“from what we cannot hold the stars are made”: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“from what we cannot hold the stars are made”:
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“Do you think we’ll ever discover all the secrets of the universe?” (231)

Ari asks this as he and his friends, Susie and Gina, sit in the bed of his truck and look up at all the stars. It is Ari’s favorite thing to do – to drive out to the desert at night in his truck so he can watch the stars.

It starts one summer (for some reason, things always start for Ari in the summer) when Ari’s mother is at him again about how “he doesn’t have any friends”. Even though she isn’t wrong, Ari still resents her for saying it. And on that hottest day of summer, he decides he will go to the pool to spend his time. That’s when Ari (Aristotle) meets Dante, and also when, for Ari, “Dante bec[omes] one more mystery in a universe full of mysteries” (19).

One day, Ari comes down with the flu. While he is bedridden, Dante comes to keep him company. Dante gives Ari a book of poems so he can read while Dante sketches him with charcoal on his drawing pad. Ari falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Dante is gone along with his drawing of Ari, but there is a drawing of Ari’s rocking chair that he left behind. In this drawing, Ari notices how Dante has captured the “afternoon light streaming into the room,” and “the way the shadows fell on the chair and gave it depth and made it appear as if it was something more than an inanimate object” (73). But mostly, he notices how Dante has captured something “sad and solitary” about the chair, and he wonders if this is how Dante sees the world, or if this is how he sees Ari’s world. As an Asian American female, I do not share a lot of similarities with either Ari or Dante, and yet when Ari looks at the picture of the chair and tries to figure out whose world Dante has drawn, I find myself thinking that Dante may have drawn a little bit of each of our – the reader’s – world in that picture, too.

One day, a group of boys shoot BB guns at a bird in a tree, and after Ari manages to scare them away, he notices Dante staring at the dead bird on the ground, with tears running down his face. Ari wonders why it is that “…some guys had tears in them and some had no tears at all?” (55). To be honest, Ari did not feel much for the bird. Yes, it was sad that the innocent bird was killed by stupid boys, but in the end, Ari felt that it was only a bird. However, Dante is heartbroken, and as usual, his face acts as a window to his feelings. On his way home, Ari thinks that, “Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness…How beautiful was that?” (55).

To be honest, Ari has a lot going on in his life. His brother is in prison, and everyone acts as though doesn’t exist, even though Ari has dreams of his brother. His father, after coming back from the Vietnam War, has been unreachable, choosing not to share his memories or his haunting dreams with his son. Everyday, Ari misses him more. On top of it all, Ari is a teenager, and he is trying to figure out who he is. And Ari is scared of Dante, because Dante means a lot more to Ari than he would like to admit.

Nevertheless, from his journey with Dante, Ari learns that “One of the secrets of the universe was that our instincts were sometimes stronger than our minds” (261) and that “Sometimes pain was like a storm that came out of nowhere. The clearest summer morning could end in a downpour. Could end in lightning and thunder” (261). If your friend was standing in the middle of the road, and you saw a car on the other side coming full-speed at them, would you throw yourself at your friend to save them?

That day, when Dante had given him the book of poems by William Carlos Williams, Ari, flushed with embarrassment and conscious of Dante’s focus on him, had read a line from the book: “from what we cannot hold the stars are made.” (73), and even though he had not understood what it meant, he had thought it was beautiful.

 

<Works Cited>
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Kindle Edition.

 

“Indeed, nothing awful is without its beautiful side”: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

“Indeed, nothing awful is without its beautiful side”:
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

 

“The hiss of the sprinklers is not the sound of snakes. And the painted dolphins on [his] sister’s wall cannot plot deadly schemes. And a scarecrow’s eyes do not see.”

This is what Caden Bosch has to tell himself to try to stop himself from believing these thoughts that are haunting him.

For Caden, there are three different realities: The white plastic kitchen, the ship and the captain, and the world occupied by his friends and family. For him, each of these realities is as real as the other, and he doesn’t know where he is going to be at any given moment.

Caden says in the beginning of the novel:
“There are two things you know. One: You were there. Two: You couldn’t have been there.”
Even though he struggles with these two “truths,” often, he is unsure whether he imagines half of the things he hears people say.

Once, when Caden’s father was driving him and his sister, Mackenzie, his father had an “unusual freak-out moment.” His father was very nervous, and he kept saying that “something [was] wrong,” even though he couldn’t explain exactly what it was. Eventually, Caden spotted the rearview mirror that was at his feet next to his backpack. When he showed it to his father, his father was finally able to calm down. Caden remembers this moment because he wishes it were that easy for him to pinpoint exactly what it is that may be wrong with him.

