Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’ve said before that I sometimes find teenage boys to be an entirely different species, and in books they so often come off sounding like the teenage dirtbags that the late, lamented Toast described so well. So I love it when I find a book that makes me feel like I completely understand its teenage narrator–a book that makes a teenage boy into a real person and not some Holden Caulfield stereotype. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is SUCH as good example of this kind of book, and is a YA book that just made me happy to read.

It’s a basic story in a lot of ways–during a hot summer in the late 1980s Ari, who is sort of a loner, becomes friends with Dante. Ari’s a smart kid with a family that is loving, but has its troubles. Dante has a nice family as well, and is dealing with his own stuff. So, you know, they’re kids trying to live their lives and do the best they can. Various plot things happen over a couple of years, some of them pretty dramatic, but they book never feels like an Afterschool Special, mostly because Ari’s narration is so calm as he tries to just go along with life and figure things out. While you could say that this is a book that deals with identity issues, and trauma, and PTSD, and showing diverse communities in books, you could also say that it’s a sweet story about friendship and family and love. I don’t want to give away too much more, but I just thought it was lovely.

Also, I read the paper book rather than listening to the audio book, but apparently the audio version is narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which just seems perfect. I actually pictured him saying some of Ari’s lines as I was reading and it really worked. So if you’re an audiobook person, this books gets a little extra recommendation.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Sweet coming-of-age tale

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Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Beginning of Everything, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, and Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys cycle are other teen boy-narrated books that I have enjoyed quite a bit.

Savage Season

By Joe R. Lansdale

Savage_SeasonA few weeks ago, everyone on my twitter feed was mocking Jonathan Franzen for saying he wouldn’t dare write a book about race because he doesn’t have very many black friends. Now, I find Franzen as annoying as the next woman, but I figure, thank God for small favors, because I would bet good money that his thoughts on race would be almost unbearably outdated and condescending.

It is possible that author Joe R. Lansdale should have also put some additional thought into his cross-cultural relationships as well. I had high hopes for the crime-committing and –solving pair of friends, Hap, a white ex-hippy, and Leonard, a gay, black Vietnam veteran.

Unfortunately, it only takes the first novel, Savage Season, nine pages before the white guy, Hap, ‘teasingly’ calls his black friend, Leonard, the n-word, and it is just so awkward. It almost felt like the author had written an entire novel just to somehow get himself an “n-word pass” as a white person.

Racism aside, there’s plenty of sexism, too. Hap has an ex-wife who keeps coming into his life making trouble, and he is just helpless against her wiles! She is, of course, the one who starts the trouble in this novel, too. She is so weirdly portrayed that she come across as psychotic sometimes, though Hap and Leonard are unusually forgiving toward her.

Of course, with all my bitching, I read the book in two days straight – Lansdale keeps the plot hopping, and I started the sequel almost immediately, figuring that debut novels are often kind of shaky while the author is still finding his stride.

Mucho Mojo

Mucho_MojoUnfortunately the sequel takes all the things I didn’t like so much in the first novel and hits them even harder. Lansdale takes some astoundingly racist rhetoric, about systematically oppressed people just victimize themselves with their own defeatism, and puts it in the mouth of Leonard while Hap just sort of goes, “well, I don’t know about all that…”

Rebecca was giving me crap for quitting the second book a third of the way through, so I read her passages from it, until she agreed it was the right decision:

Black children with blacker eyes wearing dirty clothes sat in yards of sun-bleached sand and struggling grass burrs and looked at us without enthusiasm as we drove past.

It was near midday and grown men of working ages went wandering the streets like dogs looking for bones, and some congregated at storefronts and looked lonesome and hopeless and watched with the same lack of enthusiasm as children as we drove past. [Comment: gritty noir always likes everyone and everything to be miserable, but this sounds a bit too close to poverty porn, which is also just a super gross phrase.)

“Man, I hate seeing that,” Leonard said. “You’d think some of these sonofabitches would want to work.”

“You got to have jobs to work,” I said.

“You got to want jobs, too,” Leonard said.

“You saying they don’t?”

“I’m saying too many of them don’t. Whitey still has them on his farm, only they ain’t doing nothing there and they’re getting tidbits tossed to them like dogs, and they take it and keep on keeping on and wanting Whitey to do more.”

