Into the Beautiful North

A Book Review

intothebeautifulnorthNayeli, a recent high school graduate who works at a taco shop/internet cafe in the tiny tropical town of Tres Camarones in Sinaloa, Mexico, arrives one day at a startling realization: there are no men in Tres Camarones. Her own father, formerly the only cop in town, left several years ago for the fabled United States, and so did all the others. Not only do Nayeli and her girlfriends have no one to date and eventually marry, but now they have no one to protect them from the bottom-feeding narcos and bandidos who, anxious for their own territory, have recently moved in on the remote, defenseless village. Watching The Magnificent Seven at the local movie house, Nayeli is inspired with the solution to the plight of Tres Camerones: she will travel North to “Los Yunaites” and round up her father and other able-bodied men to return to Mexico and save their village.  So, with support from the village, Nayeli and three friends begin their hilarious and harrowing journey through Mexico to Tijuana and eventually, hopefully, to the United States, where they expect to quickly enlist seven Mexican “soldiers and policeman” to repatriate and save their village in short order.

This book is at once a winning comedy and an epic adventure tale of a journey into mysterious, dangerous lands (such as Tijuana, Las Vegas, and the Colorado Rockies).  It is also injected with striking moments of social realism, depicting the poverty and desperation of both those who cross the borders and those who stay behind.  It provides a fascinating outsiders’ perspective on the United States as well as a Mexican perspective on border-crossing and immigration. Having read and loved several instances of Americans on adventures or misadventures in Mexico (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses / Border Trilogy and Kerouac’s On the Road), it was refreshing to read of Mexicans on an adventure in the exotic United States.

This story is filled to overflowing with endearing, memorable and quirky characters (examples: Nayeli’s formidable Aunt Irma, nicknamed La Osa (“the she-bear”), in her younger years a Mexican bowling champion, now running for mayor or Tres Camerones; and Atómiko, a self-made samurai warrior and superhero refuse picker of the Tijuana garbage dump who gives new meaning to “trash talk.”  The mood of much of this book is such that Jared Hess (writer/director of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre) just might be an ideal choice as director of a film version.  Though the characters are amusing and likeable, many of them are a little bit one-dimensional.  The characters’ lack of depth holds the novel back from perfection, but is serviceable enough in a comedic adventure context.

Although marketed as an adult novel, the book might have great appeal to teenage readers because of the age and sentiments of its protagonists, its humorous and exciting storyline, and numerous youth culture references.  Indeed, I almost wonder if, had this been Urrea’s first novel, a publisher might have marketed it as a young adult book. The cover art, though tasteful, does not seem to properly represent the book’s lighthearted tone and contemporary, adventurous story, and was probably designed to visually tie the book to Urrea’s successful adult novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which I have not yet read.  It appears as though, in attempting to market this book to Urrea’s existing literary audience, they may have missed out on a potential new and different audience in teenagers.  Furthermore, a quick survey of Internet reviews suggests that, because of this marketing misstep, some readers expecting “serious literature” have been turned off by the comedic elements and simple characterizations, two things that may actually work in its favor as a young adult book.  All in all, I think I would actually recommend this book first and foremost as a book for teenagers; it would be at home in contemporary YA literature.

[Note: the book does contain some explicit language and, of course, an irritating, not-really-necessary and not-entirely-condoned but nonetheless-apparently-obligatory-in-contemporary-literature sex scene. Unfortunately, it’s nothing out of the ordinary even for YA literature.]

In her search for heroes, Nayeli becomes the true heroine of the story, her journey rife with ordeals, excitement, distractions, and sorrows. She saves the mission and their lives on numerous occasions, and after trying the hard and dangerous way, always manages to find the help they need in the most unlikely of places and people.  The tragicomic, foreign, and fresh view of both Mexico and the U.S.A. that Urrea portrays through the journey of Nayeli and her companions will stay with the reader for a long time.  Four stars.

Into the Beautiful North: A Novel
written by Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company
342 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-02527-0
Release Date: May 19, 2009

Do the Standing Still

I absolutely love music, but apparently I do not often respond to its performance with prescribed, socially-sanctioned behaviors.   Although I have vague memories that, at least in the context of compulsory elementary school performances, I may have actually been a decent dancer and furthermore that I may have actually enjoyed dancing, I don’t dance at all. I might occasionally take the liberty of nodding my head or tapping my feet to some music, but that would most likely be in the privacy of my own home, or the false privacy of my own car.  My preferred stance for watching a musical concert is to sit or stand, probably with my arms folded. Symphony or jazz performances work out pretty well for me, but moving beyond those genres I am kind of at odds with the rest of the audience.

