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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.
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am 6. Januar 2000
I read Susan Orlean's excerpt in the NEW YORKER and rushed out to buy the book as I wanted to find out more about John Larouche "the orchid thief". I soon found out that all the "meat" of the story was in the NEW YORKER article and the book was nothing more than "bun". I wanted/hoped THE ORCHID THIEF to be a "juicy" tale of intrigue and adventure, but there's only a little of that in the book. Mostly we follow Ms. Orlean around Florida looking at orchids and talking to strange orchid growers. Many of her descriptions are breathtakingly beautiful and vivid, but as a STORY it really falls short. I was disappointed. (No wonder the writer who is adapting this for the screen struggled to adapt this work. I read he finally had to make up a story that really has nothing to do with the book because there isn't one within these pages.)
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am 21. Oktober 1999
Susan Orlean has really done it this time. She has written a book about, "passion itself, and the amazing lengths to which people will go to gratify it." Is it any wonder that her readers feel so passionately about this book. Many orchid experts find fault with the book's facts and criticize the lack of passion for orchids from Ms. Orlean while lovers of a good story and that crazy world known as south Florida rave about it. For my part, I enjoyed reading the Orchid Thief. It reads like a novel, so while I did notice a horticultural error or two myself, I was not reading it as a reference book, but for entertainment. I didn't find it to be quite the page turner I was expecting, but the characters are memorable, the stories are interesting and Ms. Orlean's writing is a pleasure. I am an amazon.com associate.
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am 17. Februar 2000
Yesterday I finished "The Orchid Thief." It was a wonderful read. I love that New Yorker style of just opening the trunk and letting the words pour out, like so much fresh pebbly concrete filling a new roadway of thought. Orlean is a clever writer, and she has more or less made a whole cloth out of a bunch of disparate unmattched pieces of old sheets, a literary quilt of remarkable symmetry considering her subjects and her point of view. I was not disappointed with the ending, as was a friend, because, let's face it, where else could the thing go? Larouche would not change, would continue a directionless enigma, and finding the Ghost Orchid would have weakened the ambient frustration of the work. I think I am perhaps a strange reader in some ways. I like this eclectic fabricating of a tale out of pieces that the non-creative mind might find disjointed, but, which, in developing a gestalt, all fall somehow magically into place. And, of course, it helps that I know virtually nothing about Florida and even less about orchids. Orlean's contrasts of the various shades of Florida ecology and sociology, mixed with the history of orchid mania (orchidomania for the Victorians, as I recall) made a powerful and nearly epic sweep of territory I was previously completely unfamiliar with, and she made the territory meaningful and important. I feel a whole new understanding of both Florida (a part of americana I have never really seen as anything more than a great retirement shed for the supernumerary members of our otherwise active culture), the importance of flora in not only the ecology but the economy of this amorphous state, and the epochal and historical forces driving the current landscape of sprawl, swamp, scheme, schlep, swindle, storm, scam, and survival, all within a context of ancient geology, enormous wealth (or wishes for wealth), improbable characters confronting improbable odds for the sake of greed driven by addiction to outrageous beauty and the drive for death defying adventure, all while the sleepy world of the suburb sits idly by, minding its own business and totally senseless to the great dramas playing themselves out within the morass of the undergrowth which harbors orchid, adventurer, horticultural maverik, and the whole host of necessary accompanying props and backdrops. It was a good read.
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am 27. Januar 1999
Book Review The Orchid Thief Susan Orlean Random House 1998 ISBN0-679-44739-3 $25.00
Please keep in mind the title and subject of this book as you read this review. The Orchid Thief 's subject is John Laroche, who was arrested and convicted of stealing native Florida orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve several years ago under the guise of working for the Seminole Indians.
The entire tone for the book is set by the cover illustration - an upside down Phalenopsis, and the title page of stylized Cymbidiums (?) and Cattleyas(?) - neither of which appear to be species and most certainly are not native to North America, let alone the Fakahatchee! This lack of attention to detail and concern for accuracy pervades the entire book. Although Ms. Orleans narrative is fascinating reading, she was sorely taken in by many of the people she interviewed and therefore comes up with some really unbelievable stories. In addition only about 25% of the book is about the title subject - the remainder is an indictment of the orchid community of south Florida. But that is not the concern of my review.
I am concerned with the scientific accuracy in dealing with the orchids and, more so, the intense maligning of the spectacular Fakahatchee Strand area. From the very beginning of misstating the number of species in the Orchidaceae as 60,000(!) - when in fact it is more closely 30,000, to her to misconception of what species are and how they relate to the entire hybrid scheme, Ms. Orlean totally lacks the basic botanical research for this book. And it is a book that purports to be about an intense botanical subject.
