The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Info

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK
TIMES
NOTABLE BOOK

 
A modern classic of personal
journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly
funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined
to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza
lindenii—
a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named
John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s
strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and
beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice
who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have
more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of
passion.
 
In this new edition, coming fifteen years after
its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the
“orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world,
and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film
Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.
Look for
special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for
author chats and more.

 
Praise for The Orchid
Thief

 
“Stylishly written,
whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy . . .
The Orchid Thief shows [Orlean’s] gifts in full
bloom.”The New York Times Book Review

 
“Fascinating . . . an engrossing journey [full] of
theft, hatred, greed, jealousy, madness, and
backstabbing.”Los Angeles Times

 
“Orlean’s snapshot-vivid, pitch-perfect
prose . . . is fast becoming one of our national
treasures.”The Washington Post Book World

 
“Orlean’s gifts [are] her ear for the
self-skewing dialogue, her eye for the incongruous, convincing detail,
and her Didion-like deftness in description.”Boston
Sunday Globe

 
“A swashbuckling piece of
reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America
great.”The Wall Street Journal

Average Ratings and Reviews
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3.60

13732 Ratings

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Ratings and Reviews From Market


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Reviews for The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle):

4

Mar 16, 2008

Number one: don't judge this book by the movie Adaptation, which is not a screenplay of the book, but rather a screenplay that contains pieces of the book.
Number two, my favorite quote: "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 Number one: don't judge this book by the movie Adaptation, which is not a screenplay of the book, but rather a screenplay that contains pieces of the book.
Number two, my favorite quote: "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." ...more
3

Nov 02, 2019

Last year I read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library. I found it well done and was able to read it over the better part of a day. I was curious to read more of Orlean’s books, but most of the subject matter was not appealing to me, so I settled on an early work of hers, The Orchid Thief. Later made into a movie called Adaptation, the Orchid Thief takes readers on a journey through a Florida sub-culture of exotic plants. With the weather growing Last year I read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library. I found it well done and was able to read it over the better part of a day. I was curious to read more of Orlean’s books, but most of the subject matter was not appealing to me, so I settled on an early work of hers, The Orchid Thief. Later made into a movie called Adaptation, the Orchid Thief takes readers on a journey through a Florida sub-culture of exotic plants. With the weather growing colder, I figured it was as good a time as any to immerse myself in a book about tropical flowering plants.

Orlean worked as a New Yorker staff writer prior to the publication of her first book. She had been assigned to write a feature story about John LaRoche of Florida, an intriguing man who at the time was obsessed with orchids. Orchids are older than the dinosaurs and do not die. They take seven years to grow and are among the most fragile flowers in the world. Some orchids only bloom for a few hours a year, which makes peoples’ obsession with them that much more alluring. LaRoche had been hired by the Seminole nation of Florida to start a plant nursery. The Seminoles desired a basic gardening center where people could by Christmas trees and simple potted plants. LaRoche thought big, and by big he meant orchids. His dream was to obtain the rarest of orchids and clone them in a green house, making him the owner of the most coveted of orchids in the world, the ghost orchid. This plan appeared to be a grandiose scheme and would benefit the Seminoles financially, until LaRoche got caught stealing ghost orchids from a state park.

LaRoche and his three Seminole accomplices got off on a technicality protecting Native American ways of life in Florida. The court case is discussed for less than a chapter because there was not enough evidence to either convict or acquit LaRoche, so the orchid theft became a mistrial. The Seminole nation decided to let him go due to the negative publicity, and LaRoche turned to web design in the early days of the internet. Orlean did not have enough material to write a book on just LaRoche’s schemes, so she turned to the subculture of Florida orchid growers, who have been cultivating new species of flowers since the birth of the state itself. When Orlean had been assigned to write about LaRoche, the state was still recovering from Hurricane Andrew yet was primed to celebrate Miami’s centennial. Orchid growers from around the state vied to outdo each other as they prepared to host orchid enthusiasts from around the world at an international orchid show in Miami’s convention center.

Orlean introduces readers to orchid pioneers Bob Fuchs, Tom Fennell, and Martin Motes. The Fuchs and Fennell families were among the earliest in Miami and lived in south Florida when it was mainly swamp land. As one who has spent much time in Florida, I found the sections explaining how south Florida grew from swamp to metropolis the most interesting. New settlers to Florida could dredge a swamp in a matter of minutes, creating subdivisions, roads, and any community based center in between. This came at the expense of Florida wildlife, especially the Florida panther which is now endangered. At the time of this book’s publication, there were only thirty panthers left in the wild. Relegated to the Everglades and other swamps like the Fakahatchee, it is unclear whether the panther will survive. Yet, orchid enthusiasts like Fuchs, Fennell, and LaRoche continued to plunder swamps for orchids, determined to outdo themselves in hybridization of the flower in attempts to produce the showiest display at orchid growers conventions. His pursuit of the ghost orchid let LaRoche away from orchids, but Fuchs and Fennell continue to run outlandish nurseries, home to hundreds of thousands of orchids, some worth thousands of dollars.

