The Quiet After The Storm

beachboardwalk_intro

I’ve been stressed at work. I lead a team of software developers, and we’ve been getting a crazy amount of projects, changing requirements, and unrealistic expectations / deadlines.  I was getting to the point where I was starting to dream about work, which is always a personal signal to me of impending burnout.

Some months ago, I reconnected with a friend with two children. I mentioned that I was planning on some kind of beach vacation. She said that sounded fun and that she would also be interested in going to the beach. The issue is that I live near the Pacific ocean and she lives near the Atlantic ocean. I thought about it for about five seconds and, realizing that I’d never actually seen a beach on the US seaboard, that I really miss my friend, and that spending time with two completely unknown children could be an interesting adventure, decided that it would be really cool to try an Atlantic beach vacation.

After much deliberation, we decided upon Rehoboth Beach, a relatively small town in Delaware. After even more deliberation, we found a condo a couple of blocks off of the beach.

I am now back to report that I had an absolutely fabulous time!

Although not very large, the town pretty much matched exactly what was in my head when I pictured an Atlantic Coast town. What made it charming was the scale of it. I’m sure that I would have been overwhelmed by the likes of Atlantic City. Here, it was the exact scale for a family with small children to see everything and to have fun seeing it.

The boardwalk was exactly as I pictured it. The heart of it was only a relatively short number of blocks. The boardwalk was wide so that large number of people could promenade along it. During the late afternoon, there would be a throng of people happily meandering along.

Along the boardwalk was a number of shops. Again, it was exactly as I would have pictured it. There were a number of souvenir shops beckoning their low cost wares to the ever curious children, arcades, and storefronts selling every kind of life-shortening food available (corn-dogs, pizza, cotton candy, fries (seriously? a place that only sells fries? WTF?), water ice (um, water ice? is the word water really necessary here?), ice cream, fudge, candy of all types).

The arcades were a big draw for the children. Because of their relative young ages, it was sometimes a challenge to find games for them to play (skee ball proved to be particularly problematic, although my partner is apparently a past skee ball master with still impressive skills). As per usual, the games would spit out a number of tickets, redeemable for some number of cheap toys. Redeeming the tickets and deciding what toys should be purchased was, for the children, a serious negotiation somewhat akin to nuclear proliferation treaties.

There was an amusement park called Funland. There were a number of kid friendly rides, all affordably priced. There were rides for cars, trucks, planes, and helicopters. They all had the same basic concept, which is to climb in and spin in a circle, which given my pretty serious motion sickness, put even the kiddie rides out of my reach. The children apparently have zero problems with that, because they ended up on a race car ride that circled the tracks at a dizzying speed.  It would then slow down, and the operator would yell ‘Reverse!’, and then it would circle the track at a dizzying speed in reverse. The two young children were holding on for dear life as the centripetal force drove them to the center of the track. When the ride finished, they bounded off the track with joy and laughter dancing in their eyes. Although there was absolutely no way that I could ride that ride, I vicariously enjoyed the thrill running through their bodies.

Another day was a pirate adventure, where the adults took a seat in the back of the boat while the children, complete with face makeup, an eye patch, and a sword, acted as the pirate crew. Every time the pirate ship passed by an anchored boat with a fisherman or two, the crew would incite the children to yell pirate insults at the innocent fishermen. This was clearly not the first time for some of these fishermen; some of them would stand, yell back, and shake their fists to the delighted children. There was an attacking pirate in a motor boat that would circle the pirate ship spraying water at the children. The children, in turn, manned cannons shooting water to spray the attacking pirate. It was all good fun.

Rehoboth is very bike friendly. We took our bikes out several times. The most memorable was probably Gordon’s Pond, which had a flat, nicely maintained path used by walkers, runners, and bikers. It was a pleasant peaceful ride away from the crowds of the boardwalk. The only problem was that one of the children’s bike had a nasty habit of throwing off its chain. I think by the end of the trip, my friend was just about ready to take a sledgehammer to it.

Back at the condo, we played board games. The young children would patiently explain to me how to play the game and then would usually spank me at it, much to their enjoyment.

All in all, this was exactly what I needed. For me, this brought me back to a much more innocent time and reminded me of my own youth, going out exploring and discovering new and exciting things, knowing that at the end of the day I can go back and be secure with my family. I can only hope that the children had similar feelings during this time.

