Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves

by M.T. Anderson
It's easy, from our vantage point, to see the American Revolution as a good thing. Even as we look cynically at the mythology of high-school history classes, it's hard to argue with the Declaration of Independence. And Anderson didn't write the two Octavian Nothing novels to convince us otherwise. But he does such a good job taking us back into that time, and in the body of a young black man, that we are forced to think again.

As we learned in the first book, Octavian is a slave raised by Boston scientists in the 1760s and 1770s. I won't go into details about the end of the first book, but the second book picks up soon after, with Octavian and Trefusis making their way back to Boston, which is now under siege by the Rebels. When Octavian hears of the Governor of Virginia offering liberty to all escaped slaves, he knows he may never see an offer like this again. Of course, the Governor is no longer held in high esteem by many Virginians, and is forced to live, with his troops (black and white) and wealthy Loyalist colonists, off the shore of Norfolk, in their flotilla of ships, gradually running short of supplies. Would Octavian have been better off fighting on the side of American Liberty? Not likely; the punishment for escaped slaves was often barbaric. Octavian runs into some friends, new and old, and everyone has a story to tell about their journey to freedom. Octavian's story gives us an angle on the Revolutionary War few of us know much about. And Octavian Nothing is a fascinating character, both of his time and alienated from it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Goodnight Bush

by Gan Golan and Erich Origen
George W. Bush has always been an easy comedy target. But Goodnight Bush takes one of the President's own favorite books and turns it into a gently horrifying commentary on his administration. In the same way "Goodnight Moon" lets surreality creep in while the room gets darker, one could argue that Americans slowly grew accustomed to the bizarre changes in their country during the reign of the sleepy prince in the White House. The artwork is perfect, down to that singular green of the walls (not very well represented in the book cover picture at right), and the text is flawless. As in the original, the details constantly change, though the overall mood is one of resignation and acceptance. By the end of the book, one has to ask, did the last eight years really happen? Or was I sleeping, curled up in a dark and ever-stranger room, as the world outside faded to black?

Free-Range Chickens

by Simon Rich
Free-Range Chickens is a collection of short dialogues and lists, on subjects Simon Rich has spent too much time thinking about, such as childhood or Dracula or God. Some are mildly funny, while others caused bouts of spastic giggles around our household. Rich plays with a lot of common TV and movie tropes, injecting the awkward comedy of real life. Obviously, it's one of those books much more easily enjoyed than described.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

by Sarah Vowell
The Wordy Shipmates is not what I was expecting; I pictured maybe a colorful trip back in time, where, through Vowell's quirky lens, we would get a close-up portrait of life on the Mayflower and among the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Vowell is more interested in the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and, more importantly, getting us into the heads of those Puritans. Why, exactly, were they Puritans? Why leave England when they did? What did the New World mean to them? And, perhaps most interestingly, how did their values evolve into the America of George W. Bush? I realized I had been expecting a movie, albeit a daring independent film, but Vowell delivered something even better: a book, with the power to not just show us history but to help us get inside the minds of people we never thought we'd relate to.