Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Very First Employer

This is a composite of the several dozen phone calls I received, along with some other salient details, from my very first employer, my neighbor Mario, of Pommel Place in West Des Moines, Iowa:
"Cleeeese! What are you doing? This is Mario. My machine is broken! Can you come cut my grass? I will give you warm Dr. Pepper as a refreshment. Despite the fact that I am in my late fifties and have a quite large gut, I rarely if ever put on a shirt during the summer months. Please be careful when you use the weed-whacker around my abortive attempt to reproduce the Trevi Fountain in my backyard. I am Italian but I teach Spanish at Drake. My wife spends 23 hours a day on the couch. Cleeeeese!"

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Citizen Vince

Jess Walter
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


This book started out with promise but ended up being a disappointment.

Part of my disappointment was in the ridiculously unrealistic naiveté of the gangsters. The other part was that I let myself get cool ideas about what might happen to the main character but the reality was not nearly as exciting as what I had imagined.

The main character, Marty Hagen, is a small-time hood from New York City. He had a successful racket going in credit-card theft until he got himself in debt to some bigger-time hoods. He then turned state’s evidence, was put into the witness protection program, took a new name (Vince Camden), and moved to Spokane, Washington, where he became a baker in a donut shop.

The story opens in Spokane when, unfortunately, Vince’s old life has caught up to him in the form of a hit man sent by his New York creditors to kill him after they discovered where he was living.

It’s a typical formula for a gangster book – an essentially well-meaning, nonviolent hood, in love with a golden-hearted hooker, trying to work towards a better, less felonious life.

What I liked about it was that it takes place in 1980, during the last few months leading up to the Carter/Reagan election. Vince, who had never cared for politics in the past, and who certainly has enough to deal with already with the hit man after him, gets more and more distracted by the race until it’s almost all he can think about. He gets his voter registration card, goes to hear politicians speak, and even befriends a guy running for local office. It gives him a new focus and new reasons for pursuing his dreams.

The politics give a colorful background and atmosphere to the otherwise run-of-the-mill plot. Vince hears Reagan’s now-legendary one-liners and reads headlines about the hostage negotiations with Iran and has to react and interpret them in real time, as we had to, without the benefit of hindsight. There are even a couple short entertaining sections written from Carter’s and Reagan’s points of view (judiciously informed by the twenty-five years that passed between then and when the book was written).

The problem is that the political background is just that – background. At first, I thought for sure that Vince was going to get more deeply involved in it and maybe even run for office himself. He shows a natural ability for it and makes contacts very quickly. I thought it would end up being a story about redemption through public service, or at the very least an ironic statement about the type of person it takes to succeed in politics. But it doesn’t. Vince never does anything besides vote, and even that, by the time he does it, seems a bit pointless and hollow. (Even for me, a rabid voter.)

The other problem with this book that I mentioned earlier is that the gangsters really do not act like gangsters. Get this: When Vince realizes that his creditors in New York have sent a hit man to kill him, he flies to New York, finagles his way into a poker game with them, reveals who he is, and tells them that he is in witness protection. He then tells them so convincingly that he bears them no ill will, that he will pay them back everything that he owes them, and that he has had an epiphany and that all he wants to do is to go back to Spokane and become a full-time donut baker, that they believe him, and they let him go back to Spokane, with only a relatively minor favor to do in return.

Come on. I watched The Sopranos. I know they had to kill Adriana once she got caught by the Feds, no matter what she promised or how much Christopher loved her. No way would these guys let a snitch leave New York alive.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: the book is written in present tense. I’m open to the idea that a book can be written in present tense and still be good, but I'm hard pressed to think of one.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Favorite Pro-Sports Head Coach Ever

Mike Brown: Head Coach, Los Angeles Lakers. Dungeon Master. Inveterate shirt-ironer.

O Happy Day! I have a new favorite coach-type person to root for.

I looked all over for a link to an online version of the full Sports Illustrated profile to no avail. If you are into basketball, D&D, and/or shirt-ironing it would really behoove you to seek out this article (subscription required).  It's in the Dec. 19 issue, the one with Tim Tebow on the cover.

Friday, December 23, 2011

UPS Poem

For the last month I worked as a driver’s helper for UPS during their peak holiday season. The job involved running to and fro one of those familiar brown trucks, delivering holiday presents and everyday orders alike to residential doorsteps while my boss, the driver, worked in the back of the truck organizing and planning out the next few stops. Putting helpers on the routes during peak season is the only way that UPS drivers could complete their appointed rounds within the 13-hour-40-minute time limit imposed on commercial drivers by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Today was my last day as a UPS driver’s helper. Here’s a little remembrance of my final delivery.

Driver’s Helper

by Chris Hartman

I just delivered
The last package of 2011
To 117 Hammond Street
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
A white Land’s End bag
An insouciant toss from five yards
The pouch nestled perfectly
With a clappy thud
Against the gothic wooden door
Of this Tudor-style house
Tastefully adorned with pine boughs
And red bows
For Christmas, in two days

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: Tehanu

Ursula K. Le Guin
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


Tehanu is the last book in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, a series of books set in a rural middle-ages-y fantasy land filled with mages and dragons.

With all due respect to Ms. Le Guin, who has written some complex and groundbreaking books, the Earthsea series is really not my bag. And Tehanu is no exception.