So, yes, last week was probably the absolutely perfect vacation for me. I had a great time, I met two wonderful children, and I reestablished a connection to a cherished friend.  It’s everything that I could have hoped for.

 

Advertisements

The Girl Off The Wagon

22557272

Title: The Girl on the Train

Rating: 4 Stars

In the mystery / suspense world this book has received a lot of attention. It was a huge best seller. It is being made into a movie with a premiere taking place in a little over a month. Now that it’s out in paperback (and before the movie comes out), I wanted to read it to form my own opinion.

I have to admit that it’s pretty good. It’s been compared to Gone Girl. I wouldn’t exactly put it in that same league because Gone Girl has such a strong remorseless anti-hero at its core.

It is the story of three women, all told at various times from their respective first person perspective. The main character is Rachel, who is commuting back and forth from London. As the train slows down at a certain point, she can look into a house and see an apparently loving couple. In her imagination, she has built a charming life for them. She becomes desperately concerned and interjects herself into the case when the woman of the house turns up missing.

It also turns out that she’s a pretty unreliable narrator. Her previously happy life has collapsed. Not being able to conceive a child, she falls into alcohol and depression and drives her husband away. She has been fired from her job. She still does the commute in to London to maintain the facade of working. She has burned through all of her money and is renting a room from an increasingly suspicious friend. She drinks, blacks out, acts foolishly, wakes up, repents, and then repeats.

It appears that Rachel thinks that she can somehow resurrect her life by figuring out what happened to the missing woman. She nearly inevitably makes decisions that actively harm her and cause her to slide back into drink.

The other significant character is Megan, the woman who has gone missing. It turns out that she is definitely not living the magical life that Rachel is dreaming of for her. She has a background that she hides and is cheating on her husband.

The third character is Anna, who was having an affair with  Rachel’s husband that ultimately led to a divorce and Rachel’s husband marrying her. She is suspicious and vindictive of Rachel and can be absolutely ruthless.

The men aren’t a lot better. Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom, turns out to be a pathological liar. Megan’s husband, Scott, is abusive. Megan’s therapist, Kamal, is treating Megan in a most unprofessional manner.

In short, there are no heroes here and that’s what makes the book interesting. Even as you cringe at the damage that Rachel inflects upon herself, you wait to see if she can pull herself together and figure out a little more about Megan’s disappearance before she debases herself again. Slowly, as the pages turn, you see what events in Megan’s life has made her the person that she is. You are invested in the characters and are interested in learning what becomes of them.

Through much confusion and many mis-directions, you are slowly led to the night in question and learn what really happened to Megan.

In short, it’s a well crafted mystery and suspense work.

The 21st Century Stockade

27130739

Title: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Rating: 3 Stars

In a way, this is a timely book. Public shaming via Twitter is certainly on the rise. The impact that this has on our society and the dampening effect that it is having on public discourse is a subject worthy of discussion. I’m just not sure if it warrants a full book.  At least, this book didn’t seem to warrant it.

The main point that Ronson was making is that modern day Twitter public shaming has echoes back to our Puritan past. Just like in the 17th century, moral transgressions were punished by putting someone in the stocks and then pelting rotten fruits at them as a way to demonstrate cultural shame and disdain of the person’s actions, today’s Twitter pile-on serves a similar purpose. It’s a way that we all (and I do mean all, now that we are a globally interconnected world), can show our obedience to cultural norms by publicly flagellating those who transgress them.

And just like old times, the crowd can get pretty bloodthirsty. If someone crosses a cultural line, especially if you’re a woman, it’s not enough to be roundly condemned. You are flooded with hate speech. If you’re a woman, you’ll be deluged with comments threatening to rape you in every conceivable and violent method and you’ll be flooded with extreme graphic violence and death threats. Once the mob feels offended, there are no limits to how it will act (especially in a completely anonymous environment).

Several cases were discussed. Probably the  most notorious was Justine Sacco, the woman who made a very ill advised racist AIDS joke just before embarking on a flight to South Africa. The tweet went viral while in flight and she was fired by the time the plane landed.