It first starts when Caden thinks that there is a kid at school who “wants to kill him.” First he suspects this, and that is enough to convince him that it’s true. This thought scares him so much that he goes to his father and blurts out his worry. But when his father asks Caden for details, such as why he thinks the kid wants to kill him, Caden can’t explain. He is only able to tell his dad, “It’s not what he said, it’s what he hasn’t said.” The fact is, Caden doesn’t really know this kid because he doesn’t have any classes with him. It’s a kid Caden “pass[es] in the hallway sometimes.”

Soon, Caden has trouble eating and sleeping. He keeps having troubling thoughts, and even though he cannot explain why he is having these thoughts, he knows that they are just as real as his mother, father, and sister are. Caden says, “…I see things. Not so much see, but feel. Patterns of connection between the people I pass. Between the birds that swoop from the trees. There is meaning out there, if only I can find it.” It’s not that Caden wants to freak his little sister out, or make his parents worried about him. It’s just that he keeps moving from on reality to another, and he doesn’t know which one to believe.

The thing I liked the most about Challenger Deep was Caden Bosch’s voice. Right alongside Caden’s struggle with his inexplicable thoughts is Caden’s voice. As ironic as it sounds, even as Caden loses himself to these different “realities” throughout the novel, Caden maintains who he is at his core: an intelligent and witty individual.

Knowing that her brother is struggling, Caden’s younger sister Mackenzie tells him, “Remember when we used to make forts out of cardboard boxes on Christmas?” With a smile, Caden says, “Yeah. That was fun.” Mackenzie then says to him, “Those forts were so real, even though they weren’t, you know?”

Caden Bosch’s journey to his own Challenger Deep is awful for himself and his family, but it is not without its many beautiful sides.

 

<Works Cited>
Shusterman, Neal. Challenger Deep. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

“Before Your Eyes Close Forever”: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

“Before Your Eyes Close Forever”:
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

There is a stone called “the Sea of Flames.” It is “a brilliant blue, the blue of tropical seas” with ”a touch of red at its center, like flames inside a drop of water” (20). Centuries ago, a prince plucked it from a stone from a dry riverbed in Borneo because of its beauty. The legend goes that “[t]he keeper of th[is] stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortune would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain” (429). It is said that this stone is inside a vault at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where Maurie-Laure’s father works as the master locksmith. Maurie-Laure, a girl who has been blind since she was six years old, is not sure if she wants to believe this.

Marie-Laure remembers the first time when she was able to find her way home without her father’s help:
Right. Then straight. They walk up their street now, she is sure of it. One step behind her, her father tilts his head up and gives the sky a huge smile. Marie-Laure knows this even though her back is to him, even though he says nothing, even though she is blind – Papa’s thick hair is wet from the snow and standing in a dozen angles off his head, and his scarf is draped asymmetrically over his shoulders, and he’s beaming up at the fallen snow (41).
Daniel LeBlanc always found ways to create a safe world for his daughter.

When Germany invades France, Marie-Laure and her father go to stay at her great-uncle’s house in Saint-Malo. In the attic of Entienne’s (Maurie-Laure’s great-uncle) house is a radio transmitter. When Entienne was young, he and his brother, Henri, used to broadcast their own recorded programs for children on the radio. When Henri was killed in the Great War, Entienne came home and built his own radio transmitter so he could broadcast the recordings again. As he confesses to his great-niece, Maurie-Laure, “…I wasn’t trying to reach England. Or Paris. I thought that if I made the broadcast powerful enough, my brother would hear me. That I could bring him some peace, protect him as he had always protected me” (161). When Maurie-Laure asks, “You’d play your brother’s own voice to him? After he died?…Did he ever talk back?” he replies that “No…He never did” (161). Even though Entienne could not reach Henri, he is able to reach two children in Zollverein, Werner and his sister Jutta.

At the orphanage in the coal-mining town of Zollverein, a boy named Werner and his sister, Jutta, listened to the radio as a man with a velvety voice told them:  “Open your eyes…and see what you can with them before they close forever” (48-49).

Once, Jutta asked Werner, “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?” During WWII, Werner found the opportunity to do what he believed was the right thing.

 

<Works Cited>
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. Simon & Schuster, 2014.

“The Firewoman’s Children”: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

“The Firewoman’s Children”:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

 

Split the Castle open,
find me, find you.
We, two, felt sand,
wind, air.
One felt whip. Whipped,
once shipped.

We, two, black.
Me, you.
One grew from
cocoa’s soil, birthed from nut,
skin uncut, still bleeding.
We, two, wade.
The waters seem different
but are same.
Our same. Sister skin.
Who knew? Not me. Not you. (282)

This is the poem that Marjorie Agyekum recites in front of her school.

Many years ago, a firewoman had two daughters, Effia, and Esi. These two sisters never had the chance to know or meet each other in their lives – since one was an Asante and the other was a Fante – but they each carried a necklace from their mother, “a black stone pendant that shimmered as though it had been coated in gold dust” (16).