Susan Orlean never saw a ghost orchid in bloom while researching her book. She found in John LaRoche an intriguing person who moved from one obsession to another. While his life did not provide her enough material for a book, it lead her to orchid growers around south Florida, each with an intriguing backstory to tell. I am convinced that the Orchid Thief would have been better conceived if it remained as a magazine article focusing on John LaRoche and his orchid obsession. Critics enjoyed the book and it was later made into a movie called Adaptation. As much as I like Florida weather, I am fearful of alligators in the swamps so I think I’ll pass. As this was one of Orlean’s earlier books and I’ve seen how she’s progressed in her career, I will give her the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully the next book of hers that I read will be a tad more enjoyable.

3 stars ...more
2

Nov 26, 2017

This was originally a piece for The New Yorker, and I think it should've stayed that way. It had its interesting moments but felt a bit bloated and directionless at times. I was expecting something more narrative-based and eccentric like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Instead every chapter just sort of felt like an essay about something related to the orchid industry, with a very small throughline about John Laroche. 2.5 stars
3

May 30, 2008

From Investigation, through Article, to Book

This is based on Susan Orelan’s journalistic research in the early 1990s of the orchid obsessive John Laroche, the Seminole tribe he collaborated with, and of orchid collectors and breeders generally. The main plot concerns somewhat inept attempts to steal and clone rare Ghost Orchids to sell on.


Image: Dendrophylax lindenii, the ghost orchid, from Wikipedia

Orlean originally published the story as an article in the New Yorker, but later extended it to From Investigation, through Article, to Book

This is based on Susan Orelan’s journalistic research in the early 1990s of the orchid obsessive John Laroche, the Seminole tribe he collaborated with, and of orchid collectors and breeders generally. The main plot concerns somewhat inept attempts to steal and clone rare Ghost Orchids to sell on.


Image: Dendrophylax lindenii, the ghost orchid, from Wikipedia

Orlean originally published the story as an article in the New Yorker, but later extended it to this. The result reads more like a disjointed collection of vaguely related essays than a coherent book.

There is some interesting biology and history of orchids, but there is more esoteric detail about Florida land reclamation, Seminole Indian history, and property scams than is necessary for the Laroche orchid story.

On Screen


Image: DVD cover

I suspect I gave the book 3* because I adored Charlie Kaufman's very creative 2002 adaptation, titled (not very creatively) Adaptation. I saw that before reading the book.

Kaufman originally planned to make a film of the book, but struggled, on and off, over many years. So he combined the two: a film that has Charlie, in collaboration with his (fictional) twin brother, struggling to write a screenplay of Orlean’s book, intercut with the story Orlean wrote about. And for good measure, he adds a fictitious postscript!

Stars include Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Tilda Swinton. See imdb for details HERE.

Book to Screen to Book - 360° or 451°?

I was reminded of this when I read Megan Dunn’s brilliant first book, Tinderbox (see my review HERE). She wanted to rewrite Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (see my review HERE) from the point of view of the female characters, but ended up more fascinated by Truffaut's process of adaptation (see imdb HERE).

The result is fascinating, personal, and funny. It’s rather like the inverse of Kaufman’s film: an exploration of her attempts to adapt someone else’s work. And just as good. I recommend both. ...more
3

Jul 09, 2017

I have not seen the movie Adaption which is based on portions of this book.

I picked up this book because I enjoyed an essay written by the author in The New Yorker. I had found it amusing and perceptive. The book has the feel of an essay, or rather a series of essays focused on the central theme of orchids. Orchid collecting, orchid theft, orchid hunting and orchid obsession are all covered. The writing does go off on tangents. Forays are made into related topics - exploitation of natural I have not seen the movie Adaption which is based on portions of this book.

I picked up this book because I enjoyed an essay written by the author in The New Yorker. I had found it amusing and perceptive. The book has the feel of an essay, or rather a series of essays focused on the central theme of orchids. Orchid collecting, orchid theft, orchid hunting and orchid obsession are all covered. The writing does go off on tangents. Forays are made into related topics - exploitation of natural resources, environment protection, smuggling and poaching of animals and plants, extensive land scams and the twisting of legislation regulating Native American rights. The setting is Florida. That which holds the whole together is the pull toward obsession. For good and for bad.