It was clearly a joke. A bad joke, but a joke. Similar jokes are probably told onstage everyday by comedians. At the time, she had barely over a hundred followers. She was just making an insanely rude joke to an inside group of friends. Possibly one of her friends forwarded it to something like BuzzFeed or Gawker (it’s not clear exactly how it happened), and within hours she was the number one trending person in Twitter.

Not only did she lose her job, but she got the usual onslaught of rape, torture, and murder threats. Granted she showed really bad judgment, and considering she was a PR person, that kind of naivety and poor judgment could certainly be used as grounds for firing her, but the onslaught was such that her life has become totally wrecked. It took her eleven months to find another job.

Another interesting case was Max Mosley, Formula One racing chief and son of the most prominent fascist in England before WWII. He was caught in a sex scandal that involved prostitutes, spanking, and German uniforms. This had the potential to be seriously humiliating, but interestingly enough, once it died down, he was ultimately unaffected. There are multiple reasons why. The most logical one is that he faced it head on and completely owned it. He did not hide from it. He even sued the paper that published the article.

There were a couple of last successful chapters. There was a chapter on a shame eradication workshop that just felt like a typical Ronson stunt article. The article on the companies that make a living ‘fixing’ people’s search results so that the shame-inducing information is pushed off of their Google search home page was actually kind of boring.

So, a mixed bag. Often times, essays like these earn a three star rating, despite my tendency to try to avoid it (it seems like a cop-out). However, in this case, the number of interesting chapters and boring / annoying chapters pretty much cancelled each out, and I guess that I just wasn’t interested in the larger conclusions that he was aiming for.

The Witches Made Me Do It!

8852

Title:  Macbeth

Rating: 5 Stars

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be going to London to see Macbeth at the Globe Theatre.  I’m unreasonably excited to see one of Shakespeare’s great plays in a pretty close to exact replica of his playhouse. This is essentially the point where literary geek meets history geek. It might spell the end of the universe as we know it.

I’ve seen multiple versions of Macbeth now. I saw a breathtaking version of it a couple of years ago at Ashland. It was the most exciting stage spectacle that I’ve ever seen, complete with extremely intense witches, intense fighting, and a fairly graphic beheading.

Last year I saw the film starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. The cinematography was brilliant. It was a gritty depiction of the life of a Medieval Scottish king. However, in my opinion, it suffered by treating the play with too much reverence.

Finally, many years ago, I saw MacHomer. It’s a one man show by Rick Miller, who acts out a good chunk of the entire play, using characters from the Simpsons. You have Homer as Macbeth, Marge as Lady Macbeth, Mr Burns as Duncan, and Barney as Macduff, among many others. It was clearly a stunt, but it was a pretty amazing stunt.

So, in preparation for this awesome upcoming event, I’ve re-read Macbeth.

In some ways, it can be read as a feminist play. Macbeth is, for most of the play, a pawn of women. It is the three weird sisters that put the idea into Macbeth’s head that he can be a king. It is Lady Macbeth that encourages him on to violence, and tries to bolster him when he loses his courage and also when he starts to wallow in his guilt. In fact, it isn’t until the end of the play, when Lady Macbeth herself goes insane and kills herself while Macbeth prepares to grimly attend to his own death, that Macbeth reasserts the traditional masculine role.

Although the play is entitled Macbeth, Macbeth is pretty much screwed over. He is, by all accounts, a brave soldier who has just daringly fought off a rebellion against Duncan. He is clearly, at this point in time, a loyal subject. It is only when the witches enter the treasonous thought into his head that he begins to act. Granted, once his acts of evil start, they snowball on their own volition. Since the witches themselves are agents of Hecate, an argument can be made that this is very much a Greek play, in which the gods, due to boredom or whatever motivates a god, enters into the human realm just to sow discord and then stand back and let the disaster run its course.

When Macbeth pursues the three witches for the second prophecy, they’re pretty much just fucking with him. They use a bloody head to tell Macbeth to be beware of Macduff (Macduff chops off Macbeth’s head), a bloody child is used to tell Macbeth that no man born of a woman can hurt him (Macduff is ripped from his mother’s womb, bloodily it can be assumed), and a crowned child holding a tree tells Macbeth that he is only in danger when the trees of Birnam move to Dunsinane (Duncan’s son, Malcolm, has an army march up to Dunsinane by chopping up the trees of Birnam and using it as a shield). That’s just not fair play by the witches by any definition.

