Saturday, January 17, 2015

The problem with my life is that it was someone else's idea

Years ago (2006) I listened to Benjamin Alire Sáenz' Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood and found it a lyrical work of literature; later I learned that Sáenz is a poet. So when his Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe popped up on my reading radar (many YMA stickers [top to bottom: Printz, Stonewall, Belpré] from 2013), I knew that it was something I wanted to hear. It took me a while, but here we are.

It's 1987, Aristotle is an angry 15-year-old, the youngest (by a lot) child of working class parents, living in El Paso, Texas. He's a loner, but appreciates a friendly overture from Dante who offers to teach him how to swim one summer. Dante is an overly precocious boy close to his academic parents. Despite their differences, the boys have their solitariness in common along with their unusual names and Mexican heritage and they become good friends.

The book follows the boys over the next two years as their friendship waxes and wanes, as they work out their issues (distant Vietnam vet father, imprisoned brother, homosexuality) apart and together. Ari saves Dante's life, Dante gets gay-bashed and expresses his love for Ari. The narrative is poetic and descriptive, the author's love of the landscape (equally memorable in Sammy and Juliana) is beautifully expressed in his prose ("... the sun could have melted the blue right off the sky ...."). It's a book for the quiet reader, the one who is willing to stick with a slow-moving story where nothing much happens ... beyond the boys finding out who they are and what they'll do.

I liked this but these are two "sensitive" boys, who cry often and easily, and occasionally excessively. Dante's parents were remarkably accepting of a gay son. Hello ... AIDS? In the 1980s, it was the gay "plague;" Rock Hudson died in 1985 and 13-year-old Ryan White had been banned from school. I don't see how the novel's characters could not have known about the disease; surely some of Ari's discomfort with Dante's revelation would have come from AIDS, yet it is never mentioned.

The Broadway actor and composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda reads the novel in Ari's first person. He captures Ari's initial sense of I'm-pissed-at-everything with a slightly Latin sass, and when the text calls for Spanish names or phrases, he reads with an appropriate accent. I confess that Miranda's authentic Spanish was such that I could never rightly hear whether Ari's brother's name was Bernardo or Fernando, or something else. When Dante enters the novel, Miranda gives him a distinctly different voice, slightly higher and with Dante's annoying sense of knowing it all. The contrast sounds natural and works well.

Miranda voices the small cast of characters distinctly and then adds in a couple of vocal cameos with élan. A morning DJ and some chatty Mexican ladies made me smile. There's a teeny bit of singing (a phrase from Heart's Alone ... "You don't know how long ...") as well. These are all good things in my book of audiobook appreciation.

A bouncy rock-and-roll riff opens and closes the audiobook. But the generic female voice that does the credits over the music is so very neutral as to be deeply off-putting. "Why would I want to listen to this," might be an initial reaction. Followed by "Where do they find these people?"

I persevered, obviously. And I'm glad I did.

[Here are the original Aristotle and Dante. Aristotle's bust is a "copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) of a lost bronze sculpture by Lysippos." It's in the Louvre. Dante's portrait is by Botticelli and is in a private collection. Both were retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013.

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