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:


you know what it means

Openly Straight (by Bill Konigsberg)

9 02 2014

Because I have noticed how easily my students are seduced by the cover of a book (Winger, Reality Boy and Boy Toy have all been great hits because of them recently and they have one thing in common: bright and lively, and all very ‘simple’) I do want to mention the great looking cover of Openly Straight: it’s simple and clear and an immediate eye-catcher[1]. But what my hardcover-loving heart loves even more about this edition is how beautifully the icons are presented on the hardcover itself. The attention to detail just won this cat over immediately… (the photo may not do it justice):


As for the book itself – which is obviously still the most important thing, don’t judge a book by its cover and all that, even though it does help – this is much more ‘complex’ than the ‘simple’ cover might suggest. Rafe is an openly gay kid. At least he was at his previous high school in Boulder, Colorado (which I didn’t know seems to have this reputation as being very free-spirited?). But when he starts attending a new all boys boarding school he doesn’t want the label ‘gay kid’ to define how people see him anymore and decides to just not mention his sexual preferences. He claims it’s not about going back into the closet but to just try and forge friendships with people (boys) without having to be seen as “the gay guy”. Being “the gay kid” sort of limited his options in Boulder, he knows he’s more than just that (like maybe he could also be “a jock”), but never got the chance to show that to the others, and he fears the same may become true in Natick, Massachusetts. But obviously things are much more complex than just “not mentioning you’re gay”, especially when Rafe forms a really close friendship with a boy, Ben, at his new school.


Openly Straight is a sweet (and sometimes really funny) sort of book about a completely serious topic: how labels can define who you are, and how to defy labels. It’s also a story about a boy who needs to learn how to stay true to himself. Rafe needs to figure out whether he’s ultimately not losing part of who he is by trying to get rid of “the label”. In doing so, Rafe also does some really questionable stuff and it’s hard to not see some of the things he does as openly self-centred…. However, Openly Straight also hosts a great set of secondary characters, which is a nice bonus, even though some of them tend towards the more stereotypically “quirky” (yes, quirky has now also become a stereotype 😉 ).

[1] And made me think immediately of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, which also had that cool cover!

There’s always hope: Jordan Sonnenblick and David Levithan.

2 11 2013

After a couple of books that definitely didn’t work for the cat, I’m happy I found comfort in two that absolutely did.


Notes from the Midnight Driver (by Jordan Sonnenblick)

notesmidnightThe first is Jordan’s Sonnenblick’s Notes from the Midnight Driver, which the cat bought first and foremost because of the garden gnome on the cover… because seriously: books with garden gnomes rock. Yes, yes, the cat is superficial that way sometimes. However, the story, but especially the characters and the writer’s witty style, definitely did not disappoint either.

Alex is in trouble! His dad gets it on with his third grade teacher, so he is all for giving his dad hell over it. He steals his mom’s car to drive over to his dad, but instead he ends up in his neighbor’s lawn, decapitating a garden gnome in the process. To make matters worse, he pukes all over the cops who arrested him and his mom is angry because her date got interrupted when she needs to bail Alex out. The result: 100 hours of community service in a retirement home. His mom has found just the right guy for Alex to assist: a stubborn, difficult to please, Yiddish guy, Solomon Lewis who’s slowly dying of emphysema. Alex doesn’t like this so much (I mean, it was only a lawn gnome, right?), and he lets Judge Trent, who imposed the sentence, know as much through his notes. But then Alex and Sol start to bond through their common love for (jazz) music, and a new friendship is born.

Tone- and stylewise, this book made me think of Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star a lot. It has the same sense of heart and hope, which is absolutely essential in today’s ever more astringent society. I mean, what is not to love about this book? There’s a kid who makes a mistake, who is allowed to make a mistake, and who learns from it. There’s this great sense of humor at work here in this book (sarcasm rules!). And there is jazz! And garden gnomes! Also, how much do I love Laurie in this book? The words ‘kick’ and ‘ass’ were invented especially for her! Along with Andrew Smith and Chris Crutcher, Jordan Sonnenblick is definitely my 2013 discovery!

4 whole stars!