The author has met the people and observed firsthand their behavior. She trekked in the swamps, she got lost in Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand Preserve searching for ghost orchids. She talks to us not as a learned but as an equal, as a friend. She magnificently well captures the feel of Florida, not merely the place but also the people. Their way of talking and thinking and being. It is this that I appreciated most about the book. She brought back to me my earlier visits to Florida. This portrayal captured me more than the detailed descriptions of thefts and scams and peculiar individuals on which she sidetracks. I like how she told her story more than the actual details of the story. Please see below the quotes I have taken from the book.

The audiobook is extremely well narrated by Jennifer Meyers. Her tone captures perfectly the people and the place, the atmosphere.

Lines from the book that were particularly special for me:

"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."


"If you set out alone and sovereign, unconnected to a family, a religion, a nationality, a tradition, a class, then pretty soon you are too lonely, too self-invented and unique, and too much aware that there is no one else like you in the world. If you submerge yourself completely in something -- your town or your profession or your hobby -- then pretty soon you have to struggle up to the surface because you need to be sure that even though you are a part of something big, some community, you still exist as a single unit with a single mind."


"It was a relief to have no hope because then I had no fear; looking for something you want is a comfort in the clutter of the universe, but knowing you don't have to look means you can't be disappointed."


"'It's not really about collecting the thing itself,' Laroche went on. 'It's about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It's a kind of direction.'" ...more
3

Oct 24, 2008

This all began with a magazine article Orlean was writing about John Laroche, the title character. She headed down to Florida and spent months studying the guy and the environment in which he lived. It is an interesting tale. The book broadens from this introductory piece to cover other things Floridian. She examines the orchid community/sub-culture in considerable detail. There is much there to consider, not only in its contemporary expression but in the history of orchid acquisition and This all began with a magazine article Orlean was writing about John Laroche, the title character. She headed down to Florida and spent months studying the guy and the environment in which he lived. It is an interesting tale. The book broadens from this introductory piece to cover other things Floridian. She examines the orchid community/sub-culture in considerable detail. There is much there to consider, not only in its contemporary expression but in the history of orchid acquisition and cultivation. It is a dog-eat-dog world, both for adventurers who travel to remote places to acquire rare species, and for botanists who nurture these finds and attempt to clone and modify orchids to keep the creative act moving. It does come to actual physical violence. Orlean looks at the vagaries of Florida Real Estate scamming as well as quirks in legislation relating to environmental protection and Native American rights. She finds characters all around, and finds also a focus on passion. This was an enjoyable, informative read. Orlean has a style that is accessible. She never tries to make you feel that she is smarter than you. She acts as a representative of us all in looking at this world with a bit of twinkle in her eye, as well as an appreciation for the beauty not only of floral pulchritude, but of varieties of human experience.

P 279
“It’s not really about collecting the thing itself,” Laroche went on. “It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.”
...more
4

February 3, 2016

Entertaining
In 1994, John Laroche and three Seminole Indian men, were caught leaving a Florida Wildlife Preserve with bags full of Ghost orchid (Polyrrhiza lindenii) specimens. They challenged the arrest on the basis of a law allowing Native tribes to violate the endangered species act. Susan Orleans, a columnist for The New Yorker went to Florida to get the story. She befriended the weirdly charismatic Laroche, gained entry to the bizarre world of orchid collectors, and ultimately expanded the article into a book (and subsequently a movie).

Ms. Orlean is as much part of this story as anyone else: she's there, she's experiencing this, and her thoughts and curiosity take us through lessons in history, evolution, geology, botany, and current orchid mania - the characters, the controversies, and the competition. Her style includes much wit and humor which makes for somewhat light reading and a few laugh out loud lines.

Front and center are orchids - "a jewel of a flower on a haystack of a plant" - so evolved and diversified they've become "the biggest flowering plant family on earth because each orchid species has made itself irresistible." Orchids are "ancient, intricate living things that have adapted to every environment on earth." There are tens of thousands of varieties, and more being created by natural as well as man-made hybridization virtually every day. Orchids often outlive human beings. In fact, orchids can theoretically live forever, since they have no natural enemies.

Orlean describes some extreme personalities of orchid people as an amusing side story. Some orchid owners designate a person as an "orchid heir" in their wills since the owners expect that their precious orchids will outlive them. Another reviewer commented: “This book will make you feel like the very picture of placid normalcy when compared to orchid growers.”

