Book review – “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This was the September choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was a YA novel. I had not heard of either the author or the book despite the fact it has become an international best-seller since its publication in 2012. It’s always nice to discover an author for the first time and I am certainly glad I read this. It is a heartwarming story and covers some very interesting topics.

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

I don’t usually have spoilers in my reviews, but when I review children’s or YA books, I do include them as I am assuming that any adult readers of this blog who might want to get hold of the book for a child they know, will also want to know what’s in it. So, you are hereby warned – there be spoilers!

Dante Quintana and Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza are two Mexican-American teenage boys who meet at a swimming pool where they live in El Paso, Texas. Ari cannot swim so Dante offers to teach him. The two are very different characters: Dante is the only child of academic parents. He is bright, quirky, bookish and artistic. Ari is the fourth and youngest child of somewhat more troubled parents. Ari has an older brother whom he has not seen since he was four years old because he is in prison, for reasons he does not know and which his family never discusses. Also, Ari’s father is a Vietnam veteran, a closed man, unable to talk about his war experiences. The novel is set in the 1980s.

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Facebook Reading Challenge – October choice

It’s that time of the month again (where exactly did September go?) when I choose a new book for my reading challenge. Last month the theme was a YA novel and the title I selected was a challenge in itself just to say! Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz has become an international best-seller and won multiple awards since its publication in 2013. A follow-up – Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World – is due for publication later this month. Look out for my review next week.

For this month, the theme is a ghost story. This is a genre I have eschewed over the years, although two such novels I have loved have included The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and Beloved by Toni Morrison. There are many, what you might call, psychological ghost stories I could have chosen, such as The Shining by Stephen King, which I was tempted by since I have never got around to reading anything by this author. It would also give me a reason to watch the film again which I saw many years ago when I first met my husband as it’s one of his favourites. I was also tempted by Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black a classic English ghost story if ever there was one, and its adaptation for stage is the second-longest running (non-musical) theatre show in London’s West End (after The Mousetrap). Incredibly, it has been in production since 1989.

In the end, however, I have gone for Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver, an author I know almost nothing about, but whose name seems to keep cropping up in my world. It must be a sign! This novel was published in 2010 and its setting is an Arctic expedition.

Autumn seems like a good month to curl up with this particular type of book as the nights begin noticeably to draw in and there are mists in the mornings. October is also the month of All Hallows Eve, of course, which in many cultures is a time for remembering the dead. I always disliked this particular festival when my children were young because of the preponderance of things I hated – plastic, synthetics and sweets! – which inevitably are designed to attract children. The supermarkets are beginning to fill with garish costumes and even more garish food products, but perhaps reading this book will give me a different appreciation of this ancient festival.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I would love for you to join me in the reading challenge this month.

Reading challenge – September

September is may favourite time of the year. I just cannot escape that ‘back to school’ feeling and I am always filled with hope and optimism, that something is beginning. I am writing this in my garden and the weather is particularly lovely today, the kind of day that gives you both joy and energy. I have had a very energetic day in fact, having this morning completed my very first official 10k run – Yay! I completed it in almost exactly one hour, which is a very good time for me and I did it without any walking so I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

My daughters are back to school tomorrow and I will miss them being around the house. We normally take our holidays in August, but this year we went in July, so the last month has been spent mainly at home, which has been very grounding. Tomorrow also means a return to some semblance of work – I work part-time for a charity – and also trying to get back to a writing habit. I’m starting work on a new book (while also trying to get my first one submitted!) I also need to get back into a regular reading habit as that has fallen a bit by the wayside.

It is just as well that my Facebook reading challenge choice for last month was a fairly easy one (theme: a book to rest with) and lent itself to being read in small bits of time snatched here and there. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim is a collection of thoughts and wisdom from the international best-selling Korean Buddhist monk. It provides guidance on how to focus more on the important things in life, the things that give our existence substance, such as love, friendship, spirituality and commitment. It is divided into eight chapters, which begin with a short discourse, and then a couple of sub-chapters with several short paragraphs of wisdom. It was an easy read and one I can see myself keeping at my bedside and going back to time and again. Definitely one for slow absorption.

This month’s theme for my reading challenge is a YA novel. I love the YA genre and always wish I read more! The book I have chosen has the intriguing title Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. It was first published in 2013 and has been described by Time magazine as the best YA book of all time – quite a recommendation! The audiobook is read by Lin Manuel Miranda, which is very tempting indeed, but I have been listening to a lot of audio recently (while training for the 10k) and I long to have a paperback novel in my hands again!

