A Gentleman’s Game by Greg Rucka (Book a Week 13)

Quick hits:

  • Greg Rucka’s A Gentleman’s Game is a stomach tightening thriller, especially its climax, and never uses clumsy phrases like “stomach tightening.” The book made me care about its heroes and villains and guess (wrongly) at how complex but visceral situations would play out.  This bears repeating, it made me eager to see how things come out for a group of imaginary people, the task of any good work of fiction.
  • There were some bits I liked more than others.  The beginning isn’t slow but there is a lot of setting the pieces in place.  It is the first novel in the Queen and Country Series whose first installments were graphic novels, so there is some time spent catching up new readers on the characters and the setting.  Those characters are the most engaging.  There are multiple points of view but the story is most exciting when it focuses on the characters that the series has built in the past.  A Gentleman’s Game is less engaging when following a westerner who has become a terrorist in Egypt.
  • The research that went into this story shows. It feels as real as news and easier to believe.
  • The way the struggles and conflicts of the situations tie together is elegant and surprising.  Each plot point sets off the next conflict.  The speed with which the situations change makes the book crackle to the finish.
  • I read the last 100 pages in a lump, the story was so good I couldn’t leave the couch.  That might no big deal for you, but dyslexics don’t read 100 pages in a row unless they really want to.

 

I like this book a great deal and it deserves a real review, but today it will just get a couple of bullet points blame a scattered mind and a  couple other projects that I’m are calling my name.

 
 

Compromise and Companionship on the Road (Vámonos Vol. 18)

A good family movie gets laughs from kids and adults.  The movie shouldn’t soar over the heads of young, or bore the… less young. Easier said than done.  Jokes that adults find tiresome, might be a kids favorite part of the movie, content adults enjoy could be inappropriate for young eyes, or incomprehensible to young minds.  The word “family” signals a wide aim or an inherent compromise.  If you’re traveling with companions, family or otherwise, you’re going to have to compromise.

Some relish the chance to travel alone, they love the independence, but I have always preferred to have a friend along.  Funny experiences or surprises are more fun if you don’t experience them alone.  You want to be able to say “did you see that” to someone.  But a trip with companions, like a family movie, needs to accommodate a wider audience.

Accommodating tastes isn’t something to be worried or disappointed about, but there is an art to it.  First, keep an open mind when thinking about what you’d like to see.  If you’re seeing something new there is always an element of the unknown.  Sites you visit for the first time might match your imagination or they might not.  So try to keep a guarded optimism about the things you’ll see. 

Second, I don’t recommend trying to “hit every site,” in the hopes of pleasing everybody. Yes, you have limited time on your trip.  Yes, it might seem like you don’t risk missing something if you don’t touch base at every recommended site in your guidebook.  But you risk missing a lot more if you don’t give yourself a chance to enjoy the places you visit.  Remember, tourism is not an assignment from a boss you need to impress.  Some of us have to travel for work and that is a beast of a different stripe.  If you’re traveling for your own enjoyment, see the things that engage you, not just some travel writer’s top ten sites.

Too many times the idea of accommodating others sounds like surrender to us, and compromise becomes a dirty word. But remember, the people you travel with by choice or by circumstance are likely to be the most important part of your trip. They can expand your experience improve it. They may take you places you didn’t know you wanted to go. If you can find a way to engage with them you’re both going to enjoy the trip more.

The Story of the 2011 – 2012 Bears Season

Last Sunday when the Lions won and the Bears lost, the book was shut on any Super Bowl hopes for the Bears.  Scenarios in which the Bears enter the playoffs are now so improbable, that Sam Hurd is more likely to get into the Hall of Fame than the Bears are to get into the playoffs.

The season came to its climax in a series of spectacular failures.  With the playoffs out of reach, the last few games left in the season are only footnotes. It’s time to write the story of the season. No, the patient is not in the coffin yet, but it’s time to prepare the eulogy.

 

Expectations (Prologue)

After such an abysmal game against the lackluster Seahawks team, it can be hard to remember that this season wasn’t always a disappointment.

