Oh, MT Anderson. I should really read more of your work, but some times your satire just doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried reading Burger Wuss three tim...moreOh, MT Anderson. I should really read more of your work, but some times your satire just doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried reading Burger Wuss three times, and can’t make it past the first handful of pages; I don’t know why it doesn’t work for me. But like the earlier Feed, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a book that’s more bitingly observant of what’s going on now rather than when it was originally published (2006) or even the era in which its set. I wouldn’t go so far to call it a cautionary tale, but I think Anderson does a far better job of discussing the realities of the Enlightenment thinkers and the original supporters of the Revolutionary War. And despite some anvil-dropping on the ideas of personal liberty and freedom, this is very much one young man’s coming of age and seeing the world as it is. (I mention that mainly because I had to read this originally for an American Lit I class, and there was a lot of whining about “We have to read a contemporary teen book?”* Uh yeah, got a problem with that?)
The thing I’ve always really loved about this is the style it’s written in. It’s a mix of traditional first person POV from Octavian, as he’s trying to unravel the truths behind his childhood and his mother’s past, and then slowly moves into an epistolary style throughout. It’s a really fascinating way to approach the plot, as Anderson acknowledges what the reader has probably guessed about Octavian and his mother very early on. I love Octavian’s accounts of his childhood (for as quietly horrifying as it later becomes); there’s a very lucid, dreamlike quality to his early days at the College of Lucidity. And yet, you can see what’s lurking underneath all of Octavian’s tutors and the tests and lessons that they give—you know even before the College’s sponsor changes hands that Octavian’s going to have all of this ripped away from him in the most humiliating and cruel way possible. I also love how his relationship with his mother is portrayed in these early scenes. You can see how Octavian is similarly charmed by his mother’s beauty and wit at an early age, but as time goes on, he does come to understand just how fragile she was when she was first bought. (Whenever he confesses to Goring later on, “I never even knew her name,” that line was so heart-breaking. There didn’t even need to be clarification on Octavian’s part; you know exactly who he’s talking about.)
And the way this novel is structured makes it work extremely well. (It does help a lot more if you’re familiar with 18th century novel/book style, but Anderson does a good job of making it accessible.) You get so much characterization in these small bits. I admit, I want to read the redacted pages that are scattered throughout the book—we get tiny glimpses of what might be written, but never much more than a word or two. I really love the random letters and notes from the minor characters—people that never even show up in Octavian’s proper narrative, but Anderson infuses them with so much personality in one or two sentences. For example, about three-fourths of the way in, there’s a note between two slave catchers, and one is gloating about having caught Octavian. That’s really all the note serves for the story; however, reading it, there feels like there’s a whole other story between these two extremely minor characters. It’s very rare when a writer can pull that off, and I wholeheartedly love it.
But for as great as Octavian’s personal story is, you really can’t ignore what Anderson does with the College of Lucidity and their support of the Revolutionary War. (I will try my best not to rant on current events; I will say that I was inwardly cringing at points because I have heard these arguments a lot. I kinda wanna take this book and throw it at a lot of the conservatives I have to put up with, especially when I don’t ask to hear their opinions. /done.) And I will say this about Anderson—he’s a great writer, but you can hear the anvils clanging a mile away. It’s not that he doesn’t have salient points, and I will actually say that this book works better than Feed whenever he does go off on the philosophy. (Again, see 18th century writing.) He sits down and illustrates the ideals that Mr. Gitney and his peers have, and does make them feel completely justified in their treatment of Octavian and the other slaves as they’re supporting the split from England. It’s one thing to say “Oh, these men who wanted freedom and independence for all never really considered the slaves,” but rarely does that sort of statement get the context and clarification of “No, actually, that’s how people really thought back then and yes, a lot of what they say about Octavian would have been seen as completely rational.” And then you get John Adams’s infamous “We shall have trouble in a hundred years’ hence; posterity will never forgive us” quote. (YAY HISTORY NERD.) It’s scary how rational Mr. Gitney sounds when he’s explaining the way of the world to Octavian, but mainly because that’s how people thought.
(If I have to complain about the slavery aspect, I really only have an issue with it once Private Goring gets involved. I don’t think it’s ever confirmed that Goring’s an abolitionist, because once he takes over the narrative, it really feels like Anderson’s really railing against the aforementioned hypocrisy to the point of making the Revolutionary War about slavery. It’s one of the small details that I think actually hurts the book, particularly when you’ve done a great job illustrating the hypocrisy of the Revolutionaries and not everyone is free and equal and then…the clanging of the anvils.)