Many awards won…

Aristotle and Dante are two loners who meet at a swimming pool and seem to have very little in common. Aristotle is described as an ‘angry teen’ whose brother is in prison; Dante is a ‘know it all’. They seem unlikely companions but find they have some shared interests and develop a firm bond as they discover important truths about themselves and about life.

So, if that sounds like something you could get your teeth into, I would love for you to join me this month in the reading challenge.

I hope your September is fruitful, happy and fulfilling.

Book review: “Wild: A journey from lost to found” by Cheryl Strayed

When we first meet Cheryl, the author and narrator, she is lost. At the tender age of 26 she finds herself in a dark place, at the bottom of a downward spiral that began when she lost her 46 year-old mother to cancer four years earlier. Cheryl is one of three siblings, brought up mostly in a single parent family, the mother having left the children’s violent alcoholic father when they were still very young. The mother later married Eddie, a calm and steady influence, and they lived a humble, fairly rural and, most importantly, stable existence. With her mother’s death, however, Cheryl’s life begins to collapse in on her. She and her siblings seem unable to bond in their grief, Eddie drifts away and soon finds another partner and step-children who quickly take over the family home, and Cheryl sets off on a path of toxic behaviour (infidelity, drug-taking and serial unemployment) that will drive a wedge between her and her husband.

Thus the scene is set. When she has reached rock-bottom, Cheryl decides that they only thing she can possibly do is set out on a 1,100 mile solo hike on one of the toughest trails in north America. The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Mexican border in the south, to the Canadian border in the north, through California, Oregon and Washington. The trail is, over 2,600 miles in total so the author covers only part of it, in a trip that will take her around three months. That’s enough! The terrain is inhospitable, the landscapes change from desert to snowy mountain top, which means that, since she carries almost all of what she needs with her, she requires clothing and equipment for a wide range of climatic conditions. The year that she chooses to travel happens to be one of the worst for snowfall in the mountains. The journey is treacherous enough so Cheryl decides, like all but the most intrepid of hikers, to bypass the worst affected part of the trail and rejoin lower down.

The Pacific Crest Trail

Cheryl’s constant companion on her hike is ‘Monster’, the name she gives her enormous backpack. It is monstrously heavy and carrying it gives her constant pain, from the agonies of bearing the weight, to the blisters and open wounds it wears on her hips. Her other source of pain is her boots, bought in good faith, but which turn out to be too small for a hike of this type and which lead to various foot problems, including blackened and lost toenails. But these burdens, the pains, the wounds, are a metaphor for the emotional pain that she is enduring, and as she grows fitter and stronger, and as she learns to beat her immense discomfort, so she learns to live with her grief and to make peace with her suffering. This journey is a meditation on pain. It is therapy.

The book would not be as interesting if it were a trail diary alone. Rather, it is part memoir, as the author gives us the background to her life, to the decline and fall that brought her to the momentous decision to undertake such an enormous mental and physical challenge. It is also a lesson in how sometimes the toughest things can be the most important. The author meets people on the trail with whom she develops lasting bonds and learns that she has depths of resourcefulness that she did not know she had. There are also moments of peril – when her pre-packed supply box does not arrive at the ranger station on time, when she loses a boot over the side of a mountain and has to hike for several days in her camp sandals, attached to her feet by duck tape, when she meets two suspicious characters, ostensibly out to hike and fish, but who seem to take an unnatural interest in the fact she is alone, and then ruin her water purifier to boot.

This is a fascinating story that I thoroughly enjoyed. I was on holiday when I read it and began fantasising about long-distance walking trails! Perhaps just the Trans-Pennine for me though – I don’t think I need anything on this scale!

Highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – July choice

Last month’s reading challenge book, Murder in Midsummer, a collection of short stories by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L Sayers and Ruth Rendell, was the perfect bit of light-hearted escapism for me. Nothing too challenging, great entertainment. Look out for my review next week.

This month is going to be completely different! The theme is “a book to travel with”. Since travel as we know it, is pretty much off the agenda at the moment (the UK government’s new list of green and amber countries was announced last week, and, guess what, most of us are going nowhere!) we are all having to think a little laterally at the moment. Perhaps you booked your caravan in Torquay months ago, in which case congratulations, but those less organised among us, waited. I thought we were being organised by booking the ferry to Ireland back in March, assuming we would be out of this pandemic by the summer, but alas, it does not look as if Ireland will have us and our potential Delta variant, not for the moment at least, without stringent quarantine restrictions that make the trip impractical. So, it’s back to the drawing board for us and yet more months before we see family again. I’m sure many of you are in the same boat.

