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Book review: Into the Beautiful North 

My favorite novel of the year, Into the Beautiful North, was actually published in hardback in 2009, but it took me this long to get around to it. I wish I hadn't waited. The author, Luis Urrea, an American who was born in Tijuana, has written much about the country that straddles the U.S. and Mexico, including the riveting The Devil's Highway, a nonfiction retelling of a deadly, botched attempt by a group of Latinos to get into the U.S. through Arizona.

Urrea followed that book with the fictional Into the Beautiful North, an old-fashioned, semi-satirical quest novel that takes in the contemporary issues of immigration, poverty and race.

Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works in a taco shop, owned by her very-much-gay friend Tacho in the remote Mexican village of Tres Camarones. Most of the town's men have gone north to find work in America — including her father, who never returned. When it appears that narco bandidos are moving into her hometown, Nayelli decides to also cross the U.S. border. Rather than looking for work, however, she sets out on a mission to find her father and six other as-yet-unknown men to form a contemporary version of The Magnificent Seven who she hopes will come back with her and save Tres Camarones from the drug lords.

As in most quest novels, the voyage itself becomes the meat of the story, introducing a wealth of exotic characters and changing situations, and leading the travelers to new self-discoveries and ways of seeing the world. It says something about Urrea's talent that he can take such an old literary form and infuse it with contemporary humor, attitudes, and sly, ever-present references to pop culture.

Nayelli embarks on her trip with Tacho, plus two female friends, Yolo and Veronica (who is trying her best to be a Goth, and whom everyone calls Vampi). They eventually team up with a self-made semi-Samurai who calls himself Atomiko. Together, the crew makes it to "the beautiful north," specifically California. It doesn't reveal too much about the voyagers' complex adventures to point out that readers get a rounded picture of life on both sides of the border. Urrea's style is vivid and lyrical, and he lets his strong story move at a quick pace. The tone is serious but in a sardonic, sweet way; the characters come alive on the page; and somehow, although our travelers have a hard time of it, their humor and persistence keep things in balance. Just like in an old-fashioned quest novel. Highly recommended.

Also Recommended:

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich. When Ehrenreich condemns the promotion of "positive thinking," she's not talking about being cheerful. What annoys her is the "create your own reality" idea that thinking positively will get you what you want, that the world is shaped by our desires, and that by focusing on good things, bad things cease to exist. She argues persuasively that such delusional thinking has hurt Americans in all walks of life, from those who follow "prosperity gospel" preachers a la Joel Osteen to the sales reps who think something's wrong with them when their positive thinking doesn't produce big dollars.

Ehrenreich started thinking about all this when she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago, and, during her treatment, was flooded with exhortations to "think positively." When she had the nerve to want to talk about being afraid or angry, she was scolded for "being negative." Just think positively, she was told, and you can change your own reality into a positive one (albeit a reality that still features chemotherapy).

Here, she maps the history of American "positive thinking" and goes on to look at its current forms, in corporate "team-building," cancer treatment, and American business culture. When Jon Stewart asked Ehrenreich if she thought it was laudable that sick people got a degree of inner peace from believing that, say, an angel inside a crystal is looking out for them, she replied, "No, delusion is never a good thing." It's too bad no one said that to the super-positive-thinking characters who, as Ehrenreich details here, sold bundled subprime mortgages and nearly sank the world economy.

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