This stoicism with regards to musical performances has given me much social trouble and internal anguish for many years (cue the sorrowful strings and/or alienating electronic soundscapes). The first time I remember being cognizant of my socially-maladaptive-live-music-behavior was at a Yes concert my friend and I went to in high school. Even at that time, I was given to understand that going to a Yes concert as a teenager in 1996 was a somewhat nerdy thing to do. And yet as it turned out, I was far too cerebral even for this crowd. Throughout the opening set, played by none other than The Alan Parsons Project, (APP, as I have just monikered them, is the 80s band famous for “Sirius,” that dramatic arpeggio synth/guitar intro that they use to announce the home team players at every Utah Jazz game ever played, that also, when played on the classic soft rock radio stations, leads directly into their proto-Radiohead/Coldplay song “Eye in the Sky,” featuring the chorus, “I am the eye in the sky / Looking at you-ooh-ooh / I can read your mind?”  That’s the Alan Parsons Project, and you’d better believe I saw them do it live), this fifty-year-old drunk guy sitting next to me was absolutely spazzing out, dancing, yelling, and swinging his arms all over the place. He inadvertently hit me a few times, and every time he did this and saw that I didn’t really appreciate it I received remonstrations from him and his wife for just standing there and not dancing or being more excited. Apparently I was not simply allowed to freak out and have a seizure over The Alan Parsons Project as they performed their opening set, but I was expected to do so. Also, apparently I’ve never enjoyed life.

Fast forward through the years, and I’ve only gotten worse in regards to correct concert behavior. A year or so after that Yes concert I saw Pearl Jam play a huge benefit concert at High School Memorial Stadium in their home town of Seattle. Pretty cool, right? I haven’t told you how at this General Admission concert, with plenty of room everywhere, I was sitting far, far away from the stage up in the bleachers of the stadium. Also I have not disclosed that I was sitting next to my parents in those faraway seats; they came not for even the slightest love of Pearl Jam or rock music, but because while on family vacation they wouldn’t let me go to a concert by myself in a strange town. Not wanting to destroy my hopes of seeing my favorite band (at the time) perform, they insisted on coming with me and were extremely nice in their paranoid over-protection. To be honest, though, I’m not sure if my behavior at that concert would have been any different had I been there by myself. I may have wandered around the stadium a bit more, but I’m not sure if I would have dared descend to the field in front of the stage where all the action was, among all the people who really “loved the music.” The concert was alright. The sound was tinny, I could barely see the band, and Eddie embarrassed me by swearing a whole bunch in front of my parents, which was kind of lame.

Since then, I have pretty much never gone to concerts. Like I said, I do love music. I have daydreamed and conjectured as to how certain songs or bands sound when played live. I’m curious to see how people manipulate their instruments, and how their voices sound live. I even made this list about a year ago, after finally going to see one of my favorite bands (Broken Social Scene) perform live at a free concert.bandlist

But when artists whose records I have pined over for years roll into town, I suddenly find that I am not that interested in going.  I fear that they may not live up to my expectations.  I don’t have anyone to go with, or I don’t know where the venue is, or I am afraid I won’t know how to navigate all the weird private club business in Utah because I never do it otherwise, or I won’t act appropriately. I won’t dance when I’m supposed to dance. I won’t be wearing the right clothes. I’ll be too old, or too young. I won’t be drunk. I won’t be screaming at the top of my lungs. I generally just won’t fit in with the theoretical crowd of my imaginings.  I can think of tons and tons of reasons why I might be uncomfortable and not enjoy the concert, and these worries combine to ruin whatever positive experience I might have listening to the music and watching the musicians.

A case in point would be the aforementioned Broken Social Scene concert. They performed an outdoor concert at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City, part of the city’s free summer concert series. For years I had wanted to see BSS live. From what I had read in a couple of interviews and reviews of their concerts, I had intuited that certain songs that on their records featured inscrutable vocals buried low in the mix, or that had been otherwise remixed and deconstructed into oblivion, would be recast as dynamic rockers when played live. On this count my intuitions were correct: the Scene contrast their occasional “shyness” on tape with a robust, celebratory, collective performance. They interact with the crowd, they are good showmen, they have great energy and a strong collection of songs, and musically they have a looseness and a swagger, operating practically like a jam band without the long, tepid noodling. In other words, they are a great rock group.