“Laroche loved orchids, but I came to believe he loved the difficulty and fatality of getting them almost as much as the flowers themselves.” Laroche is a kindred spirit of those fellow orchid hunters of the 19th century who rescued fragile flowers in the midst of an erupting volcano in the Phillipines and a revolution in Columbia. An orchid from Burma was auctioned off in London “still attached to the human skull on which it had been found.”

Southern Florida is an underlying theme. Many of us remember the famous land-scams of the 1950s and 60s. “ Florida land is elastic: you can make more of it.” (pg 122) Any dank Florida cypress swamp can be drained and remade… to look like a Tuscan village or an English town. Interesting characters appear every few pages: Snake Boy, frog poachers, Miss Seminole, Lee More the Adventurer, the Ghost Grader, Lord Mansfield, etc.

The Fakahatchee Swamp is home of many wild orchids, Orlean comments wryly when plunging into brackish water up to the waist, and having to toe around for submerged alligators on the squishy bottom, "I hate being in a swamp with machete-wielding convicts."

Indian rights and the Florida Seminole tribe and business interests are another side story. The legal similarities between Chief Billie and the panther and Laroche and the ghost orchids have a fine distinction.

But the orchids! My thoughts are like the authors: “It’s like an explosion in a paint factory…” The flowers are interesting but the plant looks dead. “These flowers are poetic.” They are all so different. This one is speckled. “Here’s a weird shape. Look at this long tube.” The variety is overwhelming.
5

January 14, 2016

Just Awesome!
Just awesome! This book came onto my radar because of its starring role in Charlie Kaufman's 2002 film Adaptation. There are four main reasons this book is great:

1. the primary subject John Laroche (to whom the book's title infamously but non-exclusively refers) is an extraordinarily interesting person

2. the author's description of Laroche's personality as well as of her interactions/dialogue with him are amazingly written and 100% engrossing

3. the secondary subject of the book is not orchids like you might expect, it is actually the state of Florida, and the author's descriptions/musings on Florida itself - its strangeness, contrasted nature, and uniqueness in particular - are wonderful

4. there is an underlying theme that ties the whole book together and arises naturally from Laroche, the other orchid collectors/thieves the author meets, as well as from the author herself: it is the nature of passion; and as a result the book is brimming with psychological insights and flashes of wisdom

Charlie Kaufman realized that this was more than just a book about flowers when he read it, and you will realize it too when you read it. Personally I could care less about flowers, but the flower that John Laroche was so passionate about - the ghost orchid - plays such an interesting and mysterious role in the book and is so elusive and sought after by even the author herself that by the end of the book I wanted to see one too!

I highly recommend you read the book and/or watch the movie (in either order), as this is a book wholly deserving of its starring movie role. Unlike any book/movie experience I've ever had.
5

January 28, 2016

All around goodo book
Recommended if you are at all interested in l) Florida - the land, 2) Florida - the people, 3) natural history and/or, 4) just a very good read. I read this during my first trip to southern Florida and really enjoyed seeing the places the author talked about. Wonderful character study of both the people and place. Top notch writing.
4

February 10, 2014

The Orchid Thief is still very timely....
I enjoyed this book immensely, and would give it a 4.5 star rating if I could. Not a perfect book, but immensely enjoying. And still very timely. Just recently (Jan 14, 2014) a "priceless African water lily" was stolen from the Kew Botanic Gardens in London, England. This is a very rare plant, and very difficult to grow--the Kew is one of two places to successfully grow them--the plant is very nearly extinct. It is a small plant, with tiny petals and leafs, and the sort of thing that would appeal only to a person obsessed with obtaining and growing very rare plants. Susan Orlean, the author of "The Orchid Thief" was interviewed for her perspective. The reason is very simple.

"The Orchid Thief" introduces readers to the intriguing and obsessive world of orchid identification, collection, creation--and theft. Orchid fanciers will go to nearly impossible lengths to find a new orchid, and hybrids are quite common and carefully grown and then sold. Susan Orlean introduces the reader into the world of the orchid-obsessed, and provides quite an interesting history and perspective on orchids and the people who collect them.

"The Orchid Thief" was actually made into a movie, rechristened "Adaptation" and featuring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper, who won an Oscar for the character he portrayed. In the Kindle version of "The Orchid Thief" I purchased, there is included a rather humorous, tongue-in-cheek "interview" with Susan Orlean about the movie, which it should be noted, does NOT follow the book that closely. However, I highly recommend the movie, particularly after having read the book.
3

Sep 25, 2010

Probably one of the most unique (bizarre?) books I have ever read. Here's the reflection I wrote after I read it:

I know absolutely nothing about plants. Nor do I really have an interest in ever knowing anything about plants. And yet, be that as it may, I found Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, fascinating. How can that be?