Again, this is not to excuse Macbeth. The worm of ambition was always in him, and once unleashed, there was no stopping it. Arguably it was fate, as expressed by the witches, that set him on his path.

There’s a couple of items of historic note. Shakespeare never operated in a vacuum. He was intensely aware of his political situation and was sensitive to it. This shows up in a couple of ways in Macbeth.

First of all, most obviously, was the witches’ prophecy that heirs of Banquo would occupy the throne as far as the eye can see. Legend has it that the King of England at the time, James I, is in fact a descendant of Banquo. He succeeded as King of England slightly indirectly after the death of Elizabeth. So, making Banquo a pure hero in Macbeth and prophesying a long line of Banquo descendants to the throne was a pretty serious act of royal kiss ass on the part of Shakespeare.

Similarly, there was no doubt that Macbeth was going to be, not just defeated, but absolutely destroyed. There are no heroic last words. There is no final on stage battle. Macduff fights Macbeth, and later Macduff presents Macbeth’s head to Malcolm as tribute. The rule of thumb is that whoever kills a king must be obliterated in the most extreme method possible. Again, considering the fact that his patron was a king, this would be a message well received.

I can’t wait to go to London!

 

Florida Man Meets 1950’s Harlem

565816

Title: A Rage in Harlem

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a classic crime noir kind of novel with a twist. It’s set in 1950’s Harlem.

As I read this, I was actually reminded of a modern Florida crime novel. You have the protagonist, Jackson, a sweet, honest man caught up in a web of intrigue that threatens to drown him. You have his woman, Immabelle, who Jackson absolutely dotes on and trusts implicitly, so of course, she helps con him out of every penny he has, and then some.

Desperately trying to dig himself out of that hole, Jackson ends up stealing even more money to cover up the money that he lost. He then gambles away that money, so now he’s even more desperate. All the time he’s making trips to his minister to confess his sins and receive spiritual guidance. His misadventures form the spine of the plot.

You have Jackson’s brother, Goldy, who shares none of Jackson’s innocence. He goes around permanently dressed as a nun to get people to give him alms for the poor. Oh yeah, he’s also a constant drug addict. Driven to take care of his innocent brother, his street smart sense drives the two ever closer to the thieves.

You have criminals, the ones who steal from Jackson, thinking of themselves as masterminds when in reality they are as dumb as a box of rocks.

And finally you have the detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. They are a force of law unto themselves in Harlem, grimly going about the business of solving crimes and ruling the denizens of their precinct with the iron grip of the law and large dollops of gun play and violence.

There’s definitely enough odd characters, extreme violence, and out of control plot elements to satisfy even the most jaded of Carl Hiassen and Tim Dorsey fans.

That makes it the oddest of all. For the past year or so, I’ve been reading some of the classic crime novels of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. I understand that they are the product of the time in which they were written in, but to the modern eye, they seem hackneyed, stale, and at best, somewhat woodenly written.

A Rage In Harlem is different. It was written in 1957, and except for the obvious time specific aspects, could have been written even today. It’s impressive when a crime novel can hold up for over 50 years and still seem current.

What makes this even more impressive, for all of the time that that these crazy, hilarious, violent crimes are taking place, Himes is also making trenchant political commentary on what it means to be black living in 1950’s America. There are no civil rights, there is just an assumption that if you’re black, bad things are going to happen to you and that’s the way things are. There’s a sense of fatalism that runs through nearly every black character when he/she is confronted with a figure of authority.

It was an entertaining read that has not lost a step in over 50 years and mixes all of that with a strong political message. This is a true classic.

 

A Laconic Tale Told Languidly

mv5bmtg4nda1ota5nf5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdq2mdm5ode-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_

Title: Hell or High Water

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a story of two relationships. One is a pair of brothers, Tanner and Toby. Tanner is the ne’er do well. He rebelled against his father, ‘accidentally’ shooting him, before ultimately being sent away for robbing banks. The other brother, Toby, is the diligent one. He stayed with their mother as she wasted away. As she died, she left behind large debts that will result in the loss of the family range, a range in which oil has been discovered. The bank is just waiting for the loan to foreclose so that they can swoop in and take the land away from the family.