Two Boys Kissing (by David Levithan)

2boyskissingNot a 2013 discovery for the cat, but a welcome back to the greatness of David Levithan! In his latest book, Two Boys Kissing, Levithan shows himself as an author with a mission to preach (yes, that ugly word) tolerance, acceptance and hope, but also an author with obvious literary ambitions (something, which is often frowned upon – how dare you have any literary ambitions, you YA writer you!). This is something that could easily go awry, but Levithan is an undisputed literary talent.

Something as uncommon as first person plural narration is yes, admittedly, hard to get into at first, but only because of the fact that it’s uncommon, not because it doesn’t work in this story, because it does. This is a story that demands to be heard by the world and the “we” of the narration gives the experiences narrated a certain universality.  The “we” in the story act like a Greek Chorus. They are the generation of gay men that died en masse from AIDS. They are watching several contemporary boys live their lives, and they are commenting on these lives, wondering about the boys and marveling how things have changed for them, but also how some things are exactly the same over the generations.

Narratively speaking, this point of view does take some getting used to, but once you get to know the different boys and their lives, what a wonder this book is. It shows the diversity within today’s gay teens: racially, contextually, situationally… just like there is diversity in anything else in the world and in society. And with this diversity of teens comes a diversity in emotions: acceptance, rage, frustration, hope, confusion, love, … always love.

And even though the chorus is what ties the different teens together, the ‘two boys kissing’ are structurally as important in this book. Craig and Harry want to set a world record for the longest kiss ever (which is over 32 hours!).   And even though they are no longer a couple they want to show to the world that two boys can just be kissing. They were led to do this by something that happened to another gay boy they know, Tariq, who was the victim of a hate crime. Tariq will be filming them during their attempt, showing the two boys kissing to the world. And the world approves sometimes, and the world disapproves at other times. Sometimes the world doesn’t even care… Meanwhile we see other gay teens at different stages in their relationships or in their acceptance of who they are, like long-standing couple Peter and Neil, and the maybe almost couple to be Avery and Ryan who are just getting to know each other, and Cooper, who is alone after his mom so rudely found out that he is gay and now doesn’t know what to do anymore.

Two Boys Kissing shows what it’s like to be a gay teen in contemporary American society, but at the same time it is firmly grounded in the past and points toward the future.  A truly trans-generational book. There’s no denying that Two Boys Kissing is a book with a message. There’s no denying that David Levithan is advocating something here. There’s also no denying that David Levithan totally pulls it off because of his sheer talent. This is an important, ambitious, powerful, poetic and poignant book. David Levithan is absolutely boss!

5 stars!

Stick (by Andrew Smith)

17 08 2013

stickAndrew Smith is definitely one of the fiercest voices in YA at the moment. From several interviews, I get that he’s not all that happy with his books being labeled one way or the other, because he doesn’t write his books with a particular audience in mind, but I’ll be damned, this is some of the best YA literature there is, my friend, and you should be proud of that.

Stick is a perfect example of this: it’s both heartbreaking and sad on the one hand, and comforting and hopeful on the other.  Stark McClellan is 13. Born with just one ear and unbelievably tall for his age, he’s mostly called Stick. Luckily he can rely on his older brother Bosten, who literally fights some of his battles, and his best friend Emily who just takes him the way he is, just because that’s how Emily is. Perfect. The bond he has with Bosten and Emily is the only beautiful thing in his life. Kids are cruel and Stick gets bullied, a lot, for his otherness.  But that’s nothing compared with the ugliness and cruelty that the brothers have to endure at home. However, more than a book about abuse, this book is about relationships, how they were, how they change, how they are now, but most especially about the bond between brothers. About the support they give each other and the way love really can be an unconditional thing.

What Smith excels at is characterization. Stick is awkward and innocent and unsure, the way all 13, almost 14-year-olds can be. And Andrew Smith absolutely nails this teenage voice. This is a real kid, you know? He’s not brighter than most teens you know, he’s not quirkier than most teens you know, he’s not more of a smart-ass than most teens you know. He’s just taller. And the way you get to see the world is entirely through Stick’s eyes. He thinks every family has rules the way his family has rules. He thinks the abuse is absolutely normal, and is how problems are dealt with in families. But when you read his voice, and you get inside his head, you know that everything this kid is going through is wrong, and you’re aching for him, and you’re yelling at some of the other characters: “OPEN YOUR EYES! BAD THINGS ARE HAPPENING TO THIS KID!” And it’s weird that they don’t see it, but you know that that is how it goes. Abuse often goes unnoticed by people’s immediate surroundings, and it’s hard to see the positive side of things, because you KNOW that what Bosten, Stick’s older brother, says is true: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.”