First off, the book is not like any other book, and definitely not like any other biography, I have read. Upon reading the first chapter, it comes across as a fairly Probably one of the most unique (bizarre?) books I have ever read. Here's the reflection I wrote after I read it:

I know absolutely nothing about plants. Nor do I really have an interest in ever knowing anything about plants. And yet, be that as it may, I found Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, fascinating. How can that be?

First off, the book is not like any other book, and definitely not like any other biography, I have read. Upon reading the first chapter, it comes across as a fairly straightforward narrative: the life and passions of John Laroche, a man accused, and convicted, of stealing orchids out of a Florida state reserve called the Fakahatchee Strand. On reading further, however, the book is no longer so simple.

My next thought is that the story is actually a biography, not about John Laroche, but about orchids. However, as the book shifts from recounting the history of orchid collecting into recounting the history of the Fakahatchee, and then the Seminole Indians, and then other plants entirely, it becomes obvious that, despite the name, orchids are not the subject of this book.

So what is the subject? What is this book about? What is this book a biography about? And how, even though I care nothing about plants, does Orlean keep me reading? I think the answer to these questions is hinted at in the subtitle: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. Susan Orlean did not write a book about Orchids because she loves plants. Instead, she wrote a story about something that baffled her. Why, throughout history, have people been so obsessed with vegetation? Why are so many individuals willing to dedicate their entire lives to, and spend all of their wealth on, plants?

Or, more importantly, why are people ever obsessed? With anything. What, even, is obsession? What does it stem from? What does it give to us, and what does it take away? Underneath the plants, and the history, and the strange people, these are the questions of Orlean’s book.

Personally, I find Orlean’s interactions with the eccentric world of plant obsession fascinating. The historical details she includes are anything but boring. This is a strange story, and all of her details are startling. Her subject matter may only appeal to a small audience, but the way she presents her subject matter targets a much larger group of readers. She is not writing a book for plant fanatics. Not really. She keeps us interested with bizarre facts, keen observations, and unique experiences.

However, she is a bit random, and while this can be intriguing, it can also be distracting. Some of her tangents seem to have little or no connection with the rest of her story. She also repeats herself. This could be a good thing, if her goal was to help us keep track of people and places, but instead it is redundant. She retells details as if they were new information, and so, instead of remembering the person from a previous chapter, we merely experience déjà vu, and are left a bit dazed and confused.

She also uses extremely long paragraphs. Paragraphs that clump together multiple thoughts, and even stories. While this is not necessarily wrong, I did find it distracting, and I thought it made the book harder to read. ...more
3

April 14, 2015

Very informative
After reading this book, I feel like I know everything there is to know about orchids!! Never realized that there are orchids "collectors", didn't know orchids can live forever, didn't know there are so many varieties, didn't know it takes seven years for an orchids to bloom the first time. All interesting facts. The characters Orlean meets are bizarre.....they say fact is often stranger than fiction, and this book proves that. There were a few parts where I laughed out loud at their antics! Sometimes the writing is a bit rambling and redundant (she repeats some of the history of Florida and the physical description of the Fachahatchee), but for the most part an entertaining and informative read.
5

Apr 25, 2009

I adore this book. It's one of my favorites, not just because it's about two of my favorite things - plants and Florida - and not just because it's by one of my favorite writers, and not just because Charlie Kaufman made it into a totally kick-ass movie.

I adore it because it's so charming, because of sentences like "I suppose I do have one unembarrassing passion: I want to know what it feels like to be passionate about something," because Orlean writes about her human subjects with a bit of I adore this book. It's one of my favorites, not just because it's about two of my favorite things - plants and Florida - and not just because it's by one of my favorite writers, and not just because Charlie Kaufman made it into a totally kick-ass movie.

I adore it because it's so charming, because of sentences like "I suppose I do have one unembarrassing passion: I want to know what it feels like to be passionate about something," because Orlean writes about her human subjects with a bit of "Can you believe this craziness?" without losing sight of the fact that she is actually writing about humans, and because she has this gift for uncovering those odd little tidbits of information that make the world seem like a magical place where anything is possible.