As Rebecca pointed out, when a white author puts this kind of rhetoric in the mouth of a fictional black character, it is basically literary blackface, and it is gross. On a more positive note, I read a really thoughtful article online titled “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You,” which discusses how important diverse representation is in literature, and how anyone, no matter their background, can help contribute to that representation. So I encourage everyone, writer or not, to read that article, and to skip Lansdale’s series.

—Anna

WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

wakeWWW: Wake
by Robert J. Sawyer
2009

This was a really interesting book that gave me lots of thoughts. I was impressed with how well thought out the scenario was as the author presents the hows and whys of this artificial intelligence coming into being and develops from there. That was really cool.

There was also a diverse and interesting cast of characters in this interesting scenario.

All the positive features of this book just made it all the more disappointing that the writing felt really flat. I should have liked this book a lot more than I did.

I was half-way to blaming it on being a YA novel and me aging out of the genre… but it’s not that kind of problem. There are plenty of YA books that manage to be extremely lively and engaging and, frankly, there are also plenty of adult books that suffer from the same flat sort of presentation as this one.  There was just something about the writing that kept me from getting into it. This is particularly disappointing because this is the first book in a series of three: WWW: Wake, WWW: Watch, and WWW: Wonder.

The scenario is interesting enough that I wish I liked the book and I might still get myself to read WWW: Watch and WWW: Wonder just to see what else the author thinks would or could happen with an AI in existence. I am startled to find myself in the extremely rare situation of wishing that those thoughts were written as a nonfiction essay rather embedded in a story.

I don’t think the writing is necessarily bad, it just really doesn’t reach me. Hopefully there are other readers out there who appreciate this book and series more.

Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward

Lynd_Ward_(1929)_Gods'_Man_coverGods’ Man: A Novel in Woodcuts
by Lynd Ward
1929

I ran across a reference recently to the wordless novel as a genre that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Somehow, I had never run across this before (although I have a couple of picture books that are completely wordless and are awesome) so I decided I needed to check it out. According to Wikipedia, Gods’ Man is one of the preeminent examples of the genre, and I can absolutely see why.

The illustrations really are gorgeous. Some examples are:

Gods_Man_sun_image and Lynd_Ward_(1929)_Gods'_Man_-_surrounded_by_wineglasses

lw_gm025 and lyndwardwife

Just really gorgeous.

The story line is… very 1920s-1930s. A young man, an artist, comes from over the seas to the big city. He’s a kind soul who the fat cats of the city toast and celebrate. He falls in love, but she loves only money! He is distraught and sinks into despair, and is finally chased out of the city, barely making his escape. In the countryside he finds a wonderful woman who nurses him back to health and is all that is wonderful. They are very happy together, except there is no escaping the evil of the big city and all things must end (in a very melodramatic way).

I highly recommend it.

I also think it’s particularly funny that the only words in the entire book (aside from the various title pages), is the name of the inn where our protagonist stays when he first arrives in the city. The sign is legible and reads: “Slink Inn Eat” (Hahahaha!)

I think I like the genre overall. The other wordless books I have are Zoom by Istvan Banyai, which is bright and modern and surreal, and Christmas! and Rain, both by Peter Spier, which are sweet and adorable and heartwarming. I love them all.

Very specific murder mysteries

I haven’t felt like reading anything new lately, so I’ve been dipping back into the well of old loved British murder mysteries. Seriously, there is not much that is more comforting than genteel aristocracy studiously talking around brutal murders.

'Coriolanus' play after party, London, Britain - 17 Dec 2013A few weeks ago, I ran across a discussion online of fantasy casting for a hypothetical Peter Wimsey movie, and the comments were pretty divided on whether Tom Hiddleston would make a good Wimsey. The “pro” side was, of course, he’s just so charming! The “con” side was, but isn’t he a little too handsome? And, I’m here to say that I don’t think so! After seeing him blonde in The Night Manager, he looks kind of like a silly doofus, which is pretty much perfect for Wimsey.

Tidus for dream-celebs.com

His love interest Harriet Vane is a trickier casting, since she’s first introduced as she is being charged with the murder of her lover. She is clearly as clever and witty as Wimsey, but is also understandably melancholy and a bit hostile initially. But then I had an epiphany that it couldn’t be anyone but Eva Green, and wouldn’t she be a phenomenal Harriet Vane! Also, doesn’t Green deserve a nice mannered storyline where she isn’t brutalized at any point?