One day, Effia got married to James Collins, a British governor, and she went to live with him at the Cape Coast Castle. When Effia heard noise coming from the small holes in the ground, she asked her husband if there were people down there. In response to her question, James grabbed her shoulders, looked her straight in the eyes, and said “Yes” (17). Effia wanted to return home, but it was too late by then. Unbeknownst to her, the noise she heard was coming from the dungeon which was right below where she was standing, and at that very moment, her own sister Esi was trapped in there among other women.

Fast forward, and a young man named Marcus is doing research at Stanford University. Even though he wants to focus his work on “the convict leasing system” (289), he realizes that he cannot talk about one piece of history on its own because of the continuity and connectedness of history. He feels that if he chooses to focus on only one aspect of history, he is choosing to leave out other pieces that may contain valuable explanations, connections, and clues as to the answers he is searching for. And this is what Gaya’s novel shows, through all of the characters and their lives that it portrays. Gaya’s novel shows that, in order to truly understand who we are, and how we have become who we are, we need to look at our parents for answers, and their parents, and their parents, and so on. In other words, to truly understand ourselves, we need to make a long journey “home,” to where it all started. There can’t be a “beginning,” a “middle,” or an “end,” because it is all connected.

Many years later, Marjorie tells Marcus, “My grandmother used to say we were born of a great fire. I wish I knew what she meant by that” (295). She has the same necklace as the ones the firewoman gave her two daughters, and when she and Marcus are both at the Cape Coast, she gives the necklace to him, and she tells him, “Welcome home” (300).

<Works Cited>

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

“The Little Dipper to Bring You Home”: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

“The Little Dipper to Bring You Home”:
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Butch, who is Wavy’s stepfather’s friend, says:
If anybody wanted to know why that kid never talked, I could’ve told them. That’s what happens when your mom grabs you by the hair, clamps her hand over your mouth, and gives you a good shake while screaming in your face, “Don’t you ever talk to people! You don’t talk to anyone!” (Greenwood)

Wavy (formerly known as “Vonnie”) is a girl with “translucent” eyelashes and eyebrows to match the “silver-blond” of her hair. Most people assume she is shy or a little bit “slow” at learning, since she never talks and never eats in front of them. But Wavy’s cousin, Amy, knows that, if you looked deeply, you will see a “bottomless look” in Wavy’s eyes, and that you will see that there are “dark and full of a long view of the world.” People simply do not imagine that Wavy’s parents are drug addicts with frequently-changing moods, who force Wavy and her younger brother, Donal, to face the world on their own.

While most people are busy trying to fill up Wavy’s silence with their own chatter, and trying to find solutions to Wavy’s problems, Kellen is the only person who leaves enough space for Wavy to fill, even if she chooses not to. The author, Bryn Greenwood, describes Kellen as man who is “six-and-a-half-feet tall, over 300 hundred pounds, with a beer belly and greasy hands” (White), who tends to frighten people when he stands up. He has muscled arms that are covered with tattoos, and he is an ex-convict with a tendency to lose his temper easily. He is not exactly a ladies’ man, and Dee even thinks of him as “undiscovered species of redneck biker Indian” until she gets to know him better.

When Wavy and Kellen fall in love with each other, the problem is not that Kellen is an ex-convict, or that Wavy has problems with not speaking, sneaking out at night, and eating out of the trash. The biggest problem that people have with their relationship is the fact that Kellen is around twenty years-old, while Wavy is only eight. Unsurprisingly, society does not accept their love. Yet, from all of the ugly and the beautiful things that she has dealt with in her life, Wavy proves to readers just how much strength and endurance a person can have.

Here is how Wavy and Kellen first meet:

One night, when the moon is only a “tiny sliver of fingernail” in the sky. A young man named Kellen is riding on his motorcycle. Whether it is because he felt someone staring at him, or because he simply wants to look around at his surroundings, he notices a girl who is standing at the edge of the woods. With her silver-blond hair that trails down her shoulders, and her white dress that matches the brightness of the moon, Kellen thinks he is looking at an angel. He loses his control on his motorcycle, and ends up on crashing himself on the gravel road, bruised and bloodied, with a sprained ankle and a few broken bones. Wavonna, the girl who has been watching him, comes to help. After using the phone for the first time in her life to call for help, she comes back to Kellen. When she notices that Kellen is about to faint, she puts her hand on his cheek and calls his name to bring him back to her. Then, pointing her finger up to the North, she says, “Cassiopeia. Andromeda. Perseus. Cepheus. Cygnus. Ursa Minor.” And she keeps naming the stars until help arrives.

The reason why Wavy names the stars is because, as Wavy explains, “Mr. Arsenikos said if you knew the constellations you would never get lost. You could always find your way home.” This is why, before cancer took her grandmother away, Wavy drew the Little Dipper in the palm of her grandmother’s hand, so she could find her way home.

