Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

ari and dante

So how long has it been? Over six months I believe. I’m dreadfully sorry for being away – lengthy review slumps aren’t fun. But let’s hope that a review of this little gem would be a cure I need.

 

Ari and Dante are two teenage boys from El Paso, Texas with unconventional names. An introverted, sarcastic Ari has a penchant for lashing out on people – teenage hormones coupled with a brother in prison and parental figures who, lovely as they are, have their own wars to fight, with aren’t the best recipe for a happy summer. But then, Ari meets Dante – an intellectual, an artist, a guy who is practically radiant. One thing the boys have in common is that they are loners, albeit in different ways.The two strike a friendship, a friendship that starts with an understanding that passes between them when they learn each other’s names. The two friends have their ups and downs during the summer before Dante has to leave for a year, leaving Ari confused and angry about his feelings…

 

Coming of age is defined as “a young person’s transition to adulthood”. This naturally implies that any coming-of-age book has a particular centerpiece – character development of its protagonist. There are some books that are branded as “coming of age” stories, but they feature little to none character development and the writers disguise “stereotypical teenage activities” like drinking and drugs as such. However, more often than not, these MacGuffins are purely there for shock value. In “Ari and Dante”, however, while these activities take place on a couple of occasions, the author does not focus on them and one can genuinely trace the development of the narrator (Ari). He starts off as a brooding fifteen-year-old kid who doesn’t really have any friends and throughout the book, the reader learns about his family problems and how his hereditary tendencies to keep everything bottled up lead him towards the Ari that he used to be. When he meets Dante, a boy who appears to be self-assured, incredibly smart and an all-around people pleaser, Ari’s summer suddenly gets much better. Ari describes Dante as someone who “made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural”. That was not the case in Ari’s world, for many reasons. Towards the end of the book, Ari, however, realises what the reader knew all along. “The Ari I used to be didn’t exist anymore. And the Ari I was becoming? He didn’t exist yet.” This sense of confusion, of living in a “prologue”, is very familiar to young adults.

 

Ari, as well as the author, arguably, see summer as a way to “write something beautiful in the book”. The problem that Ari had – thinking that he didn’t have any idea what to write – is eventually solved by Dante. Ari at some point in the book says that words are different “when they live inside of you”, showing the reader once again that he has a lot to say but doesn’t know how. I must say that Ari’s first person PoV was one of the best things about the book. He is not the most reliable narrator – his perspective is more often than not skewed and muddled by the constant internal monologue – but one of the factors that contributes to that, as the reader and Ari learn at the end – is that Ari is in love for the first time. Everyone, including Ari’s and Dante’s parents, know that, and the feeling is more than mutual. That is another thing I loved – the family relationships. Both sets of parents have their own issues and problems, but they love their children more than anything. Parental homophobia is one of the things that really gets under my skin, and I am glad that the book has no trace of it.

 

The title of the book encompasses several things – firstly, one of Ari’s and Dante’s favourite things to do – stargazing. Secondly, it arguably refers to Ari’s and Dante’s blossoming friendship; every relationship is a combination of endless things people put in it, and the author makes it seem as though a relationship is a small universe of its own, for the participants to build and discover. And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the title refers to Ari and Dante getting to know themselves, as well as each other. It may be written with very little purple prose, but, not unlike Zusak’s “I am the Messenger”, the words and sentences author uses compile a lovely, profound work. My rating is 9/10.

 

Favourite quotes

Maybe we just lived between hurting and healing”

“Words were different when they lived inside of you”

“Another secret of the universe: Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer morning could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder”.

 

Recommendations

You might like “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” if you liked:

 

“The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger

“Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell

“I am the Messenger” by Markus Zusak

 

Book Review: I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Image

The way I acquired this book was quite amusing, I must say. I ordered it at Foyles and it arrived a few days later. When I came to collect it, I had the following conversation with the sales person:

 

Me: “Hi, I ordered a book from you last week?”

Him: “Okay?”

Me: “I am the Messenger?”

Him: “Cool, what’s the title?”

Me: “I am the Messenger”

Him: “Yes, but what’s the title of the book that you ordered?”

Me: “That is the title?”

Him: “Oh sorry! I thought you were saying that you were the Messenger!” *goes to get the book*

Me: *quietly, laughing very hard inside* “No, I’m just a Book Thief.”

Ah, the Markus Zusak jokes.

 

Anyway, some of you may remember that I reviewed “The Book Thief” a few months ago and while I loved Zusak’s writing, the book didn’t exactly seal itself onto my soul like it did with some of my friends. However, I did want to read more Zusak, so my friend Becki at awordshaker.com recommended this one. This is essentially a book about people. The most ordinary people you see on the street every day. Ed Kennedy is one of them. He’s an underage Australian cab driver in a small town who spends his free time playing cards with his even more average friends and hanging out with his dog, The Doorman. That stops, however, when a mysterious Ace of Diamonds with addresses arrives in the post.