But the crowd ultimately kind of ruined the concert experience. Before the concert started the people around seemed like good enough folks. There were people who looked to be regulars of the concert series, younger and middle aged couples, a few young families. Hanging around in front of the stage there were a lot of kids who may or may not have been hipsters, I really can’t say, but many were the type of kids that I imagine as filling up a Kilby Court concert (I’ve never actually been to one) and making me feel not very cool, clothed in what I intuited were the latest anti-styles (in this case a year ago it was v-neck t-shirts and tight girls jeans for the guys, unflattering retro-styled dresses for the girls).  These were the types of people one would expect to see viewing and enjoying this concert, and that’s great.  However, as the concert progressed we stayed in the same spot but everyone who had been around at the start of the concert seemed to have disappeared. In their stead were seething masses of high school kids that seemed to be there just to hang out and didn’t really care about the band or the music at all.  It was mystifying to me how quickly the concert mutated into a high school stomp.  There were tons of kids up in the front moshing and crowd surfing.  There were lots of thuggish kids moving through the crowds, oblivious to what was going on onstage.  These guys in front of us took their shirts off and performed dances that looked like aerobics routines, and random girls just came up and danced with them.  Where did they all come from and why were they there?

I enjoyed that concert, but over the subsequent months the memory of the crowd has worked on me to the point that I am afraid to go to a concert again.  When this year’s Gallivan Center concert lineup was announced, it included several of my current favorite musical artists, including Sonic Youth, who you may notice are prominently included on the above list I composed one year ago.  Would all those kids show up and try to push Sonic Youth into playing punk-pop like they were part of  the Vans Warped Tour?  (Not that Sonic Youth would cede to such a push; that may have been an interesting confrontational concert to watch.)  Would they try to crowdsurf to M. Ward’s easygoing folk-rock singer/songwriter stylings?  I was afraid to even find out.  Because of a busy schedule, but mostly out of fear of a negative experience, I didn’t go to any of these concerts this year;  not even my favorite Sonic Youth.  Chicken.

* * *

Last Friday evening I walked out into the backyard of my in-laws house, just to feel the cool, rainy air for a minute. After standing out there for a second, I noticed music emanating from somewhere in the neighborhood. It sounded very much like live, amplified music. This was intriguing to me, as my in-laws home is nestled in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, nowhere near any place that would be considered a concert venue. Furthermore, it seemed to be trying to rain, not necessarily the ideal condition for an outdoor performance. Curious, I walked to the front of the house to look for any indications of what was going on. I walked down the street, towards the source of the sounds. The cars parked up and down the street convinced me that it was definitely a party, but I still wasn’t entirely positive that they weren’t just blasting a CD out over a great sound system, because the music was spot-on. As you’ve probably determined by now, I’m not much of a partier, so I just walked around the block for a minute, listening to a really tight country-funk-southern rock groove and the sounds of someone absolutely killing on the electric fiddle floating around the neighborhood. There was no questioning at this point that it was a live band. The only question was, who the heck was this band and why were they playing someone’s backyard party in Holladay?

I went back to my in-laws’ house and found Gin, and asked her to come on a walk with me to see what she thought of the music and to see if she by chance would be able to figure out who these people were and what was going on. As we reached the house, she, being much more socially brave and nonchalant than I, pulled me along and we followed some guy through the garage of the party house and out onto a balcony deck, where we found ourselves overlooking a giant pool party and backyard filled with people of all ages. The band was set up beneath the balcony right by the side of the pool, and an advertising slideshow on a TV set up next to their equipment informed us that they referred to themselves as Bonepony. This seemed a familiar-sounding name for some reason.

So we stood up there on the deck and watched them for a few minutes. This was the first time I had ever crashed a party. At first I kept expecting someone to come and ask us who we were and be irritated at our presence, but the whole thing was very casual. Nobody paid us any mind. There were people playing around in the pool, some of them dancing to the music. There were people sitting in lawn chairs, watching the band. There were people standing in groups talking and drinking beers. I actually saw a guy come up to a woman and say “Do you come here often?” and he wasn’t joking.  At one point, the singer invited all the neighbors to come over, rather than call the cops.

