I ate up the parts of this book that were about giant trees and the process of cloning and saving them. But the story veers off into the weeds with thI ate up the parts of this book that were about giant trees and the process of cloning and saving them. But the story veers off into the weeds with the author's credulous stories of everything from near-death experiences to psychic tree dowsers and even a massage from a squirrel. (Oh, and water has memory.) His science reporting exhibits the same flaws I see in so much reporting -- a lack of context and perspective, whether that’s reporting hard numbers or vague claims. Stories that happened to a single person are hard to separate from studies that actually examine things scientifically. The main criteria for inclusion seems to be that the story have something nice to say about the power of trees and forests. So I'm left treating the new things I encountered with more than a little skepticism. It sure would be nice to know if trees really do exude chemicals that make people and animals more healthy, and whether the salycilates released by willows actually make the fish and animals healthier around the trees. It seems like he’s made the case that forests along the shore make for better fisheries (“When Forests Disappear the Se Dies”) – but once you’ve lost my scientific trust, it’s hard for me to know how much to believe. So the story has to stand without the science. Luckily, it does. The quest to clone the biggest trees is magnificent and quixotic, not based entirely on science but neither is it just the feverish dream of a mystic. To plant a tree is a noble thing that doesn't have to be scientific, exactly: as W. S. Merwin wrote, "On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.' The stories of the various hunts for the biggest trees, the tragic end of so many wonderful trees, the triumphs and the personality of David Millarch – these make the book worth reading and will stick with me for years, perhaps forever. ...more
A phrase I hear often in Nigeria is idea l’a need. It means “all we need is the general idea or conce
Near the end of this slight book, Teju Cole says
A phrase I hear often in Nigeria is idea l’a need. It means “all we need is the general idea or concept.” People say this in different situations. It is a way of saying: that’s good enough, there’s no need to get bogged down in details. I hear it time and again. After the electrician installs an antenna and all we get is unclear reception of one station, CNN, instead of the thirty pristine stations we had been promised, the reaction isn’t that he has done an incomplete job. It is, rather: we’ll make do, after all idea l’a need. Why bother with sharp reception when you can have snowy reception? And once, driving in t town with one of the school drivers, I discover that the latch for the seat belt is broken. Oh, pull it across your chest and sit on the buckle, he say, idea l’a need. Safety is not the point. The semblance of safety is what we were after.”
That sums up this book well enough. Reading it doesn’t give you a clear picture of the country or the protagonist, but your feel oddly comfortable that you’ve got idea l’a need. Not that it’s as unclear as that makes it out, but it is an oblique view – a fictionalized version of the (one must assume) real journal of a young man who has been long outside the country and seems to be struggling to make a good impression on the reader, while also struggling to understand ‘his’ country when both he and it have changed over the years. How can we get a clear picture from all that?
But we feel like we do get the general idea. We can tell that the narrator is only pretending to try to decide if he will return to Nigeria and write, we grasp his desire for his country to succeed and we get a feeling for the chaos that lies always just a few steps away. We see the huge contrasts and contradictions in everyday life for both rich and poor.
We read of the thugs pacing like jackals as they prevent the contents –including a car-- of a container from America and we feel that we are reading some kind of truth.
Some stories are told as they were heard, adding one more transformation from the ultimate truth. But yet, again, we feel that there is truth here. Perhaps Uncle Bello, accosted for money and then threatened by a man on an overpass when he didn’t pay enough really did turn the tables on him and suggest that he was someone to be feared, reducing the bribe required.
--Waste me? Waste me? Are your eyes functioning? Look at me very well before you say another word. You don’t recognize me? I will injure you, I will kill you. Do you know who you are talking to? Ehn? Do you know me?
…all the while quaking in his shoes. Or maybe he didn’t, and this is the story he tells to make himself feel better. The narrator accepts it at face value and whether we do or not, we accept that life in Nigeria is filled with this kind of stress, we feel that we understand it.
This is a book worth reading with the right expectations. There’s no plot, there’s no resolution – it feels like a series of well-edited blog posts. In fact, I didn’t realize it was fiction until after I finished. But there are moments, more than a few, that leave you feeling like you have in some small way, got a very clear picture of a small event that somehow gives you the idea l’a need.