This is one of those books that, while purporting to be about one thing - the world of orchid fanciers - is really about another thing - obsession. The book takes the idea that the best way to see the universe is through a microscope, and wraps it up in an entertaining package. She also tells the stories using a tactic that another favorite writer of mine, Joan Didion, uses, where she herself is a character in the book, not just as a narrator but a participant, and it gives you, as an outsider in the story, a way to view things as if you were there yourself. Yet you don't get the feeling she's casting judgement on anyone; you just get to see things the way she saw them and feel the things she felt.

Of course, the book might also hold a special place with me because it talks so much about Florida, a state whose history and culture can only be described as "bizarre." (I hate that word almost as much as I hate the word "unique" but really, there is no other way to describe it.) This state attracts people who are looking to realize some sort of dream or other, or who are looking to reinvent themselves, or who are just trying to escape their pasts, and so you end up with a bunch of people all trying to create some new existence on a piece of land that is constantly in flux. It's a tumultuous, chaotic state, where people are free to extend their personalities to the limit, whether its through Christianity or vulgar materialism or alcoholism or whatever. The only thing predictable about Florida is that, if something crazy happens, it's probably happening here. So I love reading about Florida - nonfiction and fiction alike - for these reasons, and I think few have captured that essential quirkiness of the state better than Orlean did with this book. ...more
5

Apr 19, 2012

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

A while back when I blogged about reading and enjoying WINGED OBSESSION, Jessica Speart ‘s compelling work of narrative nonfiction about an exotic butterfly collector and the fish and wildlife agent obsessed with bringing him to justice, a few people who commented wanted to make sure I’d also read Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF. I hadn’t, but somehow, that book never rose to the top of my to-read list. I wasn’t all that into orchids, so I wasn’t sure it was for The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

A while back when I blogged about reading and enjoying WINGED OBSESSION, Jessica Speart ‘s compelling work of narrative nonfiction about an exotic butterfly collector and the fish and wildlife agent obsessed with bringing him to justice, a few people who commented wanted to make sure I’d also read Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF. I hadn’t, but somehow, that book never rose to the top of my to-read list. I wasn’t all that into orchids, so I wasn’t sure it was for me. What I didn’t realize then was that while the book is indeed about orchids, it’s more about single-minded passions and Florida and the swamp and the way those things can tug at a person’s soul. THE ORCHID THIEF was indeed a book for me. I read it on vacation in Florida, just a few miles from the Fakahatchee Strand where the whole story began. And I loved it.

Orlean tells the facts of this story in a way that’s at least as suspenseful and intriguing as any novel I’ve ever read. At the center of that story is John Laroche, the man she’d read about in a small newspaper clipping when he was in court for stealing wild orchids from Florida’s state-owned Fakahatchee Strand. Laroche is a character in the very best sense of the word – an eccentric, imperfect, intense bean pole of a man who invited Orlean into his world. What she discovered there was a doorway to the world of exotic plants and the people who love them, sometimes more than they love their own families or even their own lives. Where one finds passion that intense, one also finds amazing drama, and that’s what kept me turning the pages of this book. That, and the chance to travel through Orlean’s words back through a place that both enchants and terrifies me – the Fakahatchee Strand, where I took my first off-boardwalk hike this spring.

In THE ORCHID THIEF, Orleans weaves together the story of Laroche himself and his stolen orchids with the history of orchid collecting, the high stakes trade that it is today, the Florida real estate scams of the 1940s and 50s, and the history of the Fakahatchee Strand itself. Full of colorful characters and settings so rich you’ll feel like you should be slapping at mosquitoes, THE ORCHID THIEF is a great read for lovers of nature as well as students of human psychology. I couldn’t put it down.
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4

Sep 22, 2019

more shortly, but I really enjoyed this book, which I read because it's my real-world book group's selection for September. It's sad that it got such low ratings because of people's expectations as a book of true crime, because it's so much more: obsession, passion, history, and an exploration of why people become so consumed by having something that they'll do anything to get it.

more coming soon.
4

Mar 06, 2012

You could summarize The Orchid Thief as "Florida is a crazy place, y'all." It's one of the better non-fiction books I've read recently, starting with a scheme by John Laroche, a not-precisely-likeable but still very interesting fellow whom the author interviews and follows around in the course of writing her book, but delving into Victorian orchid cultivation (they had no idea how to grow orchids, especially in England, but they were mad about them) and flower genetics, Florida endangered You could summarize The Orchid Thief as "Florida is a crazy place, y'all." It's one of the better non-fiction books I've read recently, starting with a scheme by John Laroche, a not-precisely-likeable but still very interesting fellow whom the author interviews and follows around in the course of writing her book, but delving into Victorian orchid cultivation (they had no idea how to grow orchids, especially in England, but they were mad about them) and flower genetics, Florida endangered species laws, and Florida real estate.

