As evidenced by the three stickers of award-endorsing-approval on the cover, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is well regarded by people who control stickers on books. Also by all of the young adults on the internet. And then all the readers on Goodreads. Why do they like it? It’s a romance, a bildungsroman, a redemption for the weirdo (and don’t all readers of YA identify as weirdos, themselves?), an affirmation of family, an exploration of identity in all its shapes. Continue reading
Category Archives: Young Adult Fiction
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: Why you might choose cake over this novel. If you were me.
A beach read (or if you’re like me, a book you read in the shade in the general proximity to the beach, but more probably far from the beach because of Freckles and Sun and Burns) ought to accomplish a few things: it should be the sort of book that you can read a few pages of and then doze off, wake up and keep reading without entirely losing the thread of the plot; at the same it should be the sort of book that you don’t want to doze off while reading because it should have a compelling plot; it should not pander to your blockbuster whims by delivering candy characters and thematic explosions; at the same time it should not require scrupulous close reading in order to unravel or form an opinion; it should probably involve some elements of the fantastical because you are, after all, on some kind of holiday from your own life when you’re reading a beach read; at the same time, it should include no fantasy at all because you don’t really care for wizards and prefer your drama to come from everyday life (being the sun-sensitive Muggle that you are).
As you may have gathered I’m drafting my 2016 cottage reads list now (which is your invitation to send me your suggestions – post to come before July 17). Had I been drafting the list before reading Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap I’d probably have put it on the list because it fits the bill (though I hardly knew that before I started reading it). So if you’re assembling your own little “what to read while on holiday” list I’d suggest adding Bone Gap to the contenders. Why?
It’s magic realist fiction (and young adult fiction) at its finest in that it marries the imaginative other world of magic and whimsy with the harsh and heartbreaking moments so that you come away rethinking your expectations of relationships. Told from a panoply of perspectives and weaving together greek myth and decollage pop theology, the novel follows two brothers as they sort out love, life without parents (*cough* another orphan young adult fiction novel?!) and the quest (make that Quest) to save a damsel in distress (which turns out to be about saving themselves because this damsel doesn’t need saving thankyouverymuch). It has some bizzare bits with animals, talking corn and small town gossip. It is a delight of Important Themes and bursts of exquisite writing. It’s the sort of book you’re very satisfied to be reading while you’re reading it, and also sure that it won’t trouble you much once you’re done: aka: a perfect beach read.
So there you go. Read Bone Gap or don’t and you probably won’t be better or worse for either. You’ll have a good time if you read it though. And if you have an eleven year old in your life you could safely give it to them and know that you would be the Coolest for doing so (actually there’s a fair bit of mature sexual theme so maybe you’d want to be prepared for your eleven year old to blush or to Not Talk About the Sexy Bits).
Your turn: what should I read this summer? First ten suggestions get serious consideration. Though after the debacle of last summer (and 2014, and 2013) I reserve the right to ignore your suggestions if I deem them ridiculous.
The internet loves Lesley Walton and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. They love the love story. The magic. The mystery of the ending. They love love love this YA novel. It’s enough to fill this reader with despair. How can so many people love a book that is so completely and totally average?
Maybe it’s like every time I’ve ever had a glass of wine with C. and R. I get super excited about the $15 bottle and its smooth taste, because really I can barely tell the difference between red and white. You get me – I’m accusing readers of The Strange and Beautiful as having unrefined tastes. Even though the readers are meant to be young adults who haven’t tasted enough to know what’s good or not. Ohmygoshdidshejustwritethat. Yes. Yes I did. Sometimes you need a trusted sommeli (*cough* let me, like Walton, make my analogy clear: a librarian. a teacher. a well-read friend) to steer you in the right direction. To correct your gushes of enthusiasm for the overly sweet – the gewurztraminer you can’t get enough of, the wine spritzer you claim as life changing.
On the surface this book should be good. It uses magic realism to explore… oh wait, nothing. Babies born with wings and mothers with a magical sense of smell, aunties that turn into canaries. All to suggest – get this – those who are different are sometimes mistreated by the rest of society that doesn’t quite understand difference. An overly pious man who brutalizes a young woman lets us know sometimes religion is hateful. It offers up some beautiful writing and then includes sentences like “death smelled like sadness” and images of women wearing *actual* wedding dresses to signal virginity. And then *actual* dirty wedding dresses to signal sexual awakening. You could defend these trite and surface elements as a consequence of the novels intended young adult audience, but then you’d run up against the inclusion of sexually graphic scenes and vivid moments of violence that – while certainly not to be forbidden the young adult, nevertheless read as intentionally provocative inclusions at best. Add in the underdeveloped and internally inconsistent characters, the absence of any plot conflict worth describing and a thematic depth better described as evaporation and you get… a wildly overrated novel.
