Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Booklog: Wide Awake, Octavian Nothing, Rules of Survival


Wide Awake
, by David Levithan


Wide Awake pretends to be a political novel in the cover blurb, but to me, it reads a little bit more like a political science fiction novel than I had expected. It feels like a fantasy of politics, when things work like they should work, like we want them to work, and not like they actually work.

Duncan, our protagonist, is a gay Jewish teen in a not too distant future when a gay Jewish man has just been elected president of the USA. This not too distant future is an interesting place. For one thing, there's a lot of interesting politics in the past - a McCarthy-esque political rampage, a government waging war on just about everybody, a Great Depression, etc. For another, now that they're past it, things are - a lot better. Duncan is openly gay, and involved with his boyfriend Jimmy, and that's just not a big deal. I liked that. In most of the books I've read that had gay characters, even gay characters who were proud and comfortable with thier orientation, it's always just an issue. It's there, like a small white elephant in the room. In this book, it just doesn't seem important. The important thing isn't that Duncan is gay - it's his relationship with Jimmy. It just feels so healthy. It's refreshing.

The book starts as Abraham Stein, a gay Jew, has been elected president, and continues as his oponents try to claim that his lead was faked. And Duncan and his friends, who have been working on Stein's campaign all along, are involved in the effort to help fight to keep Stein's win.

It's a cool book. In some ways, it reads more like the fantasy of the perfect political world than anything else - a little bit too optimistic, a little bit too nice. But even so, it's refreshing to read about a world like this, a society like this - and to look forward and hope that someday it will become a reality.

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

The shocking Octavian Nothing is nothing like I expected it to be. The cover copy made me suspect fantasy of a sort, some sort of fascinating historical fantasy with some mystery and science involved. The true story is nothing like that at all, but is, rather, far more shocking.

Octavian grows up in a house where he and his mother Cassiopeia are the only ones with names. All the other men of the house have numerical denominations instead. Octavian is trained carefully and educated in all of the finest arts and fields. Everything about him is carefully studied, down to the weight of his feces. For Octavian is an African slave, bought in utero along with his mother, to be the prime subject of an experiment to discover whether an African boy, given the same training as a Caucasian boy, is capable of the same intelligence, the same excellence. Oh, and all this is taking place during the Revolutionary War, in a manor-house in Boston. And that's only the very beginning of the story.

Octavian Nothing is not fantasy, and it is not for the light-hearted. This is a treatise on slavery at a time when it had not yet become a contested issue in the states, for there were not even states yet. It is a book about what makes a man, and what it means to be a thinking person. And it is a book about slavery. It is fascinating and compelling and, at times, shocking in its intensity. It's not a book to be taken lightly. But it is definitly a book worth reading.

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The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin

The Wicked Parent is one of my book kinks. If there's a Wicked Parent in the story, I am in. This is not just a Wicked Parent story, but a really rivetting, excellently written one. In The Rules of Survival, Matt, the oldest of three children, writes a letter to his youngest sister, Emmy, detailing their experiences with their dangerously unstable mother. He says that he is not sure if he will ever give it to her, but that he wants to get it down on paper. He describes how he and his sisters grew up at the whim of their mother, Nikki, whose mood swings and manic obsession with fun controlled thier life. Matt tells how fear and constant vigilance defined life for himself and his sister Callie, as they tried to predict and work with Nikki's moods, and to protect Emmy from her.

This book is powerful and utterly impossible to put down. Matt and Callie's struggles to survive living with their mother are compelling. At one point, Matt mentions that he once thought about telling a teacher about his mother's behavior, but then he realized that nothing he could say could make what Nikki did sound as bad as it was, and the dangers of the foster system were enough to scare him into silence. What's shocking is not just Matt's struggle, without the aid of any of the grownups who should have been there to step in and protect them from their mother (his divorced father, their aunt who lived next door) but the idea that there really could be children living like this, right now. Matt's struggles strike true. They feel real, real enough that someone else, someone real, could be living in just that sort of situation. The Rules of Survival is a compelling, well-written story that is well worth a read.

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