The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 2: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson

Read: 9 May, 2014

In the second volume of Octavian’s story, we find him escaping from slavery with his tutor, Doctor Trefusis, as the Revolutionary War erupts around them.

I found this volume to be quite a bit more of an emotional rollercoaster than the first – Trefusis providing a great deal of comic relief (and cementing himself as one of my all-time favourite fictional characters) against a backdrop of horror.

While the first book focused on the formation of Octavian, the second focused much more strongly on the theme of freedom – a word used so much in the context of American independence, yet one that is surprisingly fuzzy (as a black man, Octavian naturally notices that the freedom fought for often included the freedom to own other people).

As with the first volume, I found the book to be very informative and it left me with a lot to think about.

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

Read: 3 November, 2013

I was recommended this book and started reading it without any idea of its contents. It made the rather surreal descriptions at the beginning, taking place at the Novanglian College of Lucidity, all the more intriguing.

The story follows Octavian, slave son of an African princess, as he is raised by rationalist philosophers. He is the subject of an experiment investigating whether other races have as much intellectual potential as whites. The potential for social commentary should be obvious.

Anderson uses a number of different narrative styles, depending mostly on the “memoirs” of Octavian, but also collecting some aspects of the story from letters and other media. It added to the aura of “authenticity” of the narrative and, handled well, was quite neat. Though I did much prefer Octavian’s memoirs to the rather lengthy section made up of Goring’s letters.

I really enjoyed Octavian Nothing. It was intriguing, and the commentary was great. Anderson also managed a really good job of replicating the style of writing of the period (barring a few very reasonable deviations for the sake of clarity).

I found it funny, sad, horrifying, edifying, and thoroughly enjoyable. I placed my order for the second volume at the library as soon as I’d finished and am eagerly waiting for it to come in!

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The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

Read: 7 July, 2011

I really want to categorize this book as fiction; and, in a sane world, I would. Unfortunately…

It begins in 1983,  when Major General Albert Stubblebine III (a truly Dickensian name), upon realizing that both his body and the wall are made up of atoms and that atoms are mostly made up of empty space, tries to walk through a wall.

Starting from Stubblebine’s sore nose, Ronson takes the reader through a brief history of the US military’s more insane moments. He lulled me into a sense of “oh, that happened in ’70s, but it would never happen today” with stories of men staring at goats to make their hearts stop (and, when goats aren’t available, the odd hamster would do) and a First Earth Battalion that could end conflict with their “sparkling eyes.”

But then he gets into the ‘War on Terror’ and the horrific acts at Abu Ghraib.

The most difficult part of reading The Men Who Stare At Goats is to remember that this is only, as the subtitle says, about a “small group of men” who happen to be placed in some key positions. It isn’t representative of the army as a whole. The problem is that each of these “highly placed” men have subordinates in a culture that does not tolerate dissent – even when the orders are quite obviously insane.

Throughout, Ronson remains very objective. He allows his subjects, and their beliefs, to speak for themselves. This is an amazing feat when writing a book about men who believe that they can walk through walls or stare goats to deaths.

The tone of the book seems somewhat rambly – jumping back and forth through time and skipping from subject to subject – but it all makes sense by the end, when the whole is tied together and the influence of Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion Operations Manual is made clear. And, really, this is the story of that book – of its history and its legacy.

Men Who Stare At Goats appears to be meticulously researched. Certainly, it comes through in Ronson’s writing just how difficult certain people and facts were to find. And, although some of the connections he draws are speculative (or based on “wink wink” statements from his informants), he does make the case that it’s all at least plausible if not factual. I found it to be a very interesting and thought-provoking read, even if my faith in humanity requires that I remain somewhat provisional in my trust of Ronson’s depictions.

Assuming that it is all (or mostly) true, though, I’d be very interested in a follow up in coming years as to the effect of the book on military policies and strategies. Has Men Who Stare At Goats embarrassed the leadership sufficiently to cause a change? Will it spell the end of First Earth Battalion‘s influence? Or will it increase its popularity?

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