Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

International smuggling, a mentally-unbalanced genius, orchids, Seminoles and the Florida swamps -- The Orchid Thief covers a lot of ground, but it's mainly about people and their peculiar passions.
Photo of ghost orchid by Mick Fournier
HBI Producers of Fine Orchids
John Laroche first came to New York journalist Susan Orlean's attention because of a small news item about plant poaching in Florida's Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Laroche wasn't the only orchid collector Orlean met who she would describe as having an "air of benign derangement."

 The kooky orchid enthusiasts are portrayed sympathetically. Orlean developed a passion of her own: she wanted to see a ghost orchid in bloom. She was willing to hike for miles through mucky swamp water up to her waist, hoping for a glimpse. Like Orlean, I've experienced that "time spent in a greenhouse had a rare shapeless quality." I could totally identify with Laroche's approach to gardening. He said things like "I'm a plant. Why would I want rough bark instead of smooth bark? Why would I want wide leaves instead of narrow leaves?"

Orchid I saw in the Royal Botanic
Garden in Belgium, July 2011

I listened to a Random House Audible production (9 hours) with Jennifer Jay Myers narrating. Orlean has written in first person and I had to remind myself several times that Myers was not Orlean, since I found Myers' voice irritating. She's overly dramatic in her pronunciation: "I HATE hiking with CONvicts armed with maCHEtes." "THEN I heard about SNAKE boy, who LIVES in his little SHACK surrounded by REPTILES and BUGS." (Every time Myers said "bugs" it was more like "buuuugs.") It didn't hinder my enjoyment by much, but I hope to never listen to another book narrated by Myers.

The movie made about the book -- Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze -- appears to bear little relation to Orlean's story. If you've watched the movie, don't expect to find a love affair between Laroche and Orlean in the book. There's no illicit drug made from rare orchids, either. But there's a whole bunch of other great (and funny) stuff.

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