In desperation, Toby hatches a desperate plan to rob just enough banks to get the money to pay off the loans, at which point he’ll create a trust for the ranch and leave it to his now semi-estranged children. He asks Tanner for help, and of course, being the wild one who is always up for madness, Tanner readily agrees.

They begin to rob a series of banks.

The other relationship is between the two Texas rangers sent to pursue them. There is Marcus Hamilton, a long tired detective on the verge of retirement that has no life to look forward to. His partner is Alberto Parker, part Native American and part Mexican. They have a long running relationship that pretty much consists of Hamilton regularly busting Parker’s chops, not the least making regular jokes about his mixed heritage. They do, in a fashion, like and respect each other, although there is a edge to the humor that I believe Parker feels.

An argument can be made that there is another relationship at play here. It is the relationship of the bank to the community. It’s clear that the bank has been bleeding the people dry for some time. On the long drives in Texas that it takes to get anywhere, multiple signs of hopelessness are seen. Closed businesses, homes for sale, and signs of poverty and despair are seen everywhere. No one has a good word to say of the bank, and when push comes to shove, the people will back their people, the robbers, before they’ll back the bank.

The desolate landscape of that part of Texas reflects this barrenness. The people have no hope, and when they have no hope, desperate actions will result. Toby, clearly a decent man, feels that he has no recourse.

The two rangers, in what could charitably be called a laconic way, pursue the robbers. Ultimately, of course, I’m guessing that it’ll be no spoiler that the bad brother will sacrifice himself to let the good brother perform his act of redemption. And probably in yet another not completely unexpected spoiler, the two protagonists, Toby and Hamilton, will meet in a showdown with at best ambiguous results.

No criminal gets away clean. No law enforcer ever retires. These are pretty trite cliches, but this is such a well done and well acted movie that even if a cliche, it still rings true.

Truth In Advertising

12832580_10153932412684144_3133138284391237337_n

Title: Pancakes & Booze

Well, this is yet another apparently long running thing that I never heard of. This is some kind of loosely linked national event. I went to their Facebook page and I saw upcoming events in Raleigh, San Francisco, New Orleans, Toronto, Dallas, and so on.

It’s essentially an art show at a local club (in the case of Seattle, it is staged at El Corazon). That would be the booze part of the show. Located in one part of the club is a couple of people making pancakes for everyone. This national organization charges a modest fee for artists to hang their work and charges a modest fee for patrons to enter (5$). These fees are just to cover their costs. The purpose is to give a low overhead outlet for local artists to show their wares and hopefully make a couple of bucks.

With your drink and your pancake, you wander around the club. They claimed that 150 artists were showing, but I can’t imagine that there were really that many. It was pretty full of patrons wandering around. There were jewelry artists, photographers, painters of many genres and subjects, and an interesting couple who apparently are making musical instruments out of old cigar boxes.

For all of the edginess of having pancakes and booze at a local rock club, the event itself was surprisingly conventional. There were artists standing by their work, introducing themselves and hoping to convince you to make a sale. As I mentioned when I went to the Punk Rock Swap Meet, it does say something about the staying power of capitalism when the underground / avant-garde  artists patiently explain their work, price it according to market pressures, and willingly accept credit cards.

There were a couple of body painters there as well. When I was there one artist was engaged in drawing a life-size fetus on the belly of a very pregnant woman.

I am still hoping at some point to find a piece of art by a local artist that inspires me to want to put it on one of my walls. Nothing really struck me here. I had a slight moment of weakness when I saw the zombie Pikachu painting, but I figured that since Pikachu as a fad was something completely past my generation, that hanging that would make me some kind of inter-generational poser.

My quest continues.

Blow Minds In 10 Pages Or Less

426504

Title: Ficciones

Rating: 5 Stars

I’m never going to be a writer. When I was younger, I had dreams that I had some unique voice that would echo forever throughout the ages. I imagined that I’d be somewhat like Kafka, ignored and forgotten in his time, but whose work so presaged the alienating, isolating, impersonal mechanistic world to come in the twentieth century that he could very well be remembered centuries by now.

It never went beyond dreaming, alas. No impoverished artist starving in his garret for me.

