Monday, February 25, 2013

The Orchid Thief Online Readalong: Week 2

The second section of The Orchid Thief takes the focus a little off John Laroche (which had to be a relief for the author as well as the reader) and places it squarely on Florida, specifically the Everglades. I often don't appreciate outsiders' descriptions and opinions on a place I know well (though Orlean has probably spent more time in the Everglades than I have).
She captures, I think, the transition most of us go through between the time when we first get a look at the Everglades ecosystem and find it daunting -- it's not exactly Yosemite -- and when we start to appreciate its strange beauty. And Orlean makes the connection between that landscape and her real subject -- obsession -- on page 109: "the sheer bigness of the world made me feel lonely to the bone. The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility."
The other major theme of this section was its focus on other orchid-obsessed people besides Laroche -- Mote and Fuchs and Smith. I imagine the purpose of that was to show that Laroche was not alone in his willingness to go to extremes in pursuit of orchid glory. I couldn't quite decide, however, whether this demonstrated that orchids make people a little nutty -- or just attract nutty people.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Orchid Thief Online Readalong: Week 1

First of all, if you're wondering what the heck is an online readalong, I'll refer you back to this post from last year. Please don't feel in any way pressured by the schedule. That's the beauty of this thing being online.
For the first section of the readalong, we read the first five chapters, or pages 1-85. Two elements really struck me on reading (or re-reading, since I read this book when it was first published back in 1998). The first was Florida and how well Susan Orlean describes it, both the place and its people. "There is something about Florida more seductive and inescapable than almost anywhere I've ever been," she writes. And she notes dryly, when discussing Laroche's court case, that "The state of Florida does incite people." I especially loved this line: "Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, and I have to start all over again."
The second thing that struck me about reading this passage was how this book isn't really about orchids or even about a particular orchid thief. It's about passion, or even obsession. I loved the historical sections about orchid collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when orchids were "a rich and romantic accessory, a polished little captive, a bit of wilderness under glass." Orlean acknowledges that it is this obsession, rather than orchids, that interests her about Laroche and his story. "I don't even especially like orchids," she writes. "What I wanted to see was this thing that people were drawn to in such a singular and powerful way." And while she doesn't feel the passion herself, she finds it fascinating in others: "Collecting can be a sort of love sickness. If you collect living things, you are pursuing something imperfectible, because even if you manage to find and possess the living things you want, there is no guarantee they won't die or change."
The link between these two topics -- Florida and obsession, specifically orchid obsession -- is John Laroche. The book opens with a physical description of him, though I was most taken with the nicknames bestowed on him by his employers in the Seminole Tribe: Troublemaker and Crazy White Man. Laroche himself explains what it's like to be an obsessive: "I'll see something and then suddenly I get that feeling. It's like I can't just have something -- I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it."
Things I'll be thinking about as I read the next section of the book (though you should feel free to comment on any aspect you like): What do we think of Laroche? Do we like him? Does he seem like a real guy? And why is it so important to him that his intelligence is recognized?