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
Tag Archives: bildungsroman
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.
If you were lost (on a mountain) what book would you want to have with you? Pragmatic answers about edible plants or wilderness survival have no place here. You certainly wouldn’t want to pack Lori Lansens’ The Mountain Story. Maybe it’s just me (it’s probably just me), but I could have easily done without this one. Lori Lansens is something of a Can Lit showstopper – her novels The Girls, Rush Home Road and The Wife’s Tale have been best-sellers (and not the Canadian kind of best seller where you get featured on the CBC, but fancy New York Times best-sellers). So what is it these readers are gravitating towards?
Sure The Mountain Story has an engaging plot. From page one our protagonist, Wolf Truly, has set out to kill himself (cue conflict) by jumping off a cliff (for real) on the mountain he has climbed and hiked through his teen years. Enter the merry band of misfit women – three generations in three women – who, through a series of unfortunate events (for real), find themselves and Wolf, lost and trapped on the mountain. Plot is built on conflict (or so the books on writing tell me) and this one is full of yawn-inducing man-versus-nature conflict: finding water, finding food, coyotes, broken arms, broken bridges, snakes. Interweaving these necessary hiccups on the road to salvation (and we know they get saved, the story is told retroactively) are pieces of Wolf’s story from before the mountain: why he wants to kill himself, the deal with his father (isn’t there always a deal with the father?), the love interest, the deal with his mother (there’s definitely always a deal with the mother). I had a hard time deciding which parts of the story I found more tedious – the mountain or the backstory, but I’ll go with the mountain because there it felt most like I was working my way through a story arc written in an elementary school writing class.
I suppose these pieces of an adventure story could be interesting if there were characters that offered anything like complexity or curiosity. As it is Wolf (despite his name) is neither. The three women – so forgettable I’ve forgotten their names – are likewise Women Who Get Lost on the Mountain rather than characters with depth. Of course there’s a love story – what more romantic setting might you imagine than being stranded on a mountain as you attempt to kill yourself? And of course there’s familial tension – how could you not bicker with your mother while stranded on a mountain? And sacrifice. And heroism. And yawnyawnyawn.
I listen to a lot of podcasts: Longform, This American Life, Radiolab, Slate Political/Cultural/DoubleX Gabfest, Wait wait don’t tell me, Hardcore History, The House, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Planet Money… (& Serial, duh, but back before it was cool, double duh). And most of these podcasts include some kind of ‘recommendations’ section where the hosts will suggest something they’re enjoying and think listeners might enjoy too. Most of the time the suggestions are cultural objects (occasionally they’re hilarious (and lazy) suggestions like ‘nutmeg,’ or ‘leggings’.) But in the past year Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (beginning with My Brilliant Friend) has been recommended on almost all of them. There’s only so many times a book can be suggested before you feel like you’re ignoring a fated read. So I coopted their recommendations as my own and urged *my* brilliant friend S. read with me. And then my other brilliant book club friends, too.
So we’ve all be reading it and I’m anxious to hear what these smart women have to say about the book. Because that’s what reading My Brilliant Friend taught me: that we don’t trust our own sense of what we like, or don’t like, or want, or don’t want, half as much as we trust that of our friends.
Back it up – what’s the book about? Written by an Italian author, the novel is set in a working class Naples in the 1960s-ish (I’m guessing a bit on the date). It follows two young girls, Elena and Lila as they mature themselves and in their friendship. Narrated by Elena, the novel focuses on their development from school girls to sexually mature women in the midst of changing social and economic conditions. The novel explores fascinating questions in friendship: how does friendship change when one friend gets married? when one friend has access to (much) more money than another? when one has sex? [I’ll admit that when this description (or something like it) was offered to me in all of these recommendations I thought *yawn* but the books (at least the first) are well worth the read.]
In the particular setting of Naples the significant division between the two friends is access to education. Both Elena and Lila begin in school together, but as they age only Elena’s family has the resources (and sees the value) in continuing to send Elena to school. While both girls achieve extraordinary academic success, Elena views Lila as naturally intellectually curious (Lila teachers herself Greek!) and sees herself as an academic-imposter, succeeding only by virtue of her proximity to Lila.
The extent of Elena’s envy for Lila bothered me (and S.), at least bothered me at first. I assured myself that I’d never harboured such feelings of jealousy for any of my friends… But the more I considered their relationship I saw that in the envy of Lila’s beauty and her intellectual gifts Elena doesn’t desire something she doesn’t also have (Elena’s potentially untrustworthy narrative includes unimpeachable evidence of her academic success in the form of report cards) – rather she desires the confidence she assumes Lila has, she wants to feel like she’s good enough and to believe it.
Putting thematic questions aside, the book has a complex and nuanced narrative voice as this reader struggled to decide whether to trust Elena, or how far to trust her. Having been in my own 13 year old mind, I can assure you it’s not a trustworthy place: perceptions of self are necessarily skewed. The novel manages this narrative tension through balancing Elena’s self-depracting, self-loathing perception against demonstrable outward evidence countering this view. Reminding us of the thematic issue of how much we assume we are (the only) deficient one, or that every one else (*cough* Lila) has their shit together. When… they don’t.
As if to prove it – I was tempted to write “It says something about my reading habits in the last four months that S., who had her first baby in the summer, finished the first book before me.” As if it was a contest about reading. Or friendship. Or life. (but isn’t it?)