However, as I read, sometimes I come across a work of fiction and I kind of smugly think, well, I can do better than that. How hard can it be?

And then I read a work like Ficciones. And I say to myself, I could never do that. I can’t even conceive of how anyone could do that. As I read, I don’t often come across a writer that is, quite simply, sui generis. That is Borges.

Nearly every story in the book left me thinking, exactly what the fuck did I just read? This was especially true in the first half collection, The Garden of Forking Paths. Every story seemed so simple, but yet at the end, my mind was blown. His little stories, nearly all of which were somewhere around ten pages or less (one might have approached twenty), expressed some deep philosophy or paradox or conundrum that left me shaking my head in wonder and laughing out loud.

A major theme is labyrinths. He is clearly preoccupied with infinity and what infinity means in a finite world. In an infinite world, everything can happen, but since it’s infinite, it ultimately means that effectively nothing happens.  The Library of Babel is a library that contains every book every published by that culture, but not only that, it contains every possible sequence of letters possible in that language. This outrages a sect of people, who come in and destroy millions of books. Of course, no matter how many books they destroy, it has no impact on the library. Another sect believes that every single individual has a book in the library that completely describes his/her life. They wander through the library for years and decades looking for their own book, of course never finding it.

Another work, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, posits an author, in the current age, who has decided to write exact copies of three chapters of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Note that I’m not saying that he’s writing a modern adaption of it. I’m also not saying that he’s sitting down and copying from it. Menard is actually trying, as a writer, to create a circumstance that allows for him to create a work of fiction that happens to be identical, word for word, to Cervantes’s novel. After many thousands of drafts and decades of work, he finally accomplishes it. Menard’s biographer (Borges, presumably) discusses this and then reviews Menard’s work. Even though it’s a word for word copy, the biographer judges it to be a superior work to the Cervantes original (an exact duplicate, let me remind you) because of the depth of meaning that it takes on as a result of being written by a twentieth century author.

Mind fuck, commence!

Seriously, there are several stories like this here. The nature of reality and what is fiction is constantly being intermingled so that you have no idea of what is true. Deep philosophical questions are raised. A seemingly trivial story about a possibly falsified encyclopedia ultimately leads to a discussion of what kind of civilization would exist if it had no concept of a god. A spy story ends up imagining how a novel of infinite plot branches would function, and of course, ends up intersecting with the reality of the moment. A simple story about a lottery becomes a dissertation on the nature of God.

I can go on and on…

Reading this I was reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poems. She writes these little twenty word poems in which the mystery of life is explained if you work at it hard enough. Similarly, Borges expresses more ideas in these little stories than even serious literary authors do in their maximalist postmodern novels.

Seriously, read this book!

 

Bankers Gone Wild

mv5bmtewnzm2njy2mtneqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdq3mdi3njgx-_v1_uy268_cr00182268_al_

Title: The Infiltrator

Rating: 4 Stars

I went expecting a pretty typical angst-y undercover cop risking his life, family, and happiness to bring down the bad guys.

In many ways, it was exactly that, but it was so well crafted that it rose above the somewhat trite material.

Bryan Cranston plays Bob Mazur. He’s a career US Customs undercover agent. He just finished an assignment where he was semi-seriously injured, which meant that he could retire with a full pension. However, he has one last idea for taking down the cartel, and despite the misgivings of his wife, he takes on one more case.

John Leguizamo plays Emir Abreu. He is another undercover agent. He’s cocky and street smart, willing to play high risks.

Mazur has the idea of going after the money instead of going after the drugs. Mazur and Abreu team up, reluctantly, to get to the source of the money laundering operation.

That’s the basic setup. Again, not too complicated.

It is based on real life, which gives it some realism. The bank of choice for drug smugglers is BCCI. Some might remember this bank at the heart of the Iran Contra scandal, where it was used to launder funds to the Contras. Clearly, this was a bank that placed profits above simple things like morality.

Mazur gets pulled deep into the undercover. He has to pose as a mafia money launderer. This places him in difficult situations where he must play a violent, immoral part that is foreign to what is basically a decent man. His wife accidentally sees this act that he has to put on and is horrified at the man that he is becoming, creating the somewhat predictable domestic tension.