In the pre-season, the Bears were nobody’s Cinderella pick.  Still, most of Las Vegas, Grantland and I, myself, all picked the Bears to finish somewhere around 8-8.  They had a murderous first quarter of the season, an unhappy running back, coming off of a season that, by his standards, was below average. People also worried about the rule changes limiting the Bears on special teams, what’s more, the division seemed to be getting better all around them.

After the Bears went 7-3, expectations rose considerably, thanks to the continued success of an aging defense and the excellent play of that, as yet un-contracted, running back.

 

The First Ten Games (Acts 1 and 2)

The Bears worked their way into the front position for the NFC Wild Card with a record of 7-3.  While their rivals in Green Bay won the initial tilt and maintained a stranglehold on the Division lead, the Bears were able to beat the teams they were supposed to beat and rack up a 4-1 record against teams under .500.

 

The Losing Streak (Act 3)

The Bears season took a turn during the November 27th game against the Oakland Raiders, when Jay Cutler succumbed to a shoulder injury.  This marked the first of a series of injuries to key offensive players including Matt Forte and Johnny Knox.

At first pundits argued that with a relatively weak upcoming schedule, the injuries were happening at the best possible time.  That did not prove to be the case and with the Sunday’s loss to Seattle, the Bears all but sealed their fate.

 

The Next two games (Epilogue)

Is it possible to have a good season after a series of crushing defeats that knock them out of the playoffs? No.  But, as Lovie Smith and other Bears players and personnel were eager to point out after the game, the Bears have the Packers next week.  And they always get up for their rivals, playoffs or no playoffs. Maybe, maybe not.

No one had to ask Lovie if he was disappointed after the game, the emotion showed on his face and in his voice.  Whatever joy the Bears might take in winning a largely meaningless game against Green Bay, will disappear the first time they have to watch the Packers play in the playoffs.

 

Cutler’s break-out season (Appendix)

Before the year began two sentiments were unavoidable:

1. If the Colts go 0-16, Peyton Manning should get the MVP by default

2. This was Cutler’s year to break out with the Bears.

After the Colts’ victory this Sunday, Peyton won’t be getting the MVP in absentia that he may deserve, but few players’ reputations can have benefited more from their injuries and the teams resulting incompetence than Jay Cutler’s.

Cutler played well this season (though not transcendently), his injury was the turning point in the narrative of the Bear’s season.  For better or worse, the story of the 2011 Bears season will split into “pre-injury” and “post-injury. “ Cutler’s ability will be remembered as the key component to the Bears success.  At least somebody gets a happy ending.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (Book a Week 12)

Escapist fantasies take many forms: superhero books, scifi stories, swords and sorcery tales, and romance novels.  They don’t all do the same things, but they can scratch the same itch. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere has something in common with Chuck Palaniuk’s Fight Club they both follow pushovers, bored and worn down by the world they submit to and they both tell exciting, violent, and unpredictable yarns.

It’s probably a good thing that we don’t walk around punching dudes in the face everyday, but that doesn’t mean we all wouldn’t like to take a little less shit.  Neverwhere‘s main character Richard Mayhew takes a lot of shit.   He gets it from his fiancé, his colleagues, his boss, even his boss’s secretary.  The story gets rolling when he finally defies the wishes of his controlling fiancé by helping an injured vagrant (your typical manic pixie adventurer from a parallel world). From there the curtain comes up and the show is on.

Mayhew escapes.

Here I would like to pause and define a term.  I worry that someone is going to read “escapist” and think less of the work.  On the contrary, escape is only possible in a fine work. It implies a level of engagement on the part of the reader that a poorer story can’t hope for.  Neverwhere is as rich and tempting, as Jasmine from the Aladdin was when I first saw it at eleven.

Let me set up a straw man here because I can hear the complaints.

You say, “What about the real world? We live in it.”

I say, “Yes.”

You say, “We need perspective on this world.”

I say, “Yes.”

You (well not you, but some less thoughtful reader) say, “An escape is a waste of time we should be spending paying attention to it.”

I say, “Hell No!”

