gets killed with a foil that had a col de mort added to the tip, making it penetrate the skin like a regular sword.

I already had The Fencing Master on my shelf after having loved Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas (which is about antiquarian book dealers, and is much better than The Ninth Gate, its film adaptation--despite the presence of Johnny Depp). So, after finishing The Orchid Thief, I picked it up to read as well. It's a story of mystery and intrigue involving Don Jaime Astarloa, the local fencing master, who lives in a reclusive mansion and concerns himself with little other than his chosen occupation.

That is, until a mysterious woman--Doña Adele de Otero--asks him to teach her his secret, unstoppable fencing thrust. Don Jaime is distraught. Teach a woman a gentleman's sport? Never! But she turns out to be quite proficient and he gives in, but not before he falls in love with her.

This sets into action a chain of events that will end up with at least two people dead before it is all worked out. Pérez-Reverte is excellent at this sort of intrigue and I was glued to every page, even as I was absorbing the art of fencing.

Now, due to reading The Fencing Master, I want to learn how to fence.

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Books by
This Month's
(and others)

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup by Susan Orlean
Adaptation: The Shooting Script by Charlie and Donald Kaufman
Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen
The Orchid by Mark Griffiths
Orchids: A Care Manual by Rittershausen and Rittershausen
A Practical Encyclopedia of Orchids by Rittershausen and Rittershausen
Over My Dead Body by Rex Stout, the inspiration for these reviews
The Fencing Master
The Club Dumas
The Flanders Panel
The Seville Communion
The Nautical Chart