But as it is, this is a very compelling read. I would actually recommend this to a lot of people who turn their nose up at young adult literature and dismiss it as immature and meebling. Anderson doesn’t talk down to his audience, nor does he assume that they’re going to know every tiny detail about the history involved. And even for people who love YA, I’d even say read it. This is historical fiction done extremely well, but it also doesn’t ignore the age of its intended audience. (And I really need to get my hands on the sequel. One day…)
*Don’t get me wrong, I loved my college track, I had awesome professors, but some of my classmates were really pretentious. When we did Harry Potter for one of my Intro to Lit classes, the bitching was even worse. (less)
Hysterically funny account of what happens when somebody decides to get out and do something important and “epic.” Bryson’s sense of humor is extremel...moreHysterically funny account of what happens when somebody decides to get out and do something important and “epic.” Bryson’s sense of humor is extremely sarcastic at times, and I could really get into his descriptions and exploits on some of the darker moments on the Appalachian Trail. (And by darker, I mean the realization that dawns upon Bryson and his cohort Katz that they are not mountain men.) One of the things I like about Bryson’s travel narratives is that he’s able to blend tons of research and history into his own personal experiences, and it really shows in this book, as he uses the reflection aspect to dive off into other background information about the trail and hiking and the outdoors. Overall, a very funny and great read.(less)
Yet another book that I have a hard time talking about because it’s one of those that I’ve read so much growing up, and it’s hard for me to look at co...moreYet another book that I have a hard time talking about because it’s one of those that I’ve read so much growing up, and it’s hard for me to look at completely critically because it’s been a part of my reading life for so long. My biggest memory with The Giver is rereading it on multiple visits to my aunt’s house, this and A Wrinkle in Time. A few years ago, I remember facepalming over an illustrated version of The Giver because “No, you’re going to ruin the best reveal in the whole book because you’re showing that this is literally a world without color and it’s such a shock to me when I figured that out and why. Why would you do this.” (This is why I’m iffy on the idea of the book being turned into a movie, for the same reason. I mean, yay but…the thing. It’s not going to work.)
The reason I think that this has lasted so long is that The Giver manages to be a complex book without sounding too complex. (And the inclusion on n-illonth reading lists for the last twenty years, but there’s a reason for that too.) Even the idea of the dystopia in here is actually a double-edged sword: you’re going to be content and pleased, but at the cost of your personal freedom. And what I also really liked is—and this might be my current somewhat apathy to recent YA dystopias—that the ending isn’t Jonas completely shattering the order of his Community (although I think that’s what the Giver plans on doing), but rather, going out into the world and trying to build a better world by using what he’s experienced and moving from there. (From what I know of the sequels. I’ve read Gathering Blue years ago, and I need to do a big read of the whole quartet.)
(Can I just touch on the fridge horror of this book. Dear God that scene with the twin’s release is so disturbing, and rereading it as I’m older—the first mention of release is completely disturbing. Gaaah.)
There’s a reason why this book has endured and is so popular after so long. (Umpteenth appearances on school reading lists for the last twenty years aside.) It’s a surprisingly dense story with a morally grey center that doesn’t pander to the audience by trying to talk down to them, especially given the target audience. It’s a new classic for a reason, and I wouldn’t argue against its inclusion. (less)
Favorite Jane Austen book, hands-down. It brings together not one, but two heart-wrenching romances, and her biting wit and views on Regency society....moreFavorite Jane Austen book, hands-down. It brings together not one, but two heart-wrenching romances, and her biting wit and views on Regency society. Half of the story is about how women use their own means to connive and get what they want, at the cost of others’ happiness. The other half is about how giving up happiness can be horrible. Elinor is one of my favorite literature heroines and her ending is one of the happiest I’ve read. I’m not as a huge fan of Marianne (or Willoughby for that matter), but you still feel for her. A classic in the truest sense of the word. (less)
While I quite like Pride & Prejudice, I still don’t see why most people salivate over the book. (My guess is Colin Firth. Thanks, BBC.) I noticed...moreWhile I quite like Pride & Prejudice, I still don’t see why most people salivate over the book. (My guess is Colin Firth. Thanks, BBC.) I noticed more of the satire and Austen’s commentary of social expectations rather than great, epic romance(!!!). Mr. Bennet, though, is my favorite character just for his awesome snarkiness, and I do love the little subplots strung throughout the book. It’s a must-read, but it only ranks in the middle of my personal Jane Austen list. (less)