Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reading: Now I'll Tell You Eveything (The FINAL Book in the Alice McKinley Series)

The FINAL Alice book published in 2013
Courtesy of  

As soon as I finished reading Now I'll Tell You Everything, the final book in the Alice McKinley series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, it started to rain.  Not just metaphorically but literally.  Along with the rain came hail pounding at the window and strong gusts of wind stirring up mini-hurricanes on the Chesapeake Bay outside my patio.  How timely this rainstorm came to align perfectly with my conclusion of the Alice series, a set of books that I have been reading since I was thirteen years old.

The series began in 1985 and includes twenty-eight follow-up books that focus on Alice and her life in Bethesda, Maryland, with her father, the manager of a music store, and older brother, Lester.  Along with her two best friends, Pamela and Elizabeth, Alice explores the ins-and-outs of growing up, asks the questions that everybody wonders but dares not say, experiences her fair share of awkward and embarrassing life stories, and through it all, comforts her readers, young and old.  

Besides being well-written, fast-paced, humorous, and super relatable, the Alice series made me feel like I had three best friends across the country.   They weren't fantastical superheroes, or girls being chased down by werewolves or hungry vampires, or famous celebrities hopping from one party to the next.  Instead, they were seemingly regular kids navigating the throes of middle school, and then high school, with Naylor spending chapters and pages of books devoted to poolside conversations, dressing room horrors, or sibling banter. 

But in Now I'll Tell You Everything, there is not a lot of time devoted to one particular thing, as this book follows Alice from her first day as a college freshman to a sixty-something wife and grandmother.  On the one hand, I like knowing how Alice's future unfolds and how it mimics the Alice in the past book.  Sixty-year-old Alice shares, "I wanted to write some books about what it was like to grow up without a mother and about all the things Dad and Lester had to teach me.  I wanted my children and grandchildren to know that no matter when you are born or where you life, happiness and disappointments have the same flavors the world over.  I think that Mom, and the girl I was back in seventh grade, would have been pleased."  And while the book concludes in a nicely, neatly sealed way, I almost wish I didn't know so much.

Most of the Alice books span four months and spend more time developing character and detailing certain events for pages and chapters!  With this book covering over forty years in just over 500 pages, there are many details that are left out.  It almost reads like a summary of Alice's life after high school.  Perhaps this was done as a promise Naylor made to fans: that she would reveal everything about Alice!  Perhaps this parallels the common thought that life just seems to go faster as people get older, and with the blink of an eye, Alice transforms from an eager college freshman at the University of Maryland to an eager grandmother.

As a fan of Alice McKinley, I am sad to see the series end.  I feel antiquated, and to console myself after the conclusion of this series (a literary crisis if I've ever known one), I am considering making a purchase of every single Alice book ever written from Amazon.  (They all have real pretty covers now, too.)  Many of the events in the final book warmed my heart, and I appreciated how the author brought up several details that had occurred in past books to show how moments that occur when we are young  can still impact us in the future.  (There's Patrick promising to call Alice on her twenty-first birthday, for example, or the memory of Alice meeting Patrick for the first time in an embarrassing moment at The Gap.)  Yet, like time itself, I wish this book would have slowed down and spent more time focusing on Alice in college.  I would have been content with the series concluding with Alice as an early twenty-something and then could have imagined the rest of our lives unfolding together.  But I think I'm just sad to let go of the dear friends I've known for so long. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Reading: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Courtesy of
"Sometimes, I think I am the saddest boy in the world." 

These words are shared by Aristotle "Ari" Mendoza in the novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a recent Stonewall and Printz Award winner written by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, a cultural insider to the Hispanic characters.  Except for books in which dogs die, this one was the first that made tears stream down my face with that line alone.  

Growing up in the desert of El Paso, a city that is cherished in my heart, sixteen year old Aristotle just wants to be alone.  His mother, a teacher, always "hovers," and his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, never wants to talk.  His older sisters are too grown up for him, and his older brother, Bernardo, is a mystery.  The only thing that Ari knows about his brother is that he is in prison but for what reasons, Ari doesn't know.

The absence of his brother is haunting to him, along with several other insecurities that Ari has.  Uncomfortable dreams.  Annoying boys.  Pestering girls.  And then one day, he meets Dante at the pool who offers to teach Ari how to swim.  The two boys instantly connect and become best friends.  Their friendship is so deep that when Ari sees a car slide around the corner after a slick rain and nearly run over Dante, he rushes to the middle of the road to push his friend out of the way, nearly paralyzing himself in the rescue.  

Throughout the novel, this event torments Ari.  He doesn't want to talk about it, and he doesn't consider himself a hero.  When Dante moves away for eight months with his parents to Chicago, he regularly writes to Ari, who irregularly responds.  As their friendship unfolds, Ari begins to questions his thoughts about Dante, his loyalty to his family, and his own normalcy.  He makes reckless decisions to help him cope with his insecurities - driving out in the middle of the desert and drinking beer, for example - and becomes acquainted with his parents in ways that he never know.  When Dante admits that he wants to grow up and marry a boy, Ari is certain that he will always be friends with Dante, even if he doesn't really want Dante to talk about these things with him. 

In a time when the Gay Rights Movement is making strides like the Civil Rights Movement did in the 1960's - and still does today - Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a comfort to young adults who might be coping with their own insecurities.  It also helps cultural outsiders to be empathetic to the feelings that people who are gay experience.  The development of the characters is rich, making me fall in love with Aristotle and Dante.  There are many times in the novel when Ari's family and friends tell him to "love himself the way that others do" and to stop being so hard on himself.  I felt this way towards Ari, too, as I got to read about what a selfless, unique person he was.  Reading about Ari's internal battles hurt my heart, and I found myself rooting for him and praying that the author would please do him justice at the end of the book; I just couldn't stand it if he was sad for one more day!    

The author writes in his dedication, "To all the boys who've had to play by different rules."  Throughout the novel, Ari sets rules for himself to try to conform to societal standards, but these rules just aren't going to help him win.  Mr. Sáeiz has written an influential, insightful novel with compelling characters that tells a coming-of-age story for all readers.  He includes beautiful phrases (like when Ari talks about how he wants to kiss the raindrops, for example), and the lexile makes this lengthy book accessible for struggling readers, as it is readably appropriate for third graders.  (The content, of course, is for older readers.)  To check it out for yourself, visit your local library.