Off Season and Off the Beaten Path: Saving Money and Making Memories (Vámonos Vol. 12)

Steven Levitt, coauthor of “Freakonomics” has a theory on how to be happy. He suggests a person should try to do things other people don’t want to do. He asserts that success is harder to attain in a crowded field than in an open one. You might not get a chance to be the best quarterback at your college but, if you work at it, you have a pretty good shot at being the best amateur lepidopterist in the student body. If you’re successful at something, you’ll probably enjoy it more.

In travel, success has less to do with competition. If you’re looking to enjoy yourself, or to learn about a new place, you don’t necessarily have to beat anyone. But, the laws of supply and demand still exist. Some very popular commodities are finite and their cost is affected by how sought-after they are. In this instance, we are talking about “cost” in a few different senses: the cost of time, money and comfort.

A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I visited the beaches in Evanston. It’s a trip I had been avoiding for a couple of reasons. First, I like the downtown beaches. They’re closer to my house, they offer great people watching and they are free. The idea of going to the suburbs to pay for a beach seemed silly to me, even if the cost was negligible. But this beach is near where my girlfriend went in high school, so it’s emotionally significant to her. I wasn’t going to deny the trip forever but I can openly admit that I wasn’t looking forward to it. But this past weekend was improbably beautiful for October and, because it’s the off-season, Evanston has stopped providing lifeguards and stopped charging for the beach. This was no problem for my girlfriend and I because we were not interested in swimming.

We enjoyed the day, in part because we visited when there weren’t a lot of other people there. On the small beach, we had plenty of room to spread out our picnic blanket. The only being that interrupted us from was a particularly persistent seagull.

As a traveler, I feel clever when I find myself in a destination that is normally slammed but, for whatever reason, is calm and empty during my visit. One summer during college, I worked at the John Hancock Observatory. Late afternoons during midsummer, this attraction was not only expensive, it was miserably crowded and you sometimes had to wait in line for an hour to get on an elevator. But early in the morning before the crowds came, you could find yourself at the top of one of the tallest buildings in the world three minutes after buying your tickets. Once you were up there you had the place to yourself.

Some popular places deserve their fame, while some others deserve their anonymity. I’m not saying that you need to skip the Eiffel Tower when you visit Paris (though come to think of it, I skipped it when I was there on a day trip and still had a pretty great time). Some things can only be done at particular times of the year. You can’t go see the fall colors in spring.

But, I suspect, the parts of trips you remember best and enjoy most are not the ones that include a huge horde of people. Your favorite pictures aren’t the ones of the monuments that have been photographed a million times. And the memories that are important to you are the ones that are really your own, the ones that you don’t have to share with anyone but your friends and family.

“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami (Week 8 – Book a Week): A Good Place to Start

Generally, Murakami is easy to read.  That doesn’t mean the works careen through a jumble of cliffhangers rushing toward an unearned payoff.  His characters are soulful thinking people* who consider the world around them.  But they don’t spend an entire book sitting around considering.  That’s what makes the books easy to read, they move.  They include action and conflict.  The magical worlds in Murakami’s writing are not static museums for characters to explain; they are dynamic, mysterious places that are full of cats for some reason.

Murakami has written a lot of books, and the critics all have their favorites.  The ones at the top of the list tend to weigh in somewhere around 600 pages.  The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is my favorite because of a story about the Rape of Nanjing and a  frightening scene in an unholy waiting room.  Some prefer Kafka on the Shore, another heavyweight. This book tells a story about memory, nostalgia, and lust.  I have yet to read 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, but the reviews have been very strong.  All that said, I don’t think any of these books offers a great place to start.

Reading a book isn’t like watching a show or listening to music; it is necessarily active.  Other media offer the possibility of full engagement, but not the necessity**.  So, if you engage with an author for the first time, I think the most accessible work is a good place to start.  Shorter works are often the easiest to digest because they don’t have enough time to become convoluted and the reveals can’t be held back as long.  With that in mind, I would suggest starting with the novella After Dark.

The story takes place after most of Tokyo has decided to either go home or stay out all night.  In a city that many people travel to for work and study, the hour when the trains stop running is an important concern.  Tokyo’s downtown world isn’t a community where people live; it’s a center for labor.  Love hotels, bars, and chain restaurants become weigh stations for people who find themselves stuck downtown after the traditional working day is done.