Orchid collectors, apparently, get really, really obsessed. I can understand this, as I know some people who are into dog and cat shows, and that whole scene is just as silly and obsessive. Orchids, of course, are easier to cultivate and breed for highly specific characteristics, so there are thousands of species and subspecies, and collectors are basically engaged in competitive orchid breeding. Some people will pay thousands for a single plant, and successful orchid breeders who have a popular strain are frequently subjected to break-ins and thefts. There is much drama at orchid shows, people flinging accusations (like claiming you've bred a new strain that was actually smuggled from Thailand) and threats, and meanwhile, poachers can make a good living stealing rare orchids out of protected Florida wetlands for breeders. (They also poach frogs, birds, trees, and pretty much anything else that's endangered and therefore valuable.) This has been going on for over a hundred years; the Victorians had their own "orchid bubble" and they hired people to go to Florida or South America to collect specimens for them.

Most everything in this book centers on Florida, though, and so Susan Orleans goes beyond orchids talking about all kinds of other schemes Florida has been subjected to. There is the long-running saga of the Seminole tribe, an Indian tribe that owned slaves and sided with the Confederacy but whose slaves were pretty much tribe members. The Seminoles were the first tribe to get rich off of casinos, so they are pitched all sorts of business deals by everyone from Donald Trump to Japanese investors. Orleans talks quite a bit about James Billie, the current and former chief of the Seminoles, including his trial for shooting an endangered Florida panther.

There is also a chapter about the infamous Gulf American Land Corporation, which made "Florida swampland" so famous as a real estate scam. They sold thousands of plots of land to working class people, military personnel, etc., as affordable retirement investments. Many of these people never even visited the land they'd bought and so were unaware that more likely than not you needed a boat to reach it. Gulf American was still in operation up until 1970, and the plots are still there - a few people actually moved into the "development" area and live there still, without electricity or telephones or anything else. Crazy people, y'all. ...more
4

Sep 08, 2007

"This was the low, simmering part of the state, as quiet as a shrine except for crickets keeping time and the creak of trees bending and the crackly slam of a screen door and the clatter of a car now and then ..."

"We whipped past abandoned bungalows melting into woodpiles, and past NO TRESPASSING signs shot up like Swiss cheese, and past a rusty boat run aground on someone's driveway, and past fences leaning like old ladies, and then almost past a hand-lettered sign that interested Laroche, so "This was the low, simmering part of the state, as quiet as a shrine except for crickets keeping time and the creak of trees bending and the crackly slam of a screen door and the clatter of a car now and then ..."

"We whipped past abandoned bungalows melting into woodpiles, and past NO TRESPASSING signs shot up like Swiss cheese, and past a rusty boat run aground on someone's driveway, and past fences leaning like old ladies, and then almost past a hand-lettered sign that interested Laroche, so he smashed the brakes and craned his neck to read it. 'Look at this!' he exclaimed. The sign read FOR SALE: BABY GOATS, GUAVA JAM, CACTUS. 'That's pretty fucking weird, don't you think?' he asked."

Good stuff. ...more
1

September 25, 2015

Misleading title - mostly history
If you want to read an in-depth history of Florida then it is probably ok. But, the book went on and on and on steeped in minutia to the point that I skipped almost entire chapters. Finally, I just gave up and put the book away. It did not live up to what I perceived it to be about.
4

Sep 17, 2007

If you haven't figured it out by now, I like histories and I like learning how people--usually real people-- live their lives in their particular environment.

This has both: learn the history of the orchid and discover a subculture of crazed flower lovers in Florida. I knew nothing about orchids when I started reading this-- it made me want to know more. 'Why are people obsessed? ... Huh, that is kind of interesting... what an intriguing little flower!' It made me covet my own orchid (could I If you haven't figured it out by now, I like histories and I like learning how people--usually real people-- live their lives in their particular environment.