Gaudy Night
Clouds of Witness

By Dorothy Sayers

So, after having settled the casting to my satisfaction, I decided to reread Gaudy Night, the novel in which Wimsey sets out to prove Vane’s innocence, having fallen in love with her at first sight on the witness stand. It is very silly but also truly romantic. However, there is another romance that happens very much in the background that I just love more: Peter’s sister, the Lady Mary, is in love with a middle-class policeman who doesn’t feel that he has the social status to propose.

I then went back and read Clouds of Witness, the book before Gaudy Night, in which Mary and Inspector Parker first meet, upon the suspicious death of Mary’s fiancée. Even in this novel, the romance is kept coyly in the background, with the reader discovering it through Lord Peter’s discussions with his sister Mary and Parker, a personal friend. So, I was frustrated in my search for class-crossed lovers after all.

The Cater Street Hangman

By Anne Perry

Then, I remembered that Anne Perry has a whole series set in the Victorian Era in which a woman of leisure falls in love with a policeman. In the first book, The Cater Street Hangman, central protagonist Charlotte lives with her well-off family in an upper-crust neighborhood. A series of stranglings, first of a couple of servant girls and then of the daughter of a neighbor, shock the entire neighborhood and bring the police to investigate. The lead investigator, Thomas Pitt, is well educated but still clearly working class, but he inspires Charlotte to challenge her assumptions about class and society as a whole. And of course, they fall in love, solve the crime, etc.

Upon my second reading, the focus on the constraints laid on the strict class system and the extremely complex set of manners that reinforces it reminds me quite a bit of Jane Austen. Charlotte and her sisters especially reminded me of Pride & Prejudice, though Perry does not have Austen’s wit and the book is very much not a comedy. It is still a very good book, of course, but more intense than I was looking for at this particular time, so my search of witty cross-class romance-mysteries continues.

—Anna

Every Heart a Doorway

I first started following Seanan McGuire on Twitter when someone linked to her hilarious series of tweets about an owl in her yard. It wasn’t until I had already seen about 100 pictures of her cats that I realized that she was an author that we’ve actually reviewed here on the site. Back in 2012 Anna thought that Rosemary and Rue was hit or miss, but I quite liked her latest, Every Heart a Doorway.

I think I was won over just by the concept: it’s a murder mystery set at a boarding school for teenagers who found doors into magical fairy realms as kids, but are now stuck back in the real world. I mean, that’s great, right?

I actually agree with what Anna said in her earlier review of McGuire’s writing:  occasionally things felt a bit forced, almost like I could see the author saying, “And now I will do this.” But this is really a small complaint. The premise is great, there were fabulous details about the various fairy realms one might wander into, and the whole story had a sense of creepiness that was delightful. The reader sees the action through the eyes of the main character, who had spent her time away in a world of the dead, and her desire for quiet and stillness infuses the book in a wonderful way.

This is just a quick little story, really like a novella, so there’s not a whole lot more to say. Except that this is well worth your time. Also, isn’t Every Heart a Doorway just the best book title? It’s like a line of poetry I want to recite over and over.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Fairy tale aftermath.

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 The Scream movies, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or possibly Wicked? That seems like an odd selection of media, but my favorite thing about Every Heart a Doorway was how it used the tropes of fairy tales and made them part of the story, which all of those other things do (in their genres) as well. Although in tone and length, this felt an awful lot like The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

The Bible: Esther

I read a YA novel based on this story back in grade school (High school? Middle school?), but let this be a friendly reminder that the Bible is not a book intended for young adults with modern sensibilities, and those YA books are to this as Disney fairytales are to Grimms’ fairytales.

In the story, as I originally learned it, the king’s advisor Hamann slandered the Jewish people to King Ahasuerus, who agreed that they should all be killed. Meanwhile the beautiful Jewish maiden Esther married the king, begged for her people to be spared, and revealed Hamann for a slanderer at the same time. The Jewish people were spared, Hamann was cast from favor, and King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther lived happily ever after.

So, you know, aside from King Ahasuerus’ genocidal tendencies (a rather big aside, in my opinion), a relatively benign YA plot.

Of course, then we get to the source material here, and wow were there some details that were left out.