These downtown people are far away from the many places they actually live in order to do something that they can’t do in normal society.  Their band wants to play loud, they are running from someone, or they are taking prostitutes to the little hotels made specifically for that purpose.  Some of them want to sneak outside of traditional society, and some have been forced out.

It’s easy to slide into the world of After Dark.  Maybe it’s natural for people stuck in a daytime world to seek transgression or relief from that world, but where they end up is not a soft, easy or necessarily happy place.  The things that happen there can be violent or invasive, and as the story goes on, the reader becomes implicated in the illicit deeds that occur.  Desires go unfulfilled, crooks don’t all get caught, and the reader is called out for watching.  But eventually, day breaks.  The book ends quickly, but the ideas remain, floating in the reader’s mind.  Like a strange night that you keep thinking about long after it’s over.




*Except for the occasional soulless demon.

**Video-gamers may wish to make an argument here, but it’s just not a medium I know enough about to talk about.




Bus Travel at Home and Abroad (Vámonos Vol. 11)

Technology advances faster and faster.  Devices, gadgets and lifestyles keep getting  shorter and shorter lifespans as progress speeds up.  Phones make way for smart phones, CDs are pushed aside for mp3s, pagers which reached there peak usage in 1990 are a total anachronism.  But, some times the right tool for the job is not the newest one or even the top of the line.  Is there anyone who prefers bus travel over all other modes of transportation?  Maybe the CEO of Greyhound, but I would have trouble imagining anyone else does.  Still there are times when the bus is the best or only option.

In international travel there are many off the beaten path locals that are only available to bus travelers, rental cars are not always available, sometimes fiscal concerns make the choice for you.  That said buses are not always the economy, bottom of the barrel choice.  Busses can be a crapshoot.  I have been surprised both positively and negatively about the quality of busses that I have ridden on in the US and overseas.

So if you find yourself preparing for a bus trip here are a few tips to arm yourself with.


Trip Tips

Don’t miss the Bus

An advantage of bus travel is that there isn’t as much fuss about getting on board as there is on a plane.  Security is easy (if it exists at all), bus station are often much smaller and easier to navigate than airports, and bus stations are often more centrally located than airports.  All that said if you miss the bus, you miss the bus.

Pay attention to Who you Sit Next To

Did you ever see heartbreak ridge?  If you don’t want to find yourself in a hilarious mix up with a delightful scamp or a generally uncomfortable situation with a person whose sanity is in question pay attention to your seatmate.  Try and figure out who you are going to sit with.  For this reason traveling in pairs can be ideal for bus travel.  If you have a buddy, show up a little early and you know you’ll have a friend to accompany you.  If you are traveling on your own, use your intuition or common sense to find your ideal seatmate.

Take Advantage of your time

The main complaint about bus, or train travel is it takes so long.  But think of all the time you are not spending driving or standing on the side of the road waiting for AAA to tow you.  If your taking a day trip to see something this is your time to read the guidebook, and plan out your day, write your postcards, or catch up the sleep that you missed when you were out at the club the night before.

Think about your Safety

Different parts of the world have their own concerns.  There are horror stories of busses that were stopped and robbed.  And while that is certainly a rare occurrence its worth asking around to find out how rare that is where you are.

Factor in your Size

As a large person I think more about leg room than some of my smaller friends. When traveling by bus at home or abroad legroom is rarely ideal.  When I lived in Guadalajara I often found myself bending over double just to look out the window.

Book in Advance if you’re looking to save money

If you’re traveling by bus to save money make sure you maximize your efforts.   Some domestic bus lines have a certain number of one dollar or very inexpensive seats that they sell.  If you can take advantage of these savings look to book in advance.  However, I have been in the position where I am traveling by bus because of the freedom it allows.  Because short trips can often be in the thirty dollar price range sometimes I elect to pay full fair because I hear about and want to take advantage of.

“Machine Man” Interview with Max Barry and his Serial/Novel (Week 7 – Book a Week)

Australian author Max Barry recently published the science fiction thriller/dark comedy “Machine Man.” The novel is the second incarnation of a story he originally published online as a serial, one page at a time. Rather than a reprint of the online content, the novel “Machine Man,” is a distillation of Barry’s original idea: a future in which corporations turn people’s bodies into a product, a weapon or worse. The movie rights for the book have already been purchased, with Darren Aronofsky signed on to direct it. Max Barry recently talked to us about writing a serial, his Skype tour and the changing landscape of publishing.

