Sunday, December 15, 2013

Aristole and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz: and make this Pocho starry-eyed along the way

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Benjamin Alire Saenz
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.
ISBN:  978144240892

Aristotle, or Ari, as he prefers to be called, is fifteen, introverted, bored, and a bit of a loner.  While teaching himself to swim at the local pool, he meets Dante.  Dante is fifteen, extroverted, artistic, has a way with words, and can swim.  Dante offers to teach Ari to swim, and the boys develop a quietly powerful friendship.  Ari’s boundaries begin to be chipped away by Dante’s curiosity, and he begins to ask himself questions about his family, himself, and his world.  When Dante’s family needs to move away for the year for his father’s job, their friendship is tested by distance and, over the course of the year, by the admission of one of the two that he is not attracted to girls.   This story is beautiful, simple, and yet complex on many levels.  It is a strong recommendation for teens 14 and up, and adults.  Every library with an ounce of self-respect should have this in their catalog!

This book is nearly impossible to summarize.  That’s not because it’s super complex, or because I don’t want to spoil it, but the exact opposite (well, except the spoiling part – I hate Uncle Spoiler!).  The story itself is relatively simple as a realistic look into the worlds of two boys and their families, the nuances and secrets that all families have, their related personal growth and search for identity, and the increasing acceptance of self that is true of many coming of age stories.  But this is not a simple coming of age story.
It is extraordinary both in its ability beautifully tell of the complexities in the simplicities of life (yeah, riddle me that), and because it is such a rare, rare bird.  The protagonists are Mexican-American, and while that matters, it’s not the point of the story – it just is, and they just are.  Moreover, this is gay story.  Yes, gay.  That spoils nothing; the only person not clued in at first is our narrator, and I’m 97% certain that if you, like me, are an adult/smart teenager reading this, you’ll pick up on the fact that there are some gay people and some straight people, and really, this is just a story about people: teenage people,  their families, and some just happen to be gay people Mexican-American people…people. Again, it is extraordinary in the simple way it tells this story.  Benjamin Alire Saenz absolutely deserves all the many, many accolades and awards he has received thus far.

Moreover, it is gorgeously, powerfully, quietly written.  The prose is filled taut with careful yearning; each word and passage from Ari’s brain to your eyes is a tiny, carefully exposed, glance at his world that feels like a privilege.  I had to pause and reread a few passages again; they were scintillating (yeah, I went there).  Take this passage about Ari’s mysterious father he struggles to understand, pointing out something in a book (did I just get a little meta?), por ejemplo:
I was more interested in the finger that tapped the book.  That finger had pulled a trigger in a war.  That finger had touched my mother in tender ways I did not fully comprehend.  I wanted to talk…but I couldn’t.  All the words were trapped in my throat. (p 37)
I mean…damn.  I got shivers at the simplicity, power, and beauty of that one line – that one line that elicits the feeling of being held captive, rapt, completely at the mercy that one, tiny finger can have.  Well played, Mr. Saenz, sir!

For me as a reader, there were a few more heck, yes! moments, or things that I really enjoyed.  I loved Ari and Dantes discussion of Mexican nicknames – it made me smile!  I also enjoyed learning that I’m totally a Pocho.  Good to know!  I loved and identified with Ari’s trips to look at the stars; there’s something so beautiful and peaceful in that moment, when you realize just how tiny you are and how vast the universe is.   Case in point:
Through that telescope the world was closer and larger than I’d ever imagined.  And it was all so beautiful and overwhelming and – I don’t know – it made me aware that there was something inside of me that mattered.  (p 40)

Lastly, I hope that there are some bold teachers out there who bring this book into their classrooms.  There are kids who can obviously benefit from a coming of age/out story, for the obvious…but this book affords so many opportunities to have frank discussions about so much in life and exploring your own identity.  For example:  say I had a class of kids.  JUST SAY.  I’d pose the following question from the text and make my minions write me a response.
When do we start feeling like the world belongs to us?  (p 88)
I don’t even know if I have an answer, so I realize this is entirely cruel.   But I’ll ask YOU that, Internets, and follow up with yet another question based on an Ari-musing:
I don’t always have to understand the people I love. (p 91)
So guys – what do you love about the people you love that maybe you don't understand but love regardless?  Good food for thought going into the holiday season!  Let me know, or don’t – just think on it!  I suspect it’s a good one to reflect upon, every now and again.

And now go and read this book.

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