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.





Just Listen (by Sarah Dessen)

7 03 2014

justlistenFinishing up on Grasshopper Jungle is a hard thing to do, probably like coming off a drug cold turkey… so any book following that would have been, well… a letdown. That’s why I played it a bit safer and decided to pick up a book that I knew beforehand I would at least like. Didn’t need to love it, but like would have been good… which lead me to Sarah Dessen. And I got exactly what I expected from Just Listen. There was nothing in this book – which actually has a bit of a Speak-vibe, btw – that I didn’t expect, which means, that yes, although Dessen is definitely following a formula, her writing and character development is up to par – as per usual. Just Listen isn’t the best Sarah Dessen (I’m still very much in love with The Truth About Forever), but it’s Sarah Dessen, you know?

Next up? Adam Rapp’s The Buffalo Tree.





Grasshopper Jungle (by Andrew Smith)

26 02 2014

gj1I could say that Grasshopper Jungle made me think of Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram. I could say, that yes, there are echoes of Kurt Vonnegut. I could also say that if Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Terry Gilliam ever thought about collaborating, they should give Andrew Smith a call. I could even say that if this doesn’t win the Printz next year, I’m going to use Pulse-O-Matic® showerheads on the Printz committee in ways they never thought possible.  But I’m not going to. Because I am bigger than that. And that is the truth.

Grasshopper Jungle is all Andrew Smith. In the acknowledgements of the book, Smith writes that he has been writing all his life, even when he never considered the idea of publication. He also writes that about two years ago he decided to stop writing – meaning: being in the business of writing, the actual writing of course, was not something he was about to stop. He goes on to say:

“I never felt so free as when I wrote things that I believed nobody would ever see. Grasshopper Jungle was one of those things.”

Grasshopper Jungle and Andrew Smith are why I don’t believe in book packagers or in all those so-called creative writing classes and programs.  I don’t think you can learn how to be(come) a writer. Sure, they can teach you some of the more technical things like writing arcs, and they can maybe even show you a few neat tricks with point of view and what have you, but they cannot teach you “how to be a writer”. You are a writer. And writers will write.

Also, if this were a film class, Andrew Smith would be an auteur – ‘author’ – whose creative voice infuses his entire body of work. What is Andrew Smith’s creative voice, I hear you ask? Balls, I tell you. History shows that balls are always involved in the creation of art in general and in the creation of great books more specifically. Balls and garden gnomes (obviously). And more than a healthy dose of ‘fuck you too, boxes’. You know what I mean.

Grasshopper Jungle is a real dynamo of a book. Good books are always about everything (p.76-332). And Grasshopper Jungle is a good book. It is not a book that lets itself be summarized in – “abbreviated to” – a few sentences.  I don’t even want to try and do that, but there’s the town of Ealing, Iowa. There is Austin Szerba and his two best friends, Robby Brees and Shann Collins, who he is both in love with and feels very confused about. And horny.  It’s also about “babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.” (p.8) Don’t go complaining to censors and stupid school boards afterwards that you weren’t warned about this. It also has awesome words like askance (p.279) and characters named Ollie Jungfrau (who gets erections when he kills aliens in video games, p.294 😉 ).

Grasshopper Jungle is so many different books: family chronicle, history book, historiography, coming-of-age,  science fiction,… It’s looking at history and writing history. Everything is connected and roads and genres keep on crossing at the point of Andrew Smith’s pen (p.368). The impact sixteen-year-old confused boys can have on the (end of the) world is enormous. And sometimes sixteen-year-old boys can be Gods. That is what history shows and that’s what Andrew Smith knows.

crazy amount of notes

crazy amount of notes

History also shows that books like Grasshopper Jungle can start wars: “Too many balls! Too many shits! Makes good Lutheran boys horny! Too many erections! Masturbation! Save our children! Who is this book for? This is not YA!” And shit like that.

History shows cats have great taste. I fucking love this book. There’s nothing I don’t love about it. It’s huge, it’s all-embracing. It fills in so many blanks. It’s so bold. The language and the rhetoric are absolutely perfect for what this book wants to be (and do to its reader). Rhetorically, for me there is a perfect balance between historiographic seriousness, formality and detachment, and a 16–year-old’s very personal and real and totally informal narrative voice.  Smith, man, seriously, … you should write more books just for yourself. And Michael Bourret can indeed not be thanked enough.

