I didn’t post last week because, although I finished a book, I didn’t know what I was going to read next. Like, I honestly had no clue. My work schedule is so hectic (I’m teaching an overload, so six classes instead of my usual five) that my brain is mostly mush–not to mention I’m behind on everything. And by everything, I mean EVERY SINGLE THING. It is maddening. And unlike with my usual beginning of semester behind on everythingness, I’m not really seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
Like most boys, he’d grown up believing girls were emotional and fragile little things. Since moving to Kansas it was obvious the women he’d interacted with didn’t know that.
Stepping to a New Day is the seventh book in Beverly Jenkins’s Blessings series, set in the fictional (and delightful) Henry Adams, Kansas.
I have to confess that I haven’t read the other books in the series, which meant it took me a little while to get into the rhythm of the story and the rules. However, once I figured out that it’s basically a soap opera with rotating frontburner and backburner characters, I was ALL IN.
I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz has been on my radar since it first came out–not only because it has won so many awards and is lauded by many, but also because my summer book club picked it a few years ago. I didn’t read it then because I had required reading fatigue (it’s a thing I tend to get every summer), but I knew I would get back to it eventually. Well, eventually came this year once I found out Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) did the narration for the audiobook.
The plot of the book is pretty straight-forward: Aristotle (who goes by Ari) is a lonely 15-year-old who befriends Dante one day at the swimming pool. Then, you know, life and stuff happens. Big life and big stuff. I am avoiding spoilers here, obviously.
What I Liked
– First and foremost, this is a friendship novel. I LOVE FRIENDSHIP STORIES. They make me happy. Friendships can be easy and challenging and hard and beautiful, and that’s exactly what happens here.
– Dante is pretty fantastic. He’s such a great character: open, honest, frustrating, angry, challenging. He’s just so earnest! Ah, it’s adorable.
– Ari is pretty great, too. He’s the narrator, so the reader is more privy to his thoughts, and he is struggling to find his place in the world. I liked that he is pretty much just doing what comes next like a checklist for life, even if he isn’t sure what he wants yet. I think that’s pretty accurate for how many teens do things.
– This is a kissing book. Lots of talk of kissing here. Lots of kissing happening, too. I approve.
– THE PARENTS. Both boys’ parents are excellent. They are supremely flawed human beings who are doing the best they can, which means they screw up sometimes but that they love their kids so, so much–and the narrative acknowledges it. Also, Dante’s father is an English professor, so that automatically raises his level of awesome for me.
– Gina Navarro and Sophie (I can’t remember her last name). These are girls Ari grew up with who drive him insane but also love him a super lot and force him to participate in life stuff. At first, I was jarred by their presence, but I really like how they challenged him and how he came to see their place in his life.
– So basically all of the characters were great is what I’m saying.
– THE ENDING. I 100% love the ending to this book, and that’s what took me from liking it to really liking it. And when I say the ending, I don’t mean the last chapter. I mean pretty much the whole last act, starting from the moment Ari’s parents sit him down for a heart-to-heart until the very, very end. It was pretty much perfection.
– The dialogue is super realistic and I loved, loved, loved any time the characters were talking to and interacting with each other. I could pretty much see every single one of those scenes playing out in front of me. They were so great.
– One of the running threads through the book is this idea of being a “real” Mexican. I loved that exploration of the boys’ identities and how the idea is tied into not only cultural expectations but also outside stereotypes. It’s really well handled and Saenz is subtle in how he completely and most emphatically states that the only thing that makes someone a real Mexican is being Mexican. Love.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda is A+ as a narrator. I would listen to another book he reads. Also, he can definitely roll his r’s. I tried over and over to say Bernardo the way he does, and it just wasn’t happening. I also don’t speak Spanish, so you know.
What I Didn’t Like
– I thought this was a summer book. It’s not. When Ari went back to school, I was so confused and a little upset. This is all about my expectations as a reader, but it is what it is.
