“The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol I: The Pox Party” by M.T. Anderson

This book has shown up on lists of books I might like on Oyster and Goodreads for awhile. I wasn’t really sure it was up my alley, especially after I had bounced off of a different book by Anderson.

Once again, though, this project of reading Printz books has not led me astray (honestly, of the 41 books I’ve read so far, I’ve really only hated one, and the other 4 that I’ve rated low or not rated at all were more victims of…not being my thing or disappointment rather than hatred).

This is a very unusual book, and it won’t be for very everyone. It’s set in Revolutionary America, and the language is pretty flowery. The story itself is strange and disturbing, and as a reader it was a bit….well, like watching a car crash. You don’t want to see, but you can’t help yourself, and wonder what it says about you that you are so compelled.

It has gotten easy, at a remove of many years, to romanticize the founders of our country, but this book is a reminder that those men weren’t saints. They wanted freedom, but for those who looked like them. Octavian is a slave from Africa, being examined for his intellectual capacity, and despite what he could achieve (which was pretty impressive!), the deck was stacked against him. No one really thought he was actually a human, and the so-called experiments “proved” this.

The first part of the book is a little slow, as it follows Octavian when he is young. The pace picks up towards the end, and ends in a cliffhanger. Luckily for me, the second book in the series is a 2009 Printz Honor Book. I would read it anyway, but this way, it’s sooner rather than later.

“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

Hey! A graphic novel — the first to show up as a Printz honoree — and it won the 2007 award. This is a very quirky quick read of a book. It might seem to be simple, but it’s actually a pretty complex tale that I thoroughly enjoyed.

As soon as I finished it, I handed it to one of my teenaged boys. He flew through it, and when he was done, I asked what he thought. He let a grin slip, shrugged, and said  “It was kind of weird.” I could be mistaken, but I think that counts as a thumbs-up kind of a review.

 

2006 Printz Wrap Up Post

I think I might have forgotten to do a 2005 summary — and after posting last week, I realized that I had gotten some posts out of order (starting 2007 before finishing 2006!)

Oops.

So, 2006 Michael L Printz honor and award winners. A very eclectic group of books — two novels, a short story collection, a biography, and poetry. I had already read Looking for Alaska, and while I loved it (again), I think that I Am the Messenger had a bigger impact on me out of all of the books. The style and message of the book were fantastic. There’s nothing like the feeling of getting run over by a book. That sounds weird, I know, but as awful as it sounds, there are an awful lot of us that keep looking for that feeling.

For some books, I still wonder at what made them honor-worthy. Why was the Lennon biography considered so special? I mean, yes, I enjoyed it, but what made the awards committee choose it over every other book that got published that year?

I think if nothing else, this experience has lead me to read so many books that I never would have considered picking up on my own, and I’m grateful for that. A Wreath for Emmett Till is an extremely powerful and thought-provoking read. It’s just a tiny little picture-book length poem, that packs a really big punch.

 

“A Wreath for Emmett Till” by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This slim book of poetry was a surprise. At first, because it looks like a child’s picture book. Later, because of the poetry itself.

The name Emmett Till was vaguely familiar, but sadly, not enough to have been able to say who he was. The book description, above, has a short version of his story, for more, I offer you Wikipedia. As I write this, we are 5 days past the murders of 9 African Americans in a church, in a state that still flies the Confederate Battle Flag over its capitol building. Till’s death was a pretty key moment in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Without going too much further into this rabbit hole, it’s pretty clear that Emmett’s story is still relevant today.

Setting aside the content of the poetry for a moment, the sheer technical artistry of this book made me gasp out loud at one point. It is structured as a heroic crown of sonnets: fifteen interlinked sonnets (a sonnet is a 14 line rhyming poem in iambic pentameter). A crown of sonnets are connected by their first and last lines: the last line of a poem becomes the first line of the next poem, sometimes with slight alteration. A heroic crown takes this one step further: the 15th poem is made up of the first lines of all of the poems. And! The first letters of those first lines in that final poem, spell out RIP EMMETT TILL.

I think that what amazes me about good poetry is the adherence to such specific rules,  in a way that the rules become invisible, the words don’t feel shoehorned into the pattern, they were meant to be there, in that particular structure.

I read this book several weeks ago. I was looking through it just now to refresh my memory about the content. I’m going to include one of the poems without further comment, because I find myself unable to add anything else.

Mutilated boy martyr, if I could,

I’d put you in a parallel universe,
give you a better fate. There is none worse.
I’d let you live through a happy boyhood,
let your gifts bloom into a livelihood
on a planet that didn’t bear Cain’s curse.
I’d put you in a nice, safe universe,
not like this one. A universe where you’d
surpass your mother’s dreams. But parallel
realities may have terrorists, too.
Evil multiples to infinitude,
like mirrors facing each other in hell.
You were a wormhole history passed through,
transformed by the memory of your victimhood.

 

Marilyn Nelson

 

Source: Nelson, Marilyn. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Houghton Mifflin, 2005

 

“Surrender” by Sonya Hartnett

I’m about 8 books and 2 weeks behind on writing posts. I keep saying it: but it’s much easier to just keep reading, rather than taking the time to reflect.

If you don’t like books with unreliable narrators and/or ambiguous endings, this book is definitely not for you.

And it wasn’t just the end that was ambiguous, everything (everything!) all along the way was off kilter, and just want I thought I had a clue, something else weird would happen.

Disturbing and strange — I still haven’t decided if I’m a fan of this one or not. The language was beautiful in many places –I highlighted a section that described a car catching on fire as a passage that particularly struck me:

“The Wolseley was parked in the driveway and its blue bulk was swollen with molten flames, which brightened my father’s pale face. I stopped on the lawn, shielding my eyes, and as the fire banked and swept I glimpsed the warped seat, the dashboard consumed, the bonnet buckled into a scream. The air was dense with toxic stink, and blankets of black smoke surfed up to the sky. Sparks arched across the lawn and fell glowing into the grass.”

An ugly thing to describe, but at the same time: made amazing and compelling by Hartnett’s word choices. I can see that car on fire, and I can’t really look away.

A lot of the time, though, the language went from wonderful to completely overblown and over the top. I didn’t highlight any of those passages, because I tended to skim when it got like that.

It’s been about 2 weeks since I read this one — it has lingered, as I tried to decide what I thought. What was real (or not…)? How much was fantasy, mental illness, wishful thinking, or reality and truth. I think this would be an excellent book to read with others, to have someone to argue about it with and to get their opinions. I suspect that you’d get different interpretations from every single reader.