Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Whole Universe Waiting To Be Discovered

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Dante can swim. Ari can't. Dante is articulate and self-assured. Ari has a hard time with words and suffers from self-doubt. Dante gets lost in poetry and art. Ari gets lost in thoughts of his older brother who is in prison. Dante is fair skinned. Ari's features are much darker. It seems that a boy like Dante, with his open and unique perspective on life, would be the last person to break down the walls that Ari has built around himself.

But when Ari and Dante meet, they bond. They share books, thoughts, dreams, laughter. They teach each other new vocabularies and begin to redefine each other's worlds. And they discover that the universe is a large and difficult place.

This is the story about two boys, Ari and Dante, who must learn to believe in each other and the power of their friendship if they ever are to become men.

I'm a bit out of my comfort zone on this one. Really the only reason I picked it up was for the Jumble Your Genres reading challenge I've taken on. I know I've said I'll read just about anything, but I have to admit that I find Contemporary Fiction just about the hardest thing to review. Not because I hate it, but because there's usually not much left to interpretation. The characters are supposed to be real, the setting is supposed to be real, and the conflicts are supposed to be real. Therefore, if a contemporary novel is written well, it makes the review of it pretty sparse.

Still, I'll give it my best shot.

I actually came across Aristotle and Dante via the PulseIt website as part of their semi-regular preview offers. Thing is, instead of the usual button saying "Read a Preview" or an excerpt, it just said "Read Now," like it did during the free reads December promotion. So I thought I was getting a full book when I started it. It offered two full parts with 12 chapters in each.

Little did I know that there were actually five parts, and that part two left off on a major cliffhanger. And when I say major, I mean major. Car careens around corner and is about to hit main character major. Then it just stopped. I immediately logged on to my library website and ordered the book to be put on hold so I could pick it up in the morning. Still, I was so rattled I could hardly sleep.

And therein lies my highest accolade about this book: it makes you care.

I have very little in common with the main characters. Aristotle and Dante are two 15-year-old Mexican-American boys living in 1987 El Paso, Texas. We come from completely different nationalities, classes, settings, generations, and genders, and yet I fell completely and utterly in love with both of them. Even in the incomplete 107 pages I'd first read, I cared what happened to them. I didn't want to keep reading just because I was curious how the cliffhanger resolved, but because I needed to know they were both okay. And with each obstacle that comes their way, I cared more and more about how they would come through.

I think that's one of the hardest things facing the Contemporary genre. If Fantasy and SciFi require imagination and suspending disbelief, then Contemporary requires forging connections despite little commonality. Not every book will please everybody, and some books won't be able to connect with as wide an audience as others. This book in particular has quite a few subjects that might block people from connecting. It features Mexican-Americans. It features boys coming of age. It features underage drinking and drug use. And it features gay relationships.

Personally, I don't have problems reading about any of those subjects. I can't say I approve of the drug use, but I acknowledge that experimentation can be a part of growing up. Same with the drinking. And while I'm far from an expert on Mexican-American culture or how boys develop differently than girls, I found those elements accessible enough that I could connect to the characters and their story despite our inherent differences.

As for the gay relationships, I'll admit I wasn't expecting them. When I first picked up the book, I honestly thought it was going to be a romance and Dante was going to be a girl. When Ari first met him, I remember re-reading the book description to make sure I hadn't missed something. Here's the description I had at the time:
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
Nothing indicating any LGBT elements there. So then I thought maybe it wasn't going to be a romance, but just a friendship novel. But as I read more, I had a good idea I had had the right idea beforehand.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't have a problem with it. I just found it interesting that there's really nothing in the descriptions that indicate this as an LGBT novel. Not like Two Boys Kissing, anyway. But I think that works in its favor. Dante reveals himself to be gay about halfway through the novel. Before that, there's absolutely no mention of homosexuality at all. In that respect, the novel really is more about Aristotle living, growing, and finding himself than it is making a bold statement about LGBT. First and foremost this is a story about people, and secondly some of those people happen to be gay.

Still, I'm sure some people will reject this book solely on the fact that it features gay characters. But it goes back to that connection concept that I talked about earlier. Some people try to connect to a novel but will find it too foreign or confusing. Others will go out of their way not to connect under any circumstances, be it from fear or anger or what have you. Whether this book changes minds or simply serves as a sweet story about two boys growing up, I hope it continues to find its way into the hands of YA readers for some time to come.

Overall I found Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe to be an extremely touching story. I'd easily recommend it to anyone who likes coming-of-age stories, or is looking for a sweet and emotional LGBT YA romance. There are moments of violence, some drinking and drug use, and some kissing that has me recommending it for high-school and up, but I wouldn't be too anxious if a middle-schooler got their hands on it. If you're looking for insightful characters, a charming romance, or perfect read to break out of a genre rut, look no further than Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Approximate Reading Time: 3.5 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Length: 7.5 Hours
Listened at 2x Speed

A sweet audio to go along with a sweet story. Mr. Miranda provided a stellar performance, with a variety of voices for the whole cast. Even more than that, he conveyed tons of emotion and though I might have shed a tear simply from the beauty of the story, I have to assume his performance lent that extra boost that set my eyes watering multiple times.

The production as a whole was great, but I will say the music completely threw me off. At the beginning and end credits, there's this upbeat pop-sounding music playing in the background. This was fine at the beginning, but at the end it completely killed the mood. The story finishes on a quiet and sincere moment, but that music starts up immediately afterward and throws you out of it completely.

But aside from that jarring finale, the recording was a joy to experience. The narration is a bit faster than other audios I've heard lately, possibly due to the quick-paced speech patterns of Mexican-Americans, but listening at normal speed doesn't pose any problem. As always, I appreciated the pronunciations for those few times foreign (Spanish) words appeared, but the narration as a whole was excellent. I'd definitely recommend this audio for anyone interested in the story, audiophiles and newcomers alike.