I don’t really do book reviews. I love reading enormously and I am passionate about the books that I love and about the books that I don’t love. There are many great writers who craft brilliant analytical and thoughtful book reviews, so my voice isn’t really needed in that realm. I’ve always found recommending books a sticky proposition, too. I’ve received enough honest,”This book is amazing!” reviews of books that I ended up not enjoying or that I never finished to know that books are intensely personal. For example, I’m the only person on Earth who really didn’t like All the Light We Cannot See. I appreciated it, but I just didn’t enjoy it.
Having said all that, there are books that just take my breath away. They may not be for everyone, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t shout their virtues from the rooftops.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing – Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson is one of those books.
I can’t even remember what drew me to read it in the first place. I checked it out of the library at Lake Braddock Secondary School where I worked and it transported and changed me.
Here’s the summary from the book jacket:
“Raised by a mysterious group of rational philosophers, young Octavian is dressed in silks and given the finest of classical educations. His regal mother entertains the scholars with her beauty and wit, but Octavian questions the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. As the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston grows around him, Octavian dares to open a forbidden door, only to discover the hideous nature of the experiments – and his own chilling role in them.”
It’s an incredible book. You really should read it. It should be required reading for all high school students. I don’t usually say these kinds of things, but really Octavian is that important to me.
The reason that I am thinking about it again is that I am going to cover a high school class for a friend where I will get to lead a discussion about Octavian. To prepare, I have been rereading the section that we’ll be discussing. Just reading the 50-ish pages has me transported again. I can’t wait to hear what the high schoolers think. The story has so much to say of rebellion, obedience, the power and danger of learning and the importance of the arts. The history it contains and the myriad ways that Africans were manipulated and physically and emotionally abused is so vibrantly rendered as to wake up any modern reader to the vast and limitless evil of slavery. Octavian is an African in Revolutionary America who is given the finest classical education in the arts, languages and sciences. His place in the world is so confusing and so rapidly altered that he must simply work to decipher how he must behave to avoid brutality.
Here’s one of my favorite passages.
“I missed my studies with Dr. Trefusis inveterately, for reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family, and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues, while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness, and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways, immobile and thus unfettered.”
The whole book is that beautiful and powerful.
Go read it.