And that’s the second thing that makes Andrew Smith different from a lot of other contemporary YA writers: his willingness to take his readers to places they are not comfortable with. [i] And I’m not talking about “teens having sex” or “teens drinking” and other normal teen behavior that stupid grown-ups who don’t actually read the books often object to. I’m talking about a discussion of inherent (a)moral human behavior, a hot pickle if ever there was one. I can think of 2 other YA writers who are as uncompromising in their attitude towards moral ambiguity as Andrew Smith, Adam Rapp and Rick Yancey, coincidentally also two writers who people (mostly people who hardly read any YA) often almost accuse of not writing real YA. Sigh. Smith doesn’t really elaborate on why the parents are abusive, or how it came about, but Bosten obviously sums it up: “things don’t make people the way they are…they just are.” And in The Marbury Lens Smith does offer us a deeper insight into how people get screwed up, of course, and it’s actually interesting to ask the question: what will Stick grow up to be like? And Bosten?  Will things just … be for them?

The cat owes A.S. King lots and lots! If it hadn’t been for her, I’d never even have heard of Andrew Smith. So thanks, Amy!  Andrew Smith now belongs on the cat’s list[ii]: I’ll read anything these people publish!

[i] It’s also why the ending came a bit too soon (or too late, depending on how you look at it), because I didn’t quite buy into how fast Bosten did what he did at the end, and also the way the actual ending was a bit too sweet… Silver linings are good. Stick and Bosten deserve and needed a silver lining, but I would have liked it not to be that ‘quick’… this was a rushed ending.

[ii] Adam Rapp, A.S. King, Barry Lyga, John Green, Sarah Dessen. I might also throw in M.T. Anderson and Gregory Galloway.

Story of a Girl (by Sara Zarr)

5 06 2013

variousszarrThe cat’s been hearing great things about Sara Zarr’s recent novel The Lucy Variations. Because I usually like to read books chronologically, I ordered both The Lucy Variations and Story of a Girl. And man, if Story of a Girl is anything to go by, The Lucy Variations is going to be such a great book! Because I loved Story of a Girl a lot, a lot, a lot! This is a “quick” read (seems almost deceptively easy), but it’s one of the most powerful little novels I’ve read in a while, and one that I will remember for a long time.

It’s about an uncomfortable topic, for sure: a 13-year-old (Deanna) caught in a car of a senior, both with their pants down, by her father… only to be called the school slut forever after. If this were the only thing Story of a Girl were about, it would already be hard to take in, but Zarr throws in a main character who – despite not wanting to be defined by her past – never really becomes an entirely lovable character either (and there’s a thing or two to be said about writing unlikable characters, right?).  Deanna is 16 now, and ever since that event she’s wanted to escape her past and the stamp she was given. That didn’t quite work out for her, though. At school she’s still that girl and her dad hasn’t even so much as looked at her since that evening.

Oh man, this book is such a punch in the face. I really really loved it! Deanna made a mistake when she was still just a kid… 13 she was, and messed up, and yes, taken advantage of… and of course she wasn’t responsible , but she sure as hell thinks she was. And now, 3 years later, she’s in love with the (only) friend who stood by her since then, but who happens to have a girlfriend who happens to be Deanna’s only other friend… Things get ugly and complicated, and Deanna doesn’t know how to respond to it all, and she acts the ways she acts, and… but it’s so incredibly honest and real that it’s hard to see fault in the way Deanna acts now, to me. It’s not that I feel sorry for her, it’s that I get why she is the way she is.

Compassion, selfishness, redemption, loyalty, truth. It’s about all of these things and more. If I love The Lucy Variations half as much as I love this book, it’s going to be one hell of a book!

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