– I am pretty sure Ari is depressed throughout most of the novel (thought it’s never explicitly stated), and that’s fine. He’s also a pretty interior character, which is also fine. However, what that meant for huge chunks of the novel is that Ari is completely in his head and most of what he thinks is expressed in negatives. There is a lot of “I don’t know why I did this” and “I don’t know why this” and “I didn’t say anything, but” or “I didn’t ask him this.” Those moments (and there are A LOT of them) made the narration and the story drag.
Also, one thing I was taught when I studied creative writing was not to describe what a character doesn’t do and so I am hyper aware of when an author does it.
Those moments may have played out better in the text than in the audio, but just imagine listening to someone tell you for five minutes straight all the things they didn’t do in a given situation. It would get real old real fast.
On the plus side, it did make the moments of dialogue and character interaction that much more enjoyable, so.
In conclusion: A really powerful look at friendship, family, and love with great characters and an excellent ending.
Necessary Roughness by Marie G. Lee is another Friends of the Library book sale find. I probably picked it up because the main character is Korean—and completely ignored the football uniform. There’s a lot of football in here is what I’m saying. Basically, Chan’s parents move him and his sister Young to Minnesota from L.A. to take over their uncle’s store. There’s no soccer team so Chan joins the football team and encounters some violent racism under the guise of “necessary roughness.”
What I Liked
- There’s some really good family stuff here, especially with Young and Chan’s dad and his brother and how that affects his relationship with Chan.
- Chan frequently acts as a translator for his father, but his father expects him to be quiet and respectful at the same time.
- I especially like that O-Ma is not to be slept on. She constantly comes through in surprising ways. She gets things done is what I’m saying. She’s probably my favorite.
- As is Mrs. K, their neighbor. She and O-Ma have a great relationship.
- Young and Chan are both good kids, so the conflict doesn’t come from rebelling against their parents but just from them trying to figure out their new town and how they fit in.
- One of my favorite parts is Chan trying to find someone–anyone–of color he can relate to. And finding that in this particular town, that’s not an option. That is so real, especially when you go from a place with a lot of people of color to a lily-white town. It is jarring and weird and also means trying to recreate that feeling of home as best you can.
What I Didn’t Like
- FOOTBALL FOOTBALL FOOTBALL. Listen, there’s a lot of football in this book, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it’s important to the main character, so he would talk about it a lot. But I find that the focus on drills and stuff in books only works if it’s to explore other stuff like relationships between characters.
- There are a lot of dropped threads plot threads here: Young and Chan’s uncle, the bullying incidents, the money issues.
- There are a lot of rushed and not satisfactorily resolved endings as well: the bullying incident, the money issues, Chan’s relationship with a girl, and the actual ending.
- I really wanted more from this book: more character and plot development and more of a sense of the school beyond football–especially for Young. Even though the story isn’t told from her point of view, I don’t really get a sense of what her experience at the school is.
- The tagline on the book is “Sometimes offense is the only defense.” Yeah, that wasn’t realized in the book at all.
In conclusion: This book had a promising start but left me wanting more. Reluctant readers who like sports might go for it, though.
I picked up A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich by Alice Childress at the Friends of the Library book sale one day, probably because I recognized the title and figured it’s a book I should have read by now. It’s a pretty classic problem novel about a kid named Benjie who is addicted to heroin. (The tagline on the novel is “Benjie is young, black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroin” lest there’s any confusion about its problem novel status or the topic of the book. But I digress. )
The story is told in alternating first-person POV chapters from Benjie and the people who his drug use affect, including his mom, stepfather, grandmother, teachers, and friends. The chapters really serve as character studies to let the reader know who populates Benjie’s world as well as how they view not only Benjie but the neighborhood and other people in it.
When I found out the book was made into a movie (starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, no less!), I wasn’t very far into the book and was surprised because it didn’t seem like there was really enough plot to hang a movie on, but I was wrong about that. While the beginning is pretty light on plot and heavy on premise (Benjie’s on drugs and people notice–seriously, that’s it), as the book goes on, there’s actually a lot of stuff that happens between characters, and it’s all pretty deftly handled. The characters reflect more on how they feel about what’s happened than detailing what happened to get the characters to that point. I mean, we find out, but the chapters don’t follow the standard this happened and then this happened and then this happened progression.