Thinking about this house party concert, it is totally illogical to me that at this gig, which looked to be very much a party, rather than a concert, it was easy to just watch and enjoy the music without ridiculous distractions from other crowd members, and without any social pressure to get rowdy.  The crowd was not pushing one way or the other; everyone was able to do their own thing and enjoy the experience in their own way.  In contrast, many crowd members at several of the concerts I have attended attempt to hijack the concert and turn it into some wild party.  I guess what those great men once said is true, “You’ve got to fight for your right to party,” even at a rock concert.  I guess it turns out that while I look at a concert as an opportunity to hear and watch some music performed, many people take a concert as nothing more than an opportunity to dance, drink, goof around, grope somebody, whatever. The music and musicians that may be playing are simply incidental to the main purpose: to act like an ass. It turns out you can party to the Alan Parsons Project if you are loaded enough.  You can mosh or get crunk to Canadian indie rock collectives.  I suppose you can party to Sonic Youth or M. Ward.  I guess while you’re doing all of that, I can stay home and listen to my records.

[The title of this post comes from “Do the Standing Still,” an entirely appropriate song that the Dismemberment Plan were nice enough to write about me. Listen to it below. At one time, the Dismemberment Plan were my favorite band, but sadly, if nonetheless inevitably, their plan came to completion, and they no longer exist. It must be noted that one of my most regretted concert misses ever was their Death and Dismemberment Tour with Death Cab for Cutie, which happened before the Plan broke up and before Death Cab became kind of like a big deal. This song comes from the Plan’s second album, The Dismemberment Plan Are Terrified. I think that album’s kind of hit and miss, but their third and fourth albums, 1999’s Emergency & I and 2001’s Change are stone cold classics of post-emo indie rock hipster geekery. They are sorely missed.]

Good Spot


This is a great little spot, and a much better photo than this one could potentially be taken there. I need to learn and practice more.

All of these photos I’m posting day by day were taken a week ago in upper Weber Canyon. It’s really a beautiful place, and I’m rather lucky to be able to have some access to it. Hope you enjoy them a little bit.

Greetings from Preston, Idaho

Yesterday I had the unique privilege of going to our department staff meeting.  Usually whenever our department has any kind of meeting (or party) I get stuck on the phones.  So, like I said, yesterday I had a unique privilege.  Adding to the singularity of this event, it was not just any old regular department meeting, but a retreat to the family cabin of one of my co-workers, located a few miles outside of Preston, Idaho.  It turns out that Preston is kind of a long way to drive from Salt Lake just for a four hour meeting and lunch, but it was on work time, I didn’t have to drive, and I usually enjoy road trips to obscure locales.  Also, I didn’t really feel like going up the night before and staying over without my wife for the more “retreat” portion of the itinerary.

Beyond the fact that I was getting paid and hanging out with the cool kids, Preston actually turned out to be a very pleasant and beautiful little place.  Between what I’d seen of Southern Idaho from driving on I-84 and my impressions of Preston as it is portrayed in a little indie flick you may or may not remember from a few years back, I had kind of low expectations.  So I was surprised.  Preston shares the pastoral Cache Valley with Logan, Utah, and it’s possible it may actually have the prettier end of it.  The aforementioned family cabin was nestled in rolling mountain foothills next to a nice little reservoir.  The area is pretty much an all-american idyllic landscape.  I can still smell the hay just thinking about the drive to get there.  I’m really wishing I had gotten my camera out and tried to take some pictures, because now I have a head full of barns, rolling hills, tractors, old small town main street storefronts, and brown/purple mountain ranges in all directions.

It was hard not to feel the pressure of one the great cult comedies of my generation weighing down on me as we drove through town.  I felt that perhaps I somehow diminished or stereotyped the town and its good people by hoping for them to conform to my “Hollywood” expectations.  And yet despite such moral misgivings I persisted in my fantasies.  When some of my co-workers were about to go golfing at the close of our meeting day, I suggested that perhaps tetherball would be a more appropriate recreational activity.  I searched storefronts for the famous Deseret Industries thrift store, where in the past such incomparable treasures as nun-chucks, a dance instruction VHS published in 1982, and a really swank polyester suit had been found.  I was tempted to ask the waitress at Pizza Villa, where we ate lunch, if I could have an order of tater tots.  (They have pretty good pizza, by the way.)  I kept my eyes open for a llama.  Over the years I have seen llamas in so many small towns throughout Utah that they have ceased to be very remarkable to me, and yet in Preston I inexplicably kept my eyes open for a llama.  Behind each grassy knoll we passed I expected to see a camper van parked and perhaps a mustachioed man throwing a football into the fields for a camcorder.  As we pulled out of town and started driving south, I truly felt kind of ashamed for my pathetic, touristy behavior in regards to this place.

