Reading Aristotle and Dante and their secrets
One Amazon reviewer, fumbling for words to describe this YA novel, finally said, “This book has got me shooketh.” Reader, art thou in need of a good shaking? Benjamin Alire Sáenz will do it with Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.
It’s about friendship; it’s about being Mexican; it’s about El Paso, the only major Texas city in a different time zone; it’s about parents who love their boys in a world that sometimes doesn’t; and it is about friendship and eventually love.
In The Joy of Poetry I write that I have a fondness for authors who mention poems in their fiction, especially in YA stories. Sáenz does it here, with a book of poems by William Carlos Williams that Dante gives to Ari (Aristoteles’ nickname). To his surprise Ari finds he likes this kind of poetry.
I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get and never would get.”
In fact, this novel is a little like one of Williams’ poems. It’s grounded in simple images, with simple dialogue, then it suddenly turns lyrical, like when Ari muses, “What did words matter to a desert?” Then, like Williams, the book shocks you, like a sparrow flying into a glass window. The second section of the story is titled “Sparrows Falling from the Sky.”
I went looking for a poem by Williams about a sparrow and found one titled “The Sparrow.” Here is an excerpt:
from The Sparrow
(To My Father)
at El Paso
I saw—and heard!–
ten thousand sparrows
who had come in from
to roost. They filled the trees
of a small park …
—William Carlos Williams
There are enough sparrows in El Paso — at least seven different species — that they are considered a nuisance, roosting in buildings and leaving birdie messes where people live. Williams must have known this, to write this poem. I am interested in why the poem is dedicated to his father because the relationships between fathers and sons are key to this story.
The YA stories I like best are those with parents I admire. I’d like to meet Mr. and Mrs. Mendoza and Mr. and Mrs. Quintana. I’d like us all to pile into Ari’s ’57 red Chevy truck and drive out into the desert and talk under the stars. These four parents passionately love their children, and Ari and Dante truly love their parents. Early in the story Dante admits he’s crazy about his parents. Near the end, once Ari realizes he’s crazy about his parents too, the boys have this conversation:
“Our parents are really weird,” [Dante] said.
“Because they love us? That’s not so weird,” [Ari] said.
“It’s how they love us that’s weird.”
“Beautiful,” I said.
Aristotle and Dante won the Stonewall Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award, the Pura Bulpré Award, and was a Printz Honor Book. Sáenz is a poet, an author of books for adults and young adults, and a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program. He’s also won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award. This book, published in 2012, is set in the ‘80s and has the feel of that decade. Sáenz was himself a teenager then, and I get the impression he is writing the story he wanted to read when he was 16 years old.
This was my second time to read the book, and I’ve decided Ari is a Byronic hero. He definitely broods, and he has secrets. His temper is scary, and his tone is sarcastic. He is also undeniably sweet (a description he loathes). There are family secrets that affect him in ways he does not understand, and he is affected by the most harmful kind of secret — the kind he is keeping from himself.
Aristotle and Dante is so much more than an LGBT+ story. It is about identity, but that word contains multitudes. For Ari, identity includes being a guy who is a smart aleck and who likes poetry. For Dante, identity includes what it means to be Mexican, beyond eating menudo. Both boys are complicated. Some of that falls under the rainbow-colored umbrella. Some of that is simply beautiful.
For our next Children’s Book Club, Friday, July 9, we’ll read the entire Frog and Toad collection, by Arnold Lobel. There are four easy-reader books in the series: Frog and Toad Are Friends, Frog and Toad Together, Frog and Toad All Year, and Days with Frog and Toad, and it only takes about an hour to read them all. Frog and Toad are the friends you need this summer.
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I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro