Aristotle and Dante, Chapter One: A Completely Unfair Annotation


Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe seems to have impressed more people on more committees than any other YA book last year.  It got a Printz Honor, made the BFYA Top Ten, and won both the Stonewall Award and the Pura Belpre Award.  And yet, I’m not going to read it.  Why? Because I read the first chapter of it and was totally turned off.  This isn’t a particularly fair way to judge a book, and obviously I would never do this if I was reviewing a book for a journal, but with all the books out there to catch up on and all the new books from 2013 to get to, I’m just not going to go on with it.  What follows is my entirely unfair annotations to the first chapter of the book.  I read no further and make no claims as to the quality of the book as a whole.  At the same time, I think this is a pretty good peek into the way a lot of us (me, at least) read books, especially the beginnings of books.  A bad beginning can really poison a book.  With those disclaimers out of the way, here it is (Saenz’s words are in italics, my notes in bold):

One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.

I admit that I am heavily influenced by first lines–I like them to be really good, and there are several things I dislike about this first line.  First of all, “woke” sounds stilted.  It should probably be “woke up.”  Second, “One summer night.”  Is this necessary?  “I fell asleep hoping the world would be different when I woke up.”  Much better.

In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the world was the same.

Again with the unnecessary—“In the morning”? Does this add anything? I’m not totally crazy about the whole sentiment of these first two sentences–it seems more than a bit melodramatic–but at least they should be more succinct.

I threw off the sheets and lay there as the heat poured in through my open window.

My hand reached for the dial on the radio. “Alone” was playing. Crap, “Alone,” a song by a group called Heart. Not my favorite song. Not my favorite group. Not my favorite topic. “You don’t know how long . . .”

“a group called Heart.”  Is this for the benefit of contemporary readers who wouldn’t know Heart? Because it once again is stilted—“a song by Heart” is fine.

I was fifteen.

I was bored.

I was miserable.

As far as I was concerned, the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky. Then the sky could be as miserable as I was.

I don’t know what any part of this metaphor means. What would the blue have to be for the sun to be able to melt it? And what would the sky be that it would be miserable with the blue gone from it?

The DJ was saying annoying, obvious things like, “It’s summer! It’s hot out there!” And then he put on that retro Lone Ranger tune, something he liked to play every morning because he thought it was a hip way to wake up the world. “Hi-yo, Silver!” Who hired this guy? He was killing me. I think that as we listened to the William Tell Overture, we were supposed to be imagining the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding their horses through the desert. Maybe someone should have told that guy that we all weren’t ten-year-olds anymore. “Hi-yo, Silver!” Crap.

Is the narrator trying to show off that he knows that the Lone Ranger theme is the WTO?  Why does the narrator listen to this station if he does the same annoying things all the time?  Also, the narrator is already starting to annoy me with his attitude.

The DJ’s voice was on the airwaves again: “Wake up, El Paso! It’s Monday, June fifteenth, 1987! 1987! Can you believe it?

Hello exposition! So in your face we need to state the year twice!

And a big ‘Happy Birthday’ goes out to Waylon Jennings, who’s fifty years old today!” Waylon Jennings? This was a rock station, dammit! But then he said something that hinted at the fact that he might have a brain. He told the story about how Waylon Jennings had survived the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. On that note, he put on the remake of “La Bamba” by Los Lobos.

First of all, some fact checking:

  1. It’s Ritchie, with a “t”. 
  2. I can’t find the exact release date, but Los Lobos’s “La Bamba” first made the Billboard charts on June 27, so even if it was out two weeks earlier, I doubt the narrator already knows about it.
  3. He makes it sound like Waylon Jennings was in the plane with Valens and Holly.  He wasn’t.  He gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, which is how he “survived,” since everyone in the plane died.

Then there’s more awkward phrasing, “the remake of ‘La Bamba’ by Los Lobos.” Why not “Los Lobos’s ‘La Bamba’ cover” or something like that?

And again, we’re about 300 words in, and the narrator’s voice is really grating.  Crap! dammit! crap! This is going to get exhausting.

“La Bamba.” I could cope with that.

I tapped my bare feet on the wood floor. As I nodded my head to the beat, I started wondering what had gone through Richie Valens’s head before the plane crashed into the unforgiving ground. Hey Buddy! The music’s over.

“The unforgiving ground”? Really?

“Hey Buddy! The music’s over.”?  Really?

For the music to be over so soon. For the music to be over when it had just begun. That was really sad.

Again, I don’t mean for this to be an indictment of Saenz’s novel. It obviously touched many people out there, so no need to explain to me why I should keep reading–I know I should.  I’m just not going to, because I have too many other things to do.  Any thoughts?

– Mark



Filed under Awards, Books, Teens

2 responses to “Aristotle and Dante, Chapter One: A Completely Unfair Annotation

  1. “Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.” YES PLEASE

  2. Fair enough. First lines and Chapter Ones are vital. I’ve given up on many critically-acclaimed, award-winning, best-selling, ‘world-changing’ books because they didn’t grip me, or because I didn’t like the narrator or writing style. Nothing wrong with that – no point persevering just because everyone else thinks you should. You’re precisely the sort of guy I’d hire to critique my writing, though I fear I may be disheartened afterwards 😉

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