From the very basic of botanical etiquette that one does not name a new species after one's self - a new species is described not named; and the fact that the author of the species then chooses what or whom to name it after, to her lack of real experience in the Fakahatchee, which she describes as 'green hell'- primarily because she spent a bare minimum of time and saw next to nothing as she was 'taken for a ride' in the swamp goes to prove the lack of substantial research. Those of use who know the Fakahatchee know it to be just the opposite - an absolute paradise with an unending number of exciting and beautiful species. You may get a little hot or wet, but that is no price to pay for the result of a day in the swamp. It is unfortunate that Ms. Orlean felt the only flower of any beauty in the swamp was the elusive ghost orchid (Polyradicion lindenii) - even though she never did see one in flower. Had she spent more time in research she would have known that there are dozens of equally as beautiful orchids species and other flowers well distributed throughout the swamp. Her statistics for species of orchids and those, which are either restricted or endemic in the swamp, are totally off base. There are really on three species that have been found only in the Fakahatchee - Bulbophyllum pachyrhizum, Maxillaria parviflora and Epidendrum blancheanum. All others may be very restricted in their distribution or presently only known from the Fakahatchee, but they have been recorded from outside of the swamp over the past 100 or so years of botanical exploration in south Florida.
Perhaps the greatest injustice in the book is in the acknowledgments where Ms. Orlean credits the American Orchid Society for checking botanical accuracy - something she so obviously did not choose to use within the final text. If you like a fast-paced, sensational narrative you will find this book fascinating but do not expecting an accurate story about the Fakahatchee and it myriad of exciting orchids.
Paul Martin Brown Editor, North American Native Orchid Journal PO Box 772121 Ocala, FL 34477-2121 e-mail: naorchid@aol.com
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am 8. Juni 2000
The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orleans, discusses the case of John Laroche, a Florida man who was obsessed with orchids. Laroche took protected orchids out of the Fakahatchee Strand, an area of swamp in Florida. Orleans got to know Laroche and other orchid obsessives, and it's an interesting account of their world. Various shonky companies were responsible for the Florida land booms (and busts) which were the prelude to the govt's acquisition of the land of the Fakahatchee Strand. Plots of land were neatly subdivided but never inhabited, and perhaps the most compelling description, for me, was of the curious occurence of desolate suburban streets, complete with street signs, that cut through the wild landscape: a town with neither inhabitants nor homes, but streets maintained by an anonymous individual dubbed the "ghost grader."
There was just a *little* too much detailed description of the "amazing" Florida landscape for my liking, and of Orleans' personal distate when confronted with swamp; you feel like she's just trying to capture how icky it is, but after a while there's a bit of a "so what? it's swamp" effect. Her disappointment that she couldn't buy a diet soda at one remote store fails to pluck at your heartstrings (or mine, anyway). But she does give a really compelling history of the so-called orchidelirium that gripped the Victorians, of rather astounding orchid-collecting expeditions across the tropics, and of the orchid subculture.
Orleans describes Florida as a state under siege -- from water,from plunderers, from wild foliage. I enjoyed this book -- Orleans writes for the New Yorker, and it's like a New Yorker article that never ends, which is my idea of reading heaven.
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am 15. Januar 2000
I was actually a little disappointed with this book, having just read several rave reviews of it in the big year end "Best of"s in Time Magazine, the New York Times, and in one of the local papers here in Pittsburgh. Yet there are a lot of positive things that would make me lean toward recommending this book to someone else. It has several sections that really are fascinating and very well written, with the kind of attention to the minute details of real life that make non-fiction books like this so much fun to read. It also offers a pretty interesting glimpse into a world that most of us have never experienced or even heard about, namely that of Orchids and the men and women who live for them (sounds like a Jerry Springer Show topic, actually, and many of these people would fit right in on that show). It also includes a handful of completely off-kilter real life characters--ranging from a Seminole chief who plays rock and roll during the day and hunts endangered species at night to the main character, who begins the book as a free-lance (and semi-legal) botanist and ends the book as a purveyor of internet porn--who really jump off the page at you. And I always like those kinds of books that really draw you in to new worlds. In these aspects, the book really reminded me of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But having made that comparison, the book really does pale next to Midnight. Ms. Orlean never gets close enough to these people to really satisfy me and she never really dips deeper into their characters than to wonder at their slightly goofy, slighty compelling veneers. She even admits several times that she resisted getting too close to these people, as if they carried some kind of "orchid fever" that she could catch, eventually giving away all the orchids they gave her as presents and refusing to buy any at the shows she covered. Maybe if she had allowed herself to get imersed in the scene, then this would have been a better book. And my personal pet peeve: she repeats things--a lot. And not just once or twice, either. Some anecdotes, facts and stories are related three or four times, sometimes within pages of one another. I imagine this is because she was trying to flesh out what began as a magazine article into a full-length book, but there is a point in there where the editor definitely should have stepped in. So, overall, I can give a slight recommendation on the subject matter and a few very compelling passages alone. But my overall impression on finishing this book is that I find it very interesting that these people are spending their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and risking prison time to acquire and grow these beautiful plants, but I'm left thinking that the question of "Why?" should have been answered better.