So, first of all, King Ahasuerus had cast off his original queen, Queen Vashti, because she refused to obey him when he was drunk and wanted her to strip in a public gathering so he could show off how beautiful she was. In response to her refusal, she was cast off and he had all the beautiful young virgin girls* in the land to be brought to him so that he could sleep with one each night and then keep them isolated in his house of wives ever after and never see them again.** There were a lot of girls in the running, though, because it took more than a year for the king to get to Esther.

During that year, Esther courted the favor of the king’s chamberlain who gave her preferential treatment and told her how to seduce the king in turn, such that her night with him pleased him so much that he declared her queen in Vashti’s stead.***

Meanwhile, Hamann is the king’s advisor who’s way too full of himself and decided that Esther’s uncle Mordecai**** hadn’t bowed low enough to him when they passed on the street, and thus Mordecai and all of his people should be killed. The king is apparently too taken with his stream of wives to care about things like statescraft or genocide, so essentially tells Hamann to do whatever he wants. Hamann immediately creates a proclamation that all the Jews are to be killed and their possessions stolen on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month.+

Now, there’s a whole complicated subplot going on between Mordecai and Hamann, but honestly it fits in pretty well in a YA book because it is just that type of juvenile dispute about showing the proper deference and refusing to bow down, etc, except with threats of death and genocide.

But meanwhile, Esther risks being killed for interrupting the king in order to invite the king and Hamann to a fancy dinner. She survives and the king is delighted.++ The first dinner party goes so well, that the king asks Esther what she would like as a boon? She says a second dinner party and the king is once more delighted. The second dinner party is also wonderful and the king again asks what boon he can grant her and this time she’s like, you can save my life and the lives of my people.

The king is horrified that anyone has threatened to kill Esther, his favorite wife, and her people. She directs him to Hamann as the threat.+++ Hamann begs Esther for mercy, but the king sees Hamann near Esther and thinks he’s trying to rape her and has him immediately executed on the gallows Hamann himself had prepared for executing Mordecai. It’s all very dramatic.

However, while all of these events took place in the third month, Hamann’s proclamation about the genocide scheduled for the twelfth month have already gone out. But rather than rescind that proclamation++++, King Ahasuerus was apparently the type who would have enjoyed watching The Purge movies because he makes a second proclamation saying that on the same day that the people were supposed to kill the Jewish people, the Jewish people are granted the right to gather together and kill any of their enemies and take all of their possessions. So, essentially a free-for-all of death and theft on the thirteenth of the twelfth month.

The king asked if Esther wanted anything else and she asked for a second day for the Jews to kill their enemies, plus could all of Hamann’s ten sons also be killed specifically? The king was like, okay.

So the fourteenth of the twelfth month was also a bloodbath, while the fifteenth was feasting and celebration.

And thus the annual celebration of Purim, for surviving Hamann’s plot. And Mordecai goes on to take Hamann’s place as a high counselor and everyone is all very happy.

The End.

Summary: Hamann manipulates the king into ordering the genocide of the Jewish people, but Esther manipulates the king right back into killing Hamann and allowing the Jewish people to kill their enemies.

Moral: Kings can be super easy to manipulate but you’d better be on your guard against someone else manipulating your same king?

* I can only assume that a lot of beautiful young girls heard this proclamation and had an sudden interest in having sex, pronto, with someone in their home villages.
** It’s kind of super similar to Sheherazade’s story, except without the actual death threat to the new brides. Just a single rape-night and then eternal isolation and captivity. So, there’s that.
*** This is a triumph, in case your wondering if it’s actually a good thing or a bad thing.
**** Not that anyone knows that Mordecai is Esther’s uncle, because who would care about keeping track of the relatives of that many wives.
+ I feel like there are practical problems with making a public proclamation that whole communities of people are to be slaughtered on a specific day in the future. Like, I realize it’s important for the death squads to have time to prepare, but I feel like it’s a bit much to expect the intended victims to just accept that their fate is sealed because the king said so.
++ Maybe none of his other wives invite him to spend extra time with them just because he keeps on threatening to kill them? So he’s very flattered that this beautiful woman is interested in him.
+++ Very politically stated, in my opinion, since it was the king himself who gave Hamann the right to threaten them.
++++ I’m actually not sure if it was possible for a proclamation to be rescinded. It might have been that once it was made permanent record, that was it, to avoid confusion with knowing if an official document was valid or not. It might always be valid.

Next up: Psalms