While I ultimately found the book just okay (it’s super short but took me a ridiculously long amount of time to read it given the length), I really enjoyed all of the relationship stuff with the mom and stepfather, and I am 100% in love with the ending. THAT ENDING. Not to mention, all of the familial relationship stuff is ace. Yeah, so that was pretty great. Also, there’s a really interesting conflict between the white teacher Mr. Cohen (who has A LOT of contempt for his black students) and the black nationalist teacher Mr. Green across the hall. They are both effective teachers but they do not particularly care for each other and they have very, very different views of the children and neighborhood they serve.
Anyway, I’m going to end this by just quoting Mr. Green because, through him, Childress basically says what I was trying to get at in my diversity fatigue post:
Look around your city and let me know if you see coloreds represented fifty-fifty in the white community. No, it doesn’t go down that way. I’m sick of explainin and talkin race. Race is the story of my life and my father’s life, and I guess, his father and all the other fathers before that. As a kid, I was in on “race” discussions in school, at home, in church, everywhere. It’s a wonder every Black person in the U. S. of A. hasn’t gone stark, ravin made from racism…and the hurtin it’s put on us.
Also, for anyone doing any banned book challenges, this book was successfully removed from a school library in 1975.
Reading this book was almost like being home again. I mean, yes, it’s set in Atlanta and not the DC area, but all the black people in this book. Ah, I was just rolling around in blackness. Granted a bit more militant blackness than I usually rolled with back in the day, but a lot of blackness nonetheless. Yes, I miss that on occasion. It was nice to get right into it is what I’m saying.
Miss Iona may be one of my new favorite characters. She is so awesome. I love her. Love, love, love, love.
On the other hand, there is Wes, my new most hated character. I think he is worse than Dolores Umbridge. I mean, the hate I have for him is deep and abiding. The book mentions that he’s amoral more than once, and I think that’s pretty apt. He is the worst. THE WORST.
I hate him a lot is what I’m saying.
So, yes, anyway, I need to read more African-American fiction, obviously. That is the conclusion I’ve come to.
Oh, right, the book! So I think the beginning is slow, probably a little too slow. One of the benefits (and drawbacks) of listening to an audiobook is that they all seem kind of slow and my listening is kind of disjointed, so I can’t always tell if it’s slow because it’s slow or it’s slow because of how I’m listening to the book. But, no, the opening of the book is slow. It spends way too much time on Ida and how she doesn’t have a job but is going back to Atlanta because her dad has lost it blah blah blah Wes is the worst blah blah blah we get it. I was well over the 30% mark before Ida and Wes even got close to each other’s orbits. That is absurd. And Ida was mostly just walking around West End talking to people. Which…slice of life or whatever but come on.
However, once they both got into Atlanta, the plot and pace picked up considerably and I was hooked. I had to know what would happen. I was waiting for the bus, and my co-worker stopped and offered me a ride, and I almost declined because I wanted to be into the book. Also, I went from listening only during my bus commute to also listening in the car when I was doing errands. So, yeah. I was into it.
The ending, however, was disappointing. Sigh. Too rushed and rather preachy. Oh well.
I thought both narrators were pretty good. (This was my second Bahni Turpin in a row and not on purpose. However, that she was one of the narrators didn’t deter me from the book. Obviously.) However, I liked the way Turpin narrated men better than Willis narrated women. All of his women sounded the same, which may have been a deliberate choice, honestly. Wes is the kind of guy who probably thinks all women sound the same or would make all the women in his life sound the same. In contrast, Turpin’s Rev and Mr. Eddie (as well as some others) were all pretty distinctive.
Turpin’s Miss Iona is brilliant, of course, but Miss Iona >>>>>>>>>>>>>> everybody else in all ways, so it would’ve been pretty hard to make her terrible.
3.5 stars may be a bit high, but the stuff I liked, I really liked and the audiobook made it past commuter status, so.
Also, the book’s title comes from a song by Duke Ellington, and here is Ella Fitzgerald singing it. That’s worth at least a half-star, I think.