That’s the beauty of escapes, they have to talk to us, the people of the real world, fictional characters are great, but they don’t read their own books.  The escape only works if we can see and understand the characters we need to be able to get their situations in order to care or escape into them.

A fine fantasy novel is like a similarly.   Neverwhere is a fine book, as visceral as hunting a boar the size of an ox with a bladed weapon.

If that sounds good you might also like Fight Club.

Bears Season Intercepted and Returned for a Touchdown

The Bears came into Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks as the 4.5-point favorite.  A few weeks ago that would have seemed an insult to Chicago but with injuries to Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler and running back, Matt Forte, as well as one-sided losses to the Chiefs and Broncos, the situation had changed dramatically.  As it turned out, by making them favorites at all, the odds-makers were still overestimating the Bears.

On the other side of the field, Seattle came into Chicago on an upswing.  They had won four of their last five games and running back, Marshawn Lynch, scored a touchdown in every one of their last nine games.  Their winning ways would continue in Soldier Field.

The Bears offense got to work first on Sunday’s game, winning the coin toss and electing to receive, but they failed to score on their opening drive.  After a short gain on a running play by Marion Barber, Caleb Hanie missed badly on his first two passing attempts and the Bears were forced to punt. This drive would be indicative of the offense performance the rest of the game.

Later in the first quarter the Seahawks would take the lead on a running touchdown by Marshawn Lynch.

The Bears got back into the game by scoring a defensive touchdown after a Tavaris Jackson fumble caused by Julius Peppers.  Chicago went on to take the lead when Kahlil Bell made a touchdown catch (the Bears heavily featured Bell after Marion Barber’s gaffe-filled performance last week against the Broncos).  The Bears took this 14-7 lead into halftime.

That lead, however, did not last long. The Seahawks scored on their initial drive, moving the ball eighty yards.  The drive culminated with another Lynch touchdown.  On the ensuing possession, Caleb Hanie was intercepted by 323-pound defensive end, Red Bryant, a play which Bryant called “a fat kid’s dream.”

For the Bears, however, the nightmare was just getting started.  They were unable to score again, while Seattle went on to notch up 17 more points, six of which came from another interception that was returned for a touchdown.  The Bears ended the half with 31 unanswered points, for a final score of Seattle 38, Chicago 14.

At the post-game press conference, quarterback, Caleb Hanie, was asked to describe what was going through his head while throwing the Pick 6’s that sealed the Bears loss.  He quickly described the two plays and then joked “That’s it… seemed like more, huh?” It did indeed.

With Chicago’s loss on Sunday and Detroit’s win, it became almost impossible for the Bears to go into the playoffs.  Lovie Smith was noncommittal when asked what quarterback he would start next Sunday against Green Bay.  Considering the Bears’ play this Sunday, it’s difficult to imagine any of the active quarterbacks achieving success.

Originally published at Chicago-Latino.com

Legal Travel from O’Hare to Havana, Cuba (Vámonos Vol. 17)

Non-stop charter flights can now travel between O’Hare and Jose Martí airport in Havana, Cuba.  The first of these flights took off November 25th of this year.  The charter airline that flew this first trip, C & T Charters, say they plan to continue these flights on a weekly basis.

Previously, government regulations would have made this flight impossible.  In January of this year, the Obama Administration loosened regulations and expanded legal travel to Cuba. The changes affect both who can fly to Cuba and which airports flights to Cuba can depart from.

American tourism in Cuba is illegal. The embargo also restricts the spending of money in Cuba.  According to U.S. State Department’s website “Transactions related to tourist travel are not licensable.” But there are licenses available to some groups, “who are permitted to spend money to travel to Cuba and engage in other transactions directly incident to the purpose of their travel.”  These licenses are available to journalists, students, and religious groups, among others.

As previously reported by the AP and Wall Street Journal, the new rules make it possible for places like Key West, Baltimore and Chicago to begin operating charter flights to Cuba.  Before 2011 flights going to Cuba could only depart from New York’s JFK, Miami International, and Los Angeles International airports.  There are now plans to operate flights to Cuba from six cities in Florida and nine other cities throughout the US.