Actually, I’m wrong. Ed’s normal life has arguably hit a roadblock when he inadvertently became involved in the most ridiculous bank robbery in history. Somehow, the town makes him out to be a hero. When he gets the Ace in the post, he goes to the addresses after a while and sees that there are people living there who need help. Of course, being your average Joe, Ed doesn’t understand how he can help them. Eventually, though, he finds a unique way to help each and every one of them. But the mysterious messages don’t stop there. More Aces arrive for Ed, and each card has a short message on it he is meant to decode and work out for himself what to do. The only question is – who is behind Ed’s mission? And why Ed, of all people?

I realise by now that you’re probably bored with the plot – be it my mediocre ability to summarise or the way this book differs from “The Book Thief” – but I urge you to pick up this book. I don’t know which book Zusak has enjoyed writing more, but “I am the Messenger” somehow seems like it was closer to his heart, and not just because it’s set in his home country. Although completely different from “The Book Thief”, I began to notice certain “Zusak-isms” about halfway through. He is clearly an author who takes pride in being a words addict and aficionado. That was actually my favourite thing about “The Book Thief” – Liesel’s love for words clearly reflected that they have a special place in Zusak’s heart. Ed Kennedy says something on page 212 of “I am the Messenger” that really got to me. He says: “I didn’t know words could be so heavy”. This sentence is only seven words long, and yet so meaningful. Ed may have used it to describe the way it feels to carry a bunch of heavy books, but all Zusak’s fans would clearly understand that it goes much deeper than that. It illustrates how far Ed has come – from a guy with no real spark in his life to a person who made a difference to the lives of so many. The author arguably uses the statement to allude to the fact that even a small thing, be it a word or a simple action like buying ice cream for a soccer mum in the park, can carry a lot of weight. Even the style of his writing – the short, snippy sentences who nevertheless say so much – is an illustration of the quote. Words are heavy, indeed. A book may be written pretentiously (which I do love) and still carry less weight than a work that doesn’t use fancy words and metaphors (and vice versa, of course). It all depends on the words and the weight behind them, as Zusak continues to show us.

I am not going to lie – after I finished the book, the theme of an ordinary human being making fundamental differences in other people’s lives made me tear up. Perhaps it was also due to the fact that I was at a Pro Bono thank you event earlier that day and my supervisor told me a story of a former homeless man whose life has been changed by the actions of our Law School Pro Bono association. He now has his own place and a stable job. His children are no longer ashamed of their father. In all fairness, we are all Ed Kennedy. Our extent of ordinaryness may be relative, but every day, we make a difference to others. Remember that cashier who told you to have a nice day? Or that little kid who stuck her tongue out at you on the commute this morning? Brightened up your day didn’t it? Some may say that Ed’s actions were in a completely different league, and I agree. However, what we must remember is that if an average nineteen-year-old cab driver can find the courage to change someone’s life, than so can you. If you don’t think you are capable of giving advice, or financial support, you don’t have to be. Be inspired by Ed, friends – a perfectly ordinary man who stood up and did what we could for the people who needed it. If he can do it – well, maybe everyone can. “I am the Messenger” gives us the opportunity to believe that everyone can live beyond what they’re capable of. I can honestly say that this book has made a small dent in my rather cynical view of life. There are many things Zusak excels at – but influencing people with his words is one thing that he has mastered perfectly.

The only thing that’s keeping me from giving “I am the Messenger” a 10/10 rating is the use of sexual assault as a plot device – it’s not something I can easily accept in literature. However, I am perfectly happy to rate it 8.5/10.

Favourite character

The book’s characters are flawed, and are not supposed to be likeable. However, they are all very funny – The Doorman has to be the funniest though. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when he didn’t die!

Character who gets the most development

Ed, obviously. The book is Ed-centric.

Favourite relationship

In my review of “The Book Thief”, I said that I couldn’t pick a favourite relationship because they were all so well-written. This trend continues here. However, the story of Ed and Audrey is so lovely in the same way it is ordinary. Besides, it is rare these days to see an emotionally unavailable woman in literature who is not shamed for being who she is.

Favourite quotes

“I didn’t know words could be so heavy.”

“People die of broken hearts. They have heart attacks. And it’s the heart that hurts most when things go wrong and fall apart.”

Dreamcast

Ed Kennedy – if Heath Ledger were alive today, he’d be perfect. Otherwise, Jacob Anderson

Audrey – Jayne Wisener

Recommendations

You might like “I am the Messenger” if you liked:

“The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. Ed’s character development reminds me of Gus’s. Although Gus feared being forgotten and not making a difference in the world while Ed didn’t care, they both have come to the same conclusion by the end of their respective books – even if you only made a small difference in one person’s life, it matters.

“A Northern Light” by Jennifer Donnelly

“Paper Towns” by John Green – I haven’t read it but people keep recommending it and it seems to have similar undertones