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A Conversational Review: The Orchid Thief

the orchid thiefWay, way back in April I gave away a copy of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, along with the chance to read the book along with me. The winner was Nicole from Linus’s Blanket, so starting in June Nicole and I e-mailed back and forth talking about the book. I managed to lose track of our e-mails and didn’t realize it until last week when I took an assessment of my unreviewed books.

If you don’t know what The Orchid Thief is about, the summary on Wikipedia is decent (and short), or you can read a short description on Susan Orlean’s website.

The conversation we had was awesome (despite me losing track of it), so I’m excited to share our thoughts on this excellent book. The answers go in and back and forth Q&A, so enjoy!

Kim: What were your initial thoughts after you finished the book?

Nicole: I don’t know. This book is kind of difficult for me to sort through because I have such a wide variety of reactions to it. I had heard about the movie way before I knew that it was a book or based on the making of a book or however that works out. I think it was something that my mother had seen and said was good and I never saw it or knew about the book until you mentioned it.

I think there parts the I really loved about this book. I love the way Susan writes and I loved the little Q & A that she does in the beginning of the book. The world of orchids is new to me. I’m not that into flowers in general and I can barely identify an orchid even after studying the one on the cover of this book, but I was so interested in reading it because people are so taken with these flowers that they will go to such dramatic lengths to obtain and to breed them. I wasn’t disappointed by these fascinating stories.

What made it a little strange is I don’t know that I have read a book where a journalist inserts herself into the story in this way. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her presence and her interaction with John Laroche. Maybe it was because he was so passionate, as were all the other orchid chasers, but the contrast between them made me wonder why she was there. It’s not exactly her memoir, but maybe in a sense it is since she is documenting her experience. specially in the beginning I just wondered what drew her and made her go to the lengths that she did to tell this story.

Nicole: What were your thoughts along the way? I always found myself wanting to ask you about things because you have a journalistic perspective. What did you think of Susan’s place in the story?

Kim: Good question! I actually felt like Susan’s place in the story was appropriate for the story she decided to tell. I mean, ultimately I don’t think this is a book about orchids — I think it’s a book about passions and pursuing those passions as far as you can go. Susan sets herself up as almost an opposite to the people she’s profiling because she characterizes herself as a person without a grand passion.

My favorite quote from the book is one that addresses this topic, actually. She says something to the effect of, “I suppose I do have one unembarrassed passion. I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.” What I think this shows is that writing this book, discovering these people and this niche, is what she’s really passionate about, and so including herself in the reporting of this story is also a story about how she goes about trying to follow her passion.

From a journalist’s perspective, I like when reporters put themselves in stories like this. I think straight journalism, where journalists pretend not to have opinions and be completely objective, is problematic because everyone has an opinion. At least when journalists are truthful about the perspective they come from you can make an assessment for yourself about whether to trust them and how to interpret the characters you read about. It’s not a technique that happens in nonfiction a lot, but it’s one I actually like.

Kim: I’m curious about your mention of the book versus the movie (Adaptation). One of the questions I got asked for Weekly Geeks 22 was how do the two compare, so do you want to answer that? How does the movie derive from the book?

adaptationNicole: I didn’t actually see the movie, but my mom saw it and recommended it. I remember thinking that it looked pretty bizarre at the time and I guess I can see that now after reading about some of the “characters” that were introduced in this book. Depending on when you want to post this I am curious too as to what a comparison would be like so I have ordered this from Netflix.

I see your point about her place in the story and I might even agree with it but her lack of passion, even though it might have been a purposeful statement that she was making, was distracting for me because I just kept wanting to shake her and ask her why she even cared to be there. Of course there are probably many journalists who are just along for the ride when they are working on stories — in fact it’s probably the norm, and journalism by its very nature is supposed to be dispassionate and observant. So it’s just me wanting more from/for her.

