Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“I’m thinking I could spend the rest of my life becoming an expert at forgetting.”

Heartbreaking, moving, and ultimately uplifting Last Night I Sang to the Monster is my favourite novel by Sáenz. While this novel explores themes and issues that are recurrent in Sáenz’s oeuvre, Last Night I Sang to the Monster is much darker and, quite frankly, more depressing than his other books. But, if you’ve read anything by Sáenz you know that he never sensationalises ‘difficult’ subject matters nor is he superficial in the way he handles ‘hard’ topics. Sáenz’s empathy and understanding of his characters always shine through. This compassion, tenderness even, that he shows towards them is catching so that within a couple of pages I find myself growing just as attached to his characters as he is.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster follows Zach, an alcoholic eighteen-year-old Mexican-American boy who is in rehab. We don’t know exactly the events that led to his being there but as the narrative progresses, the picture that emerges of his family life is certainly not a happy one (his father, an alcoholic, his mother, severely depressed, his older brother, abusive).

At first, Zach is unwilling and unable to discuss his past, and he finds it difficult to open up to his therapist or his fellow patients. He eventually grows close to Rafael, an older man who understands Zach’s sorrow.
I always admire how Sáenz writes dysfunctional families without vilifying or condoning neglectful parents. Here, like in many other novels by him, father-like figures play a central role in the main character’s arc. With Rafael’s support, Zach’s is able to begin his slow healing process which will see him confronting the events that led to him being in rehab. While his silences initially protected him from being hurt further, eventually, they became debilitating, alienating him from others and his causing him to retreat inward.
Zach’s damaged sense of self-worth, which results in a lot of self-loathing, is not easy to read. Yet, Sáenz’s conversational prose is really easy to read. This style also lends authenticity to Zach’s voice, making it seem as if we truly are in his head. Sáenz has a great ear and his dialogues reflect that. The realistic rhythm of the characters’ conversations makes their interactions all the more vivid and ‘real’.

Throughout the course of the narrative, Sáenz navigates loneliness, trauma, grief, acceptance, and belonging. Zach’s struggles are rendered with clarity and kindness, and so are those of the people around him.
There is no denying that Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a difficult and sad read. Yet, the relationships Zach forms with the other patients, as well as his personal arc, resulting in an incredibly rewarding reading experience.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“A part of me wanted to run away from all the complications of being in love with Dante. Maybe Ari plus Dante equated love, but it also equated complicated. It also equated playing hide-and-seek with the world. But there was a difference between the art of running and the art of running away.”

This one gave me all the feels 😭

“Dante really was my only friend. It was complicated to be in love with your only friend.”

It was wonderful to be reunited with Ari, Dante, and the other characters from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Seeing (or reading about) these characters again truly warmed my heart.
Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World picks up right after Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and we read of the early days in Ari and Dante’s relationship. This section was probably my favourite in the whole novel, even if their summer isn’t entirely idyllic.

“I was depressing myself. I was good at that. I had always been good at that.”

Ari’s ongoing inner conflict about his identity and sexuality often results in him turning inward. While he is still prone to bouts of self-loathing and sadness, he has ‘grown’ since Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and he has learnt not to shut himself entirely away from the ones he loves. His relationship with his father is much more open now, and it was really heartrending to see them bond, confide, and support each other. Ari also finds friendship in three fellow schoolmates, and their presence in his life is certainly a good one.
We see how the way in which the media and public (mis)perceive and talk about the AIDS pandemic affects Ari. As he already struggles with his self-worth, his masculinity, and his sexuality, well, the deaths within his community leave their mark on him. While most of the people close to him love him and support him, at school and through the news, he witnesses and overhears plenty of homophobic remarks. As he comes to learn that responding to other people’s hatred with rage and violence, well, it doesn’t really solve matters, he tries his best to quench his anger.
Ari is also still haunted by his older brother who is still in prison and, as the end of high school approaches, uncertain about his and Dante’s future.

“And I didn’t give a shit that I was young, and I had just turned seventeen and I didn’t give a shit if anyone thought I was too young to feel the things that I felt. Too young? Tell that to my fucking heart.”