Since I didn’t have any pictures of Preston to take home with me, I decided to turn to flickr to fulfill my visual needs.  To my surprise I discovered that a good portion of the photos tagged ‘preston idaho’ on flickr pertain directly to scene locales of the allegedly abominable film.  Looking through the images, you will see the school steps upon which a boy drew a liger in a notepad, the house of Pedro, the Rex Kwan Do center, and so on, and so on.  You will also occasionally see glimpses of that idyllic landscape I was talking about.  Upon further research in the sacrosanct annals of Wikipedia, I discovered that Preston has fully embraced this humble motion picture as the central mythos of their town, as it has given rise to an annual grand celebration.  A schedule of events from 2006 indicates a literary/media-inspired ritual that could come to rival even Dublin’s Bloomsday, complete with bus tours of significant filming sites, a moon boot dance contest and tater tot eating contest, and numerous performances by the Happy Hands Club.  I now feel somewhat relieved and vindicated in looking at the environs of Preston through the eyes of Napoleon‘s storytellers.  After all, it is not many towns of less than 5,000 residents that are so honored and immortalized with such a sweet film.  I wouldn’t be too surprised if that waitress had brought me out some tater tots without a second’s question if I’d actually asked for them. – Preston, Idaho Chamber of Commerce Home Page
Photos Taken in Preston, Idaho –
Napoleon Dynamite – official site

The Catcher in the Rye

A Book Review

catcher2Rebelling against the structure and strictures of the traditional coming-of-age novel (with the very first sentence the narrator informs us that he’s not going to go into “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,”) this book instead gives us an unfiltered, uncensored and un-“adult”-erated flash into the life and brain of teenager Holden Caulfield as he wanders around New York City for a couple of days and nights after being kicked out of yet another prep school, not ready to go home and face his parents.  There is no epic adventure or crisis, we are simply pulled in by Holden’s hilarious, confessional narration, which from page to page is obnoxious, insightful, vulgar, sensitive, spazzy, intelligent, depressed, distracted and empathetic. Above all, Holden seems to be in search of integrity both in himself and in the world at large; he constantly rails against “phoniness” wherever he sees it. Salinger captures adolescent confusion and detachment like no one before probably ever had; we are right with Holden as he wrestles with his confusion over love, sex and the hypocrisy and evil of the world. Rather than showing us the boy growing into a man, we are thrust into a very vivid moment right in midst of the “growth,” and are left to conjecture what will ultimately become of our narrator.

Comparing it to my recent reading, it seems that much of contemporary adolescent literature is heavily indebted to this book; everyone from John Green’s narrators in Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns to Neal Shusterman’s Antsy Bonano,  Marcelo of Marcelo in the Real World and the narrator of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao seem to be taking at least some of their cues from Holden Caulfield.  It may just be that Salinger was so remarkably successful at creating an authentic teenage voice that subsequent teenage voices in more recent works remind one of Holden’s voice.  This preeminence will make Catcher in the Rye feel very familiar to readers of today’s YA fiction, but still occasionally shock in its frankness.

Something must be said in regards to the explicit language in the book; although it certainly is full of it, any reader that becomes fixated on its inappropriateness has completely missed the point.  The narrator simply has the guts to describe real and pervasive dialogue and circumstances that some people would want cut out.  Again, this speaks directly to Holden’s desire for integrity; to censor anything real because it might shock or offend would be supremely phony.  Furthermore, much of the power of the book comes as we recognize how troubled he is by these compromising circumstances and moral quandaries.  His oftentimes empathetic reactions to such situations are extremely insightful.

I’m not exactly sure if this is a book that needs much more hyping.  Almost sixty years after its first publication it is still moving more units than many books ever do at the height of their publicity cycles.  Clearly it is well known, and a lot of the kids are hip to it.  Still, I don’t think this book can be recommended enough.  This is a masterful and influential piece of literature that works as well as a high-interest read for teenagers as it does as a text for serious literary study.  Every high school library should have this book on their shelves, and it should probably be displayed because the students will pick it up; don’t make them go to the public library for it.  This is a tried and true classic that has only increased in relevance since its publication.