But most importantly: thank you, Andrew Smith, for your balls and for this book and for being unstoppable.

 

  • Grasshopper Jungle came out in the US on 11 February 2014, published by Dutton Juvenile / Penguin.
  • Grasshopper comes out in the UK tomorrow (27 February 2014), published by Egmont: @EgmontUK. Yes, I will buy that copy too, because it has some extra paragraphs apparently.
  • Follow Andrew Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

 

PS. Some people say that Andrew Smith might have been high when he wrote this book. I know better. This one is for you, Andrew:

gj3

you know what it means





Swim the Fly (by Don Calame)

22 02 2014

swimthefly2There are not enough “funny” books for teens. When students come in and ask for a ‘funny’ book, I never know what I can recommend. Because my type of ‘funny’ hardly ever is their type of ‘funny’. I thought Libba Bray’s Going Bovine was at time so over-the-top hilarious (basically any book with garden gnomes is going to have a definite level of ‘funny’ to me), but when I give them that, they’re usually underwhelmed with the ‘fun’ part. Same thing with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I gave it to this one girl who just thought it was boring. OK, so she’d picked it up because apparently it was Greenesque (or so she’d heard on one of the YouTube channels she’s subscribed to) and maybe she just had the wrong expectations, but seriously… me, I laughed my ass off at times with that book. So yeah, funny books… hard to recommend them. But…but… I think I finally found it. I think I have found the book (maybe even the author) that will no doubt have them in stitches. Swim the Fly by Don Calame has to be that book.

Matt Gratton is 15 and with his 2 best friends, Coop and Sean, he always sets himself a summer goal, usually something stupid, but this year with them being 15 and all, they have set them the ultimate teenage boy dream as a goal: see a girl naked, like for real and live. Yeah, it’s going to be that kind of book, and that kind of funny, think There’s something about Mary, “boy” bathroom humor (like literally this time, the Y-bathroom scene is absolutely laugh-out-loud hilarious!).

Think humor is not enough in a book? Well there’s more: there’s a girl (actually more than one), there’s a grumpy grandpa looking for love (love Arlo!), there’s sport and being the underdog,… this book has everything my 15-year-old (boy) students want: crude sex jokes, poop humor (sorry, but it’s true), a bit of romance, a witty writing style with funny scene after funny scene which makes the pages fly past so they’re through with this book in no time.

I can’t believe it took me this long to find out about Don Calame! I’m definitely going to get the other books in this series: Beat the Band features Coop and Call the Shots features Sean as main character. So yeah, funny books… if this isn’t going to do it, I don’t know what will…

Oh yeah, I do want to mention the one negative thing about the edition I read. There must have been something wrong with the typesetting, because I got these weird words like in the picture below (always with the letter M). So damn annoying! If it’s not the typesetting, then edit this out asap! Because that part wasn’t funny…

swimthefly1

 

swimthefly3





Double take (October 2013)

23 10 2013

Two authors proved this week that they’re among the cat’s favorites: Chris Crutcher and Anthony McGowan.

Hello Darkness (by Anthony McGowan)

hellodarknessWith Hello Darkness McGowan shows just how much of a ‘funny’ serious writer he is. The topic of this book is no joke, though. Johnny Middleton has had some serious (mental) problems in the past and he’s still being bullied because of them. And right at this time, there’s a killer on the loose at his school. Not just any ordinary killer: a vicious take no prisoners miscreant who’s killing off the weakest of the weak: the school’s animals, from stick insects over hamsters to chickens! Whodunnit? That is the question! Because of his past, Johnny’s prime suspect number 1, but he’s hell bent (get it, get it?) on proving that someone else at school – Queen or Lardie? Or maybe even the evil vice-principal? – is responsible for these heinous crimes! In true noir style (including the wise cracks, the incredibly cool similes, the (middle school) femme fatale…), McGowan leads us along in Johnny’s quest for truth… but the truth is an elusive and ambiguous concept when you have to rely on a narrator with ‘issues’, like Johnny who forgets his meds once in a while.

Anthony McGowan is funny! He really really is! And this book, which is just the right amount of twisted and dark, puts him up there amongst the best contemporary British authors!

Oh and look at that gorgeous cover!

