Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Who Needs Donuts?

by Mark Alan Stamaty
As a third grader who, for the first time in my life, could see all the details of the world, thanks to my brand-new eyeglasses, I became addicted to visual detail. Others seemed to take for granted all the tiny holes in the ceiling tiles, the slow swirls of wood grain in the back of a chair. I was entranced. Stamaty's 1973 children's book, Who Needs Donuts, seems to be the product of someone who not only saw the detail but celebrated it in glorious pen and ink on every inch of the page. The story is fairly simple: a boy goes on a quest for donuts, into the bustling city. This is probably the way cities bustled for me as a child: every building is covered with signs and obscure advertisements and windows full of people going about their lives. Everyone on the street seems to be on their own bizarre quest, and the streets are full of fast-moving vehicles of every shape and purpose. Stamaty hides visual and verbal puns everywhere among the busy-ness. Lots of fun.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party

by M. T. Anderson
Almost a year too late, I finally got to read the book I was hungering for after I finished David Mitchell's incredible Cloud Atlas. Octavian Nothing shares many of the same themes, and Anderson is similarly adept at creating memorable voices. Octavian is a boy growing up with his mother in pre-revolutionary Boston in a house full of scientists. Like many kids, it takes him a while to realize that his upbringing is somewhat out-of-the-ordinary. For one thing, he and his mother are the only ones in the house who have names; everyone else is numbered. Everything that goes into, or comes out of, Octavian's body is weighed and made note of. He is taught Latin and Greek and to play the violin. He knows nothing of his father, only that his mother is an African princess, and perhaps this is the reason for the special treatment. Perhaps not. The larger world slowly creeps in to Octavian's consciousness: rumors of a coming Revolution, the realities of slavery, the pending financial ruin of the scientific commune upon which Octavian and his mother depend. This is a dark novel, with the feel of a fantasy, though all of it could have happened in that place and time. Anderson has done his research, and brings to life the horrors of slavery and the precariousness of life during wartime. Octavian himself is unforgettable.