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An engaging PEEK...
am 27. Januar 2000
First, a few caveats (it's always best to be up-front about ones biases and assumptions): 1) I haven't read Ms. Orlean's 'New Yorker' article, so I have no basis of comparison between it and this book. 2) I have never lived in South Florida, and have only visited Miami Beach twice, so my ability to say what is "true" about Florida's history and culture is somewhat limited and I won't even bother to attempt to verify any of Ms. Orlean's assertions. Fact - or slightly modified fact - I don't know...
That being said, this book is a very enjoyable, engaging read. No, it does not have a particularly suspenseful or intriguing STORYline, especially if what you're looking for is an amazing-but-true mystery with high drama and a surprise ending. The author says, from the beginning, that she can only deal in the facts of the case - if she wants to keep this a non-fiction book, she's limited by real events. What she does, very successfully, however, is reveal the fascinating world of obsession and collecting - in this case, for a particular form of plant.
And she does this with amazing ease and grace. Like her guides in the swamps, Ms. Orlean takes us through lessons in history, evolution, geology and botany - subjects which could be incredibly dry in someone else's hands - and connects them neatly with her incredible descriptions of current orchid mania - the characters, the controversies, and the competition. Her ability to make those connections allows the reader to take a step further, and make their own, outside of what she has written. I constantly found myself saying, "Oh my, that's the (explorer/patron/flower) that (did this/went there/made that)." Personally, I love that - the making of connections, between what the author shows and the reader already knows. That's when you get grabbed by what you're reading.
And, again, the author's style is very engaging. Sure, she may repeat a fact once in a while, but that's only to reinforce the information she's given you about a set of fairly complex subjects - at least for the average reader (me). She takes you through her history lessons and personal experiences with arch wit and subtle humor (quote - somewhat bastardized: "I hate being in a swamp with machete-wielding convicts.") Some prefer anonymous journalism; Ms. Orlean injects her own experiences and thoughts into the story with a complete rejection of false objectivity; she's there, she's experiencing this, and the story is as much about her own voyage as anyone else's.
Bottom-line? A very enjoyable book. Take it for what it is - I don't think the author has served it to us with any pretenses, so we shouldn't take it that way.