4 stars

 

Whale Talk (by Chris Crutcher)

whaletalkCrutcher’s Whale Talk dates back to 2001 and is trademark Crutcher: highly readable, a tad funny, sad at times, sports-oriented and not holding back on the more controversial issues of our time: multiculturalism (our protagonist T.J. is the biological son of a white mom and a half African-American / half American-Japanese father), abuse, racism, bullying, gun violence… you name it, it’s there, all blended together in the most realistic and believable of ways. Never gratuitous! It’s obvious that book banners never read the books they challenge or ban!

Despite being a great athlete, T.J. has always refused to join any of the sports teams at his high school. This has angered the sports coaches, who pride themselves on “school spirit” and the athletic prowess of the school’s sports teams. But T.J. (whose real name is “The Tao Jones”, by the way) is no stranger to hard challenges, and with the help of John Simet, his English teacher, he decides to start a swim team even though the school… has no pool. T.J.’s goal: to earn the letter jackets that are the envy of every sports buff at his school. To accomplish this, T.J. recruits the outcasts of the school, including Chris Coughlin, an intellectually disabled student (who’s been bullied by some of the most vicious jocks, like Mike Barbour) Dan Hole (who prefers to speak in multi-syllable words), bodybuilder Tay-Roy, the one-legged Andy Mott, the non-talking Jackie Craig and the obese Simon DeLong.

Crutcher’s book and Crutcher’s language is powerful! When we’re introduced to Heidi, for instance, the black girl whose stepfather abuses her in such a way that she tries to wash off her black skin with steel wool, we’re shown what truly evil people are capable of. Why would you want to challenge or ban a book like this? Whale Talk is a book that promotes open-mindedness and tolerance. It doesn’t promote profanity (despite the language used) and it doesn’t promote racism. Rather it shows what hardships people have to go through, and the situations in the books may make you feel uncomfortable – they should! – but they’re real (Crutcher has long been a teacher for at risk kids,  and a therapist).  So this book: absolutely necessary and a must read for everyone with a heart.

4 stars





Ghost Medicine ( by Andrew Smith)

16 10 2013

GhostMedicinePBAndrew Smith never disappoints. And there are some very good reasons for that: Andrew Smith never plays it safe and never compromises on what he thinks his story needs. His debut novel, Ghost Medicine sets this unflinching tone already.  And that’s exactly why he is an Author to admire: authenticity and integrity!

Ghost Medicine tells the story of 16-year-old Troy Stotts. After his mother died, he and his father have drifted apart. Troy turns to his horses, and to the mountains, for solace. Luz, the girl he’s always been in love with, manages to track him down up in a cabin in the mountains, and brings him back. Luckily, Troy also has two best friends, Gabe – the son of the rancher that Troy works for, and Luz’s sister – and Tom Buller, who can help him cope with the loss and together they go through the summer that will make them into who they are. But as with any Smith story, there’s an evil and brutal truth lurking, one that will mark the boys forever.

Andrew Smith’s fundamental love for the natural world and horses is an asset here, as the setting of Ghost Medicine is what makes this an almost transcendental experience to read. This is contemporary Western done at its very very best! Added to that is a most intriguing and tragic story of 3 boys who each deal with their own personal damages.





The Raven Boys (by Maggie Stiefvater)

24 09 2013

ravenboys1It pays off to go into a book without expectations! Especially when dealing with a paranormal fantasy thingie, which is so not my thing! This just to say that I absolutely loved reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys: it was mysterious, it’s a real bulky read (love me some of those!) and it provides some good old-fashioned fun to get sucked into.

I’m glad too that paranormal fantasy doesn’t always need to equal paranormal romance. Even though there’s a bit of romance involved obviously (that’s the whole prophecy thing that starts the whole book!), it really is more in the background of the book, and the focus is definitely on “the boys” (with Gansey being at the forefront here) and their friendship and I’d argue that the female protagonist Blue is – up to now – merely a character in the margin of that friendship and the mystery of the ley lines and the search for this really weird Welsh king!

Yes, yes, you got that right: we get a whole tapestry of strange and X-filesy stuff here. And although it’s definitely a book that sets up a whole new series (complete with slow buildup, which I actually liked) and is as such not entirely satisfactory (lots of unexplained elements), there’s more than enough here to get the cat interested in the rest of the series (which couldn’t be said of other firsts in a series…), especially the somewhat unusual male protagonists (I feel Adam and Ronan will become quite the characters, more so even than Gansey…).

More please!








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