Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (by Benjamine Alire Sáenz)

10 06 2014

Aristotle and DanteAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the most poetic, most beautiful, book I have read all year. It is so many things at the same time: a book about friendship, a book about family, a book about love, a book about heart, a book about secrets, a book about truth, a book about what it means to discover the secrets of the universe.

This book is such a special thing, the language deceptively simple, which renders it so powerful and a book for all ages. Every word of every sentence is meticulously placed and makes the reading so natural and the whole experience of reading this book so powerful and magical at the same time.

In a vague attempt to lay out the plot: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Ari (Aristotle) Mendoza, a loner and an angry boy. It is summer 1987 and Ari meets Dante Quintana, who is completely unlike Ari. Dante is open and joyful and he teaches Ari how to swim. It is a meeting that will evolve into a friendship and this friendship is something that will change both of their lives forever, in ways neither of them could have foreseen.

And even though the friendship between the two boys is the focus of the story, there are so many other elements in the book that just shine, not in the least the way in which the grown-ups are not described as ‘obstacles’ in the process of growing up (as is sometimes the case in certain YA novels), nor are they nuisances of magically absent, no: they are very much there. Also, most things are just so obvious in this book, it’s not really about putting things into question for the sake of it, but about discovering things, discovering things that Ari had hidden in himself for a long time. There are so many things going on – yes, this is about Mexican-Americans and how to reconcile different lifestyles, yes this is about sexuality, yes this is about a family with a dad who’s a war veteran and a son who is in prison, etc. – but it is all treated in the most normal way possible, like “this is how things are, let’s find a way to ourselves again, navigating through all that”. Of course there are also struggles and fears but these struggles and fears happen in lots of families and they may happen to all boys who are trying to find a way to their soul. And family and friendship formed the much needed anchors to confront the struggles and fears that Ari had. As such, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe describes both unique and very individual struggles and fears, but has an unmistakable universality as well, something which is the hallmark of true Literature.

For all those people out there who say that YA (or MG or…) doesn’t have any depth, for all those people out there who say that YA does not have any meaningful characters, for all those people out there who say that YA is not Literature, you are Wrong with a capital W. With Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe I have, yet again, a book here that completely overturns your biased little minds.

Nothing Special (by Geoff Herbach)

28 02 2013

nothingspecialYA literature is often accused of being oversaturated with female voices… the voices of its authors is what people mostly talk about then, but by extension also often the voices of its main (female) protagonists. Anyone who reads more than a handful YA books a year will know that is as much perception as it is an actual verifiable fact (male “voices”, for instance are in no way underappreciated when it comes to “recognition”). For all those people who think there really are no great fresh male voices in YA anymore, I present you Geoff Herbach and Felton Reinstein!

Nothing Special is the second book in a planned series of three (I’m with Stupid is set for publication on 1 May 2013) and is the follow up to the excellent Stupid Fast. Although Felton’s voice is still what grabs the reader from the get go, the formatting is slightly different. Felton is now writing down his story in letters to Aleah, which he time- and datestamps along a trip to… . During that trip Felton is slowly realizing that the things he does and the things that are happening to him are not without consequence. Action. Reaction. And one of those reactions is that his brother Andrew started to feel left out after Felton mega-transformation and sort of runs away to Florida to figure things out for himself and what his family really is all about. In Nothing Special, Felton is also completely alienated from his best friend Gus,  and from Aleah, who he thinks ditched him to go off to Germany. Most of all, though, his kid brother starts to act all weird…  and what we get is a dual narrative timeline: Felton on his trip, writing letters to Aleah. And Felton talking about what leads up to the actual trip. And by writing everything down Felton does some more growing as he starts to understand how he basically had his head up his ass all last year.

Anyone who read Stupid Fast – and you really should, because, for one, you won’t understand a lot of what’s going on in Nothing Special, but second, it’s just a Stupid Funny Excellent Book – will not need convincing here, but seriously, Felton is one of the most believable male teenage voices since Sherman Alexie’s Junior! It’s great to read a character who is as fresh as any John Green character but who also doesn’t sound like he’s way older than he actually is and just stays in teen character all the time, body odor, dumb decisions and total awkwardness included. He’s one weird dude and part of one weird family and this weirdness adds to the uniqueness of his voice. Felton may also not realize it just yet, but he behaves like he’s the center of the universe (pretty much like any teenager does, right?) and doesn’t see how this affects Andrew and Gus and his other friends. Felton is always completely charming in his utter cluelessness about his family and friends, though, and once he realizes what narcissism really is, he might be ready for the next step… a step which he’ll undoubtedly take in I’m with Stupid. Bonus: Nothing Special has quotable one-liners galore!

The Piper’s Son (by Melina Marchetta)

13 10 2012

The Piper’s Son, published in 2010, is a sort of companion/follow up novel to Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca (2003). It features characters which also appeared in Saving Francesca and even though it’s not an absolute requirement that you have read it too, it might help to get some of the back story of some characters in The Piper’s Son.

The Piper’s Son is set 5 years after the events in Saving Francesca and Marchetta has made Tom Mackee  (who “want[s]  to be the first male in the Mackee family to reach 40 and still have a liver) and his aunt Georgie the focus of this razor-sharp, character-driven literary tour de force.  Tom Mackee has reached rock bottom.  It’s two years after his uncle Joe got blown to bits in a London tube station and he also lost the girl he had a one-and-a-half-night-stand with (Tara Finke). Tom is angry, Tom is sad, Tom is lonely, Tom’s an asshole. Tom is everything you don’t wish your friend, brother or dearest to be. He is completely broken and it doesn’t look like he wants to get fixed or healed, and it doesn’t really look like he can. After pretty much getting kicked out of his apartment, he moves back in with his aunt Georgie, who has her own set of problems: pregnant by her ex-boyfriend of 7 years, Sam, she doesn’t only have to deal with the fact that she’s 42 and pregnant for the first time, she also has to relive all the complicated emotions of anger and confusion she felt all those years ago after Sam’s betrayal (he got a kid, Callum, with another woman). On top of that there’s her family (both the living and the dead members of it) to deal with. Tom, of course, but also her alcoholic brother Dom who left his own family, but wants to get back in. Both Tom and Georgie suffer from the stubbornness that is a key Mackee-Finch family trait and that now also threatens to be the main obstacle for any possibility to recover from their past and their grief.

Although The Piper’s Son starts out as a tragedy full of heartache, it’s also an incredibly warm family portrait that is described with such raw honesty and intensity, that it will make you sad when you have to leave the family at the end of the book. There’s nothing dysfunctional about this family or about this bunch of friends: this is exactly the way families with a past interact or friends with history relate to one another. This is how they function, and this is what they have to get through to get closure and a future. And although there is so much bleakness, self-destructive behavior and drama in these characters’ lives, there’s also humor, and there are these great lifelike scenes, emails and conversations (the dialogue is absolutely outstanding!) in the book that will make you smile and laugh and wish you could have been there with them.

If there’s any author that can convince even the most reluctant and skeptic of adult that YA is more than “books for kids”, and is proper Literature with a capital L, then it’s Melina Marchetta. If you still think otherwise after reading The Piper’s Son, then you’re either  a) one of those old white men who decides what people should read or b) a complete nitwit, or (the cat’s favorite) c) a total doofushead.  You’re beyond saving.

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