Reading this was interesting in so many ways, and speaking of the movie… I love the way that she kicked off the book with an interview of herself and talked a bit about her reluctance to appear in the movie as a character Susan Orlean among other things. She shows a bit of her personality, humor and who we’ll be dealing with and was very engaging. It was interesting to see how she presented in that self-interview and then to see how she presented during the book. I have to say again that I was just loved her writing and humor about her situations and the people that she met had me laughing thorough out.

Kim: I agree completely! The opening interview was very, very funny. I’ve been following her on Twitter (@susanorlean) and I feel like the sense of humor is genuine, which I love.

Thanks for taking the time to read our review, and an even bigger thanks to Nicole for putting up with my inconsistent e-mailing and forgetful nature. Stop by Linus’s Blanket and let her know how great she is!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Carrie November 25, 2009, 12:23 pm

    i might have to grab this one from the library. my mom and i went on a roadtrip in the spring and she doesn’t really know how to load stuff onto her ipod so she had brought only part of the audio book for us to listen too. the beginning was great but then i forgot about finishing it until now. i think it’s time.

    • Kim November 27, 2009, 4:19 pm

      Carrie: That’s funny! It’s a quick book to read, so you should finish it up in no time.

  • Marie November 25, 2009, 1:46 pm

    I love this conversation- I love the back and forth about the book- it’s such a creative idea for a post. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    • Kim November 27, 2009, 4:20 pm

      Marie: Thanks! It was fun to try and simulate a conversation about books even if we can’t be face to face.

  • Amy November 25, 2009, 1:55 pm

    This is a great way to review the book. I loved your conversation, it’s nice to get both your perspectives on the book. I saw “Adaptation” when it came out in the theaters. It’s a wonderful movie, definitely worth seeing. I always meant to read the book after some time passed but I just forgot. Thank you for the reminder! I’m happy to learn that the book is one I should read. The passions quote is wonderful. The movie is about passions too and wanting to be passionate about something or someone. The movie is also very funny in some parts.

    • Kim November 27, 2009, 4:20 pm

      Amy: I love the passions quote. It’s one of my all-time favorites. I watched Adaptation a really, really long time ago and would like to see it again sometime.

  • Care November 26, 2009, 7:43 am

    Wonderful discussion. I enjoyed the book; I enjoy NF books that involve the writer and the process of how the book was written. In fact, your discussion here mirrors how the screenwriter inserted himself into the process of adapting this book into a movie. I mean, it’s more of an ‘inspired by’ than an adaption, don’t you think?

    • Kim November 27, 2009, 4:22 pm

      Care: I love seeing the process of writing a nonfiction book. I know some people don’t like to have the author in the book, but I always like it. It’s almost like being a voyeur into the process. And yeah, the way Kaufman put himself into the story was very cool — it sort of mirrors some of what Orlean did in her story which is fascinating too.

  • JaneGS November 30, 2009, 9:01 pm

    Interesting way to review a book! I loved The Orchid Thief and loathed Adaptation. After listening to the book a few years ago (pre-blog era), I bought a couple of orchids in bloom. One has even bloomed again since I bought it. I found the book is a perfect way to immerse myself in a subculture without actually having to abandon everything else that I care about. Fascinating world, that of the orchid obsessed!

    • Kim December 1, 2009, 6:42 pm

      JaneGS: Wow, congrats on your orchids! I sort of wanted one as I was reading the book, but then took a look to the sad, pathetic bamboo plant on my desk and realized I’d probably kill an orchid before it ever bloomed!

  • Jeanne December 2, 2009, 5:06 pm

    I enjoyed both the book and the movie, but they’re very different. The movie-makers were interested in only a few aspects of the story. I thought that if you took the movie on its own terms (e.g. didn’t expect it to be like the book), it was well worth watching.

    • Kim December 3, 2009, 3:51 pm

      Jeanne: Yeah, they are very different. They’re different enough that having read the book or not before watching the movie is pretty much irrelevant. Kaufman picks up on a few of the themes from the book, but more about the challenges of adaptation and writing than the orchid stuff. I guess the passion theme comes through too, although it’s been so long since I saw the movie I can’t remember for sure.