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.





Maggot Moon (by Sally Gardner) – Carnegie Medals and Printz Honors and all that.

16 02 2014

maggotmoonMaggot Moon is a book you “have to” like. It would be considered a) bad taste, b) having no heart and c) “not knowing your stuff”, if you don’t like this book. Well, that’s just not how it works with the cat. Yes, this book won both the Carnegie Medal and a Printz Honor, which should mean a lot, I guess, but I don’t find it a particularly “likable” book. Is this a good book? Yes, for sure because it definitely has more than its share of literary and other merits (it’s “well done”), but I can’t say that I “liked” it very much. And this for the very simple reason that the connect between protagonist, Standish Treadwell, and me, the reader, just wasn’t there.

Maggot Moon is that novel that would be hard to categorize at first. Is it a historical novel? Yes and no. Is it a dystopian novel? Yes and no again to that. Semi-historical ‘alternate outcome of history’ dystopian adventure story would be a good way to describe its setting. The year is… not mentioned for a long time, until you finally learn that it’s 1956. Before that, what you did know is that Standish lives in a society that’s dividing its people into Pure and Impure and people like Standish and his Gramps end up in Zone 7, the zone designated for outcasts and impures. Standish could be living in any totalitarian regime that won a war, but saying he lives in an age in which Nazi Germany “won” the war wouldn’t be a stretch. Almost starving, doing the best he can to survive, Standish goes to a school where the kids are treated brutally. Standish has found solace in the one true friend he’s made, Hector. That is, until something happens and Hector disappears. Standish’s story is also the story of a the race to the moon, the race between important nations that want to put the first man on the moon, and of course the Motherland has gone all-in in this too.

Maggot Moon is lauded almost universally because of its very distinct narrative voice. Standish has a (learning) disability. Although this is not explicitly stated in the book, reading one interview with (or listening to) Sally Gardner and you know the authorial intent here was to give Standish the voice of someone who has dyslexia. In the book this is cause for him to be called ‘stupid’ by a.o. his brutish teacher because he can’t read and write the way a 15-year-old is supposed to, and it’s in part the reason why he lives in Zone 7. That and the fact that he has heterochromia, an “affliction” the cat also “suffers” from. This, obviously is not a serious illness or anything, it just makes you stand out. It’s also one hell of a conversation stopper, you could be in the midst of a conversation with someone and then they’d just stop mid-sentence exclaiming: “You’ve got two different eyes.”  Is this a rare thing? Well, that depends. About 6 in 1000 may have a very mild case of heterochromia iridum , while the things that Standish has (very distinctive, one eye blue, the other brown) would be considered “very rare” (I read numbers of about 2 in a million but also “less than 200 000 people in the US”). Anyway, in Standish’s world it could very well be just one more sign of impurity and a reason to fear for your life. Anyway, the point of view is ‘unique’ in that the reader experiences everything through the (very polished prose, I might add) of a kid with a learning disability. This point of view leads to awkward phrasing sometimes, but also – obviously – to near poetic language because Standish has a very unique way of seeing things in his head. It’s just the words that come differently to him, which means you get metaphors like “doubt is a great worm in a crispy, red apple” or the beating of Standish’s heart is like “an egg bumping against the side of a pan of boiling water.” Yes, that’s all very nice and poetic.  And yes, I do recognize the literary quality of all of this.

But at the same time I cannot shake the feeling that there’s almost too much authorial presence here: it’s Sally Gardner writing pretty sentences, and writing short concise chapters, and making you believe that this is how Standish thinks and experiences everything. In other words, I couldn’t really go along with the “this is Standish’s voice”. To me it felt more like “this is Sally Gardner showing us that Standish thinks and speaks like this”. That being said, I do recognize the “quality” of this book even though it prevented me from fully getting into the book.

And then there are the illustrations in the margins (the rats, the maggots etc.)… a nice find, yes, but absolutely not developed enough, I thought. This part of the book could have made this book stellar (no pun intended)  and then it would have had a much greater impact (think A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay). Now, I felt myself not really looking at them anymore after a few chapters… a mere distraction, rather than an integral part of the story, which I personally think they could (should) have been.

Maggot Moon is a book that is destined to have mass appeal, lots of cross-over potential here… It’s a book for people who loved A curious incident of the dog in the night-time and Wonder. It’s a book for people who like dystopian novels and a book for people who love historical World War II novels.  It’s also a book that I can see ‘grown-ups’ telling their kids they should read (and like). For the cat it’s a book that does have its literary merits but that has some definite flaws as well, flaws which prevented me to fully ‘get’ or ‘like’ this book.





A Gathering Light (by Jennifer Donnelly)

19 08 2011

A Gathering Light – aka A Northern Light in the USA – is a deeply intelligent historical novel, heartwarmingly disguised as a coming-of-age story.  It deserves all the accolades it has received, from Carnegie Medal to Printz Honor book and then some. Multi-layered is an adjective often (mis-)used when describing a book, but in the case of Jennifer Donnelly A Gathering Light, there are more layers than a Caramel Buttercream & Maple Syrup Layer Cake. Read the rest of this entry »








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