These licenses for travel to Cuba, sometimes called “People to People licenses,” were originally granted during the Clinton administration, but were suspended by President Bush in 2004 (the year of his second presidential candidacy and eventual election).  A difference between Clinton’s and Obama’s policies is the expansion of airports allowed to conduct these flights.  According to C & T Charters, these flights are the first to fly directly to Havana from O’Hare in the last 50 years.

 

 This article was originally published by Extra and is also en Español and English on their website.

Never Been, But I saw “Hawaii Five-O” One Time (Vámonos Vol. 16)

Do your homework!

I was once a sixth grade math teacher, so I am used to telling people to do things that aren’t fun. I tried to do as little of that as possible when I was a teacher and I try to do the same as the columnist for Vámanos but I want to tell you again that you should do your homework before a trip and it will be more fun.

Generally, I have suggested looking for people to talk about the place you’re going to, reading a guidebook or doing some online research. Basically, finding out as much as you can about the place you go before you get there. I stand by those suggestions (they are fun, not only in themselves but also because they make you more excited about the trip you are about to go on. I should never have called them homework). But there is also something to be said for reading and watching fiction.

I remember when I saw Michigan Avenue in “The Fugitive” as a kid and feeling a great connection to the movie whose plot was beyond my 7-year-old understanding (up to that point, I was just scared of Tommy Lee Jones). I had a similar feeling reading “American Gods” and following the hero all around the Midwest or thinking about rural Nebraska and a trip I took to the Black Hills while paging through Jason Aaron’s, “Scalped.”

If you absolutely refuse to read, you can often get a sense of the place you’re going to visit on the screen. I recently spoke with a friend who said that he watched Hawaii Five-O, for the sole reason that he loved Maui and Kawai. But watch out: screens can be deceiving. For instance, you may find yourself imagining Woodstock in Ground Hog’s Day, which is supposed to take place in Punxsutawney, Pa. or Cadiz in one of the Pierce Brosnon Bond movies, which is supposed to be Havana. There is something about film that is immersive and powerful.

Watching movies is not the same as reading a guide. They won’t give you a tip on where to get cheap booze or give you the phrases you’ll need if you get stuck in the hospital. But screens have the potential to do something the guide can’t. Fiction can wrap you up in a story, a tale can immerse you, and it might be in reruns on cable.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also en Español and English on their website.

Airport Season (Vámonos Vol. 15)

The holidays happen at the wrong time of the year.

From Thanksgiving, the busiest travel holiday in the U.S, to New Year’s week, there
is an excess of travelers. We all try to make it through the airports in a lump, like a
big mouse in a small snake, and the airports have trouble digesting us. The problem
isn’t just the glut of people, it is the changing weather.

The beginning of winter is the most difficult to handle, not because it’s coldest, but
because the weather is still changing. Beginnings can be the most vulnerable times.

Machines and people come under the greatest pressure when they are adjusting to
new conditions. Computers, for instance, are particularly vulnerable when they are
first put to use. Around 5-7% of hard drives break in the first 30 days estimates
Willie Cade, Owner of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers. If the hard drive gets through
that danger period, the chances are good it will run for years.

But, unless you work at Hallmark, you probably can’t move holidays to some other
time of year. So, wear the shoes that are easy to take on and off, spend as much of
your inevitable delay in uninhabited terminals and bring a good book.

 

Is there anything you can do to make airport travel easier during the holidays?

  • Drink water after you get through security but before you get stuck in the dry air of the plane.  If you try to take water through security it will probably get confiscated.
  • If you have electronics, find a place to plug in, even if it means sitting on the floor.
  • Let children walk off their excess energy off before they get on the plane.  Three-year-olds usually love the huge hallways of airports.
  • Wear layers , it is hard to know how warm or cold it will be on planes and in terminals.
  • If possible, travel during the off season (see previous Vámanos “Off Season and Off the Beaten Path”), but if you can’t, temper your travel time expectations and relax.

This article was originally published by Extra and is also available on their website.