Sáenz’s narratives brim with empathy. He is considerate, tender even, towards his characters, never dismissing their feelings or making light of their struggles. The characters at the core of this novel are truly beautiful, and support each other through each other’s ups and downs. He also conveys Ari’s fears and anxieties in such a believable way, making us understand why sometimes he reacts in a certain way or why his first instinct is usually to remain silent about his worries.

Sáenz’s prose manages to be both simple and lyrical. His conversational style is truly immersive and captures with authenticity Ari’s teenage voice. The chapters are often short and very dialogue-focused, in a way that reminded me of Richard Wagamese. Their stories are heavy on dialogues, which may very well annoy some readers, but I liked the rhythm created by the characters’ conversations and, in some ways, it made me feel as if I were listening in to ‘real’ people talk about ‘real’ things.

My one quip, the reason why I didn’t give this 5 stars, is the Ari/Dante dynamic. I not only wanted to see more of them together, but I just wanted more of Dante. Ari’s new friends (although likeable enough) seem to sideline Dante’s presence in the narrative…which made some of his later actions seem quite random. Speaking of which, that last 10% was a wee bit rushed (or maybe this was just me not wanting to let go of ari/dante).

Still, it was lovely to read about these characters again and I’m sure that fans of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will fall in love with Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World. Sáenz writes about loneliness, acceptance, grief, and belonging as few do. Moving and poetic, Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World was definitely worth the wait.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.”

The first time I read this novel was back in 2013 and in the years since I have come to regard Benjamin Alire Sáenz as one of my favourite authors. His deceptively simple style captures with clarity the thoughts and feelings of his protagonists, and he always demonstrates great empathy towards his characters and their struggles.
Set in El Paso during the late 1980s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is narrated by Aristotle, a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American boy who tries his hardest to be ‘unknowable’. Aristotle is angry at his parents who refuse to speak about his older brother who is in prison. Yet, in spite of his anger, he also wishes that he could be closer to them, his father in particular. During the summer holidays, he meets Dante Quintana at the local pool and the two become fast friends. Dante teaches him how to swim and the two begin to spend most of their free time together. What follows is an uplifting coming-of-age story, one that focuses on friendship, loneliness, and father/son bonds. Aristotle’ struggles, to understand himself, his parents, Dante, are rendered with incredible tenderness and understanding. Aristotle, who finds it difficult to articulate his feelings, works hard to hide his vulnerabilities from others and often does so by adopting behaviours he deems to be masculine. I loved the discussions around the boys’ identities (not feeling Mexican or American enough) and their sexualities.
Anyway, this book has a special place in my heart and I’m so happy that we will be reunited with Aristotle and Dante in Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World! If you are a fan of this novel I would definitely recommend you check out more of Sáenz ‘s books (such as Last Night I Sang to the Monster and In Perfect Light).

my rating: ★★★★★

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Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“No one had ever taught me how to love. And perhaps, in that department, I was uneducable.”

Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is heartbreakingly beautiful collection of short stories. These stories have Benjamin Alire Sáenz written all over them: Mexican-American boys and men struggling with their identity (not feeling Mexican or American enough), their sexuality, their self-worth, and who have complex relationships with their parents. There is a focus on the dynamic between fathers—of father-like figures—and sons, on family history, on trauma, on feeling lost and disconnected.
I read a review criticising this collection because the stories aren’t varied enough, and I guess that they are narrated by boys and men in similar positions. They are conflicted, hurting, and confused. They have parents who are troubled (by depression, addiction, trauma). Most of the narrators also like thinking of the meaning of words and doing creative things. Yet, in spite of these similarities, these stories never blurred together. But if you do prefer collections that offer a wide-range of different styles and themes, maybe Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won’t appeal to you. I just happen to be the ‘right’ kind of reader for these stories. Sáenz’s subtle yet striking prose always gets to me. I love Sáenz’s empathy, the tenderness he shows to his characters, the thoughtfulness he demonstrates in discussing trauma, addiction, and abuse. I also liked the Kentucky Club would pop up in each story as did discussions concerning Juárez.
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is a moving collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Sáenz.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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