What does it mean to ‘travel’ anyway? Many of us will have at least a few far-flung destinations on our bucket lists, but if we look back, the trips that mean most to us are usually the ones which involved some sort of mental or emotional journey, or spiritual transformation too. So, rather than choose a book about A N Other’s fantastic trip to Paradise, that makes me too jealous to read, I’ve chosen a book which is about travel as catharsis or recovery. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail was published in 2012 by American writer Cheryl Strayed and was the first choice of Oprah’s book club when it was launched the same year.

Strayed wrote this memoir during a particularly difficult time in her life; her mother had died prematurely, when Cheryl was only 22, she and her husband divorced and she became a drug user. She undertook the punishing 1100 mile hike through California, Oregon and Washington as a form of therapy.

Okay, so it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs, maybe even triggering for some, but I think it is possibly a journey worth taking. And I get the sense that it is ultimately uplifting.

So, I would love for you to join me in the challenge in July. Hop on over to the Facebook group and join if you would like.

Happy reading everyone, however and wherever you will be travelling this month.

Facebook Reading Challenge – May’s title

The twists and turns of life are unexpected and as I sit down to write this blog, having not opened WordPress for about two weeks, I was presented with my last post and the photo of our lovely cat who, I’m afraid, has not returned. Seeing him there set me off again. We have no idea what has happened to him and, since it is now almost three weeks since he went missing, we are pretty resigned to his disappearance. The worst thing is the not knowing.

Kazuo Ishiguro was interviewed about his new novel, Klara and the Sun, by Jackie Kay for the Manchester Literature Festival

Alas, it happens and we must move on. It is already May 5th and not only have I still not completed last month’s book (Emily Bain Murphy’s Splinters of Scarlet), which is fairly par for the course, I haven’t even posted May’s choice! Just as well it’s a thirty-one day month. I must admit that Splinters of Scarlet is not grabbing me as much as I’d hoped. I’m only about halfway through and my daughter assures me it gets better, so I will post a review next week, by when, I hope, I will have finished it. I need to because I’ve got so many books to read at the moment – I need to get my book club book finished and read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun by the 17th – I bought a ticket to the online talk between him and Jackie Kay, which was part of the virtual Manchester Literature Festival. I was unable to watch it on the night it took place, but I can still access the recording, but only for another twelve days! I prefer to read a book before attending a talk about it, don’t you?

Anyway, back to my Facebook Reading Challenge – what was I thinking when I chose May’s theme?! ‘Something with ‘may’ in the title?!’ I thought there would be loads of books to choose from, but, guess what, there aren’t! There are a few though and there is one I have stumbled across which could actually be really fascinating. So, I have chosen Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo, and I’m pretty sure this would not have crossed my radar had it not been for my rather randomly selected theme, but isn’t that what reading challenges are all about?

Seven Days in May is a fictionalised re-telling of the story of the luxury cruise ship the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, just a few miles short of her destination following a transatlantic crossing from America. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew were killed. I have of course heard of the Lusitania, but I could not have told you anything about it, so I have learned a lot just by reading the blurb. This is author Kim Izzo’s third book, and her first (The Jane Austen Marriage Manual) was a bestseller.

So, having initially despaired that I would find anything decent to fit my theme, I now feel quite excited and I would love for you to join me.

Happy reading!

PS There is another book of the same name, a political thriller written by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey II in 1962, which was made into a film.

Audiobook review – “Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris

When I posted my new Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week, I completely forgot to mention the final book of my 2020 reading challenge, which was The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris. I chose it because I just felt a bit of a laugh was in order at the end of what had been a challenging and intense few months. I decided to go for this one on audiobook because I love Sedaris’s unique style of delivery; he is mostly quite deadpan, but that just gives his occasional bursts of comic energy all the more impact.

The book is a series of sketches loosely based on Christmas themes. The longest of these, and the one which opens the book, is an account of the author’s time working as a Christmas elf at Santaland in Macy’s department store in New York city (the veracity is disputed, but who cares?). I made the mistake of starting to listen to this on one of my morning runs. I have to tell you that I had to stop several times, doubled over with breathless laughter and my chuckles got me some strange glances from passers-by! In the caricatures of ghastly parents, children, his fellow elves and the mostly overly self-important ‘Santas’ we can all recognise tiny little bits of ourselves. These pieces were first aired on various media in the early 1990s, but it is extraordinary how much of it remains punishingly accurate today. In the awful, domineering parents bullying their kids into posing for photos with Santa bearing gleeful smiles (regardless of their true feelings) he foreshadows instagram parenting which values the posting of an experience more highly than the experience itself. You could easily believe that Sedaris had been made completely cynical by his seasonal work experience but he ends the piece with an uplifting account of one of the truly magical Santas who really did enchant the children who came to see him.