For one thing, there is not much of a plot. The main character, Goha, was tutored as a girl by a powerful mage (i.e. wizard) but left that life as a young woman to marry a farmer and raise a family. At the time of the book, Goha is somewhere in middle age. She has adopted a girl, Therru, who was so unwanted by her parents that she was permanently disfigured in a fire that they set to kill her.

At the start of the book, Goha and Therru travel far overland to see Goha’s old tutor, Ogion, who is dying. After he dies, Goha and Therru stay on in his house and are beset alternately by ruffians vaguely related to Therru’s parents and by Aspen, an evil, Wormtongue-esque rival mage, who has it in for Goha for some reason.

They while away the time at Ogion’s house amidst all of this until one day a dragon comes, bearing the half-dead body of Ogion’s other pupil, Ged, who was once a super-powerful arcmage but who lost his power defending his master in a terrible battle. Goha nurses Ged back to health and then they all make their way back to Goha’s farm, where they are beset by the same ruffians they were beset by at Ogion’s house.

Then, when Goha’s estranged son comes to claim the farm, they all decide to go back to Ogion’s place, where they again immediately run afoul of Aspen, who puts a spell on Goha and Ged and is about to drive them off a cliff, when Therru saves the day by calling the dragon to come back and rescue them.

I spent the whole book thinking something was about to actually happen but nothing ever really did. They mainly just travel back and forth between Ogion’s and Goha’s houses, and are only occasionally, and only briefly, in danger.

Le Guin’s treatment of women in this book is also frustrating, given how good she can be at representing the misunderstood or the different.

In Tehanu, only men can be mages; women with magical powers can only be witches. Mages are involved with big-time projects and politics; witches concern themselves only with small-time magic like healing illnesses or finding lost objects. In the plot, the men are the active elements and the women are the ones who are passively acted upon; the men either put the women in danger or save them – up to and including the male dragon at the end.

Goha’s life has been split between her unusual magical life under Ogion’s tutelage and her more ordinary human life with her husband and children. She never really comes to grips with either one or reconciles the two. She seems drawn towards magic, but never really accepts the power it would give her, and tends to want to go running back to the farm.

And, finally, the dragons in Tehanu are just too dreamy for me. With the exception of the dragon in Shrek, I like my dragons to be mean and uncompromisingly tough, fought by knights with swords or by men and women with bows and arrows.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The B-52s Have Still Got It

Live at the House of Blues, Boston, 12/2/11.

Kate Pierson: 63 years old and deliciously eerie on "Planet Claire."

The audio isn't great in this video, but if you look carefully, at the very beginning you might be able to see Kate reach down and touch the hand of the guy standing right next to me.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review: Powers

Ursula K. Le Guin
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


This book was only available in the Young Adult section of my library. And, after reading it, I can see why; this is definitely a book for teenagers.

As I’ve said before, I really enjoy some of Le Guin’s work, and then there are other books of hers that I don’t like so much. The books that I don’t like usually fall into one of two groups: those that are too dreamy and those that have too heavy-handed a Message. This book fell too far into both of these categories for me.

The Message in this book is that slavery is evil. (Which, of course, it is.) The story is about a young slave boy, Gavir, who has been brought up in a comparatively benevolent household. He is in denial, at first, about how bad it is to be a slave, because his life appears to be pretty good. His masters are not overtly cruel; he is able to live with his beloved sister, Sallo; and he gets to go to school with the master’s children because he’s being trained to be a teacher.

But eventually his little world starts falling apart and he begins questioning the system. He gets bullied by some of the less benevolent members of the household. His home gets invaded by another country. And the last straw is the awful murder of his sister, which finally makes him run away for good.

After he runs away, he lives in several different kinds of societies, including a city of freed men; a cave with a wild man of the hills; a camp of runaway slaves in the heart of the forest run by a megalomaniac misogynist; and the poor marshland settlements of his own people from whom he was stolen as a baby. From them all he is exposed to alternative governments and different attitudes towards women, work, war, and cooperation.

For those who track such things, Gavir’s story is the classic monomyth: he is born under mysterious circumstances, shows early evidence of supernatural abilities (he can see visions of the future), goes on a long journey or quest, encounters several father figures from whom he has to become independent, and has to have a showdown with an arch enemy to finally prove himself.

Anyway, the point, which, of course, Gavir eventually realizes after all of this, is that a cage is still a cage no matter how gilded it is. That slavery is an evil institution, however disguised it may be, and a limited freedom is no freedom at all.

This is all very well and good a message, but so obviously delivered.

And the characters are so black and white. Gavir and his sister are one hundred percent good, eager naïfs. They have unquestioning obedience to and reverence for their masters. They are hard-working and earnest. And the bad guys are uniformly awful bullies. And of course Gavir has to take their bullying without complaint and without retaliation because he’s just so earnest and good.

The story is also not all that exciting. Gavir's life really isn’t all that difficult most of the time. He is in physical danger maybe twice, and in an actual physical conflict a couple more times, but these situations are all generally over in about a minute. Even his escape from slavery is easy.

And all of the pivotal events in the book are instigated and resolved by external forces without any action on Gavir's part. He is swept along by events, not directing of them. Even his final showdown is won essentially passively, by natural forces, not by anything special he does.
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