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Benjamin Alire Sáenz dives back into the rich lives of teens


Three college-bound Latino teens navigate their ways through senior year in El Paso in the “The Inexplicable Logic of My Life” by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (for ages 14-17).

Born to white parents, Salvador was adopted at the age of 3 by a gay, Mexican-American man and embraced by his extended family. His closest friends are Sam, an extroverted girl with a drama-filled life, and Fito, a gay boy who for all intents and purposes is homeless.

Sal tries to maintain a calm, controlled life, but when a student hurls a slur at him, he responds quickly with his fists. He starts to wonder if he’s inherited violent tendencies from his biological father, whom he never knew. In dialogue-rich prose, Sáenz explores Sal’s internal struggles with his churning emotions during a year of life-changing events: “all of a sudden I felt like I was living my life in a relay race and there was no one else to hand the baton to.” Journal-like chapters of varying lengths are prefaced with spare titles—“WFTD = Comfort”; “Me. Alone. Not.” The well-constructed pacing of the novel, with its beautifully expansive prose punctuated by text messages between Sal and Sam, demonstrates the author’s talent for capturing the richness of relationships among family and friends.

The author of Printz Honor–winning “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe” (2012) offers another stellar, gentle look into the emotional lives of teens on the cusp of adulthood.

(Benjamin Alire Sáenz will speak and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: www.bookpeople.com.)

Old tale, newly told

In Lance Olsen’s hypnotic, experimental retelling of the Minotaur legend, a familiar story is given a powerful contemporary touchstone in “Dreamlives of Debris.”

Thousands of years after it was first told, the story of the Minotaur is one that still holds the capacity to surprise and unnerve readers. The central character of this novel is named Debris, the Minotaur reimagined as a diminutive girl dwelling in a strange labyrinth. Olsen’s powerfully told novel reads, at times, like a collection of monologues, primarily told from Debris’ perspective but periodically interrupted by voices from antiquity, accounts of explorers and visionaries, and testimonials from the modern surveillance state.

It’s a narrative in which J.G. Ballard and Julian Assange can coexist with Icarus and Daedalus and where the amorphous nature of bodies in mythology takes on a newfound contemporary resonance. Gradually, the story being told here begins to incorporate larger concerns, from the societal abuse of women to the way technology can erode identities to the question of whether our world might be a simulation by some other advanced society. Olsen frequently heads into challenging territory, whether through the juxtaposition of current events with revisionist takes on mythology or through the haunting, fragmented manner in which the story plays out. A reference late in the novel to the work of filmmakers Werner Herzog and David Lynch suggests that not all of Olsen’s aesthetic reference points are literary, and it also suggests a larger structure in which experimental techniques are used to achieve a deeper emotional truth. In this way, the novel manages to be simultaneously experimental and accessible.

Olsen finds a new spin on one of the oldest stories out there, illuminating some of the more horrific aspects and pressing questions of the modern world.

Family drama, well told

A mother and her daughters reunite to dredge up old traumas in the tension-wracked drama “A Weekend with Frances” by Lois Jean Thomas.

Frances Rafferty has her normally cantankerous 84-year-old spirits lifted when her favorite daughter, Kathy, an off-Broadway actress with a rich second husband, decides to come home from New York to visit the family home in Brown County, Indiana. Also attending are Frances’ daughter Edie, a doormat housewife, and her dyspeptic husband, Sam, who actually inhabit the family home, having exiled Frances to a mother-in-law trailer in the backyard; and third daughter Rosie, a psychologist who is bitterly estranged from Frances and is bringing her son with disabilities in tow.

The narrative unfolds over a three-day weekend of dinners, Scrabble games, church and squabbles, told through ruminative soliloquies by each of the women probing her present feelings and past resentments from times when the family almost disintegrated in madness and poverty. Each woman’s soul and secrets are laid bare: Kathy, a domineering diva who puts up a front of ebullient cheer while denying the reality that her life’s stability is about to collapse; Edie, perpetually striving to please everyone around her and guilt-stricken when she can’t, who harbors a hidden passion for an old flame; Rosie, seething with bitterness toward Frances over a childhood wound her sisters know nothing about.

Thomas creates vibrant, sharply etched characters who come with plenty of rancorous baggage but manage to unpack enough of it to regain sympathy for one another and themselves. They come alive through the author’s gift for crafting distinctive voices in well-observed dialogue, emerging through their own reflections and the refracted perspectives of their loved ones. Thomas writes in a relaxed, understated prose that conveys the heavy emotional impact of family conflicts without histrionics and melodrama. (Frances in a rare moment of contentment: “I woke up all of a sudden. And the sweetest feelin’ come over me. Like an angel of the Lord done passed through the room. And I couldn’t help but call out in the darkness, ‘God is good.’ Yup, that’s all I could think to say. God is good.”) Readers should root for Frances and her daughters as they fitfully knit their family ties back together.

A cleareyed but warm family saga of buried recriminations and the struggle for reconciliation.



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