 

<Works Cited>
Greenwood, Bryn. All the ugly and wonderful things. Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martins Griffin, 2017, AxisNow, www.axisnow.com/#q?epub=https%3A%2F%2Fnode.axisnow.com%2Fcontent%2Fstream%2F9781466885806&.

White, Mara. “Bryn Greenwood: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 6 Sept. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/mara-white/bryn-greenwood-all-the-ug_b_11857790.html.

“The Geisha With The Blue-Gray Eyes”: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

“The Geisha With The Blue-Gray Eyes”:
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

*Apparently, Arthur Golden was sued by the retired geisha he had interviewed for his novel because he left her name as one of the sources in his acknowledgements, even though she was supposed to remain anonymous. Check out this article: (http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=106248&page=1)

“…the ‘gei’ of ‘geisha’ means ‘arts,’ so the word ‘geisha’ really means ‘artisan’ or ‘artist’”
-Nitta Sayuri

Nitta Sayuri, formerly known as Sakamato Chiyo, used to live in a fishing village in Japan, called Yoroido, with her ill mother, her quiet father, and her clumsy sister. But that all changed when Chiyo met Mr. Tanaka, who then brought her to an Okiya (geisha boarding house) in Gion. With the help of Mameha, a beautiful and famous Geisha, who eventually becomes Chiyo’s “Older Sister,” Sakamato Chiyo changes her name to Nitta Sayuri, and makes her own reputation as a well-loved Geisha with startlingly blue-gray eyes. Even though she never knew she would become a successful Geisha, life had many surprises for Sayuri, and as she later confesses, “the afternoon when I first met Mr. Tanaka was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst” (105).

Before reading Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, I had never understood what a Geisha really was. Reading this novel completely changed my perception of the profession, and I learned that the profession (or the art?) of being a geisha is more complicated and intricate than I imagined.

When Chiyo becomes a Geisha, Mameha, her Older Sister, helps her with her new name. As she explains to her readers:
My new name came from “sa,” meaning “together,” “yu,” from the zodiac sign for the Hen – in order to balance other elements in my personality – and “ri,” meaning “understanding.” (167)

As a famous Geisha, Sayuri goes on to make acquaintances with men from all kinds of backgrounds – a baron, a minister, a chairman of a company, a soldier, among others. But what I found to be interesting is in the “Translator’s Note” in the beginning of the novel. Jakob Harhuis states that the Geisha’s “…existence is predicated on the singularly Japanese conviction that what goes on during the morning in the office and what goes on during the evening behind closed doors bear no relationship to one another, and must always remain compartmentalized and separate” (3). He then wonders, “Why did Sayuri want her story told?” (3). And this question intrigued me. Why did Sayuri want to reveal her secrets and experiences to her readers? Did She want to relive her memories about the man she had loved? Did she miss Okiya, the geisha boarding house, where she had lived with Mother, Auntie, Granny, Pumpkin, and the infamous Hatsumomo? Why did she want to tell a story about the geisha with the blue-gray eyes?

Works Cited:

  • “’Geisha’ Author and Publisher Sued.” ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=106248.
  • Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a geisha. Alexandria Library, 2007.

 

“This World Is Fragile”: Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

“This World Is Fragile”:
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

“But you know, grandson, this world is fragile” (Silko, 35).

This is what Ku’oosh, the medicine man, tells Tayo. Tayo has just returned home from World War II. During the war, he lost his cousin, Rocky, who had been like a brother to him, and he saw the face of his uncle, Josiah, in the face of one of the Japanese soldiers he had to execute. Tayo carries this severely traumatic experience back home with him, where he is faced with hatred from his friends and family who resent him for his “mixed” (half-Pueblo and half-white) background.

With a of “tightness in his throat,” Tayo asks Betonie, “I wonder what good Indian ceremonies can do against the sickness which comes from their wars, their bombs, their lies?” (132). Before the war, Tayo had known quite a different world, where, “despite all they had taught him in school…things had been different, and human beings could understand what the animals said, and once the Gambler had trapped the storm clouds on his mountaintop” (95). However, World War II changes his perceptions, teaches him to learn “by heart” the lie that “…only brown – skinned people were thieves; white people didn’t steal, because they always had the money to buy whatever they wanted” (191). In the end, Tayo feels that it had been himself who had died on the battlefield, not rocky, and that “somehow there had been a mistake with the corpses, and somehow his was still unburied” (28).

In the end, the war has changed Tayo’s views of the world, people who have suffered before are now suffering in different ways, and Tayo’s friends have betrayed him. However, to all this, Tayo’s grandmother says, “I guess I must be getting old…because these goings – on around Laguna don’t get me excited anymore…It seems like I already heard these stories before . . . only thing is, the names sound different” (260).

 

Works Cited:

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.