I’ll just admit up front that this is my first time reading this book. Judy Blume wasn’t really on my radar when I was a kid, so I’m encountering most of her books as an adult.
What do you say about a book that you really liked but don’t have a lot to say about? I don’t know, but I’ll try.
The book is deceptively simple in its prose. However, main character Davey is dealing with a lot. Just…a lot. I loved the examination of fear and how it operates at a deep level of control and hypocrisy.
I was nervous about Davey’s relationship with Wolf (he’s significantly older than her), but the cover was misleading in that regard, and their connection is well-developed and believable.
There’s a great examination of race and class here as well as, of course, the look at grief and the different ways it manifests. I love reading older stories because Davey “hyperventilates,” which, today, we would call having a panic attack. It’s just interesting to see how language changes.
I understand that styles shift over time, but I really do wish more current YA was written this way. Not all teens are super introspective nor do they use lyrical prose to describe what’s happening with them. Still, they deal with a lot and process a lot and have astute observations about life that aren’t necessarily dressed up and made pretty.
I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s hard to imagine this novel being published today–yet I find it more authentic and relatable than what’s out there now.
Of course, that could be because I’m an old. Oh well.
And yes I know about the movie. I’m planning to watch it soon.
I really liked this book. The voice is so great–it really makes the novel. I also thought the humor was kind of random and spot on. I laughed several times while reading, though I wouldn’t be able to do a pull-quote. Most of it was contextual, and the way everything built up into a moment. The book is also not a traditional narrative; it’s told in lists and in screenplay format and regular prose. Playing with the format also adds to the voice.
What I think really works well about this book is that though it’s about a boy who befriends a girl with cancer (she is the dying girl, obviously.), it’s not about cancer. It’s about how this kid (Greg) who is really closed off emotionally and pretty high strung and selfish processes and deals with someone he knows having cancer. His actions aren’t pretty and he’s very self-involved, and that’s why it works. He stays at arm’s length from his feelings AT ALL TIMES and is not well-equipped to handle anything very serious. It shows in Greg’s relationship with Earl, too.
I also liked the ending because it showed that nothing really changes just because someone has cancer. It’s not usually this life-affirming event that propels those left behind into greatness. Cancer sucks and people are devastated at the loss of life and then life just kind of goes on. Unless, of course, those left behind are self-motivated.
While it’s more sad than anything, I also appreciated that Earl and Greg both had kind of resigned themselves to a certain kind of life and trapped themselves into their own narratives. I mean, it doesn’t have to be the way it winds up, but that’s the choice they both made.
Also, this is a pretty good depiction of social anxiety and crippling perfectionism.
My only complaints about this book are that Rachel is kind of a blank slate (which makes sense for the narrative–Greg, again, wants to keep her at arm’s length), and I would have liked to see Earl and Greg’s relationship developed more. However, even the lack of development in that area seems on purpose. Earl’s home life is pretty terrible, and at one point, Greg admits that he doesn’t even know how to think about or process how bad it is.
Oh, and the other thing that got annoying was Greg saying he didn’t know why anyone would still be reading the book. I didn’t mind the moments when he broke the fourth wall to talk about how trite the language was or how annoying he found himself or why he thought the story sucked, but don’t tell me I don’t want to keep reading, dude. I might have taken you up on that.
All in all, though, the book worked.
Anyway, I read this book before I saw the movie, and I have thoughts on how the adaptation worked, so I’ll be doing a post about the movie soon.
I recently finished I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios, which is mostly about a girl falling in love with a Marine with PTSD, but which is also about a girl dealing with her alcoholic mother. And as I was reading the book, something started niggling at me about the way the mom’s alcoholism was described/treated. It sounded really familiar.
In the past year or so, I have read the following YA books that deal with a parent’s alcoholism:
- I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
- 52 Reasons to Hate My Father by Jessica Brody*
- This Side of Home by Renee Watson
- Best Foot Forward by Joan Bauer*
- The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder*
- The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Robin Palmer
- The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Year of My Miraculous Appearance by Catherine Ryan Hyde