Book reviews can be all kinds of things. There are the sort that help you decide if the book is one you want, or not. There are the sort that give you enough information so that you can pretend to have read the book (and I think in particular of certain bestselling books that I can’t believe are read cover to cover —Stephen Hawkin’s A Brief History of Time comes to mind). And then there are the sort that are critical essays, that help you to better understand the book after reading it. Such a one is Jerry Griswold’s review of the second and final volume of M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation in Sunday’s New York Times.
Two of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve had over the past few years were with this extraordinary work of literature. Volume One: The Pox Party, won the National Book Award and many other honors. Volume Two: The Kingdom of the Waves is a more challenging read than the first volume, but is equally enthralling and moving. It is also a challenging book to review. I admit that much as I admired it, I was unable to write something coherent here about it. So I was delight to read Griswold review as he nails the magnificence of this work in a way that I could not and haven’t seen as yet. Some might consider the review somewhat over the top (Anderson is put in the same circle as Melville and Twain), but I feel Griswold truly captured the feat that Octavian Nothing is. A wonderful book and a wonderful review.