For Your Summer Reading Consideration

Remember the days when you could just sit down and read an entire novel in one sitting? You found a book that just drew you in and excited you, perhaps delighted you, made you laugh or just scared the living crap out of you. And you either had the time — or, as you’ve grown older — made the time. Maybe you blew off work or social obligations. Maybe you just said, “Fuck it. I’m not sleeping tonight.”

I’ve done that twice recently, first with Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel and just this past Sunday with Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North

I’ve mentioned both here in passing and figured maybe I’d tell you a little bit more about them. Quick, I’d never heard of. No surprise as “The Silver Lining Playbook” is a first novel. When I was casting about for possible people to blurb my own book, an old blogger friend suggested he might be worth considering as his was a funny and strange book–which is sort of what I was going for “The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival.”

The words strange and funny don’t do justice to the work. And I’ve found myself hard-pressed to describe it to people. “It’s about this guy, Pat, who lives in South Jersey and just got out of a mental institution and likes to work out way too much and loves the Philadelphia Eagles. Ah, shit. Just read the book. I swear to God you’ll like it.” What makes it harder is that the book is full of these weird, delightful scenes that make you wonder, “How the hell did he come up with that?”

And I almost feel like I’m spoiling the surprise if I relate these scenes to anyone. But I think I can safely describe this plot matter: Pat Peoples, the psychologically disturbed narrator, and his male family members can pretty much only bond over Eagles football. Pat thinks he’s only been locked away for a few months–rather than years–and starts to piece things together after he’s taken to a game and is freaked out that Veteran’s Stadium has disappeared and has been replaced by Lincoln Financial Field.

To be clear, the book isn’t about football. And it’s not a dude book. But I keep going back to that particular scene not only because it doesn’t ruin things for the reader, but it handily captures quite a bit about mental instability, mental stability, the passage of time and that queasy feeling you get when you realize the world doesn’t wait for you.

So, yes, there are bits of heartbreak in the book. In fact, one person I nudged into reading it seemed to feel a little traumatized by the father-son relationship.

Yet, the book is funny as hell. I don’t think I’m ruining anything by mentioning that the narrator has a pathological hatred for Kenny Loggins and his music. How can you not identify with someone like that?

Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Into The Beautiful North” was another surprise, but for different reasons. I’ve read a bit of Luis’ other work, including his poetry and his heart-breaking nonfiction.

Luis is a pro at heart-break. As I’ve written recently, he was a thesis adviser of mine back in grad school and I remember when he’d do readings–and he’s also a pro at the reading–the women would be weeping by the end of it. You’d sort of expect that from a book about garbage pickers living in the Tijuana dumps. But more often than not he got them crying not over something stupidly tragic — and there’s plenty of that — but over something romantic or beautiful.

Of course, it helps that Luis is funny. I think that’s how he pulls you in, with the laughter, his almost comical descriptions of his characters and their foibles. Then, BAM! Two-by-four to the forehead.

Aside from his fascination with immigration and the destitute living in border towns, Luis also has a mystical side, inherited from an aunt of his who was this combination Mexican national hero, saint and witch all rolled up in one. He tackled the first half of her story in The Hummingbird’s Daughter, which is currently being made into a movie. Hummingbird’s Daughter was the last book of his I read. Now that, my friends, was a magical read, but it was also tinged by grandiosity, scale (and the fact I knew it had taken him 20 damn years to write it).

When I picked up “Into the Beautiful North,” I expected maybe more of the same–struggling Mexicans, bad shit going down at the border, a busted up relationship that would make me cry, perhaps some magic and witchcraft. What I got was a romping–yes, I’m using that word–a romping comedy.

Here’s the premise. Nayeli is a young woman in a small coastal Mexican village that has lost all its men to the U.S. Without the men around, bandidos–those drug cartel bastards you’ve been reading about in the news–make a move on the town. But after being inspired by The Magnificent Seven (seen during a film festival celebrating that great Mexican performer Yul Brenner … you’ll have to read it), Nayel decides to head across the border to find seven warriors to come back and take the town.

Buddy, that’s only the half of it. I sat down with this book on Sunday morning and didn’t stop until six that evening, when the book, sadly, was over. I found out from Luis after I read the book that he wanted to do something light and fun–something that would make him laugh out loud as he wrote it. Further, he wanted to write something in which a general American audience found itself pulling for Mexicans trying to sneak into the country. He succeeded on both counts.

Anyway, instead of wasting your time reading this, go grab those two books and treat yourself.

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