The next couple of essays I found more clever than funny- one is a woman reading out her round robin Christmas letter in which she gives an account of her husband’s illegitimate Vietnamese daughter turning up at the family home, and ends very darkly when her own daughter’s baby dies, it turns out, at the hands of the narrator, who has tried to pin the blame for the crime on the Vietnamese ‘interloper’. Macabre humour indeed.

My favourite essay was called ‘6 to 8 Black Men’. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard. It sounds very un-PC, but it is actually extremely self-deprecating and pokes fun at north American Christmas customs and the culture more generally (including the systemic racism), as compared to their European counterparts. I have had a couple of repeat listens of this piece and watched it on YouTube and it made me laugh just as much second and third time around. Sedaris’s humour is edgy at times, but I think the best comedy tends to makes you slightly uncomfortable.

This was a wonderful little collection, suitable for any time of year, and a perfect introduction to Sedaris, if you have not come across him before.

Highly recommended.

Facebook Reading Challenge – December Choice

I am thoroughly enjoying November’s reading challenge choice – The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. I have not yet completed it (nothing new there then!), but it is reminiscent of our June choice, which was of course The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. That’s not a problem as I loved that one too. The Girl with the Louding Voice is a slower read because it is narrated by Adunni, the fifteen year old central character, and therefore written very much in the natural style of her speech. A non-African reader may find this takes a bit of getting used to, but the richness of the narrative is very rewarding.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wins the Women’s Prize ‘Best of the Best’

Both the above novels are set in Nigeria and it is great to see that country at the head of literary news at the moment, with voters in the Women’s Prize for Fiction awarding the prize of prizes to Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (it got my vote – one of the best novels I’ve ever read). I have a complete girl crush on this woman – she is incredible! For many fiction readers she has put Nigeria on the literary map, but of course that nation has a rich literary history in the likes of Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ben Okri. I feel sure that Abi Daré will be adding her name to that list in the near future. But more of that next week when I finish and review the book.

What of this month’s choice? Well, the theme is a book for winter. I wanted to avoid the theme of a book for Christmas. I don’t know about you but by the time we get to the middle of December I am sometimes a little bit ‘over’ Christmas already. Christmas this year, however, has felt somewhat on hold up to now, due to Lockdown 2.0, and definitely lower key. We have had some very serious books recently so I think it’s time for a bit of a Christmas laugh. I’ve chosen a humorous seasonal book by North American comedian David Sedaris. You may have heard him on his occasional Radio 4 show. He is extremely funny.

I’ve chosen Santaland Diaries (some editions called Holidays on Ice), which is a slimmish volume of six essays about his experiences as ‘Santa’ working in Macy’s. I think I’m going to go for this one on audio – I could do with a chuckle as I head out on my morning runs this month! I love Sedaris’s deadpan delivery and it will take my mind of the cold and wet!

I hope you will join me on the challenge this month. I think it will be a fun one.

Happy reading!

Facebook Reading Challenge – November choice

I thoroughly enjoyed October’s choice for the Facebook Reading Challenge, the theme of which was children’s fiction. I chose Michelle Magorian’s prize-winning 1981 novel Goodnight Mister Tom which had me in tears in more than one place. Beautifully written, dealing with difficult subjects for children, in a sensitive and straightforward way. I’ll post a more detailed review later in the week in the concluding posts in my #KeepKidsReading themed series.

As it’s already 5th November, however, I wanted to post this month’s choice for the Facebook Reading Challenge. Our theme is a book from the new decade; you may recall that back in January my theme was something from the last decade. I chose Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which I absolutely loved. There seem to have been some truly landmark books published this year, some of which I have already read, for example Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Maggie O’Farell’s Hamnet (look out for my review of that one soon), and some that are on my TBR list, such as the final part in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet Summer and Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. There have also been a clutch of very exciting first novels, and it is one of these that I have chosen for this month on the reading challenge.

Abi Daré’s The Girl with the Louding Voice was published at the beginning of October, so it’s pretty hot off the presses (but happily already available in paperback). It has had some fantastic reviews and keeps popping up on my suggested reads from various bookseller’s newsletters I subscribe to. I normally eschew these as intensive sales pitches, but I think this one will be worth it. The main character is Adunni, a 14 year old Nigerian girl living in a small village, who dreams of getting an education and creating the life she wants for herself. As a young girl, however, she is considered little more than property to be traded in this patriarchal society, and is sold by her father to an older man in Lagos who abuses her sexually and where she is enslaved in his household. It is a story of how she escapes from this seemingly impossible situation through courage and tenacity.