This has both: learn the history of the orchid and discover a subculture of crazed flower lovers in Florida. I knew nothing about orchids when I started reading this-- it made me want to know more. 'Why are people obsessed? ... Huh, that is kind of interesting... what an intriguing little flower!' It made me covet my own orchid (could I keep it alive?) and it made me secretly want to spend an entire day with them at the botanical garden. ...more
2

Nov 26, 2008

"There is nothing more melancholy than empty festive places."
3

Jan 28, 2009

Rex Stout’s fat detective suffered from orchidelirium. He would never vary his routine of working in his famous plant rooms on the top floor of the brownstone house no matter what the emergency, to Archie Goodwin’s consternation.
Like bibliomania, orchidelirium is a mania that involves collecting — unlimited collecting. The orchid is “a jewel of a flower on a haystack of a plant.” Orchids have evolved into the “biggest flowering plant family on earth,” and many survive only in small niches they Rex Stout’s fat detective suffered from orchidelirium. He would never vary his routine of working in his famous plant rooms on the top floor of the brownstone house no matter what the emergency, to Archie Goodwin’s consternation.
Like bibliomania, orchidelirium is a mania that involves collecting — unlimited collecting. The orchid is “a jewel of a flower on a haystack of a plant.” Orchids have evolved into the “biggest flowering plant family on earth,” and many survive only in small niches they have carved out for themselves. They are found in many different environments, and human hybridization of the plants creates more varieties all the time.
Those afflicted can never seem to get enough. Susan Orlean describes this mania in her fascinating book, which is a compendium of information about orchids as well. The number of orchid species is unknown, and more are discovered or developed all the time. Larceny among collectors is not unknown, and Orlean describes John Laroche, a man of many manias — he collected turtles, and I mean lots of turtles, as a child. Laroche dreamed of making a fortune by finding the one really rare specimen of plant that he could then breed and sell. Seeing himself as a moral thief, Laroche, rationalized his larcenous behavior. He allied himself with the Seminoles, knowing that they were exempt from federal laws prohibiting the collection of wild orchids, so that he could hopefully collect and breed the rare ghost orchid. His justification was that once bred it would likely no longer be collected illegally.
Apparently, flower theft is epidemic in Florida; one case Orlean cites was the theft of a fifteen-foot palm tree. The tree was dug up and the hole filled in during the night. How they managed that with no one noticing is somewhat startling. One farmer lost $20,000 worth of bell peppers from his fields. He decided to get out of the business.
Laroche merely provides anecdotal backdrops for a very interesting history of the mania for orchid collecting.

...more
4

Aug 27, 2007

Like a lot of people, my entry point for this book was the film Adaptation. I assumed that the film deviated a lot more from the book than it actually did (of course, in the book the author doesn't really -spoiler alert?- have a clandestine drug-fueled affair with John Laroche that culminates in vehicular manslaughter), but all the really profound themes about obsession and longing remain intact.
I was pleasantly surprised that the presentation, essentially a New Yorker piece fleshed out to its Like a lot of people, my entry point for this book was the film Adaptation. I assumed that the film deviated a lot more from the book than it actually did (of course, in the book the author doesn't really -spoiler alert?- have a clandestine drug-fueled affair with John Laroche that culminates in vehicular manslaughter), but all the really profound themes about obsession and longing remain intact.
I was pleasantly surprised that the presentation, essentially a New Yorker piece fleshed out to its maximum threshold, kept me engaged throughout with entertaining insight into the quirky (and often lonely) world of members of the orchid-collecting community. Like the best first-person nonfiction, the author creates a great vicarious experience for the reader through thoughtful personal touches that make both the unpleasantness and the beauty encountered in her journey very real. ...more
4

March 18, 2018

I loved Susan Orleans style of writing and her descriptions of ...
I loved Susan Orleans style of writing and her descriptions of places, situations and people - she really brought it to life. I now know more about orchids than I ever thought I would. That part got a bit tedious at times but I stuck with it and most of it was really interesting. There are people addicted to orchids. People who steal orchids. Orchids can be worth A LOT of money. There are hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of orchids. I love the way she wrote about the character of David Laroche. I read this because I knew the movie, "Adaptation" was based on this book. Loosely based. It was REALLY interesting to see what the screenwriter did. It barely ANYTHING like the book. I loved the ending. I also lived in Florida for three years and it all takes place in Florida so I found it interesting to hear Ms. Orleans talk about these places. I got a bit bogged down by all the details of orchid growing, the orchid business, etc. but it's worth it to persevere.
5

January 18, 2018

out of the box story about out of the box people
i am an orchid crazy, i know, that's a department of redundancy department, i took it along in a tote bag to doctor appointments so it took a long time to finish. people always asked what i was reading because i laughed out loud so often, and one doctor said, "oh that's a great book", and he knew about it from parents who were also orchid crazies.
1

March 22, 2016

Overrated New Yorker novella
Susan Orlean obviously did a lot of research, which is spewed back at the reader. Sadly, the book is a confused cross between local history and cultural analysis. Reads like an extended version of a lesser New Yorker piece. That said,I did learn how to transport orchids after primary bloom.

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