Am I being overly arrogant in claiming to know what’s good or not in books? What makes for good value in reading? Sure. But it’s not a matter of taste. Books are not simply neutral objects awaiting the individual preferences of readers (*bracing for onslaught of outrage*). I appreciate different readers will enjoy different things – your Merlot for your Cab Sav – but there are qualitative differences and popularity is not one of them. Trust me?
2014 has been a year for “think pieces” on young adult fiction. Beginning with the Slate “Against YA” , other writers took up the question of why adults read fiction purportedly written and marketed to young adults and many asked whether this was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing (see The New York Times “The Death of Adulthood” , Salon’s defense of The Fault in Our Stars, the New Yorker’s “The Great YA Debate” and Book Riot’s take “23 Things I’d Rather Read than Another Think Piece On What’s ‘Wrong’ With Children’s Literature” — what is a ‘think piece’ anyway, if not another way for Slate to describe an article?)
What I want to do here is not to rehash the same ‘good’ or ‘bad’ question, but rather to describe three moments from Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker that, to me anyway, suggest that the genre debate is beside the point. What we would be better off doing, as readers, as cultural consumers, is asking questions about the merits of individual books, how they get read and discussed, what their impact might be on readers of whatever age. When we fall into disparaging an entire [genre][generation] we forget that the nuance and depth of individual books within this genre varies wildly, just as those who read them do. To the extent that we might be better off asking if there are “good” and “bad” readers, rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices of texts.
Tirade aside – here’s three things about Ship Breaker that I found provocative:
1. The exploration of income inequality and precarious labour: As the novel opens, our protagonist, Nailer, is maneuvering through the dangerous innards of a ship in order to extract valuable copper for his owner/patron. While doing this work we learn that this work will soon be beyond him as he’ll grow too big to fit in the narrow passages; we also witness as he is injured and worries about whether he will be able to work with his injury because ‘time off for illness’ isn’t something his owner/patron will tolerate. Nailer is spared the decision of whether to work with his injury when he stumbles upon his ‘lucky strike’ (more on luck in a minute) – an opportunity for enough money to leave the city in which his fate (to work until he dies) is predetermined. The novel explores at length the luxuries – material and psychological – that come with wealth, not the least of which is access to transport (call it ‘mobility’ if you want the double play on social standing and geographic movement).
2. The tension between luck/fate and choice: Nailer is the son of an abusive father. He is witness and subject to all sorts of violences. All the while, he, his friends and his community put great store in ‘fates’ – to the extent that the fates ought to be appeased with offerings when good ‘luck’ occurs in order to prevent the opposite. When Nailer makes his significant ‘lucky strike’ his friend, Pima, advises him to kill in order to secure the prize. Nailer, unwilling to kill, makes a deliberate choice that is – according to Pima and his context – contrary to expectation. The novel places the idea of predetermination and choice in tension not to suggest these ideas are polarities, but rather to explore the ways the characters travel between positions and struggle to test the limits of both epistemologies.
3. The consequences of resource extraction/consumption on global warming (and the dangers of genetic modifications): The novel is set in the dystopic-future after the floods, droughts and cataclysmic storms of global warming have destroyed infrastructure and government, and rising sea levels have redrawn not just the maps, but the social, political and economic landscapes. As Nailer and co. make their way though the different plot points, and as the different thematic questions are explored, underpinning it it all is this setting of grim disease, pollution and danger wrought by the setting. A setting, the novel takes some pains to remind us, that is the consequence of human greed and over-dependence on non-renewable resources (with some direct links back to income inequality). Hybrid species of part-human/part-dog (or tiger) move through this world – and demand agency (or not) – in fascinating and complicated ways (with some direct links back to fate and choice).
So there you go. Call the YA genre simplistic if you like. Deride those who read it for lacking sophisticated taste or a willingness to engage with complex questions. Or consider each book on its own merits for what it offers each reader. Which is not to say that I liked Ship Breaker. I didn’t really. But even while I don’t want to gush about how much fun it was to read, there are certainly complex ideas at work in the novel well worth exploring for readers of all ages.
P.S. Someone lent me this one and I can’t (at all) remember who recommended it and lent it. SO – if this is your book, let me know and you can have it back, and also: thanks for sending it my way!