As he gets pulled deeper into the infiltration, he meets with a high ranking member of the drug cartel. This is Roberto Alcaino, played by Benjamin Bratt. Although a member of the cartel, he is an intelligent, sophisticated, caring man that Mazur builds a close relationship with. Mazur also meets and befriends Alcaino’s wife and daughter. As it comes closer to the point where the operation must end, he has conflicting emotions regarding the betrayal of people that have become his friends.

This is the strength and the heart of the movie. The character interrelationships are well crafted and well acted. You feel the moral ambiguity regarding the choices that must be made. I felt a tension and a realism in it that rises it above the normal cut of the genre.

There were just a couple of discordant notes that seemed artificially inserted into the plot.

Two different times, separately, Mazur and Abreu were nearly exposed. In both cases, the accuser who was about to blow their cover was very conveniently murdered, quite literally as the accusation is leaving their lips.

In another scene, Mazur, attempting to ingratiate himself with Alcaino, introduces Alcaino to his real life aunt, who proceeded to charm him. It just seemed odd to me that the customs service would allow a civilian (an elderly one at that) to participate as part of an undercover operation.

These are real people and the book is based upon Mazur’s book, so maybe truth is stranger than fiction.

 

Ghostman Already Needs a Reboot?

18395013

Title: Vanishing Games

Rating: 3 Stars

You might have noticed that I seem to be reading a lot of crime / action genre novels lately. For the last ten years, I’ve been a runner. I usually run two to three times a week. I’m not very good; I neither run great distances nor at any impressive speed. It’s something that I do to fight off (as much as I can!) the decline of age.

When I run, I listen to music or to podcasts. I’ve never done books on tape. I’m not sure why; I guess the purist in me that hesitates to read books digitally (although I do it on occasion now) also thinks that listening to books is somehow a form of cheating. I like to read the words and materialize everything in my mind. Hearing a dramatic reading of it would seem to remove just a little bit of my own creativity from the process. The problem now is that I have sore feet. I finally went to a doctor and I’ve been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis. I’m now icing my feet, doing stretching, and going to PT. It could be a couple of months before I can run again.

My back-up cardiovascular workout is a stationary bike. I find riding a bike tedious. When I do ride, I read a book. I once tried to read a classic while riding, but that turned quickly into a fiasco because I really couldn’t concentrate. So, when I ride a bike, I tends towards crime and action books. The bottom line is that there’s going to be a larger number than usual genre books in my feed.

On to Vanishing Games. This is a sequel to Ghostman. Ghostman was a great read. You have a character named Jack. He is a ghostman (duh!). The ghostman is a criminal whose specialty is, after a heist is performed, to set up the escape for all of the participants. Not only the escape route, but also false identities. He’s in charge of the getaway.

Jack himself is a cypher. No one knows his real name. No one knows his background. He is, in fact, the ultimate ghostman.

In this novel, Jack is bored and languishing between crimes. He gets an urgent call from a woman that he knows as Angela, who was his mentor. She is the only person that knows his real name and his real story. At an early point in his criminal career, she takes him under her wing and teaches him how to become a ghostman.

She is now under dire threat herself. She is now a jugmarker, the master planner behind the crime. One of her crimes has gone seriously awry and now she needs help. Jack comes to her aid and together, in a series of exciting scenes, they fight off a hit man and members of a Chinese gang that both want them dead.

This is a pure adrenaline shot of a book. Don’t worry too much about plot subtleties. It just moves from one action piece to another. It’s set in a very compressed time frame, so no  one ever sleeps or rests. From the moment Angela contacts Jack, it’s pretty much pure action.

It’s a great read while you’re riding a bike and need to stay motivated and/or distracted. The main issue that I have with it is that it’s pretty much the same story as Ghostman. In both cases, even casinos are involved. It’s all about fancy clothes, fancy boats, and possibly insider criminal knowledge (I wouldn’t know, not being a criminal, so can’t say for sure).

I just didn’t see anything too much new here. It reminded me of the Roger Moore James Bond films. Can anyone really tell me the difference between The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only?

One of the huge challenges of writers that are doing a series is keeping it fresh. It was disappointing to me that already in the second story it’s already feeling a little stale.

Let’s hope that this was just a sophomore jinx and that he’ll pick it up. After all, Lee Child can’t write forever!