Saturday, September 14, 2013

REVIEW: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Title: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Benjamin Alire Saenz Twitter
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 21, 2012
Pages: 368
Buy It! amazon
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: A lyrical novel about family and friendship from critically acclaimed author Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

First Thoughts: A beautiful, soul-searching story! I got a bit stuck in the beginning, but I am SO glad I stuck with it. I won’t be forgetting these characters for a long time; in fact, I’ll see them in the faces of my students on a day-to-day basis.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this story - I went in blindly based on recommendations - and, what I got was the beautiful literary journey of two amazing characters. The writing in this book is just WOW! I found myself frequently stopping to write down lines of lyrical prose, and of course, the teacher in me kept thinking that this is the perfect book to model the writer’s craft. In all seriousness, this has to be some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time - in adult or young adult literature. I know some colleagues who put down young adult literature as fluff; well, next time I hear those comments, I’m putting a copy of this book in their hands.

Here’s just a taste of the writing style: I sometimes think that I don’t let myself know what I’m really thinking about. That doesn’t make much sense but it makes sense to me. I have this idea that the reason we have dreams is that we’re thinking about things we don’t know we’re thinking about – and those things, well, they sneak out of us in our dreams. Maybe we’re like tires with too much air in them. The air has to leak out. That’s what dreams are.

The story doesn’t feature a lot of action or adventure, it’s just a beautiful (cannot overuse that word in relation to this book) story that leaves an imprint on your soul. It’s a more character-driven, less plot-driven story, which I fear might lose some of its appeal on teen readers. It actually reminded me a lot of A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers, in that it’s a story about teens questioning identity but not wanting to be forced into a label or decision. I think that concept of “Who the heck am I?” is so relevant for teens today; actually, it’s probably relevant for everyone in today’s society.

Throughout their story and relationship, Dante and Aristotle question their identities, their sexualities, and their culture. I loved the Mexican American pieces of the text - can you just be mainstream American or do you have to stay Mexican; how does that work? I see a lot of students walking that same line on a day-to-day basis. You’re judged by your family and culture if you assimilate too much, but if you don’t, you’re seen as an outsider by the rest of society. No wonder Aristotle was angry all the time. And, oh my goodness, was his anger palpable - I felt myself getting angry right along with him! These characters explained so much about my students to me, and honestly, I can see my students relating to both Dante and Aristotle in an almost therapeutic way.

Final Thoughts: Saenz is able to capture with words the conflicting feelings most people feel everyday. It’s a lyrical, poetic, beautifully moving story about questioning who you truly are. The more I sit and think about the book, the more I love it!

Who Should Read It? I think this book is going to take a specific type of reader - it’s not one I would recommend wholesale to everyone. It will connect with anyone’s who’s ever felt different, anyone’s who’s ever questioned who they are. I also think John Green fans will enjoy the writing style and development of the characters (Dante and Aristotle are very Augustus and Hazel like in their conversations). And, if you’re just a fan of beautiful, meaningful writing, then definitely read this book.

1 comment:

  1. You have totally sold me on this book. I am definitely a fan of character-based novels and this just screams my name. I am very excited about this one. Thanks so much for the review!