You won’t find this in any weather textbooks, but there’s a name for
this part of the year – you know, the slushy, draggy, final days of
winter – it’s called the reading season.
Ok, I made it up, but nevertheless, I think it should become
official. We should get a long, three day weekend where everything
closes and the entire country curls up by a roaring fire with a pot
of tea and a book. In fact, this scenario is one of my most
enduring fantasies. It’s right up there with my other enduring
fantasy…that my local news station will devote the final five
minutes of its nightly broadcast to books instead of basketball,
football, hockey, and baseball.
Yeah, I know, I know…but that’s why they call it fantasy,
Three day weekend or not, I’ve just finished two stunning,
shattering books – The Astonishing Life of Octavian
Nothing, Traitor to the Nation and The Road.
Octavian, written by M.T. Anderson, won this year’s National Book
Award for young adult fiction. Set in Massachusetts in the late 18th
century, the story is an original and disturbing look at the history
of slavery in New England through eyes of a young African boy.
Living at the Novanglian College of Lucidity with his mother, a
beautiful African princess, Octavian is being raised and given a
classical education by a group of learned philosophers. The men, all
specialists in different disciplines, are dedicated to the pursuit
of knowledge. They catalog, query, and quantify everything. Some of
their experiments are wacky but harmless, others far less so.
Octavian comes to understand that he, too, is a principle in one of
their experiments. But for what end?
One of the many things I admire about this book is how the reader
learns the truth of Octavian’s life as Octavian himself does. Most
of the story is told by Octavian in what appears to be a series of
depositions. Because Anderson doesn’t give us the buffer of
distance, the safety of a protected perspective, we’re as shocked
and destroyed by the truth of Octavian’s situation as he is.
It’s a hard book at times, brutal and bleak, and yet it’s dazzlingly
written, slyly funny, truthful, and finally hopeful.
I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy in two and a half hours.
Nothing else got done while I had this book in my hands. I’m
surprised I remembered to breathe. The story is set in a
not-too-distant apocalyptic future. It follows the journey a man and
his young son take to the sea and greater safety, showing their
struggle to survive in a desolate, ash-covered world as they
scrounge food wherever they can, and at the same time try to avoid
becoming food. The style is McCarthy’s own – terse, evocative, and
diamond-hard, and the story is suspenseful, terrifying, and
devastating – yet it’s also incredibly moving. I can’t remember a
more affecting portrait of a father’s overwhelming love for his
child, or of a child’s goodness, battered and anguished, but
I was grateful for every light switch in my house when I finished The Road. For central heating, the food in my fridge,
running water, and Al Gore. It’s possible The Road will
garner more converts to the cause of saving the planet than even An Inconvenient Truth.
On a much cheerier note, I’m happy to report that here in Brooklyn,
my entire family has fallen head over heels in love with a seventy-ish
man with cranky legs and a fondness for cats and opera.
His name is Mr. Putter and he’s the star in a series of early reader
books written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard.
We want his house. We want his cat. We want his life.
This guy has it made. He’s retired. He spends his days tending to
his fruit trees and painting his porch. When it snows, he stays
inside, makes soup, and bakes cakes. He and
Tabby and his neighbor Mrs. Teaberry and her good dog Zeke have
adventures. They take train rides, go boating, tell stories, and eat
The series – with titles like Mr. Putter & Tabby Stir the Soup and Mr. Putter & Tabby Pour the Tea – is witty, sweet,
gentle, and so good that Rylant actually makes getting old and
cranky-legged something to look forward to.
In fact, I think I’ll take a cue from Mr. Putter right now. I’ll
brew up a batch of cinnamon tea with honey sticks, grab a
fresh-baked muffin or three, and plunk down by the fire with a
Take your time, spring. I’m
enjoying the reading season.