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In her travels through the south of Florida, Susan Orlean sought out all the players in the orchid-collecting community. There was Henry Azadehdel, an Armenian plant fanatic and UFO scholar; Lee Moore the Adventurer, a former pre-Columbian art collector and smuggler, an anarchist and pot smoker; and Frank Smith, a successful connoisseur accused of stealing orchids from Bob Fuchs' award-winning collection. "I still considered Laroche and his schemes exceptional," Orlean explained, "But he had started to seem more like the endpoint in a continuum." The most entertaining parts of the book are when Orlean untangles the various feuds and historical quirks of the orchid world, making obscure connections and establishing ancient relationships, providing a wonderfully lucid picture of an elaborate social group.
Occasionally, Orlean employs rhetorical tricks or poetic flights of fancy, but for the most part, she retains a nonchalant deadpan. She writes unostentatious, factual prose that lets the ridiculousness of her subjects speak for themselves; showing great restraint, she never pauses to exclaim, "Can you believe these people?" The book lags only when she breaks with her light, breezy tone to philosophize about the American identity or about the lack of passion among young people; and some of her musings-like her point that Florida is a bold frontier, "as suggestible as someone under hypnosis"-are just bizarre. These analytic cameos are not her specialty and they seem needlessly tacked on. The strength of the book is the clarity of its storytelling and the author's witty, even-tempered voice.
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am 23. April 2000
I received this book 3rd hand (my apologies to the author)after the first two mature readers put it down after the first chapter. Based on the most recent reviews posted here, my friends were not alone in their disappointment. Perhaps out of selfish pride that I could read a book others found difficult, I persevered,even through some of the slower portions, reaching for the web of morals that inspired Ms. Orlean to write to such detail and span so many aspects of her topic.
I believe that the nugget of value to be extracted has two faces, both reveal (perhaps subconciously) her own personal traits. First, beyond the specific object of our obsessions, our interests are more personal and individual than shared. We are often driven by varyious substitution or deferred gratifications rather than a need to socialize. Thus, in the orchid arena, great conflicts arise over rights to judge in contests, theft is rampant, folks travel great distances and suffer severe discomfort to just see a specific orchid in bloom,etc. Thanks to the author's rigorous research and reporting, we're presented with a perspective over time and geography supporting more dissimilarities in personalities and motivations than congruences. Furthermore, with LaRoche as the primary example, the Orchid(and plantlife in general) is only the current placebo for the yearning, not the medication.
The second message implied is that despite her denial in the postlog comments (in the paperback version), Orchids are about sex. She claimed to be focusing on the relationship between the collectors and the flower but it is a (thin) metaphor for personal relationships, deep physical relations, of which she carefully skirted away. One comes away wondering, what is her personal life really like? It must be wanting. Thus, I rate this better than most other readers for the cerebral exercise and conceptual reward for perseverence.
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am 15. Januar 2000
As someone who has worked for almost forty years with others who have fought to save south Florida's western Everglades,I looked forward to this book. But Orlean simply doesn't get it. Her cartoon characterization of the Seminole people is worse than inaccurate, it is old-fashioned stereotyping at its worst. The author paid so little real attention to the swamp she claims to have struggled through that she doesn't even know where it is -- her description, 25 miles south of Naples, would place that ancient cypress forest squarely in the Gulf of Mexico. Orlean's historical research is more than sloppy: how could anyone take an old Spanish account of lobsters in Florida's coastal waters and then write that these salt-water creatures were native to an inland fresh-water forest?
Her discussion of more recent events is just as off base: Orlean's story of a would-be developer threatening violence against those who saved the Fakahatchee is actually (she correctly names the promoter's organization) about a man who threatened to kill me in a dispute over land no where near the Fakahatchee, in what is now the Big Cypress National Preserve. And the author doesn't even write accurately about Florida orchids (the Ghost orchid, for example is not as she claims found only in the Fakahatchee), much less the collectors who are obsessed by them. Orlean has skimmed very lightly through south Florida's rich cultural and natural history, and tossed what intrigued her into the Fakahatchee, a place that no reader will know much about after having read this book. Carl Hiassen's fiction is more accurate about people, places and events in south Florida than is this frothy and misleading book.
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