How did writing in serial, on the Internet, affect your process—and your end product? 
The readers really helped me keep track of how the story looked to someone who’s not writing it. That is a difficult thing to keep hold of when you’re writing a novel. You tend to veer off into your own world. When you’re halfway through you can forget why you started and what story you mean to tell. You keep veering off in strange directions. [Writing in serial] was a really good way to keep me grounded. The story didn’t veer off into ridiculousness, which happens sometimes with my first drafts.

What kicked the whole thing off was that I’ve never been really satisfied reading fiction online. I found the Internet to be a really distracting medium. I can’t give myself over to a complete chapter to read. The idea was to write a serial where each page would be very short, something that people could just read for a couple minutes and then get back to what they were doing. It would be in their inbox and it would be just a distraction, competing with all the other distractions.

Various people have tried with varying degrees of success to try and do Twitter stories. I felt like each of those were interesting in their own way, but I thought something on Twitter was too short for me to do something interesting. And a chapter was too long. So I thought I could do something in between a couple hundred and six hundred words. They would vary. Some days I would give pages that were just a single sentence. Being able to control the passing of the story like that is something that I just can’t do with a normal novel.

I started doing it five days a week. I had to figure out and then respect the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. For example, each page I had to start with some sort of subtle reminder of where we were in the story. I had to make the thing fairly self-contained, without too many references—to make the thing satisfying in its own right. And, ideally, I had to leave the reader on some sort of cliffhanger or looking forward to the next page. So it’s a series of cliffhangers: 185 cliffhangers.

Did producing a cliffhanger every day end up being useful for your final product of the novel that you published in print? Did it fuel you in creating cliff hangers you wouldn’t otherwise have come to, or did it lead to a lot of ridiculous things that hit the cutting room floor?
It was a bit of both. I pulled out all the stops so if I had a way-out-there idea I would run with it. See how it went. When it came time to distill this thing down to a novel I had all this material to choose from. But the problem was when I actually read the serial straight through, start to finish, it didn’t work as a novel at all. Because of all this cliffhanging, you couldn’t go two minutes without a cliffhanger knocking you out of the story. It felt incredibly stop-start, and I had to do a lot of work to retell the story as something that you could sit down and tear into for a few hours. I had to do a lot of rewriting to fit the format of a novel.

The serial is about 50,000 words and the novel is about 85,000 words. It’s the same core story. I feel like if you described the serial in three sentences it would sound exactly like the novel, whereas if you actually picked out a part of them they are quite different.

What was it like putting a piece of writing out there every day and getting instantaneous feedback on it?
The actual writing part was not too dissimilar from what I normally do, because it’s me sitting at my computer writing a few hundred words every day. But posting one page of this thing on my website each day and then having people read it straight away… They were reading a first draft ostensibly and then posting their comments that I would read. That would guide the story. That was completely different to how I’ve operated before. I don’t think it’s something that I could have handled if I was any earlier in my career. It’s quite intimidating writing with someone reading over your shoulder.

It was on my website, so I hoped for kind of a positive bias—if you sign up for presumably you like what I write. I didn’t get that negative feedback that made me curl up in a ball, and be unable to write any further. The readers really helped keep me motivated and keep me going on with the story. People suggested all kinds of ideas, some of which I used, some of which I didn’t.

There was pushback. At first, the publisher offered me a contract that said I would have to take the serial off the Internet. I felt that was self-destructive. First of all, I didn’t want this serial to disappear from the net. I felt it was an end product in its own right. It was similar to the novel but it was not the same story. But also in terms of marketing I didn’t think it made sense. They can read the book and the serial or just the serial if they want. But it’s all just helpful. People can find and choose the content they like. We convinced the publisher to allow us to keep that material up as long as we made it clear that the serial is different from the novel.

I heard you did a Skype tour.
The publisher wasn’t doing [a traditional book tour]. I thought, “Well, it’s always good to actually get to talk to people. It’s like my one opportunity to actually go and physically meet the people who read my books. It would be insane to miss that altogether.” And I had the idea of doing the Skype thing.

I had been bracing myself for a lot of insane people. The sort of person who really wanted to talk to me. But the people were wonderful. There was not one insane person among them. I had eight or ten minutes to talk to each person. When it’s in line, it is nice to actually sign a book for someone, but they get maybe thirty seconds tops and then that’s it.