This book is an international bestseller already and has had some amazing reviews, so it is one I cannot overlook. In these challenging times, when people of colour are having to fight for their rights and are doing so under the banner of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and where women cannot rest on their laurels, assuming equality has been won, this feels like an important book. Globally (according to the UN), little more than a third of girls receive a secondary education, one of the key drivers of public health and economic growth. This cause has been somewhat forgotten in the high-octane news environment we are living in right now, but the problem has by no means gone away. Perhaps stories can keep it at the top of the agenda.

So, I will step down from my soapbox now and go back to some quiet reading.

Do join me in this month’s challenge – I think it’s going to be another good one!

Book review – “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman

As has become customary, I was somewhat late posting on my Reading Challenge Facebook Group with this month’s title, the theme of which is a novel from Eastern Europe. I have chosen Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This book has been sitting on my bookshelves for many years; it was part of my husband’s collection before we met, so must have been bought at least 25 years ago. I’ve ‘been meaning to read it’ ever since. There may well be books on my own TBR pile that have been around even longer, but I am determined I will get to them all one day! So, this month’s theme provides the perfect opportunity to get into this particular title, a renowned modern classic set against the background of the Prague Spring in 1968. First published in 1984, it was made into a film in 1988, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche. Apparently, the author hated the film!

So, if you would like to join me this month, I would love to hear your thoughts at the end of the month – or, at my present rate of reading, a week or so into October!

Last month’s theme was ‘a love story’ and I chose André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. The novel is set primarily during one sultry Italian summer in the 1980s. The younger main character, teenager Elio, spends every summer there with his parents at their home. Each year they invite an American graduate student to stay with them for several weeks, to assist Elio’s father with his academic work, whilst also working on a project of their own. This has become a tedious routine for Elio, who is always aggrieved that, for the period of the visit, he has to vacate his bedroom for a smaller one down the hall, so that the guest can stay in more comfort. That is until Oliver arrives. Seven years older than Elio he is confident, outgoing, charming and brilliant, a favourite with Elio’s parents, the staff who work in the house, and the family’s local friends and neighbours. By contrast, Elio is introverted, at times morose, a typical teenager, you might say.

The book is written from Elio’s point of view, so we know he feels an instant attraction to Oliver. Still young, Elio is in the early stage of exploring his sexuality. Although he has no apparent qualms about homosexuality, he clearly does not feel he can explore this openly in front of his family. He feels sure the attraction is mutual, but is frustrated by Oliver’s reluctance to engage with him. Initially, there is an intense psychological dance between the two, as both young men try to suppress their feelings, even having romantic liaisons with other women. When Elio confronts Oliver about what he sees as his cruelty, Oliver expresses his concern about their age difference and whether it would be unfair to expose him to potential heartache. Oliver is concerned about the power imbalance that the age difference confers.  

The pair finally come together and for the last few weeks of Oliver’s stay they have an intense sexual relationship and experience a deep emotional connection. Like all holiday romances, however, it cannot last. There is no sad ending, however, merely a recognition, that such love affairs burn hot and bright, but never for long.

A fellow reader commented that the time in which this novel is set is a factor. That if it had been, say, 10 or 15 years later, perhaps the romance would have been more acceptable (and perhaps less intense?). For me, the ‘forbidden’ nature of it came more from the age and status difference – Elio is at an early stage of sexual awakening, while Oliver is more experienced and does not want Elio’s early formative sexual experience to be one that he may regret later in life. Perhaps this does reflect the fact that homosexuality was still considered a more niche interest, less socially mainstream and more likely to cause psychological harm if later rejected.

This was a perfect novel for late August; I had planned to enjoy it on my summer holiday, lazing on the patio, but alas my holiday was cut short, so I had to make do with reading it in cool rainy south Manchester! It was good to escape to Italy in this book though.

I liked the story, the tension created felt very real and the ending was good. Apparently, the follow-up, Find Me is not as good. The characters were strong and the sense of place was very powerfully drawn, probably my favourite aspect of the book. It has of course been made into a film, starring Timothy Chalemet and Armie Hammer, which was highly praised and the breakthrough movie for its young star, Chalemet. I am also told the audiobook, read by Hammer, is excellent.

Recommended.