Monthly Archives: August 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon and Schuster, 2012), by Benjamin Alire Saenz, in under 48 hours. The same 48 hours in which my husband left on a business trip and I started a new job and still had to care for two children on my own. I read so much I barely slept, and sleep is precious to me. Would you go without eating for a day just to read a book?  Same thing for me with sleep.  I don’t give it up easily. So what makes people do that?  Stay up all night over a book?

In the case of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, it was the characters. Sáenz made me care about the two boys, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, and their dogs. I cared so much about every single person in the whole damn book, really.  How does an author get you to care so much about his characters that you will give up things that are valuable and precious to you just to keep reading? Sáenz did it by:

  1. Showing us who his characters are through their actions.
  2. Having his characters tell us they are one thing, but showing us they are another.
  3. Withholding critical information until the end, and then making it worth waiting for.
  4. Having a character change, really change, during the course of the book.
  5. Giving us characters that have flaws as big as alligators, but are still likeable, then letting them wrestle those alligators right before our eyes.  It’s painful, but riveting.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is the story of two boys, both of them outsiders, both of them awkward.  It’s narrated by Aristotle (Ari), a big angry kid who just can’t make sense of anything: his family (especially his father), other boys his age, girls, and life in general.  When he does make a friend (Dante), he isn’t sure about him either, but Ari learns.  He learns so much in the course of this book.  Ari learns the secrets of the Universe. All of them.  He learns about love and loss and friendship and courage and loyalty and, well, everything.

This is LGBT literature (I guess), but it shouldn’t be labeled, because it transcends any label, like love transcends gender.  This book isn’t really about gay love, it’s about love.  It’s not about boys coming of age, it’s about people becoming aware and mature. It’s important that this book find its audience, and I’m still wondering who that audience is.  Older young adults, for sure (with parents who are okay with their kids reading about real stuff, like masturbation and pot and sexuality), as well as anyone looking to know more about what it feels like to grow up gay today.

Oh yeah, and anyone who believes in love and wants to know what the secrets of the Universe are.  Help this book find its audience.  Read it.


Posted by on August 17, 2013 in Fiction, Young Adult


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We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

I’ve often thought that the very best writing is really just controlled chaos; the creative right brain guided by the analytical left brain, like a wild horse ridden by a professional jockey.  NoViolet Bulawayo writes like this – she knows when to give the horse its head and let it run, but she is skilled enough at her craft to control its course, making the powerful experience of reading her work meaningful.

We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2013) is told in two distinct halves by Darling, a young girl who spends the first ten years of her life dodging the political violence of Zimbabwe and the next part of her life living with an aunt in ‘Destroyedmichygen’.  Darling’s Africa is full of physical poverty and spiritual splendor; her America is full of physical abundance and spiritual emptiness.

This contrast is reflected in Bulawayo’s language:  the first half of the book is rich, magical, dark, steamy, and bursting with energy- Darling is fully alive, using all of her senses to survive. Bulawayo, like the Darling and her friends (Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, and Chipo) doesn’t always distinguish between the real and the imagined; one can create the other, she seems to be telling us, at least in Africa.  In one of the most wrenching scenes in the book, a BBC reporter catches Darling and her friends acting out the murder of a friend in a graveyard in Zimbabwe.  He asks: What kind of game were you just playing? and Bastard answers: Can’t you see this is for real?

In contrast, the second half of We Need New Names is controlled, dulled, and static; as if Darling is seeing everything through a dirty pane of glass.  But it is still Darling’s voice, it is still compelling and honest, and she is as bewildered as we are as to how two such diametrically opposed realities can exist at the same time, on the same planet, and in one person’s experience.

We Need New Names is current and urgent.  It’s as real as it is fictional.  It is a small black hand wiping the grime off of the windows of the world. It says ‘Look! Here is what is happening in Zimbabwe! In America!’.  We Need New Names fully deserves the honor of being long listed for the 2013 Man Booker prize for Fiction for 2013.  It also deserves to be widely read by as many people as possible, and I highly recommend it.

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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Fiction


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