Many authors have print books that are now going digital. How is it going the other way?
A lot of reading is moving from print to electronic, and I feel like I’m out in front of that since I have always dealt with an electronic medium. I don’t think that people switching to e-books from print is such a bad thing at all. [In the past,] I don’t think it’s been that easy to find good books. You have to talk to people who share your interests or read newspapers with reviewers you agree with. With the Internet, we have these vast data networks that can actually figure out with a fairly high degree of accuracy which book you’re likely to love next based on what books you’ve liked in the past.

I think the reason that people don’t read more books is they read a few bad ones, or they read a few that don’t engage them, and they give up. They go watch television or movies or browse the Internet. If we’re moving to a model where you can reliably find good stories then that’s going to be fantastic for the industry. I think people fundamentally want to read great books and the only reason they’re not buying more of them is because it’s too hard to find them.

Who are your greatest influences, beyond your commenters? Maybe because I love Vonnegut, I got a Vonnegut vibe.
Yeah, look, Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers as well. That’s not something that I consciously dealt with while I was writing. But I have read a lot of Vonnegut and I would be surprised if that didn’t influence me in some way.

I feel like this was kind of a Philip K. Dick story as well. Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of short stories about people discovering that their physical forms are less important than they think. So that’s very much at the core of this kind of story. And when I was a teenager I read so much Stephen King—now and again little elements of horror pop out.

What’s next?
I would like to do another serial. The idea I have for the next novel jumps in time and involves different characters’ perspectives, so I really need to be able to work on my own for twelve months so I can rearrange pieces. But if I have another idea that fits a serial than I’d love to do another one. It’s been a couple years since I started the serial. So I feel like I’m due for another one.

Two Languages one Band: Interview with Bilingual Band Making Movies (Feature for Extra)

“El frio me a tormenta” or the cold torments me, is the chorus of Making Movies pulsing rock song Tormenta. It’s about missing your family and wanting to visit your home, and family at Christmas.  That’s something that many immigrants in the US, who fear they will not be let back into the US, don’t have the freedom to do.  It speaks to a difficult situation, but it’s not self-pitying or sad.  The song is defiant.  It makes for the kind of building, anthemic, song that the group the specializes in.

Making Movies, whose name was inspired by a 1978 Dire Straits album with the same name, is a truly bilingual band.  Their music doesn’t throw the odd word in a different language, it’s not Black Eyed Peas yelling “mazel tov” for some reason.  The band crafts powerful songs in English and Spanish that are fully realized ideas.

Making Movies’ chief songwriter Enrique Chi is a truly bilingual writer.  Born in Panama, Enrique writes most of his songs in English first, “Writing is a very unconscious thing…  I live in the US so still most of my day I speak more English than Spanish, so when I go to write a lot of times it starts in English and have to go from the English to the Spanish.”

Asked to elaborate on when and how they choose to translate a song into Spanish, Enrique’s brother Diego Chi (who is also in the band) adds, “It’s another tool in the tool box.”  If something isn’t working on a song one option they have in changing the sound or the feel is changing the language. Enrique finished that thought by saying “It’s funny ‘cause some of our songs just don’t work in English.”

Extra spoke with Making Movies at the House of Blues on a night they were scheduled to open for Andres Calamaro.  After the show was cancelled, the band was disappointed, but still excited about their tour.  It’s a reality for an up and coming band on tour that not every opportunity works out, Making Movies talked about having been stiffed by shady promoters on other tours.  Happily, this tour, which brings the band back to Chicago Saturday the 15th to play at Juniors in Pilsen, seems to be more good than bad so far.  Juan-Carlos Chaurand who plays percussion and keyboards for the band talked about how they have started to build a following in some cities, while others are brand new.

The band’s touring the country in a 15 passenger van that the five musicians share with their instruments.  Each taking turns driving.  With 20 shows scheduled on a three-week tour they play a show just about every day. Before starting the interview Enrique talked about how much he and the band love to play.  For a band with a lot to say in two languages, a lot of shows is a good thing.

Article also available en Español

“American Vampire” by Scott Snyder, Raphael Albuquerque, and Stephen King (Week 6 – Book a Week)

Let’s get the Twilight comparison out of the way first.  No, these vampires don’t sparkle.  They’re smart, what they do isn’t pretty, and the vileness of the act of drinking human blood is out there in the open.  Illustrator Raphael Albuquerque knows how to draw a beautiful woman, a western vista, and a hideous creature of the damned.

It’s telling that “vampire” is the second word in the title of this series, because the story is just as concerned with the United States at the turn of the twentieth century as it is with the mythos of vampires in general.   The first arc takes us through a manhunt in the Old West and ties it to a story from a generation later of two young women trying to make it in the golden age of Hollywood.

Initially, American Vampire got a lot of attention because of Stephen King’s writing in that first arc.  King’s novels, or the worlds explored in his novels, have been made into comics before, but this was his first time writing for comics directly.  The story is split in half, with Scott Snyder writing one part in the story’s present and King writing another part taking place in the story’s past.  The background story that King writes is exciting and is told from the point of view of an author (something he has done in a number of his novels), but in the end it is outdone by the story sharing its issues, written by Snyder.

One of the challenges of writing a comic at the beginning of an ongoing series is that you have to produce something that sets the tone and the world for a larger work, while delivering a satisfying story.  Many great TV shows begin with a pilot that isn’t so great.  American Vampiredoesn’t have that problem, thanks in large part to Albuquerque’s artwork.  A lot of the world building in the story is done visually.  The backgrounds aren’t color swatches, they’re richly illustrated towns and deserts.  Part of the strength of Snyder’s stories comes from his restraint.  He puts fewer words on the page so that the reader can watch the drawn characters act out the drama.

That restraint is also evident in the fact that there is no big information dump.  American Vampire doesn’t need pages of exposition to get started.  It borrows from western and horror genres that the audience knows well.  When it wants to tweak those genres, it doesn’t do so in a ponderous prose passage, it does so in a big reveal.

Trade Paperback Release

The series, which has now reached issue 19, finally released its first trade paperback.  (Comic “trades” are softcover collections of several issues, in this case numbers 1-5.) This may be a move to sell some horror books in connection with Halloween, or maybe they heard about Josh’s Horrorfest.  In any case, I think these collections are a great way to experience the story.  As a reader more accustomed to novels and movies than comic issues, I find this to be a satisfying way to read comics in general and this series in particular.  Folks who would rather be reading the latest books can pick up this month’s collection.  I am currently reading the second hardcover and can say that the series continues to deliver.  The first trade covers two full story arcs and includes the work that Stephen King did on the series, though for my money that story places a strong second behind the one crafted by series creator Scott Snyder.  Before this series started, I was already a King fan, but this book made me a big Snyder and Albuquerque fan, as well.

“Dune Messiah” by Frank Herbert (Week 5 – Book a Week)

Last week, I reviewed The Magician King, fussing and moaning and worrying about sequels.  Dune Messiah embodies the core of those fears.  It’s an unnecessary slog through what happens after all the mammoth problems and conflicts of the previous book have been resolved.

One of the central themes of this space epic is dealing with success.  The main characters in a recently conquered universe worry about what their power has wrought.  They don’t have anything else to conquer or anyone else who can conquer them.  So, the central conflict is mostly in the heads of the characters.  “Should I or shouldn’t I?”  This might be an engaging subject.  I am sure great empires were undone from within, that rulers engage in exciting internal battles, but in this book it makes for a lot of waffling, some abrupt arguments and very little actual action.

This is not to say that a book should only be measured by how much shooting there is.  A lot of the excitement in the first Dune book was in the build-up and the planning.  But in Dune Messiah, the empire is already built.  Characters argue with themselves about visions that are never shared with the audience. It’s not mysterious, it’s boring.

It’s easy to make a connection between a hero who has conquered many worlds and an author who has already written his great work.  The main character, Paul Atreides, worries that his past victories will undo his future.  Dune Messiah is undone by Dune.  That book ended with such totality, there wasn’t a lot of mess left to clean up.

Are there people out there who would love this book?  I am sure they are legion.  It’s got the characters that were so exciting in the first adventure.  It’s got a couple of intriguing additions (Bijaz, the riddling dwarf, in particular).   The world is consistent, there just doesn’t seem to be much left to do in it.  If you would like to go deeper into the world of Dune, I recommend you reread the original.

Not Recommended


Week 6 – Machine Man

Week 7 – The Glass Key